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La prima cosa bella

Prima cosa bella, La (2010)
★★ / ★★★★

A vocational school teacher, Bruno (Valerio Mastandrea), is tracked down by his sister, Valeria (Claudia Pandolfi), and informs him that their mother, Anna (Stefania Sandrelli), has received a grim diagnosis and that she has only a few days left to live. Reluctant Bruno, wishing minimal contact with his mother for undisclosed reasons, decides to return to his hometown to provide closure to the woman who raised him.

“La prima cosa bella,” also known as “The First Beautiful Thing,” written by Paolo Virzì, Francesco Bruni, and Francesco Piccolo, struggles to find a comfortable footing with its tone so the human emotions that it attempts communicate does not have enough power to ultimately move the audience. The film is divided into three sections: the present involving Anna’s looming demise, the ‘70s recalling Anna’s struggle in protecting and providing for her kids when she left her abusive husband, and the ‘80s providing possible reasons why Bruno became so angry with his mother.

I found myself wanting to relate to the material because I saw a part of myself in Bruno, from his wanting to be taken seriously to his interest in the knowledge embedded in books. However, the more humorous moments tend to overshadow the darkness inherent to the story. For example, the Anna and her family eventually find themselves on the verge of destitution. Anna feels she has to, in a way, prostitute herself to men who can provide for her children and herself. Not enough emphasis is placed on their reality. Instead, amusing situations unfold and funny one-liners are exchanged.

As the young Anna (Micaela Ramazzotti), Ramazzotti is quite convincing as a mother who loves to have fun as much as she loves her children. I enjoyed that despite her carefree attitude, we are never certain if she is a responsible parent. She keeps us on our toes because we grow to care about the children.

While there is a relatively engaging flow between the scenes, the unbearable score is consistently out of touch with the images presented on screen. For instance, when something sad is happening, the background music remains somewhat upbeat. Music designed to lead us on how to feel is not necessary here because its absence would have given us a chance to absorb the situation of the broken family. Because the music is so forceful in suggesting specific feelings, the filmmakers communicate their a lack of complete confidence in the material.

What the film, directed by Paolo Virzi, shows confidence in, however, is showing Bruno, as an adult, lacking the self-esteem to show affection for people, whether it be toward his girlfriend, sister, or mother. He recoils at the idea of someone touching his hand or putting arms around him. This piqued my curiosity and I admired the film’s boldness in not giving an easy answer. A lot of information is given to us abound his formative childhood and teenage years so the answer, or answers, is likely to be in there somewhere. Unlike the obvious music clues, the decision to hold back shows a level of assurance.


The Dreamers

Dreamers, The (2003)
★★★★ / ★★★★

The first time I saw a movie at the Cinémathèque Française I thought, “Only the French… Only the French would house a cinema inside a palace.” The movie was Sam Fuller’s “Shock Corridor.” Its images were so powerful, it was like being hypnotized. I was 20 years old. It was the late ‘60s and I’d come to Paris for a year to study French.

But it was here that I got my real education. I became a member of what in those days was kind of a free masonry. A free masonry of cinephiles… what we’d call “film buffs.” I was one of the insatiables… the ones you’d always find sitting closest to the screen.

Why do we sit so close? Maybe it was because we wanted to receive the images first, when they were still new, still fresh, before they cleared the hurdles of the rows behind us, before they’d been relayed back from row to row, spectator to spectator until worn-out, secondhand, the size of a postage stamp it returned to the projectionist’s cabin. Maybe, too, the screen really was a screen. It screened us… from the world.

And so it began, my love for films, during the summer just after junior year of high school had come to a welcome close. Bernardo Bertolocci’s “The Dreamers” was a like a thunder shock to my spine that upon seeing it, I sat on the couch, silent and still, Edith Piaf’s “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien” playing as the end credits started to creep down, convinced that I had not seen anything like it—and I wanted more. Right then I knew that I had just seen a film that I would carry with me so long as I lived.

