Movie Review: Pedro Almadóvar’s Pain and Glory (Dolor y Gloria)

P&GposterAt 6:30 a.m. on the Friday after Christmas, I found myself fully inserted into a large MRI tube. For 45 minutes I had to remain completely still while an icy course of “tracer” pulsed through my veins and a cacophonous symphony of beeps, clanks and rumblings sneaked through the noise-reducing headphones that were provided.  Forty-five minutes in odd isolation gives you a lot of time to think…about pretty much everything, but certainly about one’s own mortality, about creativity and about finishing the work that one has started.

I don’t know if I am unconsciously seeking out these type of things/thoughts or that I am just noticing them more and more. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about a Rodney Crowell song titled “It Ain’t Over Yet” which deals with not giving up despite what age and time and others might tell you. I’ve played that song at two separate gigs since then. Today I finally saw a film that I had been wanting to see since it came out a month ago: Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory.

AB

Antonio Banderas as Salvador Mallo in Pain and Glory

Almodóvar’s film deals also with the subject of mortality. (Though a two-hour film can certainly uncover many more layers than can ever be exposed in a four-minute song.) The protagonist, Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas) is a film-director/screenwriter beset by pains and various medical conditions who has completely stopped working and who–when not self-medicating–slips into fond memories of his past, memories triggered by the slightest moments of the present.  There are memories of his mother, of his early home, of his childhood. And, at the moment, he feels that they are all he has.

Yet his film career is now the subject of art house retrospectives and a memoir piece is currently being staged by an old colleague/nemesis. But he has stopped working. There is nothing new.

He has a wonderful, solicitous secretary (Nora Navas) who continues to answer the many requests for interviews, conferences, etc–always with a “no” response. She is also charged with taxiing him to doctors and hospitals.  (A wonderful throw-away line is when he asks why he is so popular in Iceland, after the umpteenth Icelandic request for him to visit.)

I have loved Almodóvar’s films since I was quite young. And if asked what it is about all of them that I remember, I might say–beside the passionate storytelling–the color. His eye for color is startling. There are many vivid reds and electric blues–Mallo’s apartment is a designer’s dream–and even the white-washed caves that the young boy and his mother (Penelope Cruz) live in pop off the screen in memorable brilliance.

PC&child

Young Mallo (Asier Flores) and his mother (Penelope Cruz) in the cave where they live (before the white washing).

There has been much written about how Pain and Glory is Pedro Almodóvar’s most personal film. And that is easily understood. But since I am often teased for being a “spoiler” in any posts that I write about movies and books, I will do my best to restrain myself here. However, I will say that whatever Pedro Almodóvar is thinking, he should listen to Rodney Crowell’s song “It Ain’t Over Yet.”

Because this film is wonderful.

Movie Review: Pedro Almodovar’s I’m So Excited! (Los Amantes Pasajeros )

Pedro Almadovar famously said in 2012 that Pablo Berger’s Blancanieves was the best film made in Spain that year.

Pedro Almodovar at London premiere of I'm So Excited

Pedro Almodovar at London premiere of I’m So Excited!

Whether it was false modesty or not on Almodovar’s part, he could have said that his own Los Amantes Pasajeros was Spain’s funniest movie of the year.

Almadovar’s film–which was given the English title of I’m So Excited!--gives us all the things one wants in an Almodovar film: Brightness, intelligence, silliness, kinkiness, a large dose of drugs combined with a bit of social commentary, modern instability and fractured and teetering relationships . Working within a particular genre–a group of unusual characters are trapped within a small confine, Almodovar uses the trope to have fun, plain and simple.

The plot of the film is that a plane bound for Mexico from Madrid encounters immediate mechanical problems and must begin circling until an empty airport can be found so it can make an emergency landing. The crew, in order to keep things calm give the entire “economy class” and its attendants muscle relaxers, and they are asleep they entire film (except for one who is later sexually awakened!) Leave it to yourself to figure out what Almodovar is saying about the sleeping “economy class.”

Meanwhile business class has seven passengers: a washed-up actor, the most famous dominatrix in Spain, a shy hit-man, a crooked businessman, a honeymooning couple and a virginal psychic who has sneaked in from economy. And we soon learn their quirks, their secrets, and their passions. We are right to think we have been here before with Agatha Christie and that bunch. But we’d be wrong.

Listening to Norma's (Cecelia Ruth) secrets.

Listening to Norma’s (Cecilia Roth) secrets.

For we have never been here with the likes of Almodovar’s flight crew. They are introduced swigging shots of tequila as they prepare meals (their way to deal with the mechanical emergency after drugging the economy class). One has a pop-up Hindu temple that he prays to; the other is having an affair with the closeted and married pilot; and the third has his eyes on the “determinedly” heterosexual co-pilot. And as the danger becomes more eminent and potentially catastrophic, they entertain the business-class travelers with a song and dance routine (the Pointer Sisters’ “I’m So Excited!”)

The Airline Stewards performing "I'm So Excited"

The airline stewards performing “I’m So Excited”

This isn’t Ship of Fools, nor was it meant to be. It is silly, outrageous fun. And when the “Valencia Cocktails” are served, spiked with an overdose of mescaline, the fun really begins! As the one steward tells us, the mescaline will make people more open, more honest and horny. And was he ever right!

