Amnesia


Sitting out in the warm sun can be a kind of amnesia.

(2015) Drama (Film Movement) Marthe Keller, Max Riemell, Bruno Ganz, Corinna Kirchhoff, Fermi Reixach, Marie Leuenberger, Félix Pons, Florentin Groll, Eva Barceló, Lluis Altés, Rick Zingale, Kate Ashcroft, Joel Rice, Alfie Davies Man, Fabian Krüger, Joel Basman. Directed by Barbet Schroeder

 

It is said that the sea has no memory; if that is true, an island is the perfect place to forget.

Marthe (Keller) lives a kind of idyllic life in Ibiza. It is 1990 and the Berlin Wall has just fallen. Her house is absolutely charming with a breathtaking view. There is no electricity but she is absolutely fine with that. She grows many of her own vegetables and goes fishing when she is hungry. That which she can’t get from the sea or grow herself she picks up at the local market. One of her cousins is visiting and urging her to return to Germany to dispose of a property for which her presence is required. She politely declines.

Shortly thereafter, a new neighbor moves in to the house just above hers on the hillside. He is Jo (Riemell), a German musician/composer who has been drawn by Ibiza’s burgeoning Electronic Dance Music (EDM) scene. His stage name is DJ Gello and he is angling for a gig at Amnesia, the 800 pound gorilla of EDM clubs on Ibiza (and yes, this is a real club which is still open today). Jo is a pleasant sort who shows up at her door requesting first aid after badly burning his hand accidentally. She gives him an herbal cream rather than a bag of ice and the two strike up a friendship.

Marthe is in her 70s and Jo in his 20s but the two hit it off. They become fast friends, Marthe introducing Jo to the laid-back Ibiza life, Jo introducing Marthe to the hypnotic sway of EDM which Marthe actually finds compelling. There are a lot of things Marthe isn’t talking about; the cello that she never plays, the reason she won’t drink German wine or ride in Jo’s Volkswagen. He also is upset when he discovers that Marthe, who claimed to be unable to speak German, turns out to be fluent in that language.

In fact, it turns out that Marthe is in fact German. She left Germany shortly before World War II broke out and fled to Switzerland with her love, a Jewish cellist. Disgusted by what her country did and became, she has renounced all things German, affecting a sort of amnesia by choice of her native country, her native language and everything relating to it.

When Jo’s parents visit, his doctor mother (Leuenberger) and his beloved grandfather (Ganz) are trying very hard to convince Jo to return and take part in the historic reunification between East and West Germany. As the two enjoy a paella on Marthe’s patio on a sunlit afternoon, the grandfather’s harmless stories – which had evolved over the years – under Marthe’s persistent questioning begins to crumble until a stark truth remains. Grandpa Bruno’s own stories had formed a kind of amnesia for events too terrible to contemplate.

Schroeder has made some wonderful films in his storied career (his first effort in the director’s chair came back in 1969) as well as a few turkeys but this one tends towards the former more than the latter. A lot of his films feature people dealing with an unsavory past and this one does so indirectly (and directly in the case of Grandpa Bruno). Marthe, as Jo’s mom points out near the end of the film, is dealing with her issues with her homeland by running away from her feelings. It’s hard not to blame her; in an era when Americans are increasingly disillusioned with the direction that their country is taking. While we don’t have evil on the scale of the Nazis running the United States, there are certainly a lot of reasons not to like the way our country is shaping up. I’m not sure I’m quite ready to move to Ibiza and never speak English again – well, maybe I’m ready to move to Ibiza.

The cinematography here might just make you want to move to Ibiza. There are some beautiful vistas of gorgeous sunsets, stunning views and charming marketplaces. While this is mainly the Ibiza of 20 years ago (other than two framing scenes at the beginning and end), my understanding is that it hasn’t changed all that much.

