THE SHOW MUST GO ON: Reviews of Broken Embraces and Me and Orson Welles

Pedro Almodovar is one of my favorite filmmakers working today, so I am sad to say that Broken Embraces simply didn’t work for me. It’s lush and melodramatic (at times) and has a wonderful, Hitchcock like music score (by Alberto Iglesias), but the story was just a bit too much of a mess. It’s about a movie director Mateo Blanco (Lluis Homar) who was blinded in a car accident, an accident that also killed his lover Lena (the lovely Penelope Cruz). The events leading up to this crash revolve around a triangle with Lena’s husband who was also producing the film Mateo was directing with Lena as the star. When Mateo and Lena ran off together, Lena’s husband stopped the film and Mateo thought it was lost forever; then in a deus ex machina ending (not satisfying emotionally for me), Mateo’s assistant reveals she had the film all the time; all the sturm and drang over Lena’s death for nothing. There’s also a subplot concerning the gay son of Lena’s husband that has no pay off, gets in the way and just confuses the situation (the gay son also starts out as an effeminate mama’s boy and then reappears years later as an ultra-macho tweeker, a change never explained or commented on). The sexy Penelope Cruz, who is wonderful here, is the main reason to see the film; at the same time, since she is the catalyst and the character that drives the action, she may actually not be in it enough. There is an odd ending; Mateo is editing the film he and Lena were working on when she died. It seems to either be inspired by Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown or actually a recreation of a scene from the movie (I don’t remember Women… that clearly); this little scene is the best part of the movie and proves just how good the original Women… was if it can have the same effect years later with a different cast.

Me and Orson Welles is a real hoot most of the time, even though it doesn’t quite work as well as it might. The main problem is the Me in the title, a 17 year old high school student, Richard Samuels, played by Zac Efron (who is getting a little long in the tooth to play this age that convincingly anymore). In addition, he’s probably the most unconvincing 17 year old I’ve seen in some time. It’s not his fault. The authors Holly Gent Palmo and Vincent Palmo, Jr. are brilliant at bringing every real person in the cast alive, but fall short when it comes to the fictional characters; not just Richard, but also Sonja Jones, played by a too skinny Claire Danes. Both seem constructs of the writers, mainly there to get the job done more than to exist in their own right. Richard, on a fluke, gets cast in Orson Welles’ legendary production of a fascist Julius Caesar. He’s supposed to be one of these reactive characters (formerly called passive) through whose eyes and reactions the audience knows how to feel about everything going on. But Richard never seems to react to anything; he takes everything in stride as if he’s been a member of this acting troupe for years; nothing surprises him, nothing throws him off course (until he starts losing Sonja to Orson). It’s hard to say whether this is Zac’s fault or not; he walks through the role with a certain blankness to his face, but I’m not sure the authors really helped. Danes has a different problem; her character never really makes sense. She’s suppose to be an ice princess who refuses to bed anyone in the cast unless she can get something out of it (she beds Welles because he promises to introduce her to Selznick); but suddenly, she just ups and beds Richard for no discernable reason. Is she a wise woman who is using her femininity to get what she wants, or is she an idiot who doesn’t understand being a slut is just that: being a slut—the authors are unclear. The additional problem here is that since Sonja does meet Selznick in the movie, but we know from history she never went anywhere, she comes across more as an idiot. Well, enough about that. I’ve gone a bit overboard there, because in spite of these two characters, the film is still a must see. The main reason is Christian McKay as Welles, who not only looks like the young Orson, but fully embodies both the monster and artistic genius at the center of his personality. This is where the Palmo’s excel. Their creation of Welles is almost as monumental an achievement as the original persona himself. They even go more than one better by also creating very believable renditions of other real people, like a callow Joseph Cotton, a tortured George Coulouris, a fun Norman Lloyd and a fusty John Houseman (played by an almost unrecognizable Eddie Marsan, the driving teacher from Happy Go Lucky). The period detail is excellent and the recreation of the production of Caesar is also a remarkable achievement (here, kudos to director Richard Linklater). For awhile, based on the rehearsals, I was wondering what was so special about this Shakespearian production. But come opening night, the full force of Welles’s vision is revealed and makes one wish one could have been there to witness the whole thing. Linklater even effectively recreates the death of Seneca the Poet, a scene often thrown away in many productions of Caesar, but in Welles’s version became a key part of the production, showing what can happen when fascist rule breaks out. The movie may falter at times, but it’s more than well worth seeing.

So tell me what you think.

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