Friday, June 6, 2014

Film Reviews: 'Open Roads' @ FSLC; Lukas Moodysson's "We Are The Best!"; "Gore Vidal--The United States of Amnesia"

Open Roads—New Italian Cinema
June 5-12, 2014
Film Society of Lincoln Center

We Are The Best!
Directed by Lukas Moodysson
Opened in New York & LA May 30, 2014

Gore Vidal—The United States of Amnesia
Directed by Nicholas Wrathall
Opened May 23, 2014 in New York, June 6 in LA

In the latest edition of Open Roads—which has premiered Italian films for New York audiences since 2002—two new films by master director Gianni Amelio (Stolen Children, Lamerica) partly compensate for his lackluster Camus adaptation, The First Man, shown during the series last year. In addition to his Milan-set feature A Lonely Hero, there’s Amelio’s enormously affecting Happy to Be Different, a documentary about homosexuality in Italy from Mussolini to the 1980s, and includes interviews with gay men who grew up during the Fascist era and who had to decide to hide their true sexual identities in one of the world’s most homophobic and macho societies.

Of the documentaries on tap this year, most notable is Gianfranco Rosi’s Sacro GRA, a stunningly-shot account of the sundry people who live and work around Rome’s famed 43.5-mile ringed road, a highway that teems with more life off it than traffic on it. Winner of the Golden Lion for Best Film at last fall’s Venice Film Festival, Rosi’s superb documentary is anything but a travelogue: it gives human faces to those who live on the margins, are masters of the universe and everyone in between.

Diliberto's The Mafia Only Kills in Summer
The Mafia Only Kills in Summer, an auspicious debut by director Pierfrancesco Diliberto (also known as Pif, a popular TV satirist), is a blackly comic Sicilian sort-of romance as our narrator explains his love for his pretty schoolmate since they were young with a backdrop of Mafioso killings punctuating their daily existence. Pif himself makes a dopily endearing protagonist, while his movie perfectly balances humor and horror.

Already faded from memory is The Fifth Wheel, director Giovanni Veronesi’s leadenly whimsical attempt to dramatize recent Italian history through an uninteresting doofus (the fifth wheel of the title), which mainly contents itself with being an even more dumbed-down Forrest Gump. Fabio Mollo’s South Is Nothing sympathetically chronicles how a lonely 18-year-old tomboy (the splendid Miriam Karlkvist) is still reeling from the death of her beloved brother six years earlier.

Finally, Milan provides a spectacularly sordid backdrop in The Human Factor as an alienated police inspector solves a particularly brutal murder; director Bruno Oliviero’s documentary experience provides little emotional resonance for his protagonist, but makes the physically and psychologically imposing city an equal character.

Moodysson's We Are The Best!
Following morose movies like Lilya 4 Ever and A Hole in My Heart that showed him as capable of wallowing in relentlessly downbeat stories, Swedish director Lukas Moodysson returns with We Are the Best!, a gently satiric look at pre-teens in early 1980s Stockholm rebelling against parents, teachers and fellow students (to whom they are outcasts) by forming one of the worst punk bands imaginable.

Based on his wife Coco’s graphic novel, We Are The Best! mines equally familiar territory for Moodysson—humorous portraits like Together and Show Me Love—and if the gimmick of the trio of girls playing the most absolutely awful songs you’d never want to be subjected to again overwhelms any truly credible characterizations and motivations, this charming comedy never sentimentalizes its punkish protagonists. Unsurprisingly, Moodysson gets wonderfully natural portrayals from the girls, and this distinctly minor movie brims with genuine pleasures.

Wrathall's Gore VidalThe United States of Amensia
Gore Vidal—The United States of Amnesia is director Nicholas Wrathall’s honest glimpse at the last of the true American liberals, whose political genealogy can be traced back to his grandfather, senator Thomas Gore—although Vidal’s own claim that he and Al Gore are distantly related seems untrue.

In an interview conducted right before his death in 2012 at age 86, the fading Vidal comes off as irascible as ever in his cynical but realistic ideas about his own country, even though he lived near Rome for the past several decades: he even sneers knowingly when watching President Obama’s election in 2008, assuming not much will change despite Obama’s hopeful slogan.

An unapologetic critic and raconteur who memorably fought conservative lion William Buckley and self-promoting writer Norman Mailer on television—the footage from these infamous battles is worth watching by itself—Vidal also provided trenchant political commentary in novels like Burr and Lincoln and plays like The Best Man. But through it all, as Wrathall memorably shows, he remained a brand name for liberalism.

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