FilmSpace: Pain and Glory; Crawl; Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

Film critic Calum Cooper reviews last week’s releases, including the 22nd feature from legendary Spanish director, Pedro Almadovar, as well as two of the latest horror films to hit cinemas.

Pain and Glory – ★★★★☆

In many ways pain and glory are synonymous. Not to sound too nihilistic, but glory that comes at no cost or struggle is not glory. It’s often said that we only experience true fulfilment in life after defeating hardships in our lives, the idea being that pain and endurance makes triumph all the more glorious. After all, standing at the top of Mt Everest is all the more satisfying when you reflect on the climb up.

Pedro Almadovar’s latest film, appropriately titled Pain and Glory, deals with this very concept through a series of seemingly random, but subtly connected re-encounters. Its main character is aging filmmaker Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas). A partially auto-biographical work from Almadovar, Mallo is a declining filmmaker. His creative juices are all but dried up, and with recent back surgery and the death of his mother, he is in a state of bottled trauma. A film of his has been remastered, and its re-release sees a reunion between Mallo and lead actor Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia), the two of whom fell out over Crespo’s performance in the film. From there Mallo finds himself re-encountering several people and memories from his past life, all of which made him into the man he is today.

The film interlinks these re-encounters via real time and flashbacks, but it’s a character piece in its fundamental form. While the story is ultimately a fictional tale, several components parallel with Almadovar’s own personal life. He uses his own flat as Mallo’s home, and childhood similarities between himself and Mallo are noteworthy. Even Mallo and Crespo’s feud was inspired by Almadovar’s brief falling-out with Banderas years ago. They all galvanise to create a film that showcases a character who is lost, having already gone down the path of success but has been diverted off course by his own physical and mental ailments.

Banderas gives a career best performance as Salvador, magnificently bringing to life a deeply complex human being. He is subdued and collected, bottling up the strife Mallo carries with him daily. His choice of words and expressions tell us everything we could need to know about Mallo and the aimlessness he feels in his life. Almadovar’s script act as the building blocks to this man, but it’s Banderas contributions that allow the role to shine. It’s an Oscar-worthy performance.

Pain and Glory sees its title as directly linked. As stated previously, the grandest of glory comes after conquering suffering. Anyone can identify with this regardless if you’ve seen none or all of Almadovar’s previous films.

Visually, the film boasts all the style that Almadovar has built his career with. Gorgeous cinematography with a warm colour palette and stunning production values are in abundance. But it’s the hidden meanings of the imagery that make the film so intoxicating. Water is a common recurrence throughout the film, right down to the film’s opening scene – which sees Mallo in a swimming pool. His first memory concerns washing clothes by a river with his mother (Penelope Cruz), and his cinematic awakening comes in the form of waterfalls and rivers shown during the film. Water is a mercurial substance that’s always changing and re-shaping, much like the art of cinema itself. It’s a quiet metaphor that encompasses the beauty that Mallo once saw when it came to filmmaking, beauty that he has experienced before but no longer knows if he can reclaim it.

Yet it’s the film’s meditative qualities that ultimately make it such a fascinating watch. Subtle and rambunctious similarities to Almadovar’s life aside, Pain and Glory sees its title as directlylinked. As stated previously, the grandest of glory comes after conquering suffering. Anyone can identify with this regardless if you’ve seen none or all of Almadovar’s previous films. And perhaps the most excruciating of pains is the reflections of our past; wounds that feel incapable of healing because we can’t go back and change them. It’s certainly the pain that causes Mallo the most grief, as he wrestles with his relationships with people, and where we goes from his creative impasse. What Almadovar is thus suggesting through this film is that once we accept who we are and where we come from, we can transcend pain and achieve our own glory, whether that be in the form of the creativity of moviemaking or not. It’s a lesson that Mallo comes to learn through the course of the film, and is one that many of us would benefit from knowing.

Pain and Glory is yet another masterful work to add to Almadovar’s incredible filmography. This is his 22nd feature in over 40 years of working as a filmmaker. The fact that he’s still able to turn out such bona fide works of cinema after all this time showcases why he’s one of the best currently working in the film industry. With Pain and Glory, Almadovar may have made his best film since Talk to Her.

Crawl – ★★★☆☆

Crawl’s biggest admirers are already comparing the film to Jaws. Although, it has more in common with the Blake Lively film The Shallows. It’s not as much concerned with being a blockbuster as it is with being an encased survival film. But, much like The Shallows, it takes its genre down all creative possibilities, resulting in a tense, yet nonetheless fun disaster flick.

Haley (Kaya Scodelario) is an athletic swimmer who’s disconnected from her family. However, when her sister phones to say that their dad (Barry Pepper) isn’t picking up, that doesn’t stop her from worrying. His house is about to be hit by a Category 5 hurricane, so Haley still goes back for him. When she finds him, he is in the basement, injured by giant alligators that have now trapped them both there. With the hurricane induced floods getting worse, and the gators getting hungrier, Haley must find a way out for both her and her dad.

