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La meglio gioventù (The Best of Youth) (2003)

Director: Marco Tullio Giordana

Screenplay: Sandro Petraglia, Stefano Rulli

Marco Tullio Giordana’s La meglio gioventù was first screened to the Italian masses in June of 2003, just one month after winning the Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard Award.  It was a massive hit in Italy, later going on to be shown in four parts in December of 2003 on Italian state television network Rai Uno.  Yet despite screening in numerous countries around the world, the film arguably retains an air of obscurity about it, most likely due to its daunting 383 minute running time.  (In case you’re still doing the maths on that one, it’s just under six and a half hours.  Yes, you read that correctly: six.  And a half.  Hours.)

Following the course of the lives of brothers Nicola (Luigi Lo Cascio) and Matteo Carati (Alessio Boni) from 1966 to 2003, La meglio gioventù juxtaposes the transition from youth to adulthood with some of Italy’s major historical events.  Nicola is a medical student motivated by a strong desire to right the wrongs he sees within Italy’s brutal mental healthcare systems.  Matteo, despite his passion for literature,  is a no nonsense hardass, attracted to the strict rules and discipline of the military and police forces.  On a trip to Norway’s North Cape in 1966, the brothers go their separate ways and from this point, the film examines the different course of each man’s life.

For the most part, Nicola is the story’s protagonist, with the majority of the film being devoted to him.  We watch as Nicola dabbles with the life of the wandering hippy throughout the late sixties, spurned on by slight notions of free love, the beauty of life and topped with his ever increasing compassionate desire to help those who suffer.  By the 70’s he’s fathered a child with activist/communist Giulia (Sonia Bergamasco) and settled in Turin.

The problem with epic films such as La meglio gioventù is that there’s always a notion that if it’s long, it’s art.  If it’s long, it’s a miraculous concoction of cinematic magic that simply couldn’t have existed within the suffocating realm of 90 or even 120 minutes.  If it’s long, it has meaning.  The fact of the matter is, La meglio gioventù most certainly did not need to be six and a half hours long.  In fact, the last three and a half hours of the film are simply there.  They function by continuing to show the lives of the characters on screen, yet they really say nothing about these lives.  I myself am of the opinion that after 383 minutes, I should know the characters onscreen inside and out.  There should be no murky side to the people I’ve been watching grow up for over six hours.  That’s not the case with this film.  I can honestly say that although Nicola’s life was for the most part interesting to observe, by the film’s end I did not feel that I knew anything more about who he was than I had learned within the film’s first hour.

The same can be said of Matteo, a character whom I found to be particularly annoying.  Right from the start we can see that something isn’t quite right with him, but we are never sure exactly what.  He’s temperamental and isolationist, anti-social and depressed.  Why he behaves this way is really anyone’s guess.  Even his family can’t figure him out.  Still, we are asked to observe him for hours without ever getting a deeper look into who he is.  It’s repetitive and frustrating to watch.

The film finds its best groove early on by hinting at a severe social and personal conflict between the two brothers.  Unfortunately, around hour number three, it became apparent that the film is more a showcase of the changes in life brought on by the passing of time, and that there really was no central conflict.  Time passes and we watch its affect on the multitude of characters.  Perhaps this is how life really works, but if that’s the case, why stop at six hours to illustrate how life manifests itself upon people?  Why not 9 hours?  16? 24?

The point of course, is that La meglio gioventù wants badly to be a studious examination of life.  Yet what it misses in this gargantuan process is that life is a series of both small and large incidents which shape who we are and how we live.  Aside from one or two major incidents at the start of the film, Nicola and Matteo’s lives are disappointingly unaffected by any of the film’s potential character shaping moments.  And this failure to see what effect life’s twists and turns have on a person’s character makes the entire journey from 1966 to 2003 actually feel like six-hours of actors acting rather than thirty-seven years of people living.

-Mike

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To verdener (Worlds Apart) (2008)

Director: Niels Arden Oplev

Screenplay: Steen Bille, Niels Arden Oplev

If you happen to be a fan of author Steig Larsson’s Millenium trilogy and the subsequent films it spawned, then you’ll know Danish director Niels Arden Oplev as the man behind Män som hatar kvinnor (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo).  One year prior to that film, Oplev co-wrote and directed To verdener, a film that was modestly fêted on the festival circuit in its native Denmark, as well as surprising the box office with over 300,000 tickets sold.

