Friday, June 25, 2010

Sizzle & Fizzle (Broken Embraces and Brothers)

With the declining box-office returns of every new Tom Cruise movie and the preprogrammed success of Pixar's animation empire (We make great movies...because we say so!) a license for every Arts & Leisure columnist to bemoan "The End of Movie Stars," it's worth checking out Broken Embraces, the latest by Pedro Almodovar, as a reminder of the essence of what Hollywood has either abandoned or forgotten. Stardom is the film's very subject: a former director of Spanish cinema (Lluis Homar), now a blind screenwriter going by the Graham Greene-ish name of Harry Caine, receives an unexpected visitor from the past with a link to the love of Harry's life, a fledgling actress named Lena (Penelope Cruz). What unfolds is a pair of related storylines: one in the present, where Harry investigates his suspicions of the stranger, who calls himself "Ray X" (Ruben Ochindiano); the other set fourteen years earlier, where we learn how Harry's relationship with Lena caused him to lose his sight.

There is much more to Broken Embraces than even that -- jealous husbands, drug overdoses, illegitimate children -- but the movie is a lot more complicated to explain than it is to watch. Almodovar relishes twisting his plot into knots (one critic accurately described it as Hitchcock-meets-Sirk) and providing nearly every major character with at least one pseudonym. Yet you always know where you are, who you're looking at, what they're feeling and why.

I'm a relative newbie to Almodovar, having seen four out of his last five movies but unacquainted with his earlier work. Some critics who are seem less impressed with Broken Embraces: the gist of many reviews is along the lines of: "Ho-hum! Another good movie." For me, though, the depth of emotion beneath the splashy colors and soap-opera antics is compelling to watch. It's also terrific fun. And Penelope Cruz, dismissed as a Hooked-On-Phonics joke in her American films prior to Vicky Cristina Barcelona (counting myself among her detractors), comes into full-bloom before Almodovar's gaze. Through Harry's eyes -- and, later, his memories -- we see how her Lena simultaneously destroys and fulfills him. It's quite a risk to draw visual allusions between your leading lady and the likes of Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn, yet Broken Embraces proves that in the black hole of modern cinema, Cruz burns brightly.

Meanwhile, back in the U.S. of A., we have Brothers, a wartime melodrama that's like a Tennessee Williams heavy-breather performed by the St. Mary's High School Players. For the movie to work, we need to believe that Tobey Maguire is a hard-bitten Marine commander stationed in Afghanistan, and that Natalie Portman, as his wife back home, is a harried mother of two precocious daughters in small-town Red State America. It's not their youthful looks that ring false; it's their Hollywood smoothness that dooms the film from the start.

Still, Maguire and Portman try hard to make it work, as does Jake Gyllenhaal, more persuasive as the Marine's jailbird younger brother. When Sam (Maguire's character) is taken prisoner by Afghani soldiers and presumed dead, brother Tommy (Gyllenhaal) becomes deeply involved with Grace (Portman) and his nieces. I've found Gyllenhaal woefully out of his depth in Zodiac and other recent films (my dad once remarked, "He always looks like he's about to cry"), but he creates a fully lived-in character here. Sam is a screw-up who rises to the occasion when others need him, and Gyllenhaal renders authentic his feelings for Grace and Tommy even as Portman and Maguire fail to offer a reason why.

Brothers was directed by Jim Sheridan, possibly described best as a distant Irish cousin to the acclaimed American-Emo filmmaker James Gray (whose movies I loathe). Like Gray, Sheridan is praised for his sensitivity and overt embrace of emotion. Unlike Gray, he has a sense of humor and pacing and how to shape a scene: one such latter instance -- a tense birthday gathering where an unhinged Sam (newly returned from Afghanistan) confronts a resentful daughter, with a party balloon employed like a ticking time-bomb -- is staged masterfully. The director also tries some things with his young cast that work better than expected (Maguire, believe it or not, comes to bear a startling resemblance to Travis Bickle), and sets up a potentially tiresome character (Sam and Tommy's ultraconservative father, played by Sam Shepard) only to draw some surprising contours. However, as in his last film, In America -- which combined the stark realism of an Irish immigrant family's struggle to survive in New York with the fable of a black man dying so that they may live -- Sheridan can't distinguish his good ideas from his bad. Yet I suspect even he knows that his cast isn't up to snuff: in the Golden Age of Hollywood, they'd be caddies to the stars.


