11/09/2011 05:55 pm ET | Updated May 21, 2013

Inspiration Over Perspiration: The Best Almodovar by Farr

Brett Ratner's recent anti-gay slur wasn't the first thing he said that sounded just plain stupid.

Did anyone notice his quote in the recent puff piece about him in the New York Times ("Forget the Art House; He's Making Blockbusters," 10/30/11)?

Ratner, all ready to foist the lame Tower Heist on an unsuspecting mass audience, made this dubious claim: "It's so funny how people look down on commercial filmmaking. But it's a much harder skill to make movies for millions of people... than it is a pretentious art house film."

I confess that little nugget of wisdom left me scratching my head.

Later on in the same piece, Heist star Ben Stiller had this to say about Ratner: "Sometimes [it] seems like he's going a million miles an hour in a lot of directions at once. But it's a real talent to be able to corral everyone and push this big machine forward everyday."

This big, lumbering machine, it turns out, with one-dimensional characters and plot holes the size of Phoenix.

It appears that Ratner's approach to his work tends to emphasize size over substance, action over character and perspiration over inspiration.

Unfortunately, even in the realm of escapist entertainment, without at least a measure of inspiration, what shows up on the screen is usually forgettable at best, and it really doesn't matter how much "harder" it is to do.

And character, substance, and inspiration can serve a juicy thriller exceedingly well. For proof, check out Pedro Almodovar's The Skin I Live In.

Even though this astonishing film is only playing on about 80 screens (as opposed to over 3,300 for Tower Heist) it's worth a trip to whatever pretentious art house is showing it.

A tale of a scientist who exacts a most unusual form of revenge on the young man that victimized his daughter, Skin is gorgeously shot, paced, and acted. Clearly it owes a debt not only to Hitchcock but also Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, but Almodovar makes it feel fresh, original and contemporary.

And while Pedro makes it look easy, I have a feeling it's not.

In a medium where it's common for directors to fall into familiar patterns, over a nearly thirty-year directing career, Almodovar has defied formula and easy labeling.

Yes -- there are recurring themes: he often addresses gender issues in his films (Skin is no exception) and he often builds his stories around strong female characters. In addition, his storytelling has a daring, edgy, off-kilter quality that at times feels reminiscent of surrealist (and fellow countryman) Luis Bunuel.

Still, his body of work avoids a feeling of sameness, with each new feature containing an element of surprise and a sense of progression. As a filmmaker, Pedro is aging beautifully.

It's worth noting that Almodovar never went to film school -- he could never afford it. Arriving from rural Spain to Madrid in the late sixties, he basically had nothing. He managed to scrape together enough money to buy a cheap Super 8 camera, and his cinematic voyage (and ours) commenced.

Like the brilliant Indian director Satyajit Ray, Almodovar honed his craft by learning to do more with less. In closing, I would simply suggest to Brett Ratner that doing this is pretty hard as well.

The following titles make up my short list of "primo Pedro":

Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown (1988) -- When pregnant Spanish actress Pepa (Carmen Maura) finds out that her longtime lover Ivan (Fernando Guillén) is leaving her, she tries to track him down. Instead, she discovers his secret life, including wife Lucia (Julieta Serrano). Contemplating suicide, the distraught Pepa mixes up a gazpacho spiked with sleeping pills and puts her flat on the market, but is interrupted by her panicked best friend Candela (Barranco) followed by wave after wave of unexpected visitors. Almodovar's first international hit, this kinetic, farcical romp mixes up absurd comic situations and bizarre, coincidental encounters between ex-lovers, jealous wives, Shiite terrorists and sexy apartment seekers. Maura heads up a terrific cast, playing the hysteric Pepa with pathos and manic passion, while Barranco and Serrano (as Ivan's unhinged, gun-toting wife) are brilliantly zany. Watch for future Hollywood star Antonio Banderas in a small but memorable role as Ivan's randy son. No one does screwball comedy like Almodovar, or loves these "Women" quite as much.

All About My Mother (1999) -- When her son is killed in a hit-and-run accident, emotionally devastated single mom Manuela (Cecilia Roth) returns to her old stomping ground in Barcelona. After reacquainting herself with transvestite hooker Agrado (Antonia San Juan), she meets Sister Rosa (Penelope Cruz), a young nun with troubles of her own. Through a series of coincidences, she becomes a personal assistant to Huma Rojo (Marisa Paredes), a famous actress whose autograph her son was seeking the night he was run over. A spellbinding, character-driven drama with lots of twists and turns, Almodóvar's Mother is an homage to female actresses and anyone with a maternal instinct. With his trademark visual flair and empathy for fringe feminine types -- hookers, transvestites, druggies, and distraught single women in particular -- Almodóvar spins an engaging, melodramatic story with heavy allusions to All About Eve and A Streetcar Named Desire. Roth, Paredes, Cruz, and San Juan all give affecting, spirited performances, and the director himself snagged two awards at Cannes for this masterful film. Why not let Almodóvar "Mother" you?

