Beginners – Review

Beginners (2010) 

Director: Mike Mills Writer: Mike Mills Stars:  Ewan McGregorChristopher Plummer and Mélanie Laurent 

They may tell you that this is a comedy. You might have read about it on newspapers and magazines, you might have seen the poster looking more like one of those US rom-com than anything else… You’ve probably even looked at the trailer which sells it as an Indi-like comedy (and only hints to something else behind it), but be aware…

To a certain degree this is comedy in the most Shakespearian sense of the word (where even the most dramatic plays are considered comedic just because they end well). There are certainly some inspired funny moments here and there, however if you decide to go and watch “Beginners”, get ready to bring some tissues along because behind the laughs and the weird quirky tone, there’s a really heart-breaking story at its core.

The film essentially intercuts between two timelines: the first one follows the few last months of the charming, flamboyant and playful 75 years old Hal (an Oscar-worthy role by Christopher Plummer) who has recently come out as gay and most crucially who’s terminally ill with cancer. Don’t worry, I am not giving away anything: the film actually starts with his son, Oliver (Ewan McGregor in what’s probably his best performance) clearing up his deceased dad’s apartment.

The second timeline centres around his Oliver himself having to live with and accept the death of his father as well dealing with a new relationship with a free-spirited French actress, Anna (Melanie Laurent).

The film moves backwards and forwards between the two timelines and as it unfolds, it underlines the many contradictions of life: there’s light and darkness, music and silence, joy and sadness, laughs and tears (mainly tears as far as I am concerned: I was a total wreck by the end of it!), life and death.

It’s a film feels incredibly personal and yet it actually manages to be universal. After all it deals with the things we all very familiar with: parents, love, loneliness, death.

The beauty of it all is its attention to details: it’s a film made by simple moments which are so small and yet carry so much meaning. Like clearing a house after a person has died, going through their clothes, their personal properties, having to deal with the practicality of having to write a death certificate, but also, the clear realisation that life goes on for the living.

It is poignant and yet hopeful. It’s probably not for everyone, and it may have a few moments where it drags a little bit, but in the end it’s so disarmingly honest and beautifully observed and despite having a “talking dog” (and getting away with it) it feels incredibly truthful and real and I’d love to recommend it, but I’m aware that it’s a really tough watch and it’s a hard film to love. However it stayed with me long after the  credits finished rolling

7.5/10

Life in a Day – Review

Life in a Day (2011) 

Directed by Kevin Macdonald. Produced by Tony Scott & Ridley Scott.

Last year (2010) YouTube launched a campaign, supported by executive producers Tony and Ridley Scott, asking everybody with a camcorder to record a day in their lives. Fast forward a year to 2011 and director Kevin Macdonald and editor Joe Walker (never an editor has been more crucial to the making of a film), release their documentary to the world and to the same people who actually filmed it.

Apparently 80000 videos for a total of 4500 hours were submitted from 126 different nations.

The result is a film that tells the story of a day on Earth, and precisely the 24th of July 2010: 24 hours in the life of ordinary people. Their stories, their images, their thoughts, all linked together by an incredible work of editing and a rousing soundtrack by Harry Gregson-Williams

You can argue that some of it might  be slightly heavy-handed (a shot of a cow being killed on camera is then, non very subtlety, cut together with a man eating from a bowl of spaghetti), but some of the choices are absolutely inspired (montage sequences of people getting up in the morning or having breakfast or simply walking). It’s the amalgamation of all these little snippets of life that makes the film an incredible watch and eventually it ends up actually telling a whole story as the ordinary becomes extraordinary.

The film starts at midnight as people are still asleep in most places: some night shift workers are already at it, some wild party animals are still up from the previous day, but generally speaking it’s a quiet start. Within a few minutes, we are treated by a sunrise montage from all over the world as people are getting up in the most remote corners of the globe. They have breakfast, some of them go to work, others stay at home, somebody shaves for the first time (a very funny scene!), somebody decides to lay in bed for a bit longer, and somebody else begins a new “empty” day: loneliness might be just around the corner…

Despite the sometimes over-indulgent choice of editing and the ever-present soundtrack the film still manages to capture that pulsating realism of modern life through simple gestures, looks, words and silences as the similarities and (many) differences are exposed.

