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A couple of days ago – bear with me here, this is neither the time or the place, but I make the rules in this musty little corner of the internet and can therefore talk about whatever I want whenever I want – I learned that Hercules star Dwayne Johnson, who you will almost certainly also know as wrestler-turned-actor ‘The Rock’, was the second highest paid movie star in Hollywood during the past year, earning a staggering $52 million between June 2013 and June 2014. Let me just repeat that figure, for you, just in case it didn’t sink in the first time round: Fifty-two million dollars. The Rock. Dwayne Johnson. Fifty two million. Fifty-two million. The. Rock. An actual, real, non-Monopoly $52,000,000. Fiddy two. Fifty-two m-i-l-l-i-o-n.

Five two comma zero zero zero comma zero zero zero.

Johnson’s total arose mainly thanks to his involvement in the ongoing (and seemingly never-ending) Fast And Furious franchise, in which I understand he plays Vin Diesel, and vice versa. What makes this financial revelation particularly interesting, though, is the fact that each of the other (all male) names on the ‘top 10 earners list’ – your Downey Jrs, DiCaprios and Bales, for example – have an impressive back catalogue to sit with their recent box office hits. Granted their sums are equally incomprehensible when considering the valuable work other people do in other industries for a tiny fraction of that pay, but at least within the field of acting they’ve kind of earned the right to demand the big numbers. Perhaps Dwayne Johnson has, too. Even the more surprising names on the list – Hemsworth, Neeson, Cooper – have had a few big hits in the past year and can point to varying degrees of acting prowess. Again: Perhaps Dwayne Johnson can too. I don’t know.

I’ve been trying to work out exactly how all this has happened for the past two days, to no avail, and I’m fully resigned to the fact I’ll probably understand quantum physics or discover the meaning of life before I manage to figure out the reason why some people decided to pay Johnson this sum of money. A couple of days ago I asked on Twitter if anyone could recommend a movie starring Johnson for me to watch, so that I could find out for myself what all the fuss (or rather what the astronomical sum of money earned) was about. Not with the intention of being sneery about him, or anything (I’m sure the fact that he’d probably earn around $15,000 in the time it would take me to write anything would soften the blow somewhat anyway), but out of a genuine interest to find out why he’s so damn popular. I mean, I’ve seen him once or twice. I watched Southland Tales years ago, and I know that he was in one of the Brendan Fraser Mummy films, but I honestly can’t remember a single thing about either of those performances. I’ve also discovered that he was in the terrible Adam McKay cop comedy The Other Guys, but I appear to have wiped all memory of that film from my internal hard drive, and have added a program called “Directive Z”, which forbids me from ever viewing it again. But my question is: why The Rock? I mean why not *looks around for fairly popular bullet-headed action man with similar level of talent* Jason Statham, for example?

A day later, and I’ve just watched the short, two-reel silent comedy Cops, starring the man they called The Great Stone Face, Buster Keaton. As silent comedies go it’s quite good: funny at times, and well-constructed, although certainly not on the level of Keaton’s own masterpiece The General. The narrative is vaguely Kafka-esque, as Keaton’s nameless chump / hero ends up on the wrong side of the entire LAPD during a botched removals job, and is subsequently persecuted by the law despite an endearing, unwavering and innocent desire to help others. The stunts are pretty good (although relatively safe when compared with the kinds of gravity-defying acts Harold Lloyd was performing around the same time) and while it lacks the belly laughs of Charlie Chaplin’s best work it still contains an excellent, extended chase sequence which accounts for around half the 20 minute running time.

In Cops, predictably, Keaton is fascinating to watch. He’s on screen for nearly all of it and you can’t take your eyes off him. It’s not just his face, which seems to permanently represent a state of puzzlement or bewilderment, like he can’t ever make sense of the world or the people that inhabit it, but also his general physicality. He’s slight, on the small side (the same height as Chaplin, interestingly), and the way he moves is funny, whether he’s waddling around, running, balancing precariously on a ladder or falling out of a trunk. Given that the success of a silent comedy was almost entirely dependent on the ability of the star to make people laugh through physical humour, that’s hardly surprising, but it reminded me of something which applies equally to – hey, I got there in the end – The Rock: viewers have always been drawn to actors with physical attributes that are, for want of a better word, extraordinary.

You may think Keaton was more talented than Johnson will ever be (I do, anyway), but his success and popularity is partly (mainly?) due to the way he looked on screen, just as Dwayne’s is today. Sure they are completely different physical specimens, but both are memorable primarily for their physicality. They both stand out against a backdrop of ordinary extras, just as Chaplin did, and just as Schwarzenegger did.

Even allowing for this incredibly obvious observation that cinemagoers like to marvel at unusual bodies and will pay to do so in their tens of thousands, it’s still incredible that one person can earn so much simply for acting (or being big) in a film, but I guess that’s what society has deemed such a skill (or size) to be worth. It makes me idly wonder what Keaton’s talents would amount to, in purely financial terms, if he was in his prime today. Would he even trouser half of the fees charged by Jim Carrey for a couple of months’ work? Would he earn as much per movie as Dwayne Johnson? Who knows? Certainly not I.

I watched Cops on the train to work, at around 7am. Even though I was still half-asleep I chuckled to myself a few times during the short film, particularly when a prosthetic device attached to a car with a boxing glove stuck on the end accidentally punches a traffic officer in the face on two occasions, which shows you that (a) good comedy is timeless and (b) what I consider to be good comedy is pretty juvenile indeed. Buster Keaton’s films are still pretty funny today, I think, around 100 years after they were made. In 2114 will anyone be watching anything starring The Rock with a similar level of admiration? Possibly, but I doubt it somewhat.

Fifty two million dollars. Sheesh. Fair play to the guy.

The Basics:
Directed by: Edward F Cline, Buster Keaton
Written by: Edward F Cline, Buster Keaton
Starring: Buster Keaton, Joe Roberts, Virginia Fox
Certificate: U
Running Time: 18 minutes
Year: 1922
Rating: 6.0

[Note: Incidentally, I didn't write this simply to try and get more hits at a time when Johnson has a new film out. I would never be that #sex #planetoftheapes #usainbolt #obama #mileycyrus #x-men #nudes #starwars #marvel #frozen #disney #2girls1cup brazen.]

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Set in director Richard Linklater’s home state of Texas, Boyhood is a fascinating, immersive and intimate study of a young boy named Mason Jr (Ellar Coltrane) and his family which, unusually, took more than twelve years to make. Filming began in 2002, when Coltrane was just six years old, and finally finished in October 2013, with around two years of pre-production to factor in as well. Each year the principal cast members – Coltrane, Linklater’s daughter Lorelei as Mason Jr’s older sister Samantha, Patricia Arquette as mum Olivia and Ethan Hawke as estranged father Mason Sr – would reconvene in Texas for a few days of shooting, and the result is a superbly-realised examination of family life, the major and minor moments that shape lives, and the passing of time.

