The Boy Downstairs


The park is a good place for old friends.

(2018) Romantic Comedy (FilmRise) Zosia Mamet, Matthew Shear, Deidre O’Connell, Sarah Ramos, Diana Irvine, Arliss Howard, Deborah Offner, David Wohl, Jeff Ward, Theo Stockman, Liz Larsen, Sabina Friedman-Seitz, Fabrizio Brienza, Jamie Fernandez, Peter Oliver, Natalie Hall. Directed by Sophie Brooks

 

People come in and out of our lives which is just the nature of life. Sometimes people who we thought gone from our lives come back into them unexpectedly which always gives us pause to wonder why we let them out of our lives in the first place.

Diana (Mamet) has just returned to New York after two years in London. She’s an aspiring writer trying to get a book written. She takes a job in a bridal shop to pay the bills and uses realtor Meg (Ramos) to help her find an apartment which she does; after interviewing with landlord Amy (O’Connell) Diana has a new place to live.

However, she discovers that her ex-boyfriend whom she left to move to London for – Ben (Shear) – lives in the apartment downstairs from her which she didn’t know beforehand. At first things are excessively awkward; Diana wants to be on friendly terms with him but Ben doesn’t want anything to do with her. Besides, he is seeing someone else – ironically, the realtor Meg. Diana is reminded of her relationship with Ben at almost every turn and begins to wonder why…well, I think we already covered that. In any case, she begins to think that there’s still a spark there but is it too late to fan those flames?

There are a lot of problems I have here. There are way too many clichés in the script from the artistic bent of the two leads (Ben is an aspiring musician) to the way more than they should be able to afford apartment in a trendy Brooklyn neighborhood to the character of Diana which is quirky and borderline manic pixie dream girl, a character type which has become the annoying pixie dream girl which is exactly how Mamet plays her.

Brooks uses (some might say over-uses) flashbacks to show what’s in Diana’s mind and illustrating how her relationship with Ben rose and fell. Unfortunately it can be hard at times to tell which is flashback and which is set in contemporary Brooklyn. At a certain point, the viewer doesn’t care. Flashbacks like any other cinematic tool should be used sparingly and only when truly necessary; after awhile the flashbacks actually hinder the progress of the story.

This is seriously a movie about people I can’t care about doing things I don’t have any interest in. There are fortunately some good background performances, particularly O’Connell and Irvine as Diana’s BFF who has far more of a believable personality than Diana herself.

There is some decent urban cinematography but then it isn’t really all that difficult to make New York look enchanting. It’s just that this is another indie film chock full of stock indie film characters whose shallowness and quirkiness have become like nails on a chalkboard after you’ve seen enough of them which sadly, I have. If you haven’t seen a lot of indie rom coms set in New York City with quirky female leads, you might find this enjoyable. If you’ve seen every Greta Gerwig film ever, you may have the same reaction I did. If you’re in the latter group and ended up seeing this, we need to go drown our sorrows together; just not in the hipster bars of the type Diana and her friends hang out in.

REASONS TO GO: The performances are for the most part pretty good.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie fails to rise above its own limitations. These are characters I don’t care about doing things that don’t interest me.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, drug references and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mamet, best known for her role in the TV series Girls, is the daughter of playwright David Mamet.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/17/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mr. Roosevelt
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT:
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

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Literally, Right Before Aaron


Love makes grinning idiots of us all.

(2017) Romantic Comedy (Screen Media) Justin Long, Cobie Smulders, Ryan Hansen, John Cho, Kristen Schaal, Lea Thompson, Dana Delaney, Peter Gallagher, Luis Guzmán, Charlyne Yi, Vella Lovell, Ginger Gonzaga, Malcolm Barrett, Manu Intiraymi, Ivy George, Rick Overton, Adam Rose, Sam Hennings, Parvesh Cheena, Dov Tiefenbach, Ashley Platz. Directed by Ryan Eggold

 

When we are of a certain age, we have an idea of what The One is going to look like; you know, The One who is your partner for life, your dream man/woman, your other half. Not so much in the physical make-up but the kind of person he/she is. When we think we’ve found that person, the idea is to hold onto them with both hands. It never occurs to us that The One may turn out to be just The One We Thought Was The One.

