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LIVE FLESH

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Javier Bardem, Francesca Neri, Liberto Rabal, Angela Molina, Jose Sancho, Penelope Cruz
Director:  Pedro Almodovar
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  MGM
Features:  Theatrical Trailer
Length:  101 Minutes
Release Date:  July 17, 2007

Film ****

Pedro Almodovar may have created an engrossing, absorbing thriller with Live Flesh, but the film is not without touches of his sense of humor.  Consider how the movie opens with the birth of the main character on an off-duty city bus in the middle of Madrid.  The transportation line sees a great public relations opportunity, and gives the newborn boy a lifetime bus pass.

But the technically difficult shots and expressive use of darkness and colors indicate that something more serious is at work.  The story forwards to (or essentially, really begins) twenty years later.  The boy, Victor (Rabal) is an adult now, looking for his second opportunity with a pretty but obviously strung out prostitute, Elena (Neri).  She wrote her number on a little card for him, along with a lipstick impression, on which Victor longingly practices his kissing.

Elena, however, is in no mood for a second date, as she nervously awaits the arrival of her next fix.  Circumstances lead to a harmless gun shot and the arrival of two cops, David (Bardem), and Sancho (Sancho…easy to remember).  Events unravel, partly for reasons not explained until later.  As Sancho and Victor scuffle with a gun, David is shot and left paraplegic.  Victor goes to prison for six years.

When Victor comes out, his mother is dead, David has become a champion wheelchair basketball player and husband to Elena, who has cleaned up her act and left her sordid past behind.  Both are surprised and a little worried to see Victor coming back into their lives.  What does he want with them?  Another instance of Almodovar’s humor occurs when David shows up at Victor’s house to warn him to stay away from them, but both erupt into a spontaneous celebration over a goal in a soccer game on TV in the middle of an otherwise somber scene.

Victor has also taken up with Clara (Molina), whom we learn is the longsuffering wife of Sancho, who turns out to be abusive and a heavy drinker.  This is only the beginning, and to say more would be to deprive viewers of the pleasure of the film’s twists and turns.

Almodovar has created a masterful picture, one that engrosses from start to finish with its look and characters, and one that manages to reveal its surprises slowly and skillfully along the way.  The cast is first rate, headed by a terrific young actor in Liberto Rabal as Victor, and recent Oscar nominee Javier Bardem as David.  “Before I met you, I used to look up,” he tells Victor.  “Now, I have to look down all the time.”  Pretty Francesca Neri offers a good turn as Elena, who grows more beautiful after she cleans up.  Sadly, though, the radiant Penelope Cruz is grossly underused, appearing in the film’s opening segment only.

Live Flesh is masterful filmmaking, and deserves to be considered a treat even for those who don’t normally go for foreign cinema. 

Video ***1/2

This is a superb anamorphic transfer from MGM.  After a few noticeable specks on the print during the opening credits, the film settles in for a clean, crisp and expressive visual presentation, with deep, pure blacks and color integrity throughout.  Images are sharp when they need to be, slightly softer when Almodovar’s lighting scheme demands it, and detail is strong throughout.  There are no instances of noticeable color bleeding, even in the many scenes where light images play against darker backgrounds.  All tones are well displayed and natural looking.  Don’t look for grain, haze, shimmer or other signs of compression here; they don’t exist.  Fans of Almodovar should be delighted.

Audio ***

This is a rich and satisfying 5.1 audio mix, one that uses both front and rear stages for ambience.  The musical score is orchestrated for surround, offering a pleasant and absorbing listening experience.  Much of the film is dialogue oriented, and the dialogue is extremely clean and clear, though mostly forward staged.  For a non-action film, this is a good mix and a terrific audio accompaniment.

Features *

Only a trailer.

Summary:

Live Flesh is an engrossing, character driven thriller with a good cast, great script, and expert direction.  Pedro Almodovar flexes his artistic muscle here and proves himself a master of technique and dramatic storytelling.  With this terrific DVD presentation from MGM, this is one no fan of world cinema should pass up.

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