Youth


Michael Caine conducts himself with dignity.

Michael Caine conducts himself with dignity.

(2015) Drama (Fox Searchlight) Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Alex Macqueen, Madalina Ghenea, Mark Kozelek, Nate Dern, Alex Beckett, Mark Gessner, Tom Lipinski, Chloe Pirrie, Luna Mijovic, Dorji Wangchuk, Ed Stoppard, Robert Seethaler, Paloma Faith, Emilia Jones, Beatrice Walker, Rebecca Calder, Veronika Dash. Directed by Paolo Sorrentino

We all age. From the moment we burst out of the womb our bodies are decaying on the way to decrepitude. And for the record, there’s no such thing as aging gracefully; there’s only the appearance of it. When we age, we do so with a distinct absence of grace. We go kicking and screaming, flailing away like an epileptic mule, into that good night.

In a remote spa resort in the Swiss Alps, retired composer/conductor Fred Ballinger is vacationing with his daughter Lena (Weisz) who is also his business assistant, and his best friend Mickey Boyle (Keitel) who is a respected Hollywood screenwriter putting the finishing touches with a team of writers on his latest script, which he considers his “moral testament,” a work that he sees as his enduring legacy.

A representative (Macqueen) of the Queen of England is there to convince Maestro Ballinger to conduct one of his most famous pieces, Simple Songs #3, for Prince Philip’s birthday at which time he would receive his knighthood, but Ballinger adamantly refuses for “personal reasons.” Try as he might to pry it out of him, the rep is stymied. However, the Queen can be mighty persistent.

Boyle is writing a hell of a part for an actress whose career he helped launch, Brenda Morel (Fonda) but her reaction to the role is startling and disappointing. Both men are realizing that their best days are behind them, and that they are slowly leaving the things of their youth behind, even as they see those who worship youth flutter around them like so many broken songbirds.

Sorrentino, who directed the Oscar-winning The Grand Beauty, is clearly influenced by the great Federico Fellini. Like Fellini, he has a fascination for women and like Fellini, he has an appreciation for the surreal dreams. As with most Fellini films, Sorrentino populates Youth with the jaded rich, those who have become so used to being able to afford anything they want that there’s nothing they want that they can afford. The shallow values of these people collide with the gorgeous Alpine scenery.

Ballinger and Boyle (which sounds like either a London barrister or a French champagne) are the exceptions. They are bemused by the couples who sit through dinner silently, the South American superstar so famous nobody need even say his name, the wealthy chasing after lost youth as if they could find it again and even if they could, that they can somehow bathe in it and become young again.

There is a great deal of depth to the movie, and it’s the kind that you have to work for. You have characters passing in and out like the actor (Dano) known for playing a robot studying for a new part – and it’s not one that you’d expect. Then there’s the lonely mountain climbing teacher (Seethaler) who approaches Lena, who herself has been cheated on and tossed aside by her husband – who happens to be Mick’s son – and is rebounding in the arms of a gentler, kinder man.

Still, it is Michael Caine who is magnificent here. An actor as versatile as there has been in the last 50 years, if anyone in Hollywood has aged gracefully, he has. He plays a man who has shut away his emotions to the point that when they do come out, it’s a shock. They are most certainly there, but deep below his calm, upper class demeanor. While he dismisses his work as simplistic, there’s no doubt that they mean something very personal to him and even his daughter, whom he has never been able to express his feelings for, knows it. Caine has some of the best moments in the film, particularly a balcony conversation with Mick near the end of the movie that takes a shocking turn. I will always remember his character conducting the cows in the Tyrolean meadows as well as the birds and the wind, making a beautiful symphony only he – and we – hear.

Fonda also has a bravura moment with Keitel, coming off as perhaps the most Fellini-esque of the characters here, with her shrill demeanor, her dangling cigarette and her laid-on-with-a-trowel makeup that make her look like a party guest in a Fellini film. That leads into another sequence reminiscent of the great Italian director in which Mick’s leading ladies all appear in a meadow, repeating robotically the lines from their films.

When Mick tells Fred in a breaking voice “You say that emotions are overrated, but…emotions are all we’ve got,” he’s speaking for Sorrentino. While there’s a lot here to occupy the mind, this is ultimately a movie of the heart and it speaks directly to that organ more so than the one above the neck.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the soundtrack, particularly the contributions of Mark Kozelek (vocalist of the Red House Painters and Sun Kil Moon). His voice is as calming and soothing as any you’ll ever here; he’s literally human lithium. His version of Yes’ ”Onward” (written by the late great Chris Squire and the best song he ever wrote) is used three times during the film. It’s a beautiful song about love and perfectly underscores the themes of the movie.

