PORTFOLIO - FILM REVIEWS

Items from reviews I contributed on: LaLaFilm.com

 
Vittorio De Sica, A Film Series - August 16, 2015

Vittorio De Sica was born on July 7, 1901 in Sora, Italy and died in France on November 13, 1974. He gained fame as both an actor and a director. As an actor his characters were suave, polished, and debonair. As a director in favor of Neorealism, his films were earthy, heartfelt, and honest. Through his work as an actor, he was able to finance his films. In post World War II Italy, the neorealists interpreted their stories as they wished, in this new Italian film industry now free of any impending control. De Sica (often with collaborator/ writer, Cesare Zavattini) created a rich catalog of films.
Four of De Sica’s classic films will be shown at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco on September 26th 2015, and tickets for this one-off event can be purchased here (no longer available). Here’s what you’ll be treated to…

La Ciociara (Two Women, 1960)
The film, set in rural, central Italy follows Cesira (Sophia Loren) and her daughter Rosetta (Eleonora Brown) as they try to escape from the bombings in Rome during World War II, but find even more than their ideals burn out around them. Cesira has plenty of money to get them by, but as resources were scarce, preparedness was no virtue. Mostly shot outdoors, we see the shelterless people on hilltops hiding and tumbling from the warplanes above and from the tanks riding on the paths they must cross. Seeking safety in a church was no solace either, as both mother and daughter are traumatized by Moroccan soldiers. De Sica makes a film that looks like newsreel footage, and that plays with the same rawness of a news story.

L’Oro Di Napoli (The Gold of Naples, 1954)
De Sica’s early days were spent in Naples and so he capably uses it as a backdrop for these episodes. Quality versions of this film are hard to come by in the U.S., and in fact, when it was released in the U.S. in 1954, it was with only 4 of the 6 episodes included. (The complete uncut version is part of the series.) Of the episodes available on DVD: a father/husband must stand up to a bully. A persistent gambler (played by De Sica) plays a game of cards against a kid, while trying to retain his dignity. A prostitute is falsely charmed into an arranged marriage, and must decide whether it is worth it or not. A popular pizza maker (played by Sophia Loren) loses her husband’s ring in her pizza dough. Her husband begins a hunt for the ring with all the usual suspects, except one. Each episode is short and with a message – little morality plays, some serious and some lighthearted.

Matrimonio All’Italiana (Marriage Italian Style, 1964)
This would be my favorite in the series – Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni portraying a mostly one-sided romantic relationship and how that all ends. What is most striking about this film is the use of color, or Technicolor, which apparently was restored in 2014 and is a must-see. When Filumena Marturano (Sophia Loren) appears on the screen, her hair is a vibrant red and her dress is equally colorfully electric. Domenico Soriano (Marcello Mastroianni) enters with style and charm and easily justifies the spell he has on Filumena. As Filumena gets into Domenico’s flashy sports car, they are illuminated against the dreary backdrop around them. As their relationship has its ups and downs, so do the colors of the sets and their own presence – as if to represent the heat (reds and oranges) of a new relationship, and the coldness (greys) when it goes downhill. To see the color it ends on, I suggest you attend the film screening.

Il Giardino Dei Finzi Contini (The Garden of The Finzi-Continis, 1970)
This film takes place in Ferrara, Italy depicting the time from 1938 to 1943 and the laws that Mussolini enacted against Italian Jews. The first images of the film are of carefree young people riding bikes with the sun shinning brightly down upon them. They then enter the serene and safe gardens owned by the Finzi-Continis family. What ensues are scenes of the life of an middle-class Jewish family in contrast to that of an aristocratic one. Loves found and lost carry on a dramatic storyline despite the burden of the war around them. While one family acts as though all is well by not leaving their garden, in the end, they all face the same dilemmas. A visually lush and textured film, and yet, a dark imminence carries throughout.  

If ever there were an argument for celebrating films of the past, it is with these by De Sica. While sometimes light and fun, colorful and exciting, they also remind us of times that shouldn’t be forgotten. The neorealists wanted to show the human condition and De Sica has produced images that will stick with you and not let you forget these times. More than realistic cinema, these are examples of how directors, writers, producers, actors… can drive home a message in a beautiful way.


Anomalisa
(2016) - January 9, 2016

Anomalisa was 3 years in the making. It’s a truly handmade movie with 118,089 frames of stop motion film. Using animation makes the film’s topic more universal as it’s not tied to actors we might recognize. We will never see these animated actors again, unless they remake this film. The premise, written by Charlie Kaufman, surrounds the overnight business trip of an author named Michael Stone. Detached even before he arrives, Michael finds himself bored in his hotel room the night before he is to make a motivational speech on customer service. He is later to advise his audience that callers can infer even over the phone whether you are providing service with a smile or not.

