in fabric

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by/nick luciano
A24/118 min.

“Isn’t it a little risqué?”

“A provocation. For what else must one wear?”

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Characters throughout director Peter Strickland’s new film, In Fabric, refer to the various “sleeping dreams” that they recently experienced. The dreams are Freudian wonderlands—one character dreams about the stink of their mother’s corpse causing a bus to drive off a cliff, while another dreams that she is in the store catalog on every page, continually growing skinnier even though the size of the garment she’s wearing is increasing. Implied in categorizing an event as a sleeping dream is the existence of a “waking dream;” the film unfolds in a similarly dreamlike and provocative manner—a sort of “waking dream” in its own right.

The film primarily revolves around Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), the new owner of a haunted dress. The haunting has presumably already taken the life of the catalog model who had previously worn it (the sales clerk is kind enough to reassure Sheila that the model showered before wearing it, so the customers have nothing to worry about!). After the dress slowly destroys Sheila’s life (or, depending on your interpretation, while it continues to destroy her life), it comes into the possession of a loveless couple named Reg and Babs (Leo Bill and Hayley Squires) when Reg’s friends buy the dress to make him wear it to haze him during his bachelor party.

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Miss Luckmoore (Fatma Mohamed), the sales clerk that initially sells the dress to Sheila, absolutely steals the show. Luckmoore’s memorably baroque vocabulary and peculiar speaking cadence confound other characters as she continuously talks circles around them. She and the other clerks are members of a weird cabal, seemingly led by the gruesome Mr. Lundy, devoted to forwarding the dress to new victims. Miss Luckmoore and Mr. Lundy could be seamlessly dropped into a David Lynch film—compare their pale complexion, otherworldly inflection, and menacing dialogue to the Mystery Man from Lynch’s Lost Highway. There are many other apparent nods to Lynch, ranging from the use of red curtains to mimicking Lynch’s style of imagery and sound design in particularly surreal moments (the description of the film on the Toronto International Film Festival page includes yet another comparison to Lost Highway: a bifurcated plot). While I am a big fan of Lynch and surrealism in general, the most overtly surreal scene in the film, featuring Mr. Lundy voyeuristically watching a few clerks wipe down a mannequin, didn’t quite work for me. Perhaps I would feel different if it was directed by someone whose filmic vocabulary I was more familiar with, but the scene in question was uncomfortable and felt out of place with the rest of the film.

Another influence felt in the film is that of the Italian horror subgenre giallo. The Italian word for yellow (taken from the color of their dimestore pulp novels), giallo was an influential subgenre from the 1960s and 70s prioritizing mood, style, violence, and psychosexuality over plot and characterization. In Fabric, much like giallo films, is not particularly interested in answering questions and tying up loose ends. Images of the dress hovering menacingly over its future victims, or of a maintenance room with way too many mannequins than anyone could reasonably feel comfortable around, would feel right at home in a giallo. The icing on the pastiche cake is the score. Much like the score to famed giallo director Dario Argento’s film Suspiria (1977) by the band Goblin, Cavern of Anti-Matter’s score to In Fabric is synth-heavy with a simple, haunting melody, evoking that earlier subgenre while setting a suspenseful mood over the film.

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While clearly an entertaining film, I could never quite shake that it felt like an episode from the early series of the sci-fi anthology Black Mirror. It’s hard to say why (although it may be as superficial as being produced by BBC Films—early seasons of Black Mirror were similarly produced by a British television production company, Channel 4). This is not entirely meant to be a criticism, as I am a big fan of those early seasons. While the film has some satire, it isn’t quite as overt and pointed as the best of Black Mirror. There is certainly a critique of consumerism present in the final moments of the film that thread can be extended to the rest of the film, even if tenuously so. I think that it would be valid to read the dress as a stand-in for consumerism—Sheila purchases it to increase her self-esteem pending date following a separation from her husband; in reality, she is feeding into the systems that are oppressing/killing her.

