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Recent Movies: The Great Beauty; The Past; Twenty Feet from Stardom

March 13, 2014

Recent Movies

The Great Beauty

Among the elite of modern-day Rome, writer/journalist/socialite Jep Gambardella is celebrating his 65th birthday.  Many small scenes follow in which he and others among the upper-class reflect upon the emptiness of their lives and their disappointment in Roman society itself.

This film’s greatest asset is the directing by Paolo Sorrentino.  His use of visuals, camera angles, lighting, and background music creates a truly beautiful reflective experience in this very unique expression of melancholy.  The story itself isn’t necessarily thin but it’s more a series of related small stories pieced together.  This type of story-telling makes it difficult to get to know the characters including the main one.  Sometimes, it’s even hard to keep track.  But the method of story-telling makes up for these gaps.

Most memorable is a funny scene in which a pretentious “performance artist” is being interviewed.  It was no surprise to read that Sorrentino (who also co-wrote the film) detests modern art.

In the end, the various scenes do lead to a lovely conclusion.  And the closing credits are breathtaking.  And yes, it is easy to compare “The Great Beauty” to “La Dolce Vita”.  There are many similarities but “The Great Beauty” remains unique.

Rating (out of four stars):   * * *

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The Past

In a Parisian suburb, a very blended family has many skeletons come out of its closets when the matriarch’s ex-husband returns from Iran to finalize a divorce so that she can marry another man whose family situation is even more complicated.

It was no surprise to know this great film was made by director/writer Asghar Farhadi who did such a brilliant job with the Iranian masterpiece “A Separation” in 2011.  Once again, he shows superb skills in making a family drama feel like a thriller, writing complex characters and situations, and working superbly with actors to help them create a powerful ensemble.  All actors are great but a particular standout is child actor Elyes Aguis.  He’s very believable as a problem child who seems annoying at first but generates much sympathy once the viewers understand his past.

The story has just the right amount of revelations though it seems a bit heavy in the last half-hour.  This still does not stop “The Past” from being one of the best films of 2013 as its impact is quite deep.  Like “A Separation”, Farhadi excels in creating characters whose flaws make them seem unlikeable at first but, by the end, we care deeply for these people.  I can hardly wait for his next movie.

Rating:   * * * 1/2

Outstanding Achievement:   Directing by Asghar Farhadi

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Twenty Feet from Stardom

This U.S. documentary focuses on the lives of very talented backup singers who have worked with some of the world’s biggest superstars.  There are in-depth interviews with six of the singers plus some of the superstars including Mick Jagger, Sting, and Bruce Springsteen.

With the unique opening credits of re-imaging some famous record album covers of the past, we know who the real stars of this film are about to be.  This unique choice of subject has been long overdue and this documentary delivers magnificently.

The main interviewees (including Darlene Love) are all likeable African-American women and they have fascinating life stories to tell regarding the push/pull desire for stardom resulting from their great talents.  Some have found contentment in doing what they love while having relative anonymity.  Their lack of egomania might have been a factor in holding back stardom in a rather insane industry.

All interviewees (famous and non-famous) are very eloquent in describing the spiritual need to express their God-given talents.  This adds to be the beauty of the experience which is already at a high level with the great footage of some of the best musical experiences of the 60s, 70s, and 80s.

The film has a message that all talents should be taken to the highest level possible.  On the one hand, this is very hopeful.  But on the other, it’s rather naive as there are many other talented people who could not even attain the recognition of this film’s subjects.  But overall, “Twenty Feet from Stardom” comes of as one of the best documentaries in years.

Rating:   * * * 1/2

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