For an indie movie Boyhood is grand in scale, and it is hands down Linklater’s most arresting film to date (I say that as a committed, long-term fan of Dazed And Confused, which for the past two decades has remained one of the more memorable coming-of-age dramas, a benchmark study of adolescence, and one of my favourite films). Some respected critics have already suggested that Boyhood is a new American classic and that it will be viewed in time as one of the greatest movies ever made, and though such pronouncements are a little silly at this stage, I do wonder about the likelihood of a more impressive cinematic work being released during the remainder of this year. Boyhood is very, very good indeed.

Mason Jr is in first grade when the film begins. He seems to be a quiet, reflective boy, eclipsed somewhat by his cheeky sister Samantha, who offers plenty of back-chat to their stressed-out single mother Olivia. Mason Sr and Olivia have already been through an acrimonious split by this stage, and Linklater begins the story after their break-up; this is one of several events left off-screen which clearly affects the foursome considerably, and the decision to leave it outside of the period of life covered works just fine. At this point in time Mason Sr is a likeable but flaky father, the kind who revels in the role of fun-and-gift-provider while avoiding the necessary and unenjoyable jobs such as getting the kids to do their homework. He has just returned to Texas after a lengthy period of drifting, working and playing in bands in Alaska, but his re-appearance signifies a desire to play a more active role in the lives of his two kids.

* Impressive considering the fact that the cast and crew would only work together for a few days each year. It’s aided, naturally, by a consistency of style; everything was shot on 35mm film.

Every 15-20 minutes or so the narrative leaps forward by a year. There’s a superbly-realised continuity in tone from one section to the next*, but crucially a flexibility existed during production that allowed Linklater to adapt the screenplay as the years passed, so that the background reflects the changing times. There is a smattering of liberal political commentary across the years, for example, starting with a rant by Mason Sr about 9/11 and the subsequent invasion of Iraq, an acknowledgement of Barack Obama’s historic election in 2008 and lastly (and perhaps less-politically) some interesting points made about technology and well-being. Linklater would write the segments on a yearly basis, which explains their currency, and it also meant that changes in the lives and personalities of the actors could inform the characters too; when Coltrane developed an interest in photography in real life, for example, it also became Mason Jr’s hobby in the movie.

It’s not difficult to pick the sudden jumps in time out, but they usually become apparent in the movie via small changes: the characters’ appearances (haircuts and facial hair in particular), the subjects they talk about, the videogames and consoles Mason Jr uses or the background music, for example. These are visual and aural clues, and there are also subtle shifts from year-to-year in the character development as well. Following the gradual changes that take place during their respective journeys through life is utterly fascinating, and often with regard to Mason Jr in particular they are conveyed via short, seemingly unimportant scenes: brutal sessions at the barber shop, the passing of a secret note round the classroom, an illicit flick through a lingerie catalogue, a solemn burial for a dead bird, etc. etc.

* And also, at times, very sad indeed. Olivia’s realisation as Mason Jr is about to go to college that her 20s and 30s have flown by – “I just thought there would be more!” she cries – is an utterly heartbreaking moment. At times watching the movie is like being a close family friend, or relative, occasionally dropping by; I felt more attached to the four characters in this film – and particularly Mason Jr – than I have done to any other cinematic creation in recent years.

Thanks to some superb editing watching these years go by really is enthralling*. Fans of Linklater’s Before series will be familiar with the thrill of re-acquainting themselves with characters after a period of their lives has passed; in that case a jump of roughly nine years is shown when a new movie appears after the same amount of time, whereas here the feeling can be enjoyed twelve times in the space of two hours and forty minutes. The two most obviously-similar projects are Michael Apted’s Up documentary series, and Michael Winterbottom’s Everyday, but there are few other directors that use the idea of time in such an interesting way as Linklater, and in Boyhood watching it pass becomes incredibly addictive.

Ever since his debut film, 1991′s lo-fi navel-gazer Slacker, the Texan has shown a great fondness for simply hanging around with his characters while they shoot the breeze (without the rat-a-tat verbal fizz of Tarantino, I guess, but the dialogue is often interesting nonetheless). That’s the same here; he isn’t interested in only showing moments of intense drama (though there are a few) and he lends equal weight to seemingly innocuous conversations and incidents involving two or three members of the family. You can feel Linklater’s own interest in these characters; as a result they seem three-dimensional, complex, constantly-changing and contradictory, but ultimately always the same people deep down. They are as close to real people as fictional cinematic drama gets, and so well-written that staple coming-of-age storylines involving drug experimentation, a first kiss, a first love, a first broken heart and so on are far more interesting to watch than they have been for many a year. These stages, or incidents, are dealt with in a mature, low-key and matter-of-fact fashion and make the comic scrambles for virginity loss and the like that we are usually fed look absolutely pointless.

The clear start and end – the film finishes with Mason Jr’s first day at college – enables us to see how much these people change during twelve years, but also the extent to which they do remain the same. By the end all of the characters are as different from their younger selves as you would expect them to be, but their personalities can still be traced back to the very first section, and the shared history informs the family dynamic brilliantly. By the end the passing of time (and the excellent, nuanced performances) makes us feel as if we know the people on screen intimately, and it’s odd to think that we have barely witnessed three hours of family life out of twelve whole supposed years. It’s as if the mind is playing a trick on the viewer: if we have seen these characters age without the use of CGI or make-up, we must have more than a slight understanding of their lives and personalities, right? But we don’t.

* The first is called Bill (an excellent supporting performance by Marco Perella) and the second is called Jim (Steven Chester, also impressing).

Without wishing to give too much away there are so many parts of this film that I enjoyed, or character developments that I appreciated, that I am extremely keen to see it for a second time. Watching Olivia’s relationships with two different men* fail is sad, particularly as we know while seeing certain events unfold on screen that the inevitable post-marriage upheaval will mean yet another house move and a new school for Samantha and Mason Jr. Olivia’s story arc includes repeated mistakes as she tries to recreate a nuclear family, and it is at times harrowing to watch, but it is balanced by her transformation career-wise during the twelve years, which is inspiring. It’s equally interesting to see Mason Sr’s typical (but still, to me anyway, surprising) shift from being the kind of cool dad in a cool car who shows up once a fortnight into a more responsible family man, with the inevitable conservative dress sense and sensible vehicle that comes with the territory (though again I stress, the film never lets go of the essence of these people, and the old Mason Sr is still definitely there at the end). Though the focus is often on Mason Jr and – to a slightly lesser extent – Samantha, the two parents thankfully do not stand still in the corner and simply grow old; they change just as much as their teenage children.

