Le Notti Bianche (1957)

Le Notti Bianche, or White Nights, is a dark yet passionate film about love, loneliness, and sacrifice.

A young man and woman, Mario and Natalia, meet by chance one night as Mario is strolling the streets of their small village. The artificiality of the sets and casual nature of their acquaintance misleads the viewer into believing this will be a typical girl-meets-boy romance; wrong.

As Natalia describes herself and her life, her obsessive tendencies and year worth of pining over another love are quickly revealed. The obsession goes both ways, though, as Mario repeatedly turns down other attractive, eligible women in favor of Natalia, someone he convinces himself he has a future with.

The story takes some very surprising, sometimes horrifying, turns and the ending is far from what I’d expected. In addition to the engaging narrative, though, Le Notte Bianche is very well made. It’s interesting to see how different aspects of the characters come out through their actions.

For instance, we learn that Mario used to be in the military and now moves around without forming genuine human connection. Scenes later, several military men and their girls enter a cafe and immediately start slow dancing; it takes a while for Mario to ask Natalia to dance, reinforcing his tentative efforts to pursue romance.

The story itself is truly compelling, but little touches like that are what make this film so fascinating to watch. Repeat viewings will surely heighten the visceral, passionate experience that is Le Notte Bianche.

“Looking” Ahead

So just three episodes in (two episodes for those of you without HBO Go) is too early to truly review the new series Looking. To be fair, I had impossibly high hopes for this series, from the same creator as one of my favorite movies Weekend (so good it’s warranted not one but TWO blog posts on here), about young gay men living in San Francisco’s Castro. Despite a couple problems, I think this show is heading in a very good direction.

Like any brand-new TV show, even one from glorious HBO, there have been some bumps along the way. I can frankly say I don’t even like two of the three main characters yet, whose overall glum and mopeyness are hard to sit through.

Dom is a hopeless loser who is too old to not have his act together, and even his exposition doesn’t make sense; at the latest, he and his wife would have gotten married in 1990, a time when homosexuality was WAY more acceptable than say 1980. And Agustin the artist (who somehow affords a pretty nice apartment) is so grumpy and stubborn it’s hard to root for him. I just look forward to his scenes ending so we can get to my favorite character.

The main protagonist (or is he?) Patrick, played with casual ease by Jonathan Groff, is what keeps me fascinated with this show. In this one, seemingly straight-man type character who on the one hand seems naive and sheltered, but on the other just as morally empty as those around him, we get a lot of the complexity and, honestly, hypocrisy embodied by so many young gay men.

Even in the first scene, he goes cruising in a public park as a “joke,” and just scenes later, on a first date, he insists he is the boyfriend “type” who doesn’t do the casual thing. One episode later, he teases his romantic interest Richie for a, let’s say, physical attribute that isn’t what Patrick expected.

I’m really interested to see how Looking is going to develop this main character who’s kind of an asshole; he’s not the gay best friend that you know so much of the audience is hoping to find in this series, and he’s definitely not boyfriend material. He makes a quiet revelation in the third episode: “I don’t think either of us are good at being who we think we are.”

And Richie, a character who’s barely been in the show at all, has already captivated me as one of the knockout figures in the series. Just like Patrick, he isn’t quite what you expect at first, and his decisions are surprising not just for him, but frankly for young gay men in general. Even a couple episodes in, we feel the surprise Patrick does by being eased into this world.

I truly resent Looking being referred to as a gay Girls or Sex & the City a) because I think those are terrible shows, and b) it reduces Looking and even those shows to just being a tight group of friends and their adventures in an urban setting. I’m not an avid viewer of those latter two shows, but I’m sure they have unique messages and themes all their own, just as Looking does.

The criticism around this show is pretty ill-informed, too – the most common complaint you’ll hear is how “boring” the series is (it’s not), or how being gay is not enough of a plot point. It’s disappointing to think that mainstream critics can’t handle a series about gay characters, without gayness being a storyline in and of itself; would most late-20somethings and early-30somethings really be going through “coming out” stories? Or facing discrimination, living in a neighborhood like the Castro? Gimme a break.

Despite some iffy characters and storylines, Looking has already demonstrated some fascinating insight and shows undeniable promise as to how far this show can go to illuminate the complexity of life as a gay man in the modern world.

Her (2013)

Spike Jonze’s Her is the profoundly simple, often heartbreaking, comedy-drama exploring a man’s troubled love life.

Her takes place in the not-too-distant future, where artificial intelligence is becoming the norm and human connection is diminishing. (There’s even a great shot in a crowded subway, where everyone is spaced out to their respective electronic devices.) Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore, a man going through a divorce who purchases a new Operating System with artificial intelligence capabilities, and develops a relationship with “her.”

