Tag: pedro almodovar


Julieta (2016)
★★★ / ★★★★

Based on three short stories by Alice Munro, “Julieta,” directed by Pedro Almodóvar, is likely to frustrate viewers because it dares to end right at the climax. However, audiences with discerning eyes and minds will recognize that this astute decision exactly fits the material’s themes involving broken relationships and longing. It shouldn’t end any other way.

Followers of Almodóvar’s work may feel a bit disappointed because gone are the usual pavonine displays of primary colors or colors that complement one another. We do encounter his signature style of employing the color red to highlight an object, a living space, or an emotion, but this technique comes across as out of place, almost as a tool to get us to pay attention when there really is not much to see or even think about. Yet, again, I admired the filmmaker’s ability to play with expectations, even daring to alienate or render his niche viewers off-balance, because a feeling of disappointment and emptiness pervades the life of the story’s central character.

Emma Suárez and Adriana Ugarte play Julieta, the older and younger, respectively, and they command a fascinating way of being. Although the two may not look alike physically, they do share an air of vulnerability, almost a certain proclivity for sadness—which works effectively in dramatic scenes when secrets kept buried for years finally reach the surface. In Ugarte’s scenes, told in an extended flashback, there is a feeling of neediness to her, kind of like a wounded bird you’d want to take home and care for. In Suárez’s scenes, which take place in the present, she balances obsession and depression without playing extremes. We believe that the aging woman is the young woman we’ve come to know in the past.

As expected from an Almodóvar picture, there is generous use of closeups. This is a filmmaker who loves images of women—faces of women, to be exact—even if the characters, or the performers, do not look their best. The wrinkles around one’s mouth, dark shadows under one’s eyes, the asymmetry of one’s face—these make the characters’ histories all the more convincing; the more worn they look, the more we believe that they’ve lived the lives being portrayed. Sometimes the appearance of polish in a drama might as well be a physical wall between the audience and the characters.

The driving force of the film is a question: What are the circumstances that lead to Julieta’s crippling loneliness? Some might suggest that the story is about a mother and daughter’s separation. While this is partly true, it fails to encapsulate what’s already inside the lead protagonist before she had her daughter, that sadness already growing within her that makes us not want to look away. There is a reason why the title is simply called “Julieta” and Almodóvar’s hands create a stunning portrait of a woman on the edge.

I’m So Excited!

I’m So Excited! (2013)
★★ / ★★★★

Peninsula 2549 is a plane on its way to Mexico City. A virgin psychic, Bruna (Lola Dueñas), goes inside the cockpit and tells the pilot and co-pilot (Antonio de la Torre, Hugo Silva) that she senses something big will happen on the flight—that it will be a special day for everyone. She is told a little secret: aside from the folks in business class, the pilots, and the three gay stewards (Raúl Arévalo, Javier Cámara, Carlos Areces), everyone else is drugged in order to prevent a panic—the plane has been flying in circles for some time. There is something wrong with the landing gear and so the plane must land in a special way. They are currently looking for an airport that can accommodate their predicament.

Written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar, “Los amantes pasajeros” is a disappointing misfire. The comedy being as light as a cloud is not the issue. The problem is that the screenplay has no interesting or original story to tell. The film, however, works as a hit-or-miss sketch. Some sections are riotously funny, a few are worthy of chuckles, and some fall completely flat, lifeless, boring.

I am convinced that even Almodóvar was aware that the material lacks a special something in order to keep it afloat, so to speak. So, he makes us sit through subplots that feel completely forced. One that stunned me because it is so out of place involves an actor (Guillermo Toledo) who calls his suicidal girlfriend. For a while the picture puts us on the ground but it serves no point. Are we supposed to learn something about the actor? The women he loves? Is the idea of romantic love being satirized? Because the approach is so broad, the message or the point, if any, is vague and confusing.

Even one character who is potentially interesting—because she is so unpleasant—fails to entertain. Norma (Cecilia Roth) acts as though everyone else is beneath her. On top of that, she is paranoid, dominating, and yet she can be open given enough… inspiration added to her drink. Although she talks a lot, there is only one thing that is surprising about her. Even the bit of surprise is not worth the wait.

