Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Bello and Sheen in Shawn Ku's BEAUTIFUL BOY: difficult, riveting and awe-inspiring

We've had films about mass murder in high school and university (Elephant and the under-seen but very good Dark Matter come immediately to mind) but until now I don't believe there has been a movie about this subject shown exclusively from the perspective of the parents of the murderer. The very idea of this broadens and enriches our understanding, but who would have guessed that a relatively fledgling filmmaker like Shawn Ku, director and co-writer (along with Michael Armbruster), would come up with something that's, yes, difficult to watch, but increasingly riveting and finally an awe-inspiring accomplishment? We'll soon be getting another film on this topic (Lynne Ramsay's We Need to Talk About Kevin), but for now BEAUTIFUL BOY is the first out of the gate.

As writers, Ku (shown at left, on set) and Armbruster choose their details carefully. We never see the massacre (we don't need to), but each tiny bit of information the writers provide about the parents adds to our understanding. And thankfully, we are given none of those cheap "a-hah!" moments. As much as we grasp about these adults and their child (a barely-seen Kyle Gallner, below, who makes his every short appearance count), full comprehension of the event, and how and why it came to be, while desperately needed, remains elusive -- for us and for them.

TrustMovies is usually not a big fan of the hand-held camera, and the more he gets of it in a single sitting, the more jumpy and fretful (just like that camera) he can become. Having said that, Mr. Ku's use of this technique is extraordinary. (His cinematographer, Michael Fimognari, is also responsible for the recent grabber Brotherhood and the smart-but-underseen teen movie Dare.)

Together these two keep that camera moving and come in close, then closer, until you know you're prying.  And yet you go along gladly because Ku and Fimognari know when to move in, how far, and when to stop. They value quiet, and so we're able to be about as close as possible to our protagonists, played by the it-doesn't get-much-better-than Maria Bello (above) and Michael Sheen (below). We enter their minds, and get under their skin. And due to the spot-on work of these actors, the dialog seems so real as to be have been improvised (though I doubt very much that it was.)

By definition these parents, Bill and Kate, bear some responsibility for their son Sammy's actions, but exactly how much? And what might they have done to prevent this? Bill initially will have none of the "responsibility" thing, and Sheen makes it clear that the character cannot begin to face reality yet. Bello's Kate faces it immediately but get too wrapped up in the guilt and the why and the how. Both fall apart in their own way, as they stay with Kate's brother and his wife -- fine jobs from Alan Tudyk (below, right) and Moon Bloodgood (center, right) -- who open their home indefinitely to the pair. Meatloaf Aday (shown, right, in the photo at bottom) also does a beautiful job as the clerk at the motel where Sheen finally retreats.

As we delve further inside our pair, we can't help but empathize as they hear (often by sudden accident) the TV news reports. One particularly nasty FOX-News-type commentator's take on these parents should make you recoil for life from this sort of hate-mongering. Yet, as much as we enter the souls of the two, the ferocity and finality of what their son has done is never far away. It eats around every scene, and into nearly every moment.  How in the world, the movie asks us over and over again, do we empathize with and understand people in this position?  The movie's greatness comes from the fact that it enables us, finally, to do exactly that -- and to a greater extent than we could possibly imagine going in.

For all caring parents -- as problemed as we are, and as many mistakes as we make -- Beautiful Boy will be punishing. But it should be equally rewarding. Utterly specific and beautifully realized, this story of the parents of a boy gone brutally haywire will certainly be among the best films of the year.

Beautiful Boy (from Anchor Bay Films, 100 minutes) opens in select cities this Friday, June 3. In New York, catch it at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and the Angelika Film Center. Click here for playdates and showtimes elsewhere.

Monday, May 30, 2011

OPEN ROADS 2011: the rundown

Here they are: all 16 films in this year's FSLC's Open Roads series, listed alphabetically, along with a short review for each. A longer review will follow if and when the film is released in some manner, from theatrical to DVD, streaming or downloading. TrustMovies dearly hopes they will be, for this is another sterling year for this popular series, with nary a clinker in the bunch. I'm glad I saw every film here; I'd be happy to sit through most of them again.

