Monday, January 25, 2010

Big Screen and Small

There’s something wrong in the world if I draft a review of a film on a Saturday and don’t get to re-read it let alone revise for a whole week, and then don’t have time to revise and post for yet another week. Or it’s just my world. The new year is crazed, expectations I feel compelled to meet grinding me down within weeks of an almost hopeful start to a new year that has proven just like the old. What to do? Go to the movies.

Broken Embraces. Like many Americans, my introduction to Pedro Almodovar was Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Loved it, rented more. I’d been looking forward to Broken Embraces, not only because it looked gorgeous, but because it was supposed to be noir. It’s also supposed to have very witty dialogue, but I cannot tell that. The extent of my Spanish is reading ads on the subway when they’re next to the same ads in English. That means it all must be visual story telling for me, which has historically worked just fine.

Since much of the film didn’t work for me, I’m thinking there was a lot of language lost. The opening in the present moved along gently, setting things up, until the creepy guy showed up, which set up the return to backstory in the past – a very noir sort of segue. The Noir worked for me until it was explained in the Melodramatic present day. I have issues with coincidences, and I couldn’t believe these. While noirish in some ways, the film is quite melodramatic– downright Douglas Sirk-like. Rock Hudson would have felt at home.

The main character was a film director/writer named Mateo Blanco who used the name Harry Caine for his screenwriting. Fourteen years before Broken Embraces begins, Mateo/Harry (Lluis Homar) lost his sight and became solely Harry Caine, writer. Part of the film takes place in the present, part in the 1990s. In both parts we see “Harry” interacting with his sometime production manager, sometime agent, Judit, played unsmilingly by Blanca Portillo. Judit’s grown son, Diego (Tamar Novas ) is a frequent visitor in Caine’s apartment, sometimes collaborating with him on stories or scripts. Diego also works as a DJ in a club where drugs are popped like candy.

We are shifted back to the 1990s by a present-day newspaper obit on Ernesto Martel – realistically played by Jose Luis Gomez as sad and creepy at the same time. Although Caine is clearly affected by the death, it is not meaningful to Diego. Enter a new character calling himself “Ray X” (skeevily played in past and present by Ruben Ochandiano) who says he directed a documentary 14 years before and wishes now to work with Caine on a vengeful biopic about his unnamed but recently deceased father. The reaction of both Caine and Judit to this young man is fear. He insists they needn’t fear him, he is not his father, but they usher him out of their lives anyway.

In the opening, Judit walks in on an afternoon delight between Harry and a young woman who helped him cross the street. I couldn’t tell who lived where with whom. It is particularly confusing in the present since Harry’s apartment, which can be entered at will by Judit or her son Diego, looks just like Judit’s apartment – same color schemes, same decorative elements. Judit is sour, and remains so throughout the film, so who belongs to whom is also confusing. It is during Diego’s convalescence from an accidental mixing of drugs that he demands to understand why both Caine and Judit are frightened of the creepy guy.

This is how Almodovar sends us back to the 1990s to introduce us to Magdalena as played by a glowing Penelope Cruz. In the 1990s, Lena works as a secretary to that very powerful man who died in the present, has occasionally worked as a call girl out of desperate need, and has a dying father. Lena’s choices lead her to several years of living with Martel, then meeting film director Mateo Blanco, and then…. Well you can guess the rest if you’ve seen one or two noirs and any number of melodramas. Acts of violence occur (Martel actually pushes her down the stairs when he sees irrefutable proof of his mistress’s affair with Blanco), building in intensity to the final act of violence which we are expected, by the end, to believe was a coincidental accident. This viewer says fat chance. This disbelief I could not suspend distracted me, until I found the finally wrapping up of the film in the present to ring untrue, despite my pleasure in the final scenes of artists at work.

The revelations in the last twenty minutes of this film were a bit obvious by then. Revelations in the last 20 minutes of any film had better be about Colonel Mustard in the Library with a Lamp and led by a fellow with a funny moustache, an odd accent, and a habit of referring to himself in the third person. No, not George Bush, Sr.

Spoiler alert – Judit's revelations were that she and Mateo had, in the long past, been lovers. Got that. That she was angry back then, when Mateo and Lena left them in the lurch. That she had betrayed Mateo in some way to Martel. Then, then, finally, she actually tells Diego that Mateo is his father. Where’s Rock Hudson when you need him. That scene annoyed me so much I wanted to break into Almodovar’s editing room and cut it out.

Of course Penelope Cruz is lovely and delightful as advertised in shots of her with her Hepburn (Audrey, not Kate) and Marilyn looks. The performances were all fun, if sometimes over the top.

In simple, the noir storyline of the past I liked, but the neatly tied bows of the present bookending the story struck me false.

On the other hand, earlier in the day I chanced upon a Guy Ritchie film from 2008 on cable: “RocknRolla.” I had no expectations of enjoying that one, but I found myself laughing at a sharp, terrific script and hysterically pitch perfect performances. I believe I missed the first 5 minutes, but when flipping channels I found Tom Wilkinson and Mark Strong on screen together, the remote met the table and my butt stayed on the sofa for the duration.

Reasons to see this film --

  • Tom Wilkinson as Lenny Cole. One of my favorite actors of the last decade or so, I was introduced to him in the first installment of “Prime Suspect.” From there he danced delightfully into our hearts in “The Full Monty,” charmed us in “Shakespeare in Love,” transformed to a woman in “Normal” (with Jessica Lange), and on and on. Tom Wilkinson is a good reason to watch any movie.
  • Mark Strong (Archy) on various British television programs seen here, and most recently the villain of “Sherlock Holmes.”
  • Idris Elba (Mumbles), from “The Wire” and lots of other things in the last few years
  • Gerard Butler (One Two) has been mighty busy making money on this side of the Pond, in films like “300,” “P.S. I love You,” two movies released in the last six months!
  • Tom Hardy as Handsome Bob was familiar. Take away the knowledge, make him a sweet innocent at the beginning and a far too experienced smartass at the end, and remember one of the many wonderful young actors from “Band of Brothers.”
  • Plus 2 Russian gangsters – Karel Roden as the head Russian gangster, Uri Omovich, and Dragan Micanovic as his right-hand, Victor.
  • A sharp and snappy cut-cut-cut somewhat improvisational sex scene between Butler and the ultra skinny Thandie Newton. It was funny, fast, and rhythmically in line with the rest of the film.

Finally, lots of really good lines in this movie, courtesy writer director Guy Ritchie.

Mumbles to One Two: “If I could be half the human being Bob is at the cost of being a poof… I’d have to think about it. Not for very long, but I’d have to pause.”

Thandie Newton rings Gerard Butler’s doorbell. Over the intercom--
Butler: “Well what do you want?”
Newton: “You.”
Butler: “Well you had better come in then.”

The film’s tagline is on the mark: “Sex thugs and rock’n’roll.” And drugs and Russian Gangsters vs. English gangsters. Clear, snappy, scrappy, funny, sharp, fast moving, this surprise delight made me unable to pull myself away from the small screen. Cheers to Guy Ritchie and the entire cast of “RocknRolla,” and looking forward to the continuing adventures as promised at the end of the film.

~ Molly Matera signing off. Thanks for listening to my rant.

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