The focus of “I’m So Excited!” should have been on the crew. One of the funniest bits involves the three fabulously effeminate stewards performing a dance to The Pointer Sisters’ “I’m So Excited.” They are so lively and out there that I felt like I was having a great time in a Vegas cabaret show (while I’m intoxicated). Why can’t the rest of the movie have that level of ferocity? The Almodóvar that I am used to is someone who constantly pushes the envelope and knows what works on screen consistently. You know what would have made that scene funnier? If the actors actually sang the song. I would not have cared if the singing were bad. It would have been a bigger risk and taking risks is what great filmmaking is about.

I also enjoyed some of the jokes about sexuality—bisexuality, to be exact—between the pilot and co-pilot. I think Almodóvar wishes to comment on how we, as a society, are so willing to subscribe to a label that by doing so, sometimes it prevents us not only from having a good time and being open to experiences but also from finding happiness. There is a minute trace of seriousness behind some of the jabs and they would have had more impact if the writer-director did not prescribe to making a light comedy from end to end.

Live Flesh

Live Flesh (1997)
★★★ / ★★★★

Isabel (Penélope Cruz), a prostitute, is in labor and a friend (Pilar Bardem) opts to help her deliver the baby on the bus while on their way to the hospital. The newborn is named Víctor. Twenty years later, Víctor (Liberto Rabal) calls from a pay phone outside of a drug addict’s apartment. Elena (Francesca Neri) declines to allow him to come up because she cannot remember agreeing to go on a date with him a week prior. Still, Víctor finds a way to get in. A gun is fired and the neighbors call the police.

David (Javier Bardem) and Sancho (José Sancho) are summoned to investigate the call. While Víctor and Sancho wrestle for the gun, David turns away from the scuffle to tell Elena to run downstairs. The gun goes off.

Based on a novel by Ruth Rendel and directed by Pedro Almodóvar, “Carne trémula” is an elegantly constructed story about obsession. Víctor is obsessed with Elena but he is not the kind of creep who sneaks into her house and steals memorabilia for his shrine. He is charming on the outside but holds a darkness within. The kind of things he considers valuable are of his memories with her. Since he can take those memories wherever he goes, images of her face, her body, and her quirks constantly bounce around in his head.

His actions are driven by this obsession. After being released from jail, he decides to volunteer at a children’s center that Elena helped to finance because he knows that sooner or later, she will have to come in and interact with the staff. Since he cannot be with her, given that she has married David during his years of incarceration for shooting a cop, being around her will have to do for the time being.

Sex is never used as a product of, or through an act of, love. Rather, it is used as a means to an end and a catalyst that highlights the broken part of the characters. For example, initially, David and Elena look like a perfect fit. While in prison, Víctor, raging with jealousy, watches them hug and kiss on TV. But when David is shot in the back, the bullet severs his spine and the injury leaves him unable to move his lower limbs. As a result, David and Elena are not able to have a normal sex life.

He gives her oral sex and she is able to experience pleasure, but a woman needs every part of a man–physically, emotionally, psychologically–to be fully fulfilled. Elena is not fulfilled. If David is not able to tell, and a fool he is not, that is because Elena goes on great lengths to hide it. That is when Víctor comes in. The way I saw it, Elena considers him as the reason why she cannot be fully happy with her husband even though she loves him–and he loves her–dearly. At the same time, she sees Víctor as a person who she knows is messed up in the head but is able to give her his all.

Almodóvar is melds disparate emotions and psychology to make intricate patterns about human behavior and desires without coming off as forced or one note. There is an excellent scene when David visits Víctor to warn that he ought to away from Elena. Víctor asks, in a mocking way, what David is going to do if he does not. The husband punches the stalker where it hurts, but instead of exploding into a fight, the two end up cheering together because their fútbol team scores a great point on TV. Even though the two are opposite forces on collision, the scene puts them on common ground.

“Carne trémula,” also known as “Live Flesh,” is in control of its themes. Its assured direction anchors the abrupt changes in our sentiments toward the people on screen as well as the characters’ opinions of one another. The answers are never easy or predictable as our feelings for another person does not reflect that of a straight line.

Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!

Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990)
★★★ / ★★★★

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.

The Skin I Live In

The Skin I Live In (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.