The film tells the true story of Sara (Rosaline Mynster), a 17-year-old girl living in a devout Jehovah’s Witness family.  When Sara’s dabbling in things forbidden by her religion leads to a romance with 23-year-old atheist Teis (Johan Philip Asbæk), her faith as well as her ties to her family are tested.  Throughout the film, Sara continues to walk a fine line between being on the verge of banishment from the faith by the elders as well as her family, and forgiveness.

To verdener commences with Sara’s mother Karen (Sarah Boberg) and father Andreas (Jens Jørn Spottag) announcing to their three children that Andreas has commit a sin against Jehovah and the family.  Though it isn’t specifically stated what that sin is, it’s evident that Andreas has had an extra-marital affair.  Both Karen and Andreas tell their children that the decision as to which parent must now leave the household is entirely up to them.  Sara is quick to point out that forgiveness is a necessary virtue and because Karen refuses to forgive Andreas, it should be Karen who leaves.  Though shocked by this decision, Karen obliges her children’s wishes and moves out.  This sole action sets up much of what sort of person Sara is, foreshadowing her own attempts at finding understanding and forgiveness amongst her family and church.

From this point onward, as much as I hate to say it, To verdener felt increasingly like a Movie of the Week – a European Movie of the Week, mind you – but a Movie of the Week none the less.  This I can surmise is due in large part to the actual thinness of the plot and the lack of any particular momentum of the film itself.  For starters, Sara’s great love affair with Teis is little more than a tool to ignite Sara’s moral dilemma.  He’s 23-years-old and at no point is there any indication exactly why he so quickly falls in love so hard with Sara.  The entire reason as to what attracts a 23-year-old Danish musician and atheist to a 17-year-old Jehovah’s Witness is severely lacking.  Sara is the centre piece of this film and for this reason, Oplev chose to place every last drop of the film’s energy into proving to the audience that she has one big decision to make.  Which of course, she does.  Still, that shouldn’t mean that the rest of the cast should be relegated to mere set pieces.

There were also too many unanswered questions, such as why Sara’s mother seemed to only slightly obey the strict laws of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and still remain perfectly accepted within the group.  I’m also confused as to why on the first night where Sara sleeps at Teis’ apartment after missing the last train home, that she didn’t simply take a taxi or even walk.  Yes, at heart she was not fully supportive of the church’s vows and laws, but at the time when she misses her train, we are lead to believe that she really did not want to spend the night at Teis’ apartment.

In general, it seemed that To verdener had little room to go after it established that Sara would struggle to find a balance between her faith and her life.  This struggle, while potentially capable of powering a strongly made drama, fizzles and becomes repetitive rather quickly under Oplev’s command.  The ending comes as no surprise, further strengthening the film’s inability to shake off the melodramatic weight of a Movie of the Week.

-Mike

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La graine et le mulet (Couscous) (2007)

Director: Abdel Kechiche

Screenplay: Abdel Kechiche

Though born in Tunisia in 1960, writer-director-actor Abdel Kechiche immigrated with his family to France in 1966, setting up residence in Nice.  Kechiche made his debut as an actor in 1984 and it wasn’t until 2000, at the age of 40 and after numerous acting roles, that he followed his desire to direct.  His first feature film, La faute à Voltaire (Blame it on Voltaire), did well at several European film festivals, receiving a total of seven awards, including the CinemAvvenire and Luigi De Laurentiis awards at the 2000 Venice Film Festival.  La graine et le mulet marks his third directorial effort and is undoubtedly his most critically acclaimed work to date.

In La graine et le mulet, newcomer Habib Boufares plays Slimane Beiji, a sixty-one-year-old dockhand who finds himself laid off after 35 years of service.  With two families to support and very little money to speak of, Slimane decides to open his own restaurant – an old ship transformed into a floating dining experience in which his ex-wife’s (Bouraouïa Marzouk) legendary fish couscous is served.  Opening a restaurant proves to be no simple task and as Slimane’s pockets do not run very deep, he is forced to apply for a loan and create business proposals which are all very much out of his realm of experience.  Fortunately for him, he’s both encouraged and aided by Rym (Hafsia Herzi), his daughter from his current relationship.

