Broken Embraces, Pedro Almodovar, 128 mins, (15)
The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow, 131 mins, (15)

Almodovar pays homage to Hitchcock, Sirk – and himself

Sooner or later, every director gets round to a film which is a love letter to cinema itself.

For Pedro Almodovar that film is Broken Embraces, a complex mystery drama that sees magic and romance in every aspect of movie-making, from dubbing to wig-fitting to improvising a screenplay about vampires. Naturally, its hero, Mateo (Lluis Homar), is a writer-director. Working in Madrid with the tireless assistance of his production manager, Judit (Blanca Portillo), he's planning to shoot a comedy, "Girls & Suitcases", but he has no idea who the leading lady should be until the luscious Lena (Penelope Cruz) walks into his office. Never mind that she's the long-term mistress of Ernesto (Jose Luiz Gomez), a reptilian industrialist twice her age, there's a spark between her and Mateo which ensures that she'll star in his film, and play an even bigger role in his private life.

Ernesto, quite rightly, suspects that something's going on. Intent on keeping tabs on his mistress, he steps in as the film's producer, and employs his grown-up son from a previous relationship to spy on Lena and Mateo under the pretext of shooting a behind-the-scenes documentary. It's a heightened, noirish melodrama which pays winking homage to Hitchcock and Sirk (and Almodovar's own back catalogue) without diminishing the feverish passions of the characters in front of us.

Funny, sexy, gripping and playful, it's the sort of film that deserves a trailer plastered with abstract nouns: Lust! Obsession! Betrayal! Death! It's not Almodovar at his very best, though. The trouble is that Broken Embraces is a game of three thirds, and the story outlined above is only one of the three. Before we get to the central love triangle, which occurs in 1994, there's a lengthy sequence detailing Mateo's life in 2008, intercut with an extended flashback showing how Lena slipped into a relationship with Ernesto in 1992.

These sections are intriguing in their own right, but they're cluttered with subplots that don't go anywhere. And then, after the shooting of "Girls & Suitcases", there's a rambling, anti-climactic coda set in 2008 which solves all the preceding mysteries in the most undramatic possible way: one of the characters decides, for no particular reason, to sit down and explain everything that they've kept quiet about for 14 years.

Almodovar even answers questions that hadn't been mentioned before, and then drags out the finale further still by inserting an extensive clip of Mateo's supposed comic masterpiece, which is awfully similar to Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. At that point, Broken Embraces stops being Almodovar's love letter to cinema and starts being Almodovar's love letter to Almodovar.

Overall, the film is still a pleasure, and worth it for Cruz's scenes alone. But considering that the plot hinges on the editing of a film, it's ironic how much it could have been improved with some stricter editing of its own.

The heroes of Hollywood's latest Iraq war film, The Hurt Locker, belong to a three-man Explosive Ordnance Disposal squad led by a cocksure rebel (Jeremy Renner). It's their job to defuse the roadside bombs that litter Baghdad, so if you don't have the nerves to watch people deciding whether to cut the red wire or the blue wire, stay away.

The superb set-pieces keep you on the very edge of your seat, if not under it, but there's almost nothing between those set-pieces: no narrative, no wider commentary on the Iraq war or its participants, and no exploration of how Renner can stroll towards suspicious packages without giving a moment's thought either to protocol, or to the likelihood that he might be blown to atoms. The Hurt Locker is an anthology of urgent dispatches from the front line, but it's not quite a film.

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