REVIEW: Julieta

3 02 2017

julietaPedro Almodóvar is a master of the modern melodrama, but his latest film “Julieta” falls well below the high-water mark of prior masterworks like “All About My Mother” or “Talk to Her.” The work is technically proficient, per usual, but emotionally empty. Almodóvar gives some early hints of Hitchockian style, but they all pass sadly without consummation.

This tale of a woebegone middle-aged woman, Emma Suárez’s Julieta, as she recounts the events that led her to such a sorry state lacks any sense of stakes or dramatic tension. Almodóvar adapted the film from an Alice Munro short story, so “Julieta” does not pass without commentary about the limited roles available to women in society as well as the stifling expectations placed upon them. Julieta grapples with an unfaithful husband, an ailing mother and a daughter who grows further apart from her following a misunderstood tragedy.

Almodóvar’s observations hardly count as subversive or worthy of feature-length consideration, however. Most of “Julieta” contains elements we have seen before – and better. I had been meaning to rewatch Almodóvar’s films like “Volver” and “Broken Embraces” to complement the viewing of “Julieta.” Perhaps I should have watched them instead of “Julieta.” C+2stars

F.I.L.M. of the Week (September 19, 2014)

19 09 2014

All About My MotherIf you’ve been paying attention to recent trends in cinema, you’ll note that this isn’t a particularly great time for women.   Oscar-nominated actress Jessica Chastain recently remarked, “the female characters, very rarely do they get to speak to another female character in a movie, and when they do it’s usually about a guy, not anything else. So they’re very male-centric, Hollywood films, in general.”

Five years after Kathryn Bigelow won Best Director, women still only direct less than 5% of studio releases and 10% of indie films.  Not to mention, they comprised only 14% of the lead roles in 2013.  And yet, women make up half the population and a slight majority of the cinematic viewing audience.  What gives?

If you are looking for a film that actually gives women the spotlight and attention they deserve, you ought to check out my pick for “F.I.L.M. of the Week,” Pedro Almodóvar’s “All About My Mother.”  This Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Language Film boasts a female-centric ensemble probing all sorts of gender issues.  Almodóvar takes the time to give each character real humanity and inner life, two things which should sadly be a no-brainer for women in film (but often are not incorporated).

If you have the chance, be sure to familiarize yourself with “All About Eve” and “A Streetcar Named Desire” before dipping your toes in “All About My Mother.”  They certainly aren’t required to understand the film, but having some knowledge of them will unlock reservoirs of meaning beneath its surface.  Almodóvar engages audiences who enter with this cultural context in a very astutely observed conversation about the ways in which we internalize meaningful works of art.

Flowing from that, “All About My Mother” mainly concerns itself with the roles females play in society.  The film follows Cecilia Roth’s Manuela, a consummate matriarch mourning the tragic loss of her only son, as she brings and holds together a group of women all struggling with gender-related issues.  Pregnancy, cross-dressing, jealousy, suspicion … you name it, this film has it.  Almodóvar expertly juggles many characters and ideas, somehow managing to never drop a single one.  The experience feels nothing short of enlightening (and even 15 years later, still needs to make its way onto some Hollywood executives’ desks).

REVIEW: I’m So Excited

1 08 2013

I'm So ExcitedLast summer, Woody Allen’s annual film was retitled “To Rome With Love” after audiences were apparently unfamiliar with the expression that gave the film its second title, “Nero Fiddled.”  So before I use “Nero fiddled while Rome burned” in a review, I figure I ought to give it the proper context.  Nero was emperor of Rome when a great fire broke out (some say because of him); while people suffered, he played his fiddle.

The central joke of Pedro Almodovar’s farce-cum-social satire “I’m So Excited” is that Spain is repeating Nero’s mistake.  If you want to do the unpacking yourself, then stop reading my review after this short verdict: it’s a film that doesn’t deliver the humor you might expect from its ridiculousness.

But if you don’t mind me going one level below the surface, I intend to show you just how simple the film’s metaphor is.  (And mind you, I only know the vaguest details about Spain’s current financial straits.)  The plane is like Spain, divided into economy and business class.  It’s being flown by clueless pilots who have taken the plane into the stratosphere, but the landing gear is broken.  There’s an imminent disaster hovering over Spain that no one knows how to solve … so they fly around in circles.