Undoubtedly, Kechiche’s greatest accomplishment with La graine et le mulet is the manner by which he allows his characters the onscreen room that they need to breathe.  Scenes are somewhat lengthy, allowing for the characters to reveal their personalities in a natural and uncompromising manner.  This is especially beneficial given the fact that most of the actors in the film are untrained, first time actors.  There’s a very genuine, almost documentarian feel to all of this.  As a result, the moments when the family are arguing feel awkward to watch, as if we the audience are intruding on one private family matter after another.

La graine et le mulet‘s central story isn’t particularly fascinating, but it works solely because of the personal manner in which we’re drawn into the affairs of Slimane and his family.  In addition to this, the performances of Habib Boufares and Hafsia Herzi are particularly powerful, though they both play on opposite ends of the scale.  Boufares is capable of saying everything with a single morose glance, making him a pitiable and empathetic character all at once.  Herzi is outright explosive as Rym, a young woman filled with pride and unwavering determination and devotion.  The relationship between her and her father Slimane, as well as how she interacts with her half-brothers and sisters is simply mesmerizing to watch.

As the family dynamic intensifies throughout the film, Kechiche keeps his focus on Slimane.  This is the family that he’s built and these are the sacrifices that he’s made.  Everyone it seems, is talking about Slimane, whether to his face or behind his back, and he weathers it all with an unwavering mixture of calm and helplessness.  It’s the film’s third act that really devours the heart, amounting to 50 minutes of what I can only describe as heartbreaking cinema.  It’s honestly been quite a while since a film moved me in the way that La graine et le mulet did.  This is not an uplifting film, but it is a wonderfully orchestrated look into the complexities, the help and the outright hinderance of family life.

-Mike

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The Slammin’ Salmon (2009)

Director: Kevin Heffernan

Screenplay: Broken Lizard (Jay Chandrasekhar, Kevin Heffernan, Steve Lemme, Paul Soter, Erik Stolhanske)

Best known for their 2001 comedy Super Troopers, about a group of half-witted state troopers and 2006’s Beerfest in which five friends train for a secret German beer drinking competition, the Broken Lizard comedy troupe are responsible for nearly fifteen years worth of filmmaking that has retained something of a cult following.  This past December, after four years of waiting, Broken Lizard fans were finally treated to the follow up to Beerfest, The Slammin’ Salmon.

The film takes place entirely in the fictional Slammin’ Salmon, a high end Miami restaurant owned but hardly operated by former heavyweight boxer and current moron Cleon Salmon, aka “The Champ” (Michael Clarke Duncan).  When The Champ finds himself $20,000 in debt to a Yakuza boss, he orders meek and insecure  restaurant manager Rich (Kevin Heffernan), to ensure that the restaurants’s receipts for that evening bring in the much needed cash.  Faced with either bringing in the money or having “his ass shoved up his ass” by The Champ, Rich enlists the help of the Salmon’s wait staff, promising a stay at a luxury spa for the waiter or waitress who brings in the most business for the evening.  This motivational tactic is later upped by The Champ himself to ten thousand dollars when he discovers that the receipts are not growing fast enough.  From this point onward, the story hits the same note over and over with few to no worthwhile changes.

I’m not ashamed to admit that I have seen all the Broken Lizard films, with the exception of their first effort, 1996’s ill received Puddle Cruiser, and that I would consider myself a fan of their work.  In fact, Beerfest is a film that I initially hated, but now ranks as one of my favourite comedies to watch whenever I’m in the mood for something fun and easy.  However, what saved films like Beerfest and 2004’s Club Dread from simply being stupid comedies, is that their moments of stupidity actually translated into laughs.  There was a no pressure feel to their approach that was content in generally being goofy and nonsensical, whether the audience laughed or not.  The Slammin’ Salmon seems to be the opposite of that.  It grovels and pleads for laughs, throwing out everything it can in the process and amounting to a hollow, formulaic retread of the spontaneity seen in earlier Broken Lizard works.

It doesn’t take a genius to realize that the Broken Lizard gang isn’t out to make deeply compelling and life altering cinema.  They’ve never made a pretentious film in their lives and that sort of carefree attitude is actually quite refreshing.  They’re in it strictly for the laughs, and if those laughs are provided, then things like a less than stellar story can sometimes be overlooked.  Unfortunately, as a result of the general lack of laughs, The Slammin’ Salmon fails to achieve its one and only objective.  Perhaps this change in output can be attributed to Kevin Heffernan, who made his directorial debut with Salmon, taking the helm from far more experienced and usual Broken Lizard director Jay Chandrasekhar.  Or maybe it’s a matter of the film’s single location serving to amplify the repetitiveness of the script itself.  Whatever the case may be, as a Broken Lizard fan, I would have been far more pleased to see them return after four years with the much whispered about sequel to Beerfest: Potfest.

Don’t judge.  We all need a few nice, easy laughs now and then.

-Mike

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Eldorado (2008)

Director: Bouli Lanners

Screenplay: Bouli Lanners

Touted by many as the best Belgian film of 2008, writer-director-actor Bouli Lanners’ Eldorado had me laughing within the film’s initial opening minutes.  When Yvan (Bouli Lanners) returns home from a business trip to find a burglar hiding under his bed, he demands that the intruder come out.  The burglar promptly refuses.  Yvan’s anger escalates: he stomps, he shouts, he argues with the intruder beneath the bed, but all to no effect.  The man just won’t budge.  Fast forward to the morning, and Yvan has fallen asleep in a chair, still waiting for the burglar to show himself.  Assuming that the coast is clear, the burglar scurries out from beneath the bed, but Yvan awakes and throws a heavy steel pipe at the man as he flees.  The pipe strikes the man, knocking him down the stairs and injuring him. From this point on, Yvan takes on a sweet yet humorous sympathy for the young burglar called Didier (played to a T by Fabrice Adde), feeling guilty no doubt for throwing the heavy pipe at him in the first place.  The relationship between Didier and Yvan quickly progresses and soon Didier has talked Yvan into driving him to see his parents, who live near the French border.

As far as feature films go, Eldorado is a short one, clocking in at a mere 80 minutes.  Yet for what it manages to accomplish in those 80 minutes, the film certainly deserves all the praise it has received.  For his part, Lanners had his work cut out for him: creating a credible bond between Yvan and Didier, who in addition to being a burglar is also a junkie, is no easy task.  But Lanners pulls it off with effortless aplomb, mostly because the idea that Yvan is befriending a burglar/junkie; giving him food, money and driving him to see his parents, quickly evolves in to an understanding that Yvan needs Didier just as much as Didier seems to need Yvan.  As a result, that bond between the two is so enjoyable and flecked with such an understated innocence ,that becoming lost in its genuine nature is quite effortless.

Eldorado carries with it the notion of salvation and as the film progresses, this subtext gains in weight and importance.  It’s rather crucial to take this in to consideration throughout the course of the film, though Lanners keeps the concept just low key enough as to avoid crowding out the humor of the central story line.  The film does end rather abruptly (albeit suitably abrupt for this type of story), leaving the viewer to reflect on what they’ve just seen.  If the salvation subtext is ignored, I can see why the ending could potentially annoy viewers, making them feel that no real resolution has been achieved.  This simply isn’t the case however, and the ending should be chalked up to yet another powerfully minimalistic aspect of Lanners’ superbly sweet and melancholic filmmaking.

-Mike

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L’avventura (The Adventure) (1960)

HAPPY 50th 1960-2010

Director: Michelangelo Antonioni

Screenplay: Michelangelo Antonioni, Elio Bartolini, Tonino Guerra

In May of 1960, Michelangelo Antonioni’s 143 minute L’avventura was booed at the Cannes Film Festival.  Despite this less than stellar reception to his film, Antonioni went on to have the last laugh: L’avventura took home the festival’s Jury Prize and is today regarded by many as a cinematic masterpiece.  That’s certainly not to say that the film is everyone’s cup of tea, but with a little patience on the part of the viewer, L’avventura can indeed cast a very magical spell.

As far as narrative structure is concerned, L’avventura was unconventional at the time of its release and even today it defies established and pre-conceived notions of exactly what narrative can and should do.  Lea Massari is Anna, a wealthy, selfish and somewhat contemptible woman involved in a relationship with the similarly attributed Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti).  Together with Anna’s friend Claudia (Monica Vitti), the trio set off on a Mediterranean boat trip with another group of friends.  During an early afternoon stop at a particularly rocky island, Anna disappears.  A police search follows, but Anna seems to have vanished without a trace.  Though she initially resists, Claudia soon joins Sandro on a search for Anna and along the way, the two find themselves drawn to one another, ultimately giving in to their desires and falling in love.  That may sound simple enough, but the film is really so much more than its deceptively basic plot hints at.

