Blu-ray
Recommended
3 stars
List Price
$19.99
Amazon
$14.99 (25%)
3rd Party
$12.88
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Overall Grade
3 stars

(click linked text below to jump to related section of the review)

The Movie Itself
3.5 Stars
HD Video Quality
3 Stars
HD Audio Quality
3.5 Stars
Supplements
2 Stars
High-Def Extras
0 Stars
Bottom Line
Recommended

Broken Embraces

Street Date:
March 16th, 2010
Reviewed by:
Drew Taylor
Review Date: 1
March 9th, 2010
Movie Release Year:
2009
Studio:
Sony Pictures
Length:
128 Minutes
MPAA Rating:
Rated R
Release Country
United States

The Movie Itself: Our Reviewer's Take

Early descriptions of 'Broken Embraces' had it pegged as something of an anthology film, with four interlocking, noir-ish stories culminating in unexpected results (this is a Pedro Almodóvar film, after all). This is not, of course, what the movie ended up being, but it's a good jumping off point when considering a film which is, in the very least, one of the director's most structurally ambitious works to date.

To explain: the movie begins with a blind director Harry Caine (Lluís Homar) seducing a movie he's just met on the street. It's the kind of funny, sexy, oddball scene that is so evocative of Almodóvar's funny, sexy, oddball body of work. Harry lives with his agent, Judit (Blanca Portillo) and her grown son Diego (Tamar Novas). When Harry reads that a millionaire Ernesto Martel (José Luis Gómez) has died (and when I say "reads" I mean he has his computer read the news report to him - it's a weird and affecting scene), memories start getting triggered in Harry's brain. He starts to remember things, and tells the story of his brief, passionate, and tragic affair with a beautiful young woman named Lena (Penélope Cruz).

Okay, so far we've identified two of the four potential stories - Harry, present day, recounting his love affair (story #1), and the love affair itself (story #2).

There's sort of a problem with perspective in this movie, which we'll quickly whitewash over in an effort to save time and not engage in such theoretically curlicue pursuits, but from there we get a lot of the Lena story. How she has sick, elderly parents. How she is a part-time call girl (a completely bizarre subplot that's barely given any time to register). And how she falls under the spell of Ernesto, first as a sex object and then as a deeply coveted mistress. Ernesto thinks Lena should be an actress, and arranges for her to be in a movie directed by Harry (then going by his real name Mateo Blanco). Of course, Ernesto is also possessive and jealous and hires out his gay son to spy on them.

Can we pause for a second? Do you see how things are spiraling in on themselves? We have the movie, we have the movie within the movie that Mateo is shooting, which bares an uncanny resemblance to Almodóvar's 'Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,' including shared actresses (this would be story #3 in my 'Broken Embraces' as an actual anthology film theories). We have characters sharing multiple identities, not only Mateo/Harry Cain but also Lena/her prostitute self/and who she plays in the movie.

In one of 'Broken Embrace's' greatest sequences, Ernesto hires a lip reader to describe what's happening in some of his son's on-set footage. It's hilarious and heartbreaking and very strange, again: all hallmarks of Almodóvar's best work.

To describe any more of the film's actual plot would be criminal, as it unfolds with the usual amount of heartbreak, familial revelation, and general strangeness that accompany the conclusion to his films (somewhere between Douglas Sirk and Brian De Palma). 'Broken Embraces' is a beautiful, powerful work. Is it one of Almodóvar's best? I'm not sure yet. It's certainly a huge film to try and unpack after only a couple of viewings, and for me it lacks the zestful joy that permeated his last film (and made it so electric), the criminally overlooked 'Volver.' 'Broken Embraces' is closer, tonally, to 'Bad Education,' in its quasi-thriller feeling, but it may be Almodóvar's most autobiographical film yet; one in which the rabbit hole of filmmaking is deep and bottomless, and capable of life-altering changes for good and bad.

The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats

The 50GB Blu-ray disc is Region "A" locked and BD-Live equipped, although at the time of this review, nothing BD-Live was going on. The disc automatically starts and quickly sets up mankind's development as divided into two halves - one pre-Blu-ray and one post-Blu-ray (the one post is obviously much better), followed by a mishmash of trailers for other Sony films. Other than that, I really like the inside sleeve pattern that you see when you open the box.

The Video: Sizing Up the Picture

The disc's MPEG-4 AVC 1080p transfer (aspect ratio: 2.35:1, slightly off from its 2.39:1 original theatrical presentation) is quite strong but perhaps not as dazzling as I'd hoped for.

The movie is full of eye-popping colors, which is very true to form for Almodóvar, but here, shockingly, they don't look all that eye-popping. Instead, the general impression left from this image is one that is flat. And while definition is strong (detail is there, for sure) and black levels are nice and deep, there is something unmistakably lacking in the presentation. Which is a real shame.

Elsewhere on the disc, the presentation seems very faithful, in the way that the edges of the frame are intentionally blurry (kind of like the similar effect in 'The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,' except this is tied directly into the characters' emotional struggles), but again, it lacks the spark that you'd expect in the movie. (And, indeed, what I remember from seeing it theatrically at last year's New York Film Festival.)

