Mastery of style that turns on a peseta

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The best thing about being a famous European filmmaker is that you never have to pitch a story to an American studio. Imagine the aghast faces, atop the designer shirts, if Pedro Almodóvar had ever outlined the plot of Volver in Hollywood. “Penélope Cruz plays a buxom Madrid mother coping with the cumulative crises of a senile dying aunt, a cancer-stricken best friend, the corpse of a daughter-molesting husband and the ghost of Cruz’s mother, returning from the dead. All these characters swirl around the screen while the story gets crazier, in Spanish with subtitles.”

The director would be thrown out of the door, or the window, whichever was closest at the time. But summarising the plot of Volver is as senseless as inventorying the intrigues in Hamlet or counting the notes in The Magic Flute.

Almodóvar, a living glory of modern cinema, has earned the right to abuse the rules of cinema. Aristotelian unity and proportion go thataway. Slapstick and suspense, death and knockabout, alternate at giddy velocity. The six main characters are all female; the only significant male is a corpse. And the lissom Cruz, accessorised with big hair and a specially built-up bottom, resembles a combination of Sophia Loren and Anna Magnani – and has built up her acting to match.

Yet the topics – family love, childhood trauma, the daily battle between optimism and pessimism, the way we recycle our dead in our hearts – are finessed into a gleaming coherence. The dramatic logic never wavers, however weird its premises. Almodóvar can turn on a peseta from farce to melodrama and back, while his epiphanic image-making can define or refine themes in a single moment of effortless revelation. Look at the way a gaggle of people in a street is multiplied, magically, by the trompe l’oeil reflection in a store window. Perhaps we are all ghosts, the shot seems to say, given life and substance only by the shimmering impact we make on the lives and gazes of others.

Perhaps we are. We inhabit our earthly bodies on a short lease; we are ephemeral from birth; our souls live on in the rented reality provided by other people’s memories. Not being a full-membership mystic, Almodóvar provides a last-reel explanation for one or two of the plot’s wilder improbabilities. But not even explanation can quite bring this film to earth. Its transports are many and many-levelled. Its mastery of style is phenomenal, from a camera that has Hitchcock’s subtle skill in using motion to prompt emotion, through music (by Alberto Iglesias) that enriches scenes without italicising them, to performances that even when “bigger than life” are still life to the core.

Kirby Dick’s This Film is not Yet Rated (opening in Britain next week) is a hilarious piece of opportunistic journalism.

A feature documentary about film censorship in the US, it exposes the cabalistic workings of the Motion Picture Association of America, the body that for 40 years has rated and classified the nation’s movie fare.

Responding to his own and other filmmakers’ exasperation at this outfit’s secrecy – its members sit in anonymity and refuse to explain their verdicts – Dick sets out to “out” the ratings judges. With ingenuity, skulduggery and professional help (a female private eye), he finds the names, confronts their owners, and later dumbfounds the MPAA by submitting his own film – this one – for classification. (It gets a punitive NC17).

This last is a Michael Moorish stunt. But then the whole film is “more-ish”, in the best sense. You want it to go on and on as Dick savages the board’s history of inconsistency, unaccountability and, he suggests, corruptibility. There are indications that Hollywood’s big-money majors, who have representatives on the appeals board, get their films treated more leniently than independent moviemakers. There are farcical instances of violence getting off more lightly than sex. (Woe upon the female orgasm on screen: it must never last too long or sound too loud). And there are bulbs that clearly do not shine too brightly among the MPAA judges.

Trey Parker and Matt Stone, makers of Team America, recall deliberately overloading the puppet sex sequence in Team America so that the raters, blinded by marionette obscenity,
would do their token scissor work while still letting through medium-strong stuff that might have sunk another film.

Presided over till recently by the former Lyndon B. Johnson aide Jack Valenti, the MPAA evidently feels it has its work cut out defending decency and democracy. But America’s filmmakers tell Dick how they have actually had their work cut out (or vital bits thereof). They must look at This Film is not Yet Rated and rejoice. An undemocratic organisation has been named, shamed and ridiculed, to the lasting credit of a free-thinking cinema and culture.

Look Both Ways, written and directed by Sarah Watt, is an Australian film about life, death and converging and diverging lives. Its spaghetti-junction screenplay is in the style of Robert Altman or Paul Thomas Magnolia Anderson.

Different stories interact, setting up vibrations of mood and theme. The chance-meeting romance of a journalist who learns he has cancer (William McInnes) with a young woman (Justine Clarke) who witnessed a fatal train accident; the edgy liaison between another newspaperman and his pregnant girlfriend; a train driver’s confrontation with a crash-bereaved widow.

Overlapping lives find their moments of rest, or troubled stasis, with other lives. Then they move on, or for just a little longer make accommodation
with another mind, heart and set of dreams.

Watt is an earnest artist: she would benefit from the light touch of another recent debutante in the multi-plot movie game, Miranda July of Me and You and Everyone We Know. The camerawork is dogged, the performances are stand-and-deliver. But moments of boldness, including the skittering animation montages that sketch a character’s thoughts or dreams, suggest a career worth keeping under observation.

Elsewhere it’s a changeable August, with scattered follies and occasional depressions. Severance is a limb-lopping British horror film, brainless and brutish, set Hostel-style in eastern Europe, apparently today’s “in” place for torture tourism.

In You, Me and Dupree Owen Wilson’s freelance homewrecker gets the fizzy comic lines, while Matt Dillon, Kate Hudson and Michael Douglas draw the short straws that fail to reach the carbonated dialogue.

Robert Carlyle, Mary Steenburgen and Marisa Tomei paste on smiles and perform like troupers in Marilyn Hotchkiss’ Ballroom Dancing and Charm School, a long title for a littlewhimsy about life, death and the power of love. Which is where, in the safer hands of Pedro Almodóvar, we came in.

VOLVER

★★★★★

Pedro Almodóvar (15)

THIS FILM IS NOT YET RATED

★★★★☆

Kirby Dick (18)

LOOK BOTH WAYS

★★★☆☆

Sarah Watt (12A)

SEVERANCE

★☆☆☆☆

Christopher Smith (15)

YOU, ME AND DUPREE

★★☆☆☆

Anthony and Joe Russo (12A)

MARILYN HOTCHKISS’ BALLROOM DANCING AND CHARM SCHOOL

★★☆☆☆

Randall Miller (12A)

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