Review: Only God Forgives (2013)

Director: Nicolas Winding Refn

**

Amongst the few people who didn’t like Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive on its initial release, there are the tales of people looking for money back from cinemas because the film didn’t deliver the Fast and Furious-style thrills promised by its trailer. Instead, they got a soulful revenge tale with shocking violence and a retro feel. Drive wasn’t deliberately slow; it just wasn’t the adrenaline-pumper those disappointed punters were hoping for. However, ‘disappointingly slow’ would be very apt adjectives for Refn’s follow-up, Only God Forgives.

It is a sad inevitability that every good actor will have a dismal performance somewhere in their back catalogue they’ll rue in later years. It’s not hard to imagine Ryan Gosling’s performance as Julian in Only God Forgives will be the black mark on his copybook. Julian is a co-owner (with his brother Billy, played by Tom Burke) of a Muay Thai club in Bangkok, a front for their drug-dealing operation. Julian is gratingly unfazed by the violence he’s confronted with in his club and his work, so when his brother is murdered after he killed a teenage prostitute, we’re willing him to have a reaction. The light’s are on, but no-one’s home; there’s no life in his eyes and no quiver in his voice. Indeed, the one time he raises his voice, it inspires sniggers where shock is sought. Gary Oldman did it better in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

The possible (probable?) source of his silent angst blows into Bangkok like a leopard skin-clad typhoon. Crystal, Julian and Billy’s mother, arrives hell-bent on avenging her eldest son and exudes almost enough venom to compensate for Julian’s lack thereof. She’s played by Kristin Scott Thomas in a piece of counter-casting that fits into Only God Forgives’ modus operandi of baffling the audience with flash where no soulfulness can be found. With little to define Crystal beyond revenge and her vaguely oedipal relationship with Julian, Scott Thomas chews her dialogue like a bulldog chewing a wasp. There are words in this script that you’d never imagine a character of Scott Thomas’ would say, so chewing the script may be the only way she could get through it. In any case, she enlivens every scene she’s in, which isn’t hard next to Gosling’s cardboard impersonation.
The object of her vengeance is Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), the police captain who ordered Billy’s death. Pansringarm is easily the best of the cast, not least because his character is actually given some kind of development. Though set up as an ‘angel of death‘ figure, he has a daughter, a talent for swordplay and a penchant for karaoke. A number of karaoke interludes crop up on occasion, usually to provide unintended snorts just after a hideous act of violence. Chang favours slow love songs, which fits the slow movement of just about everything else in this film. The characters talk slowly. They move slowly, as does the camera. If this is intended as atmospheric, Refn needn’t have bothered. There’s more than enough atmosphere in Larry Smith’s blood-red camerawork (recalling Suspiria’s none-more-claret palette) and Cliff Martinez’s score, skilfully blending video game beats with church organs. The whole thing boasts a look worthy of horror, but the most horrifying thing about it (aside from the occcasional limb detachment) is just how long 87 paltry minutes can feel.

Aesthetically and thematically, Only God Forgives is closer to Refn’s earlier work than to Drive,  not least in its ability to split audiences (think of Fear X’s chilly critical reception). Yet, where the likes of Valhalla Rising and Bronson had some charm and charisma to balance Refn’s own blend of violent seduction, Only God Forgives is deceptively hollow. The oedipal drama driving the plot is weak and by turns laughable. It looks the part, but whilst Refn wants to luxuriate in the Bangkok atmos, you’ll just want him to get to the point. But he can’t, because there isn’t one.

Review: Before Midnight (2013)

Director: Richard Linklater

*****

This review originally appeared on Ramp.ie

We’re told that absence makes the heart grow fonder. This is true of lovers, old friends and beloved movie characters. In 1995, Richard Linklater made us fall in love with Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) as they sashayed through the streets of Vienna in Before Sunrise, with flirtation on their lips and young love in their hearts. However, as beautiful as that night was, Linklater saw fit to bring them back for another encounter nine years later in Before Sunset, which was just as beautiful, if not more so. Both were infused with the desire of the characters for each other and our desire for them to be with each other, such is their charm and chemistry. Another nine years have passed but, despite them being a couple now (and parents to boot), Jesse and Celine’s now-middle-aged desire is in plentiful supply, more than enough to fuel Before Midnight.

