Almodovar, at his most self-reflective, in PAIN & GLORY.

[magr from Film Affinity]

For me, it has become a truth that I acknowledge wherein a director, a storyteller, has one basic story to tell, and that is his own. It doesn’t matter that the storyteller or a movie director will navigate different schemas in order to seem versatile in various genres, and truly, many do. In the end, when all is said and done, when you look at the story from an objective perspective, the result is that details begin to emerge that will pinpoint to the autobiographical, and by essence, the most personal of confessions.

It’s no secret that Almodovar loves women, and almost always features them as the leads in his movies. So it’s rather refreshing to see that for once, Almodovar has taken a different approach and filmed the closest thing to a memory play in Pain & Glory (Dolor y gloria), featuring a writer/director not unlike himself who takes a reflective look into the past in order to find facets of himself that have made him the person he is today.

Salvador Mello (Antonio Banderas) is a director in decline whose movie “Sabo”r (Taste) has become rediscovered and re-released to a new audience who of course wants to see more of the director himself, know the person, as cinephiles do. Mello, however, is in a mental funk and suffers from physical ailments, which have him calling upon a colleague, fellow actor Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia), who was the star of Sabor and with whom Mello had a fallout due to his performance. Crespo and Mello make up over some hallucinogens, which lead Mello to revisit the past when he and his mother Jacinta (Penelope Cruz, as usual, luminous and Earthy) moved to Paterna.

Crespo discovers Mello has been writing a story called Addiction which Mello considers not only unpublishable, but too personal. Crespo, however, is so taken by the powerful, moving text that he wishes to perform the play, and after some coaxing, he delivers an emotional performance that draws the presence of Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia), Mello’s ex-lover and the lead character of the moving story. Mello and Federico reunite and have one of the most moving, emotionally shattering, and erotically charged conversations, an extended scene fraught with intense closure that we almost forget that Almodovar is barely halfway through his book of memories, and we still have a couple of scenes that have to come forth in order to bring the film to a proper close.

Some of these scenes are so beautifully rendered I get the feeling Almodovar took some time in fleshing out how they could transpire and look in the overall product. While there are no flashy transitions like the dramatic shift that happens right in the middle of Julieta, Pain & Glory meanders along, often using his special brand of humor and absurd scenes to pepper a moment of reconnection, and occasionally — but very sparingly — veering into pathos. As a matter of fact, this is one of the most emotionally restrained films I have seen in Almodovar’s body of work. Nowhere is there intrusive music as it happened, for example, in High Heels or All About My Mother, and simple expositions by themselves reveal layers of drama just simmering underneath. If anything, the most expressive part of Pain & Glory is the use of color, with every color getting some form of exposition, but especially his use of reds, greens, and orange.

[BFI]

Transitions to Mello’s childhood are extremely poignant and linger on much after the end; scenes in which the young Salvador wonders what will become of himself and his mother as they take refuge in a train station, or later, when Salvador confronts her on the topic of education, are the stuff reminiscent of Italian Neo-realism and cement the type of mother-son relationship that anchors the story, and even inform his own somewhat close relation to his assistant Mercedes (Nora Navas, an actress with a passing resemblance to Carmen Maura)..

Later, Salvador finds himself discovering his own sexuality in a rather delicate manner. Almodovar treats this specific sequence with extreme taste; it’s no secret that many of us found ourselves while admiring an older man, and the way this happens is almost accidental, but crucial to the future Mello. As payment for fixing up Jacinta’s house, Salvador offers to teach the young construction worker to read and write. Now, there is a reason the worker comes under a specific physicality (he is muscular and attractive), but before, it happens that an impromptu moment has the worker painting Salvador on canvas. Once he is done, he takes a shower, and that is where Salvador accidentally sees the older youth in the nude and faints dead away. The situation is not resolved, but the painting finds its way to Salvador’s hands as an adult and a short but moving letter where the young man thanked Salvador for teaching him to read and write.

The beauty of Pain & Glory is that its a personal story that anyone could relate to. While watching Salvador engage with the older Jacinta and filling her with promises that never came to fruition (because life happens), I ended the ghost of my own mother sitting quietly next to me, holding my hand, letting me know that it was all okay. You see, throughout the movie, Salvador fights with an enormous level of self-doubt stemming from his own self-worth, a stigma placed by Jacinta;s limited understanding. How many of us have had that happen, a parent who, while they loved us, couldn’t quite get us? Almodovar knows that all too well and plays that messy relationship with unbelievable compassion.

