Saturday, September 09, 2006

Day Three (Plus Full-Length "Volver" Review)

It was just before six a.m. that I ventured out into the darkness of the early morning, intent on catching the earliest express bus downtown. My purpose? To find a way (whether by winning same-day tickets or being first in line for rush seats) to gain entry into a screening of Pedro Almodóvar's Volver. All in all, my considerable lack of shut-eye and valiant effort to beat the crowd/clock was well worth it; I visited the festival box-office on the off-chance that a new block of tickets would be released. More than two hours before showtime, I was happily ordering a drink at Starbucks, a newly-printed voucher in my pocket. And the film certainy lived up to its reputation (see below for review.) My luck did not exactly continue with Marc Forster's Stranger than Fiction that evening; after waiting for an hour in the rush lineup, more than eighty people (including myself) were informed that the house was packed. The first time I have had bad luck with a rush lineup, but in the past for other films, I've been there at least two hours in advance. No big deal - I'm not exactly a fan of Forster or the overexposed Will Ferrell (who plays the lead). I simply wanted to catch a glimpse of Maggie Gyllenhaal and Emma Thompson (who looked "absolutely stunning", according to a volunteer I talked to outside the theatre), and had an extra coupon to spare for the evening. When that last show didn't work out, I decided to return home and conserve my energy for the next few days.

Re: Pictures. If the incident with the cameraphobic usher on Thursday wasn't bad enough, today moviegoers were informed that even bringing such "techtoys" into the theatres (let alone turning them on) would be grounds for removal from the screenings. I am going to have to find a way to discreetly hide my camera when handing my tickets to the volunteers. This bullying is getting out of hand; there is a big difference between wanting to take a couple of snapshots of celebrities and actually recording an entire feature-length film. I'm sure the most ignorant of theatre staff can tell which one is the illegal act. Anyways, no one showed up for Volver, I got a shot of director Mark Palansky introducing his film Penelope (the cast appeared for the Q&A, but I had to jet for my next screening), and although Tarsem Singh and two cast members were on-hand to present The Fall, the no-gadgetry policy was being especially enforced at that particular venue.

*Mild Spoiler Warning*

(Pedro Almodóvar, 2006)
Members of the male sex are tellingly of little concern in the close-knit community almost wholly populated by the female characters of Pedro Almodóvar's Volver, a loving testament to the relationships and intimacies shared between women (bravely depicted warts and all.) It is a celebration of womanhood in that the progressive construction of new dreams and hopes in these individuals' lives (both material and emotional) are made a reality only through the support this unshakably-linked band of mothers, daughters and old family friends offer one another. But in order for positive and healthy growth to take place, Almodóvar argues that the skeletons of the past must be thoroughly exhumed and acknowledged. Only then can the traumatic wounds of past (mis)deeds begin to heal, and - indeed - before the credits on Volver roll, themes of forgiveness, abuse, neglect, and selective memory are meatily "fleshed out". But all of these elements are still packaged in the familiar Almodóvar recipe so many film lovers have come to adore - his trademark soapy plot lines, his absurd plot twists, and his tremendously flawed (and therefore endearing) human figures. And it is undoubtedly one of his treasures; a passionate, aching film literally throbbing with a pulse of its own.

Although the revealing twists of the film are best unraveled on virgin eyes and ears, the characters begin their journeys in the following states. In modern-day Madrid, Raimunda (Penélope Cruz) works several jobs to support her perpetually jobless husband and teenage daughter Paula. Lola Dueñas plays her sister Sole, who makes a living by running an in-home beauty salon. The family suffered a tragedy several years before, when both Raimunda and Sole's parents burned to death in a house fire. The sisters meet every so often, but the routine so familiar to each woman suddenly veers off course when two life-changing events occur almost simultaneously - death visits two characters not long after they are introduced. This is the catalyst for several changes in the women's lives: Irene (the sisters' deceased mother) begins to appear to certain loved ones, while Raimunda embarks on the opportunity to stand on her own two feet fiscally and emotionally. Meanwhile, an old family friend Agustina (Blanca Portillo) who always comes to the family's aid in times of crisis asks Raimunda for a seemingly impossible request. Volver then unspools in every imaginable direction - as light is thrown upon the shadows of the past, the current situations faced by the formidable women come into sharper focus.