The film probably isn’t for everyone, especially people who don’t enjoy surrealism or unresolved plotlines. But In Fabric displays capable acting, fantastic cinematography, evocative music, and an entertaining story, and is well worth a look. It wears its provocations boldly, rarely falling flat and keeping the audience in suspense until the end.

waves

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by/alex abrams
a24/135 min.

The camera spins as it follows high school wrestler Tyler (a brilliant Kelvin Harrison Jr.) in the opening minutes of “Waves.” The nonstop movement captures an average day in Tyler’s life, from singing in his truck with his girlfriend, Alexis (Alexa Demie), to sitting through class and lifting weights.

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Like the Academy Award-winning “Moonlight,” “Waves” deals with themes revolving around what it means to be a black man growing up in South Florida. Both films show their protagonists floating in the ocean as if the water will cleanse their souls and protect them from the harsh realities of life.

If only things were so simple.

An amazing cast carries “Waves,” which is emotionally draining but so compelling you can’t take your eyes off the impending disasters. Harrison and Taylor Russell, playing Tyler’s confused younger sister, Emily, shine in their breakout performances. “Waves” is both of their stories. The first half of the film focuses on the mounting pressure that Tyler — with his dyed blonde hair — feels as he struggles with a wrestling injury, relationship problems and a demanding father (Sterling K. Brown) with good intentions. When things take a turn, “Waves” becomes about Emily’s journey.

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“Waves” runs the risk of feeling like two films in one. However, Harrison and Russell do an incredible job bringing Shults’ vision to life and showing that the brother and sister share the same story. They balance out the film. Tyler and Emily are each suffering, but they express their pain in much different ways. At any time, though, it’s possible for them to go down the same path. More than once, you might feel compelled to holler at the screen to try to get them to make better choices.

Brown brings both heart and intensity as Ronald, the patriarch of the family. Some moviegoers might be taken aback by his performance, which is much darker than he has become known for as the loving, driven father, Randall, he plays in NBC’s “This Is Us.”

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Brown avoids going over the top with his performance. When he breaks down while talking to his daughter during a fishing trip, you realize he’s just as flawed, hurt and human as the other characters. He’s doing the best he can, but he’s ill-equipped.  Acclaimed Broadway actress Renée Elise Goldsberry — who performed earlier this year on Wake Forest University’s campus — rounds out the family as Ronald’s wife Catharine.

Nothing in “Waves” easily drifts through the film. It’s one crashing wave after another, but if you can stomach it, the payoff is well worth it. Just leave some time after the film ends to let it all sink in.

knives out (another take)

by/amanda clark
Lionsgate/130 min.

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I’m usually weary of movies with all-star casts. For some reason, they tend to disappoint (see 2016’s “Mother’s Day”, 2013’s “The Big Wedding” or most movie musicals as a point of reference). But “Knives Out” is one of the most clever, entertaining, keep you guessing ’til the end films I’ve ever seen. All of the stars killed it (pun intended) and while it does run a bit long, they tie up every single loose end. And there were quite a few to tie up. If you’re a fan of murder mysteries and dark comedies, you’ll enjoy this fun, Clue-esque flick.

We meet the eccentric Thrombey Family as they’re mourning the loss of their patriarch, Harlan (played by the always fantastic Christopher Plummer). Everyone is under the impression that Harlan committed suicide, and everyone also assumes their place in his will. It’s only until Detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) arrives that anyone suspects foul play, and threads begin to unravel. I loved Daniel Craig in this role. His slow Southern drawl seemingly began as an annoying farce, but I actually became quite fond of this character and his vernacular.

Each family member is interviewed by Detective Blanc and his sidekicks (one of whom is the lovely LaKeith Stanfield) and each one seems to have something to hide. Daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), son Walt (Michael Shannon), son-in-law Richard (Don Johnson), daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette) and grandson Ransom (Chris Evans) become prime suspects. Detective Blanc enlists Harlan’s nurse Marta (a stunning performance delivered by Ana de Armas) to help him piece the puzzle together. She suffers from a condition where lying makes her physically ill, so anytime she’s questioned, they have a bowl handy for her.