The riff-raff in the economy class have been given narcotics and are fast asleep.  But while death seems to await, the people in business class start to worry about the most inane things – namely, sex.  And the flight’s three conscious flight attendants certainly aid and abet that process, doing choreographed dances to The Pointer Sisters’ “I’m So Excited.”

The song could have been swapped for “Make ‘Em Laugh” from “Singin’ in the Rain” and had the same effect.  Almodovar’s point is simply that his country has turned to escapism and sexual pleasures to avoid dealing with the real crisis ahead of them.  The Spaniards danced while their plane hovered on the brink of a crash landing.  It’s interesting enough, but the concept wears thin rather quickly – and Almodovar does not bring enough laughs to compensate for his film’s lack of depth.  C+2stars

REVIEW: The Skin I Live In

28 03 2012

Pedro Almodóvar’s latest film, “The Skin I Live In,” is quite possibly the most bizarre, disturbing, unnerving, and twisted movie I’ve ever seen.  And naturally, I loved every minute of it.

Almodóvar is one of the best, if not the best, working writer and director dealing with the theme of obsession, particularly in his recent works “Talk to Her” and “Broken Embraces.”  While this doesn’t quite reach the thematic and intellectual brilliance of the former, “The Skin I Live In” provides a great deal more in-the-moment thrills that will have your jaw on the floor.  I often think of myself as desensitized to shocking, lurid movies, and boy, was I wrong as this had me agape from the entirety of the last act.

So it should go without saying that if you don’t have a high tolerance for rape, sexuality, and plastic surgery, this is not the movie for you.  But if you think you can handle it, then by all means, dive into Almodóvar’s weird world of revenge fantasy.  “The Skin I Live In” first masquerades as a modern “Pygmalion” with Antonio Banderas’ Robert Ledgard, a scientist, researcher, and surgeon, developing a dangerously close relationship with a specimen to whom he has endowed perfect skin.  However, Almodóvar shifts the narrative back a few years, opens the blinds, and makes us realize that nothing is as it seemed.

Creative and original to an almost deranged point, “The Skin I Live In” makes for quite a tumultuous watching experience for those with the stomach to stick with it to the end.  Amidst the uncomfortable nudity, the unsettling sexual assaults, and the stunning twists, there are ethical questions aplenty raised.  How far is too far, the movie consistently asks – and Almodóvar is willing to go to the moon and beyond to make his film one you won’t stop thinking about.  A-

Random Factoid #334

27 06 2010

As you might know from January when I spent three weeks in Argentina, I am a student of the Spanish language.  My goal is to ultimately become bilingual because it is a useful skill to have when you live in Texas.

I also love foreign cinema, and a lot of what I watch happens to be in the Spanish language (mainly because there are so many cinematically vibrant countries that are mostly Spanish speaking).  Pedro Almodovar, Guillermo del Toro, and many more.

The farther I get in my study of Spanish, the less I need the subtitles.  For the most part, the characters speak fairly simply.  I usually only need them for vocabulary that I am unfamiliar with.  In fact, sometimes I can listen to the characters speak and find a more literal translation than the subtitles.

I also use watching these movies as an exercise in learning more Spanish.  I try to take away vocabulary from each of the movies and incorporate the words into my speaking.  For instance, I only know that carcel means “jail” because of “Talk to Her.”

REVIEW: Broken Embraces

30 05 2010

The cinematic embrace provided by Pedro Almodóvar’s “Broken Embraces” eludes description.  It has its moments of tragedy, so it can’t really be called a warm embrace.  Yet it has such beautiful, soaring moments that it can’t exactly be called a bittersweet embrace.

The only thing certain about “Broken Embraces” is that its embrace will absolutely envelop you.  From the moment we encounter the blind filmmaker Mateo Blanco, now under the Americanized pseudonym Harry Caine, working through his disability, it’s impossible not to get hooked into the drama.  It dabbles in the occasional melodrama, but Almodóvar handles it with such skill that it can really only be noticed when looking back at the movie in retrospect.

I’m not sure that I would say that the writing floored me quite like a “Volver” or “Talk to Her;” nonetheless, I want to be careful not to reveal too much about the delicate plot.  Almodóvar develops a fairly intricate story, but it never feels like work for an audience to put it together.