Adam (Long) is getting over the break-up of an eight-year relationship with Allison (Smulders) when out of the blue, he gets a phone call from her inviting him to her wedding. She puts pressure on him to attend; “I’m going to be at yours so you HAVE to be at mine!” she wheedles. Despite the misgivings and urging to the contrary by friends/co-workers Mark (Cho) and Claire (Yi), he decides to head north to San Francisco and attend.

He meets Aaron (Hansen), the new man in Allison’s life whom she began dating immediately after the break-up and takes an immediate dislike to him. Adam is determined to win Allison back and will do just about anything to do it including lie to his own mother (Thompson) and do his best to remind Allison of what a good thing they had. As Allison herself said during one of (many) flashbacks to how they met, “I can’t decide if you’re charming or if you’re an asshole.”

Believe me, Allison, it’s the latter. This is a dreadfully unfunny romantic comedy in which cruelty and obsessive behavior substitutes for laughs. If someone were to do the things that Adam does in the movie, there’d be a restraining order in his immediate future, not an invitation to a wedding. There would also likely be the beatdown of a lifetime but I digress.

Long has made a career of being the sad sack romantic and he’s as good at it as John Cusack, whose mantle Long inherited, once was. He tries his best here to be likable and charming – and he’s capable of being both – but one is defined by their actions and Adam’s actions are self-centered to the point of narcissism, perhaps even to the point of being mentally unbalanced. I could see Adam going completely berserk, brandishing a gun and screaming at Allison “Love me! Or I’ll kill you!” And perhaps that would have been a more interesting movie. Still, it must also be said that Long is getting a bit long in the tooth for roles like this. I would like to see him take on some roles that have a bit more maturity to them. Hollywood casting being what it is, that might not happen anytime soon.

The movie is riddled with genre clichés and the plot is powered by characters doing things that no rational human being would ever do. I get that love can make you do crazy things, but Jeez Louise; I can’t imagine a psychologist witnessing this behavior without seriously pulling the committal papers out. This is lazy writing of the highest order.

Director Eggold, who is best known as the sinister Tom Keen on the hit TV show The Blacklist shows some of his rookie greenery with the choices he makes – he’ll get a 10-yard penalty for overuse of faded-out flashbacks that are meant to look like old home movies – but he also makes some good ones. Rarely have I seen San Francisco used as well as it is used here to really bring the tone of the city to life. Having lived in the Bay Area as long as I have, I felt a certain amount of nostalgia watching the movie and listening to Tony Bennett croon his signature “I Left My Heart (in San Francisco).” Kudos for that.

Kudos must also be given for assembling an impressive cast, although several of them – particularly Guzmán, Delaney and Thompson – are in the film for only a scene or two. I could have used a little more of these actors and a little less of Long who is in nearly every minute of the film. Not that Long can’t carry a film on his own, mind you – he just needed some better material to carry it with.

REASONS TO GO: Utilizes San Francisco to its fullest. The cast is impressive.
REASONS TO STAY: People acting like blithering idiots does not a comedy make. The film suffers from far too many rom-com clichés.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as some sexual references here.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie references the John Steinbeck classic Of Mice and Men and goes on to spoil the ending of the book.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/4/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 31% positive reviews. Metacritic: 28/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: My Best Friend’s Wedding
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Walking Out

The Truth Beneath (Bi-mil-eun eobs-da)


Being a power couple isn’t always enough.

(2016) Thriller (CJ Entertainment) Ye-jin Son, Ju-hyuk Kim, Yu-hwa Choi, Cheol-woo Han, Eui-sung Kim, Gin-goo Kim, Min-jae Kim, So-hee Kim, Sang-hee Lee, Gene Woo Park, Ji-Hoon Shin. Directed by Kyoug-mi Lee

There aren’t many things worse than a missing child. Your mind is filled with the worst possible case scenario but at the same time you are holding out hope that said child will return home safe and sound. It’s the not knowing that drives us crazy.