Fellini is very much an acquired taste and not everything here is going to appeal to everyone. Sorrentino often flashes images of people or things seemingly at random, or juxtaposes images with dialogue or songs in a way that very much recalls the late director. Not everyone is going to like it but if you like Italian cinema of the 60s, or simply very good movies that appeal to both head and heart, you’re going to find something here to love. Of course if you’re a Fellini fan, so much the better; but those who find his style too pretentious might want to give this one a miss.

REASONS TO GO: There is truly some magic here. Caine’s performance is wonderful.
REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally pretentious and confusing.
FAMILY VALUES: Graphic nudity, some sexuality and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ghenea was 26 at the time of filming, which would have tied her for the honor of the oldest Miss Universe ever were she actually the part she plays.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/31/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: La Dolce Vita
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Hateful Eight

Late Bloomers (2011)


A nuzzle between old lovers is as sexy as anything you'll see in Fifty Shades of Grey.

A nuzzle between old lovers is as sexy as anything you’ll see in Fifty Shades of Grey.

(2011) Romantic Comedy (Olive) William Hurt, Isabella Rossellini, Doreen Mantle, Kate Ashfield, Aidan McArdle, Arta Dobroshi, Luke Treadaway, Leslie Phillips, Hugo Speer, Joanna Lumley, Simon Callow, Iona Warne, Ryan Quartley, Nicholas Farrell, Sushil Chudasama, Joanna Bobin, Lin Blakley, Phoenix James, Hannah Charlton, Stuart Martin, Kelli White. Directed by Julie Gavras

Cinema of the Heart 2015

One thing about aging; we all do it. In fact, we’re doing it right now, as you read this. That might make you a little bit uncomfortable; I don’t blame you. Nobody likes to think about it. Nobody likes to talk about it, and yet we all age. Our bodies break down, betray us. Eventually, they shut down. Nobody likes to think about that.

Adam (Hurt) and Mary (Rossellini) have been married for 30 years and are seeing 60 approach. They are entering the endgame of middle age and will soon be forced to deal with old age. Mary is somewhat terrified of it – she begins to buy gadgets like phones with huge numbers, and bars for the toilet and bath to aid in getting out of the latter and off of the former.

Adam doesn’t think he’s quite done yet. An architect who has designed some major airports, he has received a lifetime achievement award in his field which he likens to a tombstone. His firm, which has not been getting the sort of projects they once did, is offered the design of a retirement village. Adam doesn’t want to design a “zombie storage facility” as he terms it. A young woman in his office, Maya (Dobroshi) urges him to enter a competitive bid for a museum. Re-energized, Adam decides to go for it. However, his wife – who is a retired teacher – is trying to fill her days with volunteer work with condescending managers and water aerobics in the gym. They are drifting apart and even their grown children sense it. Adam is sleeping at the office more often than not, and sometimes with Maya who has been flirting with him. Can their marriage survive old age?

Gavras whose first feature was the political drama Blame It on Fidel is making her second feature in English (she was born and raised in France) for the first time, possibly to appeal to a wider audience. There are some fine actors in France who might have taken these roles but it’s hard to imagine anyone doing a better job than Hurt and Rossellini did here.

Hurt has always been a kind of ice cold actor, a little bit distant from his audience. Rossellini on the other hand is all heart, all soul. They couldn’t be more different if they tried but they succeed in convincing us they’re a couple, communicating in non-audible gestures and looks although as the film progresses they don’t communicate at all. I suspect that Gavras purposely cast such polar opposites; I know couples like this who have had successful  marriages, but they demand a lot of patience and work. Adam seems to be more passionate about his work than his wife; Mary is unable to get past her obsession with oncoming age. The two can’t seem to get past their differences.

And yet, there’s no denying the chemistry in this couple. The ending is a bit forced, but the only reason it works at all is because of that chemistry between Hurt and Rossellini. They convince you that there is love between them, even when they don’t know how to live with each other. That’s the way it goes sometimes and not every ending is as happy as this one turns out to be.

This isn’t compelling romantic cuddle by the fire stuff, but it is compelling as a look at how relationships survive the aging of the people in it. And yeah, maybe on Valentine’s Day you want to keep the “I wanna grow old with you” to just a declaration of intent, but the fact of the matter is that we do have to eventually grow old and doing so with a partner is just as difficult and hard work as it is growing up with one – but just as rewarding as well.

WHY RENT THIS: Charming performances from Rossellini and Hurt. Unapologetic and frank discussion of aging.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Muddled in places. The ending is a little bit too chipper.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexuality, some drinking, adult themes and a little bit of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The director is the daughter of Oscar-nominated director Costa-Gavras (Z, Missing, Betrayed).
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental), Amazon (not available), Vudu (not available),  iTunes (not available), Target Ticket (not available)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lovely, Still
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Cinema of the Heart continues!

