★★★ / ★★★★
When Ricky (Antonio Banderas) is released from a mental hospital, he makes it his goal to find Marina (Victoria Abril), a former pornographic actress hoping to break into the film industry, and start a family with her. Though he finds her on the set of her first movie, she fails to realize that they had met some time ago and shared a one night stand. The encounter leaves Ricky confused and frustrated so he decides he has no choice but to break into the actress’ home and keep her there against her will until she starts to reciprocate his feelings.
Written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar, “Átame!,” explores Stockholm Syndrome through an alternating comedic and dramatic lens. On one level, it is fascinating because Marina learns her value by being in control of a man. She does not value herself not because she starred in pornographic movies–after all, a person must go through whatever means to survive–but because she knows she is addicted to cocaine, aware that it is bad for her, and yet she continues to put the poison into her system. By spending time with Ricky, as twisted as it is, she feels loved: love outside of her fans’ adoration and love outside of family attachment and obligation. Through this intense, charming figure, somehow she learns to love herself.
On another level, it is interesting to watch because Ricky is not someone anyone can easily root for either initially or at all. We must not forget that he hits her multiple times and ties her up to the bed every time he has to run an errand. No one should condone violence against women but, surprisingly, what they share works because the writer-director has found a way to get the film’s message across with enough clarity and insight relative to the rules it sets up for itself.
Abril and Banderas are dangerous and sexy together. I loved looking at Abril’s face because it seems to transform under a specific light combined with a specific emotion. Her face reminds me of the fire in Juliette Binoche’s prototypical characters when they are threatened and the tenderness in Sarah Michelle Gellar’s when they are showered with flattery. The bizarre couple’s one and only sex scene holds a certain irony. Marina is pornographic star but the love scene is far from pornographic. Also, it is well-placed within the film’s arc because it is the moment when we are able to see clearly that Marina has fallen for her captor. The way she asks, nay, commands him not to pull out as they share an intense orgasm, normal for any couple with a healthy, two-way sex life, is almost romantic. I say “almost” because we do not forget how their relationship is forged.
However, I wished that two supporting characters had more time on screen: Lola (Loles León), Marina’s sister, and the drug dealer on a Vespa (Rossy de Palma). Both are strong women who know what they want and when they should come and grab it. If the two of them had been more developed, it would have been more obvious that Almodóvar does not condone violence toward women.
“Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!” is kinky, daring, and unapologetic in terms of the images and implications it puts out there. The final scene in the car when a song is sung is cathartic and moving yet open to interpretation. It dares to leave us hanging.
Ruby Sparks (2012)
★★★ / ★★★★
When Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano), a high school dropout, was only nineteen years of age, his novel was published and topped The New York Times Best Sellers. Now that he’s twenty-nine, he feels the pressures of writing a highly anticipated follow-up but he’s experiencing a drought of inspiration. When his psychiatrist (Elliott Gould) encourages him to write–about anything, even if it is far from great–Calvin begins to put into words the ecstasy he feels when he’s with Ruby (Zoe Kazan), the girl in his recurring dream. One day, Calvin wakes up and discovers that not only has Ruby stepped out of his fantasy, she has the memory of them being a couple and living together for some time.
“Ruby Sparks” is successful in being an appealing love story with a twist not because of its quirks in the narrative or the idiosyncrasies of its the characters, but for the filmmakers taking the responsibility to embrace its premise and taking it all the way. The question goes beyond whether Calvin and Ruby are going to make it as a couple given that one of them is a real person and the other is, arguably, only sort-of real. There is a philosophical overcoat that the film explores: what responsibility does Calvin have toward his creation while at the same time wanting to be with her on a physical, emotional, and spiritual sense? It’s funny that the picture even acknowledges the awkwardness of this dilemma.
