Armchair Cinephile

Viva Pedro: The Almodóvar Collection. Courtesy photo.
Bloodthirsty bullfighters, transsexual incest, and women on the verge of nervous breakdowns — whatever you might say about the films of Pedro Almodóvar, you can’t call them boring.

They’re a prime example for casual filmgoers, in fact, of just how unlike homework foreign cinema can be. Colorful, hilarious, shocking, and passionate, they aim above all to entertain; it’s easy to understand why an American distributor would gather some highlights together to attempt to introduce the Spanish auteur to a wider audience.

Viva Pedro, an eight-film series that toured theaters around the country last year, was organized by Sony Pictures Classics and emphasized titles that have already earned the studio some money. While longtime Almodóvarians might have dug up videotapes of the director’s early-’80s breakthroughs, Viva begins in 1986 and is heavy on more recent films which have already had broad distribution and Oscar attention.

The strategy, it seems, was to solidify the director’s reputation as this generation’s answer to the icons of world cinema — your Fellinis, Kurosawas, et al — who rose to fame in the ’50s and ’60s, making him a brand name and paving the way for Volver, which opened as the series toured and has since earned a Best Actress Oscar nomination for Penélope Cruz.

One wonders if this branding effort is necessary. Almodóvar is the most famous living Spanish filmmaker on these shores, and unlike many peers from other countries, he only seems to get more popular with each outing. For those who have yet to sample his wares, though, Viva Pedro is an eye-opener, both literally — the films’ candy-colored production design recalls the director’s early interest in comics — and figuratively.

While the series avoids his most controversial movies (the S&M romance Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!; a rape played for laughs in Kika) it does offer some examples of Almodóvar’s early provocations: Matador, for instance, rivals Basic Instinct in its eroticization of violence. More often, though, Viva finds the filmmaker filtering edgy material through self-conscious melodrama or campy comedy. In his finest moments, as in Talk to Her, the comic and the poignant blend together beautifully.

For those of us who already count ourselves Almodóvar fans, the new box set of the series offers one disc of new documentary material, four relatively recent releases in versions identical to existing DVDs (Live Flesh, Bad Education, Talk to Her, The Flower of My Secret), upgraded editions of two previously available titles (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, All About My Mother) and, most exciting, two pre-On the Verge titles that haven’t been issued in America: Law of Desire and Matador. New transfers of the older films, as with the fresh prints that were struck for the theatrical tour, guarantee that the colors on screen are as lurid as the stories being told.

(Unfortunately for those who have been collecting the director’s work as it was released, Matador and Law of Desire aren’t being sold individually — yet.)

Viewers who can’t get enough of Gael García Bernal after watching him don eyeliner and a dress in Bad Education will be happy to learn of next Tuesday’s release of The Science of Sleep (Warner Bros.), a yarn even more Gael-centric than Education. Michel Gondry’s follow-up to his Charlie Kaufman collaboration Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind displays plenty of the same visual flair and dream-inspired whimsy, and the leading man couldn’t be more suited to play a hopelessly romantic young man who lives within his own mind. (Serge Gainsbourg’s daughter, Charlotte, an art-nerd’s dream girl, makes a similarly ideal love interest.)

It’s not a very damning insult to say that Sleep doesn’t approach the perfection of Sunshine, where dazzling technique and novel ideas were tightly integrated with the plot; Sleep, which Gondry wrote himself, is about as scattered as its hero. But it’s quite a trip, from a Frenchman who, though still quite a few steps behind Almodóvar, proves how much fun a foreign-born filmmaker can be.


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