At a time when attention spans are shortening, it’s always a joy to find a film that luxuriates in conversation. Stimulating adult interesting chatter. Who knows?; you may have experienced this phenomenon at some stage in your life. It feels like an increasingly rare commodity, but all three films in the Before… trilogy emphasize the importance of plain talk. Jesse and Celine’s attraction lies in their ability to communicate with each other naturally, lyrically, beautifully. Early on, a car ride through the Greek countryside sees the pair doing what they do best: discussing their lives and each other, with a little playful taunting thrown in for good measure. Skirting a fine line between dialogue and exposition, their chat helps bring us up to speed on the past nine years.  We are in on this discussion and, to judge from the young twin girls sleeping in the back seat, we have much to discuss.

The opening scene, just preceding that car trip, sees Jesse delivering his teenage son (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) to the airport to return to Jesse’s ex-wife in the States after a holiday with Dad, stepmother and blonde cherubic stepsisters (Jennifer and Charlotte Prior). As they exchange embraces at the security desk, both lament the physical distance between them. This sets the tone for what is to come. If Sunrise dreamt of what could be, and Sunset gave love one last chance to blossom, Midnight reflects on time that has passed, and the futures that might have been for both he and she. However, there are also futures still to be considered. Jesse wants to be closer to his son, but he can’t figure out how to do it. Meanwhile, Celine is contemplating taking up an offer of a new job. They are due to return to Paris shortly, but as time goes on the potential for Greek tragedy steadily increases.

Before Midnight is forever bathed in glowing sunshine, and Jesse and Celine are surrounded by friends, laughter and wine. As we know from before, however, Linklater can seduce us visually without guaranteeing a happy ending. Another winning screenplay from Linklater, Hawke and Delpy slips in little asides and stories that hint at potential trouble in paradise. Jesse and Celine are living what is by all appearances a terrific life; a successful author and civil servant take their beautiful children on six-week holiday to Greece. However, their comfort allows them to let their guard down. Introspection leads to flirtation, which leads to embracing, leading to intimacy. Indeed, for the first time we see this couple becoming intimate, only for passions of a different kind to bubble to the surface. Tensions of all kinds are sparked by the Peloponnese sea air.

As Jesse and Celine have aged, so too have Hawke and Delpy. These roles feel like a comfortable garment they can slip on; age may have worn them a little, but their innate appeal is still very much intact. The cast of Greek friends and well-wishers is a warm and witty mix, but this is the story about two people, and two people only. They laugh and cry and eat and drink and be merry, and all we can do is hang on their words and wish they will continue to do so long into the future. Jesse and Celine are simply one of the finest romances in modern cinema, and Before Midnight brings them into their forties with intelligence, grace and swooning old-school loveliness. After the kiss-off of its pitch-perfect final line, the next nine years will be a very long wait indeed.

Review: Man Of Steel (2013)

Director: Zack Snyder

**

This review originally appeared on Ramp.ie

Loath though you may be to admit it, as superheroes go Superman is almost unpalatably wholesome. He’s an alien who cannot be killed; how are you supposed to forge an emotional connection with this creature? Created back in the 1930s, when irony was primarily an adjective, Superman was the embodiment of all-American derring-do and justice. As time went on, he became more of a representation of the best in humankind, eventually becoming a multi-million dollar Christ allegory. There are a couple of moments in Man Of Steel that hammer home the idea of Supes as God’s kin, and they are forehead-slappingly obvious. Not that you need to be told, but 300 and Sucker Punch director Zack Snyder is not a subtle man.

