The term B-movie was long used to refer to those second-tier films that ran after the main attraction during the '40s and '50s.
The term B-movie was long used to refer to those second-tier films that ran after the main attraction during the '40s and '50s. In fact, to make sure audiences felt like they received sufficient bang for their buck, going to the movies meant watching a newsreel, a cartoon and two feature films.
The Bs were hurry-up movies with less well-known stars, small budgets and were the equivalent of those dime magazines widely popular during the same time period known as pulp fiction. The paper between the covers was rough and cheap (pulpy), the subjects running to gritty detective mysteries, wildly imagined tales of science-fiction and melodramatic westerns.
This is all to say that instead of calling a film such as "Edge of Darkness" a B-movie (and all the films of that ilk), it might be more accurate to simply call it pulp cinema.
That's not to imply that such films are not entertaining. Indeed, lacking all pretense, with stripped-down plot and dialogue, pulpy movies can entertain and then some.
If it's a truism that not all films have to be analyzed, or run through an intellectual colander, then B-movies are a good fit. They are rarely ambiguous, or enigmatic or laden with the implied.
"Edge of Darkness" uses the familiar and satisfying trope of revenge to move the plot along at an intense clip. Boston Detective Tommy Craven (Mel Gibson) and his only child, daughter Emma Craven (Bojana Novakovic), are leaving his home when a shotgun blast kills Emma. Initially Tommy thinks the shot was aimed at him and wonders who from his past (an ex-con seeking his long contemplated revenge) might have tried to kill him.
As he looks for the killers (there were two), he begins to discover pieces to the puzzle that are at first perplexing but soon point not to him as the target but to Emma. It turns out that she worked for a major defense contractor, Northmoor, located in Northampton, and that she was flirting with the idea of becoming a whistleblower.
Since this is pulp cinema, there has to be pulp dialogue (here spoken with a Boston accent) wherein the chief of detectives says to Tommy, "These guys are armed and dangerous," and Tommy says, "What do you think I am?" Note the lack of ambiguity. Or when Tommy looks at a corporation CEO, who he senses is somehow involved in Emma's death, and says, "You had better decide whether you're hanging on the cross or banging in the nails." What that means is a bit unclear, but no matter, the pulp imagery is spot on, sounding hard-edged and threatening, mirroring Tommy Craven's persona throughout the film.
Is "Edge of Darkness" violent? Definitely. In the Craven world you can have conversations, brief and to the point, and then the moment is quickly reached when the best response is simply to hit or shoot the bad guy. Sometimes these moments of carnage and gunplay, or the threat of carnage and gunplay, are connected to the plot by the slightest of threads. No worries, though — they're a rush. This is, after all, a take-no-prisoners, pulpy revenge movie.
"Broken Embraces" was written and directed by Pedro Almodovar, likely the best-known and most successful Spanish filmmaker of the last three decades. His most memorable film, at least in the U.S., was "Volver" (Return), and starred, as does "Broken Embraces," Penelope Cruz, often referred to as Almodovar's muse.
It is unusual for male directors to explore and celebrate the resilience of women and their will to survive and even prevail. "Volver" is about women, young and old, women who are buffeted by the vagaries of life, by the inexplicable and by the unexpected. The narrative is compelling, as are the complex characters.
"Broken Embraces" is a love story with a strong woman at its center: the stunningly beautiful Elena (Penelope Cruz), who does what she must to carry on, to help her parents, even it means working as a discrete call girl and a secretary for a wealthy industrialist. Gradually, she is pulled into a web of intrigue and duplicity and the film takes on a noirish tone as it moves from 2008 to 1994 in revealing flashbacks.
The film also is completely taken with the transformative face of Elena/Cruz. She is shown in tight shots, pouting, smiling, making love, dressed in a variety of stylish clothes, at times looking like Audrey Hepburn or Marilyn Monroe. No doubt the camera loves Cruz and she loves it back. There are moments in the film when it feels like a Vogue layout so lovely is she photographed.
But as a story, constructed around intense relationships, a story that is convoluted and multilayered, it feels strangely detached, as if Almodovar cannot quite penetrate an abiding distance, perhaps because he is telling three stories simultaneously: one in 1994, another in 2008, and a third derived from the fact that there is a film within the film.
Surprisingly, there are few if any moments in "Broken Embraces" when the characters reflect on the meaning of their actions. They are undisturbed by their choices and the narrative simply glides along in an undemanding way based on the assumption, presumably, that the filmgoer is not interested in knowing anything about the interior motivations of the characters. It is a missed opportunity by Almodovar to build intimacy with the audience. And so, though all is revealed, little is revealed.
Even when the film is set, briefly, on two islands, Ibiza and Lanzarotte, Almodovar seems inclined only to use the lush scenery as a mere backdrop for Elena and her lover, Harry Cain (Luis Homar) and not as an extension of the heat of their relationship. Clearly Almodovar doesn't believe in foreplay.
If you love movies and have followed the career of Pedro Almodovar — or perhaps you saw "Volver" and were charmed by the power and intimacy of the women or taken with a filmmaker who clearly loves to tell stories about wonderful women of all types — then "Broken Embraces" is a film not to be missed.
Or, see it if you simply love movies and are tempted to watch a film by an artist like Almodovar who consistently struggles to convey the elusiveness inherent in exploring the human condition.