Jong-chan (J-h Kim) is a former news anchor running for the Korean national assembly against entrenched politician No Jae-soon (E-s Kim). His wife Yeon-hong (Son) is the perfect political wife; beautiful, loyal, elegant and erudite. On the first day of their campaign however their mercurial teenage daughter Min-jin (Shin) disappears. At first nobody seems to be all that worried; even though Min-jin is an honors student and by all accounts a good girl, she wasn’t always that way.

Yeon-hong is frantic, particularly when her husband’s campaign managers and the police seem unfazed by the girl’s absence. No is making hay on the incident as Jong-chan is running on a family values platform with the ironic catchphrase “Protecting your children.” No shows no shame in pointing out that Jong-chan is having problems protecting his own.

The more that Yeon-hong looks into her daughter’s disappearance, the more troubled she gets. It turns out that Min-jin was a much different girl than her mother believed. She was being bullied at school and had taken up with a kind of pop punk girls band (the music for whom isn’t half bad). She was best friends with Choi Mi-ok (S-h Kim) who seems unnaturally possessive towards her friend. The more Yeon-hong finds out, the more convinced she becomes that the trail to her daughter’s disappearance leads to a shadowy link between her school and her father’s campaign.

This starts out as a political thriller but as the investigation of Yeon-hong continues it becomes more of a standard potboiler. That’s not to say that this isn’t head and shoulders over most of the ilk – there is a lot here to like, chief among them the performance of Son which would be getting her all kinds of notice were this film made in Hollywood.

For those who like acclaimed director Park Chan-woo, Lee is a disciple of the Korean filmmaker and in fact got Chan-woo to co-write the script. There is much of his influence on the film overall, from some of the more taboo elements of the plot (which I won’t reveal here) to the labyrinthine plot that twists and turns through a maze of characters, red herrings and half-glimpsed clues.

Lee has an excellent visual sense which he exercises a little too freely perhaps. There is a surfeit of flashbacks and special effects shots (raindrops frozen in mid-air for example, an Asian staple) to the point where it can be difficult to keep up with the plot. Eventually the audience is left feeling that they don’t have a clue what’s going on which is to say that few of the characters in the film have either.

Still despite the occasional forays into “look ma, I’m directing” territory, the movie is a solid thriller that will keep the viewer guessing while making some occasionally dazzling sequences that will either throw you for a loop or leave you breathless. Korean cinema is an equal to its counterparts in Japan and China although most true cinema buffs already know that. It’s time the world in general discovered that too.

REASONS TO GO: The film starts off a little choppy but ends up pulling together nicely. There is an eerie feeling here that isn’t supernatural. Son gives an exemplary performance.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie starts off as a political thriller but eventually morphs into a generic thriller. The flashback-heavy plot is occasionally hard to follow.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity, some grisly images, brief graphic nudity, sexuality and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The lead actors Son and J-h Kim both previously starred together in the 2008 comedy My Wife Got Married.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/28/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Ides of March
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

The Sense of an Ending


Jim Broadbent may be stalking YOU.

(2017) Romance (CBS) Jim Broadbent, Charlotte Rampling, Harriet Walter, Michelle Dockery, Matthew Goode, Emily Mortimer, James Wilby, Edward Holcroft, Billy Howle, Freya Mavor, Joe Alwyn, Peter White, Hilton McRae, Jack Loxton, Timothy Innes, Andrew Buckley, Karina Hernandez, Nick Mohammed, Charles Furness, Guy Paul, Alexa Davies, Dorothy Duffy, Kelly Price. Directed by Ritesh Batra

 

Our memories are in many ways what shape us; they are the filter of our experiences and our means of recalling the important things in our lives both positive and negative. As any police detective will tell you however memory is notoriously unreliable; we have a tendency to bury the unpleasant ones and often change facts to suit our world view. Confronted with the things that actually happened to us, our memories can turn out to be a fragile, ephemeral thing.

Tony Webster (Broadbent) is retired and spends his days running a used camera shop in London, one of those delightful niche shops that give London character. He is a bit of a curmudgeon who compared to most shopkeepers doesn’t really want to be bothered by actual customers; they tend to throw a monkey wrench into his carefully organized existence which he protects like a mama bear with her cubs. He has an existence largely removed from the world and that’s very much by choice.

