Saturday 10 December 2016

Film review: Julieta - a familiar rhythm from Almodóvar with nods to Hitchcock

Cert: 15A. Selected cinemas.

Hilary A White

Published 29/08/2016 | 02:30

Emma Suárez stars in Julieta
Emma Suárez stars in Julieta

Viewed in his homeland of Spain with as much reverence as contemptuous familiarity, Pedro Almodóvar is none-the-less a prolific international auteur who wouldn't be on his 20th feature unless he knew a thing or two about filmmaking. The 66-year-old had been in talks with Meryl Streep to star in this flashback-heavy family saga of a woman suddenly fixated with reconnecting with her estranged daughter. All was looking well for a US shoot until a reported crisis of confidence saw the director return to Spain and film in the environment that was more familiar (and probably cheaper).

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Almodóvar films tend to fall loosely into two categories - sex comedies (Matador, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!) or "the cinema of women" (Volver, All About My Mother), quietly momentous dramas about beleaguered women finding their resolve. Julieta is a noble addition to the latter.

Julieta (Emma Suárez) is gearing up to leave Madrid and move to Portugal with partner Lorenzo (Darío Grandinetti) when she runs into an old friend of her daughter Antia. She learns that Antia, whom she has not spoken to for 12 years, is in Switzerland and decides to put Portugal on hold so that she can relocate Antia and settle past misunderstandings. She moves back into the old family apartment and waits there for Antia. While doing so, Julieta writes a journal plotting out how Antia came into the world and the strife that drove them apart.

Julieta rolls along in that plaintive, off-beat rhythm that populates Almodóvar films, with some classy nods to Hitchcock and rich colour motifs swirling into the protracted flashback sequences. At the epicentre of the superb cast is Adriana Ugarte in the role of the younger Julieta. It is in her that the film finds a striking, unshakable keystone. 4 Stars

The Purge: Election Year

Cert: 16. Now showing.

Small of budget but hefty of profitability, The Purge series of films have had an admirable shelf life since arriving into cinemas in 2013 with a $3million spend and a premise that was certainly novel: In a future dystopia, US society has brought into law a hall pass for antisocial desires for one night of the year. "The Purge" takes place on March 21st each year and anything - rape, murder, vandalism - goes.

Writer-director James DeMonaco essentially applies the zombie-movie template but uses regular day-to-day civilians in place of the walking dead, meaning a slasher franchise in which we are the movie monsters. It was ever thus, you could argue.

We're 18 years after the events of the first film. Despite all the Purge has done for the economy and crime rates, there are growing calls for it to be repealed as most of its victims are the poor. To quell the protests, the sitting NFFA government lifts immunity on politicians, a move which also nicely facilitates a hit on a leading opposition senator (Elizabeth Mitchell) who is rallying public opinion against the Purge. Assigned to her is Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo), a vigilante turned bodyguard. Also trying to stay afloat are store owner Joe (Mykelti Williamson) and a virtuous ambulance-driving heroine (Betty Gabriel).

If the point of horror cinema is to make us feel intelligent, then . . . Election Year succeeds. As soon as the characters find safety amid the lethal 12-hour annual spree, they do their very best to put themselves back in harm's way. All this is done to some laugh-out-loud dialogue and cringeful acting that, while shambolic and daftly entertaining, is, alas, unintentionally so. 3 Stars

Hilary A White

Popstar: Never Stop...

Cert: 16. Now showing.

Depending what decade you were born in, you will either find this feature-length mockumentary spin-off from a popular Saturday Night Live troop utterly, painfully hilarious or as comedically enterprising as filing one's tax returns. Yes, sadly films such as this represent the generation gap widening before us, and reactions to this boorishly square, nuance-free humour will indicate which side of the chasm you stand.

The good news is that Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping and its forced brand of gag-pulling succeeds in aligning itself with the spirit of This Is Spinal Tap by fixing a target in its sights - in this case, Justin Bieber's bubblegum silliness - and giving it both barrels. Producing, writing and starring, The Lonely Island (the SNL skit trio of Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone) are well versed in where to land such blows.

Samberg is "hip-pop" star Conner4Real who has a bad case of second-album syndrome since "creative differences" (the oldest euphemism in the music industry) saw him leave behind mega-selling three-piece The Style Boyz and go solo. One of the Style Boyz (played by Taccone) is still touring with Conner while the other (Schaffer) has bitterly exiled himself. The Conner4Real brand is nosediving and his entourage is thinning. He's running short on real friends.

Like last month's Absolutely Fabulous movie, Popstar draws on a wealth of game celebrity cameos - Mariah Carey, Seal, Pink, even Ringo Starr - to get its lampooning done. There is also a huge deal of endeavour at work. But neither thing will really be of any consolation if you like your humour sharp, under-the-radar and flab-free. Caution advised. 3 Stars

Hilary A White

War Dogs

Cert 15A. Now showing.

The problem with this comedy-drama telling the true story of small-time arms dealers getting in over their heads during the US invasion of Afghanistan is its lack of ironic distance. Like The Wolf of Wall Street (another Jonah Hill vehicle), it wants us to laugh at the carry-on while condemning it. If Scorsese struggled with that, what hope has Todd Phillips (The Hangover trilogy) really got?

Hill and Miles Teller play Efraim Diveroli and David Packouz, two childhood pals reunited after many years. David is in a dead-end job and comes to work for Efraim, who is making good cash by bottom-feeding on US military arms contracts. The pair get in and out of scrapes in Jordan, Iraq and Albania and scoff loudly at how "effed-up" the places are. Money, drugs and rock 'n' roll cartwheel into the frame.

Hill, sporting extra kilos and an annoying laugh, is superbly repulsive as the amoral swine out to line his pockets while Teller's character provides the flimsy moral compass. Ugly and muddled though its tone may be, it is a fun reminder that US culture is well able to dirty its bib without the help of Trump. 3 Stars

Hilary A White

Strange Occurrences

Cert PG; Now Showing 

You really can’t beat a good documentary and there have been some crackers in the last few years. Coming to join them is Strange Occurrences in a Small Irish Village, Aoife Kelleher’s follow-up to the extraordinary One Million Dubliners. Whilst the film discusses the events of 1879 in which 15 people are said to have seen holy apparitions, it really examines modern day Knock and what has grown from the legacy of that Catholic church certified miracle. It would be easy to get the tone of such a piece wrong, but the film is a real success in how well steered it is, truly showing not telling and allowing the viewer to form their own opinions.

In parish priest Fr Richard Gibbons, Kelleher has a gift. Charming, educated, ambitious and media savvy he makes an interesting focal point for the film. There are contributions too from relatives of the people who saw the apparition, people who claim to have been cured, people who claim just to find solace and some of the business owners whose livelihood depends on sales of holy souvenirs. The current pope is a lot more saleable than the previous one, statues of whom are currently on special offer. 

There is a view of the simple day-to-day workings of the shrine, how the holy water gets blessed for so many, how the handmaidens work and possibly my favourite part was the glimpse into Knock Marriage Introductions.

Strange Occurrences in a Small Irish Village, the title taken from a British newspaper headline at the time, offers a fascinating and fair insight into the village which has grown around the events of 1879. Another cracker. 4 Stars

Aine O’Connor

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