Home Movies #2

Since I’ve shifted my blog to account for my contemporary cinema viewings, I’ve neglected to write about the many films I’ve seen at home. And well, there have been a lot of them. Given that these early months tend to leave a lot to be desired in the cinema, I figured I could introduce a new column that focuses solely on my at-home viewings. I won’t delve too deeply into any particular picture like I do with my Essential Series column, instead I’m just offering a little snip it of the sorts of films I’m checking out nowadays.

With this week’s column, I shifted gears and looked into some newer pictures, stepping out from my 30s cinema project for a moment.

The Chocolate War (1988) Directed by Keith Gordon

I’ve never read Robert Cormier’s young adult novel, which initially puts me at a disadvantage for accepting the material explored in Keith Gordon’s adaptation. It’s a difficult premise to fully accept, as a young man becomes the subject of bullying and social scrutiny when he refuses to take part in the annual chocolate sale at his private school. There’s an air of implausibility of most of the plot, which involves a corrupted priest exercising capitalist ambitions and a secret tribunal society of privileged students. The surrealist nature of the picture is aided by Gordon’s own directorial presence, which borrows heavily from Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorsese. With excellent cinematography from Tom Richmond and sharp editing by Jeff Wishengrad, The Chocolate War is a surprisingly effective display of filmmaking technique. Gordon gives the picture a particularly somber feel. His style and the material operate on very different levels, therein projecting an oddity of a picture in tone. Still, The Chocolate War is a film that subverts expectations and has the formal elegance to make its surrealist material have genuine emotional strength.

Rating: 7/10

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988) Directed by Pedro Almodóvar

My admiration for Pedro Almodóvar’s films started from the moment that I saw Talk to Her a few years ago. And as I watched films like Volver and All About My Mother, I realized that his work speaks to a very specific demographic. I continued to admire his work, but something about it just never wholly clicked for me. That is until I saw 2011’s The Skin I Live In, which utilizes genre tropes to tell an incredibly shocking story. It reignited my passion in the director, as his formal elegance managed to finally coalesce with a narrative that I could really give myself to.

With Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, one of Almodóvar’s earliest works, I see him refining the sort of style that he utilized to great effect in All About My Mother. It’s a colorful film with a compelling cast of character driven by a feminine perspective. Like with Volver and All About My Mother , it doesn’t work for me on a narrative level. But like the aforementioned films, Almodóvar’s ability to structure shots with so much depth is enough to make the film more than its plot lets on. Thematically, the film fits right in with Almodóvar’s oeuvre as a film that sees women trying to overcome masculine restraints. With melodrama to spare, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown can be filed under films that I admire, though don’t embrace.

Rating: 6/10

A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) Directed by Steven Spielberg

At two and a half hours, A.I. Artificial Intelligence is a perplexing feature. Its opening hour is paced awkwardly. On one level, it bares the sort of visual composition of a Stanley Kubrick film. But with its rapid cuts and moving camera, these images connect under the basic principles of Spielberg’s technique. It’s jarring at first, but as the film progresses, you really do become immersed in the philosophy and ideas that the film provokes. And the density of its material is surprising – there’s a lot to mull over during and after the picture. Among Kubrick’s oeuvre, it’s ranks with 2001: A Space Odyssey in its philosophical musings. But in Spielberg’s hands, he manages to streamline the narrative to make it an incredibly accessible picture. While I’ve often been critical of Spielberg’s work, his ability to tell a simple and compelling story in a straightforward manner is his strongest asset. The problem is that a lot of his stories are straightforward to begin with. It’s only with films where he deals with broader material, particularly Jaws and Close Encounter of the Third Kind, is he able to really impress me.

The film is not without its flaws. The opening and closing sequences, which seem to be the most scrutinized by reviewers, stand as my favorite scenes in the picture. It’s odd how these sequences were initially noted as the Spielbergian influences on the picture, yet they strike me as the sort of decisions that Kubrick would have made. A scene involving Haley Joel Osment laughing at a dinner table felt too abstract for someone like Spielberg to have come up with on his own. It’s the middle sections that I have the most trouble with, as the film’s (well, Spielberg’s) reliance on special effects strike didn’t connect with me. Despite that issue, I found the picture to be a truly refined piece of filmmaking. Labeled as a Kubrick work, it’s about a mid-tier effort. But as a Spielberg effort, this dark, daring, and contemplative picture is his finest film to date.

Rating: 8/10

The Skin I Live In (Pedro Almodóvar, 2011)

There are two crucial scenes of rape in The Skin I Live In that establish the galvanizing importance of time in Almodóvar’s sexy new film. The Skin I Live In inhabits a cinemascape that borrows heavily from films like Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Georges Franju’s Eyes Without A Face, with a sprinkle of physical horror in the vein of David Cronenberg for good measure. But within the film’s many nods, you find yourself immersed in a world that is purely Almodóvar with its lush visual set pieces, intense melodrama, and sexually dubious characters.