Just when you think you might have a handle on this who-dunnit, the plot swings a different direction. It moves very quickly once it starts approaching its climax. I appreciated this unique, fresh storyline as well as the film work: tight camera angels and contrasting stark and dim lighting added to the element of mystery and reminds you that everyone is a suspect. I highly recommend this entertaining film. You’re sure to appreciate this story and its quirky characters.

read more of Amanda’s reviews at cuisineandscreen.com

 

knives out

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by/quentin norris
Lionsgate/130 min.

Rian Johnson loves puzzles.  Each one of his movies begin in some form of chaos, with either the audience, the lead protagonist, or both thrown into a strange new world where nothing makes sense, whether a high school lover was found dead, leaving a mysterious trail of bread crumbs, or an assassin who murders targets from the future only to find himself as the target.

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But from there, things slowly falls into place, and as the story moves forward, the fog lifts and the audience starts to see the big picture and delights in following along with Johnson and his characters to find out what happens next.

Every film from his debut, Brick, to his largest (and strangely, still most divisive) film, The Last Jedi, is made up of fragments, gears, and wheels that only function to their full potential once they’re part of a whole. Each also plays like a pastiche love letter to the kinds of movies that Johnson grew up loving: Noir (Brick), Heist (The Brothers Bloom), Sci-Fi/Fantasy (Looper and Star Wars). So it was only a matter of time before he made a classic, stylish, murder mystery in the shadow of Agatha Christie.

But here’s where Johnson’s true talent comes to light.  He’s not just a puzzle maker. Purposefully constructed movies can only go so far before they begin to lose their luster and the tricks up their sleeves are simply tiresome instead of winsome and charming.  But these films age better with time, and the reason lies in the characters developed at the center of the movies.  Knives Out is not a murder mystery, well, not entirely at least. Make no mistake, there is a murder mystery in Knives Out, but more importantly, it is all about the most unlikely of characters, Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas).

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Marta is an immigrant living with her sister and taking care of her undocumented mother in a small apartment in upstate New York. She’s making ends meet by working as a nurse for Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), an elderly writer who has built an empire out of his ability to crank out two murder mystery novels a year, published by his son, Walt (Michael Shannon). On the night of his eighty-fifth birthday, his family gathers from all around for a party at his estate and one by one, he informs them that he is cutting off the money they had depended on for so long.  But his satisfaction at finally cutting them off is short lived when the housekeeper, Fran (Edi Patterson), discovers Harlan, dead in his study, supposedly of suicide, although a famous detective, Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) has shown up on the scene after an anonymous tip and thinks there’s more to this death than meets the eye.

Stuck in the middle is Marta, who the entire Thrombey family preys upon with a mask of only the best intentions.  They sing the praises of Marta, but only for their own personal gain, patting themselves on the back for supporting an immigrant, even though they don’t even remember what country Marta is even from.  They assure her that she is simply part of the family but the invisible lines are clearly drawn and they still treat her as though she were “the help.”  Marta wants nothing to do with the investigation of Harlan’s murder but after Benoit Blanc discovers that Marta has an unusual reaction to the act of lying, he keeps her close and keeps referring to her as his personal Watson.

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Knives Out joins the ranks of other great 2019 films like Us, and Parasite, as a film primarily about class division and the ugly effects it has on humanity.  Knives Out is about status, power, and privilege.  It’s about the kind of racism that likes to hide beneath a veil of good intentions, the kind that many feel threatened by when they’re called out for harboring it.  It’s about Marta navigating these rough waters and fighting to keep her head above the surface. The movie remembers that Marta is the beating heart of what makes it all work and no matter how complicated the web of characters gets, we continue to view Marta as our audience surrogate through it all.

The web surrounding Marta is another key element in the success of Knives Out. Each member of the ensemble is so delightfully cast.  Johnson understands the exact appeal and strengths of each performer from Michael Shannon’s brooding, bubbling anger to Jamie Lee Curtis’ cutting sense of wit.  Most of the actors are given roles they excel at and so rarely get the opportunity to play from Toni Collette’s air-headed goofball to Chris Evans throwing away the title of America’s golden boy to embrace the chance to be a total jerk with no social skills.  And then there’s Daniel Craig, hungry for any roles that are as far away from James Bond as possible. Craig is having so much fun with his southern fried Hercule Poirot that it’s impossible not to be giddy with joy yourself while watching him excitedly ham it up with an hysterically funny script from Johnson.

