Film reviews

Truth upon crushing truth
Bad Education, dir. Pedro Almodovar.

Almodovar’s narrative themes through a female perspective tend to inhabit a more optimistic, if chaotic, universe. However, he deals almost exclusively with male/male relationships in this movie. Bad Education’s dark world is one of cruel exchanges subject to immutable laws—money and advancement for youthful flesh. Love here is just a narcissistic projection, a delirium in which only the powerful can afford to indulge.

Ignacio, a sensitive, talented ten-year-old, is a boarder at a Catholic school in the Spain of the 1950s. Father Manolo, his literature teacher, fawns on him and then sexually abuses him. Twenty years later, Ignacio is a heroin-addicted drag queen on the skids who decides to blackmail Manolo (who certainly ‘owes him’). His plans to make Manolo pay for his cosmetic surgery seem as pathetic and hopeless as his dreams of getting clean. Yet the story he writes wields the power to set the wheels of fate (and the plot) turning. It is titled The Visit because it has a fantasy dénouement of the adult Ignacio visiting the priest and confronting him. Gael Garcia Bernal (Motorcycle Diaries, Amores Perros) has depth and range as Juan, Ignacio’s beautiful younger brother who steals his story and identity in order to scam successful young film director Enrique into making it into a movie.


Enrique, who was Ignacio’s best friend (and first crush) at school, cynically allows himself to be snowed into casting Juan in the starring role as Ignacio. He soon sees though Juan’s lies but is curious, and he desires Juan enough to let him move in with him. Enrique can also drive a hard bargain. On yet another level, Enrique is very much Almodovar’s alter ego, lampooning his own early directorial attempts.

The Visit (the film-within-the-film) is a surreal high-camp pastiche with ‘bells and smells’ ecclesiastical stylings very reminiscent of Pierre and Gilles’s homoerotic religious imagery. Almodovar’s treatment of clerical child sex abuse seems reduced to a lubricious farce at times (though certainly not at others) and makes very uncomfortable watching. It would be easy to hate Bad Education for this alone, but it defies a simple analysis (or even a complex one) because nothing is ever quite what it seems to be. Each character’s story extinguishes the truth of someone else’s. It’s equally valid to interpret aspects of The Visit as a romanticised backstory; wilful self-deceit; the inability of experience to revisit innocence; and, of course, lies. Oddly, the lies and stories never obscure the significance of people’s actions—it’s when a character makes his move that you see him for what he is.

It spans the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s with signature fashions and zeitgeist, mocking the illusions of those decades as they pass. Just brilliant. A tip: don’t miss the start.

Lucille Hughes

Drifting along
Young Adam, dir. David Mackenzie

Joe (Ewan McGregor) is a drifter—sort of. He’s also a writer—but not quite. Nothing really moves him, and no one really touches him. Despite this, Joe is far from a blank space; he is closer to a rain shower in a world of cold unresolved morality, in which everyone gets soaked to the bone.

Based on Alexander Trocchi’s ’50s Beat novel of the same name (co-adapted for the screen by Trocchi and Mackenzie), Young Adam faithfully follows the nihilistic vision of its author. Stepping on life with an ambiguous, unresolved tread, it refuses to wrap up storylines and characters, instead treating them with an offhand emptiness which is in turns both true and null.

Joe lives on a barge with Les (Peter Mullen) and his wife Ella (Tilda Swinton), working the canals between Glasgow and Edinburgh. One afternoon Joe and Les pull a woman’s body from the Clyde. And while this might seem a standard start for a thriller, Young Adam is far from a genre piece. There are court scenes and villains but not the ones British TV has taught us to recognise. The villain of this piece is emptiness—cold, hard indifference.

Before long we suspect Joe knows more about the floating corpse than he is letting on. Moving between flashbacks and the present we gain insights into the crisis of Joe’s unsettled life. Never does the film try to explain the emotional state of its main character; it just drifts along with an unnerving lack of comment. While this is indeed one of the film’s strengths, it is also a strange frustration. Mackenzie has certainly embraced the Beat Generation’s love affair with the emotional drifter and worked it as a storytelling device as well as a character trait for his film’s main protagonist (a word that gives more hero status to Joe than is fitting).

But ultimately the film’s lack of emotional ruminating lends a certain moral judgment of its own. The filmmaker follows this graceless drifter at the expense of most of the characters he bumps up against, and it’s nothing short of brutal. Deliberate, I’m sure, but I wonder to what end?

But even with faults and uncertainties, Young Adam is a film worth seeing—if for no other reason than to remember that Ewan McGregor really can act when not encumbered with a light sabre.

Siobhan Jackson

Life in the grey zone
Look at Me, dir. Agnes Jaoui

 Look at Me is a film that emphasises the frustrating aspect of subtitles. Because it is both performance-based and dialogue-driven, you spend half the time reading when all you want to do is watch the actors. Then you come out feeling like you missed something. But this is about the harshest thing you could say about Look at Me, which surely means it’s worth the effort.

