Death is alternately indomitable or inconclusive in Volver, an earnestly preposterous melodrama brought to you by Pedro Almodóvar and the color red. As this is another of the campy Spanish filmmaker’s celebrations of women, the central character who stays stiff is male, while the one who revives is female. The story opens at a cemetery, where a jaunty song accompanies Raimunda (Penélope Cruz) as she washes her parents’ headstone. Joining her are sister Sole (Lola Dueñas) and daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo), as well their friend Agustina (Blanca Portillo). Agustina’s mother may be dead, but officially she’s only missing and so has no grave. This is a matter of great concern to Agustina and of significance to Almodóvar’s elaborate plot. But first there’s the matter of Paco (Antonio de la Torre), Raimunda’s husband and Paula’s putative father. Fatally stabbed in an agitated moment, Paco is stashed temporarily in the family’s freezer. He deserves a proper burial, too, but Raimunda has other pressing issues: the demise of doddering Aunt Paula, an offer to cater meals for a visiting movie crew, and repeated sightings of the specter of her late mother (an extravagantly disheveled Carmen Maura). It seems that Mom is back for good, although viewers who can follow the tangled backstory may suspect that she never went away. Volver (“to return”) is named for a ballad Raimunda sings at the crew’s wrap party, in which she expresses her fear of the past’s return. Yet despite a tale that involves incest, murder, and ghosts, there’s nothing to fear in this movie, which balances elegantly but uninvolvingly between tragedy and spoof. Even when it veers toward farce, as in scenes involving flatulence or tell-all TV shows, the film is too mannered to elicit the guffaws of the director’s early work. A fine showcase for Cruz’s élan and cleavage, as well as the production crew’s design and color schemes, Volver achieves a hollow perfection. It’s no-muss Almodóvar, in which guilt and pain are mopped up as easily as Paco’s blood.
Eragon Directed by Stefen Fangmeier
Regardless of your feelings about the fantasy genre, there’s one thing everyone can agree on: Elves should not be 5-foot-6. But in Eragon, key elf Arya (Sienna Guillory) stands tall next to her fellow characters; she even has human ears. (Whoops!) This sloppiness is indicative of director Stefen Fangmeier and scripter Peter Buchman’s butchering of Christopher Paolini’s popular novel of the same name. The book, which the now-23-year-old Paolini began writing at 15, is full of magic and lore, yet it hardly gets the intensive Harry Potter treatment. Instead, its 544 pages are crushed into a 104-minute film, with characters dropped and plots manipulated. And at the center of it all is a talking dragon, Saphira, voiced by Rachel Weisz. (Perhaps another universal opinion: Fierce, fire-breathing dragons should not drop one-liners, especially Buchman’s.) When she shuts up and races across the sky, Saphira is the biggest wow factor in the film, but she doesn’t have a lot of competition: Her rider, Eragon (a Tiger Beat–ready Edward Speleers), is the boy of disinterest here, a 17-year-old farmhand who’s hunting when an ovular blue thing appears on the ground through a portal, I suppose, since it’s smoking. Eragon gapes at it then brings it to his shack, where he gapes at it some more. Soon it hatches into a cute widdle feathered dragon, and—blah blah—Eragon discovers with the help of Brom, a grizzled former dragon rider (Jeremy Irons), that he’s been chosen to resurrect this…mode of transportation, which became extinct when Brom’s own flying beast was intentionally killed. The plot also involves an occupation, the aforementioned guess-who’s-she’s-destined-for elf who’d been carrying the egg, and a black-magic dude (Robert Carlyle) who’s trying to get Saphira back to her rightful owner, the evil King Galbatorix (John Malkovich, using his haughty purr to make his few minutes of screen time seem Oscar-worthy compared to the rest of the cast). The movie is as beautiful—it was filmed mostly in the green mountains of Hungary—as the story is predictable, and it also gets points for Saphira’s CG and an intense battle scene. But this skeletal rendering of Paolini’s vivid book is ultimately the equivalent of Fantasy for Dummies. The filmmakers should have taken advice from the script: As Brom first says to Eragon, “Mind your corn.