The Great Beauty (La grande bellezza)


Toni Servillo looks suave and debonair even when taking a break.

Toni Servillo looks suave and debonair even when taking a break.

(2013) Dramedy (Janus) Toni Servillo, Carlo Verdone, Sabrina Ferilli, Carlo Buccirosso, Iaia Forte, Pamela Villoresi, Galatea Ranzi, Franco Graziosi, Giorgio Pasotti, Massimo Popolizio, Sonia Gessner, Anna Della Rosa, Luca Marinelli, Serena Grandi, Ivan Franek, Vernon Dobtcheff, Dario Cantarelli, Luciano Virgilio, Aldo Ralli, Giusi Merli, Giovanna Vignola, Anita Kravos, Roberto Herlitzka, Isabella Ferrari. Directed by Paolo Sorrentino

There are those who remember the films of the great Italian director Federico Fellini with great fondness. Others look back at his films with annoyance. Fellini wasn’t one to inspire insipid emotions; you either loved his work or you couldn’t stand it. There was no middle ground with him. There hasn’t been a filmmaker like him since and although there have been a few films that could be classified as Fellini-esque, there were none that anyone could really say “this could have been made by Fellini” of. Until now.

Like the film considered to be Fellini’s masterpiece, La Dolce Vita, this film is set in the upper class of Roman society, the wealthy who go to parties that border on the surreal. Middle aged men dance with younger women. Older women dance with younger men. In Rome, the Eternal City, the one thing that isn’t eternal is youth. Those who are losing it hold onto it with their fingernails.

Jep Gambardella (Servillo) is celebrating his 65th birthday and has become aware that his time ahead is growing much less than his time behind. At 26, he had written a novel, The Human Apparatus that established his reputation – but hadn’t written a novel since. He contented himself by being the King of the Roman High Life – the man whose appearance at a party would instantly make it a success. He supports himself by interviewing artistic sorts for his editor, a kindly and wise little person with blue hair. Jep is beginning to suspect he’s wasted his life and determines to stop doing things he doesn’t want to do.

He gets involved in a relationship with an aging stripper named Ramona (Ferilli) that to his surprise is more friendship than sexual – he has over the years had plenty of sexual adventures, including one with the melancholy Orietta (Ferrari). Much of this self-reflection is brought on by the revelation that a former lover has passed away. She’d left him unexpectedly and without explanation some 40 years earlier and married another man. After her death, her husband had found her diary and discovered to his shock that it was Jep who was the love of her life and that she considered him, the man she spent her entire life with, a pleasant companion.

That’s really all there is to plot. In the interest of full disclosure, I have to say that I went into this movie expecting to hate it. I’d heard from friends and colleagues that the movie was at best a disappointment and at worst a pretentious mess. In fact, Da Queen did indeed wind up really loathing the movie but that wasn’t the experience that I had. Watching the movie, I was well aware of its faults – the movie is shamelessly pretentious in the sort of way that almost defiantly invites criticism. It is also way too long and the coda not worth the wait.

Still, I found the movie mesmerizing. In many ways, it’s a love letter to Rome itself – full of beauty that is unsurprising but with little hidden gems that only give access to those in the know. Sure the people depicted here are shallow with the delusion of being intellectual. Most of Jep’s circle is passing middle age into old age and they are going there kicking and screaming. They have all lived lives of hedonistic emptiness, going from party to gallery opening to art exhibition to dinner with little else in mind but to see and be seen.

The movie hits you with unexpected insights which caught me by surprise, much of which has to do with understanding how Romans view themselves and their place in the world. There is a world-weary melancholy to the movie which comes from being the heirs to an ancient empire that once stretched across the world but has changed and become secondary to superpowers like America and China. Jep’s self-awareness is critical to understanding the film; he is fully cognizant that he has lived an empty life and continues to live it. He knows that he has spent much of his time observing life rather than taking part in it. He has become insular, a man whose life revolves around the next party and whose reputation as a bon vivant is everything.

Near the end of the movie we are introduced to Santa (Merli), a 104-year-old nun who is while technically not a saint, referred to as such. She appears almost mummified, her jaw open wide in an expression you might find on the entombed but she has a gentle soul. In one of the movies best moments, a flock of migrating flamingos makes a stop on Jep’s portico following a dinner party he has thrown in her honor. Santa whispers with an expression of rapt joy that she knows the Christian names of each one of the birds. Then she blows a little puff of air and off fly the flamingos. Rome is ever a Catholic environment.

