Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Popcorn Kernels: Vote For Pedro

It's my only friend, the end! After these three mini-reviews of his more obscure 90's work, we will finally be finished with our long-running retrospective on the filmography of Pedro Almodóvar! (Full disclosure, two of these reviews were written about a year and a half ago. It took... a while to finally motivate myself to watch Kika, perhaps the only movie of his that literally nobody has a good word to say about.)

High Heels

Year: 1991
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Cast: Victoria Abril, Marisa Paredes, Miguel Bosé
Run Time: 1 hour 52 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

A news anchor's estranged actress mother returns after 10 years, and they both become embroiled in a murder investigation when her husband - her mother's ex - winds up dead.

There's melodrama and then there's Almodóvar melodrama. And then there's High Heels. An operatically tragic affair, every other scene features or or both of the lead actresses' eyes brimming with tears (the first being Marisa Paredes, anchor of The Flower of My Secret and All About My Mother, returning to his ensemble for the first time after Dark Habits; the second being Victoria Abril, his rebound muse after Carmen Maura's departure, who was fresh off his previous effort Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!). The labyrinthine plot twists and turns at every opportunity, full of unexpected reveals and simpering heartache.

OK not every reveal is unexpected, one of them being rendered entirely predictable by the presence of a hilariously fake beard, but I'm pretty sure we're supposed to notice that.

But I digress (as you're probably aware if you've read more than one of my reviews). Coming on the (pun absolutely intended) heels of a decade of work dominated primarily by comedies, High Heels was the beginning of Almodóvar's transformation from Madrid punk wild child to respected international filmmaker. it's not an entirely smooth transition. This is the first of two films co-produced with a French studio whose process wouldn't end up gelling with him, and it's marked by a handful of flaws.

To be fair, these flaws do stem entirely from Almodóvar himself: the first a tendency to linger far too long on non-plot progressing musical numbers. This would work well in his future works (and in fact did so in Law of Desire four years earlier), but the plot is so bare bones that it can't withstand the diversion. There is still an inordinate amount of style in the way High Heels is shot (especially its red-heavy color palette), but it is not so inundated with pure cinema craft that it can take a break to rejoice in the pure act of creation in the way that the much more confident Volver can.

The second, less invasive, flaw is the cast, which sees Almodóvar still reeling from the loss of Carmen Maura. And now her male counterpart Antonio Banderas has also left the scene (he dropped out of High Heels for his role in 1992's The Mambo Kings). The director just doesn't seem to know what to make of his leads (minus the reliably excellent Marisa Paredes), and though Miguel Bosé and especially Victoria Abril give very fine performances, they lack that ineffable spark that defines most of Almodóvar's leads, even one-time players like Bad Education's Gael García Bernal.

But that said, High Heels is still capable of great heights. The comic bit with a sign language interpreter is excellent, and a joyous moment of dance in a women's prison numbers among the director's most delightful - if inexplicable - scenes. High Heels is a beautiful melodrama with a gripping plot and a unique sensibility, even if it's occasionally a bit lethargic. How anyone could complain about that I do not know, though I understand why this is one of the less revered works in the director's filmography.

Rating: 6/10

Kika


Year: 1993
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Cast: Peter Coyote, Verónica Forqué, Victoria Abril
Run Time: 1 hour 54 minutes

An upbeat cosmetologist must weather affairs, a voyeur, a serial killer, a rapist, and an evil television announcer in a very fateful week.

Kika was in very many ways a transitional film for Almodóvar. It was the first time he would ever work with an American actor - Peter Coyote - and it was also the last. The ties to his regular ensemble of actors are extremely loose - of the notable people who worked with him multiple times, it's pretty much only Rossy De Palma, who does get her first truly meaty role with him here - and this was the last time he would make a film featuring temp muse Victoria Abril.

Abril, who had a small uncredited role in Law of Desire before leading Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! and High Heels and taking a sizable supporting role in Kika, never managed to produce truly extraordinary work with the man, who was in his most artistically uncertain period following the departure of Carmen Maura from his stable of reliable performers. She's a totally capable and extremely game actress, I don't mean to blame her. But she wasn't what he needed at the time, and it's telling that his very next film The Flower of My Secret would lean heavily on the miraculous Marisa Paredes and the subsequent Live Flesh would spark his relationship with Penélope Cruz and finally add another huge star to his firmament.