The writing here is very simple in terms of storyline and although the plot takes awhile to get moving it does eventually do so. Yes, some of the dialogue is a little clunky (as when Jo explains to Marthe what looping is) but by and large this feels a lot like real people conversing with one another albeit people conversing in a language not native to them.

Marthe Keller was a big European star in the 70s along the lines of Charlotte Rampling who has had a bit of a late career renaissance. A performance like this could get Keller a resurgence of her own; the septuagenarian is charming and natural, never rushing her delivery. She’s not so much grandmotherly as she is a bit of a recluse; her origins are kept secret early on giving her an air of mystery but gradually as her story is unveiled we get to understand her better. The relationship between Marthe and Jo is platonic although Jo hints that his feelings run deeper, and the chemistry between the two is at the heart of the film. Both of these people are somewhat wounded and need each other and in the end we see that they are good for each other in ways movies don’t often explore.

This isn’t slated to get a very wide release although if it does well in the cities it is playing in we might see it get more screens, so it behooves you to make plans to see it if it does show up in your neck of the woods. It’s also already on Google Play and should be out on other streaming services before too long. In any case, this is a worthwhile effort from a director who has helped shape the course of film over the past 50 years – that in itself should be incentive enough.

REASONS TO GO: The vistas of Ibiza are enchanting. The story is simple but effective.
REASONS TO STAY: The story takes a little bit of time to get moving.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes as well as a smattering of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The house that Marthe lives in here was also used by Schroeder in More (1969) and is owned by the Schroeder family (his mother bought it in 1951).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Google Play
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/23/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Reader
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Born in China

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decanted. a winemaker’s journey


The beauty of the Napa Valley is unquestioned.

The beauty of the Napa Valley is unquestioned.

(2016) Documentary (Digital Cave) Steve Reynolds, Mike Martin, Julien Fayard, Anthony Bell, Heidi Barrett, Phillippe Melka, Arturo Irucuto, Aaron Pott, Michael Scholz, Andy Wilcox, Alex Mossman, Fred Schwartz. Directed by Nick Kovacic

First off, for the sake of complete honesty, I lived a good portion of my adult life in the San Francisco Bay Area and spent many lovely days in the Napa Valley. A good friend of mine had a bed and breakfast there (the beautiful Country Garden Inn which she is sadly no longer connected with) and like many of those who live in the Valley, knew everyone (Napa is notorious for having a community in which everyone is at least on an acquaintance basis). I got to know several of the vineyards and even a few of the vintners (ah, V. Sattui, home of the amazing Gamay Rouge).

Wine has always been part of the civilized world. Something about a good glass of wine relaxes the soul and allows for contemplation. No other beverage on Earth is so analyzed, so beloved. Wine is the subject of rapturous prose and prosaic discussion. We can endlessly contemplate the difference between wines from one region with another, one varietal with another and never say all that there is to be said. Wine is a bit of madness mixed in with the civility.

When you think of American wine, you largely are thinking of California’s Napa Valley. Although it only produces about 3% of American wine, the Mediterranean-like climate and volcanic soil produce some of the best wines on Earth. A whopping 95% of the wineries are family owned – only recently have beer brewers joined that party with the advent of craft beers. Napa/Sonoma has always been on the forefront of that.

But what makes a wine great? Now there’s a subject for discussion – everyone has different ideas about that. How a wine gets from grape to glass is another. This is ostensibly a look at that process as we watch the seasons change in Napa from harvest to harvest. While this film mainly centers on a start-up, Italics Winery started by Texan Mike Martin and managed by Steve Reynolds of the Reynolds Family Winery, we also get commentary from Napa legend Helen Barrett who is an expert on blending wines that lead to bottles that retail for $1500 apiece to French immigrants Julien Fayard and Phillippe Melka as well as vintner Anthony Bell.

However the emphasis is on the charismatic Reynolds as he works to get Italics underway from the ground up. It’s not an easy venture and there are many parts and pieces that have to be in place; storage of the barrels has to be climate controlled and cool and there has to be enough of it to fit plenty of barrels but as they are digging a cave for barrel storage, the work is slow and not done by the time the grapes are harvested and pressed into what will eventually become wine.