He is essentially a jovial sort on the surface but a bit of a dodderer, enough to be the source of rolling eyes for his barrister ex-wife Margaret (Walter) and his pregnant lesbian daughter Susie (Dockery) who is preparing to embark on single motherhood. Both feel genuine affection for the man (Margaret keeping his last name even though they’re long divorced) but he can be exasperating at times.

Then he gets a letter from a solicitor announcing that the mother (Mortimer) of an ex-girlfriend has passed away, bequeathing to him a small sum of money and more important to Tony, the diary of his ex-friend Adrian (Alwyn). He is reminded of his college days when he (Howle) and Veronica (Mavor) were a thing and Adrian was his closest friend and a person he looked up to with almost a sense of hero-worship. However when Veronica ends up dumping Tony in favor of Adrian, the young Tony writes a poisoned pen letter to the both of them that ends up with tragic consequences.

Now the aged Veronica (Rampling) isn’t willing to part with the diary and Tony isn’t willing to let it lie on general principles (“She willed it to me. It belongs to me” he whines) and  so he pursues legal recourse but possession is nine tenths of the law and in any case no constable is going to force a grieving daughter to give up a diary that she doesn’t want to. Without other recourse, Tony decides to take matters into his own hands and starts stalking Veronica and discovers that what happened in his past isn’t exactly what he thought happened and his own role in events was not what he remembered.

Based on a novel by Julian Barnes, this is directed at a somewhat stately pace by Batra who has also helmed the excellent The Lunchbox. In some ways this has a Merchant-Ivory vibe to it, not necessarily because some of it is set in the past but more the literary feel to the film as well as content that appeals to a more mature, thinking person’s audience.

The smartest thing Batra did was casting Jim Broadbent. One of the most reliable actors of our time, Broadbent – who has an Oscar nomination on his resumé – is given a complex character to work with and to his credit gives that character further dimension. Tony has a heavy streak of self-deception in his nature and Broadbent humanizes that aspect of the part. When confronted with his behavior, I do believe Tony doesn’t realize he’s done anything wrong and he is surprised when others think so. He simply doesn’t understand why Veronica behaves towards him as she does. He may not even realize that he opened a second-hand camera shop due to her influence (she was a photographer when he met her and her love for Leica cameras stayed with him to this very day) although I suspect he does.

Rampling is fresh off an Oscar nomination of her own and while this is a much different role for her, she reminds us what a capable actress she always has been and continues to impress with roles that in lesser hands might have ended up being one-dimensional or at least possessed of less depth. Veronica has been visited by tragedy that Tony simply doesn’t understand and it has haunted her the remainder of her days.

The movie won’t appeal much to those looking for escape or for those who may lack the seasoning to appreciate the movies nuance. In my own taste I don’t think there is such a thing but I have to say that it may be too nuanced for some. While I generally recommend reading a book to watching a movie in most cases, this has a very literary feel that I find refreshing in a day and age when movies tend to rely more on CGI and star power.

The film is a bit flawed in the sense that its twist is heavily telegraphed although to be fair the book this is based on is told chronologically so in a sense that follows the book as well although the movie relies on flashbacks more so than the book. What makes the movie worth seeing is the character study particularly of Tony; Broadbent gives us plenty of meat to chew on from that standpoint.

Definitely if you are in the mood for a mindless blockbuster this isn’t where you want to go but if you are in the mood to have something appeal to your intellect, if you want a slice of English life or if you just want to watch some fine acting this is a pretty good selection in that category. It’s definitely flawed but Broadbent and Rampling are both so wonderful that they make even a flawed movie seem like great art.

REASONS TO GO: Broadbent and Rampling deliver strong performances as you might expect.
REASONS TO STAY: This is probably not for younger audiences.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as an image of violence, a bit of sexuality and mature thematic concerns.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mortimer and Goode were previously featured together in Woody Allen’s 2005 film Match Point.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/19/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 45 Years
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Six Rounds

Nocturnal Animals


It isn't always ghosts that haunt us.

It isn’t always ghosts that haunt us.