The first two installments of Christopher Reeve’s stint as the son of Krypton are still enjoyable, but they also reek of cheese and nostalgia, with little bite. The next two films are best forgotten, as is Superman Returns, Bryan Singer’s indulgent trip down memory lane. In Man Of Steel Superman steps out of Reeve’s shadow only to end up shrouded in another shadow, one with pointed ears and a gravelly voice. Christopher Nolan’s Batman reboot set a dark and brooding template for superheroics, one that has raked in almost $2.5 billion thus far. With The Avengers essentially owning the fun and kitsch superhero image, plus efforts at comedy having sunk Superman once before, Man Of Steel sees Superman go dark under Nolan’s watch as producer. Because that’s what audiences want from their superheroes now, right? Darkness is one thing, but overstuffed and repetitive stories are very much another.

Man Of Steel opens on Krypton, as Jor-El (Russell Crowe) discusses ways to save the planet’s dying core with its rulers. A coup is attempted by General Zod (Michael Shannon), but it fails, and he’s frozen and sent into space just in time to see Krypton implode. This begs the question: why bother banishing him when everyone is going to die anyway? Anyhoo, Jor-El sends his newborn son into space to save him, along with a Kryptonian DNA MacGuffin which will come back to haunt us later in the film. David Goyer’s script has too much going on; too much plot, too much backstory, too much speechifying. Every line is written to be delivered with the solemnity of gospel. Some of the dialogue is repetitive, and it’s tricky to deliver this stuff when alien generals are destroying towns with lasers and issuing cross-galactic threats.

On Earth, the former Kal-El is now Clark Kent (Henry Cavill), a bearded outsider grappling with the deific powers he’s inherited. His childhood with Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane, both as warm and encouraging as apple pie) is told in flashbacks, but the back and forth between the past and present serves only to break up the story. Pa Kent lectures his young’un before we jump back to the now adult Clark, but there’s little connective tissue between the two. Meanwhile, the present-day action jumps ahead of itself continuously. One moment, Clark is saving workers on a burning oil rig; the next he’s meeting Lois Lane (Amy Adams). In an apparent coincidence, she’s investigating the discovery of something beneath layers of Arctic ice, a discovery at which Clark just happens to take one of his low-paid jobs whilst roaming in search of himself, and which will turn out to be the Fortress of Solitude. Less time on the speeches and more time on the plot contrivances would have been a help, not least in Lois and Superman’s rushed romance.

Before long, Zod is free from his intergalactic ice cube and on the hunt for interplanetary lebensraum to rebuild Krypton. Discovering Kal-El on Earth, he chooses his target out of vengeance and to find the MacGuffin from earlier. At the very least, Shannon’s Zod gets more solid motivation than Terence Stamp’s chilly contempt in Superman II. Shannon’s bug-eyed stare and intensity certainly sell his portentous dialogue, which isn’t easy to do when your outfit looks like the offspring of a Ringwraith and the Space Jockey. Eventually and inevitably, we get to a showdown in Metropolis, replete with collapsing skyscrapers and extras dashing for their lives. Man Of Steel may be aiming for The Dark Knight’s sense of relevant urgency, but willy-nilly destruction on a large scale isn’t the thrilling sight onscreen that it used to be. In a post-9/11 scenario, it sits uncomfortably with the darker aspirations reflected in the muted blues and beiges of Amir Mokri’s camerawork and Hans Zimmer’s bombastic score. Snyder believes thrills come from sudden close-ups on wide shots, sometimes zooming in twice. Between this and the lens flares, someone needs to get J.J. Abrams’ lawyers on the line.

The cast do their best, sometimes in spite of the script. Adams’ Lane is spunky, Shannon is all brooding, snipy menace and Crowe’s Jor-El is given much more to do than Brando’s, but his presence/essence/soul/whatever is part of one of several plot contrivances than will leave you confused, and then annoyed. Laurence Fishburne gets shortchanged as an underwritten Perry White, and the likes of Christopher Meloni and Richard Schiff come and go with little impact. But what of Cavill? Crucially, he’s a near-perfect fit for Supes’ new blue ensemble, a fine mix of self-doubt and quasi-regal bearing. He shoulders Man Of Steel and guides it through choppy overlong waters. Clark’s elation when he first practices flight in his new regalia is one of the film’s high points.

