Pedro Almodóvar has said that he has often contemplated making a film in the English language. I suspect I’m So Excited would have been the perfect film with which to start. This colourful comedy, set on a malfunctioning aeroplane, is one of the campest films he has ever made (which is saying something), so imagine what Carry On fun he could have had with ‘cockpits’, ‘touch down’ and ‘oversized baggage’ as opposed to their less-euphemistic Spanish equivalents.
On the flight, destined for Mexico but doomed to ‘doing circles around Toledo’, we have three out-and-proud flight attendants (one alcoholic, one pill-popper and one Hindu), two sexually-confused pilots, a drugs mule, a psychic and a high-class dominatrix. If you think this sounds like early Almodóvar, you’d be right, and I’m So Excited recalls the director at his most fun, his most rebellious and his most absurd. In a nod to the spiked gazpacho of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1987), the flight staff numb the passengers to the impending danger with Bucks Fizz laced with mescaline, while there’s more than one Labyrinth of Passion-style love triangle (1982), and the cabaret and lip-synching used to emotional effect in High Heels (1991) and Law of Desire (1986) are reinvented here by a hysterical song-and-dance number to the film’s title track.
It’s a relief to welcome back a puerile Almodóvar after the knowing Broken Embraces (2009) and the dark melodrama of The Skin I Live In (2011), and – with colours as bright as a high-vis jacket and his usual parade of interesting faces – nearly every frame of this film is a joy to behold.
I’m So Excited is not an entirely smooth ride though. An ensemble piece with numerous interweaving stories, the strongest plot points take place in the cabin, despite Antonio Banderas and Penelope Cruz putting in game cameos on the ground. And, although one of the characters is given a key part in the film’s emotional and narrative denouement, it’s hard to care too much about a passenger who spends most of the film conked out.
More problematic still are the film’s two rape scenes. That there are any rape scenes may escape many viewers, and this ambiguity appears to be an emerging motif in the director’s body of work (the Skin I Live In is a case in point). It might be po-faced to get moralistic with a director as irreverent and loveable as Almodóvar, but the fact is that having sex with someone who is drugged and/or asleep is rape, and that it’s not treated as such is alarming. Almodóvar made light of rape in the early film Kika (1993) and was upbraided for it then. The difference is that Kika’s response to her rape was arguably funny and part of a grander narrative about the metaphorical ‘rape’ of subjects by the media. Similarly, the director made child abuse funny in What Have I Done To Deserve This? (1984) and terrorism funny in Women On The Verge. But the rape in I’m So Excited is not funny, it’s flippant, and, for someone capable of writing an otherwise tight and comedic script, he should know better.
Luckily for him, it’s bad turbulence and not a fatal crash. Tourists to his wacky world won’t be disappointed, and those with him for the long haul will be pleased to see he is at least travelling in the right direction.
Electric Sheep writers review the films that turned out to be big disappointments in 2011.
The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011)
I like trees. Sometimes I talk to them - like Clint Eastwood in Paint Your Wagon. When I forget to take my meds, the trees politely talk back. In spite of the mysterious uttering, so common in one’s dotage, I can assure you I was a happy child. I loved dinosaurs, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and inhaling the misty aroma of DDT as it wafted gently through my suburban paradise, keeping it bereft of mosquitoes (but also numerous birds and other small animals). I attended church regularly - cherishing the solace, architecture and magical dapplings of light piercing the stained glass. And dearest Dad, being an ex-cop of Ukrainian descent, was (understandably) of the authoritarian persuasion - strict to be sure, but a hard-working fellow who wished only to provide for his family. And Mom? She was a saint, not unlike Mother Teresa. Winnipeg, where I grew up during the 60s and 70s always seemed a couple of decades behind the rest of the world - very post-war, if you will. ‘Twas, I might add, a leafy city - thus rendering the aforementioned tree worship… Hey! This is all starting to sound suspiciously similar to Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. That said, my relatively uneventful childhood was, finally, more interesting and poetic than this lugubrious Battle of Ypres upon the gluteal muscles - wrought by a filmmaker whose work I otherwise adore. Far too many critics are pretending they actually find merit in this picture - often resorting to extolling the virtues of Malick’s ambition and praising him for taking a bold risk. For me, the only thing Malick takes is a bold dump on audiences. By the way, my own Dad never looked like Brad Pitt - sleepwalking through his role as the taciturn father who eventually weeps at the death of one of his sons. (I’m not sure if Brad Pitt knew which of his sons died. I certainly didn’t.) My own father, though no Brad Pitt, bore the visage of that late, great Ukrainian of the Silver Screen, Jack (Wolodomyr Palahniuk) Palance (crossed, ever so delicately, with Tony Curtis in Taras Bulba). And yes, I talk to the trees and they, in turn, talk to me. The Tree of Life is rich and bountiful. Unless you’re talking about the movie. Greg Klymkiw
A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg, 2011)
I would have been surprised if A Dangerous Method - about the rivalry between Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, with the mediocre Keira Knightley playing the love interest - had been any good, but it’s always a shame when such a renowned director as David Cronenberg delivers something so banal. Adapted by Christopher Hampton from his own stage play, the film stars Michael Fassbender as Jung, who helped pioneer psychoanalysis with his mentor, Freud (Viggo Mortensen, the only good thing in the film). In this interpretation, Jung is an insipid, upper-class man, shackled by turn-of-the-century mores. He eventually breaks his ethical code when he starts having sex with his patient, Sabina Spielrein, a woman who suffers from ‘hysteria’ before being ‘cured’ and becoming a psychotherapist in her own right.