This is a movie of contradictions. Crazy pretentious but unexpectedly insightful. Beautifully photographed but with an eye to the ugliness of human nature. Artful yet crass. Serious yet with an absurd sense of humor. Spiritual but also hedonistic. Yes, I will admit that this is a movie that requires a good deal of effort to love. This isn’t a movie to be taken lightly nor is it as frivolous as it appears to be on the surface. It demands to be taken on its own terms and either you will or you won’t – that’s entirely up to you. If you do, however, you may well be rewarded with a glimpse inside the Roman soul that is rarely revealed to outsiders. In that sense, this is a masterpiece and there are those who agree plainly – it did beat out the incredible Danish movie The Hunt for the Best Foreign Film Oscar at the recent Academy Awards  Do I think it is a better movie than The Hunt? No, I can’t say that it is in all honesty but it is certainly a very, very good movie if you are willing to allow it to be.

REASONS TO GO: Moments of insight and thoughtfulness that sneak up on you. Gorgeous images and cinematography. If you love Fellini, this is for you.

REASONS TO STAY: Unabashedly pretentious. Far too long.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is graphic nudity and a good deal of sexuality and sensuality. There’s also some drug content and a smattering of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The performance artist in the film Talia Concept’s head-butting spectacle is a nod to real world performance artist Marina Abramovic.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/12/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 86/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: La Dolce Vita

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Our Film Library begins!

Star Trek: Insurrection


Data has a bad day.

Data has a bad day.

(1998) Science Fiction (Paramount) Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, Brent Spiner, Levar Burton, Michael Dorn, Gates McFadden, Marina Sirtis, F. Murray Abraham, Donna Murphy, Anthony Zerbe, Gregg Henry, Daniel Hugh Kelly, Michael Welch, Mark Deakins, Stephanie Niznik, Michael Horton, Bruce French, Tom Morello, Jennifer Tung. Directed by Jonathan Frakes

I sometimes like to characterize myself as a Trekker with both eyes wide open. In other words, I love the world that Gene Roddenberry created, but I don’t love it blindly.

“Insurrection,” the ninth movie in Paramount’s cash-cow franchise, posits a race (the Baku) who are being studied in secret by the Federation and their new allies, the Son’a. When Data (Spiner), a member of the study team and as all good Trekkers know, an integral part of the crew of the Enterprise-D goes berserk. Captain Picard (Stewart) abruptly leaves a diplomatic mission to go and see what’s goin’ on, to quote Marvin Gaye.

What’s going on is that a smarmy Starfleet admiral (Zerbe) has put the Federation in bed with the nasty Son’a (you know they’re nasty because they use subspace weapons and even the Borg don’t stoop to that), with the intention of forcing the peaceful Baku to another world. It seems that particles in the rings of the Baku planet give off an energy that, properly processed, can reverse the aging process … indefinitely. In short, a kind of stellar Fountain of Youth.

Picard objects strenuously, but because of the planet’s location in a remote corner of the quadrant, communication with the Powers That Be in the Federation is impossible. Picard must rely on his own code of ethics to guide him. The title should tell you which direction he leans toward.

Producer Rick Berman may have been too overloaded when making this movie, with two television series and the feature film to contend with, along with the opening of a then-new attraction in Las Vegas. Insurrection is unable to break the curse of the odd-numbered Trek movies – the worst films in the franchise to this point are all odd numbered. Insurrection isn’t as bad as The Final Frontier, but it doesn’t really distinguish itself, either.

The trouble with the Trek movies is that too many of them have a perspective too influenced by the television screen. They don’t really fill up the big screen all that well, unless Nicholas Meyer is directing them. But then, unlike many of the Trek directors, Meyer already had a couple of feature films under his belt before tackling Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan. Unfortunately, the reality of the situation is that Paramount has often had to offer the directing reins to actors in order to get them to play ball. This leads to the odd situation of having some of the studio’s most valuable properties in the hands of inexperienced directors.

It’s not that director Jonathan Frakes (who also plays First Officer Riker) is incompetent, it’s just that I’d wanted to see more cinematic sweep to a Star Trek movie than heretofore had been shown. For example, Insurrection alludes to a Federation that is desperate for allies after being decimated by the Borg and is involved with a life-or-death struggle with the Dominion. Against that background, you’d think you could get a better plot than one that basically says that forced relocation is a bad thing. I think most of us have already figured that one out.

In a situation like the one described above, you’d also think that the Federation’s premier starship would be on the front lines instead of making diplomatic contact with second-rate species, but that’s just a minor point. The problem here is that once again it seems to be the Picard-Data-Worf (Dorn) show, as LaForge (Burton), Dr. Crusher (McFadden) and Counselor Troi (Sirtis) are given almost nothing to do. Riker is kind of involved but for the most part, it’s all platitudes and posturing and not enough gee whiz.