The opening credits makes known that it is going to be a physical picture. As names appear on the screen, the background demands that we admire the infrastructure of the Eiffel Tower, the metallic support mostly in black while others are, curiously, in red. The color red usually represents passion and violence. There is violence in the film but it isn’t until the very end. For the most part, it focuses on several kinds of passion, physical and intimate, among three cinephiles—an American from sunny California and two French fraternal twins.

Its physicality is not only defined in terms of sex, nudity, and carnality. It is reflected in how Matthew (Michael Pitt) wears his suits and hair, how Isabelle (Eva Green) finds it a challenge to exist on her own for very long when her brother is not only an arm’s length away, how the posture of Theo (Louis Garrel) is blasé every time his father, a published and successful poet, speaks at the dinner table and yet Theo’s eyes are sharp, just waiting to pick out a ripe moment of hypocrisy. Matthew notices how the length, width, and depth of Isabelle’s cigarette lighter tends to fit in any of the patterns of a table cloth.

One of the picture’s themes is its depiction of Matthew, Isabelle, and Theo as children—that although they talk of politics, they remain cocooned. The trio runs through the Louvre Museum in an attempt to beat the record set by the characters in Jean-Luc Godard’s “Bande à part.” Isabelle refers to the American as “my little Matthew” as if she were his big sister. They explore one another’s bodies up close and afar. Notice the innocent appearance of Isabelle’s room. A fort is built in the salon. Listen closely as to how Theo and Matthew try to persuade one another of the merits of either Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin.

Like children, they even play games. When inspiration erupts, either Theo or Isabelle reenact a specific scene in a movie. The other two must try to guess the film. Failure to do so will result in a punishment. And like children, punishments must involve a level of humiliation. Matthew finds the game sadistic and is repelled by it initially. But Isabelle and Theo’s friendship is one he yearns for. He feels as though he has found his soulmate. Only there happens to be two of them. Their relationships are subtle, elegant, and complex.

But all games must come to an end eventually. The film mostly taking place inside an apartment, we see glimpses of the reality—a revolution taking shape—on television, by looking at a massive pile of rubbish in the streets, and observing protestors marching outside. There are blockades and behind them are police. There is a beautiful scene where Matthew takes out Isabelle on a date. It is the only moment in the film that comes closest to a typical love story but it is most welcome because it is earned. It is a glimpse of a future they might have had if they were born and had met a decade before or after. But, alas, it is May 1968.

Based on the screenplay and novel by Gilbert Adair, “The Dreamers” is beautifully photographed, each location—whether it be a room, a restaurant, or a movie theater—is vivid in detail, and wonderfully—and bravely—performed by the three leads. Some viewers may look and dismiss it to be pornographic because of the amount of flesh shown on screen. But others may look and recognize a story of awakening. In a number of ways, it had awoken me.

In retrospect, if it weren’t for this film, I probably would not have been inspired—and continuing to be inspired—to watch whatever movie I could get my hands on. Though my pursuit of knowledge is in science, it is likely that tough times would have gotten the best of me if the movies had not been there constantly to provide a delicate balance between reality and dreams.


Trading Places

Trading Places (1983)
★★ / ★★★★

Randolph (Ralph Bellamy) and Mortimer Duke (Don Ameche), aging millionaires with too much money on their bank accounts, have a bet. Randolph believes that he can turn a conman, Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy), whose current scheme is to pretend to be a blind man and a cripple so passersby will feel sorry and give him money, into a respectable commodity broker and an uppity commodity broker, Louis Winthorpe III (Dan Aykroyd), who is very good at his job, into a contemptuous criminal. On the other hand, Mortimer believes that such a complete transformation is impossible because everyone is born to live a specific lifestyle.

“Trading Places,” directed by John Landis, is marginally funny when it doesn’t try so hard to impress and not at all amusing when it goes through great measures to elicit a laugh. The first and last thirty minutes are effective. The set-up is interesting because it plays upon the classic nature versus nurture debate with enough unexpected lines of dialogue that proves consistently witty—up to a point—which shows promise that the material can really take off as a comedy of manners as well as a social critique of the rich and the poor. We all have a certain perception of the very poor and the very rich. So when Billy Ray starts to steal expensive trinkets in front of people telling him that he does not need to because all of it belong to him anyway, it is absolutely hilarious.

Seeing Murphy and Aykroyd eventually playing against type makes a handful of scenes that do not work, for example Aykroyd’s character pulling out a gun at a Christmas party and threatening to shoot people with it, somewhat tolerable. Likewise, the payoff is engaging because Billy Ray and Winthorpe spend the majority of the time either apart or arguing. It is refreshing to see them interact on a different level and act as the puppeteers in the philosophical game.

The middle portion, however, is a boring wasteland of tired gags with an occasional funny line or two. Even then I was not sure if something genuinely funny was thrown onto my lap or if I just wanted to laugh to shatter the tedium. Furthermore, in order for us to feel sorry for a character, the screenplay relies on clichés.

Winthorpe is shown twice or thrice standing in the rain while looking like a wet, abandoned sheepdog. There is nothing funny about it nor is it an effective way for the audience to sympathize with him. Even though he is a bit spoiled, we already feel bad for him the moment he is framed, sent to prison, and all of his hard work is taken away.

And while I liked the idea of Ophelia (Jamie Lee Curtis), a prostitute hired to hasten Winthorpe’s downfall but the two actually end up liking each other, there is not enough dramatic pull between the couple. When they kiss, it is awkwardly charming but we are at a loss in terms of what exactly they like about one another. In other words, they are not written as real people. The premise can be contrived but it does not mean that the character must be that way, too.



Singles (1992)
★★★ / ★★★★

While admiring cute puppies in front of a pet store, Linda (Kyra Sedgwick) meets Luiz (Camilo Gallardo), a university student from Spain whose visa is about to expire in a few days. Not one to have much luck when it comes to romance, Linda is reluctant at first but she is won over eventually because Luiz knows exactly what to say to her and how. After he supposedly leaves for Spain, however, Linda catches him in a bar with another woman. Linda is furious. She makes a personal promise: she will focus only on her career and not get in a relationship any time soon.

Written and directed by Cameron Crowe, “Singles” does a good job in setting the pace of three relationships on a precipice of change which is particularly a challenge because dispersed among the three plots are colorful commentaries from people who have recently gotten out of relationships and those looking to get in one. It might have come across gimmicky, trite, than a necessary moments of insight within and outside of the story being told.

While Janet (Bridget Fonda) and Cliff (Matt Dillon) do not have the most interesting romantic relationship, their storyline is arguably the most rewarding because Janet is allowed to change in a meaningful way. Initially, Janet is used as merely a source of comedy due to her unhealthy level of attachment to the grunge-rocker who does not care for her affections. I was annoyed by yet another portrayal of a dumb girl throwing herself onto a man who clearly does not want her. As the screenplay unfolds, I realized that the material wishes to offer a statement. Janet is like liquid: an available man is a container she feels she must fill order to satisfy him.

The messages are geared toward people in twenties. Although the lessons Janet learns about self-esteem and self-empowerment may seem obvious, a lot of young women (and men) will be able to relate to her on some level. For example, there is resonance during moments when she is so desperate to be liked, she actually considers altering her body to fit someone else’s fantasy, or worse, her idea of someone else’s fantasy. While film lampoons her in the beginning, the picture is willing to change gears and allow us to care what might happen to her. Unlike many of the characters in the film, she has real thoughts and insights about what it means to be single and alone versus single and free.

The couple in the centerpiece involves Linda and Steve (Campbell Scott). Their interactions are sweet and romantic but sometimes heartbreaking and forced. Although there are chunks of the film when I felt like I was watching a television series because of the type of conflicts they must deal with, Sedgwick and Scott have a nice chemistry which keeps their storyline afloat. I would have preferred to know more about what Cliff really thinks about Janet. It wouldn’t have hurt the material if it had offered the audience a twist involving the inner-workings of Cliff’s mind. It is difficult to believe that he is stoned all the time and all he seems to care about is his band.

And then there is Debbie (Sheila Kelley): so desperate to no longer be single, she actually advertises herself on television so that she can have a pool of options. It can be argued that the amusing scenes surrounding Debbie make a statement about her relationship with herself. Debbie is the antithesis of Janet because, unlike the latter, the former does not seem at all interested in looking in the mirror and asking difficult questions about what she really wants. And she wonders why nothing seems to work out for her.


The Normal Heart

Normal Heart, The (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★

Doctors in New York and California have diagnosed among homosexual men 41 cases of a rare and often rapidly fatal form of cancer. Eight of the victims died less than 24 months after the diagnosis was made. — Lawrence K. Altman, “The New York Times” (1981)

Before acronyms HIV and AIDS came into the picture, there is only “the gay cancer,” formerly believed to be a plague that affected only gay men. Thus, the government, instead of acting with utmost urgency, chose to turn a blind eye and go on as if the problem would just go away on its own. “The Normal Heart,” directed by Ryan Murphy, tells the story of Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo), partly based on the activist and playwright Larry Kramer, in his very personal war to force the American government and its people to pay attention, look past discrimination, and offer some kind of help for a minority but a part of the American society nonetheless against an unknown epidemic.

The picture is at its best when showing desperate individuals trying to deal with the hand they’ve been given. Dr. Brookner (Julia Roberts) starts to notice that many of the patients she sees are immunocompromised, most of them ending up dead within weeks, sometimes months, due to diseases that normally do not kill people. Roberts injects a most necessary intensity into the role. Although her character is confined to a wheelchair, she turns the character into a fighter, someone who wants to understand the new epidemic and genuinely help the men who come to see her. Roberts has a chilling scene with government officials who are convinced that the disease is far from a priority.

Of course, the story’s focal point is Weeks’ perspective and the hoops he goes through so that everyone would be on the same page. I admired that the screenplay makes the character so unpleasant at times that we understand why he is not chosen by his friends to become the president of Gay Men’s Health Crisis, an organization that provides services from counseling the afflicted to executing fundraisers for research. Credit goes to the casting directors for choosing Ruffalo to play Weeks because although he looks very accessible, the actor can deliver dagger-like fury in an instant. The contradiction makes the character more interesting because there is an unpredictability to the performer.

But the film is not only strong when someone is having an outburst. There is great sadness when it depicts the gay community in 1981 not taking the disease seriously even though their acquaintances and friends are ending up dead. It makes a case that sometimes a tragedy is allowed to continue because people are not willing to stop for a second, consider, and listen.

Admittedly, it took some time for me to wrap my head around the fact that people still choose to engage in sexual activities, often with random partners, when there is already suspicion that the disease might be sexually transmitted. It is expressed that the community feels that the whole thing might merely be a ruse so that the government can take away the freedoms that the queer community have long fought for. The screenplay ought to have provided a better, clearer context for those who were not aware or alive during that time.

Conversely, we see Weeks’ softer side when he is around Felix Turner (Matt Bomer), a writer for The New York Times and Weeks’ eventual lover. We learn details about the protagonist and consider possible reasons why he is so uptight and ready to fight all the time. Bomer is another good casting choice because he knows how to downplay his character just enough—playing him more reserved, a bit quiet, and sensitive—as to not overshadow his co-star’s role in the story being told.

“The Normal Heart” ought to have featured more shots of bodies infected with AIDS. Although we see a few, from skeletal frames to skin lesions, we need to see many, almost on an overwhelming level. I wanted that camera to be as close as possible, almost functioning as a magnifying glass, to the bodies and really force the audience to see what the disease can do. Would that have disgusted or repelled audiences? Yes. And that is good. AIDS is neither a pretty disease nor is it easy to understand. Otherwise, we would have a cure by now. Thus, its ugliness and complications should have been shown through and through.


A Thousand Words

Thousand Words, A (2012)
★★ / ★★★★

Jack McCall (Eddie Murphy), a fast-talking literary agent, is assigned by his boss (Allison Janney) to snag a book deal with Dr. Sinja (Cliff Curtis), a very popular spiritual leader, whose most recent work is likely to prove profitable for the company. Pretending to have read Dr. Sinja’s book, the two eventually make a deal and shake hands. That night, a Bodhi tree magically sprouts from Jack’s posh backyard; the deal somehow establishing a connection between Jack and the tree. Each word that Jack utters resulted in the tree losing a leaf. If the last leaf were to fall off the branch, Jack would die.

Written by Steve Koren and directed by Brian Robbins, in theory, “A Thousand Words” is a perfect vehicle for Murphy because he has established himself as an actor who could say about a hundred words per minute, on average, and yet still deliver his lines with wit and clarity. While his performance is consistent, the script is neither as funny nor sharp as it could have been because the logic concerning the protagonist’s decisions in terms of whether to speak during Moment A or not speak during Moment B lacks practicality.

I had no problem accepting the magical elements with respect to the tree, but I struggled in accepting that Jack, a very successful man in the publishing world, lacks the intelligence to choose his battles wisely until the very end. Saving good decisions toward the back half of the story comes across forced. The character arc in connection the lessons Jack learns would have been much more believable if he made good decisions almost every step of the way while still having the tendency to slip back to his undesirable social habits. When it comes to human behavior, we expect change does not occur over night.

The picture does have very funny moments. One of my favorite scenes involves a book deal that has to be done via telephone. It is paramount that Jack is successful because his boss, Samantha, has not been very happy with him lately. In order to not waste words, Jack results to using various toys that can be pressed and a built-in voice is then activated. The idea is creative. Conjoined with quick editing, it creates a manic but fragile energy where a tiny error, like pressing on the wrong toy or the correct toy saying an unexpected alternate programmed message, might ruin the deal entirely.

There are instances of real sensitivity as well. I was touched by the scenes with Jack and his mother (Ruby Dee), the latter afflicted with dementia. I have had the chance to work in a facility with people afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease and, like Jack, patients have mistaken me for a family member and their sad stories are revealed.

When the film does not try so hard to be sad or funny, the lessons born from Jack’s struggle feels true. There is value in silence as well as choosing the right words while communicating. For instance, many people think that “being real” is saying whatever is on their minds. That isn’t necessarily the case. There is a difference between, say, honesty and rudeness or confidence and arrogance. We all have met people who just cannot stop talking. If only a Bodhi tree would magically appear in their yards.


Hoop Dreams

Hoop Dreams (1994)
★★★★ / ★★★★

William Gates, from the Cabrini-Green Public Housing Project, and Arthur Agee, from West Garfield Park, both only fourteen years of age, are scouted by Earl Smith to attend St. Joseph High School, a place that many consider is able to foster the talents of its basketball players and thereby giving children a chance to make something of themselves. “Hoop Dreams,” directed by Steve James, follows William and Arthur from being fourteen-year-old dreamers with raw talent till they leave home to attend university.

Not all of us may have come from bad neighborhoods where violence, drugs, and death are commonplace and yet we are able to relate one way or another to the picture’s subjects because we all have or have had dreams big and small. While a few will achieve or have achieved it, most of us will not or did not. This is how you know there is a William and Arthur in all of us: When the ball is released from their hands and it is up in the air, we hold our breaths just a little and hope the ball makes it in the hoop. A ball in free throw is a great metaphor for a dream: We have control of it for a while but on its way to the hoop, many factors can change its course and prevent it from going in altogether.

Or a teammate might lend a hand to get that ball in. The documentary is also about the people who try to get Arthur and William to go where they want to be. Arthur’s mother is especially memorable because for some time she has found a way to raise her three children for less than three hundred dollars a month after having been fired from her job. When her son is running around the court, it is most obvious that she is his number one fan and I was very moved because it was like seeing my mother rooting for me.

The picture could not have been scripted any better. An image that will be ingrained in my memory is the moment when Bo paid his son a short visit at the neighborhood basketball court. They had not seen each other in a while because his parents had a separation. Arthur noticed his father walking off the court eventually to buy drugs just a few feet away. No word is needed to convey the disappointment Arthur felt. Some may say that it should have been the father setting an example for his son. But in a way he is: Arthur is observing and learning what not to do in his future.

One of William’s challenges was his bad knee. Only a freshman in high school, universities already had their eyes on him. But it all came crashing down when he was injured and for a while it seemed like that was it for him. His injury would heal but the real question was whether he could perform at the same level, or better, once he recovered.