In terms of the technical nitty gritty, there's certainly nothing wrong here. There are no buggy technical issues (artifacts, macro-blocking, or any of that nonsense), nor is there unsightly grain or scratches, pops etc., but there is something, a kind of essential visual vitality that is sadly missing. It's by no means a bad transfer, it's just one that could have used some more finesse.

The Audio: Rating the Sound

The disc's lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix (in Spanish, of course) is somewhat better but, again, it doesn't exactly rock your socks off with raw sonic power.

Still, it's really not that kind of movie. It's a dialogue intensive film, so things are kept up front and center, for the most part. Occasionally atmospheric flourishes arise, and are rendered beautifully, but the full sound spectrum is hardly taken advantage of.

That said, what we get here is generally pretty great. All the dialogue is crisp and clear, no matter how fast they're talking (Almodóvar tends to write dialogue like he's firing a machine gun), and the movie's beautiful score by Alberto Iglesias Fernández-Berridi (yeah, I used his full name, that's right) really comes through with some punch.

Also, technically, there's nothing wrong with the track, as it is wonderfully free of hiss, cracks, pops, or any other annoying sound defects. This track is along the lines of the video transfer - it's workmanlike, efficient, but could have been a whole lot more.

Additionally, a French Dolby Digital 5.1 track is included, as well as subtitles in English, English SDH, and French.

The Supplements: Digging Into the Good Stuff

There is a modest collection of extras that, on the outset, might make you excited, but they really don't add up to a lot (and many of them aren't in HD). There isn't a commentary track or an extensive documentary. As far as I can tell, the only HD-exclusive feature is the fact that the disc is BD-Live equipped but, again, that hasn't been activated yet (if ever).

  • The Cannibalistic Councilor (SD, 7:34) This is an original short film that carries forward characters from 'Broken Embraces' (or is it 'Broken Embraces' movie-within-a-movie? My brain broke). This is mildly amusing and is certainly wackier than anything in the movie proper. Also, you could file this as story # whatever in my 'Broken Embraces' anthology thesis.
  • Deleted Scenes (HD, 12:20) There are three scenes presented here, which I thought would have been much more engaging than they actually are. Instead, they're kind of limp and listless. This could be because they don't benefit from context, but they were rightfully deleted and you can skip them here.
  • Pedro Almodóvar Directs Penélope (SD, 5:52) This is a really bizarre little feature that shows how Almodóvar directs, which is more or less him shouting things at Penélope Cruz from off camera. It's actually kind of charming and strange but is only for the diehard Almodóvar fanatics (and much of this footage is appropriated elsewhere on the disc).
  • On the Red Carpet: The New York Film Festival Closing Night (HD, 3:13) This is a really brief piece featuring interviews with Almodóvar, Cruz, and Film Society of Lincoln Center's Richard Peña as they walk the red carpet at the closing of last year's New York Film Festival. It looked quite exciting and much different than the stuffy press screening I went to around the same time! This really only holds interest if you were there or love the New York Film Festival, it's too brief and esoteric for anybody else to care.
  • Variety Q&A with Penélope Cruz (HD, 6:18) This was conducted by Variety's once-resident "critic" Todd McCarthy and while you may think that it might contain more insight, you're dead wrong. It's the same call-and-response question and answer cycle that she went through endlessly while promoting this movie. Interspersed are clips from the movie and behind the scenes footage (as mentioned earlier). This is pretty skippable, besides Cruz's insane beauty. She's so pretty.
  • Theatrical Trailer (HD, 1:45) Intriguing, mysterious, unnecessary. Skip.

HD Bonus Content: Any Exclusive Goodies in There?

There are no HD exclusives.

Final Thoughts

'Broken Embraces' is a really, really great little movie. Part film noir, part anthology film, part Douglas Sirk-like melodrama; it's Pedro Almodóvar and his muse Penélope Cruz firing on all cylinders. While I'm not sure it rests in the top percentile of his work, it's a daring, emotionally engaging film that's well worth your time. If only the Blu-ray disc were up to snuff. With adequate video and audio and less-than-adequate special features (many of them in standard definition), it brings down the film. It's still recommended, though.

Technical Specs

  • 50GB Blu-ray Disc
  • Region "A" Locked
  • BD-Live

Video Resolution/Codec

  • 1080p/AVC MPEG-4

Aspect Ratio(s)

  • 2.39:1

Audio Formats

  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Surround Sound
  • French Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound

Subtitles/Captions

  • English, English SDH, French

Supplements

  • Deleted scenes
  • The Cannibalistic Councillor, a short film by Pedro Almodóvar
  • Pedro Directs Penélope
  • On the Red Carpet: The New York Film Festival Closing Night
  • Variety Q&A with Penélope Cruz

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List Price
$19.99
Amazon
$14.99 (25%)
3rd Party
$12.88
Usually ships in 24 hours Buy Now»

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