Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (Pedro Almodóvar, 1988). Almodóvar’s international breakthrough is almost quaint in its kitschy simplicity when held up against the rich, lush films that have sprung from his off-kilter cranium in recent years. It involves a tangled web of romantic and sexual relationships, largely converging in a Spanish apartment that has a convenient batch of sedative-laden gazpacho in the fridge. There evidence of Almodóvar’s sterling eye, especially in the earlier scenes, but it’s mostly an engagingly casual farce, played with a relaxation that feels nicely cultural. Carmen Maura is especially good in the lead role of a slighted mistress, mixing spring-loaded intensity with a simultaneously ability to believably greet her mounting hardship with a weary shrug. The performance sets the tone for the film.
An Angel at My Table (Jane Campion, 1990). Jane Campion delivers an expansive, ambitious, occasionally exhausting film with this adaptation of New Zealand writer Janet Frame’s autobiographies. Frame had a troubled childhood, some harrowing stays in mental institutions and a gradual, pained emergence as a creator of note. Campion presents it all with great care, and the film is filled with scenes and sequences that breathe with a detailed verisimilitude. Campion both adheres to conventional narrative paths and allows the film to wander in key moments, giving it all a sort of intellectual unpredictability. That also means it drags at times, but its usually only a relatively brief period before Campion rights the film.
How to Train Your Dragon (Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders, 2010). The writing and directing team behind Lilo & Stitch, arguably the last wholly satisfying film built by Disney using traditional animation, make the leap to the computer-crafted variety for their second feature, yielding a major hit, and probable new franchise, for DreamWorks. The result is agreeable, amusing and not particular memorable. It actually skews frightfully close to the old Disney model: it tries to freshen up a fairy tale with contemporary jokes and lingo while also delivering important an important message about individuality. The best choice is keeping the titular fire-breather, a Night Fury dragon named Toothless, silent and animal-like. He’s marvelously expressive in the animation (that he bears a resemblance to Stitch probably didn’t hurt the directors’ ability to achieve that), and the relationship between he and the lead character, a youth with a preemptive belief that killing dragons is wrong voiced by Jay Baruchel, is nicely done without ever becoming too maudlin.
Burn! (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1969). In this film from the heart of his time in the movie wilderness, Marlon Brando plays a British agent who is dispatched to a Antilles island in the mid-19th century. There’s a brewing revolt by the enslaved citizens against the their Portuguese rulers, and he skillfully exploits it to deliver greater economic authority to his sugar company employers. The film’s open condemnation of imperialism undoubtedly captured Brando’s attention, and he gives a slyly tremendous performance, imbuing his character with all the right reservoirs of charisma, persuasiveness, opportunism and intelligences. Scenes of the character engaging in verbal and emotional manipulation of everyone he encounters are nifty little feats. He’s somewhat less compelling in the second-half when the character becomes more of a bedraggled anti-hero, but its the story becoming rote rather than Brando’s engagement wavering the dulls the edge. The bigger issue is that Brando could have used some more formidable actors to play against, especially in the role of the main resistance leader, played only adequately by Evaristo Márquez.
The Fugitive Kind (Sidney Lumet, 1960). Nine years and cinematic lifetime earlier, Brando could still play the troubled young loner. Based on the Tennessee Williams play Orpheus Rising, the film begins with Brando’s character, sporting a name that’s a spectacular pile-up of the unlikely in Valentine “Snakeskin” Xavier, is admonished by a judge is a terrific long take that plays on the actor’s notorious propensity for mumbling his lines. Sprung from trouble, he tries to lay low in a small town, but gets into the sort of florid messes that only Williams could dream up. Lumet’s direction is characteristically lean and pointed, although the film may have benefited from a little more visual abandon, especially as matters heat up. Brando is fine in the role, but the real thrilling performance is delivered by Joanne Woodward, as a brightly crackling damaged woman who keeps wrenching her way back into his life.