Lolita (Marilou Berry) is the daughter of Etienne (Jean-Pierre Bacri), a successful French writer, as obnoxious as he is famous. Lolita is the student of singing teacher Sylvia (Agnes Jaoui), who goes out of her way to help Lolita, hoping a connection with Etienne will be useful to her husband Pierre (Laurent Grévill), a struggling novelist.

Lolita, overweight and lacking in confidence, is convinced that the people in her life like her only because of her father—which is overwhelmingly the case.

Look at Me has set the cult of image firmly in its sights. Lolita is told every day by magazines and television—and, most importantly, by her father—that she isn’t pretty enough to be an actor, or a singer, or a model, or loved.

Look at Me also explores the self-indulgence of the literary society and the day-to-day shallowness of middle-class life, without ever lecturing its audience. The characters are artfully drawn and lovable, despite their passive-aggressive manipulations and blind prejudices (Etienne’s nickname for his daughter is ‘my big girl’). It is this attention to the subtle truths of human behaviour that makes you want to go away and learn French so as to experience its observations with more immediacy—without the filter of subtitles.
With an emphasis on performance, the camera is used to minimal effect. (You would, in fact, be forgiven for thinking you were watching well-written, well-acted television.) Writer-director Agnes Jaoui isn’t interested in dazzling you with cinema—this is about the people. As the film pushes forward, over a period of six months, we sense that these characters do indeed exist outside the film, and that we are privy to just a few select moments from their lives. There isn’t so much as a clever shot or a cut to remind us that we’re watching a film. The actors do all the work.

It is sometimes difficult to be seduced by a story with a warts-and-all approach to its characters. Lolita’s self-pity is unappealing, her father’s self-centredness crude. But when so many films depict individuals as morally black or white, with a chasm of nothing in between, it is refreshing to see one that revels in the grey zone of ordinary people.

Zane Lovitt

Riveting and rollicking
Robots, dir. Chris Wedge.

Ever thought your left arm was just a tad outmoded, or that your right ear could do with a little reshaping? Perhaps you dream of an extreme makeover? ‘Why be you when you can be NEW?’ Well, it’s easy: just get yourself a ticket to Robot City, the great metropolis where everything old can be new again … for a price.

Starry-eyed Rodney Copperbottom (voiced by Ewan McGregor) lives in the little hamlet of Rivet Town. His mum and dad built him from the ground up, literally, following an instruction sheet in a box of pots, pans and metal plates. They lovingly upgrade him every year with hand-me-down bits and bobs. And so he grows into a fine, upstanding young robot, full of big dreams and pop rivets.

While the Copperbottoms have a lot of love they don’t have much ready cash. One year Rodney’s upgrade is a hand-me-down from his cousin—a girl cousin (remember the old ‘Don’t worry, son, no one will notice you’re wearing a skirt’ routine from childhood?) And it is these hilarious, ‘true-life’ titbits that really breathe life into the otherwise mechanical protagonists of Robots.

Rodney is an inventor. But to realise his dream of filling the world with inventive wonder he must leave his parents and go to Robot City. There lives his idol, the colossal and wonderful wizard of invention (not to mention TV stardom) Bigweld (Mel Brooks). Famous for his magnanimous catchcry ‘See a need, fill a need’, Bigweld is an old-fashioned industrialist, peddling promise and hope for a brave new world.
But all is not what it seems under the bright lights of the big city.

Fresh off the train from Rivet Town, Rodney heads straight for the sparkling (and supposedly open to anyone) gates of Bigweld’s head office, only to find that Bigweld has been ousted by sleazeball corporate operator Ratchet (Greg Kinnear), and his maniacal scrap-metal-dealing mother, Madame Gasket (Jim Broadbent). Rodney is devastated—but all is not lost. Taken in by a motley crew of rusty old misfits, known commonly as ‘outmodes’, Rodney discovers his true calling and finds himself a leader of the downtrodden (or more specifically, unemployed tin cans, rust buckets, rickety toaster ovens, fat-bottomed robotic aunts … you get the idea).

And as rust follows rain, a Samson vs Goliath battle ensues.

Robots creates a witty parallel world that resembles a strange animated mix of Fritz Lang and Frank Capra. And with sentiment aplenty (in its most charming get-up, I hasten to add), it takes a well-oiled look at familial love, honour, romance and good old-fashioned corporate greed.

All the voices are done with an appropriate degree of madness. Robin Williams puts in a classic ‘talk through wet cement’ performance as Rodney’s friend Fender, and the likes of Stanley Tucci, Dianne Wiest, James Earl Jones and Drew Carey (to mention but a few) lend their voices to even out the mix.
Robots is good, sharp, witty fun. No nuts and bolts about it!

Siobhan Jackson

 

 

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