Man Of Steel is a passable entertainment, delivering all the explosions, fights and and broad CGI vistas that $225 million can buy. Yet, once the credits roll a shrug rolls across the shoulders like Superman’s cape. After all, there’s only so long you can tolerate two near-immortals throwing each other through buildings and kicking the almighty crap out of each other. Handsome and energetic it may be, but super it is not.

Review: Much Ado About Nothing (2013)

Director: Joss Whedon

****

This review originally appeared on Scannain.com

He’s only directed three features thus far but, between his exhaustive TV work and general pop-culture nerdiness, Joss Whedon is less a man and more a brand and a genre unto himself. Even when he does go behind the camera to make a film, it’s on his terms. His first feature was an adaptation of his (ridiculously) short-lived TV series Firefly. When he was handed the reins of a superhero movie (starring ALL THE SUPERHEROES), he made it the funniest and most quotable exemplar of its genre. Now, we get the Joss Whedon rom-com, and he’s elected to go right back to the source of many a romantic contrivance: William Shakespeare himself.

The reverence paid to Shakespeare, deserved as it may be, overlooks the fact that so may of the tropes of so many film genres can be traced back to the plots of his plays. Once modern audiences get over their reticence for words such as ‘thy’ and ‘thou’, they will see that Much Ado About Nothing is a screwball rom-com pure and simple. Leonato (Clark Gregg) hosts a shindig to welcome Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) and his men Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and Claudio (Fran Kranz) from business deals afar. As they glimpse Leonato’s daughter Hero (Jillian Morgese) and niece Beatrice (Amy Acker), the motions are set in play for misunderstanding, mischief and a dash of malice aforethought.

Claudio sets about wooing Hero, whilst Benedick and Beatrice engage in a ‘merry war’ of snipes and apparent dislike. The rest of the household set about bringing them together, resulting in some laugh-out-loud moments, mostly courtesy of Denisof and Acker’s physical dexterity. Contrary to popular belief, it is permissible to laugh at Shakespeare.  Whether due to fusty reverence or just a lack of adaptations, we tend to forget Shakespeare could draw tears of laughter as well as of sorrow. Whedon reminds us of this fact with the funniest film based on Shakespeare to date. Much Ado About Nothing transcends centuries of solemn interpretation with refreshing energy. The film was shot in black and white over twelve days at Whedon’s own house, with many of his usual repertory in the cast (Denisof, Acker and Kranz, amongst others). By inviting us into his house with his friends, Whedon gives us a very welcoming and warm film, at once familiar and feisty.

Throughout the film, there is the sense that this a complete redux of how we approach Shakespeare on film. The black-and-white camerawork comes from an aspiration to back-to-basics storytelling rather than misplaced pretension. The intimacy of the locale creates a sense of a theatre troupe putting on an impromptu production. This is drama coming from a love of performance and the story, and that love and admiration is plain to see. The chemistry between the cast is charming but not cliquey; as witticisms and malapropisms are batted about (often courtesy of Nathan Fillion’s scene-stealing Dogberry), we take pleasure in the language and the new-found energy given to it.

Alas, Shakespeare’s words doth conceal imperfect plots. We’re all having such a ball that we’re less convinced by a darkening mood and the deceit put in play by Don Pedro’s jealous brother Don John (Sean Maher) in the third act. Looks are traded, deaths are faked and it’s all a bit more complicated than modern storytelling sensibilities might allow. However, we shake the head at so long a breathing: but, I warrant thee, fair reader, the time shall not go dully by us. Whedon hath in the interim undertaken one of Hercules’ labours; which is, to bring the modern audience and the Bard into a mountain of affection the one with the other.