(Il figli di Garibaldi)
directed and co-written by Alessandro Blasetti

This 1934 film (the single "vintage" find in this year's series) seems to have a number of secondary titles: The Sons of Garibaldi (as above) Garibaldi's Thousand (the poster at right), and according to the IMDB, Gesuzza the Garibaldian Wife (appropriate, given the emphasis on the wife of one of the soldiers of the regiment). All three work just fine, but I had hoped that the film might give me greater knowledge of Garibaldi's time in Sicily, and why he suddenly left that island, in the middle of the war for unification. Who was on what side, and further, who was left, right and/or center? You get smatterings in Visconti's The Leopard and other films; here, too, things only partially come clear. Obviously, Italians know a hell of a lot more about their own history than do I, so why should Italian movie-makers spell it all out? I will need to consult some history books to fill in the blanks. As to the film, it's black-and-white, with rich cinematography and -- because the acting style is just post-silent-era -- some of the performers, particularly the gentleman playing the town priest, are given to more eye-rolling than might be absolutely necessary. Otherwise, it's an interesting slice of early Italian movie-making and Italian history brought to semi-dramatic life. While the movie gives a good sense of what the Italian foot soldier had to put up with, the onlookers we hear from would seem to give the film a right-wing stance. Don't expect a "classic" (and all that this entails) and you'll do just fine. Note: thanks to Mario Martone's wonderful We Believed (see below, toward the end of this post), I now understand a good deal more about this period of Italian history. If you, too, want to pick up a vital and dramatic history lesson, I suggest you see this film that won this year's David Di Donatello award as Italy's Best Picture of the Year.

directed and co-written 
by Gabriele Salvatores

It can't be by chance that Signore Salvatores chose this particular year as the subject of his documentary (made last year), which arrived exactly one century after the famous 1860 (see above) and a perfect half-century after the year that it examines so beautifully and from so many angles. The film is a kind of search for the filmmaker's missing brother, who left a small town to make his mark (or at least find his way) in the big city. While there will be the usual distancing for Americans viewing the film, because Salvatores is so alert to change -- social, political, personal -- and knows how to put all this together in sprightly fashion, the movie is a near-constant pleasure. The name Gronchi may not resonate with us, but when the filmmaker tells us that "the way mom looked at this guy made Dad jealous," we'll get the point. From the view of what looks like a billion young boys in the sea, to period songs (Paul Anka's Diana), shots of our favorite movie stars -- Liz! Gina! Claudia! -- in their younger years and most fun of all, how the USA and Russia were seen by Italians during this period, the documentary is full of life and interest. That search for his missing brother seems to have turned Salvatores into a filmmaker (a good one, too: see Mediterraneo or last year's Happy Family). And how's this for a nice meditation on life (and death):  "It's like a bicycle race. Early or late, there's always a curve waiting. At some point, the bicyclist is going to disappear around that curve."

directed and co-written 

Of all the films on America's (and thanks to the "Coalition of the Willing," much of the larger world's) misadventures in the mid-east -- documentaries and narratives -- what a surprise it is that an Italian movie about Italian soldiers (and movie-makers) in the land of "the other" would turn out to be one of, and perhaps the best so far. Aureliano Amadei's 20 CIGARETTES is also the funniest (not a description one usually associates with this genre) and finally the most moving and profound. This film is absolutely a must-see, and TrustMovies could kick himself hard for missing the press screening and having to see a later screening, thus preventing him from covering the movie in a more timely fashion. He hopes to speak with the film's director and writer later and to perhaps cover the film again, in a lengthier post. Meanwhile, 20 Cigarettes plays one more time, Monday, June 6th at 2pm, at the Walter Reade Theater. Try to get there. Amadei's accomplishment is huge for a first-time filmmaker. He's surrounded himself with good people, from actors (his leading man, Vinicio Marchioni, is simply terrific) to technicians, but I think it is his ability to take the personal and make it political and universal that seals the deal. His humor is wry and real, and his one horrific action scene is better than anything I've yet seen from mid-east movies, including, yes, Restrepo and The Hurt Locker. What an important film this is!

(Il primo incarico)
directed and co-written by Giorgia Cecere

That old saying, "Make all the plans you want, life will intervene" takes on new weight in the modest but quite compelling movie, THE FIRST ASSIGNMENT (Il primo incarico), which also proves the first assignment for its fledgling director Giorgia Cecere. Ms Cecere has worked, however, as assistant director for Gianni Amelio on Open Doors and The Stolen Children and as a writer on the latter film as well as on The Miracle for Edoardo Winspeare. She has learned from some talented filmmakers and put this to good use in her own work. As co-writer with her sometimes collaborator Pierpaolo Pirone, Ms Cecere tells a story that initially seems pretty simple (and on one level remains so) yet is filled with the such specifics of life, work and the mores of its time and people that it takes on a good deal of heft and weight. A young woman, intelligent and optimistic but from a clearly working-class family, is about to embark on her first assignment as a school teacher in a village some 150 kilometers away. This will mean living for a time away from her home, as well as away from her upper-class but surprisingly supportive boyfriend. From this beginning to where the movie ends up is anything but obvious or expected and yet makes perfect sense, considering that our heroine is determined to make the best of things, given her (and women's) lot in life at this particular time and place.You will not question, I think, the reality of most anything here, particularly that of the leading lady, Isabella Ragonese, the talented actress who graced last year's Opens Roads in Ten Winters and One Life, Maybe Two. Ms Ragonese is the real thing. We'll surely be seeing more from her -- and from Ms Cecere, who in less than 90 minutes has given us an entire world.

