DOASKDOTELL MOVIE REVIEWs of Bad Education, Volver, Mysterious Skin , Broken Embraces , Trade, Vacationland, The Mudge Boy, The Other Woman

Title:  Bad Education (“La mala educacion”)

Release Date:  2004

Nationality and Language: Spain, Spanish with subtitles

Running time: 109 minutes

MPAA Rating: NC-17

Distributor and Production Company:  Sony Pictures Classics/Focus/Studio Canal Madrid

Director; Pedro Almodovar


Cast:   Gael Garcia Bernal, Fele Martinez, Daniel Giminez Cacho, Lluis Homar, Javier Camara, Petra Martinez, Nacho Perez, Raul Garcia Forneiro

Technical: Panavision 2.3

Relevance to doaskdotell site:  Sales culture and artistic temperament


 Bad Education (“La mala educacion”) (2004, Sony Pictures Classics/Focus, Studio Canal/Madrid; dir Pedro Almodovar, 109 min, NC-17, in Spanish with English subtitles) is a knockout film, one of the most riveting of 2004, that combines several film genres or techniques: the “layered drama” of “Adaptation” (or even “Garden State” or “Sideways” or “American Beauty”); the film noir mood (and Bernard Hermann-like music (by Alberto Iglesias, both choral and orchestral), the labyrinthine sexual plot twists of a “Wicker Park” (or maybe even “Days of our Lives”) and the accelerating murder mystery of Hitchcock, particularly “Psycho” and most of all “Vertigo” (oh, well, maybe even “Body Heat,” which is not Hitchcock). Now this film is in CinemaScope, which Hitchcock did not like because of the way wide screen affects close-ups, but in this movie the two thirtyish male leads Fele Martinez (as movie director/producer Enrique Goded) and Gael Garcia Bernal (as Angel and Juan and (??) Zahara) are so often on camera together. You want them to become lovers, and they are both likeable enough to be heroes (despite Juan’s behavior). Bernal is an eye-putting-out idol, with his smirky face, smooth chest, and most beautiful hairy legs ever seen in the movies.

 Now the story would seem too long to summarize in a typical Hollywood treatment—but this is not Hollywood, it is Spain. Juan, pretending to be Ignacio, visits Enrique and presents a script “The Visit” to be made into a film that Ignacio wants to be in. Now the movie layers back (as Enrique reads the typewritten draft—this is 1980, just before the TRS-80) to show “The Visit” in regular aspect ratio (I would have done it in black-and-white in my own “A-list” script where I have a similar issue), and you get to the story of when they were Catholic boarding school boys and perhaps “best friends” in the 60s in Franco-remnant Spain, subject to Catholic priest manipulation, abuse and potential molestations. The story build then on mistaken identities as Enrique turns gumshoe, traveling across Spain (green Galicia, as well as Valencia and Barcelona) to solve a mystery that eventually leads to blackmail and murder. The buildup is calculated, just as in “Vertigo.”  Here I can offer the criticism—that Almodovar gets so concerned with his visual and aural storytelling for its own sake that his topical ideas and moral themes—the usual motive for layered, non-linear movie-making, take a back seat.

 However, Almodovar sticks to his guns in this movie with his social viewpoint—to wit, that any man of substance must be homosexual, that homosexuality drives all of life and culture, that wives and families with children are just an adaptive and trivial afterthought necessarily to repopulate civilization. Gay men here are shown in all the usual love and power struggles, jealousies and nosey plots that you expect in heterosexual soap opera (“Days of our Lives”). That, of course, drives homophobia as well as the “constructive criticism” of homosexuality underneath the cultural wars. The implicit Catholic ban on heterosexuals in the priesthood—even if it encourages psychosexually immature men to participate—is just the natural order of things, just as is the military “don’t ask don’t tell” policy for homosexuals. Now, as the film progresses, however, the two male leads get in touch with their polarities: Enrique discovers his investigative and quizzical but subjective femininity (notwithstanding his meager chest hair in the swimming pool scene), where as Juan, despite his desire to play drag queens and give up muscle to look less manly, only becomes more obviously masculine.

 And I praise Sony Pictures/Focus/Studio Canal and Almodovar for releasing a “director’s cut” with all the scenes, including one scene with closely implied fellatio, necessitating the NC-17 rating. (I still would give it an “R”, but I go along with Roger Ebert that NC-17 should be changed to “A” for Adult and not carry a marketing stigma.) Given the tension between the two male leads toward the end, I can think of some ways to take the ritualistic implication of their homosexuality even further, however. Remember the tribunals in DADT.  