While I absolutely wouldn't say Kika was his worst film (for my money, some of his rougher early works just don't quite find their way), it's certainly the nadir of the pretty much uninterrupted string of cinematic triumphs that began with 1987's Law of Desire. Its narrative messiness is a little closer to the shapeless blob of Matador than his more artistically esoteric later works, positioning Peter Coyote as co-lead provides a huge emotional black hole (he just doesn't seem to care about anything going on here), and the film is tinged with a palpable bitterness that translated to a direly low box office pull everywhere but France (take from that what you will).

In spite of that, however, Kika does have its moments of brilliance. Kika's apartment, the location where about 60% of the film takes place, is a perfectly Almodóvarian haven of bright colors that is perfectly complemented by sassy, eye-searing Jean Paul Gaultier costumes. Victoria Abril's character (a TV shock jock who calls herself "Scarface") is f**king bizarre, but her costumes are a stroke of twisted genius - she is frequently dressed in a full body catsuit with a camera affixed to a helmet, and two cutouts for her breasts which also act as lamps. It's deeply insane, in the best Almodóvar fashion.

Speaking of... His kinkiness and demented comedy reach their most controversial peak in Kika during a scene that is hard to parse out in 2019. I'll be frank about it: It positions a rape sequence as a busy farce. I think it's pretty clear he's making a statement about how women are treated in European society at the time (a later line about "Women are being raped every day, today it happened to be me" cements this idea for me), but a viewer's mileage with this will absolutely vary. To be clear, the rape absolutely isn't a joke, it's the women's calm, almost bored and quotidian reactions to it. That said, it's an extremely tightly wound comic scene that stands head and shoulders above the rest of the film, perhaps unfortunately.

Anyway... Remember what I said about Kika being kind of a bitter, nasty film? It's definitely an outlier in the Almodóvar canon, because even though it aesthetically fits in with the rest of his works, there's a fatigue here that isn't present even in his most recent works, created as a sexagenarian. I wouldn't recommend it to any first-timer approaching his work. In fact, I'm glad I saved it for last. I think the more context you have for his career, the more you'll appreciate it. Otherwise, focusing on the ones you've heard of instead is probably the best course of action.

Rating: 6/10

Live Flesh


Year: 1997
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Cast: Liberto Rabal, Francesca Neri, Javier Bardem
Run Time: 1 hour 43 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

An ex-con attempts to insert himself into the relationship of two of his victims.

Live Flesh is maybe the most straightforward melodrama Pedro Almodóvar has ever made. I guess that's not saying much, considering that it features three time jumps spanning 26 years, a complicated web of revenge sex, and literally every character points a gun at at least one other character. But it's at least linear, with one event directly informing the next, and that's a luxury you shouldn't thumb your nose at.

Because it's so linear, it's also a teensy bit predictable, but that's the only patch on what's otherwise a completely stunning, typically twisted tale of lust, blood, and betrayal. Live Flesh's tantalizing storyline is brought to lurid life by Almodóvar's inimitable style, which had finally kicked into high gear after a brief mid-90's decline (he had to build up speed before making All About My Mother, I suppose). Come to think of it, in a lot of ways Live Flesh feels like the director is pressing the reset button.

While he is exercising his visual prowess with renewed vigor (he captures the streets of Madrid with a  delightful symmetry, finding unique shapes through which to tell his story - whether they be the harsh rectangle of a city bus, the inviting circle of a blessing wreath of flowers, or the repeating star motif), he has also chosen a cast of conspicuously unfamiliar faces. Every Almodóvar film pulls from his established ensemble of actors for at least two or three roles (usually more), but the only member of Live Flesh's cast he had ever worked with before was Javier Bardem, who held a small role in High Heels so negligible you wouldn't have noticed him if he wasn't now incredibly famous.

Of course, that doesn't mean he wouldn't work with these people again (hell, this is the film where he found Penélope Cruz, his second greatest muse), but for all intents and purposes this cast gave him an entirely new sandbox to work in, as his career progressed forward into its more Oscar-worthy stretch. None of them reach the peak of what an Almodóvar ensemble can accomplish, but they're all nevertheless game for the task.

