Tag Archives: Pedro Almodovar

Rent It: Almodovar’s “Skin” is a Unique Drama With a Stunning Twist

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Today, a very different film from Almodovar, one that left me conflicted upon first viewing at TIFF. After some contemplation, I realized it was a masterpiece. Here is my November 11, 2011, review of “The Skin I Live In.”

The two main characters in Pedro Almodovar’s darkly brilliant psycho-sexual horror yarn “The Skin I Live In” are as mysterious as any duo in film history. Who is this dashing, angry-eyed plastic surgeon lecturing to an appalled crowd about his new synthetic skin creation?

And what about the gorgeous woman in the skin-tight bodysuit doing yoga in the bright, book-strewn room inside the massive house in Spain known as El Cigarral? And what are their relationships with the tense, devoted maid, and the tiger-suited creep who wanders up to the front gate?

You’ll figure out who they are, why they’re here and what’s happening in the laboratory at El Cigarral as “The Skin I Live In” progresses. Considering that Almodovar is behind the camera, you can trust the answers are utterly unique and extraordinarily complex.

Almodovar is a brand at this point, and one of the several foreign directors whose films are guaranteed North American distribution, but “Skin” marks a strange descent into Gothic horror for the man best known for over-the-top, passion-filled drama. The director notes the influence of Dario Argento, Mario Bava, Luis Bunuel and Alfred Hitchcock, but most specifically, the haunting “Eyes Without a Face.”

This genre classic’s character is in evidence from the outset. Antonio Banderas stars as Dr. Robert Ledgard, the aforementioned plastic surgeon/mad scientist. He is a man obsessed with re-creating skin, a task he has toiled at since the fiery car crash death of his wife.

His testing guinea pig, the “woman upstairs,” is Vera, played by Elena Anaya. In the early scenes, the mind races with theories — Is Vera actually Ledgard’s wife? And whoever she is, how did she arrive at El Cigarral? — but I’m hesitant to reveal much about the film’s plot.

It is no spoiler to say there is a twist involved that is damn-near jaw-dropping, one that, upon reflection, seems rather obvious. But I certainly didn’t see it coming, and I would imagine most viewers won’t. Either way, keep it quiet.

Perhaps due to the jarring, gradual reveal, my initial response to “Skin” was guarded, and even a bit disturbed. It first seems different from everything else Almodovar has ever directed — and then not so different at all. You’ll see.

In actuality, it might be one of the most stunningly aware films about gender identity ever made — its final scene is that rarity, a moment that sums up the entire film in two words — and the kind of work that grows in stature the longer it marinates. Like the recent, no-less-complex “Drive,” it seems better and better now than it did when the credits rolled.

It’s a treat to see Banderas back in the wild world of Almodovar. His earliest acting successes were in the filmmaker’s 1980s films, especially “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.”

Here, he is both diabolical and rational, mad-scientist-scary, but oh-so-suave. This is his darkest role in eons, and results in his finest performance in a couple of decades. Coupled with the, ahem, quite different “Puss in Boots,” this looks like the Autumn of Antonio.

But the real star of the film is Anaya. The film pivots on her character and performance. She is more than up to the task, and as striking a heroine as Penelope Cruz in Almodovar’s “Volver.”

For its director, “Skin” is an ambitious dive into different waters, one that retains his standard tropes but drops them in a new type of tale. His previous film, “Broken Embraces,” was a glossy Hitchcock pastiche, while the four that came before it — “Volver,” “Talk to Her,” “Bad Education,” and “All About My Mother” — were among the most serious, and seriously acclaimed, works of his career.

He has resisted the urge to merely repeat, but as always, the color scheme is vivid, the sex scenes charged with lust and occasional discomfort, the sense of humor lovably skewed. It’s Almodovar’s inimitable style of cinema, but transplanted into a new, darker realm. (It is based on a novel by Thierry Jonquet.)

To call “The Skin I Live In” a “horror film” seems limiting. It’s much more than that. One may feel the initial resistance that I did by this often disturbing drama. Yet by disturbing the viewer so dramatically, it elevates itself above genre. It occupies some strange space all its own — one utterly, wonderfully Almodovarian.