Here’s what you should know: this is a movie about “sex, secrets, and cinema,” as the back of the DVD case so eloquently puts it.  Penelope Cruz may be the movie’s poster child, but her character Lena is hardly the focus.  Sure, she sets the plot in motion; however, this is Mateo’s movie.  Before he became blind, he made a movie called “Chicas y Maletas” (“Girls and Suitcases,” for you non-Spanish speakers out there) in which he cast Lena.  But she came with some baggage of her own: an obsessed lover, Ernesto Martel, who insists on producing the film and having his homosexual son document the production.  What follows?  I’m not saying.

Cruz is hauntingly beautiful as Lena, and it’s another role that she knocks out of the park.  None of her co-stars outshine her – but her director does.  Almodóvar commands this movie (as all directors should), and his passion for cinema exudes from the film.  Everything in the movie just seemed so orderly, from the beautiful sets to the bright colors to the precision of the acting, and “Broken Embraces” explodes off the screen.  B+ /

F.I.L.M. of the Week (April 2, 2010)

2 04 2010

I remember waking up the morning after the Oscars in 2003 and looking at the winners in the paper (because at that point, my parents wouldn’t let me stay up to watch the whole show) and wondering what on earth “Talk to Her” was.  Pedro Almodóvar’s Spanish-language film had taken the Best Original Screenplay category away from a movie that I loved very dearly at the time, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”  Seven years later, I finally found out what it was that I had been missing – and now it is my “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”

I’m still trying to get a hold of what exactly Almodóvar’s directorial style that everyone loves so much actually is, but whatever that may be, I absolutely love it.  “Talk to Her” is a beautifully developed story about two men and their relationships with the women they love – both of which happen to be comatose.  Benigno is a nurse in the hospital taking care of Alicia, a woman who had a terrible accident just as he became obsessed with her.  As her caregiver, he now has all the access to her that he wants (which is why I recommend this movie with a fair amount of discretion – this movie is not for the faint at heart or the easily creeped).

Marco, on the other hand, has been romantically involved with Lydia, a matador, for quite sometime whenever she is tragically maimed by a bull.  When she falls into a coma, she winds up at the same hospital where Alicia is kept and Benigno works.  In a coincidence so shocking it could only happen in the movies, Marco and Benigno happened to have sat next to each other at a play once, and they begin to strike up a casual friendship.  Their approaches to dealing with the women that they love differ greatly; the title derives from some advice that Benigno gives.  “Talk to her,” he suggests.  Act like she is alive.

The story that unravels from their friendship is unconventional yet so exciting to watch unveil.  It’s shrouded in artistry, and I’m still working on getting to the core of what this movie is really trying to say.  I don’t mind munching on it, and I love movies like “Talk to Her” because I am forced to think and ponder.  It’s the kind of movie that stays in your head for weeks and months, and it’s the kind of movie that makes you feel like one time simply isn’t enough to see it all.

P.S. – For anyone who has seen the movie, what do you make of the “Shrinking Lover” sequence (without spoiling the ending for anyone)?

F.I.L.M. of the Week (February 12, 2010)

12 02 2010

This week’s “F.I.L.M.” is Pedro Almodovar’s “Volver,” a movie which you might remember for getting Penelope Cruz her first Academy Award nomination.  Technically, it’s a drama, but “Volver” is one of the most killer fun dramas I’ve ever had the privilege of watching. The movie has a killer sense of irony, which makes for one crazy entertaining time.

(Oh, and for anyone who doesn’t know Spanish other than hola, “volver” means to return.)

Cruz bares her acting chops as Raimunda, the beautiful mother and wife.  She and her sister Sole have a very peculiar relationship, and it has not been particularly strong since they lost their parents in a tragic fire several years ago.  However, the rumor mill is buzzing that the ghost of their mother, Irene, has been spotted.  This talk comes just as the sisters have begun to finally move on from the tragedy, and it only serves to aggravate matters.

The apparition appears to Sole but chooses to hide herself from Raimunda, with whom she didn’t have a relationship.  This is probably for the better because Raimunda has plenty on her plate without having to worry about her mother’s ghost.  I personally think the back of the DVD case says it best: “Raimunda has problems of her own, the least of which is a corpse in her freezer!”

