January 13, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. As a devoted follower of films by Almodovar for more than 35 years, I still find myself enchanted by his stories, his visuals, his characters, and his consistency in writing complex and engaging parts for women. Oscar winning writer-director Pedro Almodovar’s last film, PAIN AND GLORY (2019) may be considered his semi-autobiographical masterpiece, but this latest proves he still has much to say, and will do so with his customary flair.

I often write about a filmmaker ‘delivering’ a film, and in this case, Almodovar literally serves up dueling deliveries in the maternity ward. The births are edited for a bit of comedic relief, but the sequence also makes the all-important point about the connection between the two mothers. Oscar winner Penelope Cruz stars as Janis, a woman pushing 40 who has a fling with married Arturo (Israel Elejalde). He’s the forensic archeologist working on the project to excavate a mass grave from the Spanish Civil War rumored to hold the remains of relatives of Janis, as well as others from the community.

While awaiting the birth of her child, Janis meets her roommate Ana (a terrific Milena Smit), a 17-year-old who is much less thrilled than Janis at the thought of becoming a mother. The two women of different ages, different attitudes, and different, yet similar, situations give birth on the same day at the same time – each becoming a single mother. The exhausted women have no clue of what is to cause their lives to become intertwined and push the story forward. While in recovery, we are introduced to each women’s support. Janis’ lifelong friend Elena (played by Almodovar favorite Rossy de Palma) bursts into the room (and onto the screen) in a flash of color and smile. On the other side, Ana’s narcissist mother Teresa (Aitana Sanchez-Gijon) immediately begins recounting her latest audition, which could lead to the big break in her acting career. As an afterthought, she then asks about the babies. We learn so much in these few minutes.

This becomes the story of the two women and their babies, yet always hovering is a story about the history of the country, and the families affected by the Spanish Civil War atrocities. The story structure isn’t seamless, but then neither is life … especially of those impacted. Past and present have unbreakable links, as do the generations of strong females who carried on. As Janis pursues the archaeological dig, we contrast that with the self-centered Teresa who states, “I’m apolitical. My job is to please everyone.” Of course, by the end, Janis, Ana, and Teresa have all grown as people after facing morally challenging dilemmas.

This is Penelope Cruz’s 8th Almodovar film, and, to no one’s surprise, she excels in the role of Janis. It’s unfortunate that very few actors receive Oscar recognition for Foreign Language films because her work stands with that of any actor this year. Almodovar is a master, and proves time and again that melodrama is not a taboo approach to storytelling when handled properly. On display throughout is his trademark use of color – in clothes, cars, art, and yes, the hospital room. Even his closing credits are stylish. Frequent Almodovar collaborators include Production designer Antxon Gomez, composer Alberto Iglesias (heavy on the strings), and cinematographer Jose Luis Alcaine … and what a team they make. The film can be viewed as a tribute to (and reminder of) the history of Almodovar’s beloved Spain. He even includes a fitting quote, “History refuses to shut its mouth”, something he works to ensure.

Opens in select theaters on January 14, 2022


PAIN & GLORY (2019)

October 17, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. This marks the 13th Pedro Almodovar movie I’ve seen over the last 33 years. There is no logical explanation for why I feel connected to his movies. It seems obvious I have very little in common with the provocative filmmaker from Spain who won an Oscar for his extraordinary 2002 film HABLA CON ELLA (TALK TO HER). Yet, his movies invariably strike an emotional chord with me – and none more so than his latest.

As with many of his previous films (and more than most), this one has a strong semi-autobiographical feel to it. Antonio Banderas stars as aging filmmaker Salvador Mallo. No other actor could have been cast in the role. This is, by my count, the eighth collaboration between actor and director … no actor has a better feel for Almodovar over the past three decades. It must be noted that Banderas does not stoop to impersonation or mimicry. OK, he has similar spiked hair, beard, fancy clothes and a museum-quality house … but the performance is all Banderas, and it’s a thing of beauty. Salvador is an aged man who looks defeated despite numerous career achievements. His physical pains are many – chronic back pain, migraines, sporadic choking – but it’s his emotional isolation and solitude that stands out. Salvador is a lonely man with signs of depression.