Really, the most striking thing about Live Flesh is how overtly political it is. Although I certainly don't have a thorough enough grounding in Spanish politics to have all the context I need, the film is very clearly an indictment of the regime of the dictatorial King Franco, as well as a depiction of the insidious way it poisoned the lives of those who lived under it. It's also an exuberant celebration for the freedom of modern Spain, so passionate that anyone who doesn't have a scrap of geopolitical understanding could still feel its warmth.

A captivating story with political fervor is exactly what I want from a film, so I greatly enjoyed Live Flesh. It suffers a little from its more anonymous cast, but I wouldn't even have noticed if I wasn't as terrifyingly deep into the man's filmography as I surely am. It's a gorgeous, terrific film that is also one of his more easily accessible works, so I recommend it to veterans and newcomers alike.

Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1908

Monday, May 20, 2019

Reviewing Jane: I Am Half Agony, Half Hope

In which we review every film adapted from or inspired by the works of Jane Austen.

Year: 2004
Director: Beeban Kidron
Cast: Renée Zellweger, Colin Firth, Hugh Grant
Run Time: 1 hour 48 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

As you may remember, the original Bridget Jones's Diary was ostensibly based on Pride and Prejudice, a connection I found dubious considering that naming a character Darcy doesn't mean you've read Jane Austen. But three years later came Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, which was even more ostensibly based on Austen's final novel Persuasion. Time to repeat the refrain. Having a couple get back together after a period of time doesn't. mean. you've. read. Jane! Freaking! Austen!

But people aren't exactly out here adapting Persuasion left and right, so we take what we get with this one.

So the film opens on Bridget Jones (Renée Zellweger) happily in love with Mark Darcy (Colin Firth), but because she is an insecure mess who's incapable of holding a cogent thought in her head for more than two seconds without going ballistic or falling into a mud puddle, of course this goes terribly wrong. It would appear that Mark is having an affair with his secretary Rebecca (Jacinda Barrett), and her anger is fueled by the fact that she expected a proposal that never happened (six weeks into this relationship, mind you) so she dumps him and throws herself into work, a travel show that brings her into close context with her misogynistic ex-boss/ex-lover Daniel (Hugh Grant).

A love triangle almost ensues.

Roll credits!

Is it clear I didn't like this movie? If not, allow me to highlight my point further. A lot of the problems inherent to the original Bridget Jones are alive and well here, to the point that the rigorously anti-funny opening scene is repeated beat by exhausting beat. Come to think of it, the clumsy third act climactic fight between Grant and Firth is also repeated in full.

And do we get another scoop of terrible gay jokes dumped on top of the script? You betcha! And this time we're taking down history's iconic artist Michelangelo by calling him a "poof," because it's fun when you slur titanic cultural figures and reduce them to their sexuality, something which would have been highly dangerous to openly exhibit at the time yaaaaaaay! Oh, and how could we not be racist to huge swaths of the Asian population and use an entire foreign country and its people as a prop to further along a white woman's romantic journey?

Oh and you know we're not going to be able to escape the gags about the beautiful Zellweger being a fat pig who deserves to be mocked by everyone in her life and the public at large! For a movie squarely intended to land in the "chick flick" category, Bridget Jones sure just hates women. It's exhausting!

Good thing Colin Firth has almost exclusively played gay from this point on, because this just isn't working for him.

The sad thing is, this is actually a major improvement over the first film all things considered. Director Beeban Kidron (who also made the terrific To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar) actually knows how to shoot a movie, and the rich fantasy life that Bridget leads actually is incorporated into the visual schema in ways the original movie only sporadically attempted to. Her thoughts take the form of text and images inlaid onto the screen or transposed onto signs and buildings in real life, and it creates a lush bedrock of imagery upon which this crap sandwich is plated.

Also a plus, Hugh Grant is barely in this movie. I have nothing against the man himself, but his character is such a toxic despicable presence that his reduced screentime also slashes the proportion of this movie's most severely hateful and outdated humor.

This absolutely isn't a movie I'd recommend. To anyone. But if somehow you have a stomach of steel and enjoyed the original film, this one will give you more of the same, but with a little more focus and intentionality, and I guess that might be a good thing.

TL;DR: Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason is a massive improvement on the original, but that one was terrible so that makes this one only OK.
Rating: 4/10
Word Count: 722
Reviews In This Series
Bridget Jones's Diary (Maguire, 2001)
Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason (Kidron, 2004)