Tag Archives: Dormant Beauty

Now Playing: The Great Beauty

The Great Beauty
dir. Paolo Sorrentino, 2013, Italy

Rating: 5.6

great

Now playing at The Music Box Theatre in Chicago (and the newly refurbished Wilmette Theatre in Wilmette) is Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty, an Italian art film that has generated a good deal of critical acclaim since it debuted at the Cannes Film Festival last May. It won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film last month and is considered by many to be the front runner in the same category at the Oscars next month. It seems that, more than ever before, critical opinion in America now coalesces around a single “foreign film” each year (e.g., A Separation in 2011, Amour in 2012), conveniently allowing a single “foreign director” to be feted in Hollywood for several months on end during “awards season.” This presumably also allows the American public the chance to feel cultured without having to expend too much effort — i.e., by seeing only a single non-American movie each year. (Hey, who has the time to keep tabs on what these foreign filmmakers are doing when you can just let Sony Pictures Classics be your gatekeeper and narrow down the choices for you?) But even a couple of my cinephile friends have jumped on the Great Beautiful bandwagon and urged me to see the latest from Sorrentino, a director with whom I was previously unfamiliar. I am sorry to say I now have little desire to fill in on this filmmaker’s prior work, as talented of a visual stylist as he may be; I was intensely disappointed by The Great Beauty, a movie that tries to capture the zeitgeist but is so tired, stale and reactionary that it gives the impression it could have been made 50 years ago with only minimal changes to the dialogue (e.g., removing its fleeting derogatory references to Facebook and reality T.V.).

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One friend recently described The Great Beauty to me as “an Italian Holy Motors,” presumably because, like Leos Carax’s masterpiece, it is amazingly photographed, vaguely flirts with surrealism (both a dwarf and a giraffe appear) and functions as a series of extended set pieces revolving around the same character rather than following a more traditional linear plot. I was therefore crushed to find myself coming to the conclusion that Sorrentino’s film is, on a deeper level, the polar opposite of Carax’s. Holy Motors is a movie that shows, with a great deal of cinematic sophistication, how notions of identity have become increasingly fragmented in the internet/video game age. It is also a film that, perhaps even in spite of Carax’s’s intentions, connected with young people: when I took a college class on a field trip to see what I perceived to be a somewhat “difficult movie,” I was absolutely astonished to find that literally all of the students enjoyed it, immediately identifying with its multiple-avatars-as-protagonist premise. (While Carax may act like a curmudgeonly luddite in interviews, as a filmmaker he still regards the medium with a childlike wonder that comes across as infectious to viewers.) The Great Beauty, by contrast, attempts to deal with what its creator sees as a crisis in contemporary Italian culture: the difficulty of creating meaningful art in a shallow and decadent age. Unfortunately, Sorrentino frames this already cynical dilemma in the most retrograde terms imaginable — as a Fellini-esque fantasia centered on a creatively blocked artist — and winds up not only venerating the past but clinging desperately to the past as an artist himself, the only aesthetic solution he can find for his perceived cultural malaise.

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The protagonist of The Great Beauty, Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), is a writer in his mid-60s who authored an acclaimed novel, The Human Apparatus, decades ago but never followed it up and has since devolved into working as a tabloid journalist. Jep is a socialite who attends swinging parties and interviews celebrities, and has thus become a fixture of the gossip columns as much as the subjects of his articles. He dreams of writing a new novel but, surrounded by people he considers “animals,” can’t muster up the enthusiasm to write about “nothing.” If all of this sounds familiar, that’s because the film is pretty much an exact mash-up of La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2, Federico Fellini’s masterpieces from 1960 and 1963, respectively. Jep, Sorrentino’s hip alter-ego, is a cultured man who appreciates the exalted history of Italian art but also finds the sheer weight of it stifling — it’s the source of his creative paralysis. Sorrentino indulges his own love of Italian art history (music, painting and sculpture) on his soundtrack and through his images, which he pointedly contrasts with a modern Italian culture he despairingly identifies only with “fashion and pizza.” The only contemporary artists we see are frauds: a performance artist (female, beautiful and nude, of course) who idiotically runs headfirst into a giant stone column, and a little girl who randomly splashes buckets of paint onto a massive canvas that we are told will sell for “millions.” Sorrentino reveals his hand by juxtaposing this cartoonish latter scene with a solemn one in which Jep makes a visit to an art museum in the middle of the night. There, the director’s low-angle camera circles around an ancient statue, a tracking shot that itself is a visual quote from Roberto Rossellini’s Journey to Italy (1954); even Sorrentino’s conception of cinematic beauty can’t escape the burden of his country’s glorious past.