While the fantasy is the alluring element, the way in which select characters react to and digest the bizarre situation is tethered in reality. Chris Messina as Harry, Calvin’s brother, has a tricky role but manages to hold his own as our protagonist’s voice of reason without coming off overconfident and jealous. When Harry offers Calvin a piece of advice by citing examples from his marriage, we can feel the genuine love he has for his brother and yet at times there is a sly twinkle in his eye which might suggest that if he were in Calvin’s situation, he would take full advantage of what was put on his plate. Harry is given a complexity that is uncommon from supporting roles in zany love stories. I wished, however, that Calvin’s mother (Annette Bening) and stepfather (Antonio Banderas) had not been painted as stereotypical hippies.
The film also shows its confidence by sometimes making Calvin downright unlikable. Like real person, he has a specific personality and viewpoint of the world. Watching him, I wasn’t certain that he would be the kind of person I would like to have as a friend. He has a proclivity for neediness and self-pity that I find somewhat repulsive. So when Lila (Deborah Ann Woll), an ex-girlfriend he despises for breaking up with him only days after his father died, criticizes him at a party, what she says has merit. If this had been a one-dimensional screenplay by Zoe Kazan, Lila would have come across as a villain and we would have been completely on Calvin’s side. Though we do not see Calvin and Lila’s relationship develop, we get a sense of their history and the feel the wounds they are still recovering from.
Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, “Ruby Sparks” shows insight as to what makes its subjects tick. Because of its consistent awareness and ability to surprise without being showy, I am very disappointed with the ending. It is nothing but a convenient and superficial way of reminding us that it is ultimately a love story. Sometimes love is not about having a person next to you but about having the courage to accept the way things are and hoping not to make the same mistake when another opportunity presents itself.
★★★ / ★★★★
Mallory Kane (Gina Carano) thought she was safe in a diner, at least for a while, until she looked outside and saw Aaron (Channing Tatum) approaching. He took a seat in front of her and commanded her to get inside the car. Mallory was not to be persuaded this way. After she mentioned Barcelona, Dublin, and the name Paul, Aaron realized he had no choice but to force her, through extreme violence, despite customers watching. We needn’t worry, though, because Mallory Kane was a former Marine. As a private contractor, she was more than capable of defending herself against colleagues about twice her size. “Haywire,” written by Lem Dobbs, had a simple plot yet quite labyrinthine at the same time because we were dropped in the middle of whatever was going on and we didn’t have a clear understanding of the characters’ motivations. Two-thirds of the picture focused on a flashback sequence involving two assignments in Barcelona and Dublin, respectively: the extraction of a kidnapped Chinese man (Anthony Brandon Wong), in which Mallory was the leader of the on-site operation, and Mallory serving as an escort of a British agent (Michael Fassbender). As pieces fell into place and the plot made more sense, the film was still able to keep a high level of excitement and mystery. Perhaps it was because the fight and flight scenes were equally compelling. Whenever Mallory faced an enemy and both had to inflict incredible amount of pain to each other, there was a lack of score. The sounds–heavy blows delivered to the body, furnitures cracking due to uneven distribution of forces, posh glass breaking–were magnified and they made the visual experience much more visceral. At one point, I found myself wanting to get up and engage in a one-sided fight against a punching bag. It was a great decision to allow the one-on-one matches to play out. Most of the time, Mallory’s enemies were experienced fighters so I found it believable that it would take time for one of them to make a critical error or reach exhaustion. The escape scenes were quite impressive, too. Mallory’s stint in attempting to evade a tracker in the streets of Dublin was almost suspenseful on a Hitchcockian level: a beautiful woman in a foreign country suspecting that a stranger was observing her from afar and following wherever she went. The chaos that Mallory experienced was complemented against the chaos happening under the jurisdiction of Coblenz (Michael Douglas), an influential United States official for various discrete operations. Kenneth (Ewan McGregor) and Rodrigo (Antonio Banderas) were the puppeteers of the game, the reason why Mallory seemed to have gone rogue. Directed by Steven Soderbergh, “Haywire” was at times weighed down by desultory technical artistry. Most of the scenes were in color but select scenes were in black and white. I found it inconsistent and I got the impression that the director was trying too hard. Nevertheless, the film was fun due to its energy and well-choreographed duels. It doesn’t require much brain power to sit there and watch it all unfold.