LOST KISSES (I baci mai dati)
directed and co-written by Roberta Torre

A few years back at Open Roads, Ms Torre gave us the dank and puzzling little thriller called Dark Sea -- worth seeing for its visuals and its very odd combination of art (literal and metaphoric), murder, love and sex. She's back this year with a much lighter -- though still somewhat dark -- story of saints, miracles, mothers and hairstyles (among a number of other things). Her leading lady is a small teenager named Manuela (an alternately sweet, sassy and withdrawn Carla Marchese), and her way-too-distant mom is played by the fiery actress Donatella Finocchiaro. When Manuela's "visions" seem-ingly lead to a miracle, the townspeople show up for help and sustenance and quickly change the family's life. This is ripe for satire, but Ms Torre does not really have much facility for comedy or satire -- except in the most obvious of ways. Which is OK -- because she does have a facility for family feeling and low-key drama. Thanks to the performances of the two women and other major roles (dad, priest & hairdresser/tarrot card reader) the movie gets by. Simply to see Manuela finally smile makes this trip worthwhile.

LOVE & SLAPS (La bellezza del somaro)
directed and co-written (with Margaret Mazzantini) by Sergio Castellitto

The Italian title of this rollicking, joyous satire on modern parenting and the lives of the well-heeled translates as The Beauty of the Donkey, an odd moniker, I grant you, but one that just about perfectly fills the bill. But Love & Slaps? Eh. Yeah, that's marketing. Filmmaker and more often actor Castellitto recovers in fine fashion from last year's heavy-handed  parenting saga Alza la Testa. Here, as both actor and filmmaker, he keeps things on course, drawing wonderful, lively performances from his whole cast, and providing a richly imagined tale of a weekend in the country involving several generations of extended family and friends. The hook: the family's daughter is bringing home a new boyfriend, and the parents are primed for a modern-day Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? One of those Italian mainstream movies that are glamor-ous, gorgeous (oh, the locations!), funny and smart, L&S is vastly entertaining. Who could ask for anything more?  Oh, yes, and there's Laura Morante, looking older but as beautiful as ever and giving that little bit of extra ballast she often provides to keep things grounded. This is one of the highlights of this festival.

ON THE SEA (Sul mare)
directed and co-adapted 
(with Anna Pavignanofrom her novel) 

Stories of first love are tricky. We've seen so many of them, particularly the older we get, that to find something fresh in this genre is cause for celebration. Uncork the bubbly, because D'Alatri's new film does the trick. I'd say it would take you back to your own first love -- but you should be so lucky. Unless you grew up in what looks like one of the more beautiful islands in the world, and had a set of kind and loving parents looking after you, Sul Mare may seem like a fantasy non-pareil. Even with all this, our young hero (played by the gorgeous but quite real-looking newcomer Dario Castillo) frets and meanders and bumbles his way into love. The object of his affection is played by the equally attractive and genuine Martina Codecasa, and what a superb pair they make! D'Alatri, who nearly a decade ago gave us what is still one of the finest films ever about modern marriage -- Casomai -- here spends enough time allowing us to understand our hero that we are able to go with him every step of the way. While these steps lead to tragedy, so beautiful and alluring does D'Alatri make the mind of this boy and the journey he takes, that we go along gladly. And the filmmaker rewards us with enough beauty to offset the pain. Only after the fact will you piece together everything, and even then, I think you'll agree that D'Alatri's fertile imagination and his telling use of present and past time almost manage to conquer, well, death itself. That, ladies and gents, is some kind of art, and this is a movie I want to see again.

THE PASSION  (La Passione)
directed and co-written by Carlo Mazzacurati

Here is yet another first-rate, mainstream (for Italy, not here) movie that manages to hit every target at which it aims (religion, law, power, art, commerce, real estate investments, bourgeois entitlement and the egos of actors and TV personalities) while entertaining us royally. THE PASSION plunks a down-on-his-luck film director (played by one of  Italy's finest actors, Silvio Orlando) into a small town and then -- via a very smart plot device involving real estate, an absentee owner, and the Italian penchant for bypassing all legalities -- forces our "hero" to agree to stage the town's annual Good Friday pageant. Orlando is joined by another of his country's great actors, Giuseppe Battiston (who seems to make one or more appearances at every Open Roads fest), and together, with the help of stalwarts like Stefania Sandrelli, they alternate laughter and tears, surprise and delight at nearly every turn. Three years ago filmmaker Mazzacurati brought this festival one of its finest films that year The Right Distance (La giusta distanza). While The Passion is not as deep nor rich a movie as the earlier one, it nonetheless offers so much intelligence and humor about so many important subjects that it makes a fine addition to the lighter side of this year's festival. And Orlando and Battiston, as usual, could hardly be better.

(Fughe e approdi)
directed by Giovanna Taviani

Giovanna Taviani, daughter of one half of the famous film-making duo of Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, tells us that she first came to the Aeolian Islands as a child, as her father and uncle were filming Kaos. Now, back there as an adult, she's entranced with the islands all over again. Chances are, you will be equally taken with these strange and alluring outcroppings, once you see and hear what Ms Taviani has to show and tell. Stromboli, you'll be aware of from the Rossellini film, but what of Vulcano, Panarea, Lipari and Salina? Taviani shows us all of them, together with what makes them special: the lung disease from mining pumice stone on Lipari, the prison on Salina used by the fascists to inter political prisoners, the wind witches of Panarea and the volcanos of Stromboli and Vulcano. She talks with locals about the old days and now, and we see snippets from films of Ingrid Bergman and Anna Magnani (we hear quite a bit about the later -- sad woman!), and from Il Postino and Caro Diario. Given the locations and their supreme visuals, watching the film is like taking a vacation to a strange and wondrous land (and sea). But Taviani is also able to twine history, legend, and all sort of facts into one very personal, beautiful, sometimes magical movie. Her mind and her interests roam all over the place but never so far afield that we can't follow. And happily.

THE SALT OF LIFE  (Gianni e le donne)
directed and co-written 
(with Valerio Attanasio)
by Gianni Di Gregorio

When, last year, Gianni De Gregorio's Mid-August Lunch proved such a sleeper hit for Zeitgeist Films, that company very quickly and smartly picked up the actor/ writer/director's new one, which proves an even more delightful experience.  Part of the charm of that first film resided in its singular Trastevere setting, so very unlike anything we have here in the USA.  Also unusual for us was the closeness of the very elderly mother and her approaching-his-senior-years son. We tend to ship our elders off to rest, retirement and assisted-living homes. But in this film, mother and son live together, with the younger caring more and more attentively to the elder. Chances are Di Gregorio's new one -- which translates literally into Gianni and the Women but is now called THE SALT OF LIFE (Getting Gianni Laid would have been more appropriate) will probably appeal to an even larger audience, since it deals with the male ego, aging and fantasy. (How universal is that?) If initially the movie seems sexist, simply wait a bit. Soon, the rug is pulled from under our assump-tions, and the film becomes even funnier. Di Gregorio has a keen eye for generational differences and those between the sexes, too. If, as writer and director he is top-notch, he's even better as actor. A perfect straight man, he never pushes and consequently gets all his laughs -- and more.  I can't imagine audiences leaving this film without a mile-wide grin on their face.(Although both screenings at Open Roads are sold out, the film will be released theatrically, so you'll have the chance to see it eventually.)

directed and co-adapted 
(with Paolo Giordano, from his novel)

The opening moments of the new film from the immensely talented filmmaker Saverio Costanzo (Private and In Memory of Me) are so right and so damned gorgeous you couldn't take your eyes away from the screen, even if someone shouted Fire!  Some kind of exotic children's "theater" is taking place, and the camera weaves in and out of the sets and around the actors, even as the credits are rolling -- in huge electric-blue letters with the first name twice as large as the last. This is a phenomenal opening, and it comes to a sudden, shocking close as a scream is heard. How do you top this? You don't, and as a matter of fact, Costanzo doesn't either. He comes close now and then with the some very strong scenes, and he has two wonderful actors at his beck and call: Italy's answer to Meryl Streep, Alba Rorwacher, as Alice, and newcomer Luca Marinelli making his screen debut, as Mattia. Alice and Mattia are loners who, thanks to perhaps a combo of DNA and parental screw-ups, have trouble relating to anyone else. We arrive at this conclusion early in the movie via some powerful scenes that communicate the aloneness very well. We also have questions about how the children became the lonely adults they are, and we assume that these will be answered over time. Costanza and Giordano weave their narrative back and forth over time periods until we know pretty much what we wanted and needed. But by then, we don't care. There is only so much that even fabulous actors can do with a minimal script, and what we see here is pretty much this: Oh, they're so alone. Then, Gosh, they can't communicate with anyone. And further: they're so singular and off to themselves. And finally: But why spoil it? We know everything that has and will go on around the halfway point, and so the rest becomes highly dramatic vamping. The film may work best for those who read the novel on which it is based and can fill in the blanks. For the rest of us, the film marks Costanzo's first fumble.

written and directed by Marco Bellocchio

Returning to his home town (Bobbio, Italy) and in fact to the same house in which he shot the film that first brought him international acclaim, Marco Bellochio proves that, not only can you go home again, you can make something pretty snazzy out of the experience. Bellocchio has always gone his own way -- and lived to reap the rewards and brickbats of doing so. Who else but he would fill Vincere with slogans, old movies, speeches -- and art? Who else would give us Aldo Moro alive and well, while making us feel the pain of the revolutionaries, as well as of the politicians? He's doing it again with his new film that tracks a ten-year period, with stops in 1999, then 2004, 05, 06, 07 and 08, as the younger generation of a family impacts on the older set. Who is right? Sometimes, it seems, the former; other times, the latter. Sorelle Mai deals with similar subjects as Assayas' Summer Hours, but you could hardly imagine two more different films. The filmmaker uses many of his own relatives in roles, along with major actors -- Alba Rorwacher and Donatella Finocchiaro, both appearing in their second film in this series of Open Roads. Rorwacher, in fact, appears in the segment that strikes me as just so Bellocchio. We're suddenly in a teachers' conference during which the passing or failing of various students is taken up. We initially try to figure out who thse people are and how they conect to others we've seen earlier in the film. Well, they don't. At least I don't think they do. Some of the filmmaker's relatives play roles here, but still... And yet so absolutely well-done is this segment, so important does it seem -- about the meaning of education and work in a productive society and the individual's responsibility in all this -- that I wouldn't have missed seeing it for the world. (It is the world.) Then we're back again with the characters from previous sections -- for an ending that is sad and strange but somehow perfectly understandable. Pure Bellocchio. Long may he wave.

(Figli delle stelle)
directed and co-written by Lucio Pellegrini

Among the several comedies in this year's Open Roads, the sweetest by far is the film originally (and more artfully) titled Children of the Stars. Why this is so, since the film deals with a political kidnapping by a bunch of very inappropriate and not very talented kidnappers, is due to the singular tone that the filmmaker maintains. Warner Brothers has its logo on this one, but try to imagine any Warner's movie here in the USA as genuine, quietly comical and character-driven as this one, and you'll come a cropper. From the opening, as a workplace accident renders an employee dead, to the funeral and then to the TV news show on which a member of the employee's union appears before political figures to demand change -- and then completely fudges his speech -- all this is handled with just enough realism and off-kilter humor to make it work. Pellegrini stays close to the times -- to unemployment and pulling in the purse strings, to sloganeering (then trying to live up to that), to being "political" and still surviving. Hypocrisy is all over the place, but the filmmaker sees to it that this is never overblown. Instead, it remains just one part of these small, human characters, struggling along. The ending, which brings together so much so beautifully, is simple and stunning. In the large and talented cast, look for Open Roads regular Pierfrancesco Favino (on poster above), Giuseppe Battiston (again!), Edouardo Gabbriellini (Non pensarci and I Am Love), Fabio Volo (Casomai) and Claudia Pandolfi, from last year's Best Italian Film The First Beautiful Thing (seen at Open Roads and released theatrically last month).

WE BELIEVED (Noi Credevamo)
directed and co-written by Mario Martone

We Believed is a historical epic that "celebrates"  (those quotes are meant to be intentionally ironic) the 150 anniversary of the unification of Italy as a nation. While familiarity with important historical Italian names and personages is a help, it is not a necessity.  (My own familiarity stops with and at Garibaldi, but I was still able to follow and understand what was going on -- and more importantly, why.) Martone gives us history lived - via specific people and incidents that span a 30-year period. As we get to know and understand these people -- their backgrounds, needs, desires and, yes, betrayals -- we become emotionally involved with them all. This makes it more difficult to judge them so easily as heroes or villains. This is history as one step forward, two backward. Oh, how many plots, plans and attempts simply do not work or do not provide the hoped-for consequence (more likely an unintended one). With some beautiful ,sweeping camerawork, Martone takes us from the salons of Paris to Montefusco prison, from the opera house to the guillotine, from country taverns to Garilbaldi's recruits on the beach saluting their leader on the cliffs above. In the huge and noteworthy cast are Open Roads regulars Luigi Lo Cascio, Michele Riondino and Toni Servillo to the likes of Fiona Shaw (as Emilie Ashurst Venturi, daughter of a famous British radical and follower of Mazzini. The filmmaker gives us both imagined characters and those from real-life, and both work well together.We get history passed from father to son, Italians killing Italians with impunity, betrayals (often because of class as much as of politics) and, in the absolutely brilliant conclusion, a trip to Parliament to learn the results of all these endeavors. We Believed surprises by showing us how much in common so many western would-be democracies have with Italy -- 150 years ago, and today. (You can read my slightly longer piece on this fine movie here.)

