January 2022


Parallel Mothers poster.jpg

It’s funny how movies seem to come in batches. Last year was the year of Lamb, Pig, and Wolf. And if Antlers had been called Stag, I probably would’ve gone to see that too. This year, so far, we’ve replaced movies named after animals with movies with family in the title. First, it was The Lost Daughter, which I found a little disappointing despite Olivia Colman’s best efforts, and now we have Spanish-language Parallel Mothers, or Madres Paralelas in its native tongue.

In a deliberately frantic opening, photographer Janis Martinez (Penelope Cruz) is doing a shoot with famed forensic archaeologist Arturo and gets in conversation with him about a mass grave in her hometown where her great-grandfather and his friends were killed and buried during the civil war. This chat gets them both hot under the collar, they sleep with each other, embark on a brief and ultimately doomed affair, and nine months later, Janis is ready to give birth to her first child. In the hospital, she meets an almost adolescent Ana (Milena Smit), also about to become a single mother who has more current family drama on her plate. This accounts for the first half-dozen scenes.

Some time later, when Arturo meets his daughter for the first time, he remarks how unexpectedly dark-skinned she is. Now. Given at this point there are no real stakes in the story, it doesn’t take a genius to work out what’s going on here. Unfortunately, none of these characters are geniuses so it takes Janis the rest of the first act to work out what the audience had done half-an-hour ago, and by that time, where she gets back in touch with Ana, Ana has some news of her own to share, which again doesn’t come as a total surprise.

Director Pedro Almodóvar (Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown) gets an awful lot from his leads and the movie is very much shot in his style. The colorful architecture and incredible food make me more convinced than ever that my next trip across the Atlantic will take me to Spain. Sadly, the primary story of Janis and Ana as they go through the first few months of motherhood while their secrets float precariously at the surface is nowhere near interesting enough to carry the two-hour runtime, and is nowhere near as compelling as the secondary storyline of the fate of Janis’s great-grandfather and the others in her village during the war, buried only slightly deeper.

I’m not incredibly well-versed in Spanish cinema, but the civil war tends to crop up to some degree in the Spanish movies I get to see. Off the top of my head I’m thinking of del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone, along with The Disappearance of Garcia Lorca and Butterfly’s Tongue. Given the events are still within living memory of some and the wounds still very real, perhaps this isn’t surprising.

The real parallel in the movie, more than the mothers of the title, which becomes more obvious as it progresses, is that the devastation of families is nothing new under the stars, writing history which will be difficult to comprehend in the future, and while methods for dealing with such have progressed over the years, the scabs can still be slow to form. This aspect is fascinating and we’re made to covet it more when it takes a more front and center position towards the end, but it’s just not enough to cover up the conveniently inconvenient plot points that conspire to push Janis and Ana together.

It’s definitely worth taking a look at, if for no other reason than Cruz’s performance and the cooking, but I left the cinema kinda hoping that 2022 has a different theme for me up its sleeve.

Several people in a cave.

It definitely took me longer to write this review than it took to come up with a title for this movie. There’s no one at home, flicking through the listings, coming across this and wondering what it’s about. If there isn’t a rescue at some point, a lot of people are going to be looking for their money back. With an on-the-nose title like that, people can become quite crabby when their expectations aren’t met.

Thankfully, it delivers. A National Geographic documentary produced and directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, it chronicles the events surrounding the Tham Cave rescue, which already feels like it was half a lifetime ago, but in actual fact spanned two-and-a-half weeks in July of 2018, when twelve members of a kids’ football team and their coach became trapped in the cave system in the north of Thailand after early monsoons flooded their only means of escape and pushed them deeper inside to remain safe.

Many of the lingering questions I had about the incident, such as why they were there in the first place (in their area, it was a frequently visited playground of sorts) and what made it so difficult to get out (they were trapped a mile in), are answered. Due to the particular nature of the caves, regular rescue teams and army specialists were utterly ineffective and it was only thanks to a British national, Vern Unsworth, who lived in the area and had knowledge of the caves, that a couple of expert British cave divers, was called to the scene, along with a US Air Force team, and Australian, Chinese, and Thai volunteers, all working against a ticking clock of monsoon season to first establish if the kids were still alive, and then try to McGyver a way to get them out. A mile, mostly underwater, for kids with no experience of diving, would be impossible.