(2016) Thriller (Focus) Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Isla Fisher, Ellie Bamber, Armie Hammer, Karl Glusman, Robert Aramayo, Laura Linney, Andrea Riseborough, Michael Sheen, India Menuez, Imogen Waterhouse, Franco Vega, Zawe Ashton, Evie Pree, Beth Ditto, Graham Beckel, Neil Jackson, Jena Malone. Directed by Tom Ford

 

Regret follows us through life like the shadow of a hawk paces a wounded groundhog. The road not taken sometimes is the road we should have taken – but once we make that turn, that off-ramp is gone for good.

Susan Morrow (Adams) is the curator of an art gallery who has just opened a new installation, involving overweight, middle-aged naked women dancing suggestively in pom-pom and drum majorette outfits. It has brought out all of the shallow, self-involved, condescending L.A. art whores. In other words, it’s a great big success.

Not so successful is her current marriage to Hutton Morrow (Hammer), a venture capitalist whose venture has overwhelmed his capital. The failing business has put an intense strain on the marriage, for which hubby compensates for by fooling around. Men!

Out of the blue, Susan gets a manuscript from her first husband Edward Sheffield (Gyllenhaal) whom she had surmised was teaching college and had given up on the writing career that had attracted her to him in the first place. Their break-up was about as brutal as the end of a relationship can get. Now he has written a novel and dedicated to her, claiming in a note that she inspired him to write this – even though their marriage ended nearly twenty years earlier and they hadn’t spoken since.

As she reads the manuscript, she is oddly affected by it. It is a brutal story of a somewhat mousy man named Tony Hastings (Gyllenhaal) driving down a dark deserted Texas road with his wife Laura (Fisher) and daughter India (Bamber) when a quartet of Texas rednecks run them off the road. They finagle the wife and daughter into his car after repairing the flat tire on it and drive off with her; Lou (Glusman) drives Tony off into the desert and leaves him there. Later on Lou returns with the gang’s leader Ray Marcus (Taylor-Johnson) who try to entice Tony back but he hides in terror. They drive away.

Tony makes it back to civilization and calls the cops. The laconic Texas Ranger-type detective Bobby Andes (Shannon) takes over the case. Eventually they find the nude corpses of his wife and daughter, dumped near where they had dropped off Tony. Andes promises that they will get the guys who did this.

As the years go on, the dogged Andes eventually figures out who done it but Andes has a bit of a time sensitivity going on – he is dying of cancer. It is unlikely that based on the fairly flimsy evidence that they have that Ray Marcus and his gang will ever be brought to justice. That leaves revenge, but does the weak Tony have the stomach for it?

There are three distinct stories here – the novel, which takes up most of the movie and is a kind of Texas noir; Susan’s current story in which her life is filled with disappointment, regret and sadness, and the back story of Edward and Susan – how they met and how they broke up. All three tales are put together into a cohesive whole and show that Ford, who is better known as a fashion icon, is also a marvelous storyteller.

This is not an easy role for Amy Adams, who is so lacquered up with make-up that she almost looks like art herself. It isn’t one of the most emotionally forthcoming performances of her career, which makes it all the more impressive; she does an awful lot with an awful little here. Gyllenhaal continues to make a case for himself as being one of the most distinguished actors of our time. There is a great deal of nuance in his performance; his character is perceived as weak but he isn’t in the traditional sense. There is a strength that comes through particularly later in the film.

There are also some stellar supporting performances. Shannon as the crusty detective is all tumbleweeds and BBQ brisket as the Southwestern law man, while Laura Linney is virtually unrecognizable as Susan’s patrician snob of a mom. Both of them dominate the screen when they are on, Linney unfortunately for merely a single scene.

The ending is deliberately vague and will leave you with a WTF expression on your face. My wife and I had decidedly different reactions; she loved it and thought it perfectly suited the movie. I felt that it was inconsistent with how the character behaved and felt petty and vindictive. I also had problems with the opening credits that played lovingly on the nude women; it felt exploitative to me.

Ford, who made his Oscar-winning debut with A Single Man may need to dust off his tux again come February but this is less of a slam dunk than his first film. I think that there is a possibility that there will be some Oscar consideration here, but there is some heavy competition coming its way despite this having been a fairly down year for Oscar-quality films. How the Academy reacts remains to be seen, but this is definitely a must-see for those who want to make sure they get an opportunity to see every film that is likely to get a nomination.