WHATSOEVERLY  (Qualunquemente)
directed by Giulio Manfredonia
co-written and starring Antonio Albanese

If this year's Open Roads fest has one bigger-than-life, breakout performance, it would have to be that of Antonio Albanese in this over-the-top, out-of-the-stratosphere comedy, WHATSOEVERLY. To realize that this actor -- and his show-stopping, looney-tunes performance (that will have you laughing, if not stomping your feet in delirium) -- is the same fellow who quietly broke our hearts without a moment of grandstanding as the unemployed, depressed husband in Silvio Soldini's Days & Clouds is to witness a transformation that happens maybe once in a career. (This new movie, by the way, is his standard; Days & Clouds was a rare foray into drama.) Whatever -- or whatsoeverly -- this guy is something else. In his new movie, he plays a criminal kingpin who's been abroad (avoiding the law) and who now returns to his home town to discover that it's gone "honest and law-abiding." How un-Italian!  So he determines to do something about this, and from there we get the funniest comedy of this year's bunch. From the first scene, in which a group of power brokers sit around a table deciding on the right man for the job (and isn't that a clerical collar we see on one of them?) to a later scene in which a police inspector asks for a receipt (and practically brings the establishment -- maybe the entire town -- to its knees) the movie is dead-on hilarious. The "tasteful" sets and costumes of this man's home are enough to make the ticket price worthwhile, not to mention the new meaning of the word "ponder" that the movie provides. (We'll all be out pondering soon.) Our hero is so sleazy that one can only hope Donald Trump tunes in for lessons. Director Manfredonia, who two years ago brought his lovely comic ode to work and the handicapped, Si può fare, to Open Roads, handles this much broader comedy with elan. If it begins to run out of steam toward the end, this may be due to the constant need to top itself -- or maybe to the fact that, finally, considering the behavior and attitude of a certain shall-remain-nameless Prime Minister named Berlusconi (ooops: I gave it away), this all begins to seem too true and too depressing. Still, for more than three-quarters of its 96-minute running time, the movie is prime comedy steak.

(La donne dela mi vita)
directed by Luca Lucini
co-written by Cristina Comencini

Another good comedy (of manners, sexual and love-related) that's a lot darker, but no less funny for it, than we've come to expect from Italy, THE WOMAN OF MY LIFE almost seems French in its attitude toward humanity's self-delusions where "love" is concerned. I can imagine the Max Ophuls of La Ronde, Le Plasir and Lola Montès delighting in its content -- if not its style. Opening with the still-sparking Stefania Sandrelli (her second stint in this year's series) speaking to us about her grown children, this would seem like a sweet, semi-confessional moment. Just wait. At the end of the film, when we come back to this little "chat," all here, including the listener, has changed. Two generations of threesomes are dissected here, both of them prime Cleopatras: queens (and kings) of denial. The older generation -- Sandrelli along with her current and former hubbies -- has nothing on its warring children, played by Alessandro Gassman and Luca Argentero, and the young woman (played by Valentina Lodovini) who comes into their lives in two different ways. Comencini's dialog, Lucini's direction and the fine ensemble cast keep things bouncing along with such good spirits that you don't realize quite how dark and delusional everyone here is. And yet they manage. As do we, right? This is an adult comedy in ways that keep coming clearer throughout the film. What initially looks like mainstream humor turns out to have quite a bite.

OK: that's it, folks. For a look at the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Open Roads web site with all the films posted, click here. Then scroll down  and click on the screenings of your choice (in red) to buy tickets for (almost) any of the films.

OPEN ROADS 2011 -- this year's best from Italy, smaller scale but as terrific as always

Above and below, scenes from Giovanna Taviani's (yes, 
you do recognize that last name) stunningly beautiful
 documentary Return to the Aeolian Islands (Fughe e approdi).

If last year's OPEN ROADS -- the Film Society of Lincoln Center's series of new Italian films making their New York (often their U.S.) debut -- was full of vast-canvas/blockbuster movies such as Tornatore's Baarìa, Muccino's Kiss Me Again and even Giorgio Diritti's Donatello-winning The Man Who Will Come, this year's selections are noticeably smaller scale. (You can find TrustMovies' round-up of Open Roads 2010 here.) Yet they are just as impressive in their own quiet, sometimes raucous, way. They're also very mainstream. While there is not a lot of Art-with-a-capital-A here (Saverio Costanzo tries for it -- and almost makes it, with his gorgeous but finally undercooked but overwrought The Solitude of Prime Numbers, from which a still is shown below), there's plenty of the lower-case version: artful scenes, moments, performances, dialog -- some of which makes for great comedy. There's lots of humor is this year's selections, much of it falling-down funny.

Having at this point seen all but four of the sixteen films (15 new and one from the vaults) that comprise Opens Roads 2011, I can promise that this year's group is worth high commendation. On the subject of mainstream, if I am not mistaken, I noticed a half-dozen of the films on view leading off with American film company logos (which means that, In Italy, the film was distributed by this company): four or five were from Warner Bros., one from Universal -- more than I've ever previously noticed in one year's worth of Open Roads selections. I am not certain what this means for Italy, but what it made me quite immediately aware of is that we never get this many films this good -- intelligent, funny, and about something -- from Warners and Universal here on our home turf. Why not?  (Oh, shut up, TM, and just go see The Hangover Part 2.)

