Chuck Koplinski: 'Great Beauty' lives up to its title magnificently

Chuck Koplinski: 'Great Beauty' lives up to its title magnificently

The similarities between Federico Fellini's "La Dolce Vita" and "8," and Paolo Sorrentino's "The Great Beauty" are obvious and, I think, deliberate.

While those classics of Italian cinema have been emulated and parodied repeatedly, this movie, a nominee for this year's Oscar for best foreign language film, is a worthy new take on the premise of a man who reflects on his life after reaching a significant milestone, only to find that perhaps his mistakes have outweighed his successes. "The Great Beauty" examines a new Rome in a new era, and while this world may move at a quicker pace than that in the Fellini movies, the most important matters remain at the core of its protagonist's dilemma.

Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) is a journalist in Rome who has successfully navigated the city's decadent world of the idle rich, dancing many nights away at one posh party after another or engaging in pointless conversation while drinking until dawn. Forty years prior, the success of his only novel — the pointedly titled "The Human Apparatus" — gave him carte blanche into this world of the pompous and vacuous, and he seems content to spend the rest of his days drinking and smoking himself to the grave.

However, with the arrival of his 65th birthday and news that an old love has passed away, Jep begins to reflect on where he has been and where he's going, resulting in an odyssey that's revelatory and sobering.

Jep hardly goes out of his way to change his routine, but he sees everything from a new perspective. Suddenly, he has no problem speaking the truth about himself and others in his sphere, some of whom don't fully appreciate his newfound brand of honesty. Unveiling hypocrisy seems to be his new crusade, which is played for comic effect when he interviews a pretentious performance artist, but it is seen as a harsh but necessary balm when one of his cohorts paints him into a corner.

Along the way, Sorrentino treats us to one magnificent sight after another. Whenever Jep gazes at the ceiling of his apartment, he sees a glittering azure sea, which opens up to a memory of an important summer in his life, while the view from the terrace of his apartment, which overlooks the Coliseum, provides the filmmaker with a breathtaking perspective on the city and all that occurs there.

However, the highlight of the film is an art exhibition that consists of a series of snapshots, one taken each day during the lifetime of the 30-something artist: It's a breathtaking, beautiful moment that allows the audience to connect with Jep's journey and share in the revelation it provides.

While "The Great Beauty" might be derivative, that does not lessen its impact. It reminds us that age and experience provide us with the proper lens with which to reflect on our lives — and that while a significant amount of water might have gone under the bridge, each remaining day provides us with the opportunity to make them meaningful.

'The Great Beauty' (4 stars out of 4)

Cast: Toni Servillo, Carlo Verdone, Sabrina Ferilli, Iaia Forte, Pamela Villoresi, Massimo Popolizio, Giorgio Pasotti, Franco Graziosi, Carlo Buccirosso and Sonia Gessner.

Directed by Paolo Sorrentino; produced by Francesca Cima and Nicola Giuliano; screenplay by Umberto Contarello and Sorrentino.

A Janus Films release. 142 minutes. Not rated. At the Art Theater.

Also new in theaters

"Broken Circle Breakdown" unflinching look at love, life, loss. (3-1/2 stars) Felix van Groeningen's "The Broken Circle Breakdown," also nominated for this year's Oscar in the best foreign language film category, walks a tightrope during its entire running time and rarely takes a bad step.

This is a remarkable feat as its subject matter is fraught with peril in regard to how it is delivered — a bit too much sentiment, and it would veer into the arena of maudlin melodrama. Fortunately, the director and his talented cast, who are not only actors but accomplished musicians as well, are able to find the deft touch necessary to deliver this moving and sincere tale of love, life and loss.

The story unfolds in a nonlinear manner, yet we're quickly able to grasp its intent. Didier (Johan Heldenbergh), a musician who has devoted his life to American bluegrass music, meets Elise (Veerle Baetens), a tattoo artist who realizes during their first meeting that his name will be the next thing she has inked on her body. Theirs is a whirlwind romance that results in an unexpected pregnancy, yet the arrival of their daughter Maybelle (Nell Cattrysse) is a blessing, and the three settle in as a happy family in their newly renovated home. However, tragedy strikes when the little girl is diagnosed with cancer, which tests the strength of the fragile life they've constructed.

The film plays out like every parent's worst nightmare as we're assailed with the sight of this little girl undergoing chemotherapy treatments and spinal taps as well as the loss of her hair and strength. None of this is presented in a melodramatic way but in a clinical, almost cursory manner as van Groeningen knows the inherent power of these moments is enough.

However, at times, the director guides scenes in which we see the disintegration of Didier and Elise's relationship to the extreme, and it's only because of Heldenbergh and Baetens' conviction that they do not become histrionic.

The nonlinear approach works well as the film plays out like a series of memories — those of the couple's first meeting, the initial signs of their daughter's disease, their varied approaches to grieving — and instead of being a manipulative technique, it winds up enhancing the joy and tragedy of its respective moments. The structure gives additional weight to the various bluegrass standards Didier's group plays: Their spiritual nature takes on deeper meaning as events develop.

"The Broken Circle Breakdown" is, at times, a harrowing experience, but it's one worth taking to appreciate the full, rich tapestry of life it contains.

"I, Frankenstein" an obvious monstrosity. (1-1/2 stars) Having been buffeted with one commercial after another for "I, Frankenstein," my 9-year-old son Grant declared, "Man, that looks bad."

Now, I'm not saying that he's a chip off the old block and is able to start officially reviewing movies — no, it's just that this movie is such a turkey that even he can spot it from a mile away.

While it's no "Frankenhooker," (thankfully, few films are), this mishmash of bad special effects, overwrought storytelling and bombastic music is the sort of movie that has you wondering why someone halfway through the production didn't raise a hand and say, "I think we're off on the wrong foot here and need to take this in a different direction."

Alas, everyone's good judgment must have been clouded by big paychecks and fine food from the caterer.

Based on the graphic novel by Kevin Grevioux, the Frankenstein monster (Aaron Eckhart) has been wandering the planet for nearly 200 years, and from the looks of things he has been doing nothing but working on his pecs and abs, though inexplicably he has yet to find a good plastic surgeon.

However, his biggest problem is that he finds himself in the middle of a war between gargoyles, which are emissaries of heaven, and demons, led by Naberius (Bill Nighy), who has been collecting dead human bodies he hopes to reanimate with the souls of demons.

He thinks that if he can have his gorgeous scientist in residence Terra (Yvonne Strahovski) study the monster, she'll be able to discover how he was reanimated and use that technique to bring his new army to life. Leonore (Miranda Otto), leader of the gargoyles, will do all she can do to prevent this.

Obviously, the silliness of the story itself is too much to overcome, and the special effects, which I suspect were done on a Commodore Amiga, are laughable.

However, the real problem with the film is its tone. If there was ever a movie that cried out for a campy tone, it's this one, and Nighy, delivering his lines as if he were in a production of "Henry V," is the sort of performer who would relish the opportunity to go over the top in the hopes of getting unintentional laughs.

Unfortunately, writer-director Stuart Beattie believed in the seriousness of his own creation, and the result is a cinematic monstrosity.

For DVR alerts, film recommendations and movie news, follow Chuck Koplinski on Twitter at @ckoplinski. For his blog, head to news-gazette.com/blogs/cinema-scoping. Koplinski can be reached via email at chuckkoplinski@gmail.com.

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