Talk To Her
(2002) -- Tabloid journalist Marco (Dario Grandinetti) falls for feisty bullfighter Lydia (Rosario Flores), the subject of a celebrity gossip piece he's working on, but she is gored in the ring and sent to the hospital in a coma. In an adjoining room, private nurse Benigno (Javier Camara) devotes himself to caring for Alicia (Leonor Watling), a beautiful young dancer who for years has lain comatose after a car accident. Meeting by chance at a theater, the two men find they have much in common and strike up a friendship. A slyly subversive ode to love in all its myriad forms, Talk to Her is an intimate, involving tale that examines the dark and even perverse nature of masculinity with great compassion. As always, Almodovar, who won an Oscar for his screenplay and was also nominated for his direction, coaxes exemplary performances from his players, especially Grandinetti -- whose teary Marco is movingly guilt-ridden about Lydia's injuries -- and Camara, playing a naive man whose obsessive attachment to Alicia takes a black-comic turn. With its striking visual flair and even a mini silent-film fantasy evoking Buster Keaton, Talk to Her is an audacious love fable with an enormous heart.

Bad Education (2004) -- After many years, gay film director Enrique (Fele Martinez) gets a visit from old classmate Ignacio (Gael Garcia Bernal), who was Enrique's first love. Ignacio is now a struggling actor who calls himself Angel. He offers Enrique a script based on his Catholic school experience, with a revenge twist imposed on a sexually abusive priest. The movie combines the playing out of the script with real life, and identities get consciously blurred. Is the young actor really Ignacio, and if not, who is he? This potent, complex film features a stunning, gender-bending performance from Garcia Bernal, and an ingenious plot that has us shifting between Ignacio's story as written and real-life. Themes of human and sexual identity mix with a sordid tale of abuse and revenge to create a dense, twisty thriller. Note: those uncomfortable with depictions of simulated gay sex should opt for the R-rated version. Another memorable and distinctive entry from writer/director Almodovar.

Volver (2007) -- Raimunda (Penelope Cruz) is a smart, sexy, vivacious woman living in Madrid with her adolescent daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo) and layabout husband, Paco (Antonio de la Torre). Nearby lives Raimunda's younger sister, Sole (Lola Dueas), who works as a hair stylist and accompanies Raimunda on visits to see their senile elderly aunt. The aunt lives in La Mancha, together with the ghost of their mother Irene (Carmen Maura), who perished years before in a house fire. After a couple of deaths close to home shake up their lives, Raimunda and Sole begin to uncover the sordid truth behind their family past. Part murder mystery, part ghost story, and one hundred percent witty, estrogen-fueled fantasy, Almodovar's story of three generations of women is one of the Spanish director's most exuberant films. Enamored of outcasts and oddballs, Almodovar here introduces an element of the supernatural to make an already compelling story of sex, lies, and secrecy even more intriguing. Channeling her inner Anna Magnani, Cruz is a force of nature bursting with brassy verve and self-confidence, especially during her heart-melting solo rendition of the flamenco song "Volver." Co-stars Dueñas, Maura, and Blanca Portillo, playing a cancer-ridden friend of the family, make this moving, enchanting drama an irresistible ensemble film.

Broken Embraces (2009) -- Blind screenwriter and onetime film director Mateo (Luis Homar), who writes under the pen name "Harry Caine," feels that he lives life as "an epilogue," having experienced almost everything. But he remembers a time before he lost his sight in an auto accident when he passionately courted and won over his leading lady, Lena (Penelope Cruz). Recalling the ill-fated shoot 14 years before, he recounts to his assistant Judit (Blanco Portillo) how Lena's jealous lover Ernesto (Jose Luis Gomez), now deceased, strong-armed his gay son Ray (Ruben Ochandiano) into spying on her under the guise of making a documentary about their collaboration. Broken Embraces, an elaborately structured roundelay of flashbacks and proliferating storylines, is a heady romantic melodrama that's as much about the dark magic of moviemaking as it is passion and revenge. Hitchcock and Douglas Sirk both come to mind as influences on Almodovar's noirish love-gone-wrong tale, but the gorgeous cinematography, frenetic time shifts, and charmingly bold set designs are all Pedro. Impressive as ever, Cruz is a fiery and delectable presence in whatever persona she assumes (a Spanish Marilyn Monroe, in one sequence). Ultimately a pastiche of film history gussied up a sultry thriller, Broken Embraces is a stately, thoroughly tempting affair.

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