Piel que habito, La (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) was a renowned plastic surgeon whose wife’s body burned in a car crash while trying to get away with her boyfriend (Roberto Álamo). Robert transported Gal home and took care of her for months, but when she saw her reflection on a window, she jumped out because she couldn’t bear living with her teratoid appearance. Since the tragedy, we learned that Robert had been performing experimental skin treatment on Vera (Elena Anaya). Although artificial, it was resistant to burning and insect bites which was promising for the scientific community. However, Robert’s colleagues were led to believe that he had been experimenting with mice, not on humans. “La piel que habito” had plenty of ideas about how anger and grief could drive a person into trying to achieve something so radical, it threatened to destroy him. The picture was most fascinating when it allowed the camera to observe the surgeon’s work sans dialogue. I liked watching him navigate his hands with precision while cutting a piece of skin and applying it onto his model. When something went wrong, he maintained his composure and consistently found a way to work around the problem–a quality that also served him well outside the lab. By observing his routine, though shot with cold detachment, we learned a lot about his experiment and how invested and desperate he was to make the seemingly impossible a reality. The film held a lot of secrets about identity. The most curious was Vera and why she lived like a prisoner. While it made sense that she lived in a relatively contained environment because her skin was being replaced, there were some red flags that grabbed (or should grab) our attention. For example, she wasn’t allowed any visitors, never handed sharp objects, and there were writing, like tallies of dates, on the walls of her room. If she was a voluntary patient, why was she considered a danger to herself? Pedro Almodóvar, the writer-director, did a solid job on keeping a lid on what was really happening. The less information was available for us to put the pieces together, although I felt a bit of frustration due to its unhurried pacing, the more I felt compelled to think of increasingly ridiculous hypotheses. One of the most interesting characters was Marilia (Marisa Paredes) who, to Robert, was just a trustworthy longtime maid, but was actually his biological mother. I loved looking at her face, the way she moved across the room, and why she was convinced that Robert ought to kill Vera. Marilia provided another layer, if you will, to the story. I just wished that she had been used more. The most critical opportunity that the film lost was not relating its story deeply enough to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and his creature. Marilia was Robert’s creator and Vera was Robert’s. Instead of looking to the future and exploring the repercussions of the surgeon’s transgressions, the screenplay went back in time about halfway through and gave us images of what happened to the wife and daughter. While it was necessary for us to know, several lines of dialogue would have sufficed. Based on Thierry Jonquet’s novel “Tarantula,” “The Skin I Live In,” wonderfully shot even without Almodóvar’s usual primary colors, could have used less family history and focused more on horror that came about from ignoring certain moral obligations.