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If there is a saving grace to The Great Beauty, it is Toni Servillo’s performance as Jep. The twinkle-eyed Servillo has a rakish charm reminiscent of Ben Gazzara and Jean-Paul Belmondo whenever they played aging-Duan Juan types, and his shark-grinned visage remains compulsively watchable even as the film surrounding him sinks into tedium. Unfortunately, this terrific actor deserves something more dignified than his character’s climactic encounter with a 103-year-old nun, a Mother Teresa lookalike meant to symbolize “tired religion” with mind-numbing literalness. (At the end of the film, Sorrentino actually cuts from this decrepit woman crawling up a flight of stairs to a flashback of the night young Jep lost his virginity, a juxtaposition of sex and religion that would have made even Fellini’s eyes roll.) I did see a great new Italian movie with “Beauty” in the title last year, one that more thoughtfully examines the role of Catholicism in contemporary Italian society: Marco Bellocchio’s euthanasia-themed Dormant Beauty. Even though many people, including me, consider Bellocchio to be Italy’s best living filmmaker, and even though that film features the great Isabelle Huppert in a strong supporting turn as a nun, it only screened once in Chicago — at the Gene Siskel Film Center’s invaluable European Union Film Festival — before disappearing for good. But, then again, the tone of Bellocchio’s movie is sincere instead of ironic and lacks The Great Beauty‘s flashy cinematography (not to mention copious party scenes and tits), and I suppose that’s just not the kind of thing that’s ever going to be up for a Best Foreign Film Oscar.

You can view the trailer for The Great Beauty on YouTube below:


2013 European Union Film Festival Preview

The European Union Film Festival has returned to the Gene Siskel Film Center for its 16th edition, again providing Chicago movie lovers the chance to see local theatrical premieres of a plethora of recent films from nearly all countries belonging to the EU. This unique festival should not be taken for granted: while some of the more high-profile movies being featured may return to Chicago-area screens (and eventually come to home video) in the future, many other worthy titles will not. One of the very best films I saw anywhere last year, José María de Orbe’s Aita, only screened locally at the EU Film Fest (and in glorious 35mm, no less), but still hasn’t yet found a U.S. distributor. The 2013 festival kicked off last Friday night and runs through March 28. Any of my students who attend any of the EU Film Fest screenings will earn extra credit points towards their final grade. Please see the extra credit page of your course website for more details. The full lineup (along with ticket info and showtimes) can be found here:

http://www.siskelfilmcenter.org/eufilmfest2013

Below are my picks for five of the festival’s best bets:

Dormant Beauty (Bellocchio, Italy, 2012)
Grade: A / 9.0

dormant

Italy’s greatest living director, Marco Bellocchio (Fists in the Pocket, Vincere), returns with another controversial film inspired by a true story, this time concerning Eluana Englaro, a comatose woman who died in 2009 after being taken off life support by her father. Rather than dramatize the story of the principles involved in the real-life case, however, Bellocchio instead made the fascinating decision to tell three separate but subtly intertwined fictional stories (as well as a fourth parallel story featuring the mighty Isabelle Huppert as the mother of another comatose woman), all of which play out against the backdrop of public demonstrations – both for and against “mercy killing” – engendered by the case. This is a remarkably intelligent and complex movie that raises a host of Italian-centric issues about politics and religion, and the roles played by each in both public and private life. And, as a statement about the difficult relationship between love and euthanasia, this easily trumps Michael Haneke’s Amour, avoiding that film’s stern moralizing and shameless manipulation tactics and replacing them with true compassion, maturity and even-handedness instead. Dormant Beauty screens on Friday, March 22 and Sunday, March 24.

The Last Time I Saw Macao (Guerra da Mata/Rodrigues, Portugal, 2012)
Grade: B+ / 7.9

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I don’t know what they’re putting in the water in Portugal to breed such great filmmakers there but this fascinating narrative/travelogue hybrid is further proof that contemporary Portuguese cinema is among the most exciting on the planet. “Guerra da Mata,” a character presumably played by the co-director of the same name, is a Portuguese man who travels to Macao when an old friend, a transvestite/prostitute named Candy, requests help after falling into trouble with some underworld figures. Upon arrival, he is unable to locate her and ends up wandering around and ruminating, in an extensive voice-over narration, about Macao as an “ex-colony of Portugal that never was” – a place where ancient Buddhist traditions absurdly co-exist with hyper-capitalism. Complementing Guerra da Mata’s freewheeling, Chris Marker-esque narration are fragmented compositions that capture the neon lights and reflective surfaces of Macao at night in a manner as assured as what Roger Deakins did with Shanghai in Skyfall, only the end result is even more impressive; writers/directors Jean Pedro Rodrigues and Joao Rui Guerra da Mata are genuine artists working with limited resources to craft a work of stirring cinematic poetry as opposed to an ace cinematographer ably fulfilling a big commercial assignment. The Last Time I Saw Macao screens on Friday, March 8 and Saturday, March 9.