The Skin I Live In is difficult to grasp initially; from the onset, we’re introduced to a young woman named Vera (Elena Anaya as she channels a young Irene Jacob). In a posh mansion, she is held captive as she’s delivered meals through a dumbwaiter. She dons a tan full-body suit; she wears the garment as if it were a second skin. Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) gazes at her image via surveillance video with the utmost attention. Why Vera is confined and why Robert looks on is left open initially; we’re placed into their world without a greater sense of the narrative arc that is soon to come. As the pieces are placed together, and as the first of two rapes occur, we are thrust into a back story that is so rich, riveting, and rewarding that Almodóvar rarely relents in escalating the tension.

While one can say Almodóvar is too dependent on a piece of narrative gimmickry to move from his preliminary arc to the next, I’d say the springboard to from the not-too-distant future to the not-too-distant past is so efficiently put into practice that it hardly matters at all. We move from a narrative that is largely based on the relationship between Robert and Vera to one involving Robert, his daughter, and a man named Vicente (Jan Cornet). What follows is the unification of two very distinct narrative threads that have been expertly sewn together with such precision and attention to detail.

I’ve also been a bit resistant to Almodóvar’s work. I’ve cautiously embraced films like All About My Mother and Talk to Her; though it’s odd since I’ve felt that he touches upon a lot of what I like about films. The way Almodóvar neutralizes gender and comments on ascribed notions of sexuality have always been effective, with The Skin I Live In most overtly realizing the issue. But what makes The Skin I Live In my favorite of his films is the implicit horror of it all. The film genuinely thrills while exercising characteristic Almodóvar qualities i.e., the melodrama, the humor, the visual allure. The overall effect of Almodóvar delving into a genre specific terrain is mesmerizing and allows the man to tinker with conventions unlike ever before.

Rating: 9/10

All About My Mother (Pedro Almodóvar, 1999)

As I think about the Almodóvar films I’ve seen, I have to really think about why I don’t embrace his work more. His sensibilities really do befit mine. He has a very particular stylistic approach that is visually stimulating yet never overbearing. Almodóvar’s writing blends humor with melodrama in an effective manner, maintaining an impressive scale between characters and community – he really is a terrific writer (this being based entirely on All About My Mother (1999), Talk to Her (2002) and Volver (2006)). He neutralizes gender to the point where the lines between them are not clearly defined, and often does so as a means to comment on ascribed notions of sexuality. He seems to actively hit at my tendencies to look at films through a sociological lens. So why is it that I can’t fully embrace his work? It’s not that I would say any of his films are bad, but rather, they seem to be geared toward a very specific culture that alienates my understanding – problematic as it may seem, I suppose the simple answer is that there is a cultural barrier that prevents me from fully comprehending the gravity of his melodrama.

All About My Mother begins on a somber note:  Manuela (Cecilia Roth) takes her son, Esteban (Eloy Azorín) out to see a stage production of A Streetcar Named Desire. It’s his seventeenth birthday, and the two decide to wait out in the rain for autographs. During their rather long wait, Manuela confesses to her son that during her acting days, she once played Stella to his father’s Stanley – up to this point in his life, Esteban had not known anything of his father. Manuela promises to tell Esteban more once they get home, but a series of events results in Esteban chasing after a car in the rain – ultimately leading to his death. The loss is devastating and elevates the material beyond melodrama – it’s a very palpable moment when Manuela decides to give up her son’s organs at the very hospital she works in.

In an effort to reconcile (and honor) her son’s death, Manuela leaves her work and goes to search for Esteban’s father to tell him the news. The journey takes Manuela to an old friend named La Agrado (Antonia San Juan) – a transvestite who used to live with Manuela and her ex-husband. From here, Manuela encounters a variety of women, including the actress who was partly responsible for her son’s death.

The relationships that Manuela forms during her period of self-discovery are interesting, though at times, some of the grander comments that I sense Almodóvar is making are lost upon me. In spite of the melodrama and the very active humor, All About My Mother is an incredibly dense and rich film. Not to say a melodrama or comedy can’t be rich, but rather, for films of that type, this is one of the most symbolically charged and difficult to outright assess. So much goes on in individual frames, with Almodóvar actively bridging the gap between imagery and dialogue – All About My Mother is truly a masterful work. Future rewatches will undoubtedly prove to be fruitful, but as for now, I can’t shake off the fact that there is a greater social framework that I’m overlooking in connecting the dots.

Rating: 7/10