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!

Safety Not Guaranteed


 

Safety Not Guaranteed

Aubrey Plaza applies the old “come-on with Campbell’s” method of seduction to Mark Duplass.

(2012) Comedy (FilmDistrict) Aubrey Plaza, Mark Duplass, Jake Johnson, Kristen Bell, Jenica Bergere, Karan Soni, Lynn Shelton, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Jeff Garlin, William Hall Jr., Tony Doupe, Xola Malik, Grace Arends, Alice Hung. Directed by Colin Trevorrow

 

WANTED: Someone to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. I have only done this once before. SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED.

So read an actual 2004 classified ad in an alternative weekly in the Northwest (it actually showed up on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno’s” headlines segment. Someone thought it would make a good springboard for a small budget film. Someone was right.

At a story meeting for Seattle Magazine, the tyrannical editor Bridget (Rajskub) is looking for a story to go into the next issue. Most of her minions are silent but finally Jeff (Johnson) comes up with investigating the classified ad mentioned above. Bridget greenlights the story, allowing Jeff to take two interns – Darius (Plaza), a cute but anti-social sort, and Arnau (Soni), a nerdish Indian-American virgin. Jeff himself is quite the horndog, boasting that he’d already scored with the editor.

But he has an ulterior motive in heading to the small town outside of Seattle. He wants to hook up with Liz (Bergere), a lost high school lover he recently re-connected with on Facebook. He has the interns stake out the post office box and find out who the guy is who placed the ad. It turns out to be Kenneth (Duplass), a brilliant but socially awkward clerk at the grocery store. He lives out in the boonies in a house that he inherited from his deceased parents. Locally, he’s considered flaky but harmless.  When Jeff tries to contact him, Kenneth sends him packing, being a suspicious and paranoid sort. When Darius gives it a shot, her somewhat sharp and caustic attitude seems to attract Kenneth and he agrees to train her.

He is also paranoid and thinks that government agents are following him. Imagine Darius’ surprise when it turns out that government agents are following him. Some of the supplies that he’s purchased to build his time machine (which he swears is the real deal) have raised red flags somewhere and there are thoughts he could be building a weapon of mass destruction.

Still, the reporters think he’s a nutcase but Darius finds herself strangely attracted to him. And why not? He plays heartbreaking songs on the zither, has a refreshingly down-to-earth attitude about earth, the universe and time and isn’t hard on the eyes either. She finds herself opening up to him and letting him inside her very staunch defenses. But he can’t be serious about building a working time machine…can he?

One of the things that struck me about this movie from the get-go is the amount of heart it has. Some movies fake it really well, while others try to manufacture it or force it. This one has it. Yes, there are occasional elements of indie quirkiness but Trevorrow doesn’t stoop to clichés. There isn’t any of that hipster smarm that often makes me want to head over to the Village and open up with an Uzi on the trendy spots. No, there isn’t any indie band name-checking, no artists living in lofts they couldn’t possibly afford, no pop culture-peppered dialogue that will sound lame and dated in six months.

And certainly no romance between odd gamins who are way too smart and way too un-ambitious. The relationship between Darius and Kenneth is organic and realistic. These aren’t just a couple of characters who fall in love because the script calls for them to; this is a relationship that grows in an unexpected way as most love does in the real world. There is a scene during the training sequence when Kenneth is running and Darius is right behind him. The smile and measuring look she gives him tells without a single word of dialogue that she not only finds him interesting but that he is treating her like she’s never been treated before. You know that the love is there maybe before the characters do which is again, not unlike real life.

Plaza, who has a similar role in TV’s “Parks and Recreation” (and for whom the part was initially written) makes a splash in her feature film debut. She has the presence and charisma to be appealing on the big screen. I hadn’t really gotten that vibe from her television work but for my money she has a very bright future. She reminds me of Sarah Silverman in some ways, only less annoying and more charming.

Duplass, who is one of the Duplass Brothers responsible for directing some memorable indie hits like Jeff, Who Lives at Home proves himself an adept actor and quite frankly he’s much in demand – he’ll be appearing in no less than seven films that are slated for a 2012 release in some way, shape or form. This might be the best of the lot. He’s laconic, a little daft, a little edgy and a little romantic. This is a difficult role at best, to make someone so basically unlikable relatable. He’s guarded and standoffish and very much broken, but Duplass gives him warmth and grace. You end up liking Kenneth and root for him and Darius to make it.

Also of note if Johnson as Jeff. Jeff is basically a self-centered douche looking for a hook-up with a high school hottie who, like him, is wearing the years for all to see. As the film progresses we begin to see the layers stripped away as the horndog shows that he isn’t just all about Jeff. By the end of the movie he’s actually quite likable and the lazy, shoddy journalist we thought he was is put to lie as well.

The pacing is slow and laid back, so teens and other attention-challenged persons may find this boring. That’s a bit of a shame because this is as satisfying an experience as I’ve had at the movies this year. Sadly, the movie didn’t get a wide release – it’s not an easy sell and people might get distracted by the time travel aspect (which is a bit of a MacGuffin but kind of isn’t either – you’ll just have to see the film to find out what I mean). Still this is a movie I’ll certainly be remembering for my year-end best-of list. I hope you seek this out in its limited release – it’s a gem worth finding.

REASONS TO GO: A movie with as much heart as you’re likely to find. Cute and clever without being condescending.

REASONS TO STAY: Very quirky. A little too understated for the ADHD crowd.

FAMILY VALUES: The language is pretty salty and there are a few sexual references.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While Darius and Arnau are staking out the PO Boxes, the first man to walk into the post office is the one who wrote the original ad that the movie is based on.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/18/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100. The reviews are kinda mixed but more towards the positive side.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Primer

POST OFFICE LOVERS: Darius and Arnau stake out an old fashioned small town post office, one of the sort that is becoming increasingly rare in this day and age.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: The Other Woman

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World


Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

Keira Knightley and Steve Carell are not impressed with the dailies.

(2012) Dark Comedy (Focus) Steve Carell, Keira Knightley, Melanie Lynskey, William Petersen, Connie Britton, Adam Brody, Derek Luke, Gillian Jacobs, T.J. Miller, Patton Oswalt, Rob Corddry, Mark Moses, Bob Stephenson, Martin Sheen, Melinda Dillon, Tonita Castro, Jim O’Heir. Directed by Lorene Scafaria

 

What would you do if you knew that you were going to die? Not just you, but everyone and everything? All that we have made, all that we have done – all gone. What would you do? Where would you go? Who would you want to be with when the end comes?

That’s the question that confronts Dodge Peterson (Carell). Actually, it confronts everybody. An asteroid named Mathilda (and how sad that the instrument of our destruction is called Mathilda) is on its way on a collision course with Earth. Attempts to divert the 80-mile wide rock have failed miserably and in 21 days, it will crash into our world, killing all living things and, in all likelihood, a few dead things as well.

His wife, upon hearing the news, makes a run for it with someone she actually loves as opposed to her husband whom she has been cheating on for quite awhile anyway. Dodge, an insurance salesman, makes a few desultory attempts to go to work but as it becomes clear that society will be soon breaking down completely, he gives up on that.

His maid (Castro) comes in as always, preferring to keep herself occupied and gently reminds Dodge to pick up some window cleaner. Returning home from the store through the park, he notices some young people embracing. Despondent, he ingests the entire bottle of cleaning product and lies down.

He wakes up the next morning, feeling a bit ill but having the cleanest esophagus in town. He also has a dog whose leash is tied up to his ankle with a note reading only “Sorry” on Dodge’s chest. He takes the dog home. He also runs into Penny (Knightley), a neighbor who has lived in the same complex for three months but whom he hasn’t gotten to know although she is well aware of his wife’s indiscretions – and those of her boyfriend as well which is how Dodge comes to learn of his wife’s infidelity.

Angry, he throws out all of her stuff and in the process finds a box of his mementos including some pictures. As he takes a trip down memory lane while taking sips from a bottle of prescription cough syrup that his wife left behind, he notices Penny sitting on his balcony, crying. He invites her in after agreeing not to rape her; in exchange, she promises not to steal anything. She is distraught not just because the world is ending but because she broke up with the loser boyfriend (Brody) that she left England for and now will never see her family again because all air travel has stopped (and cell phones and land lines are useless since nobody is sticking around to keep those systems running).

It also turns out that Penny has been getting some of his mail mistakenly and has just now remembered to give it to him. Among the letters is one from his first love Olivia, who he’d broken up with long ago and who had gone on to marry someone else. But, the letter says, she’s divorced now and is looking to reconnect with the true love of her life – Dodge.

He realizes that he needs to go find her because this might – okay, will be – his last chance at true love. However, there is rioting going on, increasing in violence and as it becomes apparent the apartment complex will be overrun, Dodge finds Penny and begs her to drive him to his home town where he can find Olivia (his own car got taken out by a suicide jumper). He promises in return that he knows a guy with a plane who can fly her to England.

On that note, they set off. On the way they run into a variety of people, including a trucker (Petersen) who doesn’t want to wait for the asteroid to incinerate him and an ex of Penny’s named Speck (Luke) who is planning on riding out the asteroid in an underground bunker with a six month supply of potato chips and who is eager to have Penny stay as breeding stock. What Penny and Dodge find on their journey to be with the ones they love is not what they expect.

From the initial sound of it you might think this is a movie about death but it’s not. It’s a movie about life. It’s a movie about how precious life is and a reminder that we are all under a death sentence – we just don’t have the date marked down on our calendars just yet.

Carell plays the subdued, somewhat wallflower-ish guy better than anybody; he’s done it well in such movies as Crazy, Stupid, Love and Dan in Real Life. This is his best performance to date. Dodge is a man who hasn’t lived life; life has just happened to him, and he feels a certain sense that he’s missing something. He comes to live for the first time in those final days, and not just because he shows up at parties that become orgies, or stopping in restaurants where everybody is determined to party the rest of their lives away. For the first time, he is doing something instead of being done to and it empowers him in ways you might not imagine.

Knightley is an Oscar nominee who has proved in other movies that she’s not just a pretty face. She is continuing to grow as an actress. Penny is a free-spirited sort who has made a mess of her romantic life, putting her in a position that she is far from the places and people she loves when it is too late to get back to them. Penny is a bit kooky, but Knightley subdues that aspect of her personality, making her more of a person who marches to her own beat rather than someone who has to wear her quirkiness on her sleeve, which is a refreshing change given how many offbeat indie heroines I’ve seen lately.

The underlying theme here is that life is meant to be lived and none of us know how much time we really have. There’s no sense in living a life of regret because there will come a time when it is time to pay the piper and when we justify our lives to whatever higher power you believe in, it is the regret we must justify with the least amount of ammunition to do it with. I found this movie uplifting, despite the subject matter. When we left our screening, Da Queen and I overheard a teenage girl complaining to her boyfriend that the movie was too depressing. Perhaps she lacks the life experience to see past the end of the world aspect – it is in the title after all, so it shouldn’t be a surprise – but there is a rich subtext going on here that is very much worth exploring. The worst aspect of this movie is that I think the studio made a mistake in when they released this. Despite the apocalyptic element of the movie, it really doesn’t fit in as a summer film. It might have been better served as a fall or holiday release. I think people are more in tune with this kind of movie at that time of year.

REASONS TO GO: Gives much pause for thought. Strangely uplifting even though the subject is a bit depressing.
REASONS TO STAY: Inconsistent. Lacks a sense of social anarchy that would surely occur.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of drug use, a little bit of violence and quite a bit of foul language, some of it sexual.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The wife of Dodge Peterson is played by Steve Carell’s real-life wife, Nancy. Presumably, she isn’t cheating on him in real life either.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/30/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 51% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100. The reviews are pretty polarized.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Miracle Mile
VINYL LOVERS: Penny has an extensive collection of vinyl records from the 60s, 70s and 80s as well as a pretty sweet audio set-up.
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Letters to Juliet


Letters to Juliet

When Victor looks into Sophie's eyes, he can see a really fine...chianti.

(2010) Romantic Comedy (Summit) Amanda Seyfried, Christopher Egan, Gael Garcia Bernal, Vanessa Redgrave, Franco Nero, Oliver Platt, Marcia DeBonis, Luisa Ranieri, Marina Massironi, Lydia Biondi, Milena Vukotic, Luisa De Santis. Directed by Gary Winick

Nearly all of us have at least a ghost of a bit of romance within us. We secretly believe that the secret to our redemption is that great love, the one that is trumpets and swans and fireworks exploding overhead. We want our love to be grand gestures; we want it overcome every obstacle. We also want it to be eternal.

Sophie (Seyfried) and her fiancée Victor (Bernal) are on a little pre-marriage vacation to beautiful Verona in Italy. It’s partially a working vacation – Victor is in the midst of opening an Italian restaurant back in New York and he’s all about wine tasting, finding the right ingredients so he can present New Yorkers with the most authentic Italian cuisine ever.

Sophie is working as a fact-checker for the New Yorker and longs to be a writer, which her editor (Platt) encourages somewhat. She also longs to sightsee beyond the interior of wineries and cheese factories, indeed to experience the romance and charm of Verona firsthand.

In wandering about the ancient town she comes upon a strange sight – dozens of women, some obviously upset and distraught, leaving letters and notes on the wall of a courtyard of a Renaissance-era home. She learns that this was the palace of the Capulets, the family of Juliet (of Romeo and) herself, and these women are seeking her advice in love.

To her astonishment, she discovers that these letters to a 13-year-old fictional character are actually being answered – by a group of older women who call themselves the Secretaries of Juliet. Intrigued, she joins them and begins to write responses of her own. One in particular grabs her imagination – a 50-year-old letter found hidden behind a rock in the wall, belonging to a lovestruck teen named Claire who found the love of her life in a Tuscan farmer named Lorenzo Bartolini but chose to give him up for practical considerations, then regretted her decision. Sophie writes an impassioned letter back to Claire, urging her to return and find her love.

Amazingly the letter finds its way to Claire (Redgrave) who shows up in Verona and brings her flinty, curmudgeonly grandson Charlie (Egan) in tow. Charlie’s not a big believer in love or romance and considers this so much foolishness, but he obviously adores his grandmother so he goes along for the ride reluctantly, wanting to be there to protect her.

Inspired by Sophie’s letter as Juliet, Claire means to find her Lorenzo. The problem is that there are apparently quite a few men named Lorenzo Bartolini in Italy and so they must weed out all the wrong Lorenzos. This means quite a bit of driving through the bucolic Italian countryside, many opportunities for the romantic Sophie to argue with the pragmatic Charlie (they’re so at odds with each other you just know they’re going to wind up together) and the increasingly conflicted Sophie texts with Victor, wondering now if perhaps she’s not making the same mistake Claire did half a century earlier.

Romantic comedies are a dime a dozen these days but good ones are on the endangered species list of Hollywood. Fortunately, this is a pretty good one for the most part, mainly due to the travelogue-like Italian countryside, beautifully photographed for sun-dappled orchards and vineyards, bright blue skies and charming villages. Equally charming is Seyfried, who can be one of the more likable actresses when she has the right part. You would think this would be right up her alley, but she is curiously lifeless here; I’ve seen her far more energetic in parts that were less worthy of it. It’s a bit disappointing – I do like her very much as an actress – but not fatal.

More pleasant is Redgrave, who plays the elderly lover with wide-eyed wonder, both the wise mentor and the eternal ingénue. She lights up the screen whenever she’s on, and her scenes with Nero (who plays the right Bartolini) instantly transport you back to the days of Camelot when Nero’s Lancelot fell for Redgrave’s Guinevere. The two have the kind of chemistry you can’t fake (see Trivial Pursuits below) and it adds a nice touch to the movie. Bernal is kind of the odd man out here, as close as there is to an antagonist; he’s merely more passionate about his restaurant than he is about Sophie and in some ways I can’t blame him.

The charm here is easy to digest, perfect for mindless cuddling. There is a sense of romance that is missing from most romantic comedies these days, which seem to concentrate more on buffoonish physical gags and formulaic script writing than in making an interesting story about believable people. There is a little bit of that here – as in Charlie and Sophie detesting each other so much that you know they’ll be together by the final credits. That does knock down the final score a bit, but it’s still an enjoyable, charming little romance. Unfortunately, it’s little else.

WHY RENT THIS: A bit of sweetness here, particularly when Redgrave is onscreen. Plenty of gorgeous Italian countryside to feast your eyes upon.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Pretty much by-the-numbers romantic comedy. Seyfried is curiously de-energized here.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of bad language (but only a smidge) and an inkling of sexual behavior.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Redgrave and Nero are a couple in real life, marrying 40 years after meeting on the set of Camelot; also real are the secretaries for Juliet, who actually do answer letters left behind in Verona and are known as the Juliet Club.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a five minute feature on the actual courtyard in Verona where letters to Juliet are placed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $79.1M on a $30M production budget; the movie was profitable.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: Dylan Dog: Dead of Night