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Journey to Italy (Viaggio in Italia) (Strangers) (The Lonely Woman)
3 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes

VIAGGIO IN ITALIA (VOYAGE TO ITALY) - Italian, 1953 - director Roberto Rossellini.

Never know what you will discover on Turner Classic Movies. Last week I caught this gem on a night they were running some neo-realist films of Italian director Roberto Rossellini. "Voyage to Italy" is from 1953, the period when the legendary director was working with his love and muse, Ingrid Bergman... perhaps you will recall "Stromboli?"
The story is slight but involving... interesting to me as a chance to witness the manners and morals of a British couple vacationing in Italy, in the vicinity of Naples in the early 1950's. Alex Joyce (George Sanders) is a successful businessman, and Katherine (Miss Bergman) is his bored, slightly neurotic wife. The upper-scale couple have come to Italy to claim an inheritance, an estate left them by a beloved uncle. They plan to take possession, put the villa up for sale, and then return to Britain as quickly as possible. Having not spent so much time together in a long time, they realize their marriage is not working as it should. Their nerves start to fray, and even little differences are not easily resolved. Katherine had always wanted children, a topic Alex will not entertain... too busy! They begin to spend time apart during the day, Alex goes off to Capri with old friends he's met - a little flirtation is involved, and Katherine hangs back, touring the local museums in Naples, or just lounging in the Italian sun. To her, the environs recall an old love who knew Italy well, a poet who died, yet just the mention of him seems to drive Alex to a fury. Things deteriorate and a divorce is proposed.
As the film progresses, there are occasions to see the sights around the bay of Naples in the context of the story. Vesuvius looms behind them in many scenes (a symbol of the destruction of their marriage?) and in one very affecting scene, they go to Pompeii with an archeologist friend to witness the pouring of a capture mold.
In an explosion of the volcano in the first century AD, some residents of the ancient city were swallowed so quickly by the rain of volcanic ash, that they were caught in their everyday activities. The accumulated ash hardened and encased them in what might be considered a time capsule. Gradually the organic material of their bodies disappeared, leaving an empty space which they once filled. In the twentieth century, archeologists found that by pouring a plaster material into the spaces when they were found, an exact mold of the deceased victims could be formed, so that when the hardened volcanic material is chipped and swept away, a sort of living statue is revealed... a slave carrying a water jug, a young boy clutching a dog, an infant sleeping in a crib, and so forth.
As fate would have it, the mold Alex and Katherine witness is discovered to be that of a man and a woman lying side by side holding hands. Later they witness a local religious pageant in which children are following and singing behind a icon of the Madonna; Katherine gets swept into the crowd as by a flood (or flow of lava) and she calls out to Alex to save her, when moments before they were not speaking to one another. Events such as these lead the couple to face the possibility that they may have been acting in pettiness and haste. Is a more positive resolution possible?
"Journey to Italy" is remarkable because of the psychological insight that Rossellini brings to the modern relationship. He had just gone through a divorce in order to be with Miss Bergman, and she was in self-exile from Hollywood because her affair with the Italian director was considered a scandal. The film uses mood, symbolic imagery and nuanced dialog to give insight. It tends to avoid the maudlin and melodramatic. Though the movie was a box-office failure, it has since been reassessed, especially by French crtics and New Wave directors like Truffaut, who have labeled it "the first truly modern film." It is on the list of the BFI top fifty motion pictures of all time.
I was a bit put off by watching the Italian language version, because I suspect a voice actor might have been employed for Mr. Sanders, but in the end the experience was a good one for me, in part because the location filming, the panoramas of Naples, Vesuvius and the Pompeiian ruins gave the film an air of captured time... a historicity that accentuated the link between lived time and remembered past.

The Wolf of Wall Street
3 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes

So how do you make a movie about excess? By being a little excessive I suppose. The story of crooked stockbroker Jordan Belfort's shooting star rise to wealth and a "high life" of drugs, prostitutes, and every sort of reprobation is told by the protagonist himself though a voice over narration, and in some instances by breaking "the fourth wall" and speaking directly through the camera to the theater audience. The language is foul, the motives are disreputable, and pretty much everyone is corrupt in this world of high pressure stock trading of "penny stocks." Leonardo DiCaprio as Belfort has never been better, and Jonah Hill, who has become reliably good in everything he does, offers superb support as Belfort's no. 1 "senior vice president," friend and collaborator. The supporting cast is large and first rate across the board.