Puss in Boots (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
There was word going around that Jack (voiced by Billy Bob Thornton) and Jill (Amy Sedaris), outlaws and lovers, had three magical beans in their possession. If planted in the right spot at the right time, they were to grow for miles and lead to a giant’s castle where a giant goose laid golden eggs. Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas) figured that if he were to purloin the eggs and donate them to the small town where he was raised in an orphanage, he would no longer be a wanted cat. Despite his reluctance, Puss eventually teamed up with Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek) and Humpty Dumpty (Zach Galifianakis), the sword, the skill, and the brain of the mission, respectively. “Puss in Boots,” directed by Chris Miller, was a thoroughly enjoyable animated film because the fairy tales in question were incorporated in such a way that the filmmakers were able to add their unique spin yet keep the essence of what made them such memorable fables. For example, instead of Jack and Jill being portrayed as cute kids, they were shown as corpulent, greedy adults with pigs as children. Despite their unexpected appearance, there were some funny bits taken from the nursery rhyme which were convincing enough for us to believe that the two of them were the Jack and Jill who tumbled down the hill. The picture had a lot of energy especially in executing its action sequences. The battle between Jack and Jill and Puss, Kitty, and Humpty in the desert was intense and exciting. Although the road was extremely windy, the battle sequence was flawlessly edited. We knew exactly what was happening and why; the crafty twists and jokes that surrounded that chase made the experience all the more fun. Although I enjoyed the animation in general, with its variegation in style that consistently complemented specific environs, I feel that I have to single out Humpty Dumpty. I never thought an egg could amuse me so much. Although the character had wicked sense of humor (he was deathly unable to jump off small steps), I was regaled by his movements: the way he walked, wobbled, and rolled down a hill. His facial expressions were, at times, slightly creepy, but I can’t imagine anyone not being tickled at the sight of Humpty being caught up in all sorts of trouble balancing while in the middle of high-stakes chases. I wished, however, the movie had less scenes of Puss and Kitty dancing. I understood that the two cats had to flirt for the sake of cute puns, but whenever they had to dance, whether it was for fun or competition, it felt like filler. A twenty-second dance sequence would have more than sufficed. A total of five- to ten-minute montage tested my patience. I rather would have watched a longer flashback of Puss and Humpty’s experiences as children in the orphanage led by Imelda (Constance Marie), their mother figure. Based on the screenplay by Tom Wheeler, “Puss in Boots,” despite its inconsistencies, like the golden eggs’ density, very difficult to move from one scene, easily lifted the next, was entertaining because it prevented shoving pop culture references in our faces. It simply told a story where most of its jokes worked due to right timing combined with contagious, effervescent energy.
You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
Helena (Gemma Jones) decided to see a fortuneteller (Pauline Collins) after the divorce between her and her husband (Anthony Hopkins) had been finalized. She claimed she needed direction, but we quickly realized that she was clingy, didn’t know how to keep certain opinions to herself, and was hopelessly gullible. Maybe the divorce was a gift or a breath of freedom for her husband. Sally (Naomi Watts), Helena’s daughter, was also having trouble with her marriage. Roy (Josh Brolin), Sally’s husband, was having a difficult time finishing his book and was weighing the possibility of having an affair with a beautiful woman in red (Freida Pinto), his muse, across their apartment building. On the other hand, Sally was considering to have an affair with her boss (Antonio Banderas) while working in an art gallery. “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger,” written and directed by Woody Allen, was a missed opportunity. The story was interesting, the coincidences didn’t feel heavy-handed and the various ironies between and around the characters were accessible. However, the film felt like a satisfying but incomplete novel. Just when Allen needed to deliver the punches involving the consequences that the characters had to live with due to their unwise actions, the screen abruptly faded to black. It left me wanting more but not in a good way. The picture’s lack of resolution highlighted its flaws, especially its highly uneven tone. Allen spent too much time trying to convince us that what we were seeing was comedic. As a result, he was stuck in highlighting the characters’ quirks instead of exploring other dimensions that would make us want to get to know more. For instance, the relationship between Hopkins’ character and his young girlfriend (Lucy Punch) was mostly played for laughs. The former’s quirk was, despite his age, he was convinced that he was still in his thirties. Like his ex-wife, he was inclined to self-delusion. The latter was a classic golddigger who loved to buy expensive clothing and accessories in exchange for sex. She was a former callgirl but, in reality, she never left her profession. The film only turned darker toward the end when Hopkins’ character, after the woman revealed that she was pregnant, threatened her that the baby better have been his or else. The comedic element was gone and we were left to stare at the character’s desperation, hurt, and anger in his eyes. Unfortunately, that was the last scene between the old man and the golddigger. The same hustle-and-bustle applied to the other characters and were left in the dust wondering what happened next. Not unlike Helena, “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger” needed a strong direction with clear vision. The important questions it brought up about life were cheapened and it ultimately felt like Philosophy 101.