But just when you are about to think “is this film going to be just a long montage sequence?”, then the film suddenly slows down and you are actually treated to real moments into people’s life (well, I say “real”, obviously there’s a camera filming so I suppose it’s “a version of reality”, but that doesn’t diminish its value nor its emotional impact on the audience).

For example, quite early on a little boy of probably 4 is woken up by his dad who’s filming the whole thing (I seem to remember they were in Japan or thereabout): we stay with them for a while as they talk about seemingly mundane things: the boy is incredibly sweet,  the house is strangely messy. Then dad says “let’s go and say ‘hi’ to mom”. They move to a corner of a room where we see for the first time a little shrine with a picture of a woman. Together they light an incense and pay their little morning tribute to the mom.

It’a quiet moment that tell a thousand words: no need for commentary or any explanation. It’s clear these two have been doing this for a while. It’s clear they are incredibly close to each other. Mom is gone. They are both alone, but they have each other… We fill the gaps in an instant. It’s an incredibly poignant moment. This time there is no music playing underneath. The director knows when to manipulate its audience and when he should take a step back and let us make our own mind and feel what we want to feel.

Life in a day is full of simple moments like this one. So simple and yet so powerful.

Don’t worry, there are a lot of laugh-out-loud moments too.

Generally speaking the film is edited in such a way that shows a certain optimism that comes with the beginning of a new day and yet is some cases, this fades away for some as we approach sunset and go through the night by which time loneliness takes over the weakest ones. It’s a beautifully constructed device, which might be a bit contrived but it works perfectly.

In the end, this is a film about everything: rich countries and poor countries, smiles and tears (quite a lot in my case, I must confess), day and night, life and death, animals and humans, man and women, whites, blacks, gays, straights, children and very old people, happiness and desperation.  We are all there, with our fears, our idiosyncrasies, our routines, our doubts, our weaknesses…

Everybody will come out of it and will probably remember something different. Each of us might identify with a different moment in the film. One thing is certain: you will never forget it.

It might not be a complete masterpiece, but there is so much good stuff in it that makes you forget the slightly sugary moments and the most heavy handed ones.

This was my favorite film of the year so far and definitely the most intense emotional experience I’ve had in a long time.

YOU CAN NOW WATCH IT ONLINE:  http://www.youtube.com/lifeinaday

9.5/10

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Kaboom – Review

Kaboom (2010)

Directed by Gregg Araki. Starring Haley BennettThomas DekkerJames Duva

After the complex, challenging, touching and definitely mature “Mysterious Skin” (2004) I was really looking forwards to Araki’s new film (And let’s just pretend that the 2007 Smiley Face doesn’t even exist).

The trailer makes Kaboom look quirky, subversive and somewhat crazy in a fresh and fun sort of way…. Once again, a misleading trailer! Unfortunately the film itself has really none of that offer, as if Araki, instead of growing up, had been regressing to a film student again, because, that’s what this film feels like: a polished and yet pointless student film! And believe me, I’ve seen many of those in my life!

Thomas Dekker is quite likable and he’s probably the best thing in the film and yet he’s struggling with a story that has no beginning and no end (literally no end!)… And actually, come to think of it, no middle either!

The film tries to be anarchic, dark, sexy, funny, rude, aping films like Donnie Darko and even  The Rules of Attraction  (which was a pretty faulty film anyway). In the end it is just too chaotic and definitely too silly to be taken seriously or to even recommend.

There are very few original ideas and the little excitement in there is only given by the music and the editing, but certainly not by the story. Even the few good lines of dialogue in the script remain too isolated and detached be noticed, let alone remembered and they get lost in the ludicrous plot.

What is real? Is there a conspiracy?  Who are those people dressed like animals? Does any of this really matter? And actually, do we give a toss?

In the end it’s very hard to care about who does what and why, so basically you’ll just end up waiting to see who’s going to have sex with whom,

(Basically everyone seems bed down with just about everyone else in this movie despite their gender differences) and yet, none of the sex has anything to do with the story. It is completely incidental and purely exploitive.

