Tag: Penélope Cruz

Pain and Glory

P and G Leonardo Sbaraglia and Antonio BanderasMaking an autobiographical film about a director’s life can be a tricky task.  Get it wrong and it comes across as a self-absorbed exercise in navel-gazing. But get it right and you have something wonderful, like Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory. 

Set in Spain, this film centres on the “fictional” life of Salvador Mello. Through a series of flash-backs, Almodóvar (for whom this film operates as a thinly veiled semi-autobiographical drama) fleshes out Salvador’s formative years at the hands of his impoverished mother (played by Penelope Cruz), his absent father, and the sexual awakenings of the house help.  Fast forward to the present and Salvador is now a successful but creatively stifled film-maker, who suffers from numerous ailments and is struggling to unite his past with the present. But through a series of coincidental reconnections, his past is thrust upon him.  There is a hint of Fellini’s 8 1/2, or even Cuarón’s more recent Roma in the self-confessional nature of Almodóvar’s sideways glance at his own life and the people who influenced him.

Almodóvar collaborator Antonio Banderas gives an exceptionally soul-searching performance as Salvador, one of intensely focussed restraint as an internalised individual who ruminates on his past life.  He is a picture of contradictions, with mournful eyes that betray his smooth image of studied unkemptness. At one point Salvador exclaims to a colleague “The one who cries is not a better actor than the one who struggles to hold back tears”— advice that Banderas takes on board in one heart-wrenching scene that sums up the pain and glory of Salvador’s life. Indeed, Banderas’ remarkably nuanced performance does plenty of this film’s heavy-lifting and elevates it into something quite sublime.

But far from solely a Banderas masterclass, Almodóvar’s distinctive flavour is evident throughout.  Although at the restrained end of his oeuvre, Pain and Glory is still a visually compelling work with a rich colour palette and some subtle formal flourishes that are wall-hangingly beautiful. Certainly, Pain and Glory’s thought-provoking final shot will have your post-viewing tongues wagging while you sip on your Tempranillo.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.

Everybody Knows

ekIranian writer/director Asghar Farhadi, maker of quiet but piercing human mysteries (A Separation, The Salesman), has gone once more to the well, yet again painting a portrait of a family under the suffocating chokehold of dark secrets. However, the skill with which he has crafted his latest feature, Everybody Knows, suggests that for Farhadi the well has not yet run dry.

Set in a small rural town near Madrid, Laura (Penélope Cruz) returns to her childhood home to attend her sister’s wedding.  When her teenage daughter Irene (Carla Campra) is kidnapped on the night of the wedding along with a chilling warning against contacting the police, the family gather around to consider their options.

Side-glances and finger-pointing abound as this taut mystery spares few from the merciless gaze of suspicion — as the film’s provocative title implies, Everybody Knows revels in the small-town milieu where no secrets are safe. While the family’s background slowly unfolds (and indeed the mystery of Irene’s whereabouts), the film takes on an almost Agatha Christie tone as the ensemble of agitated characters helplessly mill about exchanging barbed remarks and petty retorts.

Both leads, Cruz and Bardem (who plays her old flame) show their class, giving anguished but balanced performances. Yet what makes this film extraordinary is the seemingly modest way in which it is delivered.  Technically the film appears nondescript, bland even, but closer inspection reveals Farhadi’s very deliberate style. His careful consideration of framing and lighting is a concerted wonder of subtlety and furthermore, the bold decision not to have a musical score only proves to enhance the story’s intrigue.

The result is a film that appears to take pleasure in slow cooking its central puzzle. And as the meat of the mystery slowly falls off the bone it exposes hidden motivations and menacing issues of resentment. Everybody Knows is a slow burn that some might find frustrating but I found the impeccable pace of this intriguing mystery immensely satisfying.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.

Murder on the Orient Express

motoe.jpgHaving seen Albert Finney’s rendition of Agatha Christie’s famous detective in 1974’s Murder on the Orient Express, it is one of the few times I was thankful for my shocking memory—I couldn’t remember “whodunnit”. 

This time around a very moustachioed version of Hercule Poirot is played (and directed) by Kenneth Branagh.  He is a Belgian detective, world famous for finding solutions to the most complicated criminal mysteries and, as the title suggests, there’s been a murder! The slightly less moustachioed Ratchet (Johnny Depp) is the unfortunate recipient and doesn’t last the whole train ride I’m afraid. It’s no surprise, then, that all the remaining first class passengers on board the Orient Express have a motive for murder … Ratchet, it turns out, was not such a nice fellow, having blood on his own hands from a prior indiscretion.  Thankfully, Poirot is onboard to piece together what becomes a complicated puzzle.

Branagh does an adequate job as the obsessive compulsive genius, although in comparison to the slightly unhinged charisma of previous Poirots (Finney, Ustinov, and Suchet), Branagh’s version is found somewhat lacking. Despite this minor quibble, the remaining ensemble is perfectly cast. Depp deliciously slides in to a role that feels perfect for him (yes, I mean the pre-death version). Daisy Ridley and Leslie Odom Jr. do commendable jobs while Judy Dench, Michelle Pfeiffer, Josh Gad, Penélope Cruz, Derek Jacobi, and Willem Dafoe all chip in with archetypal roles dripping with as much intrigue as their screen-times allow. 

Michael Green’s (Blade Runner 2049, Logan) screenplay handles some fairly weighty exposition without a gratuitous use of flashbacks—and thus keeping the film’s action onboard the titular locomotive. Green’s watertight (if somewhat wordy) script keeps things tantalisingly just out of arms reach.  Although, I’d like to have seen each of its many characters fleshed out a little more—perhaps an impossible task for a two-hour film.

Nonetheless, Branagh has directed a thrilling ride through the mountainous snowscapes contrasted with some murderous machinations in tow, making this first class ticket as opulent as it is chilling. And despite a few missteps, this train is still worth jumping aboard.

Read my full review for the NZ Herald here.