Almodóvar’s Noir: It’s All About Gael

Gael García Bernal may be Mexico’s greatest export since Dolores Del Rio. Unquestionably, he’s the prettiest. Y Tu Mamá También, Amores Perros, The Crime of Father Amaro and The Motorcycle Diaries made him as popular as margarita mix, but his sexy, brooding hothouse boyishness has never been as fully explored (and exploited) as it is in Pedro Almodóvar’s feverish, exotic and complex new film noir, Bad Education. The combination is lush, lascivious and a cinematic lollapalooza.

Mr. Almodóvar’s celebrated career has always been defined by an inescapable adolescence. This autobiographical movie, while totally original and unlike anything you’ve ever seen, indulges all of Mr. Almodóvar’s favorite obsessions: homoeroticism, crime, music, kinky sex, religious hypocrisy and the folklore of motion pictures. Enrique and Ignacio, two schoolboy friends-and first loves-are sexually abused by a Catholic priest who profoundly affects (and infects) their lives. Sixteen years later, in the 1980’s, Enrique (Fele Martinez), now a gay film director in Madrid, receives a surprise visit from Ignacio (Mr. Bernal), now an actor looking for a job in his next movie. Ignacio, who sometimes calls himself Angel, has written a short story about their school days, and as the director reads it in bed, we see it acted out.

The story, which hopscotches from one time frame to the next, is about the experiences the two men suffered together in the 60’s and the jealous love of the priest that separated them. Ignacio invents a fictional reunion in the 70’s, in which one boy is a suburban family man and the other is a drug-addicted transvestite named Zahara who poses as Ignacio’s sister and demands that the priest who abused Ignacio cough up the money for a sex change or face exposure as a pedophile. Enrique loves the story-part memory, part fantasy-and wants to buy it for his next film. But the handsome, clean-cut Ignacio insists on playing the drag queen, who may also be Angel. Is Ignacio really Angel, or just an actor who wants a great career-defining role? Soon the characters in the story end up as actors in the film and multiple stories intertwine, with Mr. Bernal playing multiple roles, including Ignacio; his gay younger brother Juan, a ruthless hustler whom the priest falls for; and the ill-fated drag queen Zahara. To further complicate things, different versions of the story are told from varying points of view, like Rashômon. Murder, religious hysteria and all manner of sexual variations ignite in a labyrinthine, impossible-to-describe combination of Fellini, pornography and Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Prepare to be devastated.

Bad Education is a breathless and brilliant departure from Mr. Almodóvar’s usual farces and emotionally crippling melodramas, but diehard fans will not be disappointed. His signature themes of artifice and reality, sex and death may be served colder than usual, but the film is hotter than a blast furnace. It’s the work of a true artist, a cinematic artichoke-peel it and find a new revelation in every layer. The movie explodes with the passion of a dedicated cinephile who runs old Hollywood musicals and murder mysteries in his head, but Mr. Almodóvar also captures Spain’s massive political and social changes through subtle details-Fascist posters, penises and crucifixes-reminding the audience that the director’s own rise to importance as an icon is irrevocably linked to the artistic and sexual liberation of post-Franco Spain. The lavish, color-saturated cinematography and the rich, pulsating music drive the film to a level of volcanic exhilaration that is practically orgasmic. Mr. Almodóvar’s fantastic and unconventional film-and Mr. Bernal’s astonishing passion, tenderness, vulnerability and magnetic velocity in it-are blazing headlights in an often bleak and blurry year.

Coal for Noel

At the movies, seasonal solutions for the holiday blues are in short supply this year. From the numbing Polar Express to the moronic National Treasure, Santa is delivering thistles instead of sugarplums. To the irritating stocking-stuffers already glutting the Yule market, you can add a few more lumps of coal: Noel, directed by actor Chazz Palminteri, is one of those unpleasant fiascoes meant to lodge a lump in the throat at Christmas, but it only ends up making you want to bludgeon the elves with their own toy-shop hammers. In this fermented plum pudding, a disparate group of neurotic New Yorkers narrowly survive despair with the aid of a twinkling bum who turns out to be either a defrocked priest or the angel from It’s A Wonderful Life-boringly played by Robin Williams, who can barely stifle a yawn, in a cameo that remains unbilled for obvious reasons. He’s supposed to be a secret, but what the hell. He’s about as spiritual as Groucho Marx, and looks miserable about it.

Sure, Christmas Eve in the big city can be lonely and daunting. Have you ever found yourself in the middle of a mob of last-minute shoppers fighting over a Pottery Barn corkscrew or the last pair of calf-length cashmere socks at Barneys? Everything is picked over, and everybody except you seems to have somewhere to go and only 30 minutes to get there. Somehow, despite all resolutions to the contrary, I almost always get mangled in this morass of half-hearted Night Before Christmas ho-ho-hokum, drowning in insincerity, freezing in the snow, unable to find a cab and wishing I were dead.