Heartbeats (2010)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Francis (Xavier Dolan) and Marie (Monia Chokri) were best friends. They relished vintage fashion, enjoyed watching classic films, and quoting respectable poems. But those weren’t all they had in common. When they met Nicolas (Neils Schneider), a curly-haired blonde with a bone structure of a Greek god, the foundation of Francis and Marie’s friendship was tested. Written and directed by Xavier Dolan, “Les amours imaginaires” told its story through the senses. Slow-motion shots were prevalent for a reason. Francis and Marie’s rivalry was mostly shown in an insidious manner. It was only natural that two friends would hide their jealousy from one another to avoid hurting each other and themselves. The slow movement of the camera magnified the little things like a fake smile or a judging look. It also highlighted the pain when reality did not meet one’s expectations. For example, when Francis and Marie greeted Nicolas at a party, Francis noticed that Nicolas hugged Marie for much longer. Francis tried to play it off as if it was nothing but we knew better. The slow motion revealed to us the many questions in his head. Did the Adonis adore Marie more than him? Dolan’s use of bold colors was quite Almodóvar-esque. A scene shot in which red reigned supreme suggested fiery passion, perhaps even obsession. Green signified jealousy as Francis shared a bed with another man knowing that Nicolas and Marie were probably having a good time together. Lastly, I felt the need to point out the lack of a gratuitous sex scene. I admired that the material remained true to itself. The relationship between the trio wasn’t about sex. It was about the longing for someone who may or may not be willing to reciprocate. The fact that the writer-director chose to explore the funny, awkward, painful space between the three characters instead of allowing them to get together sexually proved to me that he was confident with his project. However, what I found less effective were the scenes that involved broken-hearted romantics who pondered over men and women who hurt them. I felt like I was in group therapy where no one made sense. Instead of relating to them, I ended up somewhat disliking them. Most recalled waiting for someone they were interested in and the person being late for over thirty minutes. It was suggested that they felt used waiting when the relationship ultimately didn’t go anywhere. If I was supposed to meet someone for the first time and he or she was thirty minutes late, that person could forget about it. I was there on time so I wouldn’t place the blame on myself. Either those scenes should have been excised or someone should have criticized their way of thinking. Despite its weak miniature intermissions, “Heartbeats” pulsated with creativity. I was addicted to its beauty.

Dark Habits

Dark Habits (1983)
★ / ★★★★

“Entre tinieblas” or “Dark Habits” was about a singer (Cristina Sánchez Pascual) who retreated in a convent because her boyfriend passed away after she provided him drugs. The singer believed that she was safe in the convent but little did she know that nuns (Julieta Serrano, Chus Lampreave, Carmen Maura, Marisa Paredes, Lina Canalejas) harbored secrets such as drug addictions, obsessive-compulsions, a tiger in their garden, and that one of them fell in love with her. This was far from the strongest Pedro Almodóvar film because it was too colorful but it did not have an ounce of substance and the way the story unfolded was too all over the place. Potential scandalous storylines were present but I did not feel as though the director exploited the characters’ strengths and weaknesses. Instead of challenging the characters by putting them in situations they were not used to, the characters were stuck in their own worlds and it felt like time went by so slowly because the comedy came few and far between. When the ironic scenes arrived, unlike Almodóvar’s sharper projects, I merely chuckled instead of laughed. I would have been into the story more if it had taken its time to focus on each nun and her relationship with their new guest. It was obvious that they saw her as a light of hope because prior to her decision to stay in the convent, the ennui of every day slowly killed their spirit. The only dynamic relationship in the movie was between Pascual and Lampreave’s characters. They were different from one another but shared a big commonality: They wanted to live a life that was free and they believed that the first step to achieving that goal was to leave the convent. The power in the scenes they shared was above their eccentricities and that’s when the picture felt alive and interesting. Almodóvar obviously wanted to expose some of the hypocrisies in terms of devout individuals, which I thought was fine because he respected his group subjects, but I wished he moved beyond the one-joke premise and defied our expectations half-way through the film. It desperately needed a change of tone in its half-way mark because it straddled the line between annoying and soporific. In the end, “Entre tinieblas” did not work for me because I saw its potential to become so much more enjoyable if it had more focus and acidic scene of humor. However, I think fans of Almodóvar should still watch the movie (there are familiar elements here that contributed to his later work) to see how masterful he has become as a filmmaker over the years.