‘Pain and Glory,’ Pedro Almodovar’s latest film, is about a filmmaker who is at the Autumn of his life. it’s tempting to think that the film is autobiographical since the character, Salvador Mallo (played by Antonio Banderas) lives in a house that is an exact replica of Almodovar’s, and banderas even wears the director’s clothes. But I think Almodovar only wants one to think that, as his persona has always dallied with a wink-wink playfulness. As a Director, I never always agreed with his artistic choices, but I have to say his films are always interesting. This one s no exception.
Banderas is great here, as he now is more a Daddy than the carnal flower. There are lines and experience in his face, and Banderas shows them off with great dignity. Salvador Mallo has been experiencing some physical pain (he can’t swallow food) and is in an introspective mode. he reconnects with an actor of one of his films after a falling out, having not been satisfied with the actor’s performance. They bond and gets Mallo hooked in heroin. Then when you think the film starts going the route of a man in late-life crisis, it takes a turn to things a little more unexpected. The modern scenes are interspersed with a narrative of a boy (perhaps Mallo? perhaps Almodovar) who goes to live with hi parents in a cave. An intelligent boy, he starts tutoring a young man who becomes his ‘first desire.’ Everything in the film is heady and busy, but it’s never not making sense. I thought the first part dragged a bit, as if trying to get to a point, but once it got there, it all made sense. The ending is framed with a twist, and then all the pieces of the puzzle are strewn to make sense, only for it to get dismantled again. This film is typical Almodovar for me – there are things about it that I loved, but there are other things in it that confused me, stuff I think I didn’t get, that maybe I should read up on and see again. His films never sit still, and I am all the better for it.
Saw two films recently that have very similar themes that come from different countries and I thought, relationship themes are all really universal.
From Spain comes ‘Al Oleo.’ Directed by Pablo Lavado, is a story of a young woman, Maria (Sarah Benavente) who comes home to her family estate and finds that things have not changed since she left it, and makes herself the conduit for things to change for her father and brother. This is one of those movies wherein you just feel like you are observing. There are different family dynamics in these relationships and you see the societal boundaries that prevent the characters from expressing themselves. This was billed as somewhat of a gay film, but that part is subtle – it brews but never comes to a complete boil. It’s there, though – her brother is in love with a straight guy whose wife is having a baby – and I like the fact that it gives a glimpse of how Spanish culture looks at homosexuality, that seemingly sex between two men can be casual and laissez faire. The film all in all is a little slight, but depth can be mined.
There is a lot more complexity in ‘Athlete:Ore ga kari ni obereta hibi,’ which comes from Japan. Directed by Oe Takamasa, it is a story of a man (Joe Nakamura) who is a frustrated swimmer. After his wife leaves him for another man, he wanders into the Tokyo gay district and meets Yutaka (Yohdi Kondo) and falls in love with him, which startles even him. But Yutaka has bigger dreams, like going to animation school in France. I liked this film a lot, and appreciated the tender touch it gave to the story. I felt that two characters fell in love with each other, and Nakamura gives a raw performance. I found it curious that Yutaka looked Korean, perhaps because now all over Asia, the ‘Korean look’ is the new standard of beauty. This film is a lot more meaty than the previous one, and perhaps that’s why I preferred it more.
All in all, I found both films interesting, more for the cultural differences and similarities that are shown.
I love a woman with a piano and was looking forward to listening to Miriam Luna’s ‘Piano and Soul.’ Luna, from my internet research, hails from Barcelona, and is doing the Germany circuit right now. The recording, unfortunately, is a bit flat. She is probably better in live performances, but the album doesn’t really have any zing in it. I give her props for an eclectic collection of tunes, but it’s all white noise to me, just like the one on her album cover. Her cover of ‘If I Ain’t Got You’ is probably the whitest version I have heard of it – soulful is the last word I would use to describe it.