Told via some talking head interviews, library footage and news reports, and after the event reconstructions, the heart of the movie naturally focuses on the rescue mission, which is captivating and intriguing, even though I could remember the basics of the outcome. Where the documentary really excels, though, is where it takes diversions and this story of team looks at the individuals.

The heroes of the piece, British divers Richard Stanton and John Volanthen, while experts, were essentially hobbyists suddenly thrust into the scrutiny of the Thai and world media. Cave divers like Richard and John, and others, all seem to fall into a similar mold; sort of misfits, introverts, a history of being on the wrong end of bullies while growing up. There’s a reason why these guys prefer to spend their weekends in the eerie isolation of a cave full of water.

Then there’s the collaborative effort from volunteers around the world, the sheer weight of the goodwill and determination to get these poor souls home, safe and well, while ensuring that they are able to do so themselves. We get enough of a backstory for some of these heroes to care for them all, and there’s a lingering sense of dread when not all of them get a present-day talking head moment.

I loved this. It left me exhausted and emotionally drained, but in 2022 it’s the exact type of life-affirming story the world needs to be reminded of, and at no point does it need to mention a certain billionaire megalomaniac who tried to insert himself into it. The drama, the suspense, the exhilaration, the heartbreak, the sheer holding of one’s breath for long periods during the 110 minute running time: it has the lot. Heroes really do come in all shapes and sizes, they come from places you don’t expect, they can achieve more than they themselves give them credit for, and humans at their very best, when not reacting to overly precise movie titles, are actually pretty smashing after all.

A triumph.

A king's head lies on top of a bloody sword.

I have a difficult relationship with Shakespeare. I’m a bear with simple brain and no matter how hard I concentrate, by the time I successfully translate a delivered line into language I better understand, I’m already four lines behind. It’s happened during Romeo + Juliet, As You Like It, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Hamlet, and it spoils my enjoyment because who likes feeling stupid? That said, I’ve always had a soft spot for Macbeth.

Macbeth was the Shakespeare I was forced to read and learn and recite and memorize at school. We got to stare at the 1971 Roman Polanksi adaptation during lessons, which was exciting because normally we had to dodge classes if we wanted to watch TV. Then the entire class was shipped off to the MacRobert Centre in Stirling to watch a truly awful theatrical version whose actors were fit to blush at the sarcastic enthusiasm from a group of school pupils, of which I may or may not have been a ringleader.

I approached this version, directed and written for the screen by Joel Coen, excited to be reminded of the story, determined to remain super-focused throughout, and a little tentative that my efforts would prove futile.

Shot in black and white by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, even before I realized I was four lines behind again, I was already amazed by how it looked, and how the sets were just perfect. Every single frame — and I really mean this — is a piece of art. Macbeth always felt like a cold, bleak, play. The smell of peat, sweat, and horse never seemed too far away, even from the text, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen this realized so perfectly as it was here, in something close to a 4:3 ratio.

Added to this, we have a score composed by frequent Coen collaborator Carter Burwell, who uses an almost unearthly folk style that manages to simultaneously ground the story while maintaining the flighty tendrils of the supernatural.

All this notwithstanding, I still struggle with the language, and even the passages that sparked some ancient, thirty-something-year-old memory are mere words, the flavor of their meaning balanced on the tangential tip of its toes as it springs from the tongue.

And for the first half-hour or so, I struggled hearing the largely unintelligible words of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth being spoken in an American accent. However, within that came the movie’s salvation. Given that I’m almost watching a foreign language movie with no subtitles, it’s the performances of Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand that provided a bit of key to understanding. The mood, the phrasing, the volume, and one word in four told me everything I needed to know. Just about.

Backing this up, we have Brendan Gleeson as King Duncan, Bertie Carvel as Banquo, and a quite astonishing, scene-stealing turn from Kathryn Hunter as the Weird Sisters and Old Man. Hunter’s ability to make her body flow from one impossible posture to another brings an incredible uneasiness to her roles, a sensation that is only heightened by the black and white stock. She becomes an absolute embodiment of the crows that punctuate the story and her performance is worth the ticket price alone.