There are plenty of playful moments in Boyhood: there’s a nice nod to the Harry Potter series that brings to mind the similar public development of Daniel Radcliffe and the rest of his co-stars, and you can’t help but think of Wiley Wiggins’s Mitch Kramer from Dazed And Confused as Mason Jr hits the high school years. (Keen-eyed fans of that earlier Linklater movie will possibly geek out at the appearance of David Blackwell in another liquor store-based scene here.) I also love the way the passing of time is relayed via video game developments, and also by music; at first, for example, it’s Coldplay, Britney Spears and The Hives. Later on it’s Cee-lo Green, Lady Gaga and Arcade Fire, but Linklater also lets a stream of music from earlier decades drift in and out of stereos and radios, just as it does in reality.

Coltrane’s central, occasionally-moody performance is magnificent to watch, and Arquette gives a career-best turn as Olivia. Is it too early to start muttering about Oscars for those two? Hawke and Lorelei Linklater are also very good indeed, and frankly there isn’t a single mis-step from the supporting cast, which perhaps comes from the director’s keenness to make every single character seem important; even those who appear only briefly at the beginning and end of the film are treated as if they are crucial to Mason’s life, rather than incidental faces in incidental places that will eventually be forgotten about.

Boyhood may well be seen as Linklater’s masterpiece, eventually, but at present he is still relatively young and I hope very much that he continues to make interesting and diverse movies for many years to come, if the results are as good as this. While his early films concentrated on periods of 24 hours or less, the recent attempts to make realistic (yet also artistic) statements about people and the way they change during the passing of longer periods of time are impressive. I’ve admired his Before series without actually loving it (for reasons detailed here), but making this is, in my eyes at least, an even more impressive feat. It’s a movie that I cannot wait to watch again. Sincere, honest, warm, sad, funny, inspiring, melancholic and touching, Boyhood is a must-see.

The Basics:
Directed by: Richard Linklater
Written by: Richard Linklater
Starring: Ellar Coltrane, Lorelei Linklater, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke
Certificate: 15
Running Time: 166 minutes
Year: 2014
Rating: 9.3

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The actor and environmentalist Robert Redford moved to Utah, the birthplace of his first wife Lola Van Wagenen, at the turn of the 1960s. He built a home for his young family and gradually got to know the beautiful and unforgiving terrain of the state, much like the titular character Redford played in 1972’s Jeremiah Johnson, a revisionist western by Sydney Pollack which explores themes of racial conflict, peace, boundaries, customs and the struggle for survival in a richly satisfying way.

* Based in part on the life of mountain man Liver-eating Johnson, as detailed in Raymond Thorp and Robert Bunker’s book Crow Killer: The Saga of Liver-Eating Johnson, Vardis Fisher’s Mountain Man and my own resplendent tome – even if I do say so myself - 350 Great Raw Liver Recipes By Liver-eating Johnson.

Set near the end of the Mexican War, Johnson is a jaded soldier* who has turned his back on the conflict to start a new life as a mountain man in the Rockies. After nearly starving to death during a harsh winter he meets an eccentric trapper by the name of ‘Bear Claw’ Chris Lapp (an effervescent Will Geer), who teaches him how to survive when the weather is at its coldest and food is scarce. The old hunter’s idea of fun is to release a live bear into a cabin while Jeremiah is inside, but he eventually proves to be a useful friend and mentor, teaching Johnson several important skills for survival during the winter and explaining some aspects of Native American culture to the younger man. Heading out into the wilderness on his own with more wisdom, Johnson meets a variety of people, gaining along the way an adopted son named Caleb (Josh Albee) and a Native American wife named Swan (Delle Bolton).

This oddly-forged family settles by a river and enjoys an idyllic, calm period of life, but before long friction between Native American tribes and white settlers in the region shatters the peace. Johnson finds himself in a long-running clash with the Crow tribe in particular, led by Paints His Shirts Red (Joaquín Martínez), and the struggle for survival in the mountains takes on a bloody, relentless edge. Jeremiah and the Crows find themselves at an impasse of sorts, and the story subsequently examines the way in which adversaries are able to reconcile in order to co-exist harmoniously; shoot-outs and fist fights in this film do not constitute the end to a conflict, as per so many other westerns, but are instead stepping-stones taken in order to achieve a peaceful resolution.

Where many westerns simply accept the fact that a racial divide in the old west existed and subsequently led to conflict, and use that as a jumping off point for generic ‘Cowboys and Indians’ action, Pollack’s film is more concerned with the reasons why such clashes and misunderstandings happened, and it doesn’t necessarily side with Johnson despite the fact he is the primary focus of the movie. Pollack was far too smart a filmmaker to bother with the idea of archetypal good guys and bad guys, or heroes and villains, and instead the film allows us to sympathise with the situations of nearly all of its characters, eschewing the usual stereotyping on both sides and recognising that many mountain men preferred Native American company to that of their fellow white settlers.

Still, there is some insight into the pressures that existed in the mid-19th Century as Native American tribes were forced to share their territory (or worse) with the new Americans that spread into the west in search of new lives and fortunes, but amid all the mistrust on both sides there is a clear desire to develop good relations for trading and other purposes. Johnson receives an early indication regarding the value of such interracial bonds when he comes across the body of a Native American-hating mountain man who has frozen to death; before expiring in the cold he managed to write a note expressing his hope that a white man finds his body and takes his gun, rather than a Native American.

Pollack is adept at highlighting the frequent misunderstandings that happened when two distinct, strong and barely-adaptable cultures came into contact with each other during this period in history. In Jeremiah Johnson some of these incidents lead to horrific acts of retribution, whereas others result in vaguely-comical warnings; at one point Jeremiah meets a sneaky trader named Del Gue (Stefan Gierasch) who is buried up to his neck in the ground because a trade he was making unexpectedly went south. More obviously Jeremiah’s union with Swan is born out of a cultural faux pas, when Jeremiah innocently offers a gift of enemy scalps to a Flat Head Chief who is forced to respond with an even greater gift – his daughter’s hand in marriage – so as not to lose face.

These fascinating incidents build up gradually throughout the film, with the consequences growing ever more serious. In the end Johnson leads a party of soldiers looking for a stranded wagon train through a Native American burial ground, and though he is aware of the dangers of this act of trespass, he is not prepared for the severity of the response. It comes at an interesting point, where the character has made a breakthrough of sorts with Swan and a mutual admiration – love, even – is clearly developing. One minute Johnson appears to have gained enough knowledge about Native American beliefs and their culture to establish a ‘normal’ family life, the next his apparent lack of awareness and understanding leaves him punished and seemingly doomed.

Redford is terrific in the starring role, in a film made when the actor was at the peak of his popularity. He is a charismatic lead, equally believable in the movie’s exciting action scenes and its vaguely-comic moments. Disappointingly, though, the wear and tear of life in the Rockies isn’t all that apparent, and in several scenes he looks as if he has has just enjoyed a three hour session with the old Head n’ Shoulders in a luxury trailer. His teeth are always Movie Star White, too, and despite the scarcity of food in the mountains (especially when he needs to provide for his wife and adopted son) his waistline clearly expands during the film. The support is also entertaining, and although I would like to have seen more scenes involving Martínez’s character, I am appreciative of the fact that Pollack didn’t turn Paints-His-Shirts-Red into an obvious nemesis.

