(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.
(In theaters, May 2011) Expectations ran high for this spin-off to the swashbuckling action/adventure trilogy of 2003-2007, but few expected this follow-up to be this… dull. Despite sporting the same screenwriting team than the first films, this fourth entry feels flat, unremarkable and even boring at times. The scale of everything has been scaled back (there are noticeably fewer special effects set-pieces, and not a single sea battle), while the sense of fun that seemed so contagious in the first two-third of the series seems lessened as well. The first few scenes show how off-track the film feels, with broad comedy that fails to amuse, familiar hum-drum action beats and incoherent plotting. Those who couldn’t get enough of Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow will reconsider as the series tries to promote him to protagonist status, putting far too much dramatic demands on a trickster/comic foil character. While neither Depp nor Penelope Cruz as the feisty Angelica do badly, they’re not very well served by a script that feels noticeably uneven, even sloppy to the point of confusing the audience. The film even feels cheap at times, its climax taking place on an obvious soundstage, three groups clashing without much of a sense of involvement. There are a number of scenes that work well (the palm tree escape shows flashes of the madcap action sequences that made the first two films of the series so memorable), but they never sustain any kind of narrative energy. (A sequence set aboard a perilously-perched derelict Spanish galleon ends up noticeably short, to the point of cheating viewers.) In fact, the surprise about this film is how much intriguing material it squanders without care. You’d think that it would take work to mess up something involving mermaids, Blackbeard, the Fountain of Life, bottled ships, Keith Richards, Gemma Ward and Judi Dench in a split-second cameo… and yet the film unspools without raising too much excitement. Even the film’s link to Tim Powers’ fantasy novel On Stranger Tides is slight: the film is “suggested by” the novel, but it seems more like a case of retroactive acknowledgement of the first film’s debt than any correspondence to the written work. This way, at least, Powers gets plausible deniability when people will ask him about the mess that is the film itself.
(In theatres, February 2010) I’m favourably disposed towards musicals, but my indulgence felt its limits with Nine, a somewhat limp take on Fellini and his approach to cinema. Some things work really well: the atmosphere of bygone Italy, the portrait of the director as a hedonistic monomaniac, the flashy cinematography, the eye-popping line-up of female stars… it adds up to a project with potential. Seeing Fergie deliver the film’s best musical number won’t leave anyone indifferent, but it’s more fun to see Kate Hudson pop her way through “Cinema Italiano”, the film’s bounciest number, and Penelope Cruz vamp it up in fancy lingerie. Lucky Daniel Day-Lewis, playing a director stuck in the middle of so much female attention. But in most of its musical numbers, the film has trouble distinguishing itself through a series of mopey ballads. The plot troubles multiply, but they all lead to a narrative crash from which the film never recovers: there’s only an epilogue to suggest that our protagonist is on his way back. There is, in other words, little pay-off for all that came before, and a surprising amount of boredom on the way there. Nine is not a film that involves; it prefers to be looked at and occasionally admired for its art direction. Which is really too bad, since its first half promises a lot more than it delivers in the second.