REASONS TO GO: Ford deftly weaves three different stories together. The film boasts fine performances from top to bottom.
REASONS TO STAY: The opening scene and ending are absolute deal-killers.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, graphic nudity, a pair of offscreen rape-murders, menace and salty language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Focus paid $20 million for the distribution rights for the film at Cannes, the highest ever paid for any film at any festival to date.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/29/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Words
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Stagecoach: The Story of Texas Jack

Saw V


Saw V

This being a Saw movie, you know things are going to end badly for this gentleman.

(2008) Horror (Lionsgate) Tobin Bell, Costas Mandylor, Scott Patterson, Betsy Russell, Mark Rolston, Carlo Rota, Julie Benz, Greg Bryk, Laura Gordon, Meagan Good, Joris Jarsky, Mike Butters, Samantha Lemole, Niamh Wilson.  Directed by David Hackl

As we continue to plumb the depths of human depravity in the Saw series, the question is not how low will human beings sink to. No, the more prevalent question is whether or not the Saw series has enough steam to continue.

A serial killer meets a gruesome end, observed by a mysterious figure. A hero cop turns out to be not so heroic after all. A real estate deal turned deadly finds the principals locked together in a deadly game of elimination. A horribly injured detective looks to clear his name and find out who the accomplice of a serial killer is. The wife of that serial killer discovers something game-changing in her safety deposit box.

What do all these things have in common? They’re part of the plot elements of the fifth installation of the Saw series. Former director Darren Lynn Bousman is out and art director of the past three movies David Hackl is in, making his feature directing debut. While most of the rest of the behind-the-scenes crew are back (including writers Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton, as well as series creators James Wan and Leigh Whannell in production roles), the familiar faces of the series in front of the character are seen mainly in flashback.

The whole point of the film is essentially to establish how Detective Mark Hoffman (Mandylor) became the apprentice for Jigsaw (Bell). Much of the movie is done in flashback (as is Bell’s participation) and therein lies the issue. Jigsaw is one of the most memorable villains of the 21st century and certainly right up there with Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees in terms of all time horror film serial killers.

Killing him off has robbed the series of much of its vitality. While Bell is a presence when onscreen, he is not an active one. Jigsaw’s participation is essentially that of a memory, motivating the actions of Hoffman who is far less interesting and far less charismatic than his mentor.

The result is a movie that while still possessed of the clever traps the series is noted for, possesses less impact than the others. I will say that going back to group traps as the series did in the first and second films was a smart move – that nets the movie much of the goodwill I’m willing to give it.

Both Mandylor and Patterson (as Detective Strahm, who barely escapes by giving himself a tracheotomy in one of the more gruesome scenes) are pretty decent actors, but their characters are so loosely drawn with so little personality that they wind up disappointing as leads. The supporting characters generally wander around and those who are in traps look terrified and scream a lot, while those who aren’t look befuddled and frown a lot.

There are hints at a larger story that this is all a part of, and hopefully that will be the case. For the most part, this feels like a redo of things in the saga they’ve already done and better. Maybe this is meant to be a more transitional movie as they build up to a climax. I hope so – I’d rather see this series go out with a bang rather than a whimper.

WHY RENT THIS: There are some pretty delicious traps here.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The first four movies of the series are way better. The story doesn’t have any Oomph.

FAMILY VALUES: All the gore and blood that anyone could ask for and some brief nudity as well. The language is coarse which is understandable given the situation.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the scene where Detective Hoffman meets Jigsaw for the first time on an elevator, screenwriters Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton are both briefly glimpsed as passengers on the same elevator.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $113.9M on a $10.8M production budget; the movie was a blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Arlington Road

Broken Embraces (Los abrazos rotos)


Broken Embraces

An embrace to take them away from the hideousness of the decor, at least for a little while.

(2009) Thriller (Sony Classics) Penelope Cruz, Lluis Homar, Blanca Portilla, Tamar Novas, Kiti Manver, Jose Luis Garcia, Chus Lampreave, Lola Duenas, Angela Molina, Ruben Ochandiano. Directed by Pedro Almodovar

We are all of us the sum total of all the people we have been in our lives. That which we are is a direct result of that which we were. In some cases, what we were is so far from what we are now that they are almost different lives.

