LA DOLCE VITA REDUX: The Great Beauty and Tom at the Farm


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Warning: SPOILERS

great beautyIn 1960, Federico Fellini gave us one of the greatest films of all time, La Dolce Vita, a savage look at society Italiana at the time, as well as a heartbreaking character study of a journalist who, by the end of the movie, is totally and spiritually lost (La Dolce Vita also gave us the word Paparazzi for those who like to play Trivial Pursuit).

 

It’s been more than fifty years since that seminal film found its way into cinematic history and today we have The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezze), from screenwriters Umberto Contarello and Paolo Sorrentino, who also directed.  This time, though, the movie is a much more vicious and savage look at Momma Roma’s inhabitants and the writer, a journalist, is totally and spiritually lost from the beginning of the film.

I think the comparison is very apt because The Great Beauty feels, in many ways, as if it were a sequel to that earlier film, that is, if the central character were still alive and only 65.  When I told a friend this, his first question was, but is it like the neo-realist Fellini or the Fellini after 8 ½? 

His reaction when I said it was of the later was not the most of positives, but people should be forewarned.  The Great Beauty is not like the Fellini of Rome: Open City (yes, I know, he didn’t direct it, but he was a writer on it, so there), La Strada and Nights of Cabiria.  This is the wild and deliriously dreamlike Fellini of Amarcord, Roma and Cassanova. Continue reading

LAURENCE ANYWAYS



Near the beginning of the movie Laurence Anyways, the central character (appropriately enough called Laurence; isn’t it nice when that happens) who teaches literature, tells his students, to paraphrase, that Proust writes very long books in which almost nothing happens (which actually is very true), but that Proust’s prose covers up this fact (which actually is just as very true).  I think that something like this could also be said of Laurence Anyways, but not quite to the same success as A Remembrance of Things Past, I’m afraid.
Laurence Anyways is a visual stunner.  Exploding with pop colors reminiscent of the Crayola crayon mod world of the early sixties; sets crammed with hip, post modern retro furniture and props; and characters often stuffed into costumes of the over the top variety (though the Joan Crawford shoulders Laurence displays at the beginning and end may be a bit much even for being a bit much).  It’s all topped off with a camera style that jerks around in that roller coaster approach so popular now, often filming actors from behind, or blocked by something, or their faces partially cut off.  It’s like Frederico Fellinni at times (especially in a group of somewhat outrageous women who befriend Laurence), but without the badly dubbed sound.
The movie is directed by that French Canadian cinematic Doogie Houser, Xavier Dolan, whose first film, I Killed My mother, a somewhat autobiographical story about a boy and his mom (but quite different than Psycho, believe me), was a riveting coming of age story.  It’s only real fault was that Dolan was still in his nappies (well, a mere 18 years old) when he made it.  Talk about rubbing it in.
He next made Heartbeats, which was again a visual feast, but the story was a tad underwhelming.  It concerned a gay man and his bestest female friend who are both attracted to the same man, but don’t know if he’s homo or hetero.  If the plot sounds a bit familiar, that’s because the TV show Will & Grace had a similar story line.  The difference is that those two resolved the conflict in fifteen minutes.  Dolan took more than an hour and a half with a plot that never quite convinced.  Now with the addition of his new movie, I feel that, at least for me, Dolan is fast becoming more like Tim Burton, James Cameron and Terry Gilliam.   Their movies are ravishing to look at, even brilliantly directed perhaps, but a bit more than weak in the writing department.
I have two issues with the plot and structure of Dolan’s film.  The basic premise is that Laurence (purse-lipped Melvil Poupaud) and Fred (Suzanne Clement–yes, Fred is female, which is suppose to be ironic, I suppose) are deeply in love.  Then Laurence lobs the grenade: he’s actually a woman in a man’s body.
At this point, the focus of the story gets more and more wobbly as it can’t seem to settle on what it wants to be about.  Is it driven by the difficulties a person in Laurence’s situation goes through and the conflicts that come up in his life because of it, as more than half of the story seems to be?  Or is it driven by the plotline of a man and a woman deeply in love, but due to circumstances somewhat beyond their control, will always be some sort of metaphorical ships in the night and never end up together as the finale and the rest of the film suggests?
Because of this uncertainty, the movie feels like it’s constantly bouncing back and forth between these two ideas until it seriously flounders for energy in the second half.   At that point, to be honest, I was just waiting for it to be over.
Connected to this is that when it comes to the idea of whether love will conquer all and whether these two people will manage to work past their differences and create a life with each other, there is no suspense.  Their love is doomed.  Dooooooooomed.  And for a very obvious and simple reason: Fred cannot make herself into a lesbian.  Laurence can make himself into a woman because that’s what he’s always been.  He’s not changing, he’s becoming his true self.  But Fred can’t will herself to be attracted to someone of the same sex.  It just doesn’t work that way no matter how many tantrums Laurence throws in order to get Fred to.
But there is perhaps an even more serious issue that overshadows those aforementioned.  Have you ever been in a coffee shop or restaurant and there’s a couple near by who are just a little too loud, a little too boisterous?  They think they’re the most interesting people in the world whereas you, and everybody else in the place, would just wish they’d shut up?  That’s what Laurence and Fred are like to me.  In fact, when Laurence said he was going to become a woman, all I could think was, well, it’s a better choice than the drama queen you are now.
So not only is the relationship of these two somewhat immature people doomed from the start, I found I didn’t like them or find them interesting enough to want them to end up together.  In the end, the only actor who really makes her mark is Nathalie Baye, the wonderful French actress who plays Laurence’s long suffering mother.  Her quite approach to interpreting her character is a welcome relief from all the self-centered chaos Laurence brings with him.