Review: The Great Gatsby (2013)

Director: Baz Luhrmann

**

This review originally appeared on Ramp.ie

Despite having four major adaptations to date, The Great Gatsby remains a tough nut to crack film-wise. Despite a glamourous surface sheen, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel (THE great American novel, many would say) is far deeper and more caustic than all the flappers and empty champagne bottles floating about it would suggest. Yet, the era pulls us in; the lavishness is intoxicating. It’s meant to be; the first act luxuries give way to rug-pulls later as millionaire Jay Gatsby succumbs to his own fantasies and fate plays its hand. Alas, when it comes to the screen, screenwriters and directors lean on romance and style. The themes will inevitably get shoehorned in, but resonance is lost in translation.

When it comes to capturing the sheen on the surface, few are better placed than Baz Luhrmann. No matter the scale, from his (relatively) lo-fi debut Strictly Ballroom to the epic excess of Australia, Luhrmann paints with the broadest of strokes. Big sets, brash colours and hearts on sleeves are the order of the day. In his adaptation of The Great Gatsby, the brashest of colours is the green light, eternally flickering at the end of Buchanan’s dock on the opposite side of Manhassett Bay from the mansion of Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). It’s an important symbol of Gatsby’s hopes in the novel, but Luhrmann shines the light in our faces at every opportunity. Like so many of the symbols brought into Luhrmann and Craig Pearce’s screenplay, it goes from suggestive emblem to towering obviousness long before the end.

Our guide into Gatsby’s world is Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire). Carraway is the novel’s narrator and a relative voice of sanity in the world of West Egg, Long Island, home to the nouveau riche of New York’s boom before the bust. However, not content with a ready-made narrator, Luhrmann goes one step further and has Carraway tell the film in flashback from a sanitarium. Having Carraway committed is an unnecessary change from the book, even if it is about the most significant change made to the original plot. Carraway recounts the summer of 1922, and the hedonistic parties thrown at the Gatsby mansion in West Egg. Newly moved into a cottage next door to Gatsby, Carraway visits with his cousin Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) and her polo-playing husband Tom (Joel Edgerton). Carraway luxuriates in the wealth of the West and East Egg sets with a grin from ear to ear. Part of the problem with Carraway is that Tobey Maguire is simply too chipper for this everyman. Yes, everything’s shiny and bright, but if this Carraway represented the everyman in the audience, he’d have a headache from the 3D.

Carraway is over the moon when Gatsby personally invites him to his latest party. Bathed in CG moonlight and fireworks, Gatsby’s soirée looks like the world’s classiest themed nightclub. Champagne flows and pool waters glow as Carraway gets close to Daisy’s pal Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki). Then, at the perfect moment, as the catherine wheels rise to a crescendo, we meet Gatsby. Bathed in the sparks falling from the sky, DiCaprio is perfect casting; yes, he’s dashing and charming, but he’s also a fine actor, and is about the only person who remembers Gatsby is tragic, finding a desperate heart beneath the pressed tuxedo. He connives to get Carraway to bring he and his former lover Daisy together, despite her being married and they not having seen each other in five years. Bearing his previous films in mind, you can see what drew Luhrmann to this story.

Luhrmann’s got the ‘doomed romance’ genre covered; Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge! are both hypnotically OTT love affairs. However, when his aerial swooshing around Long Island and Gatsby’s parties recalls the latter film (and fitted it better the first time), it’s clear Luhrmann can’t leave the genre behind. The romance between Gatsby and Daisy get most of the plot’s attention, with Gatsby’s delusions about his future with her getting slotted into the last act. The Great Gatsby is a triumph of style over substance, as 3D skyscrapers and flashy cars dominate the screen. Meanwhile, the green light and the eyes of TJ Eckleburg sashay in frequently as Luhrmann ticks the boxes of items the novel’s devotees would demand to see. Motifs and themes are tickled in an almost off-hand fashion; metaphors become more literal to keep the pace brisk. The lack of subtlety extends to the soundtrack. Why have the period beats of Cole Porter when the likes of Fergie, Jay-Z and Lana Del Rey can serenade us into incoherence?!

