The great Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar is often celebrated for his outlandishly passionate heroines, in everything from Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown to Volver. But in films that are somewhat autobiographical, centering on a gay film director, such as Law of Desire, Bad Education, and his newest, the Oscar-nominated Pain and Glory, Almodóvar is at his most complex and multilayered.
His stand-in in Pain and Glory is Antonio Banderas, and the casting is ideal: Banderas, as a doe-eyed, pouty-lipped boy toy, got his start in Almodóvar’s triumphs of the 1980s (before moving to Hollywood), and now he gets to play his Svengali as an aging, ailing artist in decline, replete with electroshock hairdo and ennui.
Banderas, who is far more versatile an actor than he is given credit for, gives a brilliantly nuanced performance as the director (named Salvador Mallo), and the movie, which is available for streaming and on disk, is a fabulously deconstructed neo-Freudian fairy tale.
It goes something like this: when a 32-year-old film by Salvador is restored and honored, the director visits the star of the film (Asier Etxeandia), a heroin addict, and ends up getting addicted himself. Salvador, who suffers from extreme back pain and a palette of physical miseries, is clearly looking for relief by snorting heroin, but he’s also unconsciously reliving an early affair he had with an addict. A story that he wrote about that affair ends up being performed onstage and witnessed, coincidentally, by the young lover, now older and married, who then goes to see Salvador. That memory, as well as those of his mother (Penélope Cruz and, as an old woman, Julieta Serrano) and a muscular laborer (César Vicente) who sparked sexual desire in Salvador as a young boy, are enough to cure him of his creative doldrums.
It’s complicated, to be sure, but in true Almodóvar style it sails smoothly by onscreen in wildly saturated color. It’s a marvelous Spanish stew.
Across the Atlantic, a budding American auteur, Rian Johnson, who already has a Star Wars movie (Episode VIII — The Last Jedi) under his belt, has written and directed a riff on Agatha Christie whodunits, Knives Out, which was recently released for streaming and on disk. Johnson’s debut flick, a 2005 low-budget indie called Brick, is a dazzling neo-noir set in a SoCal high school. He’s a consummate fan of genre movies.
Knives Out may be more Clue than Christie, but it’s criminally entertaining, and its arch cast of characters — Daniel Craig as a private detective; Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, and Ana de Amas as suspects seeking an inheritance; and Christopher Plummer as the wealthy murder victim, a mystery novelist — never get too silly while thoroughly enjoying themselves.
The movie is set in a gothic mansion, a self-conscious choice, but that’s the key to its success: it’s not a spoof, per se, but it’s lovingly artificial.
And then there’s Bombshell, newly released for streaming and on disk, a fictionalized account of the sexual abuse scandals that brought down Fox News creator and fat cat Roger Ailes.
The real-life characterizations in the movie are a mixed bag: John Lithgow is a tad hammy as Ailes, but Ailes is so odious to all but the Fox-brainwashed, it’s difficult to object. Charlize Theron as news anchor Megyn Kelly is good to a fault: her mimicry and makeup transformation are so uncanny it feels like a stunt. Nicole Kidman as competing anchor Gretchen Carlson is also good, and not stunt-like. There are more, such as Malcolm McDowell as Rupert Murdoch, but they’re quick and dirty and not especially noteworthy.
The made-up characters are best. Margot Robbie is splendid as a Fox wannabe star who gets horribly victimized by Ailes and then stranded by her high-profile female cohorts. And Kate McKinnon is touching as Robbie’s achingly closeted lesbian colleague and fling, an anachronism of sorts that nevertheless rings true in Ailes-land.
The movie is directed by Jay Roach, a broad comedy specialist (Meet the Parents; Austin Powers in Goldmember) who is less astute with political satire such as this. Though Bombshell is competent filmmaking, it’s borderline cheesy, and the script by Charles Randolph could be smarter — Aaron Sorkin, where are you? Restrained performances gloss over the underlying sensationalism, but let’s face it: as a #MeToo story among right-wingers, it’s irresistible.