The things you will see may shock and even disturb you; it seems you can't turn your head in any direction without encountering drugs, naked women, and perversion, but Scorsese never draws back from this darkly humorous world, and the sheer outrageousness of the enterprise is the basis of much of the humor. One particular scene of Belfort trying to make a call from a public phone at the exact moment the effect of some high-octane quaaludes hits him will have you writhing with laughter and hating yourself at the same time for being so effectively manipulated by the shameless slapstick.

Warning: There are no admirable characters here - even the FBI agents trying to bring Belfort down have a certain petty meanness about them. Scorsese seems to be having fun though (perhaps that's why he let's the story play out for over three hours) and if you can allow yourself to withhold moral judgment for that long, you too will have fun. Can we just admit that the pursuit of the "American Dream" is sometimes more about greed than endeavor? One should take The Wolf of Wall Street for what it really is - a cautionary tale about living a life with no boundaries, and Scorsese has told the tale in an entertaining style, in a film that also has no boundaries - but excellence.

Her (2013)
3 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes

Spike Jonze' new film "Her" is probably a movie that will engage everybody on some level. I know a few who have been quite swept away by it, and others who are left wondering "what's the big deal?" But I think it will enter the social consciousness of America in a big way soon because of word of mouth and its unique concept: Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), a man challenged by social relationships, develops an intense personal relationship with his new OS (operating system) for which he chooses a female persona. (It will help too that the picture has received an Oscar nomination as best motion picture of the year.)

Set in an indeterminate future in which the concept of artificial intelligence is a given, the OS, once installed, picks her own name, Samantha, and proceeds to grow a personality... one so helpful, personable, and supportive that she completely sweeps Theodore off his feet... the film becoming in essence a love story.
Samantha is voiced by actress Scarlett Johansson.

Other actresses in smaller parts score well also: Rooney Mara is Theodore's estranged wife seeking a divorce (the scene in which they meet to sign the papers is a jewel), and Amy Irving is Amy, a co-worker and friend who like Theodore is seeking the perfect relationship and feeling inadequate to the task. In my opinion, she supplies a heart to this rather inhuman scenario.

But the film belongs to Joaquin Phoenix who is in virtually every scene and who carries the film superbly with an acting tour-de-force. Performing most scenes against an off-screen voice had to be difficult, but he is natural and completely convincing even in some awkward and embarrassing situations that lessor actors might have played for laughs. Phoenix's Theodore is intelligent, sweet, and kind in a way that makes one wonder why he seems so alone and introverted since it seems not to be by choice.

I will not reveal how far the director takes this concept or the amazing turns the plot line takes, but you will not be bored in what is essentially a film about personality, social constructs, and the purpose and meaning of life. The look of the film is part of the appeal... clean and colorful and apparently without squalor or crime, or old age, this is a future world much like paradise without the garden. There are children - one particularly fine scene involves a party for Theodore's four-year old goddaughter(?) - but children do not figure into the relationships we witness. And so Theodore's world has a certain vapidity... which may just be the point Mr. Jonze is trying to make. Maybe it's not about relationships at all, but about a world of technology in which they are quickly becoming obsolete. If that's the case, then I will leave it to you to decide if the lyrical ending holds out some hope in that regard.

Sound of My Voice
4 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes

"In the Valley... there is a woman living in a basement... who claims to be from the future..." - A key line of dialog from the 2012 movie "Sound of My Voice" illustrates the appeal of this little jewel of independent film-making. The woman mentioned would be Maggie (Brit Marling), leader of a small cult, who seems an unlikely physical threat since she purports to have no immunity to the diseases of our time, who is most often seen with an oxygen tank trailing behind her, and who lives on organically grown fruit from a pristine botanical laboratory in her secret underground residence. Those who meet her, after being restrained, blindfolded, and carried by van to the unknown location, are required to learn an elaborate secret handshake that goes on for over a minute... almost a ritual of initiation.