 The film structure challenges some of my assumptions for my own “A-list” script. I have to deal with two layers of potential inside movies (in the style of Hamlet’s play-within-a-play in Act II): the dinner scene between Bill and Tobey, and then the secondary story of Bill’s expulsion from William and Mary. Since Tobey gets his acting career by exploiting Bill, perhaps, but then concentrating on his own gifts, he only gets back to Bill’s films when Bill “earns it.” This is a major difference, because in Almodovar’s film “The Visit” gets made as part of the story and part of Enrique’s way of tracking down the truth (ironically).

Volver (2006, Sony Pictures Classics/Studio Canal, dir. Pedro Almodovar, 121 min, R, Spain) has a layered setup that sounds like Britten's opera "The Turn of the Screw." Literally. Raimunda (Penelope Cruz) and Sole (Lole Duenas) seek comfort after an East Wind fire has killed their mother, and other domestic rumors fly. The mother seems to return as a ghost, while the aunt has cancer. The mother eventually has a horrible tale of incest to relate. In this film, however, the layering is mostly in dialogue, and the flashbacks that work so well in Bad Education are not used much. The stabbing of Paco (Antonio de la Torre) is left as a loose end. The film is supposed to be wickedly funny in Hitchcockian style, with some satire, but there is not enough real storytelling to put it off this time.  Cinemascope, and a lot of fancy Spanish quilt art work in the credits, wonderful to look at.  

Broken Embraces ("Los abrazos rotos", 2009, Sony Pictures Classics/Universal International/Focus, dir. Pablo Aldomovar, 128 min, R, USA). Layered story about a film director living under a pseudonym because a deep family secret related to an accident that blinded him. Blogger.

Mysterious Skin (2005, Tartan/TLA Releasing, dir. Gregg Araki, based on the book by Scott Heim, 99 min, NC-17) got the attention of NPR, which interviewed director Araki in May, on how he shot the now “infamous” scenes of pedophilia, where the Little League baseball coach (Bill Sage), in 1981, extends intimacy in his home with 9-year-old Neil. Needless to say, this requires careful direction to stay within the law, and within common sense. Neil’s character, who as a teenager (by 1987) is played sensationally by Jordon Gordon-Levitt, who literally walks in the mysterious skin, has interpreted this as an opening to “love” but Neil, by 15, is making money as a “masculine gay” male prostitute. A vending machine salesman picks him up in a police-surveyed city park in home Hutchinson, Ks. Even here, the salesman probably never thinks about the legal implications of acting on his ephebophilia and having sex with someone under the legal age of consent. He also works as a minor league baseball announcer, and in one scene he “gets it” while announcing a double play (on the radio only). But Neil moves on, moving to New York and earning a living as a hustler (also in a “real job” in a submarine shop) and living a life with sordid pickups. In one case, he is asked to rub the back of an old man whose hairless torso is riddled with purple Kaposi’s Sarcoma lesions; another john rapes him in a Brighton Beach house. His customers seem to trying to buy back their youth. Now, “real gay life” was hardly sordid like that at all during those years for me, as safer sex quickly took hold.

 But there is a second side of the story, another victim of the Coach, Brian (Brady Corbet, who according to is not even 17 yet). Blond, introverted and geeky, Brian was once found with a nosebleed and five hours missing from his life. He believes that he has been abducted by a UFO, and there is one scene where apparently his family has a Close Encounter of the First Kind (maybe this “really happens”). Slowly, with Neil’s extravagant drag-queeny friend Eric (Jeffrey Licon), they two boys come together to a close encounter as to what they experienced together and as to how they were both affected. The final scene, however, is tender indeed. The two young men really do love each other, and the viewer can then decide where they will take this.

 This film is certainly combines varied material with original insights.