Hannah Arendt (Von Trotta, Germany, 2012)
Grade: B+ / 7.6

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Margarethe Von Trotta is the most prominent female director associated with the German New Wave of the 1970s and, like compatriot Rainer Werner Fassbinder, is known for exploring notions of German nationality and identity (albeit in a less overtly provocative way). This made her well-qualified to helm a biopic of Hannah Arendt, the German/Jewish philosopher who covered the Nazi war crimes trial of Adolph Eichmann for the New Yorker and coined the useful phrase “the banality of evil.” The film mostly focuses on how Arendt’s perspective on Eichmann – that he was not a monster but a mediocre bureaucrat thoughtlessly following orders – caused a firestorm of controversy in academic and intellectual circles as well as in the international Jewish community. As in Jan Troell’s The Last Sentence, Von Trotta offers an un-sexy/non-Hollywood view of history, centered on a journalist, in which the moral quandaries at the heart of her screenplay take precedence over showy performances and ostentatious period detail. But don’t let the modest surface fool you: this was expertly shot by Caroline Champetier (Holy Motors), and Barbara Sukowa’s quietly commanding performance in the title role slowly builds in intensity until a corker of a climax where Arendt defends herself in a passionate university-hall lecture. Sukowa, a legendary actress discovered by Fassbinder, will be present for the sole screening on Friday, March 8.

Paris-Manhattan (Lellouche, France, 2012)
Grade: B- / 6.8

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Alice Ovitz (Alice Taglioni) is an attractive but perpetually single young pharmacist who has been obsessed with Woody Allen since she was a kid. In much the same way that Woody sought advice from Humphrey Bogart in Play It Again, Sam, so too does Alice commune with the Woodman by talking to a poster of him in her bedroom. (Through clever sound editing, he actually replies to her via audio excerpts from his films.) The plot of this movie has something to do with Alice being torn between two different men but, even as far romantic comedy plots go, the outcome is entirely predictable from the outset. Nonetheless, this whimsical concoction from first-time writer/director Sophie Lellouche is charming and fun, thanks in large part to an appealing cast. You can bump my rating up by half a letter grade if you consider yourself a big Allen fan; the whole film is basically a feature-length homage to him, and the man himself turns up for a memorable cameo at the end. Paris-Manhattan screens on Sunday, March 10 and Thursday, March 14.

Tabu (Gomes, Portugal, 2012)
Grade: A+ / 9.6

tabu

I already reviewed Miguel Gomes’ masterpiece in January prior to its local premiere at Northwestern University’s BLOCK cinema. You can read my long review here:

https://whitecitycinema.com/2013/01/21/now-playing-tabu/.

Tabu screens on Wednesday, March 6.


CIFF 2012: Twenty Most Wanted!

It’s time for my annual wish list of movies that I hope will turn up at the Chicago International Film Festival in October. Even if you’re not a Chicagoan, I hope you will find this to be a handy guide to a bunch of exciting-sounding movies that will hopefully be coming soon to a theater near you in the not-too-distant future. I’m deliberately not including Wong Kar-Wai’s The Grandmasters and Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Assassin, both of which made the previous two installments of this list but which I have now given up hope of ever seeing in my lifetime. I should also point out that some of my most anticipated releases of the fall, like Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master and Clint Eastwood’s Trouble with the Curve, are scheduled to drop before CIFF kicks off on October 11.

Caesar Must Die (Taviani, Italy)

I’ve never seen anything by Italy’s esteemed Taviani brothers whose long-running co-director act dates back almost 60 years. Their latest sounds fascinating: a documentary about real life high-security prison inmates performing Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar for a public audience. This won the top prize at Berlin earlier in the year from a jury that was headed by Mike Leigh.

The Catastrophe (Smith, USA)

Yep, I submitted my most recent short film to CIFF and I’m still waiting to hear back. I’d be lying if I didn’t say this is the film I would most like to see at the festival. Fingers crossed!

