Sunday, December 27, 2009

Broken Embraces: Almodóvar's Mature Mastery

Broken Embraces (Los abrazos rotos) is vintage Pedro Almodóvar.

It’s Pedro’s homage to film-making. It features a movie within the movie, a documentary about the making of the movie and a sequel. Moreover, there is a first release of ‘Girls and Suitcases’ plus a director’s cut.

Almodovar is not just one of the world’s foremost auteurs. His works virtually constitute a genre of their own. This venture has all his melodramatic trademarks. Love, jealousy, betrayal and tragedy. A disabled protagonist who has buried his former self. A menacing father and an obsessed gay son who battles his father’s rejection. A very vulnerable femme fatale. A lip reader. A mysterious past. Startling revelations. Several key incidents involve hospitals, which often play a pivotal role in his films. There is even a coma.

This story has a dual time frame. 1994 concerns the shooting of ‘Girls and Suitcases’ and the inevitable love triangle that develops between the producer Ernesto Martel (José Luis Gómez), his mistress and female lead Lena (Penélope Cruz) and the director Mateo Blanco (Lluís Homar). Almodóvar sends up his earlier films such as Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown) and Kika mimicking all their colour and zany style. He even uses some of his long serving actors in supporting roles in Suitcases.

2008 brings catharsis for the sole surviving member. Harry Caine, formerly film director Mateo Blanco, confronts his past as he recounts the disastrous events of 1994 to his assistant Diego (Tamar Novas) whose mother Judit (Blanca Portillo) had been his production assistant and is now his agent.

It’s hard to fault the cast who give polished, professional performances. Pedro seems to bring out the best in Penélope Cruz by aiming for restraint rather than hysterics. In fact the whole movie shows a marked maturity with masterly control of its edgy suspense and humour.

This is arguably one of, if not the best Almodóvar to date.


Saturday, December 19, 2009

A Serious Man: MidWestern Woody Allen

The Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man is a clever, cute but ultimately disappointing film from this highly creative duo. There is little enlightening or new in this comic tale of Jewish identity crisis except its location.

It’s set in a suburb like St. Louis Park, Minneapolis, Minnesotawhere they grew up. That is its main original feature. It’s 1967 but feels more like 1957, except for sex and pot in the suburbs.

Larry Gopnik, played capably by unknown Michael Stuhlbarg, is a Physics professor who specialises in the Uncertainty Principle. “It proves we can't ever really know... what's going on.” Larry is haunted by his unsatisfactory home and work life. His dreams are even worse than his reality if it’s possible.

No matter how well crafted this movie is, I’m over the Jewish male searching for the meaning of life in his religion and his dysfunctional family. Woody Allen has done it to death. At least we are spared his typical family dysfunctionality where mother or mother-in-law is the prime target of ridicule. This time it’s the wife and children. And the rabbis who give us theology according to Jefferson Airplane .

I’m over stereotypical rabbis who are as helpful as Tony Soprano’s therapist. . Over situation comedy that relies on absurd coincidence or un-empathetic characters. Over lines like, “There’ll be no nose jobs in this family!” Over perving on the sunbaking neighbour. And over the eccentric Uncle Arthurs of this surreal world. The sole representative Goy is the menacing redneck next door. Unless you count the parable of the Goy’s teeth.

There is a self-contained folk tale in Yiddish as a prologue. According to the Coens, it has nothing to do with the rest of the movie. Just a self-indulgence like much of what follows. The twisted ending calls out for real irony. Perhaps I missed it.

Most fans of Joel and Ethan Coen will enjoy A Serious Man. Go along and share this tortured view of life but don’t expect one of their greats. This strange exposition of Jewish subculture doesn’t break enough new ground.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Boys are Back: Just Say Maybe

Director Scott Hicks’ first Australian movie since Shine is set in his home State of South Australia. Unfortunately The Boys are Back does not live up to that extraordinary film.

Just Say Yes is a great motto for life unless you are a single parent with little experience of taking personal responsibility. The Boys are Back explores this as well as love, loss, grieving and the absentee father.

Clive Owen plays Joe Warr, an English sports journalist who married an Aussie and settled in a rural retreat. It is a true retreat, for he is rarely home while his wife Katy is still alive. This life as a thoroughly modern bread-winner might help to explain the breakdown of his first marriage.

It’s a strong cast. Julia Blake is very professional as mother-in-law Barbara but Chris Haywood’s talent is wasted as her husband Tom. Laura Fraser as Katy and Emma Booth as Laura, the once and future Ms Warrs, don’t miss a beat.

Joe’s six year-old son Artie, played by Nicholas McAnulty, has some of the best lines of the script, if they seem unlikely for his age. George MacKay’s performance as son Harry, is suitably teen-brooding. He understands his father’s immaturity much better than Joe does. For a journalist Joe is a remarkably poor communicator at times.

Some aspects of the plot are too contrived and require too much suspension of disbelief. Others are just too predictable, especially the ending.

Ultimately, The Boys are Back is too soft and too forgiving. The hard edges are blunted too much by Clive Owen’s personable performance. It’s an enjoyable experience but had the feel of telemovie rather than really memorable cinema. If you’re thinking of watching it, I’ll just say maybe.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Soundtrack for a Revolution: Songs of Freedom

Writer/directors Bill Guttentag Dan Sturman have made a masterful documentary. Soundtrack for a Revolution weaves historical footage, recent interviews and music from the time with modern performances of the freedom songs of the United States civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s.

Participants in this moving, often tragic and ultimately triumphal period tell their stories of fighting racism and segregation in America’s South. Congressman John Lewis and UN Ambassador Andrew Young retrace their journey of non-violence with Martin Luther King Jnr.

Lynda Lowery was a 14 year-old when she was brutally attacked at the peaceful march in Selma. Her emotional recollection of that event and those that followed embodies the spirit of the times.

The struggle for black rights was a major part of my teenage television viewing: Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycotts; violence in Little Rock Arkansas, the 1961 freedom rides, the 1963 March on Washington, the mid 60s campaign for voting rights; the integration of universities; Bloody Sunday at Selma; King’s assassination in 1968.

Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and North & South Carolina were villains in the ongoing news. Bloodshed in places such as Birmingham and Selma regularly led the bulletins. Bombing, lynching, murders and beatings and intimidation by police and the Ku Klux Klan painted a sorry picture.

Most of the songs are well known to my generation: We shall overcome, Hold on/Keep your eyes on the prize, We shall not be moved, Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me 'Round. Other are less familiar.

An array of first class modern artists brings the songs to life: John Legend, The Roots, Wyclef Jean, Joss Stone, Angie Stone, Mary Mary, TV On the Radio, Blind Boys of Alabama, Anthony Hamilton and Richie Havens, plus the inspirational Carlton Reese Memorial Unity Choir.

A very important story, familiar to many, has been reinvigorated in a way that will make it accessible to new generations. The film ends with the newly elected Barack Obama. Soundtrack for a Revolution is a fitting testament to those whose voices made his journey possible.

It is no surprise that this film is on the short list for the Oscar for best documentary.