The film works as well as it does because, like The Shallows, it knows how to make use of its limited setting. The majority of the film is set in this basement, a condensed and bleak environment. Initially shooting the setting like a maze, in an extended sequence, the film creates a tense, but appropriate feeling of claustrophobia. It utilises smart cinematic techniques, such as close quarters cinematography and a murky colour palette of greys, greenish blues, and occasionally reds, to evoke a constant sense of danger. Whether it’s the rising floods, the winds tearing up houses all around them, or simply the gators lurking in the dark, the characters have little room, and little time, to strategize. Thus the pacing becomes kinetic and the danger feels all the more urgent.

There isn’t much in the way of subtext – other than maybe the animalistic bond of family – but there doesn’t need to be. Crawl markets itself as a disaster horror film, and it does exactly what it says on the tin.

Speaking of the characters, the film also builds them solidly enough that you do find yourself caring for them. On top of Scodelario’s staunchly dedicated performance, you have someone who is both clever and quick on their feet. A plague often caught by modern horror films is sacrificing character intelligence for the sake of scares. But Haley is a smart character. She is already equipped to deal with the situation to an extent, but much of the film involves her and her father having to improvise within what’s physically possible. The film makes great use of the smaller details of the setting in that way, in order to heighten suspense, but also to allow us access into the thinking of our characters, and connect with them in the ways of both empathy and stratagem.

But, most importantly, it knows what kind of film it wants to be and strives to be so. There isn’t much in the way of subtext – other than maybe the animalistic bond of family – but there doesn’t need to be. Crawl markets itself as a disaster horror film, and it does exactly what it says on the tin. It takes its premise of alligators hunting people in the middle of a hurricance and ups the potential up to eleven, taking multiple creative routes. Each one is as entertaining as the next, while still maintaining more than surface level engagement via its nifty performances and craftsmanship. It’s not particularly scary, but it is a whole lot of fun, which it wisely seems more concerned with.

I don’t think comparisons with Jaws are entirely warranted, as Jaws was more about collective, character-centred fear, and this film is almost exclusively about the alligators. But really, who cares when the film is this level of fun? Crawl is hardly best of the year material, but it offers slick thrills and joy alike. Honestly, with a premise like this, what more could you ask for?

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark – ★★★☆☆

When watching Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, it’s easy to see why Guillermo Del Toro got involved as a producer. The man has had a fascination with monsters ever since he self-proclaimed striking a friendship with them as a kid, and cinema has been enriched by that love of horror. Alvin Schwartz’s book series, of which the film adapts, also celebrated the power of monster stories, however graphic they got. The film channels that very spirit to entertaining, if somewhat conventional, degrees.

Zoe Colletti plays Stella. The year is 1968, in the days leading up to Nixon’s election, and the day is Halloween night. When Trick or Treating, Stella and her friends decide to go into a supposedly haunted mansion. In the basement, they come across an ancient book, which was apparently written by the mysterious daughter of a family who used to live in the house years ago. As Stella is an avid reader, and aspiring horror fiction writer, she naturally picks it up. But when the book begins writing new stories on its own, killing all who have come in contact with it one by one, in uniquely horrifying ways, Stella must act quick to prevent the book from taking any more lives.

The film is rated 15, attributing to extended sequences of horror. This feels detrimental, as the film seems to have been made with the intention of being a 12A horror, given its younger teenage characters and youthful ideas of fear and death. 2012’s The Woman in Black sparked controversy for its 12A rating despite disturbing concepts and drawn out scenes of horror. Perhaps the BBFC didn’t want to repeat that controversy, seeing as some of the film’s set-pieces are pretty screwed up, even for a 15 certificate. But this decision has harmed the film’s chances of success, as there’s nothing in the film that anyone 15 or over won’t already be used to by this point. It’s times like this when I wish the original 12 rating still existed with cinematic releases, just to have that option.

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That being said, the film itself is good, if not entirely pioneering. Each story the mythical book fabricates result in a variety of creative sequences that scare, disturb, and, occasionally, disgust. They work better as individual moments than as a cohesive whole within the story, but that doesn’t mean they’re not fun to lose yourself in if you’re attuned to the horror genre. The fact that each story is catered to an inner fear of each character – whether a recurring nightmare or something as superficial as your looks – allows us to understand our characters better, and for director André Øverdal to lose himself in the visual and atmospheric possibilities, even if a lot of those possibilities turn out to be jump scares. There’s also the nods to contemporary racism and unrest, being set during Nixon’s rise to the presidency, but this isn’t explored so much as it is occasionally glanced at.

However, I think the film works best as a celebrating of storytelling. Whether you’re reading a book to yourself, or gathered around a campfire sharing spooky tales, there’s a magic to a good story that’s simply trounces everything else. As the film demonstrates, stories can cause terror and anguish. But they also have the ability to comfort, and even heal, with their power of escapism, with the film’s main message concerning how mistreatment from monsters shouldn’t result in your own becoming of a monster. The film doesn’t go as far as it could with this, addressing it primarily in the climax, but doesn’t mean it’s unsuccessful.

Combining traditional horror elements, with creepy setups, and well-rounded characters created by splendid up-and-coming actors, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark perhaps works best as an introduction into the horror genre for tween viewers starting off. When compared to some of the decade’s other horror offerings – e.g. The Babadook, Raw, and Under the Shadow – the film seems fairly stale. But, when you disregard its misgiven certificate in consideration for a 12+ audience, there’s more than enough love for its source material, and plenty of directorial flair to allow the film to stand proudly, if not firmly, on its own two feet.

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