Quattro volte, Le (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
In a remote town in southern Italy, we follow an aging gentleman who herds goats. With each day that passes, we watch him lead the goats onto the field for them to eat grass, wait many hours under the sun, and then head home before the sun sets. When the herdsman dies from old age, a goat delivers a kid right before our eyes. The camera, as it did the old man, follows the goat’s daily activities.
Written and directed by Michaelangelo Frammartino, if someone goes into “Le quattro volte” without any idea of the concept it is attempting to expound, he or she will likely to be very confused. Understandably, many might end up being frustrated within the first fifteen minutes and decide to watch something else. I was aware of its ideas but still I found the film difficult to sit through at times, even though the concept itself is fascinating, because of its uncompromising techniques.
The picture is without any dialogue—at least none we can hear clearly. We hear voices very occasionally and when we do they are muted. What we hear clearly is the barking of a dog, coughing of the herder, bleating of the goats, and the wind rustling the leaves. It forces us to pay attention to the images and independently try to make sense of what is going on. I enjoyed looking at the many simple but beautiful images that idyllic Caulonia offers. At one point, I started to think that I wouldn’t mind going on vacation there.
But the movie is about Pythagoras’ belief in reincarnation, not a travelogue. The old man’s soul is transferred to a kid and when that baby goat dies, it is transferred to something else. The transference occurs until immortality is reached.
Perhaps if the pacing had been less sluggish, it would have been less soporific. This is such a terrible thing to admit but it has to be said: I kept wondering when the old man would finally die just so the film could move on. It is so slow that if you look away for about three minutes, you will not miss anything.
At the same time, if one chooses to engage with it, there are details worth noticing. For instance, a parallel is drawn between humans and goats. The goats go out every morning, execute their business, and return before nightfall (as most human adults do). Meanwhile, the kids stay in an enclosed area, explore their environment, and learn how to interact with other goats (as most human children do at school). The material is at its most interesting when Pythagoras’ belief is in direct connection to what defines us as a species instead of remaining abstract and, consequently, abstruse.
“The Four Times” challenges more than entertains. It is meditative and spiritual. Although I enjoyed it to some extent, I would mind watching it again. Some experiences are—and should be—once in a lifetime.
Big Night (1996)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Primo (Tony Shalhoub) and Secondo (Stanley Tucci) were Italian brothers who ran a struggling Italian restaurant. On the verge of foreclosure, Secondo took Pascal’s (Ian Holm) offer, a fellow restaurant owner, of inviting a celebrity who he claimed to be his friend in order for the brothers’ place to gain a bit of popularity. The big night consisted of a wild party with a mix of great food, good friends and influential people. Directed by Campbell Scott and Stanley Tucci, the film was a delectable piece of work. It successfully captured passionate people who happened to lead a struggling business without having to result to the audiences having to feel sorry for them. Instead, the movie simply showed that Primo and Secondo had a great combination of talent and excellent palate, but the one thing they needed was a good word-of-mouth. Typical Americans just couldn’t appreciate the way they served their food. Primo wanted to make genuine Italian food but most Americans were doubtful of the strange. Early in the movie, there was highly amusing scene of a woman and her husband not understanding why the pasta didn’t have any meatballs. I had to laugh at their confused looks and frustrated voices because I recognized myself in them. There’s just something comforting about the familiar and having to step away from it most often causes friction. The film was also about the women in the brothers’ lives. Phyllis (the alluring Minnie Driver) loved Secondo but maybe he just wasn’t ready to be in long-term relationship. Money was near the top of his priorities but Phyllis didn’t consider it to be all that important. On the other hand, Primo was interested in Ann (Allison Janney), who worked at a flower shop, but he was too shy to invite her to attend the party. The best way Primo could communicate was through food. Luckily, Ann liked to eat. What I admired most about the film was its fearless ability to hold long takes. My favorite scene was when Primo returned to the kitchen after he and Secondo had an altercation. Secondo was initially by the stove as he prepared a dish for the feast. As a gesture of forgiveness, the younger one slowly inched away from the fire and allowed his older brother to be at the place where was most comfortable. Not a word was uttered. There was something assured and powerful about the way the camera was held and the manner in which it framed the two characters’ movements. A similar technique was implemented in the final scene when the space between the brothers grew smaller. There was no doubt in our minds that they would keep moving forward together. “Big Night” was beautiful film but not just because of the mouth-watering Italian food. It unabashedly explored the love between brothers without the clichéd epiphanies.
Inglourious Basterds (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Those who believe that Quentin Tarantino (“Resevoir Dogs,” “Pulp Fiction,” “Kill Bill,” “Death Proof”) is slowly losing his touch when it comes to filmmaking and storytelling should watch this film. “Inglourious Basterds” essentially covers three groups of characters: Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) and his men’s (Eli Roth, Michael Fassbender, B.J. Novak, Omar Doom) quest to hunt, scalp, and kill Nazis; the intimidating Christoph Waltz as Col. Hans Landa, a Nazi hunter who prefers to be categorized as a detective more than anything else and who happens to speak English, French, Italian, and German which proves to be quite useful; and Mélanie Laurent as Shosanna Dreyfus, who survived Waltz’ massacre three years ago and had plans of her own, along with her trusted friend Marcel (Jacky Ido), to avenge her family. Divided into five sublime chapters, at first the characters had nothing to do with each other. But as the picture went on they all collided, had very entertaining conversations and bloody violence, just as one could expect from a Tarantino motion picture.
I was surprised with how quickly the movie paced itself, considering that I needed to use the bathroom during the first thirty minutes. (I gulped down a lot of soda during the previews.) I couldn’t help but get so engaged with the dialogue because in some lines, the characters attach some sort of threat into their words or tone to the point where it made me feel like I was in the same room with them. Although this was a World War II picture to begin with, it became so much more than that. In the second half, it became about a project about the love for the cinema and using that as a template to put these very intense characters under one roof. What I noticed about this movie was that with each major character, Tarantino moved the camera to match the person’s idiosyncracies and intentions. Therefore, it became more than just a World War II picture with necessary violence. It became a personal character study where the characters became tangled in the intricacies of politics, bureaucracies, and their own morals (sometimes lack thereof). The way Tarantino played with the movie’s tone greatly impressed me (as I was in his other films). One minute I just feel like hiding behind my hands because either something very violent was about to happen or a character knew something the other character did not know and was about to get caught; the next minute I found myself laughing so hard (due to the comedy or relief, it was often difficult to tell) because a character did or said something hilarious.
I can definitely understand why the American mainstream could be disappointed with this movie. For one, pretty much half of the movie had subtitles. (I love subtitled films. Sometimes, I even watch movies spoken in English with subtitles.) They could find it challenging to read and pay attention to the images at the same time. Second, with its 153-minute running time, the audiences were asked to sit through extended dialogues with (from some blogger reviews I’ve read) “very little payoffs that only happened toward the end of each chapter”). As a person who loves long movies, I cannot disagree more because the payoffs happen as the lines were being said. It was the subtleties in each intonation and movement that really made this film that much better than typical summer movie flicks. It was intelligent, had great sense of build-up, very tense, and brutal. So, for me, those kinds of arguments that people brought up were simply a matter of acquired taste. Hey, I didn’t start off loving foreign films and long movies either. It took some time and when it finally clicked, my moviegoing experience became that much more rewarding.
I strongly believe that “Inglourious Basterds” is one of the best movies of summer 2009 (if not the best). The performances are top-notch, especially from Christoph Waltz who is already getting Oscar buzz (and deservedly so), the pacing was done skillfully, and best of all, it knew how and when to have fun. If it had taken itself too seriously, it probably would not have been as enjoyable, it would have simply been violent and heartless. I’m already looking forward to Tarantino’s next project.
Do the Right Thing (1989)
★★★ / ★★★★
Written, produced, directed by and starring the talented Spike Lee, “Do the Right Thing” is an astute, mutilayered movie driven by the core of what Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X are about: how we choose to react when faced by people who see us as less than and how we perceive other people who are different than us. The bulk of the story of this picture was set in a very hot summer day where everyone was involved in their regular businesses, whether it came to working hard to maintain one’s job, being a bum in the streets, or just watching the day go by and hoping that the breeze will provide some sort of temporary comfort from the heat. As the day got hotter, tempers ran up until the climactic riot that transpired toward the end of the picture. A certain tragedy happened that sparked the riot but different people have different answers on who should carry the blame for what had happened. I think this film is very accurate and realistic because it actively avoids a typical happy ending via telling the audiences what simply is. I enjoyed the very vibrant characters such as the Italian family who owns a pizza place (Danny Aiello, Richard Edson and John Turturro), Lee’s sensibile sister who knows and is comfortable with who she is (Joie Lee) and the energetic DJ who runs a radio station (Samuel L. Jackson). Each of them had something valuable to offer to the table–a certain insight or an interesting point of view. I’m glad that there was a spectrum of African-Americans portrayed in this film. Most of the movies I watch nowadays, they’re either the violent one, the extremely gifted one (with some sort of a handicap or a traumatic past), or the funny one. Here, we get to see different sides of one character often in a single scene so it was a breath of fresh air. A lot of people consider this classic, especially if they grew up with it, and I can understand why. It has a certain resonance because “the right thing” is constantly changing–like Heraclitus’ idea of the impossibility of stepping on the same river twice–and therefore is arguably nonexistent, yet we still (or should) strive for it. I’m very interested in seeing this again because it has all the elements in a film that I look for.
