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‘Volver’ es muy bueno 

Penelope Cruz has never looked better.

HAUNTED: Cruz, Cobo.
  • HAUNTED: Cruz, Cobo.

If there’s anything that can be universally said about foreign language films, it’s this: They’re either your thing, or they’re not. A few badly dubbed kung-fu flicks notwithstanding, there are some people who you couldn’t make watch a foreign film with eight yards of strong rope and a syringe full of monkey tranquilizer, much less make them enjoy it.

That said, I’m going to put a qualifier on everything else I say in this review. Here it is: If you like foreign language movies, you’re going to love “Volver.” Quirky, colorful, and with the delightful Penelope Cruz (with a bionic, padded ass, to satisfy director Pedro Almodovar’s well-known penchant for casting bottom-heavy women), it’s a hell of a piece of cinema — Almodovar’s first stab at lending a magical-realist bent to his impressive body of work.

In the film, Cruz plays Raimunda, a Spanish mother who works as a housekeeper at a Madrid airport to make ends meet for her ’tween-age daughter Paula, (Yohana Cobo), and her layabout husband, Paco (Antonio de la Torre). As the curtain opens, Raimunda is just getting over the death of her parents in a mysterious house fire, and trying to deal with sometimes goofy interactions with her sister Sole (Lola Duenas), her close-to-senile Aunt Paula (Chus Lampreave), and the recent cancer diagnosis of her friend Agustina (Blanca Portillo).

Soon after the death of Aunt Paula, Sole becomes convinced that the ghost of their dead mother has returned (hence, the title, which is Spanish for “to return”) to help them all in their time of trouble. Her suspicions are confirmed when her mother, Irene (Carmen Maura), appears to her in Aunt Paula’s house — seemingly more flesh than spirit. With Irene stubbornly refusing to dematerialize, Sole is forced to take her into the small apartment where she lives and runs an illegal hair salon, telling visitors that she is a Russian housekeeper and hiding her under the bed whenever anyone who might recognize her comes knocking.

Soon, it becomes clear that Irene has returned just before a gathering storm. Raimunda comes home from work one day to find that her daughter has stabbed Paco to death. It seems he made a drunken attempt at rape — but only after telling the girl that sex between them would be OK because he wasn’t her real father.

With skeletons popping out of the closet, and Paco’s body stashed in the freezer of the bankrupt restaurant next door, Raimunda — with the help of some colorful local characters — seeks to cover up the crime, come clean about her daughter’s parentage, reopen the restaurant, comfort her ailing friend, and learn the truth about her mother’s mysterious reappearance.

While not Almodovar’s best work, “Volver” is a fast-paced and funny little romp through a world inhabited solely by women and occupied solely with women’s troubles: bad men, motherhood, sisterhood and cleaning up the messes left by others. Mysterious and often beautiful, the film mostly works because of Cruz, who is shines as bright as any star in the firmament in this subtle, understated role. Cruz’s stunt butt aside, she strikes a classic figure onscreen, easily reminding the viewer of a young Elizabeth Taylor or Sophia Loren, and giving a performance that rivals the best efforts of either of those icons. If she doesn’t take home something from the Oscars, the vote was rigged.

If we’re lucky, Almodovar will continue to explore this interesting and magical backwater to the broad river of celluloid he has already produced. Once you see “Volver,” you’ll know that it might be the piece of the human puzzle the great director has been looking for his entire career: a sense of wonder.

— David Koon

Taking ‘Notes’

“Teaching is crowd control,” remarks Barbara Covett (Judi Dench) in Richard Eyre’s chilling “Notes on a Scandal,” a film about obsession.

Covett is a history teacher at a London’s St. George’s school when Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett) arrives to teach art. Immediately, Covett is drawn to her. “Her voice is pure, clean, as if she’d never had a filling,” Covett, who serves as the film’s narrator, remarks. Quickly, Hart is acquainted with Covett and soon they are having lunch on Sunday at Hart’s home, where her husband Richard (Bill Nighy) and son live.

“They do things differently in bourgeois bohemia,” Covett remarks.

