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'High Heels' Teeters, but Its Expert Actors Stand Tall

November 10, 1994|MARK CHALON SMITH | Mark Chalon Smith is a free-lancer who regularly writes about film for The Times Orange County Edition. and

Pedro Almodovar is a junkman of urbanized romance. In most of his many movies, this Spanish hipster has tried to show the dirty glory of all manner of relationships, from the straight to the not-so-straight, against a tense city backdrop.

Male with female, male with male, female with female, not-so-sure-exactly-what with not-so-sure-exactly-what, they've all been placed on pedestals (however pressurized and tottering) by Almodovar. He fancies himself a purveyor of human truth and a peddler of fringe fancies, and Almodovar has worked hard providing both.

In "High Heels," his 1991 release screening Friday as part of UC Irvine's "Cinema Potpourri" series, Almodovar looks at the edgy familial love between a mother and daughter, and at the passion they both have for the same man. Toss in another character--a transvestite who woos the daughter while impersonating the mom in a cabaret show--and you have the type of spicy, improbable gazpacho Almodovar is known for.

At the outset, "High Heels" has to come with a qualifier. It's not on the level of Almodovar's more satisfying work; it doesn't have the haphazard but oddly defining euphoria of, say, "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown." Almodovar's impulses this time are more flagrantly poignant, and that diminishes the giddy the-facts-of-life-can-be-found-in-the-small-surprises quality of his best pictures.

That said, I have to disagree with critics who were vastly disappointed (the movie received mixed reviews) when "High Heels" came out. It's far from a dud. In fact, the film is worthy if only for a handful of bold, unexpected passages and the expert acting of Almodovar's cast.

"High Heels," unfortunately, does have careening problems with the plot. Unlike his better movies, which go off in strange, sometimes boggling directions but maintain an equilibrium that adds to their effectiveness, this one has a forced randomness. Almodovar tacks on elements for shock value, and they tend to subvert the gentleness at the film's core.

It's funny when a dance number breaks out in the exercise yard of a women's jail, but it doesn't connect with anything that has come before. And the convolutions of the transvestite (Miguel Bose) and his role in the story are both confounding and predictable when they're supposed to be amazing and insightful.

Anyway, revealing more about that would undermine Almodovar's trickiness, whether it clicks or not.

The plot finds the celebrity mother, Becky (Marisa Paredes), a performer along the lines of an aging Madonna, reuniting after several years with her daughter, Rebecca (Victoria Abril). Rebecca is a successful news anchor married to a womanizing TV executive (Feodor Atkine), who was once involved with Becky.

After he's murdered early on, everything gets sticky for Rebecca and Becky, with the police and with their complicated relationship. Almodovar loses his grip in presenting these elements, but scenes like the one where Rebecca breaks down over the killing during a live newscast give "High Heels" patches of brilliance.

And there's no faulting Abril's performance; she's a lost kid in a grown-up's body, trying to be brave but barely making it through. Paredes is almost as good. Her Becky is all about the self-absorption of a star, someone who loves being a pop hero but doesn't much like what she's given up emotionally to get there.

* What: Pedro Almodovar's "High Heels."

* When: Friday, Nov. 11, at 7 and 9 p.m.

* Where: The UC Irvine Student Center Crystal Cove Auditorium.

* Whereabouts: Take the San Diego (405) Freeway to Jamboree Road and head south to Campus Drive and take a left. Turn right on Bridge Road into the campus.

* Wherewithal: $2 to $4.

* Where to call: (714) 856-5588.


North by Northwest

(NR) Cary Grant, James Mason and Eva Marie Saint star in this classic 1959 Alfred Hitchcock film of mistaken identity that screens Friday, Nov. 11, at 6:30 p.m. at Newport Harbor Art Museum, 850 San Clemente Drive, Newport Beach. Film historian Arthur Taussig will introduce the film and present an analysis of it after the screening. $3 to $5. (714) 759-1122.

Vertical Reality

(NR) Warren Miller's 45th ski film, which highlights ski runs in British Columbia, Colorado, Japan, New Zealand, Russia and the Himalayas, screens Nov. 17 at 8 p.m. in Plummer Auditorium, 201 E. Chapman Ave., Fullerton. Everyone who attends receives a free lift ticket to Snow Summit. $9 and $11. (714) 870-5618.

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