We get a sense that the people portrayed here love what they do – there’s no doubting that. We also get a sense that the work is hard and unending. Sometimes we get a picture in our heads that Napa winemakers spend their days sipping chardonnays, eating amazing friends and having parties but the fact is that more time is spent in the fields, checking on the grapes to make sure that they are growing properly and not being affected by insects or disease, checking on the barrels to make sure the wine is fermenting properly and working in the labs to make sure that the blends are just right.

In fact, winemakers judging from the documentary spend a surprising amount of time in the laboratory and utilize a surprising amount of technology, examining their soil with infrared sensors, and utilizing various programs that help them determine which soil is best for which grape. When you think about it, that makes a lot of sense; Napa Valley is close to another kind of valley – Silicon Valley. You would figure that some of the tech geniuses in that valley would turn their attention to Napa.

But much of the work is done by hand by humans and utilizing methods that go back hundreds of years, even thousands. There’s a continuity to winemaking that you don’t get in almost any other profession; even the blending is largely done by hand with a human being tasting various combinations until the right one is found. It is arduous work but at the end of the day, soul satisfying and you get that these winemakers get that satisfaction.

The big problem with the movie is that we only get a sense of things – the filmmakers tend to skip over a lot of detail (which I imagine they thought would be somewhat boring to the viewer) and we get mainly highlights. There are some truly beautiful images here – Matthew Riggieri and Nate Pesce are to be commended – but there is also a tendency to overuse fast-motion photography to denote the passage of time. Once or twice is fine but especially towards the end of the movie it becomes a bit tedious. In any case, I would rather the filmmakers given us a little more “nuts and bolts.” They certainly had plenty of time – the run time is only 82 minutes so there was certainly room to pad things a bit with more information. They had an opportunity to demystify and educate and chose not to take it. That’s a shame.

But the cinematography brought back many pleasant memories of lazy days hopping from winery to winery and I’ll admit that colors my perception here just a tad. There is a beauty in winemaking that for wine lovers – and I’ll admit I’m not so much a connoisseur so much as an admirer – is part of the overall enjoyment. I will say that wine is a highly social beverage; some of my best memories are friends and family, sipping glasses of wine around a table or a tasting room.

This likely won’t heighten your understanding of wine any, but it will give you more a sense of the pride and the joy of the people who make it. As such it fills a niche in wine documentaries that perhaps could use further exploration, but I was quite happy to enjoy what was delivered here. Now if you’ll excuse me, there’s a glass of Merlot with my name on it.

REASONS TO GO: The beautiful surroundings and the hard work involved are both well-captured. You get a sense that these people truly love what they do.
REASONS TO STAY: The film lacks detail.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable viewing for the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Gaghan’s first film in eleven years, his last being Syriana.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, iTunes
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/28/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: SOMM
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Don’t Kill It

Coherence


On the outside looking in.

On the outside looking in.

(2014) Science Fiction (Oscilloscope Laboratories) Emily Foxler, Nicholas Brendon, Maury Sterling, Elizabeth Gracen, Alex Manugian, Lauren Maher, Hugo Armstrong, Lorene Scafaria. Directed by James Ward Byrkit

Some movies are better the less you know about them beforehand and this is one of them. If you’re planning to see this anytime soon, read no further. If you have seen it and want a different opinion to bounce off of, read on.

On the night a comet is due to pass close by the Earth, Lee (Scafaria) and Mike (Brendon) are throwing a dinner party. Attending are married couple Hugh (Armstrong) and Beth (Gracen), dating couple Em (Foxler) and Kevin (Sterling) and newly dating Amir (Manugian) and Laurie (Maher) who is Kevin’s slutty ex.

The comet’s proximity messes up cell service and actually causes some of the phones to crack their screens spontaneously – why? Someone with a better grasp of physics might explain this one because I can’t. Anyway, soon the power is disrupted and the partiers begin to grow concerned. There is only one house in the neighborhood with lights on and Hugh and Amir volunteer to venture forth and see if  they can use the land line to contact Hugh’s brother, a scientist who specializes in…um, comet phenomena.

Anyway that’s when things begin to get weird. I don’t want to go into it too much because frankly I don’t think I have the brain capacity to explain this properly without  A), messing up the synopsis and B), having my brain explode. Suffice to say that we’re talking some theoretical quantum physics here that the writers seem to have a better grasp of than I ever could.

So what’s to love? Plenty. This is a smart concept, utilizing Schrodinger’s Cat and quantum physics in ways I’ve never seen done in a movie before that didn’t have “Property of Cal Tech” stamped on the disc cover. The writers do manage to explain things fairly clearly so even those of us who didn’t take quantum mechanics back in the day should be able to follow along pretty easily. Clearly the writers have at least a familiarity with the science and that’s kind of refreshing in an era when “dumb (and dumber) is better.”

The acting is pretty sharp with Buffy, the Vampire Slayer‘s Brendon showing some pretty nice chops in a most un-Xander-like role. Foxler, the female lead, reminds me a lot of Elizabeth Olsen and has the potential to become a big star somewhere down the line.

This isn’t a big budget production by any stretch of the imagination. Nearly all the action takes place in a single room and when they do go outside to view the comet it looks realistic enough. This is an example of how you can make a good science fiction film without a big Hollywood budget.

What’s not to love? Well, these are some of the most shallow characters you’re ever going to run into in a film. A friend of mine claims that grounds the film but if I wouldn’t want to spend a moment with any of these characters if they were real, why would I want to spend an hour and a half of my time watching a movie about them? They represent all the things the rest of the country hates about L.A. with wanna-be actors and ballerinas mixing with herbal Earth mamas and talking about Feng Shui and juice cleanses. It’s enough to make you crave an enema after the movie’s over.

I also wasn’t fond of the jump cutting and blackouts that make the film feel choppy. I get that the director is trying to make the viewer feel that something is out of kilter, but it gets old after only a few times it happens and he does it throughout the movie. There’s nothing wrong with trying to do things differently but this was something he should have utilized a little more sparingly. Trust your actor and your story to set the mood.

I wasn’t a big fan of the ending either but to go into it in any length would be to give away too much. Let’s just say that Em doesn’t seem the type to do what she does and I don’t think having a comet pass hundreds of miles away from the Earth is liable to make people behave the way they do here. Nor do I think it would cause an event of this dimension and scope. If you’re going to use physics, at least have the decency to use real world physics consistently. Neil deGrasse Tyson would have a field day with this.

 

It’s definitely fascinating and hopefully if you’ve read this far you’ve already checked it out. I would recommend it to anyone seeking smart science fiction with the caveat that the characters might just drive you to ask for a Joss Whedon rewrite.

REASONS TO GO: Fascinating and smart concept. Taut and paranoia-infused.
REASONS TO STAY: Often confusing. Characters so shallow you want to scream.
FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a smattering of foul language and a scene of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Elizabeth Gracen won the 1982 Miss America title. Lorene Scafaria directed the apocalyptic comedy Seeking a Friend for the End of the World.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/3/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 84% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Plus One
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Weather Girl

SOMM


When it comes to fine wine, it's best not to whine, fine?

When it comes to fine wine, it’s best not to whine, fine?

(2012) Documentary (Goldwyn) Ian Cauble, Dlynn Proctor, Dustin Wilson, Brian McClintic, Shayn Bjornholm, Fred Dame, Bo Barrett, Mercedes Lam, Michael Mina, Peter Neptune, Jay Fletcher, Reggie Narito, Andrea Cecci, Rachael Wilson, Elizabeth Dowty, Michael Jordan, Rajat Parr, Jay Fletcher, Eric Railsback, Whitney Fisher, Margaux Pierog. Directed by Jason Wise

 Florida Film Festival 2013

The appreciation of fine wine is the hallmark of a civilized person. Sommeliers take this appreciation to a new level and master sommeliers are perhaps the ultimate expression in this regard. Their palates are ultra-refined; their knowledge second to none. A great wine can turn a great meal into a memorable one.

Becoming a master sommelier however is no easy task. Since the certification process began in 1977, only 197 people around the world have passed the test. Many spend years in preparation only to be disappointed.

The Master Sommelier examination is administered once a year and is done in three parts; an oral exam on general wine knowledge, a service exam which puts the applicants in a restaurant situation with hostile, ignorant or demanding customers and a blind taste test. The latter can be the most daunting.

We follow four close friends as they prepare for the 2011 exam; Ian Cauble, a brilliant and driven young man who his friends affectionately refer to as “Dad” for his tendency to take a paternal role in getting the young men to study. He is a flash card ninja and possibly the most knowledgeable of the group. Dlynn Proctor is an elegant and dapper young man who is self-possessed and confident; he radiates authority and knowledge.

Brian McClintic is married and badly wants to pass the exam; he feels guilty that he has spent so much time on the exam and wants to give his wife her husband back. He is fully aware that the master sommelier certification opens a whole lot of doors and he really needs to go through at least one of them for the sake of his family. Finally there’s Dustin Wilson, a stabilizing influence on the other two and another very focused individual. He’s the kind of guy who’ll do flash cards on Skype in the wee hours of the morning to help out his friends.

We get to watch these guys as they are mentored by some of the finest sommeliers on the planet including Steve Dame, thought to be the best American sommelier and one of the first grand masters. When he speaks, a young master in training is best advised to listen. That’s pretty much true of all of their mentors although alas, some don’t – one of the applicants has the temerity to question one of the master’s veracity when being quizzed on the wine tasting aspect of the test.

There’s no doubt it’s a grueling process; the movie is very successful in communicating it. While some might question how rough it is to sit back and sample lots of good wine, being able to discern one from the other with pinpoint accuracy requires a finally trained palate and that doesn’t come from sipping a glass of grocery store-bought chardonnay on the back porch.

The filmmakers are also successful in getting us to care and root for these applicants which isn’t always easy; at times they can be a bit arrogant (well, at least one or two of them). These seem to be genuinely decent guys who want to be successful, not just for themselves but for their families.

Where the movie fails a bit is in the choice of us watching them do wine tastings; yes they are in several different venues (from their own homes to a restaurant with their mentors to online Skype sessions) but it amounts to the same thing. We see almost none of the service portion of the test, and even then only one candidate is presented. I would have liked to have seen how all four of them responded in a similar situation and less how each of them can distinguish merlot from one region from another.

You don’t need to be a wine connoisseur or even like wine at all to enjoy the film. This isn’t so much about wine or even about being a sommelier so much as being about chasing a difficult dream. People do it for all sorts of reasons – pride, financial gain, opportunity or even just to prove to themselves that they can. We can all relate to that in some form or another. That is the triumph of the human spirit and the movie celebrates that; of course, any celebration is just that much better with a glass of a good wine.

REASONS TO GO: Involves the audience. Doesn’t require an extensive knowledge of wine. Fascinating insight into the world of the sommelier.

REASONS TO STAY: Could have used some editing – too many wine tastings.

FAMILY VALUES:  Nothing here that should worry any parents about bringing kids to see it – hey get them started early on wine appreciation, I say.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Master Sommelier exam is administered by the Court of Master Sommeliers, who have four levels of expertise – Introductory, Certified, Advanced and Master. Candidates must pass exams for each level before being allowed to progress to the next.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/17/13: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet. Although Goldwyn has picked up the film, it is making the rounds on the festival circuit. A theatrical release is possible for later this year.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: First Position

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: The Taiwan Oyster and further coverage of the 2013 Florida Film Festival!