A lot of New Yorkers are in the same boat, but rarely are they all as depressing and borderline schizophrenic as the sad sacks in Noel. Among the isolated individuals stuck in orbits far outside of the usual holiday cheer, we are asked to believe luscious, resourceful and vibrant Susan Sarandon as Rose, an emotionally fragile children’s-book editor unable to get a date, wary and distrustful of the men who ask her out, and trapped in a drab life as a sole caregiver for an ailing mother who is in the last stages of Alzheimer’s. In another part of town, a hunky police officer from central casting named Mike (Paul Walker) comes home to find his hot Latin fiancée Nina (Penélope Cruz) decorating the Christmas tree with a gay friend. Mike’s unwarranted jealousy explodes, he goes berserk and smashes the apartment, and Nina moves out just a few nights before their wedding. Elsewhere, a homeless street hustler named Jules (Marcus Thomas) tries to recapture a childhood Christmas he spent abandoned in a hospital and hires a professional thug to break the bones in his hand so he can end up in the emergency room of the same hospital where Rose’s mother lies catatonic. The despondent Rose ends up in a bleak saloon full of cynical partygoers, where she wins a “Why I Hate Christmas” contest and then stares at the television above the bar; the TV offers Christmas advice on how to gorge on all the fruitcake you want and then go on a crash diet through New Year’s without a stomach pump. Meanwhile, the hunky cop has a disturbing run-in with Artie (Alan Arkin), an old delicatessen waiter who falls madly in love with him, believing Mike is the reincarnation of Artie’s dead wife.

Enough torture. They all end up in the same hospital, with Robin Williams, as the ex-priest who left the church after 20 years because he lost his faith, counseling them all on how to get through Christmas without singing 83 choruses of “Silent Night.” The movie’s biggest problem is that it has no clear focus on what it wants to say. On one hand, it convinces its hapless characters they are part of a force beyond control that is playing chess with their fates. On the other hand, it suggests that in the midst of chaos, everything happens for a reason. Would you believe a script, by David Hubbard, in which these suicidal saps all find a happy Hollywood ending by Christmas morning? They still have no place to go, but they all have “something to live for.” Noel is supposed to be a feel-good movie guaranteed to melt a bucket of ice. Ice is just what I needed-for the massive headache it gave me. This is the kind of Christmas turkey that makes you long for Halloween.

Bridget’s Bust

In Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, Renée Zellweger again balloons from a size-six dress to a size 14 to play the chubby, accident-prone, chain-smoking, calorie-counting, sex-craving cow from the 2001 film Bridget Jones’s Diary. It’s a sequel that should have been buried six feet under. The action takes place six weeks after the first movie ended-or, in Bridget’s vernacular, “71 glorious shags later.” Now living with dashing human-rights lawyer Mark Darcy (Colin Firth) and rising to the top of her career as a television journalist despite her sagging hips and bulging bosom, she still has a talent for making a fool of herself for love, jamming her size-nine foot in her mouth at all the wrong moments. The serpent rises again in Eden in the form of dashing, lying, arrogant and exasperatingly self-adoring former boyfriend Daniel Cleaver (Hugh Grant), who is assigned to share the camera with this klutzy, whoopee-cushion-shaped Blondie in an improbable TV travel show from which the movie milks all of its laughs to stay alive. In the Alps, Bridget skis down the slopes in the wrong direction. In a skydiving maneuver that backfires, she parachutes from the sky into a pig pen of manure in a jumpsuit the color of an orange Dreamsicle. In Thailand, she gets stoned on magic mushrooms, is wrongfully arrested for drug smuggling, and is thrown into a Thai prison where, instead of slashing her wrists, she cheerfully teaches her cellmates how to perform Madonna’s “Like a Virgin.” Obviously these people never saw Midnight Express, Return to Paradise or Brokedown Palace. After winning an Oscar, this is a demeaning experience for Ms. Zellweger, made doubly depressing by an ugly wardrobe in which no self-respecting trailer trash would be caught dead. There doesn’t seem to be any need for this sequel. Puerile and stupid, it has no flashes of wit; it reveals nothing insightful or interesting about the characters. They just seem oversexed and obnoxious. I’m through with Bridget Jones. She ran out of charm faster than diet pills.

‘Anyone Who Loves … ‘

Ten years ago, a terrific singer named Sara Zahn was one of the brightest and most promising young song stylists in the cabaret galaxy. She headlined at Michael’s Pub, the Russian Tea Room and Rainbow and Stars, and won critical raves for a CD of Carolyn Leigh lyrics that is still a dog-eared favorite on my music shelf. Then the great rooms closed, music took a dive, and Ms. Zahn took a sabbatical, attending to the normal stuff of life: marriage, kids, house in Jersey, divorce, second husband-you get the drift. Excelsior! Sara Zahn is back, at a swell little club in Chelsea called Helen’s (212-206-0609), with a new act called, appropriately, “Bouncing Back for More!” Glittering in an amber gel every weekend in November, Ms. Zahn is a cause for jubilation. The central focus is still a thrilling chunk of songs by Carolyn Leigh and her world-renowned collaborators, Cy Coleman, Lee Pockriss, Morton Gould and Jule Styne, but there are dazzlers by Leonard Bernstein, too. With a voice that rings clearer than a silver knife on Baccarat crystal, Ms. Zahn illuminates the subtext of “Killing Time,” the last great song Ms. Leigh wrote before she died in 1983, at age 57. And she stops the heart with a rarely performed Charles Strouse–Alan Jay Lerner masterpiece called “Anyone Who Loves,” about topics more relevant now (gay marriage and war) than they were when they were written 22 years ago. Get these lyrics and tell me I’m wrong:

Anyone who loves people anywhere ….

Anyone who loves, they deserve

a prayer.

We’re only living by the hour,

While the sages with the power

Play their games of peace and war

With no shred of pity for …

Anyone who lives …

Anyone who loves.

We’ve only got a handful of intelligent, sophisticated lovers of superior American art songs left, and they often stay home in bed. Sara Zahn is one of the rare and eloquent ones, elegantly gowned with a smile in her voice, who picks her material like prize peonies for a perfect, camera-ready vase. I don’t care where she’s been; I just hope she hangs around for years to come.