At the time this was made, I really wanted to see Star Trek movies become more like Major Events with storylines that directly influenced the television shows without forcing the audience to be immersed in the show (as the X-Files movie did). That, sadly, never came to pass which might be just as well; the last two Star Trek movies which have rebooted the cinematic franchise have become Event Films. Part of the problem with Insurrection was the miserly budget which in many ways was justified – up to that point the cinematic Star Trek wasn’t pulling in enough box office for the most part to justify nine figure budgets. The reality was that Trekkers were getting more than their fix of the franchise on TV and the TV version was in many ways superior to what was going up on the big screen. Why pay to see something you can see for free at home, and it’s hard to blame audiences for that. Still, seeing what Marvel is doing with their franchise tells me that it could have been done. Ah well, I suppose in this case I was slightly ahead of my time – or overreaching the grasp of my beloved franchise.

WHY RENT THIS: You’re a Trekker completist. Holds up well among the Next Generation movies.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Lacks cinematic scope, playing as an extended TV episode. Tame action scenes.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some sci-fi violence, a few mildly bad words and a bit of sensuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The first Star Trek movie in which all of the outer space shots were computer generated. Among the firms providing CGI and software support were Blue Sky Studios and Pixar, both of which would go on to be major CGI animation studios.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The 2-disc DVD Collector’s edition includes a look at Alien women in the Star Trek universe and fairly detailed looks at how some of the special effects were created. The Blu-Ray edition (available as part of a collection of Star Trek: Next Generation films) adds a Trek Roundtable in which fans and experts discuss the film with an eye to its place in the overall Star Trek universe and a Star Trek Academy feature which is set up as an Academy lecture on the origins of the conflict between the Baku and the Son’a.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $112.6M on a $58M production budget; the movie pretty much broke even.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rabbit-Proof Fence

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Good Neighbours

Mid-August Lunch (Pranzo di ferragosto)


Mid-August Lunch (Pranzo di Ferragosto)

Lunch is served.

(Zeitgeist) Gianni di Gregorio, Valeria di Franciscis, Marina Cacciotti, Maria Cali, Grazia Cesarini Sforza, Alfonso Santagata, Luigi Marchetti, Marcello Ottolenghi, Petre Rosu, Biagio Ursitti. Directed by Gianni di Gregorio

Holidays are times to be with family. This is a fairly universal concept; no matter whether you are from India or Indochina or Italy or Indianapolis, this holds true – at least, most of the time.

Gianni (di Gregorio) is a middle-aged slacker. He is chronically unemployed and spends most of his time taking care of his demanding mother (di Franciscis), reading to her from Alexandre Dumas’ “The Three Musketeers” while she constantly interrupts about questions about D’Artagnan’s physical appearance. Apparently, his hooked nose would be a deal-killer for her. Mama has the look of Sylvia Miles in her Beetlejuice appearance, three years after she died. No, it’s not a particularly flattering look.

Gianni is a good-natured sort, friendly with everybody and well-known for being an excellent home chef. However, he hasn’t paid the rent for his ramshackle Rome apartment (although it is identified in the subtitles as a condominium, a flat is what it is) in months, his electric bill hasn’t been paid in three years. Alfonso (Santagata), the resident’s association administrator, comes to Gianni’s apartment to talk about the situation. Both Gianni and his mother are terrified.

However, Alfonso has a solution. It is a holiday weekend in Italy, Ferragosto – a Catholic holiday marking the occasion of Mary’s ascension into heaven. It is the middle of August and the heat is oppressive. Most sensible Romans head out of town to find a place in the north or at least in the mountains or by the sea where relief from the oppressive heat of late summer Italy can be found. There’s no question but that Gianni and his mama will be spending the holiday at home but Alfonso needs someone to watch over his own mama Marina (Cacciotti). If Gianni would be willing to do that for a few days, Alfonso would see to it that his debts would be forgiven. Gianni is not in a position to refuse, despite his misgivings.

The next day, Alfonso bring over his mama – and as an extra added bonus, his Aunt Maria (Cali). Gianni is mortified at the extra guest but after Alfonso gives him a little extra for expenses, he reluctantly relents. Mama puts on her best face and greets the guests with as much hospitality as she can muster which admittedly isn’t very much. She prefers isolation to socialization and makes sure Gianni knows it.

Afterwards, the family doctor (Ottolenghi) comes by to examine Mama – and Gianni, who thinks he might have a hernia (he just has a hernia of the head, as the doc exclaims). For services rendered, the doctor implores Gianni to take in his mother overnight for the holiday because he has to work at the hospital. Gianni, past the point of resisting, agrees. Why not? What difference is one more old hen going to make for the chicken coop?

All four women have strong personalities. Marina likes to smoke and get drunk, and when she’s drunk she makes a pass at Gianni. The doctor’s mother, Grazia (Sforza), has a restricted diet which she breaks at every turn, particularly with the macaroni casserole that Gianni and Maria are making which is slathered with cheese and tomato sauce, both of which were specifically forbidden by Grazia’s doctor son. Mama wants to dine alone and have as little to do with the unwanted guests as possible. Maria disagrees with everything. Gianni is at wit’s end. How is he going to manage this terrible holiday?

I didn’t expect to like this movie as much as I did. It is charming, heartwarming and deeply Italian; I almost guarantee you that you’ll be craving a nice plate of pasta and a glass of good wine by the time the movie’s over. Di Gregorio, who wrote, starred in and directed Mid-August Lunch, based the movie on his own experiences caring for his elderly mother.

Most of the actors are non-professionals, many of them personal acquaintances of di Gregorio. In fact, the apartment that the movie mostly takes place in is di Gregorio’s own home. How much more personal can a film be?

The movie has a sweet quality that will improve your mood from beginning to end. It is also laugh-out-loud funny with a humor that is sly and earthy in places, gentle and sweet in others. Being an Italian film, there is a shot of someone riding a Vespa down the street which is apparently some sort of national mandate.

The only drawback here is Gianni himself. He seems to drift aimlessly through the movie in a pleasant haze of white wine (which he consumes by the gallon). He resembles the late Jerry Ohrbach crossed with Roberto Benigni from a facial standpoint and shuffles through most of the film wearing flip flops and an amiable smile. While it’s difficult to really relate to Gianni, it’s still pleasant enough to spend time with him.  

Mid-August Lunch has won several festival awards, including the prestigious Venice Film Festival’s award for Best Film. While American critics haven’t really come on board this movie for the most part, that’s a bit of a crying shame. This is the kind of movie that really has no other aspiration other than to make its audience feel better collectively and perhaps make a gentle comment on aging. Regardless, this is one lunch that I advise you not to miss.

REASONS TO GO: A charming and heartwarming slice of life. While there are many laugh-out-loud moments, you will come away feeling better than when you went in.

REASONS TO STAY: Gianni drifts a bit too much to be a compelling lead.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild sensuality in one scene and a good deal of wine drinking, but otherwise perfectly suitable for all audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Di Gregorio also wrote the bloody mafia epic Gomorrah.

HOME OR THEATER: Having already received its New York release in mid-March, this will be decidedly difficult to see in theaters (unless it’s playing in a local film festival). However, this intimate comedy will work very nicely on home video.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Dynamite Warrior

The Stone Angel


The Stone Angel

Ellen Burstyn is still a powerful actress, even in her sunset years.

(Vivendi) Ellen Burstyn, Ellen Page, Cole Hauser, Wings Hauser, Dylan Baker, Christine Horne, Kevin Zegers, Sheila McCarthy, Devon Bostick. Directed by Kari Skogland

Regret is a powerful thing. It can color your perceptions and order your actions. The longer you hold onto it, the stronger it can get until it completely takes you over.

Hagar Shipley (Burstyn) thinks she’s going for a Sunday drive with her son Marvin (Baker) and his wife Doris (McCarthy). However, it turns out that they are taking her to a nursing facility “just to see,” as Doris puts it. Hagar has been living with Marvin for some time and her needs and ailments are becoming too much for them to handle.

Hagar’s suspicions about the place are not allayed by the petunias at the entrance, nor the sight of senior citizens playing canasta like the living dead. She realizes deep down that sooner or later she’s going to end up if not in that specific home, in one a lot like it. Impulsively, she decides to steal away on one last adventure and winds up in a broken down old beach house, there to reminisce about the events of her life.

The daughter (Horne, playing Hagar as a young woman) of a prosperous Manitoba merchant, she marries Bram Shipley (Cole Hauser), a farmer her father deems beneath their station. He expresses his disapproval by leaving her out of his will, instead leaving all his riches to the city to build a park named after him. She responds by snippishly trampling the petunias planted there.

However, she has inherited more of her father’s attitudes than you might think, and she tends to rub Bram’s face in her family’s superior breeding, which leads to marital difficulties which in turn leads to Bram’s drinking problem. She tries to instill her attitudes into her sons John (Zegers) and Marvin (Bostick) with varying degrees of success. John (her favorite) breaks her heart by falling in love with a wild girl (Page) and marrying her against Hagar’s wishes. Hagar’s fiercely independent nature will carry her through, but it will also cause her a lion’s share of heartache before her time is through.

This is based on a novel by Canadian writer Margaret Laurence and has been a staple of Canadian high schools for the past 40 years. It is set on the sprawling prairies of the beautiful province of Manitoba, and that’s exactly where they filmed it. There are those who wonder how a seemingly empty vista of endless prairie can inspire such devotion and love in the people who live there, but those who see this movie will get a good chance to see precisely why that is.

I will admit to having a great fondness for Manitoba. My mom is from there and I have many relatives and friends who live there and whom I look forward to seeing every time I venture up there, but that isn’t all of it. There is something about the windswept prairies, the city of Winnipeg  and the small towns on the outskirts, the great farms of wheat, sunflowers and other crops, the grain elevators and silos rising like silent sentinels…it just speaks to me, perhaps from a deep genetic place. You should know about that affection before reading the rest of this; my review is certainly colored by it.

One of the movie’s bigger successes is in the casting. Burstyn takes on the role of the feisty Hagar with a certain amount of panache. She’s a consummate actress, an Oscar winner who knows when to go over the top and when to reel it in. She brings Hagar to life as a Canadian icon, a woman who chafes at the strictures of her role in her time and ultimately becomes her own woman, defying the stereotypes of the era.

Horne is almost the spitting image of Burstyn, and on top of that she can act, too. She makes the young Hagar shine almost as brightly as Burstyn’s older Hagar. The two performances mesh nicely, as does the father and son acting team of Wings and Cole Hauser, playing the older and younger Bram respectively.

However, while the movie was written in the early 60s, more contemporary novels by authors like Nicholas Sparks that share a similar storytelling style especially regarding the conceit of an older woman telling the story of her life as a young, spirited girl. Some may find this movie suffering in comparison to movies like The Notebook.

Even so, there is a lot to recommend this movie. I’m not as familiar with the source material that is the novel, but I’m told it is a sprawling, magnificent work, along the lines of Giant and Gone with the Wind. For my money, any movie that tells a compelling story, particularly when it is set in a land that I love as much as Manitoba and its people, is worth recommending.

WHY RENT THIS: Beautifully photographed and well acted. The casting director not only got some top-notch talent for this film, he managed to get people who resemble each other to play the lead roles at different times of their lives.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie suffers from Nicholas Sparks-itis; although the novel it is based on pre-dates Sparks, the presence of movies like The Notebook and Prince of Tides makes this one seem cliché.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief sexuality and a bit of rough language but otherwise suitable for any audience.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While looking over the call sheet, Burstyn discovered a long-lost relative who was working on the film.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: August

Up


Up

All in all, there are worse sights than an eager Wilderness Ranger when you open your front door.

(Disney) Starring the voices of Ed Asner, Jordan Nagai, Christopher Plummer, Delroy Lindo, John Ratzenberger, Bob Peterson, Jerome Ranft, David Kaye, Elie Docter, Jeremy Leary, Mickie McGowan, Danny Mann. Directed by Pete Docter and Bob Peterson.

Some people wait their entire lives for the adventure of a lifetime, only to see it pass us by. The truth is, the only reason not to go out and grab our dreams by the throat is our fear of leaving our familiar existence.

Young Carl Fredricksen (Leary) is a little shy but not about his favorite subject – adventurer Charles Muntz (Plummer). With a dirigible luxuriously outfitted for his family of dogs, Muntz goes to locations all over the globe to find strange and exotic creatures for study, and the newsreels of the time eat it all up. After a trip to South America and a particularly remote location called Paradise Falls – a land lost to time – Muntz returns with a skeleton of a large bird. Experts, however, decry the skeleton as fake. Disgraced and stripped of his membership in professional societies and stung by the assaults on his character, he takes off in his airship for Venezuela, vowing not to return until he has a live specimen to vindicate his name. He is not seen again.

Despite his hero’s fall from grace, Carl is not deterred in his worship. He meets young Ellie (Docter) who shares his obsession. She has even commandeered an abandoned house to serve as her personal airship. As talkative and outgoing as Carl is shy and timid, Ellie and Carl take to each other like cats to milk.

They grow up and marry. Now a man, Carl (Asner) becomes a balloon vendor at a zoological park where Ellie works as a docent. He buys her the old abandoned house where they played as children and work hard to make it their dream home. They go on picnics and watch the clouds drift by, but their dream is the same; one day to build a home on remote Paradise Falls.

They save their pennies for the trip, but life gets in the way. They continually have to borrow from their trip fund for everyday crises; auto repairs, home repairs, medical repairs. They have a good life, but not without its share of heartache. At last, there comes a day when Ellie isn’t able to make the climb up the hill to their favorite picnic spot. Faithful Carl stays with her in the hospital, but she knows where this is leading. She hands Carl her adventure scrapbook, meaning for him to read it. Not long after that, he must face life alone without her.

He opens her scrapbook regularly, but is unable to get past the section that reads “Stuff I’m Going to Do” believing that he failed to give her the adventures she dreamed of, knowing those pages would be blank. He is lost, cantankerous and alone, walking with one of those canes with four tennis balls on them. When Russell (Nagai), an overweight Asian-American Wilderness Explorer comes to his door asking him if he can aid Carl in any way (so he can get the final merit badge to become a Senior Explorer), Carl literally sends him on a snipe hunt. The good-natured Russell is only too happy to help.

Around their home developers are putting together one of those godawful mixed use apartment buildings with shopping and casual dining on the first floor. His home stands in their way, and they are constantly pressuring him to sell which he adamantly refuses to do, despite the best efforts of their construction foreman (Ratzenberger). When a construction worker backs into his mailbox which is marked by Ellie’s handprint, Carl loses it.

This gives the faceless developers the opening they need. Carl is taken to court where he is judged a menace to society. He is ordered sent to a retirement facility, which would allow the developers to raze his home to the ground.

Carl is faced with a decision. He can accept his fate and give up on life, or he can take the opportunity to finally become the explorer he and Ellie always wanted to be. With the ingenuity of a born balloonist, he ties thousands upon thousands of balloons to his home, fashions an ingenious steering system through his weather vane and heads up.

Flying over the city, he feels liberated for the first time since Ellie left. He settles into his favorite easy chair to enjoy his flight when there is, oddly, a knock at the door. When he opens it, he is startled to discover Russell, who had been chasing the Snipe (which he admits looked oddly like a field mouse) under the porch at the time of lift off. Russell had scrambled onto the porch and now was a reluctant stowaway. Carl, knowing that it is too dangerous to leave him exposed on the porch, invites him in.

After a storm tosses them about, they at last arrive on the plateau of Paradise Falls, but on the wrong side. They don’t have a great deal of flight capability because the helium is slowly leaking from the balloons. Carl means to drag the house to the opposite side of the plateau to at last retire to the place he and Ellie meant to be.

Before he can do that, he must contend with talking dogs, a rather persistent chocolate-eating bird and an embittered and obsessive Charles Muntz. He must also weigh doing the right thing against completing his dream, but what if doing the right thing would mean betraying the person who has meant everything to him his entire life?

This is being hailed as Pixar’s finest creation to date, and not without justification. First of all, there’s the look of the film. It is brightly colorful, virtually eye-popping in every detail. The animation is stylized, yes but with an amazing and rich detail that will make repeated viewings a pleasure.

Then there’s the tone. Director Pete Docter – who previously helmed Monsters, Inc and co-wrote WALL-E – has crafted Carl Fredricksen’s life with loving care. The opening sequence which essentially sets the table is a stunning bit of filmmaking. Poignant and heartbreaking in spots, it also has some laugh-out-loud funny moments. In many ways, Carl Fredricksen is the most complete character in terms of personality that Pixar has ever created. Fredricksen has a great big heart, but that heart has been broken. He is cantankerous, short-tempered and a bit selfish. He is far from perfect, but when the chips are down he comes through.

It is to Docter and Pixar’s credit that they create an action hero who is old and not in the best of shape. In fact, only Muntz is the kind of fit hero we are used to seeing in adventure movies. Russell is certainly out of shape and Dug (Ranft), the likable talking dog that befriends Carl and Russell, is more of a mutt than the sleek, menacing dogs that Muntz uses as his army.

This was the first animated film to open the Cannes Film Festival, an honor normally reserved for French live-action films, and an honor richly deserved. There is no doubt in my mind that this film is deserving of an Oscar nomination for Best Picture; whether or not that happens is anybody’s guess, but it certainly is a better movie than Finding Nemo and to my mind, Beauty and the Beast which did get the nomination in that category, the only animated feature thus honored to date.

Poignant without being sentimental and never talking down to its audience (which may blow some of the more heart-rending scenes right by younger viewers), this is another triumph for Pixar. Yes, the kids will love the bright colors, the action and the strange creatures of Paradise Falls, but their parents will appreciate the well-rounded characters, the thoughtful story and the uplifting message that we are never too old to begin an adventure. Up is one of the best movies you will see this year.

WHY RENT THIS: Simply put one of the best movies of the year. Poignant in places and funny in others, it presents a well-rounded and believable character in Carl Fredricksen. The colors are eye-popping; it’s a gorgeous movie to look at.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the more heart-wrenching moments may go over the head of younger children, who may get restless in places.

FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for all but the very youngest of children.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The Pizza Planet truck from Toy Story can be seen in the streets while Carl’s house is rising, and also in the final scene in the parking lot.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: The Blu-Ray contains a new Dug animated feature, as well as footage from the filmmakers trip to Venezuela, which would inspire the Paradise Falls location in the movie.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: The Ugly Truth