Miracle at St. Anna (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
I heard that one of Spike Lee’s motivations for making this picture is to highlight the fact that African-Americans did participate in World War II–something that is not apparent in other World War II movies (notably Clint Eastwood’s). Although I did enjoy this 160-minute feature in parts, when I look at the bigger picture, I realize that it didn’t use its potential to be great. Las Alonso, Omar Benson Miller, Derek Luke and Michael Ealy star as four American solders who were forced to wait in a Tuscan village because they were surrounded by German soldiers. Along the way to Tuscan, Miller stumbles upon an enigmatic Italian boy (Matteo Sciabordi) who has an imaginary friend. Eventually, the two form a friendship that underlines the religious aspects of the film. I found it strange that Lee wanted to represent African-Americans yet he has characters that were drowning in stereotypes. I’m not black but I felt offended as I was watching the film because I know that some characters would’ve been the same if certain stereotypes were absent like that glaring gold tooth that one of the characters has. Story-wise, I felt as if it was all over the place. One minute the plot was about resistance fighters, the next minute it was about faith, the next it was about invaluable artifacts, and the next it’s about a love triangle. I would’ve preferred if Lee focused on just three issues and made a leaner film that offers a lot of insight about the psychology of a soldier who’s fighting for a country that treats him as a second-class citizen. Whenever “Miracle at St. Anna” related being in an actual war in another country and feeling like one is in a war in his own country, the movie becomes that much more alive and interesting. During those scenes, I was so engaged to the point where I caught myself thinking, “Oh, I never thought about it like that before.” Instead, it tried to tackle too much so it lost considerable amount of focus. The emotion is there and so is the entertainment value. However, what’s missing is the mark of great filmmaking. Therefore, “Miracle at St. Anna” is not as powerful as it should have been so it disappears in the sea of motion pictures about World War II.
Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975)
★★★ / ★★★★
Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini paints a deeply disturbing film about Nazis who kidnapped eighteen teenagers from their homes and subjected them in all kinds of physical, sexual and mental embarrassment (“torture” is the more accurate word to be perfectly honest). Out of those eight Nazis four were men (Paolo Bonacelli as The Duke, Giorgio Cataldi as The Bishop, Umbero Paolo Quintavalle as The Magistrate and Aldo Valletti as The President) and four were women (Caterina Boratto, Elsa De Giorgi, Sonia Saviange and Hélène Surgère). I have a penchant for films that defy the norm; though this film definitely fits in that category, I must admit that even this one was too much for me. It’s one thing when the audiences are forced to hear stories about the prostitutes’ personal experiences with men who have strange perversions but it’s another when we’re forced to see teenagers consume feces and get their tongues cut off. There were many scenes in the movie when I had to cover my eyes or look away because it all looked so realistic. At the same time, despite my disgust and horror, the film has messages such as the danger of capitalism, the objectification of male and female bodies and taking reality in a whole new level. There’s also bits about homophobia, mashochism, and insidious tools of oppression such as religion, titles and groupthink. When I really think about it, even though this picture was released in 1975, it’s still very relevant today. I also liked the common theme of something beautiful and inviting on the outside but only meanness, ugliness and evil can be found inside, such as the structurally beautiful palace where all kinds of evil are committed within its confines. I thought its messages culminated in the end when all kinds of atrocities were happening: While we get to see horrific images of violence sans the screaming and begging for remorse, I felt a sort of sadness and even a pinch of anger. When reviewers say that this film has nothing to offer, I argue that they haven’t really thought about the picture. While it may be challenging to look past the violence, it’s undeniable that “Salò” has insight that less daring movies will otherwise not achieve. I give this a recommendation but I must warn that this is not for a typical movie-going audience or for the faint of heart.
Mean Streets (1973)
★★★★ / ★★★★
The thing I like most about Martin Scorsese’s films is that he always gives his audiences the full package: great ear for dialogue, main characters that are very conflicted, astute use of color and settings that reflect a particular mood or attitude. This is one of the finest examples of Scorsese’s amazing career as a director. Harvey Keitel is wonderful to watch as a man who wants to acquire a respectable reputation in a mob in New York City’s Little Italy. However, his loyatly is torn in many different directions: the mob boss (Cesare Danova), his girlfriend (Amy Robinson), the church and his best friend (Robert De Niro). Keitel’s character is a man who wants to please everybody to the point where he ends up having too many worries in his mind. Those unfinished business that run about in his head breed frustration and anger inside him until he can no longer make everyone happy. However, this is not the kind of film that aims to teach audiences a valuable life lesson. Its goal is to simply observe this one man trying to keep his head above water while sharks surround him. My favorite scenes in this picture are all of the scenes when Keitel and De Niro would talk to each other. Each scene that they have whenever it’s just the two of them is so crucial because both of them reveal something that the audiences don’t know about them–usually something that is hidden whenever they’re around “tough guys” that run all over Little Italy. Some of the scenes really touched me because even though they are best friends that experience all the ups and downs, they’re more like brothers to each other. Even though De Niro’s character is irresponsible and immature, it’s not hard to tell that he loves Keitel unconditionally. On the outside, people may label this as a gangster film because of all the swagger of each character, but I consider this an ultimate character study. I admired Scorsese’s use of camera angles and quick cuts because they add to the movie’s overall feel. This film, without a doubt, influenced some of Quentin Tarantino’s best work such as “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction.” So if you enjoyed those pictures, you’re most likely going to enjoy “Mean Streets.” I would like to see De Niro, Keitel and Scorsese team up in a modern film to see how much their chemistry has changed.