There are movies that quietly get into you , and I felt that Carla Simon’s ‘Summer 1993’ is one of those that just touches you and you don’t see it coming, it quietly reaches out and grabs your heart. This movie is centered around young Frida (Laia Artigas) whose mother has passed away. She is then shipped off to live with her mother’s brother Esteve (David Verdaguer) and his wife Marga (Bruna Casi) in a rural Spanish town. Frida at first is a little confused, but slowly gets comfortable. And then she realizes that her mother truly is gone, even as she puts cigarettes by the Virgin Mary statue to leave for her mom. There is a certain mood of melancholy here, and that is what spoke to me. We learn a little later, though indirectly, that her mother probably died from AIDS complications by the way people react to Frida’s bloody bruised leg. Certain circumstances make Frida a target of the couple because of interactions with their own child, and we see that while they have a point, Frida’s isn’t all to blame either. This film made me miss my own mother, who I also lost at a fairly young age (although unlike Frida, I was already an adult when she passed) I can’t forget the final scene where Frida just cries out of the blue, seemingly for no reason. I found myself doing the same after I finished watching the movie.
‘Marica Tu’ is a movie by Spanish filmmaker Ismael Nunez which is based on a comic book by Julian Almazan. Set in Madrid, it is the story of a gay man Julian who arrives to the city and meets Carlos his first night, and embarks on a relationship with him for two years, only for them to break up because Carlos gets a job in Seville. Julian then embarks on a couple of casual affairs, refusing to commit to anyone.
That description seems slight, and the film is – clocking in at a scant 53 mins. We barely have time to know any of these characters, and we really have no understanding about Julian’s relationship with Carlos, so when he frets over their break up, we don’t care. But all is not lost here – I enjoyed the atmosphere of what Gay Madrid seems to be, although, really, that us probably my only take away from the film.
I did not know diddly squat about Mayte Alguacil before listening to her new album ‘Trav’lin’ Light’ and most times I prefer it that way, so I won’t have preconceived biases. But after I heard Alguacil’s album, I wanted – needed – to find out more about her. This is a solid album, and eve though her singing is not the most unique, she sings with love and with a great energy that I couldn’t help but fall in love with her. Even the repertoire of old chestnuts seemed uninspired at first is really just fine – I sometimes am hard to please because I get fatigued.
Alguacil was born in Madrid but looks like she is now based in Barcelona. I love both places so maybe I warmed to her right away? She sings with a slight Spanish accent ant I have always said I love that because it just gives the singer’s presentation a personal touch. My favorite track in this album is ‘Everything Happens To Me,’ which she sings with a less playful arrangement, and gave the song a little more depth. The title track seems a little too slow burn for me, but her ‘I Was Doing Alright’ cooks with great jazz tempo. I have listened to this album four times now and in each spin I have discovered little nuances that I like. She is a good fine – I am following her now on Spotify.
I cannot say I always agree with and enjoy Pedro Almodovar’s work but I am always engaged by them, and that is more than I can say for a lot of filmmakers. He is always something in his stories, and his characters, mostly the women, are colorful both literally and figuratively. In his twentieth film, ‘Julieta,’ Almodovar gives us another one of his women – and this one ranks among the best of them. Julieta is fierce, strong, vulnerable, flawed, and very very real.
Julieta is played by two women in different times of her life. There’s the middle aged Julieta, played by Emma Suarez, and in the beginning we see her as someone pulled together, only to have a chance encounter rock her world. We go back decades later to a young Julieta, played by Adriana Ugarte, and this Julieta looks and acts like Madonna from the Papa Don’ Preach video. And then we see her life unravel before her eyes, and what a mad and fascinating story. She goes from being a teacher to living in a seaside town with a hunky fisherman, only to be drawn back to Madrid because of her daughter, who we find out as an adult has abandoned her mother. But how did we get to this point? The story Almodovar weaves is as colorful as the sets and wallpapers of the homes these characters inhibit. Suarez and Ugarte are both fantastic, but I was particularly drawn to the former, who gives the character a more subtle approach. I read that originally this character was supposed to have been played by Meryl Streep and as good as Suarez is, can you even imagine?
Almodovar based the story on three Alice Munro short stories, and he nailed the feel of her prose – a lot of what transpires is open ended but realized, and situations and characters will make you ponder about life, mortality, Catholic guilt. He likens love here to addiction and in these characters, and the observation has never more apt. I think this is one of his best work – one that is mature and self-assured, and truly one of the best films of last year.