Jason Bellamy said...

My specific feelings on Broken Embraces have drifted somewhat. I seem to recall that I was with it up until late, when things stretched out unnecessarily and one of the characters paused halfway through a "let me explain it all" scene that struck me as unconvincing in every way. So, anyway, the film doesn't resolve itself well, but Cruz is terrific -- perhaps my favorite performance of her career. She really does shine.

As for Brothers, I remember being surprised at how much I enjoyed the film. It's got its problems -- all the Afghanistan stuff with Maguire is brutal -- but I thought Portman and Gyllenhaal made a rather awkward bond seem convincing, and Maguire is incredibly convincing when he shows his PTSD at home. (The balloon scene is wonderful, too. That young daughter is terrific.)

Though I've only seen a few of his films, I think your take on Sheridan is right on. In America is a halfway brilliant film that's undone by its Magical Foreigner/Terminally-Ill subplot.

Edward Copeland said...

Almodovar keeps getting better, so if you've only seen his more recent efforts, you've actually been seeing his best. When Cruz gets to perform in her native language, she's always such a revelation. As for Brothers, I haven't seen it, but that's because I imagined it wouldn't hold a candle to the magnificent foreign original directed by Danish director Susanne Bier.

Craig said...

Jason, great thoughts as usual. Broken Embraces and Brothers are really prime examples how, one inch to the left or right, I might have ended up disliking the former and liking the latter. I see your point about the "explain it all" scene; I think for me it played as another of Almodovar's nods to Hitchcock, a deliberate use of artifice. Broken Embraces starts with artifice and probes to real feeling, whereas Brothers aims for reality and reaches artifice. That's my take on it, anyway.

Thanks, Edward. As is often the case, it was your review of Broken Embraces that prompted me to see it. I'm glad to hear I'm seeing Almodovar's best. I would, though, like to check out his earlier efforts (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, etc.)

Edward Copeland said...

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is a lot of fun, but Almodovar really stepped up his game starting around the time of All About My Mother. Most of his early stuff was way too campy and hit and miss because of it.

FilmDr said...

Broken Embraces struck me as so self-importantly melodramatic, I turned it off after about 20 minutes. I agree with you about the problems with Brothers, but after awhile I got caught up in just watching the three stars compete with each other. Ultimately, Portman could not be wholly plausible (she's too pretty for it), and Maguire's histrionics become burdensome (I kept thinking, Peter Parker has issues), but I grew to like Gyllenhaal's cheerful ex-con character. Of the three, he does seem to have the best ability to disappear into a role.

Craig said...

FilmDr: Broken Embraces does start out that way but I'm glad I stuck with it, because interesting and unexpected things begin to happen. It's not one of those films with memorable set-pieces; rather, it has a gradually building cumulative effect that at the end I found quite moving.

Brothers really shows Portman's shortcomings as an actress, not that I dislike her. She surprised me a few years ago in Closer, but I suspect that's a good example of a strong director (Mike Nichols) helping to shape the performance and protect her. Jim Sheridan's worked with brilliant performers like Daniel Day-Lewis and Samantha Morton so many times he's probably used to giving his actors free rein to do virtually whatever they please -- if so, he didn't do NP any favors. In fact, I have a sneaking suspicion that this wasn't the cast he wanted, that it was forced upon him to appeal to a younger audience that would have no interest in seeing the picture regardless.

Ed's reminder about the Danish original makes me eager to see it, especially with Connie Nielsen in the lead.