What follows is a fascinating look at how we project our romantic ideals onto others, as the OS (who names herself Samantha) forms herself to become the woman Theodore wants, or thinks he wants. As their relationship, and later romance, develops, we go through the typical and, in my opinion lazy, love story arcs of the honeymoon phase, boredom, and jealousy, but always with this unique narrative element of love between man and machine.

We get a terrific performance from Joaquin Phoenix, who essentially carries the entire film; he is utterly convincing in his delivery and emotional reactions to what becomes a very real relationship to him. One of the more memorable scenes follows a blind date with a “real” woman, and he drunkenly confesses to Samantha that he’s scared his life is all downhill; his feelings now are all dimmer versions of how he’d feel before.

The film’s ending is similarly powerful, with Theodore recognizing the danger of projecting a romantic ideal onto anyone, and the inherent growth every individual experiences over time. Every experience, every connection we make is what shapes us into who we are today. I honestly found myself tearing up along with Theodore, at this poignant, insightful reflection on love lost.

What impresses me most of all is that this is fundamentally not a film about technology, but relationships. The artificial intelligence motif is a narrative device, but not the point of the movie. While Her does run a little long and is bogged down by some predictable plot points, this film’s fascinating underlying themes and profound messages are both heartbreaking and heartwarming, somehow at once.

American Hustle (2013)

Unlike its predecessor Silver Linings PlaybookAmerican Hustle is a slow-cooking picture. It takes a long time to get going, and doesn’t really explain where we’re going, but once we start rolling it becomes a cinematic dream.

The exposition, weirdly, is the film at some of its clunkiest. Maybe it’s the gradual, deliberate pacing or the oddly deafening silence (we don’t get the stellar soundtrack til about halfway through), but something about it feels uninvolving. The con scheme set up by Irving and Sydney (later Edith) doesn’t really make sense, and this disconnect makes it hard to stay interested and engaged with what’s going down.

The intervention of FBI Agent Richie DiMaso, played to perfection by Bradley Cooper (who, in just two films, has become one of my favorite contemporary actors), is the first great curveball thrown at the lead duo. They get caught for their scheme and, in a similarly selfish fashion, he bets the odds in his favor and pushes them to topple greater and greater idols, not for Justice but for his own reputation.

The film is often patchy, alternating between sequences of nap-worthy doldrums and truly fantastic filmmaking. My favorite moments are the soundtrack-heavy ones, such as the disco nightclub scene (one of the best I’ve ever seen) and the montage of arrests at the film’s climax. It’s extraordinary how the glorious 70s soundtrack really raises the impact from watching a dime-a-dozen crime caper to this sublime, awe-inspiring cinematic experience. It’s like watching the greatest music video that was never made.

Other highlights, it goes without saying, are those featuring the unforgettable Jennifer Lawrence.  She plays the classic, genre-perfect crazy New Jersey wife with a bitchy honesty that never feels over-the-top or flamboyant. She exercises such remarkable control yet leaves a lasting screen presence, it’s hard to remember she is in the movie so little compared to the other main characters.

This film’s greatest strength, though, is in its unique brand of messaging.The Wolf of Wall Street (which I actually prefer) does have some line between right and wrong, even if that line is dotted and hard-to-read, American Hustle has no such line at all. Who of any of these characters, is good? Who is wholly unselfish? I love to see this kind of challenging storytelling, where there is no one really doing the right thing, and everyone is working an angle. Hollywood is often too timid to make a movie as cynical as this, and I applaud David O. Russell for having the guts to.

While it has some narrative issues and clunks along at times, it is an often-entertaining movie that delivers some unforgettable movie moments. Love it or hate it, people will be talking about American Hustle for years to come.

Stromboli, terra di dio (1950)

Stromboli, terra di dio is the moody, deliberate character study of a desperate yet stubborn woman, played to perfection by Ingrid Bergman, who is pushed to the brink of madness (and possibly beyond).

It begins with uncharacteristic romanticism from director Roberto Rossellini, with a dreamy, idealized love affair between woman and man in a refugee camp, separated by a barbed wire. They agree to wed, and the two leave together to his homeland, the small island Stromboli.

She quickly discovers this is not what she had envisioned, despising every aspect of married life from the rugged terrain to her ancient, crumbling home to her husband’s measly wages. Her one companion is in the village priest, a friendship she destroys when she reveals her disturbing past and even makes romantic advances toward a man of God.

From this shocking midpoint, all bets are off as we realize our “heroine” is a seriously troubled woman led by her momentary passions, not by her heart. The film is not a moving journey of her learning to adapt to a new lifestyle, but watching to see how far she will unravel.

The heart-pounding finale leaves a great amount of ambiguity and room for interpretation, an exciting ending for a mostly neorealistic work. Rossellini expertly weaves together the natural landscape of the island with the narrative and thematic structure to underline the isolation and danger Bergman’s character has gotten herself into.

While slow at times, Stromboli packs a punch when necessary, and becomes an engaging and informative look at rural life in postwar Europe and how far a woman will go to escape her past life.