I’d love to declare this a triumph and award it five stars and allow my quote to go on the poster if asked. For a start, I have a feeling that Mrs Blythe, the English teacher who cottoned on to my manufactured praise to the dismal actors at the MacRobert all those years ago, would finally be satisfied that I’d got what she spent so much time trying to teach me. I’d love to, but I can’t. But it comes close, Miss. It comes really close.

Scream2022film.jpeg

Thanks to this ill-maintained review blog of mine, I can tell you exactly when I last saw a Scream movie in a cinema. That would be April 18, 2011, and the movie was the frustratingly titled Scre4m. I saw it in Falkirk Cineworld, straight from work. It was a Monday. I met my friend Tommy there just by chance. He’d smuggled some sandwiches in with him. Good times. My review of that movie, which you can read here, was fairly positive, if perhaps bemoaning that there really are only so many ways you can entertainingly watch a bunch of people getting stabbed. On to the fifth outing, then.

Twenty-five years after the events of the original Scream, we open in a near-identical fashion with a high school girl (Jenny Ortega as Tara) on her own in a big house at night, who somehow manages to wind up on the phone with a homicidal maniac wanting a friendly chat about scary movies. It’s the first of many nods to previous movies, other slasher movies, and fandom in general, but what makes this stand out is the modernization of the ideas; the confused look at a ringing landline, the smart home whose locks can be controlled by an app, a world where The Babadook replaces Halloween as someone’s epitome of terror.

All too soon, Tara’s older sister, Sam (In The Heights‘ Melissa Barrera) is coaxed back to Woodsboro with her boyfriend Ritchie (Jack Quaid, who you may remember from The Boys, Hunger Games, and Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan) where she meets Tara’s High School friends, who seem well-versed in the rules of the slasher movie and who approach this revitalized attack as something of a joke as they randomly accuse each other of being the killer. It’s a requel, we’re told — neither a sequel nor a reboot — as new characters and legacy, all with connections to the past, reconvene to face the latest foe with one thing being for sure: the killer is someone we know.

Co-directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett do pretty well at keeping us guessing from a script written by James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick, particularly when Neve Campbell, David Arquette, and Courtney Cox turn up to reprise their roles. We can never be too sure that someone isn’t involved until they get offed, and even then, we’ve learned not to be so trusting of what we see. Jump scares are used judiciously because they know we know that they know that we know when to expect Ghostface to be standing behind a freezer door when it closes, so maybe he won’t be this time. Or maybe he will. And they know that we know that they’re forcing us to ask these questions while we inch, frame by frame, towards discovering if we were right to partially cover our eyes.

Where the narrative falls short is in the opening act, where this new set of characters really fails to establish itself quickly enough into people we care about. Scenes aren’t really happening directly because of anything that’s come before and so the pace felt nervous and too keen to get things moving. Twenty minutes in, though, just as I was beginning to get a bit worried and antsy in my seat, the movie found its stride and pretty much remained there all the way to its satisfying conclusion.

So the scares are good, but like I said eleven years ago, there are only so many inventive ways you can stab someone. This remains true, but what we get here is an increase in the number of lingering shots where perhaps the camera would’ve cut away in the past. Even so, some of that already felt out of date and tired.

Despite all this, despite all the blood and wince-inducing gore, the frugal jump scares, the glorious meta conversations where the movie you’re actually watching compares itself to Halloween, the best parts of the two-hour running time are when the legacy characters are back together. The circumstances notwithstanding, it does the heart good to see Dewey and Gail share the screen and be their awkward selves. Maybe we’ve grown old with these characters. Maybe we’re now looking for more pedestrian things from our horror movies.

So five outings down, are there more kills left in this franchise? I suspect not. I suspect this is how it should bow out and draw a final line under the escapades of Sidney Prescott from Woodsboro, California. Let’s end it here, with a smile on our faces, allowing the incoming call to trip on to voicemail, making the caller settle on guessing our favorite scary movie.

It’s fortunate that I saw a trailer or two for The 355 ahead of its release, because in the trailer it has the good grace to describe what exactly the 355 is, just in case people thought they’d be seeing a movie about a particular range of bleach products or something. No. The 355, apparently, was a codename for a female spy for the patriots during the American Revolutionary War. The movie is practically over before anyone thinks to cover this, and by that point it doesn’t matter, but going in with this information won’t help your enjoyment. I imagine very little would.