Almodavar has been soundly criticized for this, his nineteenth film, for its being too light, too campy, too slapstick. (One reviewer said to “never trust a movie title with an exclamation point”!) But the hell with them. Sometimes, light, campy and slapstick are what we need. I know I almost moved my seat because of the guffawing elderly lady near by. She laughed (loudly) non-stop. And there was good reason to.

Almodovar is sure of his craft and his precedents. The nods to Hitchcock’s Vertigo are almost immediately obvious–we quickly find ourselves staring into the twirling mechanics of a jet engine. While the awareness of his own personal filmography and progression is demonstrated by his opening the film with his original stars Antonio Banderas and Penelope Cruz–actors who never again appear in the film– anchoring it with Cecelia Roth who has played so many great Almodovar roles, and featuring a whole new stable of actors who are certain to show up in future Almodovar films. (Paz Vega is another actor who has played in Almodovar films before but who has a minor part and less than two minutes of screen time.)

Almodovar has his own bag of tricks and devices and storylines; that he uses them time and again is not necessarily a negative for me. We have neurotic women, shady men, flamboyant revelers, and unknowingly ingested drugs–as we have had often before in Almodovar films. But because the colors are bright and mod, the homosexuality over the top and flamboyant, the villains somewhat stereotyped and the story too sweetly resolved—because we know what to expect in an Almodovar film, it has been regularly panned by critics.

But for me, it was a cool, tasty, silly romp that was perfect for a muggy day at the end of July.

Movie Review: To Rome with Love, written and directed by Woody Allen

With an over-sized brace on my knee, a bottle of Vicodin in my pocket and a set of “just-a-bit-too-tall” crutches, I limped down to the corner, grabbed the 57 Bus on 4th street, and rode it to Walnut where I hobbled over to the theater to see Woody Allen’s latest film, To Rome with Love.

I used the word “hobble” intentionally because that was what Woody Allen seemed to have done with this collection of slight stories set in Rome, the eternal city. He took several disparate tales and hobbled them into some sort of unity– a whimsical investigation of fame and celebrity, set under the bright Roman sun. (It is noteworthy, that very few scenes take place after sunset–there is the finale on the Spanish steps and a cheesy storm-scene in the Roman Baths. The rest is filmed beautifully in the bright Italian sun.)

There are four basic stories:

♦ a young architect with dreams of greatness and confused romanticism is being advised by the pedestrian man he will become.

♦ a funeral director with a magnificent operatic voice can only sing in the shower.

♦ a newly wedded bride is seduced by a celebrated actor, an incompetent hotel thief, and her newly educated husband.

♦ a middle-class man becomes famous for no reason at all.

Each story is successful to varying degrees.  And each has its own charm…to varying degrees.

Alec Baldwin plays the elder architect watching his younger self stumble through a risky affair. Woody Allen himself plays a retired opera impresario trying to get the shy mortician to sing on stage. The Italian actress, Alessandra Mastronardi,  plays the timid newlywed who is bedazzled by her favorite actor. And Roberto Benigni plays the hapless man who becomes–for no reason at all–the most famous man in Rome.  The stories are not connected but move from one to another easily.

Allen has proven before that no one makes a location look as attractive as he can, and here again, he does for Rome what he has previously done for Paris, Barcelona, London, and–most readily–New York.  He also proves that he has the ability to get wonderful performances from his actors.  Alec Baldwin is all self-effacing and snarky wisdom; Penelope Cruz seems to be channeling those  mid-century Italian film stars–Sophia Loren and Gina Lollabrigida; Benigni is permitted to clown with little restraint; and even the young actors–Jesse Eisenberg, Greta Gerwig, and Ellen Page–are given room to breathe into their roles.  On screen, Allen, reprises the role he has played forever–the neurotic, death-fearing, nebbish.  But perhaps the most extraordinary performance is that by the great, internationally-acclaimed tenor, Fabio Armilato, who plays a man who can only sing in the shower and who gamely lets Allen place him in several showers throughout the film.

Allen has long proclaimed his love of European movies–he famously dabbled in Bergman-esque type films in the late 1970s–and earlier this summer he listed four Italian movies that he felt influenced him profoundly. Two were by the director Vittorio de Sica (The Bicycle Thief and Shoeshine), one by Michelangelo Antonini (Blow-up) and one by Federico Fellini (Armacord). He stated that these films changed the way stories could be told, a narrative arc very similar to that which he would use in many of his own films.

He quipped about his love of European film: “I wanted nothing more than to be a foreign film director, but, of course, I was from Brooklyn which is not a foreign country.”

And yet, while To Rome with Love is an entertaining two hours, it is much less substantial than the four films he had referenced. Even as a comedy, it lacks a certain gravitas.

No, by no means is To Rome with Love a hearty, four-course Italian meal–and maybe it is not meant to be.

Simply, it is a lovely four-scoop of gelato. And sometimes that’s all you need to get you through a Saturday afternoon.

If you haven’t seen the trailer, here it is: