Review- The First Beautiful Thing

Aurora Frasca, Micaela Ramazzotti and Giacomo Bibbiani in The First Beautiful Thing (Palisades Tartan)

The First Beautiful Thing is an Italian film which can be characterized in a few different ways but it’s mainly a biopic without the celebrity and a character study without the self-indulgence. It concerns Bruno (Valerio Mastrandrea) who returns home to see his estranged family as his mother is terminally ill in the hospital.

The first interesting thing about this film is that it tells simultaneous tales in a fractured narrative, which unapologetically, artistically flows back and froth in time unannounced. Thus, we first meet Bruno and his sister Valeria when they are quite young and their mother is being awarded “Prettiest Mom” at a beauty pageant at random. This scene is mirrored beautifully at the climax and we truly see why it was so crucial to have that scene be first. Bruno and his mother saw that event in very different ways; Bruno’s view being similar to his father and to an extent it shaped both him and his relationship with his mother.

This film doesn’t put on any airs when dealing with intra-familial relationships and shows them for what they are. Cultural attitudes, the estrangement and the scenario allow them to be more open than they might be otherwise but there’s still a lot of imperfection, unconditional love and silent forgiveness shown throughout. This is a film that could very easily go into over-the-top melodrama but it is beautifully restrained throughout and slowly lets go of the reins allowing for a catharsis only at the end of the film.

This film is littered with very good performances. Ultimately, it’s the kind of film wherein it would get tedious to cite them all when there are many other facets of them film also worthy of attention. However, consider this each of the three main characters have more than one actor playing them. The children have 3 stages: child, teen and adult and there’s a young version of the mother and an elderly one. All of of them are quite strong an each is playing one character in such a way that we can see the trajectory of their life. Bruno, for example, is now professor, afraid of committing, hooked on drugs, stone-faced and wary of seeing his family anew. The actors playing Bruno in earlier moments chronologically have to make this interpretation acceptable and possible and they do.

The film plays out as a tragicomic one as there are certainly moments of genuine laughter and joy and moments that can and likely will bring tears to your eyes. It strikes a delicate balance of poking fun at truths we know about family life and also knowing what draws us in and brings us back home no matter how prodigal we may be.

Similarly coming off an absolutely absorbing and wrenching climax you get a quietly resolute denouement that ends the film on just the perfect uplifting note after the expected occurred.

The First Beautiful Thing, as intimated above, is accomplished technical film. The edit works quite well aesthetically and technically to blend time. The cinematography is often lush and places us in the right perspective to properly absorb the emotion of a scene (whether in overhead, creative over-the-shoulder or wide). The score and occasional use of source music, especially the songs the kids sing with their mother, is spot on.

This is one of the best films I’ve seen to date this year. It’s the kind of film you feel as if you experience not merely watched. It’s engaging on all levels.

10/10

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Review- The Hangover Part II

Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms and Zach Galiafanakis in The Hangover Part II (Warner Bros.)

If you read my review of The Hangover you’ll know that I was quite a fan of the original installment of the film. It even cracked my Top 15 Films of 2009 list. It remains, regretfully for the follow-up, as one of the best comedies of the past few years.

Part of what works so well in the first, and what I didn’t quite articulate then, is that when you’re dealing with a story wherein your characters seemingly irrevocably messed up their life in the course of one night of binge drinking and partying and did crazy things, add to that they cannot recall what they did and you can have almost anything happen as long as it hangs together when it gets explained. This should be an extraordinarily freeing experience for writers and filmmakers instead it became a case of variations on precisely the same thing.

As the trailers for the film started rolling out I started to get a Home Alone 2 vibe form it, meaning that while it may be funny it would be essentially the same film but relocated. Little did I know just how many things would be pretty much the same as they were the first time around and what compounded that is that it wasn’t even that funny. At least Home Alone 2 was the rare film in the course of my life that made me cry from laughter.

One perfect example of how identical they decided to make this film is that the one new character who they bring along with them on their night of partying, Teddy (Mason Lee), is the one who vanishes and must be located. So it’s the same triad as the first time. Doug stays behind and does damage control. So the dynamic is similar but a little more unbalanced than it seemed last time. Zach Galiafanakis has been the one who has most benefited from the first film career-wise and it seems like the film was designed to give him even more moments both organic and inorganic than prior. While Helms is still very funny he seems to have fewer chances to take over scenes.

There were long passages of this film where I barely made a sound, which is rare for me in a comedy but to be fair this film does have its moments. Two very noticeable ones are musical in nature, one is original to this film a parody of Billy Joel’s “Allentown” and the other which rehashes a cameo from the first in a very humorous way.

While one cameo which was sort of a re-run works another, that of Nick Cassavetes as the tattoo artist, just falls completely flat. As unpopular as he is now, Mel Gibson would’ve been funnier in the part, which was how it was originally cast.

In the film there are a few things that spring to mind that kind of make you wonder a bit too much and over-thinking is the enemy of a comedy. Firstly, Alan recites many random factoids about Thailand throughout and one of them ends up being a key event. So kudos to an extent for giving us expository information without us necessarily knowing it. There are two other head-scratchers, however, that are harder to overlook: one being how avoidable the chaos that ensued was this time. Second is the consequences a few of the characters face are a bit too serious too be laughed off lightheartedly and takes away some of the intended comedy.

Practically all the complaints listed above are story-related, which is in and of itself a shame because you do have the same talented core doing their best in this one also but this time they have substandard, stale material that they cannot coax enough laughs out of to salvage this mess.

The sad reality is that pretty much everyone who saw and enjoyed the first film, which were many, went out to see it opening weekend and gave the film a record opening (for an R-Rated live-action comedy) so there will be a third film. Hopefully the mistakes of this installment are learned from and addressed.

5/10