Control and the desire for control play heavily amongst the characters of L’avventura, particularly within Anna and Sandro.  The emptiness of their material wealth seems to have accelerated their subconscious belief that lasting physical control over their lives and environments is impossible, and that the only manner by which any sort of control can be experienced is to strike out at beauty whenever such an opportunity presents itself.  This is evidenced early on during the boating trip when the friends all go swimming and Anna creates a mass exodus back to the boat after she pretends to spot a shark swimming nearby.  She revels in the pleasure of ruining the day of swimming, just as some time later in the film, Sandro purposely knocks a bottle of ink on to a young artists sketchpad, ruining the work in progress.

Throughout all this, it would seem inevitable that the world Antonioni creates is grim and void of any sort of  beauty.  Yet somehow, Antonioni manages to completely turn such a notion on its head and by creating characters who live by such nihilistic means, the beauty and richness of life and its surroundings are enhanced rather than diminished.  Make no mistake about it, L’avventura is a gorgeous film from beginning to end; brimming with symbolism, rich in metaphor and depth and powerfully evoking the fragility and magnificence of all that is fleeting about life.

-Mike

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Keinohrhasen (Rabbit Without Ears) (2007)

Director: Til Schweiger

Screenplay: Anika Decker, Til Schweiger

In 2008, 6.2 million Germans flocked to the cinema to see actor/writer/director/producer Til Schweiger’s romantic comedy Keinohrhasen. No small feat by any means, considering that Keinohrhasen drew more of a German audience than Hollywood heavyweights such as Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, Ratatouille, Shrek the Third, Spiderman 3 and Night at the Museum – to name but a few.  In fact the only film from 2007 that Keinohrhasen didn’t bring in more viewers than was Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, which brought in just over 7 million.  If any of this seems a tad surprising to you, well, that’s because it really is.  Especially for a rom-com.

Schweiger plays the lead role of Ludo Dekker: a morally bereft tabloid journalist/ladies man, who would most likely have better luck recalling the title of the porno he watched the previous night than he ever would of recalling the name of whichever woman he’s just slept with.  After a particularly invasive attempt at photographing the private wedding of a famous footballer goes horribly awry, Ludo is sentenced to 8 months in prison, a sentence which is suspended in exchange for 300 hours of community service at a local kindergarten.  It’s at this point where Ludo’s past catches up with him and he encounters Anna (Nora Tschirner), a girl whom Ludo teased mercilessly years ago when they were both kids.  As fate would have it, Anna is now one of the head instructors at the kindergarten where Ludo has been sentenced to complete his community service.  Unsurprisingly, Anna doesn’t like Ludo.  If you’ve ever seen a romantic comedy before, you can pretty much guess where the story goes from here.

Truth be told, I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for rom-coms.  Yes, they’re cheesy and maudlin, but they’re typically cheery enough to make for a decent and light night at the movies.  Keinohrhasen does follow the rom-com mold well enough, but Anna’s hatred for Ludo is so over the top in the first act that her character really has nowhere left to go from that point on.  As a result, she comes off quite flat and her sudden emotional turns are hardly credible.  Ludo takes Anna’s rage and hatred in stride, never quite being bothered enough by any of it to create any sort of on screen chemistry between the two.  Because of this, the relationship between Ludo and Anna barely takes on any more significance than any of Ludo’s past one night stands do.  The film then evolves into a series of predictable plot points crammed with filler, in order to push this sucker past the 100 minute mark.

Rather unsurprisingly, Keinohrhasen‘s positive box office response has sent Hollywood calling, and an American remake is already in the works.  I can’t see the film being improved upon by a watered down Hollywood remake – in fact what gives Keihohrhasen its little bit of edge are the bits that are too risque for American audiences.  Those portions: the sometimes problematic status of Ludo’s cunnilingus skills, or Ludo being such a classy guy that even the porno films he watches are arty, black and white affairs, for example, will doubtlessly be the first to go.  Schweiger’s film might simply be a rabbit without ears, but I’m willing to bet that an American remake will be a rabbit without everything else.

-Mike

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