Rent It: The Sexy and Mysterious “Embraces” is Almodovar at His Most Hitchcockian

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In honor of Pedro Almodovar’s deeply nutty-looking “I’m So Excited” opening in Buffalo this weekend, I have decided to revisit Almodovar’s last two films, both of which garnered 4 stars from me in the Buffalo News. The first, “Broken Embraces,” ran on January 15, 2010.

The early word on Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar’s latest stylish creation, “Broken Embraces,” was that it represented a letdown. This was “lesser Pedro,” the Cannes critics said.

Happily, the early word was wrong. While it might not achieve the emotional heights of his Oscar-winning “All About My Mother” or “Talk to Her,” it is involving, sexy and wonderfully mysterious. It’s Almodovar at his most cinema-adoring, and is certainly his most Hitchcockian story to date.

“I used to be called Mateo and was a film director,” begins screenwriter Harry Caine as “Broken Embraces” begins. He is “a self-made writer made by himself,” and he is also blind, the result of a tragic accident we fail to learn the details of until close to film’s end.

Harry is played by an actor I was unfamiliar with before now, Lluis Homar, and his lack of recognition so far in the end-of-year awards derby is criminal. For Homar pulls off something few actors can — he creates two distinct personalities for the same character, each believable and understandable.

In flashback, as the director Mateo Blanco, he is passionate, emotional and in control. As Harry Caine, he is quieter, more subdued, a man who knows he is forced to rely on others and is not entirely pleased about it.

Harry is visited by a strange, rather obnoxious young filmmaker known as Ray X (Ruben Ochandiano), and the story he wants Harry to write is one that is lifted from Mateo’s past: It’s “a son’s revenge on his father’s memory,” and the man Ray X describes — a violent, powerful homophobe who destroyed several lives — is instantly recognizable to Harry.

The blind Harry’s face betrays his surprise, but he turns down the idea. He is not the proper writer for this, he says. “You are,” Ray X explains, “more than you know.”

The meaning of this cryptic statement takes up the remainder of the film. It involves Mateo, a beautiful woman named Lena (played, perfectly, by the en fuego Penelope Cruz), her domineering husband Ernesto (Jose Luis Gomez), his awkward teenage son Ernesto Jr., and Mateo’s faithful agent Judit (nicely played by Blanca Portillo).

While the proceedings have been quite remarkable up to this point — especially an oh-so-Almodovar sex scene shot from behind a sofa, with only a rising back and stretching feet visible — it is the appearance of Cruz that takes “Embraces” to another level of intrigue.

Currently praised for a sultry turn in “Nine” and following a deserved Oscar for her unhinged role in “Vicky Christina Barcelona,” Cruz’s performance as Lena reminds us that she is truly Almodovar’s muse. Her work here is more subtle than her earthy mother and abused wife in his “Volver,” but no less impressive.

As we learn of her involvement with Mateo, and the making of a never-released film he directed and she starred in, “Broken Embraces” develops into a love story, a searing mystery, and a heartfelt drama of passion and its consequences.

It is melodramatic, yes, and not without fault. Almodovar makes a shocking directorial decision near the end, allowing a major character to tell us key details of what happened so many years ago, instead of showing us. Luckily, the film is strong enough to withstand the error. But it’s a rainbow of color and sight — any single frame could be studied for its composition and design — that is acted and directed with feeling and panache.

Almodovar is now in the group of major filmmakers whose work is invariably compared with their past masterpieces, rather than judged on its own merits. Therefore, a great film might not seem to be a classic — even though it is. (See David Lynch’s “Inland Empire” or Wong Kar-Wai’s “2046.”) Here, he has created a work about the power of the camera, and the glory of sight and sound, that rivals anything he’s done before.

“Broken Embraces” is one of 2009’s finest films, and a lesson that “lesser” Pedro is something to be thankful for.

Weekend Preview: Neil Jordan Discusses His Reinvention of the Vampire Genre, and Almodovar’s Latest Opens

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In terms of summer blockbusters, this might be the most boring weekend of the summer. When it comes to indies, on the other hand, it could be one of the most interesting. Go figure.

Opening at Eastern Hills is Neil Jordan’s “Byzantium,” an icy, atmospheric vampire film I reviewed at TIFF 2012 for The Film Stage. (I gave it a B+; I will be posting that review here soon, but check it out at the link.) Also available on VOD, it is a fine bookend to Jordan’s “Interview With the Vampire,” and, I think, already a tad underrated.