Beaten by her father as a child, Sabina has a thing for authority figures and masochism - basically, she likes being spanked, and Jung, once he gives in to his baser urges, seems to have no problem fulfilling her fantasies. If these scenes were meant to be titillating, Cronenberg failed; the underwhelming, mechanical film is mostly forgettable, except for Knightley’s tortured, painful acting. The film has received glowing reviews from other (mostly male) critics who have found something meaningful in the film that I somehow missed; personally, I can’t think of anything, except a perverse curiosity, to recommend it. Sarah Cronin
Extra gripe from Greg Klymkiw: Sadly, no proper views of open palms connecting with buttocks or slap imprints on said buttocks are afforded to us.
The Future (Miranda July, 2011)
Make that Meander July - as this overly self-conscious ‘indie’ effort tries to turn twee into art. With the most annoying performance by an actress this year (she doubles as the irritating voice-over for the cat narrator, Paw Paw - Puke Puke is nearer the mark), this empty and phony pseudo-slacker romance is completely unrewarding - unless of course you get a kick out of this ‘performance’ artist’s inability to gyrate and move when she is supposed to be a trained dancer. At no extra cost, you get an entirely unmotivated love affair with an older single dad who apparently wears a semiotic ‘fuck me’ gold chain around his neck. Existential, man! Avoid. James B. Evans
Wuthering Heights (Andrea Arnold, 2011)
Period drama was ripe for a radical rethink. The BBC aesthetic of clumping hardwood floors, pretty frocks and trees in blossom had all the historical validity and bloodlessness of an episode of Antiques Roadshow. Andrea Arnold’s third feature film promised to blow the cobwebs away from one of the most under-served novels of the Eng. Lit. canon and restore grit and passion and realism and grit. The problem was that after destroying the clichés, Arnold installed a whole bunch of her own. The social realism was obviously in the tradition of Ken Loach, but Ken Loach first and foremost makes you feel for the people, Billy Casper in Kes (1969), or the struggling father of Raining Stones (1993). With Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff is not so much enigmatic as blank. People gaze at the distance and get blown about in the wind. The camera follows with the insistence of Darren Aronofsky, but we fail to get under the skin of the characters. The photography at times is beautiful, but its beauty becomes too self-involved and by the end of the film close-ups of beetles will feel like a new cliché. Finally, the re-reading of Heathcliff as black is bold only to the Daily Mail and the validity of the reading is unfortunately not taken advantage of by the lacklustre performance of the non-professional actors lucklessly lumped with what should be one of the most powerful characters born from the 19th century imagination. John Bleasdale
Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011)
Fast cars and existential male angst make for great bedfellows - or rather, they MADE for great bedfellows. The 1970s were full of them, the tent posts being Monte Hellman’s Two Lane Blacktop, Walter Hill’s The Driver and Richard Sarafian’s Vanishing Point. Drive comes closest to Hill’s nutty car chase thriller, but lacks that picture’s drive (as it were) and pulp sensibilities blended with art-house-style chic.
Ryan Gosling plays a movie stunt driver who doubles as a heist getaway driver and who falls in love with his dewy-eyed, perpetually open-mouthed and equally soulful neighbour. He agrees to help out her recently released jailbird husband to pull a heist that goes horribly wrong and predictably leads to a couple of bad guys, who coincidentally are backing a stock car Gosling will be racing. It’s fine when a genre picture keeps it simple and stupid, but the plot of Drive is, well, just plain simple. (Simple-minded, that is.)
The car chases are proficiently handled, but have none of the urgency of the true greats; some of the violence is satisfactorily shocking, but the movie - loaded with pretension and fake portent - seems even more disingenuous than, say, a Michael Bay movie. At least, we all know Bay is a knothead. Nicolas Winding Refn clearly has more going on upstairs, but he’d have been far better off playing things with the same kind of relentless pulpiness he brought to Bronson instead of a preciousness that just drags the movie down to Dullsville. Greg Klymkiw
The Skin I Live In (Pedro Almodóvar, 2011)
I’ve always had a take it or leave it approach to the films of Spain’s most celebrated director, the darling of the European art-house scene. While I can revel in his mastery of colour, unashamed campiness and dedication to writing strong female roles I’ve too often been left feeling that substance plays second fiddle to style in Almodóvar’s films. His loose adaptation of Thierry Jonquet’s novel Tarantula, The Skin I Live In, had me pre-emptively convinced that this was the Almodóvar film for me. An emotionally damaged surgeon, a mysterious captive, murder, rape, madness, a (supposedly) killer twist - all orchestrated under Almodóvar’s aesthete’s eye - what’s not to love, right? Wrong.
I was completely underwhelmed by The Skin I Live In. Its mix of black comedy, thriller elements and body horror themes didn’t gel for me one bit. It should have been nasty, oppressive and unsettling but instead it was shrill, ironically skin-deep, shot through with risible dialogue (‘no, not the handkerchief!’) and not nearly grotesque enough. It felt like an inadequate marriage between Cronenbergian themes and an English sex comedy - Carry On Raping, if you will. Trash is trash whether it be made by Jess Franco or Pedro Almodóvar and this was the worst kind of trash, trash masquerading as art. A big disappointment. Neil Mitchell
A Deviant View of Cinema – Film, DVD & Book Reviews