Delayed from 2021, it’s a McGuffin chase movie. In this instance, the McGuffin is a device capable of hacking into any system in the world, capable of dropping planes from the sky, shutting down power grids and nuclear power stations, triggering World War III. During its two-hour runtime, the McGuffin is chased by a reluctant team of rogue CIA agent Mason Browne (Jessica Chastain), MI6 computer specialist Khadijah Adiyeme (Lupita Nyong’o), German BND agent Marie Schmidt (Diane Kruger), and Colombian psychiatrist Graciela Rivera (Penélope Cruz), forced to go dark from their respective bosses. Tracking the McGuffin takes these female Jason Bournes from Colombia, to Paris, London, Morocco, and Shanghai, through the Metro, a busy souk, to an exotic auction in a palatial hotel. At no point is any of it interesting.

When I think of McGuffin chasing movies, I think of the likes of National Treasure, which Kruger was in for goodness sake, or the more recent Spy, and what those movies had in common was they were fun. They were nonsense, but they were fun nonsense.

This effort, directed by Simon Kinberg and based on his and Theresa Rebeck’s screenplay, is a big old serious sponge, soaking up any fun that’s to be had while it moves absolutely by the book of espionage thrillers. So not only isn’t it fun, it isn’t surprising or inventive either. These actors are all more than capable, but none of them, including Fan Bingbing who joins in later in the second act, seem keen to do anything more than the bare minimum with the dull material they’re given. Only Cruz’s fish-out-of-water Rivera comes close to coaxing a chuckle here and there, but it happens so infrequently, it’s like it’s by mistake.

Any fun, sadly, comes from spotting plot holes and mistakes, something moving south-west when it’s described as moving south-east, the decision by world intelligence agencies to send one or two agents out in the field to prevent nuclear war, questioning where exactly costume changes and lavish bits of tech have come from or why movies never seem to be aware of how computers work.

By the end, I was begging for it to just put itself out of its misery and my backside and my brain were already heading for the foyer, only the faint threat of the sequel-baiting conclusion and the overdue title explanation generating anything close to an emotion, something that the previous 120 minutes absolutely failed to achieve. This is another movie worthy of a complaint to the Trailer Ombudsman.

The Lost Leonardo (2021) - IMDb

Things snowball.

One of my favorite Stephen King novels, The Tommyknockers, is a great example of this. A character on a stroll through the woods, trips over what they think is a can sticking out of the ground. Upon further investigation and extensive earth-extraction, it’s revealed that the can is much bigger than previously thought, much bigger than a can, a box, a wardrobe, a human, a car etc. What it ends up being is exponentially larger and more significant than anyone could’ve previously thought. And then Jimmy Smits dies.

In Andreas Koefoed’s documentary, The Lost Leonardo, things do indeed snowball. In 2005, a painting of Salvator Mundi was acquired for around $1,000 during a New Orleans estate sale by a pair of shrewd dealers. Heavily overpainted and badly damaged, it was sent for restoration and during this process and under coats of added paint, signs and techniques were discovered that suggested that rather than being a dark and gloomy copy, the Salvator Mundi they had in their hands had been painted by Leonardo Da Vinci. The documentary follows the painting from the Lousianna auction house as various experts from one source or another attempt to confirm or dispute these suspicions and at no point did any harm come to Jimmy Smits in the process.

It’s a fascinating subject on the surface of it, dealt with like a thriller as more information is gradually revealed about this hugely fortuitous discovery but once more people become involved and prices begin to sky-rocket, the detail the documentary succeeds in adding to this outline is the sheer duplicity and under-handed tactics that exist in the art world to boost prices, protect the anonymity of the buyers, and to successfully avoid taxes via Swiss freeports.

The current location, owner, and the actual authenticity of the painting is left tantalizingly out of reach, and sadly the use of art as a tax-efficient commodity keeps works like this from the public eye, but The Lost Leonardo at least attempts to put the subject on a pedestal and in a manner that is equally accessible and rewarding to the curious and informed alike.