I had the opportunity to interview Jordan for The Playlist, and while it was not a stellar interview — it was moved to the phone after a scheduling snafu two days earlier — it was humbling to chat with the man behind “The Crying Game.”

Written by Moira Buffini, “Byzantium” stars Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan as a vampires in a British seaside town. For Jordan, it was a chance to revisit a genre he had dabbled in previously:

“Moira sent me the script. I read it, and thought it was very interesting. On the one hand, it’s kind of a story about a mother and daughter, on the other hand about a teenager growing up in this wonderful kind of mythological context of the period and I thought it was gorgeous. It was a chance to return to the territory of ‘Interview With the Vampire’ and ‘The Company of Wolves’… I think the whole thing was a great opportunity to really reinvent the vampire legend really. It’s become a bit tired of late, you know?”

It also offered him the chance to direct “Disappearance of Alice Creed” star Arterton:

“Gemma’s a wonderful actress. She’s physically beautiful but she’s also just so bloody good, you know? And I think when I saw her in ‘Alice Creed,’ I thought, ‘Okay, this is a woman who’s very professional and very brave, in a way that most actresses aren’t.’ If you want a vengeful, terrifying vamp, to be in a movie, that also brings all the protective instincts of a mother, I can’t think of a better actress to cast than Gemma Arterton.”

And Ronan, the star of “The Lovely Bones” and “The Host,” was another draw:

“I didn’t know her, but I’ve watched her work for the last six years and I’ve always wanted to work with her — she’s incredible. She brings everything, doesn’t she? She’s amazing, very extraordinary. She’s so young and so kind of tough and accomplished at the same time. … [Arterton and Ronan] don’t actually look like mother and daughter, but the strange thing is that they seem like it. They ended up being very good together.”

He also spoke briefly of influences on the film:

“I kept thinking of ‘Don’t Look Now.’ It’s not a vampire movie at all, it’s not really horror film, except maybe for that little red coat! And I kept thinking of those great English films like ‘Séance on a Wet Afternoon.’”

Check out the rest of the interview at the link above.

I am a longtime Pedro Almodovar fan — I reviewed, and adored, his last two films, “Broken Embraces” and “The Skin I Live In” — but I have not been able to get too excited about “I’m So Excited.” There has been a curious lack of buzz regarding the airplane romp, but it is Pedro, so it won’t be dull. It, too, is opening at Amherst and Eastern Hills.

In VOD-land, the already controversial, mostly panned Paul Schrader-Bret Easton Ellis team-up “The Canyons” drops today. I’m sorry, but even with these reviews, I’m fascinated by this one …

Meanwhile, the Sundance 2013 selection “This is Martin Bonner” is playing The Screening Room. I do not know too much about this one; I reached out to the film’s PR folks and received no reply. But it drew solid press at Sundance, and it is worth a look. (Next Thursday, August 8, The Screening Room features a sci-fi double-bill, with the underrated “Gattaca” and the classic “The Day the Earth Stood Still.”)

Now, prepare for boredom: This week’s two big openings are “2 Guns” and “Smurfs 2,” and I’m doubly disinterested. Mark Wahlberg and Denzel Washington are the reason to see “Guns,” which looks awfully rote. As for “Smurfs,” I did not see the first installment, but if the kids enjoyed it, they’ll likely dig No. 2. I would expect Smurfette and friends to lead the weekend box office; “2 Guns” should slightly disappoint, and come in at No. 2 or 3.

It will be interesting to see how “Wolverine” fares in week two — it was a slight disappointment in week one — and whether or not “Fruitvale Station” and “The Way, Way Back” continue to surprise.

BREAKING: “Sharknado” is on Regal screens at midnight tonight. Catch it now, before the joke is stale. (Or is it too late?)

Squeaky Wheel has a cool “Film Fiesta” planned for tomorrow (Saturday) at 1 p.m. as part of the Infringement Festival; see Squeaky’s website for details.

Bacchus brings us the great Kristen Wiig in “Bridesmaids” on Thursday (August 7), while the UB North Campus has the great “Place Beyond the Pines” tonight and the so-so “Iron Man 3” on Tuesday (August 6), both at 9:15. “Iron Man 3” is also showing at the UB South Campus at 8:45 on Wednesday (August 7).

“Elysium” is coming next week — probably the last interesting biggie of the summer.

Photo courtesy of IFC Films