In a similar fashion to Clint Eastwood’s later western The Outlaw Josey Wales, Jeremiah Johnson paints a more sympathetic picture of Native Americans than the 1950s and 1960s norm without necessarily glossing over the conflicts and violence that existed in the mid-19th Century. It’s a fascinating film, with great rhythm, superior cinematography by Duke Callaghan and an intelligent, enthralling screenplay by Edward Anhalt and John Milius (Dirty Harry, Apocalypse Now) that gets to grips with the key themes early on and examines life in the Rockies more than adequately, often wittily. Pollack gives the film additional gravitas by incorporating an overture and an intermission (despite a running time of 118 minutes in total), and teases out one of Redford’s finest performances. All told this is a very good western; while it rejects many of the genre’s cliches it doesn’t shy away from a tomahawk fight or two and the action is handled well. As exciting as it is thought-provoking, it’s no surprise that Jeremiah Johnson was a big critical and commercial success at the time of its release, but the strong revisionist attitude – still a fairly leftfield approach at the time – means it has aged well too.

The Basics:
Directed by: Sydney Pollack
Written by: Edward Anhalt, John Milius, Raymond Thorp, Robert Bunker
Starring: Robert Redford, Delle Bolton, Will Geer, Stefan Gierasch
Certificate: PG
Running Time: 116 minutes
Year: 1972
Rating: 8.8

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Sam Raimi’s original Evil Dead trilogy (consisting of the schlocky 1981 horror The Evil Dead and two sequels, 1987′s Evil Dead II and 1992′s Army Of Darkness) is one of the most cherished cult horror franchises of all time. Fans wax lyrical about Raimi’s winning mix of horror and comedy, and for many years have celebrated the increasingly endearing performances of the trilogy’s star, Bruce Campbell. The first film in that trilogy, Raimi’s debut, lays down the template for 30 years’ worth of copycat ‘cabin in the woods’ horror films and contains a bucketload of low-budget video nasty thrills interspersed with a sprinkling of belly laughs. With the second movie – arguably the best in the trilogy – the blend of comedy and horror was equally balanced, thanks mainly to Campbell’s way with physical comedy and seemingly effortless sense of timing. Army Of Darkness completes the switcharound, in that it’s a bucketload of belly laughs interspersed with a sprinkling of low-budget video nasty thrills: around 80% action comedy to just 20% horror.

* The film was released with two endings; in the version I saw most recently  Ash drinks too many drops of a magic potion and wakes up in a post-apocalyptic future, which contains a neat nod to Planet Of The Apes. The other version – which I think is just as good – includes a final showdown inside Ash’s workplace, the S-Mart. Both Raimi and Campbell preferred the post-apocalyptic ending as it highlights just how much of a screw-up the main character is.

A goofy, slapstick gem, Army Of Darkness picks up where Evil Dead II left off, with the main protagonist Ash Williams (Campbell) finding himself in medieval England with just a shotgun, a chainsaw and a 1973 OIdsmobile for company after being inexplicably dragged through a time portal by evil forces. In order to get back to the present day he must convince two warring factions of knights to unite, do battle with a dozen miniature versions of himself in a twisted take on Gulliver’s Travels, steal a Lovecraftian book of the dead called the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis and scrap with an army of angry skeletons that rise up from their graves. And after all that, his success in getting back to 1992 depends entirely on the version of the film that you happen to watch*.

Raimi wears his influences on his sleeve here, and this is warm, unashamed, fan-boy filmmaking at its most unrestrained. There are shades of the adventures of Robin Hood (particularly the swashbuckling Errol Flynn incarnation) here, as well as the schlock and cheesy delivery of countless B-movies, Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court, The Three Stooges, the movies that incorporated the stop-motion work of Ray Harryhausen (most notably Jason And The Argonauts) and even – weirdly, and not entirely successfully – an odd pastiche of The A-Team.

It’s a riot of camp action, cheesy lines and slapstick humour, which probably disappointed some horror fans slightly at the time, as the fayre on offer here wouldn’t even force the milkiest milquetoast to hide behind a cushion. However, the comedy is successful enough in its own right for that not to matter too much, and the laugh count is high throughout the movie. The fish out of water angle is milked for all its worth early on, with 20th century boy Ash casting out some Indiana Jones-style weariness toward the medieval humans, before the slapstick takes hold later on as he battles the evil forces. Campbell excels at this goofy physical horseplay; when Ash has to fight a load of skeletons in a graveyard, or when he must wrestle an evil version of himself that has grown out of his own body, it’s difficult not to picture Larry, Curly and Moe in full tweak-his-ears-and-poke-him-in-the-eye mode. Raimi even incorporates a bunch of honks and other comedic sound effects just to ram both the silliness and the homage home.

The character of Ash was changed considerably by Raimi and his screenwriter brother Ivan for this installment; where previously he had been written and portrayed as a laid-back everyman, or a prototype slacker, by the third film he has transformed into a brave hero, albeit an utterly incompetent one even at the best of times. In Army Of Darkness he is also a cynic, a move that suits Campbell’s laconic delivery of withering put-downs as well as his exaggerated, Elvis-style proclamations. The success of this film is partly due to Campbell’s adaptability, and considering he had twice before played slightly different versions of Ash he handles the change in dynamic and the extra helping of comedy superbly. His timing is excellent, and it’s little wonder that Empire magazine named the character one of the 25 most memorable in cinematic history (and number one on its list of memorable horror characters).

It’s surprising that Campbell remains to this day a cult actor, his thunder stolen at the time perhaps by the sudden rise of Jim Carrey, who started off as an exaggerated, turbo-charged version of the horror star. Indeed under slightly different circumstances and with a few different choices it’s easy to imagine Campbell having had a similar career to that enjoyed by Carrey, had he wanted it. His most famous appearances since Army Of Darkness have been in cameos (a few with Raimi, and a few with the Coen Brothers), although he has worked as a writer, director and producer in the past decade. Campbell has always found acting jobs, though, and more recently has been celebrated for his voice work in animated films. Still, it’s strange that the starring roles have been few-and-far-between over the years, with the post-Ash career highlight probably coming in Don Coscarelli’s oddball indie Bubba Ho-tep.

Released in the year before CGI experts made sudden, impressive forward leaps, nearly all of the effects in Raimi’s film look cheap and most were well out-of-date by 1992, but you can sense that a fun time was had with their creation. The make-up – all scabby, scaly skin and fright wigs – is stuck in the glorious VHS years of the previous decade, the stop-motion animation is even older, and other special effects – such as the temporary, elongated face Ash has after almost being sucked through another time portal – are unashamedly naff; they are all, however, well-suited to the knowing tone of the movie, and it’s interesting to see them being used to amuse the viewer rather than to scare them witless. At this point in his career Raimi was effectively making the ironic, meta-horror sub-genre into a serious, money-making concern, and he would be joined shortly thereafter by another jaded 1980s veteran by the name of Wes Craven.