The Way


The Way

Sometimes the little things we encounter in our journey have the most profound effect along the way.

(2011) Drama (ARC Entertainment) Martin Sheen, Yorick von Wageningen, Deborah Kara Unger, James Nesbitt, Emilio Estevez, Tcheky Karyo, Spencer Garrett, Angelina Molina, Carlos Leal, Antonio Gil, Simon Andreu, David Alexanian, Eusebio Lazaro. Directed by Emilio Estevez

It is a popular aphorism to make life a journey along a road that makes many twists and turns, making it often impossible to see what lies on the horizon. It’s not the destination that matters so much as the journey itself and sometimes, just getting out the door and out on the road.

Tom (Sheen) is a successful ophthalmologist living in Ventura, just north of Los Angeles on the Pacific coast. He is a widower whose relationship with his only son Daniel (Estevez) is rocky; Tom has trouble understanding his son who seems so very different than himself. He drives his son to the airport; Daniel has quit his doctoral thesis in cultural anthropology because he has gotten frustrated with learning about things and has decided to take some time to experience them directly. He goes to Europe, which his father makes clear he doesn’t approve of.

Shortly thereafter Tom gets a call that his son has died in Europe while hiking in the Pyrenees. Devastated, Tom goes to France to retrieve the body of his son. A sympathetic gendarme (Karyo) accompanies Tom to the morgue to identify his son’s body and gives him Daniel’s possessions. As Tom goes through them he realizes he really didn’t know his son at all.

It turns out that Daniel’s intention had been to walk the Camino de Santiago – the Way of Saint James. It is a pilgrimage that has been going on for more than a thousand years with pilgrims walking from the French Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northwestern Spain. Tom, raised Catholic but not actively practicing, decides to complete the pilgrimage with his son’s ashes, stopping to leave a little bit of his son’s remains at various places on the route.

Along the way he meets a variety of people – a jovial Dutchman named Joost (Von Wageningen) who is walking the route to lose weight but can’t stop eating and drinking the delicacies of Spain; Sarah (Unger), a Canadian with a chip on her shoulder who is out on the Camino to quit smoking (which she intends to do when she reaches the terminus at the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela) and Jack (Nesbitt), a garrulous travel writer from Ireland suffering from writer’s block and an excess of bonhomie.

Tom doesn’t really want the company; he’s a private individual who wants to grieve on his own terms. However he can’t help but open up to his travel companions and along the way, not only is there magnificent scenery but he meets a variety of people – from a kindly American priest making his pilgrimage to a group of generous Basques in Roncesvalles to a Gypsy father in Burgos. And the question becomes – is he taking this trip to honor his son, or for reasons he can’t begin to imagine?

This is a movie I expected to like but not as much as I did. Being a lapsed Catholic myself, I’m familiar with the Camino de Santiago and its importance particularly to Spanish Catholics. The remains of the Apostle St. James are supposedly beneath the Cathedral and all along the Way are stops of significance both historical and religious. There is something thrilling about seeing what pilgrims from centuries ago also saw. We are taken along on this journey and it is a road trip of a lifetime.

Sheen, brilliant for so many years on “The West Wing,” continues to show why he is one of America’s most underrated actors and has been for a very long time. There is an honesty, an authenticity to his performance. It’s very subtle and understated and not at all the kind of performance that attracts Oscar’s notice, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t an amazing piece of acting.

There are some very wrenching moments. I can’t imagine what it’s like to lose a child – even if he is an adult – and I hope I never have to. Given what the family was going through as this was being filmed (yes, it was when Charlie Sheen was the center of media attention), it makes me wonder how Sheen and Estevez could muster up the concentration to do their jobs as well as they do here.

