Thursday 14 July 2016

The Last 5 Films I've Seen

Cruz control: The Spanish actress is at her best in Volver

1. Volver (2006): Pedro Almodovar's female-centric family drama focuses on the supposed return from death of Irene (Carmen Maura), a wife and mother thought to have perished in a fire many years before. The woman – or perhaps her spirit – reappears at an opportune time as daughter Raimunda (Penélope Cruz) has more than enough troubles of her own. The veteran Spanish director adds a dash of magical realism to give the film's soapy, melodramatic feel an intriguing extra level and it left me struggling to recall the last time Cruz had a Hollywood role half this good. Despite exploring themes such as death and sexual abuse, Almodovar's lightness of touch somehow prevents proceedings from ever growing too dark. 
2. By The Sea (2015): Angelina Jolie wrote and directed this 1970s-set vehicle for her and hubby Brad Pitt about a married couple retreating to the South of France in a desperate bid to save their foundering relationship. It was mostly met with critical disdain and box office indifference upon release last year but surely deserves a reappraisal. It's slow, repetitive and the script is occasionally clunky, yet I rather enjoyed its sun-kissed ennui and amusingly vanilla eroticism. Jolie - excellent here as the beautiful, icy but hopelessly lost Vanessa - clearly carries a torch for '60s and '70s European cinema, specifically Jean-Luc Godard's Le Mépris, at one point paying homage to Brigitte Bardot's famous bath tub scene.
3. The Stanford Prison Experiment (2015): Based on the infamous 1971 experiment of the title in which a Stanford professor - Doctor Philip Zimbardo (Billy Crudup) - set-up a makeshift prison in the university itself. He recruited 24 male volunteers - 12 played the role of guards, 12 the role of prisoners - and sat back to study the psychological effects on his subjects. He got rather more than he bargained for as those playing guards quickly became more and more authoritarian, aggressive and downright unpleasant. There's genuine craft in the way in which director Kyle Patrick Alvarez's camera roams the narrow corridor and tiny cells, ratcheting up the claustrophobia and tension. The elephant in the room, though, is that the experiment is so well known the film contains few surprises. What should be genuinely shocking simply isn't - it therefore lacks an edge and, despite the nastiness that goes on, you never really believe anything bad is going to happen.
4. Brahman Naman (2016): Eighties-set Indian teen sex comedy (available via Netflix) that homages the likes of Porky's, American Pie and Superbad, while mounting a fairly scathing critique of the country's caste system. It follows the members of a crack university quiz team - including the titular Naman - as they travel to a nationwide championship in Calcutta. Not only do they hope to win top prize but lose their virginities along the way. There are moments as amusingly outrageous as anything you'll see in the US movies mentioned above (Naman's inventive masturbation techniques are a jaw-dropping highlight) but the main problem with Qaushiq Mukherjee's film is that his main character is so thoroughly unlikeable. Naman is a drunk, a snob and a misogynist. You don't want him to succeed or get laid, you want someone to come along and kick his arse which, thinking about it, may well have been Mukherjee's intention.
5. Adult Life Skills (2016): Following last year's Me And Earl And The Dying Girl, here's another movie with an irritatingly whimsical approach to the subject of death. Jodie Whittaker is Anna, a 29-year-old woman who, following the demise of her beloved twin brother, has retreated from the world into her mum's shed. She lives surrounded by her sibling's belongings and all her cultural references are from the rose-tinted past she shared with him (The Goonies, Rocky, David Hasselhoff). There are some decent lines and a couple of chucklesome moments but mostly it's the cinematic equivalent of one of those TV ads for banks, in which a singer with an 'ickle girl' voice plucks out a quirky cover version of Smells Like Teen Spirit on a ukulele.

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