(On Cable TV, October 2018) There is a lot going on in writer/director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Biutiful, and while not all of it makes sense or is properly developed, it does help maintain interest in a kind of film that I otherwise would find dull or ugly. Let’s see: Here we have a protagonist who’s not just estranged from the mother of his two children (sub-plot #1) but is also semi-psychic (#2), is dying of cancer (#3) and is involved in illegal immigration (#4) which lead to him welcoming the wife of a deported drug dealer in his apartment (#5). The issue here isn’t the number of subplots as much as they all seem to belong in different genres: their collision often smacks of contrivances, and I’ve left the most dramatic parts out of it. Fortunately, the film is anchored by a strong Oscar-nominated performance by Javier Bardem, who grounds even the most ludicrous content in reality, while remaining compelling enough to follow even when the film revels in unnecessary grimness and tragedy. There are plenty of ways Biutiful could have gone wrong, and yet it (mostly) stays interesting throughout as it goes for high drama and a weepy conclusion.
(Netflix Streaming, July 2018) It’s been a frustrating ride on the Pirates of the Caribbean express: While the first film remains slick blockbuster entertainment, the second and third entries in the series quickly became self-indulgent to the point of nearly drowning their considerable assets in too much chaff. Given that the fourth film was surprisingly unremarkable (with surprisingly cheap production values considering its record-breaking budget), who knew what to expect from a fifth film? As it turn out, Dead Men Tell No Tales becomes a bit of a return to form. Never mind that Johnny Depp now plays Jack Sparrow as a buffoon with few of his previous redeeming qualities, or that the action sequences don’t make a whole lot of sense: the fun of the series is back, and the vertiginous set-pieces have a visually imaginative kick to them. Javier Bardem plays a great villain, Geoffrey Rush is back in a reluctantly heroic role, and Kaya Scodelario is not bad as a heroine. Perhaps the worst thing about Dead Men Tell No Tales is the way it suffers from the contemporary tendency of blockbuster movies to over-complicate everything from the visuals to the plotting details, to the point of risking incoherency whenever the slightest detail is out of place. A slightly shorter, substantially cheaper movie would achieve as much, of not even perhaps more. But go tell that to Disney, which is holding on to the series as one of its reliable cash cows. At least the series is now headed up again … although who can really tell how it’s going to be before the end credits of the next film?
(In French, On TV, May 2018) I was bracing for the worst in watching The Sea Inside, having seen what seems to be far too many disability-themed films to last me a long time. But the movie itself is far better than expected, anchored by a superb performance from Javier Bardem and a script that confronts issues head-on. Alejandro Amenábar’s direction is also far better than the norm, with a strong supporting cast. The film’s flights of fancy are also noteworthy in keeping audiences on their toes, and the film’s intellectual depth goes significantly beyond the movie-of-the-week nature of the film’s premise. While I’m nowhere near calling Mar Adentro my favourite movie of any year, it’s far more interesting to watch as I anticipated, and there’s much to say about exceeded expectations.
(In Spanish with French Subtitles, On TV, May 2017) I don’t like Pedro Almodovar’s work quite as much as most movie critics, but I will, at least, grant that his movies are quite unlike anyone else’s. They don’t stick to the formula, they’re willing to portray quirky characters undergoing unimaginable trauma, and they readily reach for uncomfortable situations that would feel extreme in other contexts. Trying to give a plot summary of Carne Trémula to someone used to the standard Hollywood three-act structure would earn wary stares and audible derision. Even while watching the film, it’s sometimes hard to avoid a few well-placed “Oh, come on!” But there are rewards to the whole mess, and it’s a kind of experience that’s strange and universal at once, with actors going far beyond what is expected of them in more ordinary cinema. Javier Bardem is very good here in an early role, which Penelope Cruz gets a small but merciless role. Less familiar actresses such as Francesca Neri and Angela Molina also get good parts to play in a small but intense cast of characters improbably linked together. The film’s Madrid backdrop is unusual but does not obscure common themes. I don’t think anyone will be comforted or conventionally entertained by Carne Trémula … but it’s certainly, like most of Almodovar’s movies, a memorable experience.
(On Cable TV, July 2013) The idea of septuagenarian Woody Allen writing/directing a romantic comedy starring a pair of young women may feel strange, but looking at the result in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, you have to give Allen all the acclaim he deserves. The film features two Americans holidaying in Barcelona: Rebecca Hall as the sensible one with a clear idea of her future and Scarlett Johansson as the flighty one in search of direction. The fun begins when they both fall (at different times) for the same man, and the repercussions that this has over both women’s self-esteem and sense of identity. That, perhaps, is where Allen’s maturity comes into play: by the end of the film, few questions have been settled satisfactorily, even though everyone seems to know a bit more about themselves. As such, don’t expect a conventional crowd-pleaser, even though Vicky Cristina Barcelona is light-hearted enough to qualify as a comedy. Good actors easily make up for whatever non-ending the film may have: While Johansson is decent as the titular Cristina, it’s Rebecca Hall who’s the film’s revelation as the brainier and more conflicted Vicky. Javier Bardem is scarily good as the tall, dark, handsome stranger that shatters the heroines’ world, while Penelope Cruz is almost as striking as the one force of chaos that upsets Bardem’s character. While the film doesn’t have enough of a conclusion to fully satisfy, it’s easy to get swept in this unconventional romantic comedy, and to appreciate the sights that Barcelona has to offer.
(Video on Demand, February 2013) The James Bond franchise needed to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary in style, and Skyfall is just what critics ordered, especially after the disappointment that was Quantum of Solace on the heels of the invigorating Casino Royale reboot. A surprising, intimate celebration/deconstruction of the Bond mythos, Skyfall feels like the most richly thematic Bond yet, indulging into the British machismo of the character while making him fail at nearly every turn. It’s a film that makes a daring series of choices, by nearly killing off the character, graphically exposing his shortcomings, putting him in the service of the matriarchy, flipping the Bond structure as to put the obligatory winks at the beginning of the picture, and delving deeper into Bond’s back-story than ever before. It also features one of the oddest and most effective villains in recent Bond history, as Javier Bardem flamboyantly (yes, that’s the code word) plays an enemy with a straightforward yearning for vengeance. Director Sam Mendes wasn’t the most obvious choice to direct the film, but his handling of the film is immensely self-assured, delivering neat jolts of action alongside the most character-driven moments. It helps that Daniel Craig here solidifies his take as the most credible Bond since Connery, that Judi Dench can sustain a script heavy on her character, and that Naomie Harris fits perfectly in her role. The film’s cinematography is top-notch, and Skyfall is peppered with great moments from a climax-worthy opening action sequence to a one-shot neon-backlit fight to a masterful villain walk-in. Thematically, the film is rich, with real-world allusions crowding symbolism and dramatic ironies. There are too many issues with Skyfall to qualify it as an unimpeachable masterpiece: There’s a lull at the beginning of the third act, the villain’s plan is one of those convenient “everything has to be just so” house of cards, and the seriousness of the picture is the kind of reinterpretation you can only do once a generation. But Skyfall does complete the franchise re-invention process started by Casino Royale: by the time the credits roll, all the pieces (Q, M, Monneypenny, Bond back in service “with pleasure”) have been put in place for another series of installments, preferably ones that goes back to a less serious take on the character now that it has reset expectations.