* Although really this just serves as another outlet for Ash’s one-liners.

As an homage or a vehicle for Campbell’s comic talents, Army Of Darkness is a success, but if you haven’t seen it before I’d advise not to expect anything more than that. The plot is threadbare (in fact it’s amazing – and a testament to his creativity with horror set pieces – that Raimi managed to stretch the ‘man terrorized by evil forces’ theme across three whole movies), the romance with Embeth Davidtz’s princess is corny as hell* and the acting (whether deliberate or not) is very bad indeed. It’s unfortunate too that the final battle with an army of skeletons led by Bad Ash, the hero’s nemesis, goes on for far too long, although it’s not without its moments as a variety of evil creatures are introduced to the explosive qualities of gunpowder before deserting in a cowardly fashion. The decision to ‘humanize’ the evil forces here – they crack jokes, argue with one another, run away and act sneakily, among other things – fits with the overall tone of the film but it renders them completely redundant in terms of scare factor, it must be said. Still, it’s easy to tap into the enthusiasm of Raimi and his crew for the character of Ash: Army of Darkness is always a fun watch as a result, and not to be taken seriously at all. Though few would seriously argue that it’s a comic masterpiece, the daft humour will have most people chuckling throughout.

The Basics:
Directed by: Sam Raimi
Written by: Sam Raimi, Ivan Raimi
Starring: Bruce Campbell, Embeth Davidtz
Certificate: 15
Running Time: 88 minutes
Year: 1992
Rating: 6.7

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When Wes Anderson’s latest film The Grand Budapest Hotel was released earlier this year to near-universal acclaim, the inner skeptic in me rolled its eyes at the sight of one glowing review after another. “Can it really be this good?” I grumbled internally, fresh from the disappointment of discovering that Moonrise Kingdom was not quite the masterpiece the world had declared it to be. Granted I’ve enjoyed all of Anderson’s movies to date to some extent, but I also find myself firmly ensconced in that group of naysayers that grows increasingly irritated every time he flinches away from anything that resembles depth or emotional resonance, steering the viewer’s focus instead towards a hat, or a tracksuit, or a painting, or a vintage car, or a Dansette record player.

The celebration of those little fixtures and fittings, of course, is one part of a recurring set of Wes Andersonisms, most of which are so predictable now the Houston-born director has become well-and-truly ripe for parodying. Before reading any reviews or even seeing the trailer for The Grand Budapest Hotel I half-knew what to expect, as did anyone remotely familiar with his oeuvre: the pathological attention to detail that informs the extraordinary production design, the symmetrical framing, the pastel-hued colour palette (and indeed the importance placed on colour more generally), the retrophilia, the constant breaking of the fourth wall, the face-on camera looking at a flat background. Bill Murray. Owen Wilson. Jason Schwartzman. The style and the list of collaborations segue from one movie to the next, and they are as predictable as the changing of the seasons or the underachievement of the England football team. Will there be a point where even his most hardcore of fans begin to feel the onset of boredom? Can he ever actually surprise us anymore?

* Although before we get carried away it’s worth remembering that Michael Bay is, to all intents and purposes, another.

This is the question I find myself constantly asking when it comes to Anderson. Is it fair? I don’t know. I nearly always feel a sense of guilt when questioning this filmmaker in particular, because I’m never sure whether I really should be criticizing him or praising him for the singularity and consistency of his vision. On the one hand I admire his ability to create these dollhouse-style mini worlds of quirk, but on the other with each passing film I wonder what he might have achieved if he tried to create something completely different to his previous work. I can just as easily succumb to the tweeness of Wes Anderson’s films as I can find myself bristling at the cloying, indie-schmindie relentlessness of them. As such, depending on how I feel on any given day, I can happily argue that Anderson is one of the most recognizable and fascinating of modern day auteurs* or a man who simply makes the same film over and over again, with only slight differences between the characters, locations, scenarios and objects therein.

* Anderson’s use of different aspect ratios to distinguish between these periods is novel, but ultimately unnecessary.

Having now watched The Grand Budapest Hotel, my love / hate relationship with Anderson continues, although in truth I neither love his films nor hate them; that said, this seems to me to be one of his best films to date. Spanning a period of 70 years, roughly, it takes the form of a story within a story (within a story within a story)*. At the top, present-day level, a young girl approaches the statue of a writer in a cemetery, who is known only as ‘The Author’, although we can probably assume the statue represents the Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig, who is namechecked in the credits as having provided inspiration for the tale (though the influence of authors and playwrights as diverse as Franz Kafka and Noël Coward is also evident). We also, briefly, see The Author as an old man (played by Tom Wilkinson) in the 1980s, before following him as a younger man in 1968 (where he is played by Jude Law). Staying at the Eastern Bloc-styled Grand Budapest in the fictional former Alpine Republic of Zubrowka, The Author meets the hotel’s elderly owner Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) who, over dinner, spins a yarn from his youth, when Europe was on the brink of war and the Grand Budapest was in its glorious heyday.

This 1930s-set part of the story forms the bulk of the movie, following the adventures of Ralph Fiennes’ dedicated swearer and expert concierge Gustave H and his protégé, young Arab refugee and lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori). Gustave is a charmingly camp tour-de-force, regularly bedding older widows in addition to fulfilling his other more functional hotel-based duties. One of these, a wealthy dowager named Madame D (the ever-adaptable Tilda Swinton), dies suddenly and leaves a priceless painting to Gustave in her will, much to the chagrin of her hateful, fascist-sympathiser son Dmitri (Adrien Brody). Gustave and Zero steal the painting, but Dmitri frames him for Madame D’s murder, leading to a spell in prison, an escape and a subsequent attempt at restoring Gustave’s good name with the help of Zero’s wife-to-be Agatha (Saoirse Ronan) and an international brotherhood of hotel concierges. Who are a bit like The Masons, but with even better access to good restaurant tables.

It’s an enjoyable, farcical romp, propelled largely by the excellent double act of Fiennes and Revolori and a large list of enjoyably wacky cameos, but The Grand Budapest Hotel also has a darker side, one which Anderson uses to shift the mood on occasion, but ultimately something he decides not to explore in a meaningful way. The war looms heavily over Zubrowka, with a fascist army based on the Wehrmacht and the SS using increasing levels of force as their presence in the country increases. Additionally, the darker tone is informed by the actions of the menacing Jopling (Willem Dafoe), Dmitri’s muscle, who leaves an impressive trail of fingers and corpses in his wake considering the general lack of violence in the movie. And then there’s a general sense that the rise of fascism and the onset of war is bringing an end to the salad days; our ability to compare the hotel of the 1930s to that of the 1960s – one ornate, pink and yellow, the other functional, tired and brown – illustrates that something in this world has been lost forever and will not return anytime soon.