And apparently they do because teaching, according to Hart, is much more than crowd control. Covett soon discovers that Hart is having an affair with a 15-year-old student, Steven Connelly (Andrew Simpson). Rather than expose her to the authorities, Covett comforts Hart in a manner that manipulates the knowledge of this secret for her own gain.

But it is not fame or fortune that Covett desires; rather, it is companionship. As Covett remarks, “I could gain everything by doing nothing.”

And nothing she does; they are now “bound by the secrets we share,” at least in Covett’s mind. But Hart’s loyalty to Covett only runs so deep. When Covett asks her to assist in burying her cat rather than attending her son’s play, Hart rebukes her. “You owe me this,” Covett demands, invoking the power of the secret she keeps.

Covett is lonely and she desires friendship. And after Hart shuns her, the plot unravels. Covett confesses to another teacher at the school that Hart has a liking for students of a much younger persuasion. Hart’s affair, which she promised to end but never did, is exposed publicly.

Patrick Marber (“Closer”), who wrote the screen adaptation of Zoë Heller’s novel, artfully captures the consternation of a teacher having an affair with a student. He articulates the irrationality behind her behavior: “I knew it was wrong and immoral and completely ridiculous, but I allowed it to happen … it was easy, like having another drink when you shouldn’t.” His writing earned him an Oscar nomination last week.

But this film, as with Marber’s previous work, is dialogue driven, which means that in order for it to succeed it must involve good acting. The acting here isn’t good, it’s great.

Dench, whose performance earned her a sixth Academy Award nomination, is eerie and devious, much like Glenn Close in “Fatal Attraction,” but with a sharper radar and wittier disposition. She keeps a diary in which she chronicles her encounters with Hart. “She’s the one I’ve been waiting for,” Covett observes.

Blanchett, who also received an Oscar nomination for her performance, won the Academy Award in 2005 for her role as Katharine Hepburn in “The Aviator.” While that was a fine performance, she is even better here.

Richard Eyre, who directed Dench in “Iris,” has done a fine job stepping away from these two actors and allowing them to duel as if they were in a small, dark community theater and not in the national spotlight. The film’s original music, composed by Phillip Glass (“The Illusionist”), is similarly impressive and highlights the tension-filled montage of bad acts.

Yes, this film reeks of Mary Kay Letourneau, which makes for a rather uncomfortable plot. But it is one of the year’s best and is worth seeing.

— Blake Rutherford

What’s the ‘Catch’?

There is a line between romance and comedy. Yes, the two are often fused by marketing executives to create a bumper sticker style of describing certain films: “Oh, it’s a romantic comedy.”

In “Catch and Release,” the latest film starring Jennifer Garner of “Alias” fame, one cannot help but think “Oh, it’s a romantic comedy.” Isn’t a serious film supposed to have more than a bumper sticker for a description? Imagine the fictional conversation over dinner. “Now what’s that movie about again?” “It’s a romantic comedy.” “Oh, OK.” And they resume eating.

The film also stars Timothy Olyphant, Kevin Smith and Juliette Lewis as friends and acquaintances living and interacting in pretty parts of Colorado. Garner’s character, Gray Wheeler, is coping with the death of her fiance. Kevin Smith is Sam, one of the deceased’s best friends, who, along with his roommate, spends hours upon hours drinking and fishing and talking about nothing. Smith is supposed to be the film’s comedic element, and while he’s entertaining as Silent Bob in many of his own films, he does little here one could call comedy, except for obvious fat guy/food jokes.

Olyphant is the wild, film-producing friend, Fritz, who has sex on the day of the funeral in the bathroom of the house of the parents of the guy who just died. Whew! Garner’s chilling in the tub and hears it all. It ruins her day, of course, and the rest of the film is spent making Olyphant’s character human enough for Garner to go to bed with. These folks fish and love to be outdoors. They read books and eat organic food. They take photographs. They want to love and be loved. They have the potential to be interesting. But they aren’t.

None of the characters in “Catch” have any depth, including Garner’s Gray, who unfortunately possesses none of the complexity that someone in her situation would possess.

So we’re back to where we began. What’s this film about? It’s a romantic comedy. And we resume eating.

— Blake Rutherford

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