Although you won’t catch Cruz traipsing around pink fabric in lingerie in “Volver,” she is at her absolute best here.  The actress shows an incredible emotional range, readily adapting herself to whatever mood the scene calls for.  She is equally effective in the film’s dramatic scenes as she is in the more light ones, and the result is a performance that is quite poignant.  Here’s to hoping that she and Almodovar take on more great projects together (or at least that they don’t stop at “Broken Embraces”)!

What To Look Forward To In … November 2009

7 10 2009

The holiday movie season begins to kick into high gear in the month of November, as does exciting Oscar season.  Accordingly, this post is longer than the previous monthly preview posts.  Brace yourself for movie mania coming your way in a few weeks.  Sit back, relax, and let Marshall guide you through the coming attractions.

November 6

From the mainstream movie perspective, the hot movie of this weekend will be Robert Zemeckis’ adaptation of “A Christmas Carol.”  Shot with the same motion capture technology that Zemeckis used to make “The Polar Express,” the movie will cash in on premium ticket prices from 3D and IMAX 3D screenings.  My main concern about the quality of the movie itself lies with its principal actor, Jim Carrey, who will act as Scrooge and all three ghosts.  I doubt Zemeckis will permit it, but I fear that Carrey will make a mockery of Dickens’ classic novel much in the fashion of Mike Meyers with “The Cat in the Hat.”  Regardless of what critics say, I will probably end up seeing this with the family for some good old-fashioned family fun at the movies.

“The Men Who Stare at Goats” is the first movie of the holiday season to which George Clooney lends his talents.  Here, he plays a a military man in charge of a secret unit that attempts to use psychic powers for military purpose.  One such activity is to attempt to kill goats just by staring at them.  The movie also stars Ewan MacGregor as the reporter who discovers it all; the cast also includes Jeff Bridges and Kevin Spacey.  The movie is directed and adapted by Grant Heslov, previously nominated for an Academy Award for his work on “Good Night, and Good Luck.”  The trailer seems to show Heslov’s approach as similar to the Coen Brothers who usually provide a fun-filled romp.  Maybe the film will be a bona-fide indie hit, and Overture Films will be able to claim their first movie to gross over $50 million.  But we’ll have to see.

I’ve already written about the Oscar favorite, “Precious,” in a previous Oscar Moment.  I’ll post the trailer here just for the sake of promoting it, but if you want to hear my thoughts, read the post.

Two thrilling movies also open this week.  First, “The Box” with Cameron Diaz and James Marsden, seems to have an intriguing premise: if you push the button on the box, you will get a million dollars, but someone you don’t know will die.  However, it looks to be more interested in cheap thrills than exploring moral issues.  The other, “The Fourth Kind,” looks downright scary.  If horror is your thing, this looks like the movie for you.  I saw the trailer at “District 9,” and even if you don’t want to see it, you have to ponder the validity of the “true story” behind the movie.

November 13

Disaster porn reaches its pinnacle this weekend.  “2012,” Roland Emmerich’s apocalyptic film, will have some of the biggest destruction and explosions the world has ever seen.  The trailer was so mind-blowing that I am willing to overlook all vices in the plot to see the world’s greatest landmarks get wiped off the earth.  My only comment is that if John Cusack somehow finds a way to stop the end of the world, I will be enraged.

The other major wide release of the week is “Pirate Radio,” a movie that Focus Features so desperately wants you to see that they changed the title from “The Boat that Rocked” just a few weeks ago to appeal to you. Are you flattered? You shouldn’t be. The movie seems like comedic Oscar Bait, but it didn’t do well Britain, the country of production. Focus scrambled to change their focus from awards movie to popular movie. So whenever this pops into a theater near you, be armed with the knowledge that “Pirate Radio” is merely a washed-up Oscars wannabe. But make the decision to see it for yourself.

New York and Los Angeles get the treat of watching Wes Anderson’s adaptation Roald Dahl’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox.”  I have the utmost respect for Anderson for not conforming to the growing trend to do all animation through computers.  Anderson’s film uses the stop motion technique, moving an object gradually to give the illusion that it is moving.  Even more exciting that Anderson’s eccentric style in an eccentric medium is the voice cast.  Clooney voices the titular character, the cunning Mr. Fox.  The cast also features Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, and Bill Murray.  What’s not to like?  (NOTE: The movie expands on November 20 and enters wide release on November 25.)

For those who like very obscure indies, “That Evening Sun” with 87-year-old Oscar bridesmaid Hal Halbrook has his latest shot at the gold.

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