DiCaprio does a lot of heavy lifting in his lead role, as his supports are a mixed bunch at best. Debicki brings some effervescence to the underwritten Jordan, whilst the eclectically-cast Amitabh Bachchan sports a mean pinstripe as Gatsby’s business partner Wolfsheim. Maguire is too chirpy for Carraway, whose relationship with Gatsby is at least three furtive glances beyond ‘platonic’. Mulligan looks the part, but she’s too perky to bring out the necessary coolness in Daisy. Had she and Debicki switched roles, this review could have gone up an extra half-star. Edgerton’s a boo-hiss baddy, whilst Isla Fisher is forgettable as Myrtle Wilson, the working-class girl caught up in the covert affairs of the monied gentry (Jason Clarke as her husband George is arguably the most miscast role of the lot).

Occasionally, the text of the novel rolls across the screen as Luhrmann reminds us he’s actually read the book. There is no doubt about that; The Great Gatsby is slavish to the plot to the point of breathlessness. The book has a lot going on (thematically and narratively), perhaps more that a feature film can capture. Like another great novel of disillusioned wealth, Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, The Great Gatsby would probably work better as a mini-series. Like Gatsby reaching for the green light, we’re reaching out for a definitive Great Gatsby. Robert Redford couldn’t do it; DiCaprio has tried, but his cohorts have undermined him. Time for someone else (and perhaps HBO or Netflix) to take up the green-tinged baton.

Review: Mud (2013)

Director: Jeff Nichols

****

This review originally appeared on Ramp.ie

It’s a commonly-held belief that Matthew McConaughey has only just lifted himself out of a cinematic purgatory with a string of great performances in one excellent film after another. However, that’s three fallacies for the price of one. He’s always been a capable performer, full of charisma with side portions of menace or dignity as required. What’s more, there are plenty of little gems scattered throughout his CV. For every Sahara, there’s a Frailty; for every Fool’s Gold there is a Lone Star.

Yet McConaughey has yet to star in a classic that could come to define his career. The closest he’s come thus far is arguably his debut, Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused. His latest string of winning performances have all been in films that, entertaining and well-made as they may be, are far from their directors’ bests (Friedkin’s Killer Joe, Magic Mike for Steven Soderbergh, reuniting with Linklater on Bernie). Alas, Jeff Nichols’ Mud continues in that vein. It’s compelling viewing on its own terms, but a lot of its cred comes from its leading man. Credit where credit’s due, however, Mud benefits from the efforts of two leading men.

After the solitary paranoia of Michael Shannon’s bug-eyed turn in Take Shelter, Nichols widens his gaze to include two fascinating portraits of male isolation. Ellis (a terrifically steely-eyed Tye Sheridan) is a typical teenager, restlessly looking for adventure in the everyday. One day, he and his friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) borrow a motorboat and sneak down their local river, a little stream by the name of the Mississippi. This setting alone invokes a certain atmosphere, ripe with clammy air and the scent of whitewash from a Mark Twain novel. They head for an island down river where they discover a boat washed up into the trees from a flood years before. This is the point where Tom Sawyer becomes a little too obvious as an influence, with our own Tom and Huck Finn on the Mississippi. The film’s version of Injun Joe goes only by the monicker of Mud (McConaughey), a stranger who’s living in the boy’s boat when they discover it. With a past as murky as the waters surrounding the island, Ellis is fascinated by Mud, to the point that he agrees to help Mud out. Anyone on the run from the law needs all the help he can get.

