BROKEN EMBRACES, written and directed by Pedro Almodovar, 128 minutes, rated R.
Just as in Pedro Almodovar’s 2006 film “Volver,” his latest, “Broken Embraces,” reminds you what all the hype was about when its star, Penelope Cruz, first hit the scene in the United States in Fina Torres’ 2000 film, “Woman on Top.”
In that movie, whether holding tomatoes near her breasts and saying “you need to make sure they’re full and plump” or lifting a chili pepper to her nose and inhaling its aroma while thinking of a man, there rarely was a moment that the actress wasn’t smoldering with sexuality.
She was like a young Sophia Loren or Anna Magnani softened with the vulnerability of an Audrey Hepburn. When the movie became an underground hit, the Hollywood machine misunderstood her appeal, and so they cheapened her in such films as “Vanilla Sky,” “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin” and the risible “Sahara.” Later, when she became Tom Cruise’s real-life love interest, there was the sense that that was it. We likely had lost her to Xenu on a DC-8 of no return.
But then, after those American movies, she found her way in better ones. She was Consuela Castillo in 2008’s “Elegy,” where she thrived opposite Ben Kingsley as his young love interest, and she won the Academy Award for her unhinged performance in Woody Allen’s “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.” Just this week, her perform-ance in “Nine” won her an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress. And so, with “Broken Embraces,” there’s more reason to celebrate. Even if the film itself isn’t one of Almodovar’s best, Cruz is transfixing as Lena, a wannabe starlet seeking a starring role in a movie. While she’s onscreen, just try looking away from her.
From Almodovar’s script, the film is just as convoluted, melodramatic, toxic, heaving and shrewdly derivative as fans have come to expect from the director of “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” “High Heels,” “All About My Mother,” “Talk to Her,” “Bad Education” and so many others. While the writing isn’t as sharp or as funny as it is in his best movies, so be it; it’s a lot sharper and more interesting than most of the mass-produced movies coming out of Hollywood.
With its undercurrent of noir, and its obvious nods toward Hitchcock and other directors, particularly those from the hard-boiled 1950s, “Broken Embraces” in its most streamlined form is the tale of the blind filmmaker Mateo Blanco (Lluis Homar), who reaches into flashback to tell us how he met Lena; and how he fell in love with her in a relationship that turned into a bizarre love triangle thanks to Lena’s relationship with the wealthy, possessive and much older Ernesto Martel (Jose Luis Gomez).
With Martel producing, Lena and Blanco, who goes by the pseudonym Harry Caine, create a movie together called “Girls and Suitcases.” In most scenes, Lena is awful. She misses her mark. She offers passionless performances. Her line readings are flat. But when Blanco pushes her, he pulls from her at least one take that is ter-rific.
For all involved, it’s exhausting work, but the work has promise, and so they move forward while Martel, sensing that Lena is cheating on him with the handsome, younger Blanco, devises a way to catch them as they fall in love.
Meanwhile, on the sidelines, Blanco’s production assistant Judit (Blanca Portillo) is gripped with jealousy, rage and grief as the two grow close. She loves Blanco, but she’s rather plain and unremarkable. There’s no way she can compete with Lena’s beauty, much of which evokes Audrey Hepburn, and so Blanco is lost to her.
The question is obvious: What does this mean to the movie?
Weaving between past and present — and interspersing those moments in Blanco’s life when he could see and when suddenly he couldn’t — Almodovar follows a story that also includes Diego (Tamar Novas), the young man who is Blanco’s son. But who is his mother? What happened to her? Worse, should Martel’s suspicions of a relationship between Blanco and Lena be confirmed, what’s to become of their movie given that Martel is the producer?
Those who admire Almodovar will sense that I’ve only glanced over the plot — it’s dense and, for the most part, it’s satisfying even though you do miss the more outrageous moments on which Almodovar built his career.
As for Cruz, returning to Spain and to her native language once again has left her transformed; she’s free, absolutely comfortable onscreen. This is her fourth film with Almodovar. Her first was 1997’s “Live Flesh,” her breakout was 1999’s “All About My Mother,” in which she played a pregnant nun infected with HIV. In “Broken” she reaches deep to mine a fiery, complex character that’s among her most compelling. Grade: B+
On DVD and Blu-ray disc
WHIP IT, directed by Drew Barrymore, written by Shauna Cross, 111 minutes, rated PG-13.
Drew Barrymore’s roller derby movie, “Whip It,” proves that not all child stars are without talent behind the lens. She’s no Ron Howard (yet), but based on the strength of her directorial debut, there’s no question that Barrymore has a promising career ahead of her if, you know, that acting thing of hers doesn’t work out.
From Shauna Cross’ script, which she based on her novel “Derby Girl,” Barrymore has crafted a film not unlike her own persona. The movie is moody, quirky, light, winking and rebellious, a flick about a young woman who never quite fit in until she found the right people to guide her into someone more substantial and confident.
Here, that character is Bliss (Ellen Page), whose mother (Marcia Gay Harden) once dolled her up and trotted her out to compete in beauty pageants, but not for long. Bliss eventually does a 180 by joining a cutthroat roller derby squad called the Hurl Scouts.
The lot of them are tough, big-hearted losers (Eve, Kristen Wiig and Zoe Bell co-star), but since Barrymore has learned a few things from her former director Steven Spielberg, there’s no way they’ll be losers for long.
Neither will Bliss, who goes by Babe Ruthless in the ring, which is perfect since a mean beast on an opposing team, the fearsome Iron Maven (Juliette Lewis, loose as ever), is determined to undo her.
What’s curious about “Whip It” is that its predictability doesn’t spoil it. The movie is having too much fun darting toward its happy ending, the likes of which won’t surprise anyone who witnessed the revealing trailer and television campaign.
You don’t admire the movie for the chances it takes because it doesn’t take any, really. Instead, you admire it for the care that went into fleshing out its characters, the camaraderie that grows between them and the thrill of watching a few harrowing turns around a skating rink, all while watching Bliss grow up and find herself thanks to it. Grade: B
WeekinRewind.com is the site for Bangor Daily News film critic Christopher Smith’s blog, DVD giveaways and movie reviews. Smith’s reviews appear Fridays and weekends in Lifestyle, as well as on bangordailynews.com. He may be reached at Christopher@weekinrewind.com.