But even if you take it as a sexy film, beyond its average straight/gay/bi soft-core porn clichés, it is all quite unremarkable and gets nowhere close to push any boundary and it thinks it does.

In fact it all gets rather repetitive  (I lost the count of how many times some character wakes up all of a sudden from some bad dream).

This film might have been the director’s wet dream, but none of that excitement shows up in the final product. I’ll give Araki one last chance then I’ll begin to think that “Mysterious Skin” was just a lucky mistake in an otherwise disastrous flexography.

5.0

Loose Cannons – Review

Loose Cannons (2010) 

(Mine vaganti: Original Title)

Directed by Ferzan Ozpetek. Starring Riccardo ScamarcioNicole GrimaudoAlessandro PreziosiElena Sofia RicciIlaria Occhini.

Italo-Turkish director Ferzan Ozpetek goes back to what he knows and does best: a”coming-out” comedy” about homosexuality and family values, full of memorable quirky characters, laugh out-loud moments mixed with bittersweet and poignant reflections.

These are also the themes of one of my old favorite Ozpetek’s film, the Ignorant Fairies (Le fate Ignoranti), made 10 years ago.


It is all fairly watchable stuff and it sort of works as long as it’s on the screen. However, any attempt of social comment or critique at any serious issue (the close mindedness of the South of Italy, and the way Italians like to appear which is more important than the way they are, among the others) quickly fades away and gets diluted in the pursuit of easy laughers and in the over-the-top, almost caricatural depictions of the characters. Of course, it is supposed be a comedy… but sadly that’s all it is.


The story is set in Lecce, a city in the heel of the Italian boot, in the deep south. and it focuses on the large Cantone family (so large that it took me a while to work out who was who). Tommaso, is about to come out to his parents. One night, at the dinner table, just when he’s about to break the news to the family, his older brother, Antonio announces himself to everyone that he’s gay.

The father’s refusal to accept or understand his older brother’s sexuality gives him a heart attack and leaving Tommaso at the helm of the family pasta making business, whilst at the same time trying to deal with his own hidden truth (fearing that his father won’t survive the news of both of his 2 sons being gay).

There are a lot of other storylines, and the family is certainly large enough to offer several opportunities for sub-plots. Unfortunately most of the characters remain just superficial caricatures (the wise grandmother, the loony aunt, the apprehensive mother, the homophobic father, the girl in love with the gay man and so on…) and in the end the film falls into the same clichés the director is trying to ridicule in the film.

In a way, there’s nothing here we haven’t seen before, (funnily enough even within Ozpetek’s previous films too) but it’s good to see the overshadowed-by-the-Vatican-Italy finally arriving there too.


The film is handsomely filmed and the great looking, almost-perfect settings only seem to enhanced the imperfections of the family itself.

The editing (and direction) both seem a bit too pleased with themselves: some scenes could have gained something by being trimmed a bit. Even the most emotional moments always seem to go on for a bit too much than it’s needed (I’m thinking of the scenes around the tables, or more crucially – SPOILER COMING –  the one where the grandmother decides to go for her cakes, or even the one at the beach. You get the point after a few seconds and yet both scenes go on and on and on).

The same goes for the over-used music, both in terms of the actual score (which once again stresses the slapstick aspect of the film) and known songs, most of which seem rather random and a bit intrusive.

Most of the acting is very good especially the woman grandmother (Ilaria Occhini) who seems to be the only one really sees what’s happening within her family.


In the end I am happy I saw this film, and I did enjoy it, but I’m still longing for the return of the real Commedia all’Italiana of the 50s and 60s (and to a degree the 70s too) which really provided a mirror of Italian customs and values, attacking prejudices and questioning the general thinking of elites and institutions in a much more subtle way. The sometimes dark and bleak vision of the society and the bittersweet laughers those films provoked, felt a lot less forced than they are in this film which is clearly trying to be bit more commercial. Still, we’re probably heading towards the right direction.

7/10

You can read more about “Commedia all’Italiana” on my previous post on Mario Monicelli

Mario Monicelli (1915 – 2010)

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