Top Ten of 2011, #6: The Skin I Live In, Pedro Almodovar

The Skin I Live In is in many ways a return to the genre films Almodovar made earlier in his career, but with the infusion of maturity, confidence, and narrative skill amassed over his later body of work.  It’s also a return to his working with Antonio Banderas, a frequent early collaborator.  It’s fascinating that both of them have come full circle, and after a successful run in Hollywood, Banderas is no longer quite the hot property he was 15 years ago.  But again, the wisdom and maturity that comes from that journey adds so much color to his performance here, and Skin finds Banderas at the top of his craft, exploring dark, emotional corridors with unwavering focus and concentration.  This is yet another performance that far outshines a lot of what was nominated for this year’s Academy Awards, and one that really should have received more attention.

The plot of Skin is fairly complex, and it’s structured in such a way as to provide certain elements of surprise and really delve into various pulpy genre conventions.  I don’t want to ruin too much, so I’m going to be very particular in how much I explain.  But all of Almodovar’s favorite themes, from loopy, insane genre-bending, to permutations of noir and pulp, to sexual politics, to his deep exploration of emotionally complex women all converge quite nicely here.  The film poster alone bears similarities to that of the French film Eyes Without a Face, and Almodovar is certainly riffing on the mad scientist genre.  As the film opens, we learn that Elena Anaya’s Vera Cruz is a patient of Banderas’ Robert Ledgard.  She wears strange body suits to protect her skin and odd face masks, and Ledgard is busy working on some experimental skin grafts for her.  She also seems suicidal, and we’re not sure what events figure in her past; perhaps she’s the survivor of some strange fire.  As a result, she’s locked in a room in Ledgard’s house, and her meals are prepared for her and sent up to her by way of an elevator in the wall and a dumb waiter within.

Then Skin bounces around in time, and we get some backstory about Ledgard and an earlier life with a beloved daughter.  He’s a tragic character, passionate and haunted, and over the course of the story his strange depths are slowly revealed and explored.  Through it all, Almodovar balances some disparate changes in tone, seamlessly weaving together his eccentric range of taste in one film.  There are parts of Skin that feature the kind of very broad, almost over-the-top parody from early in his career, while other parts showcase a more layered, studied investigation of dark character depths.  The fact that Almodovar can find the odd balance to make all of this work together is in many ways a career high.  And the success with which everything comes together, both in terms of the plotting and the eclectic and varied themes, will provide any Almodovar lover with some deep satisfaction.

Both Marisa Paredes as Ledgard’s maid, a role that is more complex than it originally appears on the surface, and Anaya as the subject of Ledgard’s painstaking work, turn in accomplished and complex work.  Anaya reminds one of Penelope Cruz, who has worked with Almodovar on many films and several of his most recent ones, and certainly fits a particular brand of Almodovar ingenue.  Skin is extremely rich both in terms of its genre stylings and the performances, but to reveal any more would be to do the film a disservice.  While it’s unfair to characterize anything Almodovar does as straight drama, particularly taking into account his gender politics, the level of twisted genre exploration happening in Skin is exciting to watch.  It’s also great fun seeing a filmmaker so accomplished with such a strong voice take such a gleeful headlong sprint into some of the truly bizarre places Almodovar ventures here.  Skin is likely the most inventive, playful, and cheekily insane film to hit theatres this past year.  It’s visually stylish and gorgeous-looking, creepy and fascinating, and manages to land several different types of emotional sucker-punches.  Kudos to Almodovar for this strange and bizarre creation, and hats off to Banderas for taking a risk here that results in perhaps the best work of his career.

9/10

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Haywire, Steven Soderbergh (2012)

I had my doubts going into Haywire, considering it’s been in production limbo as long as it has been.  There were rumors of multiple reshoots and a lengthy editing process to mask Gina Carano’s terrible acting.  Well, either Soderbergh achieved his goal, or the reshoots and editing were simply the result of a sporadic shooting schedule designed to accommodate his actors– Soderbergh has long used a process where he’ll shoot all of a supporting actor’s scenes in an ensemble film at one time, effectively shooting in chunks designed to grab his individual cast members when their schedules have openings between other projects.  A given actor might work for a week, and the larger film is shot almost as a series of short films with each of the supporting actors as the lead, with the true lead actors involved for the entire length of the shoot.

