Banderas taps into Pedro's hurt locker
Pain And Glory (16, 113mins) 4/5
Pedro Almodovar's 21st film finds the Spanish director in reflective mood. He turns 70 next month and, in Pain And Glory, seems to look back wistfully on his early years and artistic career. This is not the first time Almodovar's life has intruded on his work, but Pain And Glory is his most intensely personal film to date. It's also movingly elegiac.
Antonio Banderas has starred in eight of Almodovar's films, and the pair were great friends during Madrid's 'Movida' arts renaissance of the 1980s: who better, then, to play Salvador Mallo, an ageing film-maker whose health has blighted his working life.
Tinnitus, headaches, chronic back pain and insomnia have reduced him to a gloomy wreck: he hasn't made a film in years and spends much of his time pondering his distant childhood and cherished memories of his late mother. And when a testy encounter with an old colleague leads to drug-taking, those memories grow more and more intense.
An art-house cinema has persuaded Salvador to speak at a screening of his most famous film, and this encourages him to reach out to its star, Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia), a former friend to whom he hasn't spoken in 30 years. Alberto smokes heroin, and the pain-stricken Salvador thinks what the hell and joins him. The drug dulls his pain and drags him back to a rural childhood dominated by his formidably resourceful mother Jacinta (Penelope Cruz).
The young Salvador is a bright boy, and by the time he's 10, Jacinta has encouraged him to teach illiterate farm hands and workers to read and write. One of them is a plasterer and as Salvador watches him wash the white dust from his naked torso, he has a sexual awakening that will become a source of tension between he and his mother. So too will her plan for him to attend a seminary to further his education.
The most touching memories the heroin rouses, however, are Salvador's tender conversations with the elderly Jacinta (played now by Julieta Serrano), who frets about her son's health and describes to him in great detail how she wishes to be laid out after her death.
During a brief excursion back to the present, Salvador has an emotional reunion with a former lover. This, and a combination of other circumstances, will inspire the director to start writing again. But in the end, Pain And Glory is not that sort of love story, and the person Salvador seems most purely devoted to is his mother.
Watching Banderas play Salvador Mallo was, Pedro Almodovar told me in a recent interview, "not exactly like looking in a mirror, but almost". By this, he doesn't refer to a physical resemblance, but to the intermingling strands of the fictional character's life and his own. Like Mallo, Almodovar was raised in a dusty central Spanish village, taught adults to read and almost became a priest. References to Mallo's films suggest the broad humour and kinky shock tactics of Almodovar's early work: in his later films, the smoke and mirrors have been replaced by sombre, soaring, sometimes painfully evocative dramas. Almodovar himself at one point thought his film career might be prematurely ended by health problems and persistent pain: when he rebounded by making his excellent 2016 melodrama Julieta, he was greeted by a frosty reception in Spain, partly due to his apparently accidental involvement in the Panama Papers tax avoidance scandal.
All of this pain has been channelled into the character of Salvador, who has allowed himself to be overwhelmed by his physical misfortune. Indeed, physical pain is so prevalent in this film that it almost seems like a character in itself, a malign wizard lying in wait to cast its crippling spells. Banderas is superb in this demanding role, which required him to suppress his normal bullish machismo in favour of an altogether more subtle and delicate sensibility. He may have been helped by his own recent health troubles and, early in the film, Almodovar's camera mournfully scans the length of the actor's open heart surgery scar.
Mortality, age and resilience are Almodovar's themes here, together with the redemptive power of art and, of course, love. In Almodovar's films, Penelope Cruz reminds me of Sophia Loren or Anna Magnani in those 1950s Italian neorealist movies. She's an earthy, salty powerhouse here, a fiercely loving mother whose loss would be indeed very hard to bear.
Crawl (15A, 87mins) 3/5
Brisk, businesslike and puckishly funny, Crawl is an enjoyable and admirably uncomplicated B-horror. A category five hurricane is tearing its way across Florida when student Haley Keller (Kaya Scodelario) realises that her father is missing. When she tracks Dave (Barry Pepper) down at their old family home, she finds him trapped in the flooded basement, which is also infested by alligators. Pretty early on, we find out that Haley’s a champion swimmer, a handy premise for lots of aquatic chase scenes in which we discover that though they have lots of teeth, gators probably don’t play chess in their spare time.
Never Grow Old (16, 100min) 3/5
Shot in Connemara, Ivan Kavanagh’s lean and gritty western is set on the California Trail in 1849. Irish undertaker Patrick Tate (Emile Hirsch) has settled in the frontier town of Garlow, where business was good when the town had a saloon and a cathouse, and folks were taking pot shots at each other. A sanctimonious preacher put paid to all that, but now a swaggering bounty killer called Dutch Albert (John Cusack) has arrived and wants to put Pat back in business. Kavanagh’s film borrows somewhat in tone from Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, but is very nicely made and Cusack is great as the soft-spoken villain.
Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark (15A, 107mins) 3/5
Jump-scares come thick and fast in Andre Ovredal’s horror based on a classic children’s book. It’s Halloween, 1968, and a group of teens have broken into an old house on the outskirts of Mill Valley, Pennsylvania, to investigate a local legend about the ghost of an outcast child called Sarah Bellows. And when the kids find one of Sarah’s journals, the grisly tales within start coming to pass. Though a bit ragged late on, Scary Stories is pretty satisfying for the most part: meanwhile, in the background, the real horror story is unfolding — Nixon is being re-elected.