This had a powerful effect on me, not just for the obvious reasons of confronting grief or my Catholic upbringing but also because it is about some of our most fundamental values and how they serve us – or don’t – in times of crisis. This isn’t preachy in the least and those thinking that this is all about converting you to the Catholic way, think again – the Catholics haven’t particularly embraced this movie, at least not officially. However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a spiritual element to it, particularly on a humanist level. This isn’t a movie about religious denominations, but what drives us as human beings and what is important in life.

This isn’t revelatory in the sense that you’re going to learn anything new about life, but it does give you the opportunity for personal insight. You may not necessarily be motivated to convert to Catholicism but you might very well be motivated to start walking yourself. The Way is the biggest surprise so far in 2011 and may well wind up being the best movie this year.

REASONS TO GO: A film that is both uplifting and deals honestly with grief and reaching out. Gorgeous cinematography.

REASONS TO STAY: May be too slow-paced for some.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some thematic elements that might be a little much for the younger or more impressionable set, as well as a few bad words sprinkled here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The inspiration for the film came from a pilgrimage Sheen made with his grandson Taylor Estevez several years ago. Estevez met someone and fell in love on the pilgrimage and elected to remain in Spain.

HOME OR THEATER: At this point it will be difficult to find in a theater but if it’s playing near you, by all means make an effort to see it.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: The Secret in Their Eyes

The American


The American

George Clooney takes aim at those exit poll guys.

(Focus) George Clooney, Violante Placido, Thekla Reuten, Paolo Bonacelli, Johan Leysen, Filippo Timi, Anna Foglietta, Irina Bjorklund, Giorgio Gobbi, Samuli Vauramo, Raffaele Serao, Sandro Dori, Antonio Rampino, Lars Hjelm, Silvana Bosi, Guido Palliggiano. Directed by Anton Corbijn

Anton Corbijn made his start as a still photographer, and he is quite frankly responsible for many wonderful album covers, mostly from European bands. He graduated into making music videos (mostly for Depeche Mode) before doing a full-fledged concert video (also for Depeche Mode) until making his feature film debut in 2008 for Control (which was about Joy Division’s front man Ian Curtis, not Depeche Mode). Corbijn has a very recognizable style; what would he make of a spy thriller?

Well, the fact of the matter is that The American isn’t so much a spy thriller as it is a character study, and it certainly isn’t a Bourne-like action movie as it was marketed over here. That may have contributed to the truly horrendous word-of-mouth it got from people who saw it (it got a D- rating from the service that gauges audience reactions to movies they’ve just seen, an unusually low score). That may have frightened some people away from seeing it. That’s a shame because this is a pretty good movie.

Jack (Clooney) is canoodling in Sweden with a comely brunette before he is ambushed by armed hunters while taking a walk in the snow. It turns out that Jack not only carries a gun but he knows how to use it. The scene is shocking in its violence and we are treated to the sight of a stone cold killer, literally speaking.

Jack escapes Sweden and makes his way to Rome, where his handler Pavel (Leysen) advises him to get out of Rome and to a small town where nobody would think to look for him. Jack takes a Fiat into the mountainous Abruzzi region of Italy but he doesn’t like the vibe of the town that Pavel sends him to – too many nosy people. He instead makes his way for another charming little mountain village where he hopes to lay low and not attract any attention. “And above all,” Pavel warns him, “Don’t make any friends. You used to know that.”

So Jack – who is calling himself Edward here – takes the guise of a travel photographer and makes friends with the local priest, Father Benedetto (Bonacelli). So much for listening to good advice, it seems. In any case, Pavel gives him an assignment – to assemble a rifle with particular qualities for a contact named Mathilde (Reuten) who looks like she just stepped off of a Vespa in Fellini’s Rome – and maybe she did.