The frothy, surreal humour is often at odds with the background themes of the film, which are skirted around lightly. As mentioned above, a near-constant criticism of Anderson is that whenever things start to get a little bit heavy he swiftly defaults back to safer, easier whimsical matters. Admittedly this is a caper, so it’s arguable that there’s little-to-no place for the horrors of wartime occupation, although the presence and actions of the SS-style officers (same uniforms but with ‘ZZ’ lettering) and soldiers repeatedly hints at the strongarm tactics and ethnic cleansing happening elsewhere. Anderson comes as close as possible to making a film about the Second World War without actually making a film about the Second World War, and I wonder whether he changed certain details and names in order to avoid similar accusations of tastelessness that were bizarrely thrown at Roberto Benigni’s black comedy La Vita è Bella (Life Is Beautiful), which addressed the Holocaust more directly through its humour. The difference between the two is that Benigni’s movie laughs in the face of its terrible subject matter but courageously doesn’t look away, and continues to laugh in the face of the horrors of World War II for its duration. Anderson’s film, on the other hand, occasionally comes across as a sideways snigger at the idea of stereotypical angry generals and their jackbooted charges. When you strip away all that beautiful production design and the eye-catching cameos – and admittedly that would take a considerable amount of time – The Grand Budapest Hotel has little new or illuminating to say about the changes in 1930s Europe, but there is a certain degree of skill in the way that the heavy stuff is kept at arm’s length.

Though Fiennes, Revolori and many others leave a lasting impression, the movie’s posters suggest that the real star of The Grand Budapest Hotel is the establishment itself. It’s certainly the most elaborate and intricate of Anderson’s settings to date, far grander in scale than the train in The Darjeeling Limited or the New York townhouse of The Royal Tenenbaums, for example. The action switches regularly to equally-impressive locations, such as Madame D’s castle, a Gulag-style prison camp and a strange mountain-top monastery, but returning to the great hotel is often a comforting, welcome experience … similar to the equivalent feeling in real life, in fact. With its huge staircases, tiny lifts, funicular and distinct colour scheme, gazing around the screen at the hotel’s grandeur (and indeed the faded, Communist-style functionalism of later years) is a real treat, and yet again one can only be impressed by Anderson’s attention to detail.

That fastidiousness goes much further than the hotel lobby and bedrooms, of course. The director manages to fetishise a wide range of objects and paraphernalia as usual, seemingly lavishing boots, trouser lengths, knuckledusters, wine glasses, cakes (and their boxes), letters and pictures with the kind of attention they would probably not receive from any other director. Differentiating what is important from that which isn’t is often an exhausting process, but there’s certainly plenty to gawp at in just about every frame. Perhaps that’s why the centrally-composed shots work so well; whenever the eyes are darting around trying to take in all the ephemera, searching for a place to rest, there’s usually a head slap-bang in the middle of the screen to focus on, however briefly that turns out to be.

The huge array of objects actually provide a good deal of the deadpan laughs here. When Gustave and Zero steal Madame D’s painting, for example, they replace it with a gaudy erotic lesbian scene that just happened to be sitting nearby (all the more amusing when it is revealed, later on, that Dmitri hadn’t even noticed that the vastly-different pictures had been switched). Anderson’s waspish sense of the absurd is also evident when Gustave attempts to escape the prison camp with the help of four fellow inmates, and all are pictured in close proximity desperately trying to chisel through stone or iron with tiny tools that have been smuggled into the jail. It’s ridiculously cartoonish, but it makes for an interesting juxtaposition with the five dead bodies seen after an off-camera fight shortly thereafter.

* Though, admittedly their roles are all sufficiently small enough that I’m sure it didn’t take much out of their yearly schedules.

In recent years the appearance of a new Anderson movie has become something of an event in itself, with a growing legion of fans queuing up to celebrate his talent for crafting oddball, retro-fuelled whimsy. Each release seems to be arriving with a growing sense of fuss, but one wonders just how long that will (or can) continue. Surely I can’t be the only person out there getting bored with the same traits, the same look, the same actors? As I say above, generally-speaking I enjoyed the cameos here, but when Bill Murray popped up I must admit I let out an exasperated sigh, and I say that as an avowed fan of Bill Murray. Ed Norton, Willem Dafoe, Adrien Brody, Jeff Goldblum and Harvey Keitel were all quite amusing, too, but I would rather be watching any one of those talented actors in a new, decent role in a new, decent film by a new, decent filmmaker* this year instead of their knowing, wink-wink, slightly smug Anderson cameo turns.

Yet, that all said, there are plenty of moments during The Grand Budapest Hotel when it is plain to see why this film was received so well a few months ago; it is, at times, an intricate delight, which will stand up to repeated viewings due to the sheer amount of visual and aural information there is to take in, if nothing else. The performances by Revolori, Ronan and Fiennes in particular – all actors working with Anderson for the first time, incidentally – are warm and highly enjoyable to watch. Anderson creates such impressive wholes, usually ensuring that such performances are not only complemented by the music, the production design, the tone, the script and the cinematography (long-time collaborator Robert Yeoman is called upon once more), they also fit well with the more idiosyncratic touches, such as the use of model miniatures and stop-motion animation. There are few directors working today who are as predictable, but only to a certain degree; there is still much here that surprises, even if it is way too frothy to ever get to grips with the problems of wartime. When Anderson and his crew are this good, though, all the questions and doubts temporarily fade away. Until next time, anyway.

The Basics:
Directed by: Wes Anderson
Written by: Wes Anderson
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, Saoirse Ronan, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Tilda Swinton, Ed Norton, Harvey Keitel, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray, F. Murray Abraham, Jude Law, Mathieu Amalric, Tom Wilkinson, Jason Schwartzman
Certificate: 15
Running Time: 99 minutes
Year: 2014
Rating: 8.0

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* This is the second film in a row I’ve watched that (a) stars Bardem and (b) is set in Barcelona, fact fans.

To say that Alejandro González Iñárritu’s forthcoming Birdman is a change in direction is something of an understatement. Featuring a diverse range of actors including Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Ed Norton and Naomi Watts, it is being billed as a comedy-drama superhero movie, which is surprising given that the Mexican director’s previous four films have been ultra-serious affairs primarily concerned with the subject of death. The first three of those – Amores Perros21 Grams and Babel – have been collectively referred to as ‘The Death Trilogy’, each one a weighty but tonally-different examination of mortality. Biutiful, which stars Javier Bardem as a father in Barcelona with terminal prostate cancer*, could easily fit within that earlier series in terms of subject matter, although for the first time here the director concentrates on a single story as opposed to multiple strands that fit within an overall narrative framework. Guillermo Arriaga, Iñárritu’s screenwriter for those first three films, wanted more credit for his work; the pair fell out as Babel hit Cannes in 2006, so the director collaborated with Armando Bo and Nicolás Giacobone on this story. The narrower focus arguably makes for Iñárritu’s heaviest film to date: a tough watch at times, bleak in the extreme, but in my opinion one of the very best from the past ten years by any filmmaker.