 

Johnson’s most admirable quality as a writer/director is that no matter what, he’s dedicated to working with a creative team that he has developed a perfect second language with. Rian’s brother Nathan has scored every film of his except for Star Wars (Which John Williams kind of has on lock down) and Steve Yedlin has shot every film including Star Wars.  Both understand the creative heights that Knives Out requires and Yedlin especially succeeds in creating a riveting visual story that keeps you on your feet, cooperating with the Production Designer, David Crank, to turn the vast Thrombey estate into its own living and breathing character.

Knives Out dodges the typical mystery dilemma. Once the murder has been solved, why go back? Knowing the answer, is the film still entertaining? In this case, the answer is an unabashed yes, thanks to a lovely world filled with an absurd and delightful cast of oddball characters and hundreds of fun visual clues sprinkled throughout the film. I’ll be more than happy in the future to take this solved puzzle and throw it back onto the floor so I can put it all together again.

 

parasite (a third take)

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by/nick luciano
NEON/132 min.

*The following review contains information that could be interpreted as light spoilers*

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In the opening moments of director Bong Joon-ho’s new satirical film, Parasite, we’re introduced to members of the Kim family in a scene that is a microcosm of the film: a passing exterminator is fumigating the street, and the Kims decide to seize the opportunity to get a free round of pest control by leaving their windows open as he sprays. The family of four is still in the apartment as this happens, and they spend the rest of the scene choking and gagging as the noxious chemicals pour into the room. It will certainly not be the last time that we see the Kim family’s desire to achieve a better station in their lives, regardless of the consequences to themselves and others.

Bong’s films are typically heavily satirical or political: his 2013 film Snowpiercer tells the story of a perpetual-motion locomotive segregated by class barrelling through a world wrecked by a man-made ice age, while 2006’s The Host shows an inept government trying to respond to the rampage of a giant river monster. While both older movies are fantastic in their own right, what makes Parasite effective is the banality and recognizability of the characters and the ordinariness of their surroundings. The Kims aren’t having to survive a monster attack or a train-based dystopia, they’re trying to achieve the same thing that many of us are: upward mobility within a system that is meant to prevent such movement.

When the film begins, the Kims are struggling to make ends meet: their apartment is terrible, the neighbors have password-protected their wifi, and they’re barely holding onto a job folding pizza boxes for a local restaurant. Their luck begins to change when their son, Ki-woo, is hired to tutor the daughter of a rich local businessman named Park Dong-ik, thanks to a friend’s recommendation and a forged college diploma (Ki-woo justifies this act by saying that he plans to go to college next year, so he is merely getting the diploma he is going to earn anyways in advance). The Kims begin to systematically insert themselves into the lives of the Parks: first their daughter, Ki-jeong, inflates her art credentials to become the art tutor/therapist for the Parks’ young son, and then their father, Ki-taek, becomes the Parks’ chauffeur. The most elaborate, and in the end costly, move is the installation of the Kim matriarch, Chung-sook, as the Parks’ housekeeper, which involves a lot of planning and an unfortunate peach allergy.

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The Parks are none the wiser throughout the Kim’s machinations; but then, they are largely engrossed in their own issues—they are so disconnected from the rest of the world that they aren’t even aware of secrets within their own house. Bong paints a scathing picture with the Parks as an avatar for the rich—they are concerned only with appearances, stocking their house with frivolously large collections of liquor, fine china, and pickled goods while accepting any nonsense about their children’s “genius.” Mrs. Park’s entire identity is micromanaging her children, to the point where she has nothing to do when they’re out of her sight—often either falling asleep or staring pointlessly into space when they aren’t in her sight, while Mr. Park is barely present both in his family’s life or the film to even form a characterization.