It’s true that Carano may not be the most skilled, versatile, or experienced actress, but for what she has to do here, she acquits herself quite well.  Soderbergh keeps her busy with physical business in the dramatic scenes, and it helps to give her such anchors.  It also certainly doesn’t hurt that she’s playing opposite some very good male actors, and she surely benefits from their experience.  And of course, during the action and fight scenes, Carano is completely in her element and shines quite brilliantly.  Soderbergh also had the foresight to write to her comfort level and tailor the script to her strengths– when she has to dress up for a formal event, there’s discussion about how Mallory isn’t completely comfortable in that kind of social setting.  Soderbergh effectively covers all bases so were Carano to seem slightly uncomfortable in some of these scenes, it would read as part of the character’s uncomfortability.  And it’s refreshing to see a female action lead who is definitely blue collar and comes from a military background.  Not every female spy should also be a leggy supermodel as at home at the cotillion as out in the field, or with the kind of ultra-thin limbs and frame that look as though she’d snap her own arms in half by landing a single punch.  No, Carano definitely has a believable athletic physique, and carries the kind of experience and weight in the role that seems much more realistic from what we’re used to getting on television and at the movies.

Lem Dobbs’ script is brisk and efficient, and between the way it skips along and also backtracks through some backstory, it’s well-paced and effective.  It may not be among Soderbergh’s best films, but it’s definitely worth a watch and much better than you’d expect from its January dumping-ground release date.  It’s worlds better than his last collaboration with a non-actress, The Girlfriend Experience, and for my money it’s a better film, and certainly more entertaining, than his lugubrious and unwieldy Che biopics; I’d also put it ahead of last year’s Contagion, which I ultimately found rather flat and uninvolving, and without a human protagonist to truly care about.  If Carano decides to stick with acting, she certainly appears to have the facility and potential to become a decent actress, particularly if she initially picks the right projects that play to her strengths and give her the room to grow.  This is a perfectly-placed first step, and she demonstrates enough charm and charisma to land her more roles.  The supporting cast all turn in solid work, but for me the standout was Bill Paxton as Mallory’s father.  Paxton is perfect as the kind of Clancy-esque novelist/writer who is likely a conservative Republican with a miltary background of his own and politics that helped lead his daughter to her given career choice.  Father and daughter are definitely two of a pair, even if he doesn’t always know the full extent of what she may have become or be capable of, and Carano and Paxton have an easy, shared chemistry with each other that hints at a lot of deep, complex history.  In fact, there’s enough there to support a relationship between the two across a series of films if Soderbergh were to decide to keep exploring Mallory’s world.

Haywire isn’t going to win any awards, but it’s an action/spy thriller with more intelligence and gritty realism than most of its peers.  Soderbergh makes the smart choice to use some choppy editing to capture street realism when it helps to build the world of the film, but also to pull the camera back and use longer takes when showing Carano in her more physical scenes.  Sometimes, as in the Batman and Bourne movies, the choppy editing can really punctuate the brutality of an action scene.  But too many directors have lazily adapted it to get away with less choreography, using a lot of quick cuts to cover a lack of technique or rehearsal time.  When you’ve got someone as skilled as Carano, the smart move is definitely to pull the cameras back, let the film roll, and showcase the strength of the work by actually letting the audience see the full range of the action.  It’s a breath of fresh air for Soderbergh to have made this choice in counterpoint to what has become a common and overused cinematic hook these days, and it sets the film apart enough that it becomes of the hallmarks of the overall look and texture of the piece.  Much of the other production elements, from the score to the cinematography to the overall production design, are also a bit of a throwback to the films of the 70’s, and help give Haywire a certain amount of naturalism without being artificially punched-up or over-the-top.

7.5/10

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