Bardem plays Uxbal, a man who lives in a shabby apartment in one of Barcelona’s poorer districts with his young children Ana (Hanaa Bouchaib) and Mateo (Guillermo Estrella). He is separated from his unfaithful alcoholic wife Marambra (Maricel Álvarez), who suffers from bipolar disorder, and in order to provide for his family he is involved in a variety of illegal black market activities: one involves a group of illegal immigrant Chinese women who produce fake designer goods which are sold by African street traders, another centres around the provision of cheap foreign labour for work on a construction site. He also earns money as a medium, communicating with the recently-dead at wakes and funerals before passing on messages to grieving family members.

When he receives his diagnosis from a barely-sympathetic doctor, Uxbal is told he only has a few months at most to live, and must plan accordingly for the future of his children. He tries to reconcile with Marambra but her illnesses affect her suitability as a parent, so instead he turns to Ige (Diaryatou Daff), the wife of a Senegalese street trader and friend of Uxbal’s named Ekweme (Cheikh Ndiaye), who agrees to look after Ana and Mateo after Uxbal’s impending death.

Some dismissed Biutiful on its release for being too bleak, but that ignores too readily the fact that this tale, of migrant workers and inner-city European poverty, is the result of three writers commendably trying to grapple with the problems faced by a large section of our society as it stands today (albeit an examination that must adhere to certain rules and necessities associated with melodrama). It is also short-sighted to disregard the movie simply because it deals with death; yes, it is a depressing subject, but the way in which Biutiful examines the end of life – be it through tragic accidents, the botched disposal of corpses, dead children in limbo, cultural belief systems, the sale of graves, the grief of parents, intergenerational reunion or the actual act of dying – is often imaginative, moving and thought-provoking.

* Interestingly, there is a shift here from a spherical format to an anamorphic one, which is supposed to signify that Uxbal has accepted his fate.

While it’s not surprising that many people were put off, scattered among the downbeat and often upsetting scenes are some truly beautiful moments (hence the title, although both of Uxbal’s children also use the word at different points). In two early mealtime scenes, for example, we see Bardem’s character lose his temper with his son and his wife; when a later scene shows the foursome enjoying a happy meal together, we see a brief glimpse of harmonious family life over shared tubs of melting ice cream which becomes far more powerful than it ever ought to be. We follow Uxbal as he loses himself in a delirious, narcotic, boozy haze in a club, and on another occasion he is stopped in his tracks by the sight of a flock of starlings from an overpass*. These are the moments in-between that make life worth living, but unfortunately for Uxbal they are rare, fleeting and made all the more poignant by the fact his time is running out.

Uxbal’s life in inner-city Barcelona is fairly unremarkable except for his underground criminal activities; otherwise he walks his kids to school, picks them up from the babysitter, prepares their meals and tucks them in at night. He appears to be a parent that is trying hard to bring the two children up well, with good manners; he has strong emotional ties to Mateo and Ana, and indeed most of the other characters in the film, including Marambra and the illegal workers he deals with. In short he is, at heart, a good man, but he also has a short fuse and he makes bad decisions that have serious repercussions; his involvement in a terrible tragedy that occurs during the film rightly haunts him until the very end.

When that end comes, the skill with which Iñárritu films Uxbal’s passing into what is apparently the afterlife is, quite simply, breathtaking. It is one of the most moving, poetic scenes I have seen in recent years, and though he is on screen for a mere two minutes in the prologue and epilogue, Nasser Saleh leaves a lasting impression here as Uxbal’s dead father. The transition from squalid bedsit apartment to a snow-covered forest includes some really impressive sound design and editing, and it makes for a striking end to the movie.

Uxbal is a fascinating character, and Bardem’s Oscar-nominated performance is engrossing (though, it should be stated, not to the point that the other characters end up on the periphery). Bardem is often filmed close-up, with Iñárritu opting for a hand-held camera once again, and the actor’s long, haunted face speaks volumes about the character’s past struggles. With his greasy hair, week-old stubble and the bags under his heavy eyes Uxbal looks permanently shattered, even after he decides to stop chemotherapy on the advice of fellow medium Bea (Ana Wagener). The actor is totally convincing and this is a career highlight for Bardem which will be difficult to match in the future, even taking into account his impressive performances in Before Night Falls and No Country For Old Men.

The support – from actors largely unknown outside of the Iberian peninsula – is also very good. Bouchaib and Estrella are convincing as the two children and Álvarez also stands out as the troubled ex-wife. It is also worth mentioning Taisheng Chen and Jin Luo, who play a pair of gay men involved in the people trafficking and counterfeit goods businesses, although unfortunately their interesting story is sadly under-developed. Eduard Fernández also shines as Uxbal’s untrustworthy brother Tito.

* Having produced stellar work on the four Iñárritu films to date as well as Argo, The Wolf Of Wall Street, 8 Mile and – most notably – Brokeback Mountain, Prieto’s reputation as a fine cinematographer is secure.

Despite the magic realism in the film, Iñárritu and regular cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto* opt for a naturalistic look, which ensures those supernatural elements fit well with what is – for the main part – a kitchen sink drama. As Prieto told the ASC: ‘His ability to see and hear the dead is part of his reality, so we didn’t want to depict that differently in terms of the visuals. The metaphysical is part of his everyday life, so I did not emphasize it through special lighting or camera gags for these moments.’ There are flashes of colour, but overall Barcelona looks cold and blue-grey here. Iñárritu chooses some interesting locations, and isn’t interested in painting the city as a touristic paradise; Uxbal looks out of the window at the Sagrada Familia at one point, but he’s in a hospital and receives his bad news shortly thereafter. Aside from that brief glimpse there’s no Gaudi architecture, no packed beaches and no Nou Camp to see here; instead the lens is directed toward the peeling paint on the walls of dimly-lit sweatshops and slum houses, or on streets filled with non-descript takeaway joints and bars.

When Amores Perros was released to near-universal acclaim, it was incorrectly suggested in some corners of the press that Iñárritu was Mexico’s answer to Quentin Tarantino, a lazy comparison that did neither filmmaker justice. Four weighty, fairly complex and emotionally-draining films later, that suggestion seems ludicrous. Biutiful will not silence the critics who believe the director relies on the pile-up of one depressing event on top of another in order to elicit an emotional response from the viewer, or those that feel his grasp of the politics of globalization is slight, but both times I’ve watched this film I’ve felt both moved and impressed by the memorable scenes, the acting, the narrative, the cinematography and the sound design. In my opinion Biutiful is the kind of film that will stay with most viewers long after the credits have finished, and I cannot understand how any critic could possibly dismiss this work simply because it made them feel sad. It is grim and intense, but magnificently so.