For this unique and rich combo of ideas, laughs, glamour and entertainment -- which Sergio Castellitto's Love & Slaps (La bellezza del somaro), above, gives us in spades -- we seek out foreign films, independents and festivals such as this. So do seek out Open Roads, for the payoff is big. As usual, I'll give you a run-down of all 16 movies, with a poster image and brief explanation of why you ought (or not, but mostly ought) to see the film in question. The four that I have not seen will have their descriptions posted as soon as I do.

These initial reviews will be very brief. As the films, we hope, find their way to theatrical release, I'll post longer notices. As of now, only one of the movies has been picked up for release: the opening night selection, writer/director/actor Gianni Di Gregorio's even better follow-up to his surprise 2010 hit Mid-August Lunch, which has been translated as The Salt of Life (Gianni e le donne) -- shown above and distributed here by Zeitgeist Films.  I'll have the complete listing up, I hope, by the end of the day (probably the bitter end). Meanwhile, to see the entire Open Roads program, click here and scroll down. To order tickets, click on the particular screening of the film you've chosen and follow directions...

Sunday, May 29, 2011

YellowBrickRoad: Jesse Holland & Andy Mitton's scare fare debuts in the AMC/ BloodyDisgusting/The Collective series

There's a lot good in the new fright flick YELLOWBRICKROAD, receiving its theatrical premiere around the country via the collaborative late-night series from AMC, BloodyDisgusting.com and The Collective. Full-length first-timers Jesse Holland and Andy Mitton do a nice job with their premise, dialog and acting ensemble to create a situation that -- while pretty bizarre and open-ended -- is surprisingly believable and unsettling, all things considered.

Mitton and Holland (shown at left, but don't ask me which is which: beaucoup time spent looking on the web produced no definitive result) begin with a suppo-sed story that happened in 1940, when the entire populace of a small New Hampshire town took a walk and never came back. Today, with the de-classification of some new evidence, a group of young peo-ple set off to follow the trial that the townspeople took. Trouble ensues.

The acting ensemble that the filmmakers have cast does a first-rate job of making each character individual, specific and real, and they play off each other about as well as a filmmaker could wish. Their leader Teddy (played with decreasing strength and increasing confusion by Michael Laurino, above) brings along his wife Melissa (Anessa Ramsey, below, right) and their best friend Walter (Alex Draper, below, left) for comfort and assurance.

A brother/sister team, good with maps and coordinates, charts the progress along the way (these two are played by real-life bro-sis, Clark Freeman, shown at bottom, and Cassidy Freeman), with a small-cheese-but-pleasant law enforcement fellow along for show (Sam Elmore) and, of course, the ever-present "intern" (Tara Giordano). The wild card in the bunch is Liv (a very good Laura Heisler, below), the girl who dispenses popcorn at the local movie theater and begs to come along because, well, she knows certain things. Uh-huh...

As good as is YellowBrickRoad (for awhile), it does sound a bit second-hand, and how could it not, drawing as it does on every-thing from The Wizard of Oz to Blair Witch, Supernova and the recent Deadfall Trail. The filmmakers dispense their surprises well, along with blood and gore (handled with some discretion, thank you) and one truly shocking scene that should leave you gasping. But the movie ought to have been cut by 15 or 20 minutes.

After awhile, it's clear that YBR is leading nowhere that can or will be explained at all fully. This works in some films (such as Vanishing on 7th Street), because they are short, fast and consistently interesting.  Here, interest lags, as (per usual) one by one our cast gets "offed."  And there is simply not enough content here to deserve the 100 minutes of screen time.

That said, the finale is wonderful, using movies in a way that is both called-for and creepy. YBR opens this week, beginning June 1, at AMC theaters around the country.  Click here for screening dates and times -- and then click on Find Your Theater under YELLOWBRICKROAD.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Smart music docs debut: THIS TIME on DVD & iTunes, REJOICE AND SHOUT in theaters

God -- bless her/him/it --  is left, right and center in REJOICE AND SHOUT, the new documentary directed by Don McGlynn and produced by Joe Lauro that covers what seems like the entire history of gospel music in America. The film begins as a little girl with big voice (part of The Selvy Family Singers) belts out Amazing Grace. This is followed with various gospel singers giving thanks and leading us into in the story of gospel and the folk who, over more than two centuries, kept it going. For atheists/agnostics (like TrustMovies) and others who have difficulty believing -- not so much in some higher power but in the puny and tiresome reasons our fellow humans give for demanding this belief and organized religion's use of power to coerce us into it -- the constant connections to god and church may put off some viewers.