The Kims are not particularly less despicable, but, oddly enough, they are still more sympathetic. After all, who among us hasn’t wanted to move up in the world? We may not go to the drastic means that the Kims remorselessly go to, but the desire to do so is still there. Eventually, they even begin to believe that they are succeeding, picturing themselves living in the upscale house owned by the Parks, which was designed by a well-known (fictional) architect. Ki-taek’s inevitable realization that they will be looked down upon by the upper class no matter how far they get in life directly results in the final tragedies of the film.

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Parasite’s examination of class does not hamper or bog-down the movie, as Bong masterfully weaves his satire into a story that is equal parts tense, heartbreaking, unpredictable, and laugh-out-loud funny. There is also a symmetry and circuitousness to the film. About three-quarters of the way through the film, Ki-taek laments the uselessness of making plans, stating that “life cannot be planned,” and nihilistically positing that “it doesn’t matter what comes next.” These musings undercut his son Ki-woo’s optimism in the films final moments, when he makes a plan for his future involving moving up the social ladder once again. Despite everything that has happened, the Kims are mostly right back where they started, down to the pairs of socks drying in the window, destined along with the rest of the lower class to repeat the cycle in perpetuity.

the irishman

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by/nicholas leon
Netflix/209 min.

I like to watch mobster movies around Thanksgiving. There’s something about the way the Godfather is shot that evokes so much about the fall season. It’s probably just the film it was shot on.

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But lucky for me, Martin Scorsese’s latest film, The Irishman, aired in a few select theaters before dropping on Netflix this week. I like to think that maybe Scorsese and I have the same affinity for gangster films at Thanksgiving.

Starring Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci, the film follows union truck driver Frank Sheeran’s (played by De Niro) progressive involvement with Russell Bufalino (played by Joe Pesci) and Teamster’s President Jimmy Hoffa (played by Al Pacino). Frank frames the story by telling it after the fact, when he’s in his old age, in a nursing home.

It’s striking how personal this film feels. Each film that Scorsese makes has a distinct tone. With Goodfellas, it was about consequences, with Silence, it was about keeping to faith (whatever that faith is) through intense repression. In this film, I think the main theme is regret, or lack thereof, that comes with the life of a gangster.

Sheeran’s journey takes him from young to old age, with both CGI and practical makeup disguising De Niro’s real face. The practical stuff is what you’d expect (i.e. very good), but the CGI is surprisingly effective. There’s been an increase in Hollywood’s use of CGI to either resurrect deceased actors or make living ones look younger. In this case, viewers won’t really get a feel for the uncanny valley unless they know what to look for. It’s a distinct layer on top of the faces of Pesci, Pacino, and De Niro that makes them look soft and fuzzy, with a slight delay in facial expressions. What matters is that it doesn’t distract. Scorsese doesn’t revel in it too much, reserving it only for specific characters—in terms of work done on people. It may be outdated in ten years, but hopefully the work will still hold up.

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Scorsese doesn’t overly indulge in violence or style here, either. Although the film follows the same types of people as in Scorsese’s other gangster epics, this one is quite distinct. People still die, of course. Sometimes their deaths are violent, but other times they die from old age, whether in prison or in freedom. Rather, Scorsese explores the cost that these lives reap.

Frank, rather than a striking, active protagonist, is more on the receiving end, caught in the middle of powerful, overbearing forces. After a chance encounter with Russell Bufalino (Pesci) at a truck stop, Frank weaves his way into the rackets by illegally selling cargo out of his company’s trucks. After getting charged, he goes to the union, where he is rescued by their layer, Bill Bufalino (played by Ray Romano!). This is what gets him in with the Philly mob. He starts out doing more industrial jobs for the group, such as blowing up product of rival companies. But after taking a job that almost sees him dismantle the business of mob boss Angelo Bruno (played by Harvey Keitel) he’s ordered to kill the guy who put him up to it. And from there, it just escalates.

