Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Movie Review: Broken Embraces

Broken Embraces *** ½
Directed By:
Pedro Almodovar.
Written By: Pedro Almodovar.
Starring: Penélope Cruz (Lena), Lluís Homar (Mateo Blanco / Harry Caine), Blanca Portillo (Judit García), José Luis Gómez (Ernesto Martel), Rubén Ochandiano (Ray X), Tamar Novas (Diego).

Pedro Almodovar is one of those directors who is in love with movies from the past. In the past decade he has made five films – Broken Embraces being the fifth – in all of them in a way call to mind the films of Douglas Sirk and Alfred Hitchcock. The plots are all complex, and loop around themselves, gradually wrapping the audience in their intrigue and melodrama. While I would say that Broken Embraces is probably his weakest film this decade, it is still much better than most films we see.

The movie opens in 2009 Spain, where Harry Caine (Lluis Homar) makes his living writing screenplays. He informs us that at one point he was known as Mateo Blanco and was a filmmaker, but in the past years he has lost his sight, and so he has buried Mateo, and become his alter ego – the screenwriter. Two things bring Harry back into the past. The first is a newspaper article about the death of wealthy financier Ernesto Martel (Jose Luis Gomez), the second is an unexpected visit from a would be filmmaker who calls himself Ray X (Ruben Ochandiano), who Harry recognizes immediately from his voice. His agent, Judit (Blanca Portillo) tells him to forget all about it, but he cannot. When he is alone with Judit’s son Diego (Tamar Novas), he tells his story of what happened 15 years ago, on the set of his last film as a director. There he met Lena (Penelope Cruz), the mistress of Martel, cast her in the lead, and then the two fell in love. Ray X, then Ernesto Jr., is making a “Making of” documentary about the movie, and catches everything on his camera. Ernesto Sr., used to getting his own way, is enraged by the footage.

I loved the part of the movie set in 1994. This is classic Almodovar melodrama. His camera caresses the sexy, voluptuous body of Penelope Cruz. Those eyes, that face,  – Cruz is a beauty to behold, and she never looks better than she does in an Almodovar film (it’s a tossup as to whether she’s sexier here or in Volver). She is also much more natural speaking in her native language than she ever is speaking English. Here she is the classic female victim. She becomes Martel’s mistress not out of love or lust (he is an old man even in 1994), but because he has money, and if she wants to save her father’s life, she needs that money. When she meets Mateo, she is instantly drawn to him. At first, it appears to be pure lust, but a deeper bond develops between the two of them. She risks everything for Mateo. It is one of Cruz’s finest performances.

The framing device for the movie set in 2009 was for me, less successful. It does allow Almodovar to bring back buried secrets, and show the effect on people after the main events of the movie, but these scenes drag for me a little bit. Particularly when we get to parts about re-editing his final movie. It’s fascinating in a cinephile kind of way, watching filmmakers craft movies, but overall, it doesn’t do much but drag the story down.

But that’s a minor gripe about the movie. Almodovar has not lost his flair for visual dramatics, and here he creates some of his most memorable images (and no, Penelope Cruz isn’t in all of them, but yes, she is in most of them). I love the sweeping camera work, the darkness around the edges, the flair for the dramatic, and slow motion shots. Alberto Ingeleasis’ score is classic old school Hollywood in a way that I haven’t heard in years. In short, while I do not think that Broken Embraces is quite the triumph that most of Almodovar’s recent work has been, it is impossible to deny that it is not still tremendously entertaining and well made.

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