The film bounces between two time periods: Salvador as an older man with the above listed struggles, and young Salvador (Asier Flores) growing up in poverty with his mother Jacinta (Penelope Cruz) and dreaming of a better life. The elder Salvador is reflecting on the life journey that brought him to this point, while the younger Salvador is filled with youthful hope for the future, even as his core being is taking shape.

Cinemateque has remastered Salvador’s first big movie “Sabor” and have invited him to attend the screening and participate in the Q&A. He sees this as a chance to re-connect with the film’s star (and his long ago friend) Alberto Crespo (played by Asier Etxeandia). The two haven’t spoken in over 30 years due to bad blood and artistic differences during the filming of “Sabor”. Now understanding Alberto’s approach to the role, Salvador is told by an actress that ‘the movie hasn’t changed, but the eyes you see it through have’. Salvador visits Alberto and soon the actor is sharing his heroin stash with his director. Salvador continues “chasing the dragon” as a form of relief from his physical pain, and as an escape from his solitude. It seems to work much better than his cocktail of prescription drugs.

Rather than a film of drug addiction, this is a film of reflection. Fellini’s 81/2 (1963) is surely the most famous and iconic of the autobiographical films by a director, and though Fellini may have the advantage of esoteric artistry, Almodovar’s signature style is ever-present through primary colors (especially red) and memorable sets. Deserving of special mention are frequent Almodovar collaborators Antxion Gomez (Production Design), Maria Clara Notari (Art Direction), Paola Torres (Costume Design), and cinematographer Jose Luis Alcaine. The music is provided by 3-time Oscar nominee Alberto Iglesias.

There are some intimate and touching scenes in the film, as well as a couple of lines of dialogue that hit pretty hard. Circumstances are such that Salvador reunites with Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia), the love of his life. It’s a tender reunion that lasts only a short time, but allows for needed closure for both men. There is also a sequence where Salvador is having a heartfelt and intimate conversation with his elderly mother (Julieta Serrano). She tells him he was not a good son. This conversation between adult son and mother is an example of things that should be said, but rarely are. Ms. Serrano previously played Mr. Banderas’ mother in WOMEN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN and MATADOR.

Almodovar’s movie premiered at Cannes, and it examines our expectations for life and how they contrast to our later recollections. The two timelines show one looking forward as the stage is set, and the other looking back at both the good times and bad. For an artist, it’s the life that molds their influences for their art/craft. Salvador’s memories even play like short movies. There may be no real plot to the film, and instead it focuses on reflection, introspection and perspective. “Love can’t cure the ones we love” is a gut-punch of a line, and one that can’t be comprehended until late in life. For an Almodovar film, this one is restrained and tempered – even tender at times. And yet despite this, it will stick with me for awhile.

watch the trailer:


JULIETA (2016, Spain)

January 26, 2017

julieta Greetings again from the darkness. Pedro Almodovar is a fascinating filmmaker and one that I’ve followed consistently since his 1988 Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Over that almost 30 year period, I have rarely felt let down by his work, and have quite often walked out of the theatre in awe of his artistry, creativity and dedication to providing original cinematic viewing experiences.

The quite visually suggestive opening sets the stage for an Almodovar experience, only what follows is much different than what we have come to expect. It’s (somewhat) based on the short story trilogy of Alice Munro (Destino, Pronto, Silencio), and returns him again to his strength – telling the story of women. It may not be as flamboyant as some of his previous work, but rather it’s a pure and earnest emotional drama. It even has a bit of Hitchcockian flavor with the element of mystery playing a central role.

Emma Suarez and Adrian Ugarte alternate in the role of Julieta and both are excellent. Ms. Suarez plays the older Julieta looking back on her life, while Ms. Ugarte populates most of the memories being entered into the journal … a writing effort designed to fill in the life gaps for her long estranged daughter Antia.

We learn that Julieta fell in love with fisherman Xoan (Daniel Grao) while his wife was in a coma, and that Antia was conceived before the wife passed away. Xoan’s housekeeper Marian (played brilliantly by Almodovar regular Rossy de Palma) is one who knows a man has needs, but doesn’t always know when to speak and when to remain silent. One of her not so secret secrets is Xoan’s artist friend Ava (Imma Cuesta) who manages to get close to Xoan, Julieta and Antia. Ava is such an interesting character that a movie about her could have been equally entertaining. Other key players here are the older Julieta’s boyfriend Lorenzo (another Almodovar regular Dario Grandinetti) and Antia’s special childhood friend Bea (Sara Jimenez) who appears years later (as Michelle Jenner) in a quick appearance that rocks Julieta’s world.

Guilt, death, love, disappointment, and relationships are all significant pieces to this Almodovar puzzle. Spirituality even pops up when Antia attends a retreat and makes her life-altering decision … one spurred by youth and vulnerability, and possibly leading to regret later in life. As Julieta recounts her life, we understand her middle-aged whole in the heart. She has “lost” everyone she has ever loved – her husband, her daughter, her mother.

Cinematographer Jean-Claude Larrieu experiments with camera angles and captures the beautiful vistas and landscapes, while never losing the intimacy required for such an emotional journey. The color red is all over the film and almost jumps off the screen at times, ensuring that the visual element never is far removed from the drama. The score from Alberto Iglesias is excellent and quite a complement to another master work from Almodovar.

watch the trailer:


TALK TO HER (Hable con ella, Spain, 2002)

January 19, 2014

talk to her Greetings again from the darkness.  Not many writers/directors would put their two lead actresses in a coma for most of the movie.  But then Pedro Almodovar has never been one for a conventional approach.  His creative, challenging and visual story telling is at its peak with Talk To Her.  The Dallas Film Society provided an opportunity for me to revisit this one for the first time since my initial viewing in 2002.  A rare Best Original Screenplay Oscar winner for a Foreign Language film, those eleven plus years have not even slightly dulled the impact.

It’s typically pretty simple to determine what genre a particular film falls into.  Somehow Almodovar walks (and writes) a fine line between love story and horror story … comedy and tragedy. Always an expert at writing interesting female characters, this time he shows the women are the stronger force even while comatose!  The male leads are the ones suffering and dealing with loneliness.  Javier Camara as Benigno is both likeable and suberbly creepy as Alicia’s (Leonar Watling) caregiver.  Dario Grandinetti is stunning as Marco, whose stoic personality can reach dimensions most actors can’t touch. His scenes with Lydia (Rosario Flores) and Benigno are unlike anything ever seen on screen.

The film begins with a ballet piece featuring the amazing Pina Bausch (you should see the 2011 documentary Pina), and the rest of the film features similar pacing … each individual scene and even the film score create the feel of watching a ballet.  There is even a fantasy/faux silent movie sequence within the movie that will cause uneasiness and nervous laughter … while Almodovar again makes the point that the force of women can literally consume a man.

In addition to terrific performances by Camara and Grandinetti, the flashback sequences really allow Ms. Watling (as a fresh-faced dancer) and Ms. Flores (as a confident bullfighter) to prove why these men fell so hard.  One other actress adding interest is Geraldine Chaplin (daughter of Sir Charles) as Alicia’s dance instructor.  Her presence helps tie in the flashbacks and present tense.

While most writers tie up stories with a pretty bow, Almodovar purposefully challenges us to think and feel and dig into our own thoughts and beliefs. He is brilliant (and a bit annoying) with his persistence in making us work so hard. There are decisions coated in gray, rather than black and white.  There are characters who we want to like, but maybe/probably shouldn’t. Pedro’s use of color and texture is fascinating.  This is an example of a master filmmaker at the peak of his craft.  Sure, he has many other excellent films (Volver, All About My Mother, Broken Embraces), but if you only get one Almodovar, make it this one.