As he descends the underworld ladder, he eventually meets Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino). Before this, the film is structured around Frank’s involvement with the mob and his family. The second act of the film focuses more on the burgeoning friendship between himself and Hoffa, and the heightening egos of Hoffa and other members of the mob families that cause them to clash with each other.

What I loved about the story is how there was an unstoppable rise in tension. It’s not necessarily nail-biting—anyone who’s a fan of history knows what will happen to Hoffa—but rather a bitter sense that peple are doing something that they don’t want to do, but there’s no way around it. The three principle actors play this off magnificently, with De Niro and Pacino giving especially magnificent performances that dominate the screen.

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If the story and characters are ore contemplative than his previous films, so is his filmmaking. Whenever I look at a film, I’m always on the lookout for distinct style. Some directors, like Steve McQueen and Alfonso Cuaron, have distinct sequences that trademark their styles, like the former’s static wide shot or the latter’s long takes. Scorsese is different. He doesn’t need any of that to tell his stories. Goodfellas has snap zooms and fast sequences during certain scenes, but in most of his filmography, I can’t say that I’ve seen much flare.

But he doesn’t need flare in this movie—because it’s not about that. Scorsese simply composes shots the audience needs to process what’s playing out onscreen, fitting as many or as little characters as there needs to be in a shot.

It’s efficient, and the best thing about it is that it’s in service to the story, rather than an overwhelming aspect that distracts—I suppose that is Scorsese’s signature filmmaking style.

I’m glad to see that a storied director who’s been making films since the late 60s is still capable of change, so late in his career. Any Scorsese film is an event, but this one is something else, it’s a measured look at a life lived, with the deep regrets that come with it.

pain & glory

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by/alex abrams
Sony Pictures Classics/113 min.

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“Pain and Glory” opens with frustrated writer-director Salvador (Antonio Banderas) floating underwater with his eyes closed and his arms outstretched. He’s all alone in a pool, and as we quickly learn, Salvador is barely treading water in his personal life. It appears he’s drowning under chronic pain and depression, and either one of them can take him out at anytime.

This is a much more subdued performance from Banderas than the fast-talking lawyer in a well-tailored suit that he portrayed in this year’s “The Laundromat.” As weak as he looks in “Pain and Glory” — sporting a gray beard, a large surgical scar and obvious pain getting in and out of chairs — Banderas carries the film that has a heavy storyline but plenty of uncomfortable laughs.

Salvador is hard to take your eyes off of whether he’s interacting with his personal assistant or reuniting with people from his past. He embodies both pain and glory as he stumbles through Madrid, trying to avoid anything that reminds him of his stature as an internally celebrated filmmaker. Banderas won Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival for his heartbreaking portrayal, and it could very well earn him his first Oscar nomination.

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Written and directed by Academy Award-winning Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar, “Pain and Glory” seamlessly jumps back and forth between Salvador’s childhood and his midlife struggles. We see scenes showing his mother, Jacinta (played brilliantly by Penélope Cruz), raising Salvador mostly on her own in a renovated cave. There’s a lot of love between them, but it’s a complex relationship like every one in the film. There’s also a surprise twist to these childhood memories that Almodóvar saves for the film’s final scene.

Along the way, we learn that Salvador is a bright kid who grows into a passionate but burnt-out filmmaker who can’t shake his past or his pain. Almodóvar avoids getting too heavy-handed or melodramatic, but “Pain and Glory” still stirs up plenty of emotion. There are laughs during some of the film’s most uncomfortable scenes, and Banderas is so good you want to scream at the screen to stop Salvador from making his problems much worse.

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Banderas gets help from a strong supporting cast, especially Asier Etxeandia as Alberto, a struggling actor who needs to control his own demons to regain the spotlight as a leading man. Everyone in Salvador’s life is dealing with some issue, whether it’s divorce, drug addiction or confusion about his sexuality. But the film hangs on Salvador’s pain.

Life is hard, and it doesn’t get any easier with age — or success in Salvador’s case. But it makes for great art. Salvador uses his childhood and failed relationships to create his best work, and “Pain and Glory” mixes in enough heartbreak and laughs to stick with you long after it ends.