What Almodóvar always returns to is the idea of an unbreakable loyalty proven by these women on a consistent basis. No matter how grim the situation may be, they are there for one another through thick and thin. Indeed, just as Irene apparently rises from the dead to nurture and protect her lonely children, the women of Volver exercise a sense of motherly authority over one another. Instinct kicks in, and the need to protect and shield (a motif that resonates even more powerfully in light of a revelation towards the end of the film.) The women often clash heads over different matters and opinions (especially the hot-tempered Raimunda, who always lashes out before she thinks on the consequences), but reconciliation and forgiveness are inevitable ends in the continuous cycle. A theme of group empowerment is key; as individuals, the female characters are strong-willed, yet isolated. In one another's company, they are invincible.

Though one could say that the film works simply as a well-crafted melodrama, an argument can be made that Almodóvar himself makes a clear distinction between what is sensationalized and exploitative in the media, and then the art that is more respectful and affectionate of its characters and their dilemmas. Consider the scene in which the ailing and shunned Agustina appears as a guest on a daytime talk show, having promised to air her "dirty linen" live in front of a studio audience (and millions of viewers at home.) The vapid hostess (reminiscent of the desperate interviewer who hilariously tries to extract information from Rosario Flores's prize-winning bullfighter in Talk to Her) promises Agustina advanced health care in exchange for spilling her family's deeply-buried secrets. Realizing that betraying her close family friends not only injures them but herself as well, Agustina refuses to participate. Similarly, Almodóvar refuses to sell-out his lady loves: Volver is an acknowledgment of their very human qualities, not a campy and degrading circus intended to poke fun at them.

Although Volver works exceptionally well by itself on paper and due to the strength of Almodóvar's unflappable convictions, the film would be unimaginable without this particular cast playing the striking characters. Penélope Cruz is a revelation, simply put. Nothing in her mainstream Hollywood output can prepare an otherwise dispassionate viewer for this generous, flawless characterization. True to Raimunda, Cruz is stubborn and cruel when understandably overcome with frustration, but equally open and spiritually naked in other moments. In one stand-out scene, her character is moved to perform a song her mother once taught her; Cruz may not sing the words herself, but commits fully to that moment. Tears rolling down her face, her soul lifting upwards, there is no holding back. This is the performance of her career. The other cast members are not sidelined though; as Sole, Lola Dueñas is given a juicy comic role that she enacts with full gusto. Meanwhile, Yohana Cobo is mature and likable as Raimunda's no-nonsense daughter, and Blanca Portillo's expressive face truly illuminates the lonely Agustina. And finally, Carmen Maura (working with Almodóvar again after a ten year-plus interval) brings great humanity and motherly love to Irene. The entire cast truly deserved the ensemble prize at Cannes - how could the jury have singled out a single woman in this wealth of talent?

Overall, Volver does not represent a cute-yet-frivolous diversion in Almodóvar's canon; rather, I believe that there is something truly exciting happening here. No doubt, it works as an entertaining dramedy in the footsteps of something like Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. But there's something even more revolutionary and transcendent about his latest, which includes the viewer in on the characters' journey towards redemption and togetherness. After the twists and secrets are exposed, it is almost as if Almodóvar is opening the door for a greater story. As these women move towards a better understanding of themselves as limitless in their potential and boundless in spirit, Volver clearly reads as Almodóvar's love letter to his women. The people in his life that participated in his craft, that fascinated him as human beings and supported him as a friend. Volver translates as "to return"; indeed, return I hope he does, with more material studying the complex ways in which we function as vulnerable, demanding creatures. No one does it better these days. A

And quick thoughts on the other two:

(Mark Palansky 2006; pictured)
After Volver, the whimsical modern-day fairy tale Penelope came as a disappointment in its treatment of mother-daughter relationships, self-actualization and body image. Playing as a bland mish-mash of Richie Rich, The Princess Diaries and Lemony Snicket, the story revolves around a curse (dating back several generations) that afflicts a highly privileged land-owning family. The main victim: an innocent girl with a heart of gold, but damned with the facial features of a swine (played gamely by a wide-eyed Christina Ricci.) Catherine O'Hara plays her superficial, overbearing mother, while Penelope's father (Richard E. Grant) feels that the girl needs space to grow. Trapped in a mansion of expensive commodities, but starved for human contact, Penelope eventually rebels against her sheltered surroundings and embarks on a journey towards indepedence out there in the real world. Meanwhile, a potential suitor (James McAvoy) lingers on the scene, offering the young woman a chance to break the evil spell causing her physical otherness. Penelope is not without its moments and serves up big laughs from time to time (often delivered by O'Hara, or Peter Dinklage as an eye patch-wearing undercover reporter.) But the screenplay is disappointingly predictable right down to its every word: true love-threatening engagements that carry no suspense, life-teaching morales about self-acceptance, and a villain that is determined to cause conflict-causing problems just so that the film has ground to cover. Thusly, the proceedings never feel spontaneous, but gimmicky and meaningless. Worse yet, the film cops-out on its own message of self-acceptance, contradicting much of what Palansky espoused. Cute, but empty calories. Reese Witherspoon serves as one of the film's producers, and only appears an hour into the film to play a stock best-friend role. C

The Fall
(Tarsem Singh, 2006)
In terms of genre and approach, miles away from the disturbing images of 2000's The Cell, but Tarsem still lingers on the idea of the shared imagination and dream worlds. This time, instead of one person entering another's consciousness, he explores a universe equally constructed by two people. In the early twentieth century, a Los Angeles hospital houses two very different patients - one a twenty-something Hollywood stuntman recovering from a near-fatal injury, the other a five-year-old Eastern European girl with a broken arm and very hungry for distraction. The two form a tender friendship, and since he cannot make use of his legs, she visits him in his bed everyday, and they pass the long mornings and afternoons in each other's company. The clinically-depressed Roy (a strong, capable Lee Pace) offers to relate an adventurous epic to the girl in exchange for her stealing morphine pills for him (in case the pain ever becomes too much to handle.) Alexandria, his young companion, is hesitant at first, but as Roy offers tidbits to whet her appetite, she cannot refuse his proposition. As the epic is narrated, Tarsem cuts to a fantasy world in which five wronged men from different parts of the globe vow vengeance on an oppressive lord who is to blame for their misfortunes. As in The Wizard of Oz, hospital staff and other individuals from the real world stand in for this imaginary universe. As Roy recedes further and further into his darkness, Alexandria becomes his only link to the real world. The bleak truth about Roy's suicidal mindset juxtaposed against Alexandria's hope forms the grounds upon which the film proceeds. The Fall is obviously a beautifully-made story; apparently, Tarsem shot in thirty-two countries over a period of four years to bring to life this tale of heroism, war and kinship. Pace is credible in both roles as the emotionally-dead patient and the brave hero of the tale, but it is Catinca Untaru as Alexandria that steals the film. Her delivery is hilarious, and instantly adorable without approaching cutesy kid shtick (read: Jerry Maguire.) B


Kamikaze Camel said...

Ooh, The Fall sounds so intriguing. And, well, it's sort of a cliche now to say how good Volver is. I can't wait to see it myself.

JavierAG said...

Your review of "Volver" was simply stunning, period. I particularly loved the last paragraph which wisely hints at what might be ahead for Almodóvar (exciting times).

"The Fall" does indeed look awesome.

Ali said...

You'll like The Fall, Glenn. It's a lot more approachable than The Cell, which is a hard watch. Very playful, self-referential, etc.

Javier, I HATE my Volver review (so much I think I may have to re-write it), so I'm surprised you took something out of it. But we are on the same page obviously, and big champions of what he has done here.

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