Shrek Forever After (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
Lovable ogre Shrek (voiced by Mike Myers) was going through a midlife crisis. He missed his old life in the swamp when he was able to do whatever he wanted whenever he pleased. Gone were the times when people would see him and scatter about in fear. After storming out of a party and having an argument with his wife Fiona (Cameron Diaz), Shrek ran across the devious Rumpelstiltskin (Walt Dohrn) who was too conveniently trapped under a carriage. Supposedly grateful for being rescued, Rumpelstiltskin, experienced in dark magic, offered Shrek a proposition: Shrek could spend 24 hours in the past if the magician could take any day from Shrek’s life. Before he knew it, the green ogre’s new world was entirely different. Donkey (Eddie Murphy) was no longer his best friend and Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas) was now a fat cat who could not even lick himself. While I do think that the fourth installment was the best since the first in the series, I failed to see anything special about it. I could feel the voice actors being enthusiastic in playing their roles, which was great, but I didn’t think the jokes were fresh enough to keep me constantly entertained. The familiar characters being completely different in the alternate universe became a running gag that grew tired quickly. I wanted the script to poke fun of Shrek’s so-called midlife crisis more consistently. I almost missed the random pop culture references because even though they came out of the blue, they managed to surprised me. Everything in here felt like a rehash of the first three “Shrek” pictures driven by the concept of Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life.” It didn’t take enough risks so the experience was far from rewarding. The subject of alternate universe had been explored so many times that we’ve grown tired of the formula. The “Shrek” franchise, being a satirical jab at fairy tales and pop culture, could have challenged that familiar formula and invigorated the story. Sadly, despite the swashbuckling adventures on screen, the storytelling was too safe, even predictable. Half-way through the picture, I thought it needed an inspiration to keep going. Even the big lesson that Shrek learned in end could be seen from very far, far away. Directed by Mike Mitchell, “Shrek Forever After” was completely breathless as it reached the finish line. The actors and the filmmakers assured that this was the last picture of the series. Unless the writers have truly creative ideas for a fifth movie, I suggest it remains in a deep slumber.
Ley del deseo, La (1987)
★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar, “La ley del deseo” or “Law of Desire” was about a young man in his twenties (Antonio Banderas) who became obsessively in love with an older director (Eusebio Poncela) despite the fact that the director was in a relationship with another young man (Miguel Molina) who wasn’t fully comfortable with the relationship. The picture was also about the director casting his transgendered sister (Carmen Maura) on his play, only the play was based on her struggles about coming to terms with her identity. I think this is one of Almodóvar’s most uneven work but I loved it nonetheless. Although it got distracted from time to time when it tried to introduce unnecessary characters (like the nosy mother, the two cops, and to some extent the little girl who believed in her prayers coming true), the theme of feverish passion was always at the forefront. This is probably one of my favorite performances from Banderas because even though he was essentially a stalker, he found a way to make his character sympathetic. His character’s passion toward the director was fascinating to watch because of the way the passion eventually bubbled over, caused a flood, and changed everyone’s lives. I also loved Poncela and Maura because they shared a different kind of passion: a strong bond between two dysfunctional siblings. They may collide from time to time due to their varying interests and untold family secrets but I could always feel their love for one another; it was a nice feeling and a great contrast between the kind of bond between Poncela and Banderas. Even though “Law of Desire” didn’t quite have Almodóvar’s cheeky use of bright colors and music that jumped out of the screen, the extreme melodrama involving mistaken identities was still there and it was able to keep delivering the sort of energy I love from start to finish. Like Almodóvar’s other works, “Law of Desire” was willing to go places where most directors don’t dare go; the shock value was there (especially during the movie’s opening scene) but it’s not the kind that makes us feel bad about ourselves. It’s the kind that makes fun of us for liking what we’re seeing and wishing it wouldn’t stop. The little twists that the picture had felt natural because the characters were borderline histrionic so the twists didn’t feel like a gimmick. “La ley del deseo” may not be one of Almodóvar’s most focused movies in terms of the fluidity of storytelling but it is one of his most satisfying.
Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios (1988)
★★★ / ★★★★
“Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios” or “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” showcases how fearless Pedro Almodóvar can be as a writer and director. After Pepa (Carmen Maura) was left by her lover (Fernando Guillén), she decided to kill herself by eating gazpacho mixed with heavy doses of sleeping pills. However, her suicide attempt was interrupted when her friend (María Barranco) knocked on her door for help after realizing that she was involved in terrorists who wanted to hijack a plane. And while Pepa was gone and her friend was left to guard the apartment, a couple (Antonio Banderas, Rossy de Palma) knocked on the door to decide if they wanted to rent Pepa’s place. Everything about this movie was so absurd but it was so much fun to watch because it was incredibly unpredictable. And what’s better was the fact that it was easy to tell that the actors were having so much fun in their roles. As much as the movie was comedic on the outside, it really was about the connections between the quirky and eccentric characters unique to Almodóvar’s world. Having seen Almodóvar’s recent works from the 1990s to the 2000s, it was easy for me to recognize certain motifs such as the use of color, strange coincidences and strong women willing to fight for what they believed in. In relation to the last bit, I was in love with that scene when one of the characters discussed the relationship between understanding bikes and understanding the psychology of men. I thought that scene summed up the picture with such elegance because the story was essentially about four women obsessing over men and the outer and inner conflicts they had to go through to be loved in return. My main problem with this film, however, like in a lot of Almodóvar’s movies, was its pacing slowed down a bit somewhere in the middle. But I think it’s only a matter of taste that one can get used to over time as one watches more movies from the director. It’s not at all difficult to be enveloped into the story because the lead character was always doing something purposeful and she was willing to engage in conversations that were witty and sometimes confrontational. A lot of people may think “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” was over-the-top but that’s what makes a great farce. It’s like watching a telenovela with characters that range from harmless but annoying to dangerously psychotic. It was definitely campy but it had a creative postmodern romance that I rarely see (and would like to see more) in cinema these days.
★★★ / ★★★★
I’ve seen Pedro Almodóvar’s work from the late 1990s to the present and have been nothing but impressed so naturally I became interested in seeing his older projects.”Matador” stars Antonio Banderas as a 22-year-old aspiring matador who was working under Nacho Martinez’ wing. When Martinez’ character asked Banderas if he was a homosexual due to his lack of experience with women, Banderas tried to prove his masculinity by trying to rape his mentor’s girlfriend (Eva Cobo). Eventually ending up in jail due to some strange coincidences and choices, a femme fatale lawyer (Assumpta Serna) came running to defend Banderas’ innocence. I love Almodóvar’s films because no matter how much I try to guess what would happen in the story, I always guess incorrectly. He has such a knack for telling unconventional stories that are funny, witty, tragic and ironic often all at the same time. The way he uses color to highlight a character’s fate or what he or she might be feeling and thinking always takes me by surprise even though I’m familiar with his techniques. I also was fascinated with the way Almodóvar used his characters’ occupations as a reflection of what they were really capable of when they think nobody was watching them. Admittedly, the writing can get a bit melodramatic at times but I think that’s half the fun of Almodóvar’s movies. He’s not afraid to reference to the supernatural, such as a certain character experiencing “visions,” to possibly make sense of the natural world. It’s the twists and turns that keep us wanting to watch. Like in most of his later projects, “Matador” was very passionate (or obsessive?) about sexuality–not necessarily sex–how his actors moved and delivered certain lines. Another element that I thought was interesting was the fact that Almodóvar used sex and violence as a backdrop to explore the darker side of human nature. The characters in this film were not necessarily good; in fact, they were far from innocent. But we root for some of them because the protagonists were capable of less evil than their counterparts. I wasn’t sure at first if I was going to enjoy Almodóvar’s earlier works but after watching “Matador,” I’m more than excited to see them. I just hope that they have the same level of vivaciousness, drama and sensuality as this picture.