The music, however -- as well as enormous breadth of gospel history covered in the film -- should draw nearly everybody in. From old-timers such as (the now-deceased) Jackie Verdell and Brother Joe May through Mahalia Jackson (at left) to the The Blind Boys of Mississippi (and Alabama, shown below), the number of gospel performers here is amazing. Even better, the moviemakers don't just give us a smattering of each one's sound. In most cases we get to see and hear enough of the performance to understand -- with the help of several experts -- exactly what each contributed to the form.  (Did you know, a propos those Blind Boys, that schools for the blind, in the early part of the century past, specialized in musical education? I didn't, until this film)

We travel through The Great Depression and the migrations of Blacks from the South to the North, and we meet Thomas A. Dorsey, (no, not Tommy Dorsey) who managed to compose and play dirty blues songs in clubs while writing church songs at the same time (some 40 of these are now gospel standards, we're told). Then there's Sister Rosetta Tharpe (below), who sounds like quite a gal. Great fun to watch and hear, and seemingly pretty hip for her day, we see her singing a bang-up job of Lonesome Road, as some scantily-clad chorus girls dance for the camera. (Yes, gospel was expanding its reach, even then....)

Interestingly enough, as we leave the past (that's an early photo of The Staple Singers, below) and head into the present, the singing, as well as the performers, grow more tedious and tiresome. Gospel's roots have spread out to include, if not exactly welcome, everything from rhythm-and-blues to disco and digital gospel. And so, to my ear and eye, the movie saves, in an ironic move, its worst for the last. Excessive wailing on the part of today's singers is not, I think, a particularly good thing. Near the finale, our own President Obama makes an appearance (with his acceptance speech from the night he won his election). "Tonight is your answer," he tells us. Indeed. After selling us out to Wall Street and caving in to power and money time and again, he has certainly shown us the way. And I would guess that god is right there with him, every step of it. At least the movie has the decency and grace to end with Martin Luther King -- still the Black benchmark for talking the talk and walking the walk.

Rejoice and Shout (115 minutes, from Magnolia Pictures) opens this Friday June 3, for a two-week run at New York City's Film Forum. Click here for screening times there, and then click here for upcoming playdates in theaters across the U.S.


Interestingly enough, a film I enjoyed even more than the above is a new one I'd never even heard of until its attentive PR agency sent me a copy.  THIS TIME is a musical documentary that tracks six per-formers (three of these make up a single musical group) over a time in which they try to make good (or, in a couple of cases -- the older ones -- make a comeback). The performers have to fight apathy (their own and others'), age (in some cases), and the music industry itself, and if the road is rocky, they are, in general, so full of life, energy and good will, that we follow along.

The first of these is a musical trio The Sweet Inspirations (shown above), women who sang back-up for the best -- from Elvis to Aretha, Jimi, Dionne, Dusty Springfield and Burt Bacharach, to name a few. Now they're determined, with the help of producer/composer Peitor Angell, to sing and record again. They're very good, too, and they're joined by a newcomer who's also very good. What's to stand in their way?  You'll be amazed....

Angell is also working with another comeback queen, Pat Hodges (above), whose enormous voice is as amazing as her enormous girth is a problem. A child star at 15, she's been through a lot, but it looks like she might be on track to hit it big again.

We watch her work with Angell (shown at right), a very photogenic and (from the sound of things) talented composer, but some of her self-destructive tendencies come to the fore as the film lengthens. And as much as Angell works toward Hodges' success, he's also working for his own, as he is one of our six talents, though he tends to be remain behind the scenes.

Our final performer is a young man (well, not so young anymore; he's nearly 40), Bobby Belfry, who has been playing the cabaret circuit for years, hoping for that breakout opportunity. Bobby's cute, full of energy and positive vibes, and he's clearly talented. But from what we see here -- my take, at least -- perhaps not quite talented enough to be called first rank.(He gets the nice title song for the film, however -- one which he both wrote and sings.)  We watch him at work at a Manhattan bar, and then performing at the Duplex and finally at Feinstein's at the Regency -- his biggest gig so far.

Director/editor/cinematograher/co-producer Victor Mignatti (above) (Broadway Damage) does an excellent job of weaving these stories together. Sometimes the music from one person/group melds into the next, working beautifully to make our performers seem somehow joined. Mignatti handles each person's history well, too, showing us how the past is never quite over. By the end of this most interesting movie -- which reminded me of the recent Earthwork in how it captures unsung artists at work -- you'll be left with a strong sense of these disparate performers' accomplish-ments and frustrations. Though th movie is titled This Time, I'm afraid that you -- and they -- will be thinking more along the lines of Next Time.

Out on DVD this Tuesday, May 31, the film can also be downloaded via iTunes.