Django Unchained (Tarantino, USA)

Could Quentin Tarantino’s much-hyped, southern-fried Spaghetti Western turn up as a gala presentation or closing night film? Well, he did bring Inglourious Basterds to Chicago in the summer of 2009, a few months before its official release, when CIFF gave him some kind of Lifetime Achievement Award thingy . . .

Dormant Beauty (Bellocchio, Italy)

Another old Italian maestro, Marco Bellochio, returns with an Isabelle Huppert vehicle about an actress caring for her comatose daughter. Bellochio’s 2009 feature, Vincere, which played CIFF, was superb, and Huppert (will she be speaking Italian?) is one of the world’s greatest actresses, so seeing this would be a no-brainer if it should turn up.

Drug War (To, Hong Kong)

The prolific crime film specialist Johnnie To made one of his very best films with 2011’s mind-bogglingly good dramedy Life Without Principle. This raises my expectations even more for Drug War, which sees To re-teaming with long-time collaborators like writer Wai Ka-Fai and actors Louis Koo and Lam Suet. Plot details are scarce but still photographs show a lot of men pointing guns. Intriguingly, this is also To’s first film to be shot entirely in mainland China in over 30 years.

Gebo and the Shadow (De Oliveira, Portugal/France)

Portugal’s Manoel de Oliveira, one of the world’s best directors, assembles a heavyweight cast of European talent for this adaptation of a 19th century play by Raul Brandão: Michael Lonsdale, Claudia Cardinale and Jeanne Moreau join Oliveira stalwarts like Ricardo Trepa, Leonor Silveira and Luis Miguel Cintra. Described as the story of an honored but poor patriarch who sacrifices himself for his son, this is the latest chapter in one of cinema’s most storied and freakishly long careers; at 103, Oliveira has already embarked on pre-production of his next film.

Holy Motors (Carax, France)

My most anticipated film of the year by far is Leos Carax’s long awaited follow-up to 1999’s Pola X. Holy Motors stars Carax’s perennial alter-ego Denis Lavant as an actor who constantly shuttles between multiple parallel lives. Or something. The rest of the formidable and diverse cast includes Edith Scob, Michel Piccoli, Kylie Minogue and Eva Mendes. This wowed audiences and critics alike at Cannes but went home empty-handed come awards time due to an unusually conservative jury headed by Nanni “Middlebrow” Moretti.

In Another Country (Hong, S. Korea)

Another year, another Hong Sang-soo movie that plays to acclaim at Cannes with uncertain prospects of ever turning up in Chicago. Only one of Hong’s last seven films, including five features and two shorts, has played here (The Day He Arrives recently had a few screenings at the Siskel Center). One would think that the presence of Isabelle Huppert in the lead role and the fact that the majority of the dialogue is in English would improve In Another Country‘s chances but one never knows. It seems U.S. distributors like their Korean movies to carry the “Asian extreme” tag, and their witty and intellectual Rohmer-esque rom-coms to be spoken in French – and never the twain shall meet.

Jimmy Picard (Desplechin, USA/France)

The last I checked, Arnaud Desplechin’s first American-set film was still shooting in Michigan but it’s conceivable he could have it ready for a Toronto premiere in September – and thus a local CIFF premiere the following month. Benicio del Toro plays the title character, a Blackfoot Indian and WWII vet, who becomes one of the first subjects of “dream analysis” under a French psychotherapist played by Desplechin’s favorite leading man Mathieu Amalric. The estimable director’s only other English language film, 2000’s Esther Kahn, is also one of his best.

Laurence Anyways (Dolan, Canada/France)

23 year old writer/director/actor wunderkind Xavier Dolan debuted his third feature at Cannes this year where it was well-received. Melvil Poupad stars as a heterosexual man in a long-term relationship who undergoes a sex-change operation. I was initially skeptical of Dolan purely because of his young age and his credentials as a former child star but after catching Heartbeats (whose English language title is a regrettable stand-in for the original Les Amours Imaginaires) at CIFF two years ago, I was completely won over; the guy is a born filmmaker and the two-and-a-half hour Laurence Anyways sounds like a logical and ambitious step forward for him.

Like Someone in Love (Kiarostami, Japan/Iran)

Abbas Kiarostami’s latest divided critics at Cannes, a lot of whom compared it unfavorably to his supposedly “shockingly accessible” Certified Copy from two years earlier. But it also had its defenders and a die-hard Kiarostami fan like me is chomping at the bit to see it. This is a Japan set story about the relationship between a prostitute and an elderly college professor. The ending is supposedly nuts.