**NOTE: The priest in the wedding ceremony is played by Agustin Almodovar, Pedro’s brother and the film’s producer

watch the original trailer:


TMI (2-19-12)

February 19, 2012

TMI (Today’s Movie Info)

February: Director’s Month

 PEDRO ALMODOVAR was born, raised and lives in Spain.  He was unable to attend Film School because Franco had closed them all during his regime. Instead, he saved his money and bought a Super 8 camera, and taught himself how to direct by making short films. Pedro is known for writing strong, complex female characters for his films and often casts his mother and/or brother in supporting roles.  He has admitted that much of his writing comes from personal experiences … though not actually autobiographical in nature.  Pedro has become the most influential director from Spain since Luis Bunuel, and he frequently works with his country’s best actors: Carmen Maura, Antonio Banderas, Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz, and Gael Garcia Bernal. His history with Academy Awards is a bit mystifying: Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (2002, nominated for Best Foreign Language Film), All About my Mother (1999, won for Best Foreign Language Film), Talk to Her (2002, won for Best Screenplay, nominated for Best Director).  At least two other Almodovar films probably deserved nominations. On his reasons for making movies he once said “Cinema can fill in the empty spaces of your life and your loneliness.”  He recently announced that his next film will be the 2013 comedy, Los amantes pasajeros.

THE SKIN I LIVE IN (La piel que habito, sp)

November 5, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. I will readily admit to being a huge Pedro Almodovar fan. His films regularly place on my “Best Of” list every two years. I so admire his creativity, tough women characters, visual acumen and multi-dimensional stories. With Almodovar, we can bank on some type of dalliance with death, a brush with sexual deviance, non-linear time lines, plots that twist and turn incessantly, a color palette to make Frida Kahlo envious and psychological darkness that forces us to look inward. All of these elements are present here … yet somehow it doesn’t quite click.

 Antonio Banderas plays Dr. Robert Ledgard, a plastic surgeon revered for his work in face transplants. What the medical profession doesn’t know is that Dr. Ledgard takes the mad scientist label to whole new dimension. And he does it with the coolness reserved for the other side of the pillow. I will not go into details of the story other than to say Banderas’ character would make Dr. Frankenstein turn away in disgust.

Dr. Ledgard lives in a beautiful mansion with his protective housekeeper played by Almodovar veteran Marissa Paredes. He also has a live-in patient named Vera, played wonderfully by Elena Anaya. You will recognize Ms. Anaya if you took my advice and tracked down Mesrine parts 1 and 2. Support work is also provided by Jim Cornet as Vicente. I wish I could tell you more of the characters, but can’t without giving away too much.

 Dr. Legard and Vera are two of the most fascinating characters ever written by Almodovar, and the film is a twisted road to discomfort all wrapped up in a silky smooth picture frame. From a filmmaking perspective, I couldn’t rate it much higher. From an entertainment perspective, it would be near the bottom of the most interesting or desirable Almodovar films. Am I disappointed? Sure, a little. But not enough to override my excitement for the next film by Almodovar!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: like me, you must see every Almodovar film OR you want to see Antonio Banderas in his most intense role in quite some time.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you have yet to enter the film realm of Almodovar … this is not the best for an introduction

watch the trailer:


January 3, 2010

 (12-26-09) Greetings again from the darkness. I have no qualms in admitting that I worship Pedro Almodovar as a filmmaker. His films have made me laugh (Volver), think (Talk to Her) and have yanked me out of my comfort zone (Bad Education). With Broken Embraces, the maestro has so many nuances and details brewing below his always stunning surface that I found myself really working to assemble the pieces as the film went along.

His fabulous muse, Penelope Cruz, is back and in full splendor. Pedro has always had a talent for exciting and fully developed female characters and here, both Ms. Cruz and Blanca Portillo are absolutely fascinating. The male lead is Mateo, a film director played by Lluis Homar (Bad Education). I won’t try to simplify the multi-faceted relationship and story lines other than to say this is a touch noir, with revenge, jealousy, obsession and of course, love – both full display and unrequited.

Sadly, many Americans will skip this one because of subtitles, but I hope it finds an audience on DVD. From a visual perspective, the color red abounds here … passion or blood? That’s the big question. There are many wonderful scenes that feature beautiful shots from Pedro, as well as some of the best dialogue he has ever written. From a film-making perspective, this one deserves multiple viewings – and will get it from me!