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Volume 35
Issue 14
 
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The Real Spin
The Reel Spin: Pedro Almodóvar's highly admired work collected in nine-disc boxed set
by Ron Anders - SGN A & E Writer

A dash of red-orange. A flash of electric turquoise. The erotic punch of sweaty sex. (More than) a little high melodrama. These are the eccentrically dazzling trademarks of the films of Pedro Almodóvar, perhaps the most warmly regarded and consistently acclaimed director working today.

Almodóvar was initially embraced as the darling of the international set (and chicly championed by Madonna in Truth or Dare), with his heady combination of sex, riotously colorful set design, and an uncompromising gay-feminist sensibility. He inevitably crossed over to Oscar-land, winning a nomination for his latest muse, Penélope Cruz. He previously won the little golden man in 1999 for Best Foreign Film for All About My Mother and in 2002 for Best Original Screenplay for Talk to Her. For years, rumors have floated around Hollywood that the director would make a film there, but nothing has come of them. It is easy to imagine boardrooms full of anxious Los Angeles film executives wondering what to do with his outrageously blunt and comic sexual scenarios. He seems content to stay in Spain with the close-knit family of actors and technicians with whom he has worked for years.

His virtuosity is now enshrined in Viva Pedro: The Pedro Almodóvar Collection, a nine-disc DVD boxed set, which includes 8 films, an extras disc and a set of film poster postcards.

In my estimation, the jewel in this set is All About My Mother, a glorious weepie with a haunting performance by Cecilia Roth as a mother whose son has died. Expert seriocomic relief is provided by Antonia San Juan as a pre-op transsexual with a heart of gold, a hilariously sharp tongue and a self-proclaimed (and sought-after) large endowment. It is a sublime, nutty, exquisitely melancholy riff on motherhood (and drag-fatherhood), theater and movie divas and the resilience of women in the face of devastating loss. The director also gives his customary nod to vintage Hollywood movies and Broadway plays. With this film, the director finally secured his overdue place in the pantheon of international cinema greats.

Also in a class by itself is Bad Education -- his perverse, overheated homage to Hitchcock, sporting a deliciously sensual Gael García Bernal in multiple roles - as an aspiring actor and duplicitous, seductive drag performer. A savage attack on the hypocrisy of the church, the film's ever-evolving plot, sinister revelations and erotic jolts make for a richly satisfying feast of images. The director, as is his way with his characters, manages to humanize even the most amoral of villains.

A few of these films were new to me, and they were all knockouts -- none more so than Law of Desire, whose heady scent of sex and betrayal is an obvious precursor to Bad Education. Antonio Banderas plays an ambitious (and psychopathic) youth who sets his sights on a film director, with devastating results. Carmen Maura plays the director's transsexual brother-sister, stealing the show with her drama queen antics, which are simultaneously over-the-top and touchingly human. Eye candy is amply supplied by Banderas, who spends much of the film in various states of undress and in some very uncompromising sexual situations.

The other films included in the set are Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, The Flower of My Secret, Talk to Her, Live Flesh, and Matador. Without exception, they are showcases for an original and revolutionary talent.

The set's special features provide insight into Almodóvar's total involvement in his finished product, and it is amusing to hear his associates' discussion of how, when explaining a scene to an actor, he will act it out for them in its entirety. What impresses his colleagues most is his uncanny ability to take outlandish plots and characters and make them entirely believable and human. In any other director's hands, the films might look cartoonish. A biographical feature traces his progression from working under Franco-era repression to his present career as outspoken artist.

He is an actor's director who gets shockingly vibrant and vulnerable performances from his players - and has given Banderas, Maura and Cruz (among others) their most potent roles. As a screenwriter, he has virtually no peer working in films today. Clearly a lover of film and literature from an early age, his films are peppered with references to classic films, dance, music, theater and feminist literature. Finally, his visual style is so confident and fluid that his films take on a hypnotic quality that grabs you at the start and does not let go until the end titles crawl up the screen.

Along with Hitchcockian and Felliniesque, we can now happily add Almodóvarian to our cinema vocabulary.

Note: Bad Education, Law of Desire and Matador are rated NC-17, evidence that gay sex remains ever problematic for the MPAA ratings board (as made painfully clear in last year's scathing documentary, This Film Is Not Yet Rated).

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