Brit Marling you will recall as the intriguing lead actress of the phenomenal low budget sci-fi hit "Another Earth," a film which she co-authored. She is back as star and co-author with first time director Zal Batmanglij. They have worked out a riddle movie with a deep psychological appeal. Is Maggie from the future, 2054 to be exact, or is she a huckster and if so, what is her game?

Peter and Lorna (Christopher Denham and Nicole Vicius) are a couple who work their way into the cult with the intent of secretly producing a documentary about the self-proclaimed time traveler and exposing her as a fraud. But they seem a little inept at their project because very little is accomplished before their resolve falters. Both at various times seem to be falling under the rather considerable charismatic allure of the gentle Maggie whose powers of psychological perception leave us wondering constantly if she in fact knows their ruse.

Scenes of the group meetings with Maggie are played with logic and intensity. She puts her followers through activities designed to increase their self-awareness, but which also require a growing dependence on her. Always there is the threat of being denied any further access to her presence. She sometimes plays them one against another. In one particularly harrowing scene, after Peter has swallowed an electronic device in an attempt to smuggle it into the house, the members of the group are each given an apple to eat, and then when Maggie tells them the fruit contains all the poisons of the current age, are required to force vomit as a means of purging the evil. When Peter refuses of necessity, she performs a deep psychologically probe on him that reveals to the group the darkest secrets of his past and reduces him to tears. (Later he tries to convince Lorna that it was all an act, but we, with Lorna, are not so sure.)

In the course of the film, we are introduced through Peter's other work as a substitute teacher to another key character, Abigail, an eccentric child who seems mildly autistic. She interacts poorly with the other children, always insists on wearing a red knit cap, and builds elaborate structures at home with plastic Lego-like assembly pieces. We sense that Peter cares for her more than the other children. The movie rushes to a dramatic climax when Maggie asks Peter to bring the child to her. When he tells her that action would amount to kidnapping and refuses, Maggie insists he do it or else leave the group. Knowing his project would fall through in that case Peter waivers insisting he be told why she wants to meet the child. Maggie says cryptically, "She's my mother."

While perhaps not as totally satisfying an experience as "Another Earth," the mathematical logic of "Sound of My Voice" is just as precise, and the ending may be equally shocking and "right." Brit Marling's performance is again the reason to see the film; it gives the character of Maggie just the right amount of appeal and vague threat. We find ourselves being slowly drawn into her vortex of control but disturbed knowing that it will ultimately involve a surrender of will... but then isn't that the nature of cult personalities?

2 Guns
2 Guns (2013)
4 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes

Mark Wahlberg turns on his energetic charm in the new summer action thriller "2 Guns" directed by Baltasar Kormákur, who also gave him an excellent vehicle in last year's "Contraband." The versatile Mr. Wahlberg is at his comedic best in this "buddy picture" that is doubly graced by the casting of Denzel Washington as his recalcitrant partner. Don't try to figure out the many complexities of plot which pits the DEA, the CIA, Naval intelligence, and a Mexican drug cartel in a scramble for turf and profit. Are you paranoid? Wait until you try to figure out the good guys in this one.
Basically the story involves a bank heist and the resulting pursuit of the missing 43 million dollars. Wahlberg is all energy and charisma in the style he employed early in his career in films like "The Big Hit" and "Three Kings." Mr. Washington has moved interestingly into a variety of roles lately that expand his persona and play on a new realism... he's allowed to look tired and slightly bedraggled while maintaining and inner core of strength and integrity.
Great parts too for the supporting cast which includes Edward James Olmos, James Marsden, the voluptuous Paula Patton and, commanding his every scene, the redoubtable Bill Paxton.
This in an intelligent thriller, with a broad swath of comedic dialog that lifts it out of the commonplace. The action is realistic enough to keep you engaged, and the plot convolutions of who can you trust, make "2 Guns" a puzzler until the end.
Great music and location shooting in the nitty, gritty regions close to the Mexican border. I think I could watch this movie again tomorrow and enjoy it just as much the second time.