Curse of the Golden Flower Directed by Zhang Yimou
Millions of yellow chrysanthemums are splattered with the crimson blood of thousands of golden-armored soldiers in this imperial-family drama, the third of Zhang Yimou’s color-coded historical epics. The effect is dazzlingly opulent, but the story behind the hues is meager and disjointed. If production design sometimes defeated storytelling in Hero and House of Flying Daggers, Zhang’s previous exercises in martial-arts spectacle, this time there’s not even a contest; Curse of the Golden Flower belongs to cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding, the production and costume design team, and hordes of CGI technicians. That’s unexpected, since the movie should have star power. It’s both Zhang’s reunion with former leading lady Gong Li—who appeared in his first six features—and his debut collaboration with Chow Yun-Fat, who epitomized cool in John Woo’s best Hong Kong flicks. Chow is a smiling but brutal Tang Dynasty emperor who presides over a palace where gold leaf abuts tie-dye, suggesting a Haight-Ashbury version of Versailles. The emperor has ordered his wife (Li) to be slowly poisoned, perhaps because she’s having an affair with her stepson, Wan (Liu Ye). Outfitted in glittering makeup and a severe push-up bra, the empress is also plotting to replace the emperor with the older of her two sons, Jai (Jay Chou). Meanwhile, Wan is conducting a second secret affair with Chan (Li Man), the daughter of the imperial physician and a mysterious woman whose identity actually comes as no great surprise. Ultimately, at the chrysanthemum-themed Chong Yang Festival, Jai leads the golden-armored palace guard against a larger force, loyal to the emperor and clad in silver. Zhang, Wu Nan, and Bian Zhihong’s script is loosely based on historical events, as well as a 1934 play. Shigeru Umebayashi’s Prokofiev-like score has a very Russian grandiosity, and Golden Flower’s motion is mostly as ponderous as its music. But if the film lacks the dancerly grace of Hero and Flying Daggers, perhaps that’s intentional. As a vision of implacable cruelty, this gory saga should give pause to anyone who expects China to gently transmute into a democracy.
Off the Black Directed by James Ponsoldt
To put it plainly, most of Off the Black is simply terrible. Its summary: Gruff, lonely man getting on in years befriends a naive teenage boy, life lessons are learned, and the ending is sad yet hopeful. Think you’ve seen it before? You have, in versions ad nauseam. Off the Black even shares a cast member with one of them. Nick Nolte, whose character, Ray Cook, is based on the actor’s mug shot, also portrayed an unlikely sage to a youngster in this year’s Peaceful Warrior. Here Nolte plays a 57-year-old junkyard worker and high-school-baseball umpire. Ray drinks all the time, is barely intelligible, and doesn’t really know anybody but is often recognized, usually with venom, as the local ump. When he calls a ball on pitcher Dave (Trevor Morgan), a decision that costs his team a championship, Dave and a few teammates vandalize Ray’s yard. Dave gets caught, Ray makes him take responsibility and clean it up—and the mentor–mentee relationship begins. Writer-director James Ponsoldt litters his film with weird lines (“You look like a worm set up shop in your colon”) and scenes of clichéd preciousness (the camera zooms out in steps as Ray sits alone in a stadium, Teacher and Student take pulls on a bottle as they discuss Life). Naturally, Dave has family issues, with a depressed dad (Timothy Hutton) and a little sister who’s annoying but whom he seems to like (Sonia Feigelson, who “acts” by working her big, brown eyes). Ponsoldt’s twist is having Ray ask Dave to accompany him to his 40th high-school reunion and pose as his son. It’s slightly ridiculous—wait ’til you see how Dad reacts to his teenage boy dressing to the nines to go out with a much older, unfamiliar man—but from the reunion on, Off the Black ups its game. While interacting with others, these characters finally start to feel human, and their bond no longer seems forced. Morgan believably conveys the awkwardness of being on the cusp of adulthood, as well as how irritating mouth-breathing kids can be. (Talent or merely good timing?) And though moviegoers may forever think Nolte’s as pathetic as Ray because of that infamous DUI pic, the reality is one can’t just stumble onto a set and evoke soul-crushing solitude and hopelessness, which the vet pulls out of his hat with impeccable timing. Ray confesses to Dave, “No, I’m not happy, but I wear it well.” Nolte does, too, but it’s because the chops are there.