AFI POTPOURRI: PART TWO


Continuing with the films I saw at AFI:

SITA SINGS THE BLUES: One of the most delightful, cleverest and original animated features I’ve ever seen. It’s the Hindu legend of Sita, who was the bride of Rama until he did her wrong. The story is paralleled with the more modern story of the writer/director Nina Paley’s relationship with her own boyfriend who also did her wrong after he moved to India and didn’t break up with her until she moved to be with him. The animators use all sorts of styles, including, perhaps most delightfully, three shadow puppets of three people who tell the story of Sita, often arguing over the details and the meaning. It’s the universal tale of women who are treated badly (though what Rama did to Sita was far worse than what Nina’s boyfriend did to her). The theme is supported by Annette Hanshaw who sings, through Sita, a number of torch and blues songs (though perhaps one or two too many). A must see, though one wonders what Nina’s ex now thinks since no matter what he did to her, Nina got the final word.

FISH TANK: One of those coming of age stories of kids rebelling against their parental figures and losing their virginity. But don’t let they stop you from seeing this sharp and moving tale of teenage angst by the writer/director Andrea Arnold who also made one of my favorite films of 2006, Red Road. The lead character is 15 year old Mia played with ferocious non-stop fury by newcomer Katie Jarvis. Katie is angry, but it’s unclear why; she’s just angry, almost existentially so. She doesn’t get along with her mother or her sister or her friends (actually, she has no friends). She finds herself physically attracted to her mother’s most recent lover Connor, played by a sexually charged Michael Fassbender whose first entrance is in jeans with such a low rise one keeps expecting them to fall to the floor (or does one hope they will fall to the floor). Her only dream is dancing and an appointment she has made to audition for a dance troupe. Her hopes are constantly dashed. She has hot sex with Fassbender, who then tells her they can’t do it again. He turns out to be married and has a child and breaks Mia’s mother’s heart when he ups and leaves with no reason given. And the dance audition turns out to be for a strip club. But that doesn’t stop her from taking control of her life and going off with a boy a bit closer to her own age; it may seem like a downer ending, but it’s really not. The story itself gets a little off center when Mia discovers Connor is married; the author doesn’t seem to know exactly what to do next and fills the plotline with one red herring after another. But other than that, a coming of age film that rises above the others.

AJAMI: The Israeli entry in the best foreign language film category at the Oscars and a first rate film noir. The subject matter may make one a little queasy: it’s an Israeli film about Palestinians living in Israel in which the characters do nothing but engage in illegal activities and treat each other like dirt for much of the proceedings. At the same time, the story is not inherent to its ethnic background and could easily take place in New York, Paris, Los Angeles—and often has. It’s a thriller with one of those non-linear plots (script and directing by Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani) that became really popular after Tarrentino’s Pulp Fiction. It’s divided into chapters and though it might be a little difficult to fully understand how the first chapter affects the others (perhaps something got lost in the transition), it’s a suspenseful puzzle film that is very satisfying.

I KILLED MY MOTHER: I don’t want to talk about it. I Killed My Mother is the Canadian entry in the Oscar foreign film category (it takes place in Quebec and everybody speaks French), but it’s written, directed and stars a 19 year old in his film debut. That would be all right if the movie wasn’t any good. But it is and it’s just not fair and I don’t want to talk about it. It’s all about a high school kid’s troubling relationship with his mother, which often makes no sense, but is none the less fascinating and convincing. She’s often a monster, but he’s often an annoying little prick; but since she has all the power, she wins. It’s obviously a first film. Xavier Dolan, the writer/director (who couldn’t attend the screening at the AFI fest because he’s already working on his next feature, the asshole), sometimes loses track of what he’s saying or why there’s trouble in this non-paradise. At times it seems like it’s fury for fury’s sake, which at the age of 19, fury often is. But it’s an astonishing debut. I wish him well. I really do. No, really, I do. The bastard.