The Basics:
Directed by: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Written by: Alejandro González Iñárritu, Armando Bo, Nicolás Giacobone
Starring: Javier Bardem, Hanaa Bouchaib, Guillermo Estrella, Maricel Álvarez
Certificate: 15
Running Time: 141 minutes
Year: 2010
Rating: 9.4

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Last year I suggested – in a review of Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine – that the director’s recent career was, generally speaking, better than many critical fans and fan critics alike cared to admit. That film in particular is a recent highlight, and while there have been a few duff efforts during the past decade, Allen’s output hasn’t been too bad considering his self-imposed heavy workload. While only Blue Jasmine holds its own when compared to his very best work, the suggestion that he is on some kind of permanent decline is wide of the mark.

* The other two being Blue Jasmine and Midnight In Paris. The older films in the top 5 are, predictably, Manhattan and Annie Hall, with Hannah And Her Sisters just behind. Even if some fans and critics maintain that Woody is in decline it’s interesting to note that his films are more popular than ever with the general public.

Even allowing for inflation (via Box Office Mojo’s calculations), three of Allen’s five most profitable films have come in recent years; Vicky Cristina Barcelona, a slight tale about two women who fall for the same man during a brief stay in Catalonia, is one of those three*. It was well-received when released in 2008, partly as a result of a lively supporting performance by Penélope Cruz and its use of postcard-worthy locations, but I actually found myself grumbling throughout because of its snooze-inducing predictability; with a sumptuous Barcelona backdrop and the excellent photography of Javier Aguirresarobe it certainly looks good, but the movie is filled with far too many of the director’s usual tics and quirks and – rather too often for my liking – it feels like Allen-by-numbers. His staunchest defenders will point out that few filmmakers embody the auteur theory quite like Woody, and that Vicky Cristina Barcelona is yet another work backing up such a claim, but there comes a point when you have to seriously question the endless recycling of certain character types and plot devices, and wonder whether a degree of laziness is to blame or whether it is simply a necessity for a writer dealing with a self-imposed one-film-per-year schedule.

* This is the third time she has worked with Allen, and while it’s not as good as Match Point, it’s a far better effort than the dreadful Scoop.

Rebecca Hall stars as Vicky, Scarlett Johansson* as her friend Cristina. At the beginning of the film the two are seen embarking on a six-month stay in Spain, staying with Vicky’s distant relatives. (They are introduced by a narrator (Christopher Welch, who sadly died last year of lung cancer at the age of 48) whose interjections grow more and more tiresome and unnecessary each time he is tasked with carefully explaining everything that is going on, as if Allen believes his entire audience to be made up of five-year-olds in need of heavy fact-feeding.) While enjoying the Barcelona nightlife they meet local artist Juan Antonio Gonzalo (Javier Bardem), who attempts to seduce them both in a restaurant, before settling instead for seducing one at a time in the city of Oviedo.

Vicky, however, is already engaged to the young and reliable Doug (Chris Messina), and so the coast is clear for the more adventurous Cristina to shack up with Juan. Unfortunately the artist’s tempestuous and troubled former wife, Maria Elena (Cruz), re-appears on the scene. Juan and Maria Elena have had a stormy past relationship, but an undeniable attraction between them remains; however just when it looks as if Cristina is being marginalized she strikes up a photography-based friendship with Maria Elena and the three of them become lovers. Meanwhile Vicky is unsure about her attraction to Doug and struggles to forget her one night fling with Juan.

My list of issues with the predictability of the plot here is long. Perhaps Allen simply isn’t interested in surprising people any more, but it’s impossible not to roll the eyes at the re-appearance of certain themes: People in relationships getting cold feet? Check. Infidelity? Check. Characters who bump into one another by chance in the street in a city of millions of people? Check. A glut of restaurant-set scenes? Check. Female characters who seemingly only exist to fulfill male fantasies? Check. The appearance of a young, preppy American male? Check. And so on and so on.

More alarmingly the characters are disappointing, thinly-drawn sketches of people, and each is highly stereotypical in their own way. The academic, slightly-bookish and steady Vicky is, of course, not as sexually promiscuous as the non-bookish, non-academic and impulsive Cristina. The two characters are friends who are very different from each other, and Allen’s decision to accentuate their differences by making them exact opposites is weak. As for Juan? Well, he’s not merely an artist but is – as you would probably expect, a tortured artist, reliant on the similarly-passionate artistic muse Maria Elena. Are all artists tortured in Woody Allen’s world? How about successful ones who just happen to be perfectly happy for a change? And what’s with the sudden obsession with young, wealthy Americans dressed like J. Crew / GAP / Ralph Lauren models who have good jobs in finance? It’s starting to seem as weird as it is boring.

* Granted the style of film is completely different, but for a more considered take on modern Barcelona that uses locations in the city in an interesting fashion see Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Biutiful, which coincidentally also stars Bardem.

Allen’s recent use of European locations is also something that has largely disappointed me. Many people have praised Vicky Cristina Barcelona for its use of the Catalan capital’s architecture – in particular the distinctive work of Antoni Gaudí – but while those buildings and park fixtures are undeniably stunning it makes for unimaginative filmmaking, as if the director simply hopped on and off a tour bus around the city when scouting for locations. If Allen were to be believed all doors and windows in Barcelona open to reveal the towering Sagrada Família and his other recent movies set in Rome, Paris and London have been similarly obvious; it’s one thing to tick off the great sights of Europe as a tourist, but another thing entirely to rely on them so wholeheartedly as a film director whose reputation is partly built on his ability to visually describe the heart and soul of a city. There’s more to Barcelona than Gaudí, just as there’s more to Paris than Montmartre and more to Rome than the Trevi Fountain. Setting numerous scenes in the Park Güell simply doesn’t cut the mustard, although in his defence at least Allen’s affinity for the city and country can be felt*.

The acting here is generally good. Hall and Johansson are fine in the two main roles, and the former is arguably the better of the two, her character effectively acting as Allen’s mouthpiece (he doesn’t appear in this one, which is a shock as I’m pretty sure a few years back he’d have somehow written the Juan role for himself). Cruz picked up the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her work as Maria Elena, but that’s one of the recent Oscar decisions that I don’t agree with at all, although I can see why it got noticed; it’s a showy, eye-catching performance, full of histrionics that are designed to reveal the character’s passion and artistic semi-madness. Cue crazy hair and angry wild-eyed shouting nearly every time Cruz appears on screen. It’s a little tiresome, to say the least, although by the time she first appeared I’d already lost nearly all of my patience.

Unfortunately that happened because I was fed up with Allen recycling ideas, characters and themes from earlier movies, and failing to add a sprinkle of freshness; he doesn’t really seem to be inspired by Barcelona or inspired by any of these characters, sadly, despite the best efforts of the actors and Aguirresarobe to paper over the cracks. It’s not an offensive film by any means, and as a light comedy it has its moments, but too often it just seems bland. Even at a mere 94 minutes Vicky Cristina Barcelona seems light on ideas.

The Basics:
Directed by: Woody Allen
Written by: Woody Allen
Starring: Rebecca Hall, Scarlett Johansson, Javier Bardem, Penélope Cruz
Certificate: 12
Running Time: 94 minutes
Year: 2008
Rating: 5.0

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