Wonderful central performances make Pedro Almodóvar’s playful, genre-busting melodrama a delight but the same can’t be said for reductive comedy Bad Moms, which passes up every chance to be witty or insightful about the lot of modern mothers
Julieta (15) | Rating: ****
War Dogs (15) | Rating: **
Bad Moms (15) | Rating: *
Cell (15) | Rating: **
After a particularly awful summer for movies, it’s a bit of a relief to be confronted with a new film from Pedro Almodóvar, particularly as Julieta sees him once again ploughing a darker, more serious furrow after the brash, broad, wilfully silly I’m So Excited! A hyper-stylised melodrama about a middle-aged woman reckoning with her past, it may not stretch Almodóvar in the way that The Skin I Live In did, but it’s an absorbing, beautifully noirish film nonetheless, one bolstered by two brilliant performances from Emma Suárez and newcomer Adriana Ugarte as the title character at different stages of her life. Indeed, both actresses are so perfectly in synch with one another that Almodóvar is able to move seamlessly between past and present in a way that subtly enhances the theme of the film, particularly as the mystery at the heart of Julieta’s life begins to unspool.
This begins after a chance encounter in the street causes the older Julieta (Suarez) to abandon the plans she’d been making to leave Madrid with her partner (Darío Grandinetti) in order to confront an all-consuming loss she’s been trying to forget and move on from in recent years. The nature of this loss is central to the film and, even though the specifics are revealed early, the less you know going in the better, despite the fact that Almodóvar is more interested in exploring the emotional and psychological turmoil that has led up to this event than he is in constructing a pulse-pounding thriller that exploits it. What’s intriguing, though, is his use of the tropes of the thriller to explore matters of the heart. References to Hitchcock and Highsmith abound and, from the opening shot, the colour red dominates; even Ugarte – strikingly introduced in cropped blonde hair and tight leather mini-skirt – looks as if she’s stepped off the set of Brian De Palma’s 1984 Hitchcock homage Body Double. But Almodóvar’s source is a trio of short stories by Alice Munro and, accordingly, he turns Julieta into an intriguing exploration of the complicated ways in which guilt and grief overlap, defying the expected outcome, but in way that feels more satisfying in the long term.
Best known for the The Hangover films, one-time documentary maker Todd Phillips attempts to move into more serious territory with War Dogs, a comedy drama based on the true story of a couple of 20-something entrepreneurs who made millions selling guns to the US government in the midst of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Unfortunately Phillips has opted for a Wolf of Wall Street-lite take on proceedings, casting Jonah Hill and Miles Teller as the hungry-for-cash hucksters who exploit a system in which fortunes are to be made hoovering up the crumbs of government military contracts. The resulting film is more annoying than illuminating, skipping over some of the darker implications of the story in favour of yet another tale of cynically naive Americans learning a few life lessons as they get in over their heads in a war zone. Teller’s David Packouz is the entry point into this story and, predictably, he’s called upon to provide lots of look-how-crazy-this-is narration to breakdown the intricacies of the industry as he teams up with his somewhat shady childhood best friend (Hill) to make a killing out of the war. Despite a decent cameo from Bradley Cooper as an arms dealer with better understanding of the moral grey zone of his chosen profession, the film is too in love with the characters’ frat-boys-on-the-make swagger to be anything other than callow.
The Hangover connection continues with Bad Moms, the latest film from that film’s writers Jon Lucas and Scott Moore. It’s also the latest comedy to mistakenly assume that an ability to juxtapose the word “bad” with a societal role traditionally associated with responsibility around children is itself a recipe for hilarity. As Bad Teacher and Bad Grandpa have already demonstrated, there was much more to Bad Santa’s genius than a title and this deeply tedious effort further lowers the bar by serving up a horribly conservative and reactionary portrait of motherhood in the guise of a raunchy comedy in which the characters’ supposedly transgressive behaviour basically amounts to swearing a lot and mimicking lewd behaviour in numerous slow-motion montages (the film really loves slow motion montages). It’s also the sort of film that’s too scared to have a woman over the age of 40 as a lead, so opts to make Mila Kunis a 32-year-old mother of a 12-year-old and a 10-year-old. The whole thing is so divorced from any recognisable reality that it succeeds only making all the women in it seem like psychotic morons.
Based on one of Stephen King’s worst novels, Cell has a decent idea at its core, but not much more. A zombie apocalypse movie in which the outbreak is triggered by a high-pitched pulse emitted from cell phones, the film fails to turn this into a satisfying riff on the implications of our obsession with our mobiles. Instead we get John Cusack playing a remorse-filled graphic novelist whose determination to find his estranged wife and son following the breakdown of civilisation sees him hitting the road with Samuel L Jackson’s fellow survivor. The zombies are modelled after the super-fast members of the living dead found in 28 Days Later, but too many ropey CGI effects and predictable plot turns frequently bring the narrative grinding to a halt.