As the latest chapter of the ‘McConaissance’, Mud sees McConaughey at great ease, with a drawl so low and laid back, it practically reaches his ankles. With a single look, he inspires suspicion yet still maintains a magnetic allure that he’s impossible to ignore. McConaughey makes Mud’s mysteries mythical. Yet, as good as the Texan is, the real star is young Sheridan as Ellis. With a shaky home (Ray McKinnion and Sarah Paulson star as Ellis’ parents) and little to do in the local one-horse town, Ellis could have been a standard mopey teen. Instead, over the course of the film Sheridan’s wide-eyed innocence becomes rigid determination before succumbing to childishness once more. It’s a rich and varied performance from the newcomer; woe betide any studio executive who opts to waste him on a tween-friendly franchise. Sheridan and McConaughey make Mud more than a Twain rip-off, though its myriad influences bleed in repeatedly. When it’s not being Huck Finn 2.0, it feels like a less gritty version of Stand By Me. These are high watermarks that even a talent like Nichols struggles to overcome.

As Mud runs from the law and bounty hunters towards his waiting love (Reese Witherspoon, sober), Mud runs from being southern-fried character study to something more generic by the denouement. The measured pacing of the first two-thirds meanders into gun-toting thriller territory. By that stage, though, Mud has lodged in the memory. To be more precise, McConaughey and Sheridan lodge in the memory, whilst the rest can be taken or left. Mud lacks Take Shelter’s edge but, with a hazy look and feel and winning performances, it works just fine.

Review: I’m So Excited (2013)

Director: Pedro Almodóvar

**

This review originally appeared on Ramp.ie

Times are tough in Spain. With debt growing and over a quarter of the country’s workforce now unemployed, it appears incumbent on the artists and storytellers of España to lighten the mood and get people smiling again. Pedro Almodóvar, Spain’s finest living filmmaker, thus steps up to the mark with I’m So Excited, an aeroplane-set comedy that, try as it might, probably won’t get you too excited. The film opens with two clumsy baggage handlers accidentally damaging the landing gear of one of Peninsula Airways’ jets. The handlers are played by Antonio Banderas and Penelope Cruz in cameos, but they sadly disappear soon after, and we’re left with the cast of a raunchier Carry On flick en Español, but with more sex and less laughs.

The damaged landing gear leads to mid-air panic at the prospect of a crash. As the plane circles the skies looking for a possible safe landing spot, it’s up to the three dedicated air stewards Joserra (Javier Cámara), Ulloa (Raúl Arévalo) and Fajas (Carlos Areces) to keep the handful of first-class passengers calm. How? By doping them with drugged cocktails and instigating sing-songs and a bit of an orgy. As you do. I’m So Excited is a pitch-perfect definition of ‘high camp’. Besides taking place for the most part on an aeroplane and getting its characters high, it’s more camp than a group of camp campsite owners in a camper van on a Christmas cruise on the Love Boat. Besides the three prancing stewards, you have the sexually frustrated pilots, the virgin psychic (Lola Duenas) and the aging dominatrix (Cecilia Roth), all randy as heck and mescalined to the eyeballs. Cue panting.

This is Almodóvar’s half-hearted effort to hearken back to earlier, funnier films like Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, but what he thinks is funny feels limp at best and self-indulgent at worst. As the crew and passengers fantasize about each other and the possibility of their impending doom, this mile-high club of misfits becomes simply boring by the time the climax comes around. Considering the richness of the characters in the likes of The Skin I Live In and Talk To Her, this bunch are decidedly forgettable.

Admittedly, some scenes do hit the right notes. The highlight sees the stewards lip-syncing to the Pointer Sisters song from which the film gets its English title. Meanwhile, the efforts of some other passengers to communicate with loved ones on the ground hint at the more genuine, better film this could have been. However, Almodóvar tiptoes around darkness and satire at every opportunity. For example, whilst all the debauchery goes on in first class, the second-class passengers and crew are all sound asleep on tranquilizers. The whole Peninsula flight is going down while the first class  are having fun and the second-class folks are doped up? It’s a gentle prod where an in-form Almodóvar might have made a killer blow.

I’m So Excited is so light that it is doomed to flit from the mind of all but the hardcore Almodóvar fans, but even they will find it hard to forgive the grating campness and the toothless bite. It’s unfortunate to see him follow up one of his darkest and best films with one of his weakest. I’m So Excited is a distracting romp, but it barely takes off when it should soar.