Trade (2007, Roadside Attractions / Centropolis, dir. Marco Kruezpainter, 119 min, R, Mexico / Germany) is a rather monumental film about international sex trade in underage girls. The film starts in Mexico, with spectacular online location shots of the squalor of the area, and the on location presence continues into New Mexico, Texas, and New Jersey (the Newark and Oranges area).  When a 13 year old girl Adriana (Pauline Gaitan) is kidnapped from her bike in a barrio, her older brother Jorge (Cesar Ramos), himself a thug before who would roll tourists for money with water guns, suddenly grows into a hero to protect his family. A visiting cop Ray (Kevin Kline) is down in Mexico chasing his own lost daughter, and they come together in a botched border crossing arrest. They gradually develop trust as they see their common problems and head to New Jersey. There is an Internet auction, in which Adriana shows up as chattel. As "worldtraveler" Ray "buys" the virgin girl and goes to the house. The criminals actually want him to have sex with Adriana in the house to prove that essentially he is not a cop or another Chris Hansen. She has to cut herself to fool her captors into believing that she has lost her virginity to the "cop". But he has contacted New Jersey cops, and outside Jorge helps lead the cops (in full tactical gear) to the house for a final sting. Ramos certain earns the audience's admiration for his teen character, but his English is almost too good to be believed, and the Mexican actor himself "looks" rather European (original Spaniard descent).  Of course, the "sex trade" has been a theme on the soap "Days of our Lives" recently, and the idea of stings has been behind NBC Dateline's "To Catch a Predator."

Vacationland (2006, WaterBearer / Bangor, dir. Todd Verow, 104 min, R, USA/Germany)  Todd Verow has a coming out / coming of age story for two young gay men (depicted as 18 and seniors in high school in Bangor, ME, filed on location (and this is not a Stephen King movie), and it operates in a few different levels, with a wondering, somewhat Homeric quality. Joe (Brad Hallowell) has had a gay crush on best friend Andrew (Gregory J. Lucas), who is on the football team. He weaves his way into Andrew's life and gets Andrew to come out himself, although "secretly" and pretend to be bisexual. Curiously, Joe is the more assertive and manipulative, and charming person; he is shorted but has much more chest hair. The movie doesn't do as much with Andrew (also appealing) as it could. Most of the movie depicts Joe's other adventures in getting what he wants: he lets men pick him up in stalls (a rehearsal of Larry Craig 's foot tapping without being a "wide guy"), and pretty soon that includes his married bisexual male French teacher, whom he blackmails into passing him and giving him a recommendation to a Rhode Island art school. (He is 18, but obviously a teacher doing this is going to get fired if caught, and the encounter happens on school property; but the film does not follow that path.) Then, as the story unfolds, we learn that he had been abused at age 10 by an obese, unappealing man who frequents the local gay bar, the Styxx. Toward the end of the film, he and Andrew get their revenge on the man. Joe also moves in with a disabled artist (Michael Dion) with a "live in" job, including posing as a male nude.  There is also a subplot where his sister Theresa (Hilary Mann) wants to leave Bangor and go to LA; it rather dangles. There is a fair amount of tension in the scenes in the first part of the movie, such as in the "double date" scene where Joe comes on to Andrew gently (not completely) after Andrew has fallen asleep.

The gay scene, in a relatively small New England city, is made to look a but manipulative, much more so than it probably really is.   

The Mudge Boy (2003, Strand / Showtime / Sundance, dir. Michael Burke, 94 min, R). Emile Hirsch plays a "pre-homosexual" 14 year old farm boy Duncan Mudge, who has withdrawn into his own world when his mother dies of a heart attack suddenly when cycling (the opening shot, which establishes the western Maryland woods).  And Hirsch looks very young in the movie (he was 17 when it was made), much less mature than now (Into the Wild). He likes to put on his mother's fur coat and play with chickens. He has learned that he can tame a chicken by sucking on its head, an image that will help form the climax of the movie. His widowed father (Richard Jenkins) tries to make him a tough farm boy but starts to realize he will probably have to accept his only son as he is. In the meantime, Duncan starts running around with the neighboring farm kids, who try to get him into trouble (despite the fact his father says, "You can't even get into trouble like a normal boy.")  Duncan becomes attached to one older boy Perry Foley (Tom Guiry, who is old enough to have chest hair), who brags about his sexual potential but actually needs to prove himself. He talks Duncan into dressing in his mother's dress and then performs the active role, maintaining that Duncan is now a faggot but that he is not. The notion takes with the other boys, leading to the film's emotional climax as the old adaptive prejudices fall apart.   

The Other Woman (2006, “The Unknown Woman”, “La sconosciuta”, Outsider Films, dir. Giuseppe Tornatore, Italian, R, 120 min)  A battered sex slave from the Ukraine takes a job in Italy as a nanny and is willing to kill to find her daughters and gain revenge on her owners. Blogger


Related reviews: Student seduction and similar films involving minors; The Dying Gaul


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