Meanwhile, the film brings up the question of whether or not it is healthy to recruit someone—sometimes as young as age twelve—to play basketball. There are no easy answers. On one hand, education is important and should take precedence. On the other hand, some people are more interested in sports than school and if they happened to be living in a bad neighborhood, it just might be a golden ticket to get out and redirect their lives completely.

I admired that the picture shows what is and does not intend to make judgments. It shows the faults in the system when it comes to the poor. It shows the faults in parenting. It shows the faults in the mindsets of William and Arthur as young athletes with wonderful potential. But it also shows people, like Patricia Weir, who are willing to help. It shows guidance counselors who are willing to be direct about the importance of grades and standardized exams. It shows family being encouraging even when the chips are down. It shows that there is always a surprise around the corner. It is a film that is real but ultimately optimistic.

“Hoop Dreams” is not about basketball. It is about how basketball can serve as a metaphor for life. Because if you’re not willing to place your feet on the court, put in the hard work, be a team player, take risks once in a while, and play the game to the best of your abilities, you might as well be sitting on the bench and watching everyone else taking a shot.


Gone Girl

Gone Girl (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★

Based on the novel and screenplay by Gillian Flynn, “Gone Girl” is a mystery-thriller that gets under the skin and into the bone, at times tickling the brain with its twists and turns alongside occasionally amusing one-liners, which makes the two-hour-and-thirty-minute peek into the lives of a suburban Missourian couple worthwhile. It is like watching a “Best Of” episodes of Marc Cherry’s “Desperate Housewives” only the film is directed by David Fincher which means darker elements are amplified and the ironic touches concentrated.

But the film is let down a bit by its unusual and ultimately ineffective casting of some supporting players. Neil Patrick Harris sticks out like a sore thumb as a former flame of Amy (Rosamund Pike) who may or may not have something to do with her sudden disappearance. Although Harris attempts a mix of danger, desperation, and coy—as if his character were in on some joke—I found his interpretation of the character to be quite distracting. Because there is a lack of an effective marriage between the performer and his character, just about every time he is on screen, I felt as though I was on the outside looking in rather than being cocooned in an increasingly complex and suffocating mystery.

Another misstep in terms of casting is Casey Wilson as the self-reported best friend of the woman who has gone missing. Although she is on screen fewer times than Harris, her interpretation of the character gives the impression that Noelle is supposed to be on a set of a comedy television show but somehow has gotten lost and ended up here. Granted, Noelle is, in part, supposed to be the “village idiot” but wouldn’t it have been more interesting if the character was written dumb but played smart? Contradiction, after all, is what makes the film function on a cerebral and, to an extent, a visceral level.

Fincher allows the mystery to unspool without the expected red herrings that usually come with the mystery-thriller genre. Instead, he employs his not unfamiliar signature of summoning basic elements of a dramatic film—in this case, a marriage drama—to elevate the tension during the exposition just enough and then eventually adding a number of jigsaw pieces onto his canvas in order to arouse our suspicions and inspire us to look a bit closer. In other words, he makes movies that slowly come to life and those willing to stick through the transformation are rewarded.

Ben Affleck is spot-on as Nick, the husband who becomes a curious specimen under the media’s microscope. Nick acts strangely because although his wife has disappeared, possibly dead, he does not know how to behave when the spotlight is on him. For instance, when photographers ask him to pose and smile in front of a missing person poster, he doesn’t even think twice about following through with the request—and what it might mean for him once the one perfect snapshot is published all over the papers and shown on national television. Thus, he gives the impression that either he does not care or he is a direct culprit. Detective Boney (Kim Dickens) and Officer Gilpin (Patrick Fugit) certainly have their suspicions.

“Gone Girl” is a true cousin of Fincher’s other thrillers like “Se7en,” “The Game,” and “Zodiac.” Although never as dark as any of them, all four engage the viewers on a high level—to question not only what is really going on but also whether the final answer, or answers, is something that we really want to know. And just when we are convinced that the final layer has been peeled off completely, a movie as alive as this is already growing another stratum of skin cells, ready to be picked off.


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