Its safe to say, and probably redundant by now, that Pain & Glory is not just a good movie but perhaps his best ever, his most mature, his most emotionally satisfying, one whose story continually reveals itself to its viewers, one that will evolve over time as a design of great honesty and emotional nakedness. It is anchored by its entire cast, but Antonio Banderas, an actor who rarely has been able to play quality roles, playing a haunted man trying to cope with his own sense of mortality and his future. Shambling throughout the movie with unruly hair and expressive eyes, he confronts all the ghosts of the past, achieving beautiful closures even when some of those might be a little messy.

On Netflix: Steven Soderbergh’s THE LAUNDROMAT

Wealth is a dirty business, and Steven Soderbergh’s The Laundromat sets out to do a vertiginous explanation of just how deep down, how entrenched into our global consciousness it has become. Focusing and using the ones who got caught, Jurgen Mossack and Elmer Fonseca (Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas) as hosts, we get a quick succession of vignettes that tell us how the entire scheme all works. Soderbergh, a director who has always employed a sharp visual style, at first presents the men in matching outfits and moves them from what seems to be an open paradise to an underground club within seconds, both with martinis in hand, to introduce one unfortunate victim, a tiny, tiny cog on a massive wheel.

That woman is Ellen Martin (Meryl Streep), who finds herself not only a widow following a freak boating accident in Lake George, but now, at the setback with the insurance agency who will not provide payment due to her husband’s untimely death. That story shifts to a conversation being played out by owner of the tour boat (Robert Patrick) whose financial advisor (David Schimmwe) informs that he switched to an agency operating out of the tiny islands of St, Christopher and Nevis in order to avoid costs. The operator of that firm (Jeffrey Wright) turns out to be living a double life, and part of a larger money laundering scheme that now has Ellen out of a retirement condo as well.

More subplots get introduced: a filthy rich socialite finds her friend is having sex with her father, but the father is willing to give her assets to banks as payment for her silence. Most intriguingly, a sequence in which Rosalind Chao and Mattias Schoenaert engage in verbal warfare over — you guessed it — money, and lots of it, which ends in someone dying. It all seems to come back to the roots that were Mossack and Fonseca, who managed a gigantic money laundering operation out of Panama and is, according to the movie, one of many operating, unscathed, controlling everything from politics to who gets what in terms of wealth.

Soderbergh’s film is less a dramatic affair than a 90 minute expose of how this all happens, and the mood is definitely cynical if not outright bouncy. That alone might detract a bit from the entire issue, which is to inspire outrage, but to be honest, in a world where there is so much of this going around it is truly hard to see anything happening other than a denunciation of one agency that has now gone under. Hurting Soderbergh’s film is the cramming of so many marquee names into one tight little picture, and having Streep play three characters is a bit much. Also, having Oldman and Banderas play theirs as smiling Cheshire cats who never once admit contrition but flaunt their guilt is a bit much — then again, I did state Soderbergh is in a cynical mood and it shows. In a way, it seems to say that in this world, pretty much, we are all fucked to the mercy of those few who have so much of the green thing.

On Netflix: EXTREMELY WICKED, SHOCKINGLY EVIL AND VILE

If Ted Bundy had had his pick of actors to play him in a crime drama about his life, he probably would have chosen himself. That alone tells you the kind of person Liz Kloepfer (Kendall) met during the time Bundy was out doing unspeakable things to women with long brown hair. An anomaly of a person, Bundy stands alone and unparalleled for sheer affront, a man unafraid to challenge authority to the bitter end, a man who leaves behind a chain of terror for the most part, unsurpassed.

Joe Berlinger’s movie Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile correctly places Zac Efron, an actor with unusually attractive looks and a body that most men would kill for front and center and while he doesn’t quite look like Bundy, Efron all but loses himself in the part, assuming Bundy’s mannerisms, charm, gift for words, self-serving theatrics, and unbelievable but fatal magnetism. Efron’s Bundy is definitely the quintessential wolf in sheep’s clothing. It is a scarily precise performance as the infamous serial killer who even when he found himself on trial, he had women like Carol Ann Boone (Kaya Scoledario) panting inside a courthouse, defending him to the end even when it was clear through evidence that he was not the kind of man you would bring home to introduce to your parents as your future husband. That Kendall (Lily Collins) survived being one of those unfortunate victims remains a mystery even to Kendall herself and sadly, the movie doesn’t spend more time with her but merely uses her (and Scoledario) as a blueprint to go where the controversy and yes, evil thrived. Perhaps this was the only way to truly make a movie about someone like Bundy, because with a personality as toxic and as narcotic as his, how else could one grasp the level to which he had a nation flummoxed as the killer of women?

Neither Berlinger nor Efron have the answers. Certainly not Kendall, who now lives a live of privacy. Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile is mainly a question mark of a movie, one that simply presents the reality through KLendall’s deluded but cognizant eyes, and makes no attempt to analyze further, and that, perhaps, is all that this movie needs to be.