Harry Caine – a clever play of Orson Welles’ Harry Lime (The Third Man) and Citizen Kane – is the pseudonym that Mateo Blanco (Homar) has taken. Blanco was once one of the world’s leading film directors, but a tragic auto accident robbed him of his sight. He is still a successful screenwriter, living in a Madrid apartment cared for by longtime personal assistant Judit Garcia (Portilla) and her sweet son Diego (Novas). Judit has deeper feelings for Mateo than just being his assistant, incidentally. This is neither here nor there in terms of the plot; it’s just the way it is.

Mateo although middle aged and blind, is still a bit of a playa – he just uses his disability to help get attractive women in the sack. He has evidently always been a ladies’ man. One day, while Judit is out of town on business, Mateo is approached by a young man calling himself Ray X (Ochandiano) who wants Mateo to write a film with a very specific plot. Mateo is intrigued until he realizes who Ray X is – and what he really wants. Diego, who hasn’t a clue, asks Mateo to tell him. Mateo gives him a story, the defining story of his life and of the last movie he ever directed, “Girls and Suitcases.”

It was the early 90s and Mateo was on top of his game. One of his producers, Ernesto Martel (Gomez), a wealthy industrialist arranges to have his mistress Lena (Cruz) granted a screen test. Mateo isn’t expecting much but does it to keep his investor happy. Instead, he is completely entranced by this beautiful woman whom he falls deeply in love with.

Soon, Martel begins to suspect that his mistress is cheating on him and sics his son on them to film everything they do, ostensibly in the mask of a documentary filmmaker capturing the making of the movie. And, if you haven’t figured it out by now, Martel’s son is none other than Ray X. Soon, the tension begins to escalate and Martel begins to show signs that he is willing to do anything to keep his mistress as his own – up to and including murder.

This isn’t typical of an Almodovar movie. For one thing, the story is told much more conventionally than in most of his films. However, his fondness for combining genres – in this case suspense, romance, film noir and even comedy – is very much in evidence here. This is the most Hitchcock-like of Almodovar’s movies; I can certainly see the master of suspense making a movie like that were he alive today, although knowing Hitchcock he’d have cast a blonde (someone like Naomi Watts) in the lead role.

Almodovar always seems to bring out the best in Penelope Cruz and this emerges as another great performance by the Spanish actress. She is certainly a victim in many ways in this movie, but she is also a victimizer, one who wraps men around her small fingers and uses her sexuality to get what she wants. When she finally finds a soulmate, she finds herself in a dilemma of her own making; only she knows what Martel is capable of and she is absolutely terrified.

I also like Homar, a veteran Catalonian actor from Barcelona (and who previously worked with Almodovar on Bad Education) who bears a slight resemblance to Kelsey Grammer here. He has two different roles to play; one the confident director, the other the embittered blind writer. The differences are subtle, but Homar pulls it off nicely.

Almodovar is fond of bright colors, and there are a whole lot of them here – apparently to his mind the Spain of the 1990s looked a lot like the Britain of the 1970s. There are a lot of reds in the movie and I don’t mean commies or retired assassins. I mean the shade of red; it is noticeable in nearly every scene.

People looking for Almodovar here will see glimpses of him but this is perhaps his most mainstream movie ever. People looking for a conventional suspense movie will finds glimpses of one but this is a bit on the art house side. I can say it is compellingly written, with well-drawn characters and an ending that while it doesn’t come from left field, at least is satisfactory enough. I’ve never been Almodovar’s biggest fan, but if you’re like me you might find this movie a bit more palatable than some of his other films which tend to be quirkier than this.

WHY RENT THIS: A very well-made thriller, not to Hitchcock-like standards but certainly in the style thereof. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: This is very different from Almodovar’s other movies; his fans may not care for it as much.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s sex, drugs and a little bit of rock and roll. There’s also some off-camera spousal abuse.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the fourth collaboration between Cruz and Almodovar.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a fabulous feature that simply captures Almodovar directing Cruz and how the two have developed a kind of cinematic shorthand in their working relationship. There is also a short film ostensibly directed by Mateo Blanco.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $31.0M on an unreported production budget; the movie was a hit.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: 127 Hours