Two Faces of Hell

One bleakly beautiful, the other brazenly bad

Javier Bardem gives a Biutiful performance

One bleakly beautiful, the other brazenly bad

Biutiful ★★★★Directed by Alejandro GonzalezStarring Javier Bardem, Maricel Álvarez and Hanaa BouchaibR – 148 minutes; Continues at the Odeon

Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Babel, 21 Grams, Amores Perros) has returned to his visceral strengths with his new drama, Biutiful, which soars to great, gloomy heights courtesy of the Oscar-nominated performance at the film’s raw centre. Javier Bardem stars as Uxbal, a low-level criminal on the seedy side of Barcelona, who is the “facilitator” for an illicit sweatshop where a group of Chinese seamstresses crank out name-brand knock-offs that are then sold on the street by African street hustlers, also undocumented illegals.Near the beginning of the film, Uxbal finds out that he is terminally ill with cancer. His first thoughts are about what will happen to his two young children — not least because the wife, from who he is estranged, is a bipolar screw-up who drinks too much and needs to be hospitalized. The other parts of Uxbal’s life are just as messy: his brother and fellow criminal might be having an affair with said wife, the policeman he bribes has warned him that a big crackdown is coming, and this sorrowing man with the Christ-like face feels a great burden of care for the illegals that he is simultaneously exploiting and genuinely trying to help. And just to up the ante a bit further — not that we need it — Uxbal is also a psychic who can communicate with the recently dead.Despite being nearly two-and-a-half hours long, Biutiful never drags and always engages the audience, even though the entire running time is spent bearing witness to sordid lives destined to know endless suffering. The evocatively filmed setting for all this pain and moments of horror are the scabby tenements and industrial zones where smokestacks belch poisonous clouds and the “lucky” ones have a tiny, crappy apartment and don’t sleep surreptitiously in the basement of an unheated warehouse on rows of paper-thin mattresses. If it weren’t for Bardem’s amazing and expressive performance, Biutiful might be the perfect inspiration to slash your wrists. But his profound humanity illuminates and redeems what would otherwise seem like hopeless squalour. M

Drive Angry  ★★Directed by Patrick LussierStarring Nicolas Cage, Amber Heard and William FichtnerR – 104 minutes; Continues at the Capitol and SilverCity

And speaking of movies in need of redemption, let’s take a ride with Drive Angry, the latest action flick from Nicolas Cage (who these days seems to be bankrupt not just financially, but also artistically). In this over-the-top orgy of sex and violence and violence and more violence, Cage plays the religiously named Milton, a man who has literally escaped from Hell in order to rescue his infant grandson from Jonah King, a madman who plans a satanic sacrifice under the next full moon. Milton soon hooks up with Piper (Amber Heard, Zombieland), a sexy babe in barely legal shorts who throws a mean punch and drives a hot muscle car. And as this cute couple roars across the countryside in pursuit of King, they are in turn pursued by a nattily dressed man (William Fichtner, The Dark Knight) known as The Accountant. This remorseless — but urbanely droll — villain is one of Lucifer’s go-to guys and has been sent to drag Milton back to Hell.Complete with over-written profanities, plot holes you could drive a Dodge Charger through, and scenes of hands getting blown off and a lout getting impaled through the eye with a baseball bat, Drive is pandering trash that winks at the audience with a mix of self-awareness and shameless cynicism.The once-compelling Cage continues to flounder from one flop to the next (despite a clever supporting performance in Kick-Ass, his indifferent work in Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Ghost Rider and Season of the Witch is the norm these days). Sadly, only the slyly devilish Fichtner makes Drive anything more than a cinematic skidmark. M

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