Throughout the film, Michael aggressively searches for a reason to smile and to be excited about his own life. In his world, everyone speaks with the voice of Tom Noonan, except one. He meets Lisa and relishes her soft standout female voice (that of Jennifer Jason Leigh). An exploration of the unique follows.

Although not performed by humans, the story can still hit home. I always wondered why men can leave a relationship suddenly. Leaving the woman as if at the edge of a cliff teetering herself to either lean back to safety or fall ahead into the pits for good. I’m happy to see Charlie Kaufman’s offering of an explanation, at least for this character’s reasoning. I have never seen any of Charlie Kaufman’s other films, but I am very intrigued to do so now.

Surprisingly, there is a graphic love scene, and nudity, but what is even more raw is the psychological display of the characters. Lisa opens up to Michael admitting she’s surprised he didn’t chose her friend, Emily over her, as men usually do. She admits her difference and says she now embraces herself as an anomaly. Lisa sings “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” for Michael. He just wants to hear her voice, but she is chanting words she lives by, “…we’re not the fortunate ones. And girls they want to have fun…” Lisa represents those who are not the popular, beautiful, nor the ideal ones. She is basically saying yeah, despite all that I am, hey, I still deserve a good life, too. While Michael finds his life boring and although he keeps seeking something, he doesn’t have the skill to find it. Lisa, on the other hand, embraces her defects, albeit a little too loudly, but she lives with hope and a bright spirit. Although Michael has all the attributes of a good life, he still lacks. Whereas, Lisa with all the things that should hold her back, remains rich with zest.

Emily declares Michael as crazy, but even the sane have their irrational moments. Michael searches for a love, but doesn’t quite grasp how love works. All at once, he declares his love for Lisa and that she makes him feel so good that he can never do without her. And within a few moments after that declaration, he already apparently becomes annoyed by her. He returns home to his wife who declares her love for him, but is aware of his indifference, and thus the futility of it all.

While the film progresses though the maze of Michael’s meandering mind, the film’s last scene ends with Lisa, or, as she is renamed by Michael, Anomalisa. As the film is named after her, perhaps the message of the film is hers. Embrace the different because ALL girls just want to have fun.


Central Station
(1998) - June 24, 2015

Fortunately, this Brazilian film was widely recognized and distributed in 1998 so upon its release in the U.S., I was able to go see it in a theatre. I was blown away by it then and recently decided to watch it again. Central Station still holds up as a classic exposé of how people are interconnected/affected and the power of the choices they make as a result of that.

Dora (perfectly played by Fernanda Montenegro), is a former school teacher, who now earns her way by writing letters for the illiterate. Illiterate yes, but with a lot to express and who entrust Dora to be their pen and paper and to mail their messages to whomever they are so urgently trying to reach. Seems good but the cynical Dora pockets their money and rather than mailing their letters, she shuts them away in a drawer.

But it’s when a mother and son trust Dora to send a letter to the boy’s father that their worlds collide and all explodes.

Soon after meeting Dora, the boy’s mother accidentally dies, leaving him orphaned and alone, sleeping in the Central Station. (The boy, Josué is maturely played by Vinícius de Oliveira.) The shrewd Dora seizes this as another opportunity to make some cash and sells Josué to a supposed adoption agency. The story could end there, but thankfully it doesn’t.

There is good in everyone, even in the hardest of souls, and so the next morning Dora wakes and decides to steal back Josué and sets out to take him to his father, a man he has never met. Josué is no one’s victim, as he goes with Dora, but with the total awareness of her distrustful ways.

Throughout the film there are signposts of Godly scriptures of sorts. They are strategically placed more for the viewer than for the characters, although it is inferred that God has his guiding hand in the situation.
Dora’s character is tested throughout as Josué’s streetwise words throw her failings right back at her. We see glimpses of empathy from Dora, even at the outset, but it seems to be a struggle for her to give into it. Eventually, the tug of war ends and Dora surrenders to good.

I can continue describing this film in words, but Central Station has a special anointing that must be felt. It will touch you.

When I saw this film in 1998, it really moved me. While watching the story play out, the colorfully-crafted cinematic images were permanently impressed upon with me. Watching it again, all these years later, didn’t change that. In fact, I think it affected me even more this time.

I have been to Brazil twice (so far), and have made a few friends from there. I am drawn to it because some of the Brazilians I have known are unforgettable. This film seems to put a stamp on that emotion.

It’s more than a heartfelt film. It is just amazing. And the truth is this story can be portrayed anywhere in the world, and the moral could still be the same. But what makes this film unique is that there’s more to it than that. It is charming and magical and has the power to make even the most hard-hearted people concede to tears.