Love (Haneke, France/Austria)

I’ve never warmed up to Austrian miserabilist Michael Haneke, who specializes in combining titillation and moralism in convenient arthouse-friendly packages. But his latest, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, sounds more actor-driven and appealing to me: it tells the story of a married couple in their 80s (played by French screen legends Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva) whose relationship is tested when the wife has a stroke. The ubiquitous “La Huppert,” who appears in three films on this list, co-stars.

Mekong Hotel (Weerasethakul, Thailand)

A documentary/narrative hybrid from the terrific experimental filmmaker Apichatpong “Joe” Weerasethakul about various characters congregating at the title location situated along Thailand’s Mekong River. Apparently pigs and Tilda Swinton are also somehow involved. Depending on whom you believe, this is either a minor diversion or a major masterpiece. Either way, count me in.

The Night in Front (Ruiz, Chile/France)

The great Chilean filmmaker Raul Ruiz passed away from liver cancer last year while putting the finishing touches on what he must have known would be his final film. The Night in Front, an adaptation of stories by Hernan del Solar, received a posthumous debut in a special tribute session at the Cannes Film Festival in May. Fittingly, it was shot in Chile, Ruiz’s home country, from which he had lived in exile for decades. If this swan song is anywhere near the league of Mysteries of Lisbon, the 4 1/2 hour Ruiz opus that preceded it, it will be essential viewing.

Something in the Air (Assayas, France/England/Italy)

Something in the Air has been described as a coming-of-age story set against the turbulent political climate of Europe in the 1970s with locations that include France, Italy and the U.K. This makes it sound like an improbable cross between my other two favorite films by director Olivier Assayas: Cold Water and Carlos. This was offered an out of competition slot at Cannes, which Assayas turned down. As with Jimmy Picard, the only way this will show up at CIFF is if it has a Toronto World Premiere first.

Stoker (Park, USA/S. Korea)

The great Korean director Park Chan-wook’s English-language debut boasts excellent credentials in an A-list cast (Nicole Kidman, Mia Wasikowska and Matthew Goode) and crew (composer Clint Mansell and cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon) and yet . . . the film seems to be languishing in Post-Productionland for a suspiciously long time. Stoker has been described as both a drama and a horror film and plot descriptions make it sound like a virtual remake of Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt. How could this not be great?

Tabu (Gomes, Portugal)

With apparently explicit nods to F.W. Murnau’s film of the same title, this Portuguese/African co-production tells the story of an elderly woman living in contemporary Portugal with her black servant and then flashes back to tell the story of a love affair she had in Africa fifty years prior. I’ve never seen anything by the young director Miguel Gomes but the diverse locations and unusual two-part structure also make this sound similar to Daniel Kohlerer’s recent (and excellent) German/African co-production Sleeping Sickness. Both films were produced by Maren Ade, who is a fine young director in her own right (Everyone Else).

To the Wonder (Malick, USA)

As someone who saw The Thin Red Line five times in the theater, I’ve certainly fallen off the Terrence Malick bandwagon in the wake of The New World and The Tree of Life. And yet I still wouldn’t miss a new film by him for the world. The plot of this Ben Affleck/Rachel MacAdams-starring love story sounds like it will continue the autobiographical vein of The Tree of Life: an American man divorces his European wife and then embarks on a new romance with a woman from his small hometown. This is essentially what happened to Malick while preparing The Thin Red Line.

You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet (Resnais, France)

I used to be somewhat lukewarm on Alain Resnais’ post-1960s work until 2009’s wild Wild Grass brought me roaring back into the fold. This new meta-movie sounds like a typically provocative and fascinating Resnais experiment: a group of great French actors playing themselves (including Michel Piccoli, Mathieu Amalric and Resnais’ permanent leading lady and muse Sabine Aszema) watch a filmed performance of the play Eurydice, which transports them back in time to when they had all starred in the same play years earlier. Some critics derided this as “indulgent” at Cannes but I say that’s like criticizing Thelonious Monk for not playing the piano melodically.

Zero Dark Thirty (Bigelow, USA/India)

Kathryn Bigelow’s long awaited follow-up to The Hurt Locker sees her reteaming with journalist/screenwriter Mark Boal in adapting the true story of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. This was well into pre-production at the time Bin Laden was killed, meaning Zero Dark Thirty received an 11th-hour “mother of all rewrites.” Details on this are scarce but the excellent Jessica Chastain apparently has a prominent role as a journalist.


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