So Jack – or is it Edward? Or some other name entirely? – enlists the help of the good padre’s cousin Fabio (Timi), who runs a garage in the middle of nowhere which beggars the question; who on earth is going to drive a car that isn’t working right all the way out there? Anyway, Fabio gives Jack the run of the place, so Jack takes some tools and materials in order to make a noise suppresser for the rifle (a silencer wouldn’t work for the kind of range Mathilde is looking for). The weapon is obviously the weapon of an assassin, but Jack asks no questions so Mathilde tells him no lies.

Jack begins to utilize the services of Clara (Placido), a local prostitute. Quite improbably, the two of them begin to fall for each other – you can tell Clara has feelings for him because she stops charging him for sex. Now Jack is tired of running, tired of being chased, tired of dodging taciturn men with guns who mean to do him murder. He wants out, but this is the kind of business that is very hard to leave once you get in.  

There is actually very little action except at the very beginning and the very end, and some moments in between (such as when Jack is playing a cat and mouse game with a Swedish assassin out to make him pay for his antics in Sweden). Corbijn’s training as a still photographer serves him very well; every shot is meticulously set up and looks like it could be easily hanging in a European gallery. Corbijn forces you to look at what he wants you to see. For example, the opening credits run over a continuous shot of Clooney driving through a long tunnel; yellow mile markers flash by the vehicle in the artificial light of the tunnel. At the very end is a bright white light; will Clooney arrive at that destination? In a sense, this is emblematic of what the movie is all about – an escape from darkness into light for a soul that has dwelled in the darkness for far too long.

This is not your father’s George Clooney, or even Danny Ocean’s George Clooney. Jack/Edward is a very hard man; most of the time his face is rigid, his mouth set in a thin hard line of disapproval. There is no twinkle in this character’s eyes, only steel. This is not a role we’re used to seeing from Clooney.

Those who are offended by the nude female body should take into account that this is a very European movie in a lot of ways; the nudity doesn’t bother European audiences, nor does explicit sex. We even get a gratuitous shot of Clooney’s derriere as well, just to balance things out for the ladies.

There is very little dialogue in the movie and what dialogue there is comes out in terse, brusque staccato, like someone ordering a cappuccino at the local coffee house. There is also a good deal of existential philosophizing about the nature of souls, good and evil, particularly in dialogue between Father Benedetto and Jack. Most American audiences won’t have the patience for it, but there are at least some insights to be found if you choose to look for them.

Part of the problem with the movie is one of the strengths I mentioned earlier. Still photographers have a tendency to make their scenes very static, and so Corbijn does. There may be movement in the frame, but the camera itself does not. That contributes to an overall feeling of languor that can be off-putting at times, even though you tell yourself “Hey, this is about a guy cooling his heels in rural Italy; how exciting is it going to get?” The answer? Not much.

Still, this is as finely crafted a film as I’ve seen this year and I can appreciate it as a work of art if not a crisply told story. Clooney may not be the next Eastwood (and Leysen not the next Terrance Stamp, whom he resembles facially – if Stamp and Scott Glenn had a love child together, that is) but he does the brooding bit very well. Much of the movie is tight on Clooney’s face, and the world-weary demeanor is what draws you to him. Some have complained that Clooney doesn’t reveal much of the inner Jack/Edward but a man like that would have learned early on that revealing your emotions is tantamount to death itself, for it can be used against you in that line of work. This is a very different movie than we’re used to seeing, and for that alone I can commend it highly.

REASONS TO GO: The crafting of each shot, the composition of every frame is simply amazing. There’s a good deal of depth in the script.

REASONS TO STAY: This is not an action movie even though it was marketed as such; if you’re looking for a new Bourne, stay away. Clooney does the brooding, silent killer pretty well, but this isn’t one of his more compelling performances.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some explicit sex and nudity, some fairly violent and disturbing images and enough swearing in more than one language to make this very much for mature audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Clooney’s character prefers using a Walther PPK just like a certain British secret agent of our acquaintance.

HOME OR THEATER: I will admit some of the vistas worked very well on the big screen but by and large you can get away with seeing this at home.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell

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