Volver (2006)

Where’s it on? BFI Player

In staggered injections of heat and primary colours into this glummest of autumns, 3 Pedro Almodóvar classics are arriving as part of the subscription offering on BFI Player over the coming weeks. All about My Mother (1999) and the sublime Talk to Her (2002) are to follow, but things have begun this week with his intricately plotted 2006 family-secret drama Volver. In perhaps the great role of her career to date, Penélope Cruz plays one of 2 sisters – one based in Madrid, the other in windswept La Mancha – who hear of a sighting of their much-missed mother, who died in a house fire several years previously. There’s also a murder, and a body to get rid of, to go along with this ghost story, but such is the poise with which this director weaves these elements into his domestic ensemble comedy that believability is never strained – the blood, lipstick and tomatoes all share the same vivid red. Volver slowly peels back its narrative mysteries with all the allure of a Hitchcock thriller, but with a focus on the lively interplay and relationships of different generations of women that’s steeped in classic melodrama too. With one notably noxious exception, men are barely on screen.

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Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003)

Where’s it on? Blu-ray

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Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003)

Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang is perhaps the great filmmaker to have emerged during the 1990s, and his formally rigorous, thematically continuous body of work has a special place in the hearts of lovers of so-called slow cinema. Yet so far he’s been almost completely overlooked during the Blu-ray boom, and his films are very tricky to see in anything like the quality they deserve. Second Run’s issue of his 2003 masterpiece Goodbye, Dragon Inn is as welcome, then, as it is poignantly timed. With so many cinemas closed at present, its setting in a Taipei movie theatre on the last night before it’s to be shut down has a doubly sad impact. The film screening is King Hu’s 1967 wuxia epic Dragon Inn – a nostalgic reminder of cinema’s heyday and projections past. Tsai’s film hypnotically moves among the scant patrons and workers attending this lonely last hurrah, absorbing the special ambience in the phantom darkness around the screen. It’s a wake with a tiny congregation, but Tsai turns their communion into something that’s guaranteed to strike at the soul of forsaken cinema-goers everywhere.

Total Recall (1990)

Where’s it on? Blu-ray

If you’re looking for it, there’s a certain end-of-an-era pathos to this sci-fi classic from Paul Verhoeven too. Watching it 30 years after its first release, as the jumbo new 3-disc 4K HD package from StudioCanal allows, its place near the end of the line for practical world-building and effects before CGI revolutionised the blockbuster looks clear. Based on Philip K. Dick’s story ‘We Can Remember It for You Wholesale’, it also – like Ridley Scott’s earlier Dick-derived Blade Runner (1982) – has ideas about the reliability of memory and the out-of-reach-ness of the past wired into it. This being a Verhoeven movie, however, there’s nothing of Blade Runner’s self-seriousness in its plotting. Instead the emphasis is on mind-bending futuristic thrills, as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s late-21st-century construction worker discovers that his life and memories are all a fabricated lie engineered as part of a power struggle to colonise Mars. Rendered pastless and unmoored from any sense of selfhood, he’s like a futuristic version of Cary Grant’s character in North by Northwest (1959), pitched into a shifting world of chases, gadgets, competing agents and deceptions piling up to toppling point. 

Short Sharp Shocks

Where’s it on? Blu-ray

This valuable new collection also gives a glimpse into lost practices from the cinematic past. Part of the Flipside series of cult and offbeat British fare, Short Sharp Shocks remembers the lost tradition of short to mid-length films that used to fill out the programme during a trip to the cinema in decades gone by. Unlike the feature films these were shown alongside, these amuses-bouches were largely doomed to be forgotten about, even if they provided a training ground for fledgling filmmakers to flex their muscles. With an emphasis on the creepy and macabre, Short Sharp Shocks compiles 9 little featurettes, including fireside ghost stories derived from Edgar Allan Poe (1953’s The Tell-Tale Heart, narrated by Stanley Baker) and Algernon Blackwood (Lock Your Door and The Reformation of St Jules, both from 1949), 60s sleaze (Twenty-Nine, 1969) and plenty of rural weirdness (from 1973’s Lady Godiva-riffing rape-revenge saga The Sex Victims to 1978’s picnic-based frightener The Lake). The latest example here is The Errand, from 1980, a chillingly effective bit of paranoia about a soldier on a training mission.

Salt of the Earth (1954)

Where’s it on? Talking Pictures TV, Sunday, 00:55

Herbert J. Biberman’s 1954 drama about Mexican-American miners’ fight for equal treatment to their white co-workers counts among the very first American independent features made outside the studio system. Alongside writer Michael Wilson (who would later script The Bridge on the River Kwai) and producer Paul Jarrico, Biberman had been blacklisted by Hollywood during the anti-Communist witch-hunts of the late 1940s and early 50s. The trio established their own means of production for this groundbreaking tale of labour disputes in a New Mexican mining town, which shows a side of America scarcely acknowledged within mainstream cinema, then or now. As it also centres the experiences of one of the miners’ wives, Esperanza (Rosaura Revueltas), and her struggle to be perceived as an equal by her husband, Salt of the Earth is also that rare thing in 1950s American cinema: a film with proto-feminist instincts. The rabble-rousing results were condemned and suppressed at the time, but Salt of the Earth has risen in reputation since, even if it has still not been as widely seen as the Soviet revolutionary films or Italian neorealist landmarks it was clearly inspired by.