Review: ‘A Chiara,’ starring Swamy Rotolo

June 3, 2022

by Carla Hay

Swamy Rotolo in “A Chiara” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“A Chiara”

Directed by Jonas Carpignano

Italian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in the Italian region of Calabria, the dramatic film “A Chiara” features a nearly all-white cast of characters (with one black person) representing the working-class, middle-class and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: After her father disappears, a 15-year-old girl finds out that her tight-knit and loving family has dark secrets. 

Culture Audience: “A Chiara” will appeal primarily to people interested in a well-acted coming-of-age stories about people born into families leading double lives.

Claudio Rotolo, Giorgia Rotolo, Grecia Roloto, Swamy Rotolo and Carmela Fumo in “A Chiara” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“A Chiara” presents in stark and haunting ways how a family can be destroyed by secrets and lies, and how a child caught in the crossfire can try to heal from the trauma. This two-hour drama needed better film editing, but the performances are compelling. Viewers need patience to get through some of the repetitive aspects of “A Chiara,” but the best sections of the movie outweigh the weaker sections. “A Chiara” had its world premiere at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Directors’ Fortnight Award.

Written and directed by Jonas Carpignano, “A Chiara” (which means “To Chiara” in Italian) takes place in Italy’s Calabria region and mostly in the city of Gioia Tauro. The Guerrasio family lives in Gioia Tauro, in what seems to be a tranquil, middle-class existence. This tight-knit and loving clan includes Claudio Guerrasio (played by Claudio Rotolo), his wife Carmela Guerrasio (played by Carmela Fumo) and their three daughters: Giulia Guerrasio (played by Grecia Rotolo), who turns 18 years old in the story; Chiara Guerrasio (played by Swamy Rotolo), who is 15 years old; and Giorgia Guerrasio (played by Giorgia Rotolo), who’s about 5 or 6 years old.

Chiara is an energetic, curious and athletic child. She’s first seen doing rigorous exercises in a school gym. And later, it’s shown that she’s on the school’s track team. Chiara has a small group of friends at school. Chiara’s closest pal is a girl about her age named Giusi (played by Giuseppina Rotolo), who frequently joins Chiara in their semi-secretive habit of vaping.

At home, all seems to be going well. Chiara, Giulia and Giorgia like to horse around in a playful manner. But amid all this family fun, there are ominous signs that Chiara senses that something is wrong. While she’s alone in the living room one evening, Chiara sees her father outside the house, and he’s talking to another man in a very intense conversation. They are too far away for Chiara to hear what they’re saying, but she senses that they want to keep the conversation private. She says nothing and goes back into another room.

In other parts of the movie, when Chiara sees things that she knows she’s not supposed to see, the movie’s sound becomes muffled, as if she’s trying to block out what she’s witnessing. “A Chiara” uses hand-held cameras (with cinematography by Tim Curtin), to give the film more of a “home movie,” intimate feel. Some viewers might not like all the shaky cam footage in “A Chiara,” but the filmmakers seem to be going for a vibe where a viewer gets to tag along like a documentarian, rather than “A Chiara” looking like a slick and overly polished drama.

Life seems to be blissful for the Guerrasio family during Giulia’s 18th birthday party, which is being held at a restaurant, with about 30 guests at the party. The movie has a segment of about 15 or 16 minutes (a little too long and needed tighter editing) showing this party, where it doesn’t show much except people talking, eating and dancing. Everyone is in good spirits, and things go very smoothly during this celebration.

At the party, there’s a dance contest where Claudio, who is among the four “judges,” casts the deciding vote between final contestants Giulia and Chiara. He votes for Giulia, who is declared the winner. Later, Claudio dances with Chiara and tells her that he had to vote for Giulia because it’s her birthday. A smiling Chiara says that she understands.

Despite the party being a joyful celebration, there are some more subtle clues that Claudio is troubled. During the group dinner, Claudio is asked to make a birthday toast to Giulia, but he refuses. Instead, he insists that his brother Pasquale (played by Pasquale Alampi) say the toast. At the table, Claudio tells Giulia that he’s proud of her. “You are my life.” They both get emotional and start crying.

About three or four rough-looking men, who are not family members or friends, also show up at the party. Later, when Chiara and Giusi go outside to smoke, four other men approach them on the street and start scolding the teens for smoking. Chiara defiantly tells them to mind their own business, and things start to get tense. But then, the group of men see another group of four men, and their attention turns to these other men for a possible confrontation.

Chiara and Giusi are relieved that this encounter with these men didn’t escalate into something dangerous. As Giusi and Chiara walk back toward the restaurant, they both see Chiara’s father Claudio on the street in a heated conversation with the rough-looking men who were at the party. The men seem to be following Claudio, who sees Chiara and makes a hand gesture, as if to tell her to go away. Claudio then quickly gets in his car alone and leaves.

At home later that night, Chiara hears her parents having a panicked discussion. Chiara spies on them, but the viewers can’t hear what’s being said, because the movie’s sound is muffled. Chiara follows her parents outside without them seeing her. Chiara sees her father jump over a wall and leave.

When Chiara goes out on the street a short while later to look for her father, she sees a man on a motorbike pass by her father’s car and throw something at it. The car almost instantly blows up in flames. Luckily, no one was in or near the car. However, Chiara’s mother runs outside and frantically takes Chiara in the house with her.

When the police arrive to investigate, Chiara overhears her mother tell the cops that she didn’t see anything and that the family did not receive any threats. And where is Claudio? Carmela tells Giulia, Chiara and Giorgia (who are all huddled in fear in the same bed): “Everything is under control. Don’t worry. I just spoke to the police.”

When Giulia asks about the sisters’ father, Carmela replies, “Your father is out there, taking care of everything. You know your dad.” But do they really know their dad? Claudio doesn’t come home.

And when Chiara goes to school the next day, she notices that some of the students are avoiding her or talking about her behind her back. It isn’t long before Chiara finds out her father’s big secret and why he disappeared. Chiara goes home and angrily confronts her mother, who essentially admits that it’s true. Claudio’s secret isn’t too surprising to viewers who see all the clues for what they are, but the secret is shocking to Chiara.

Much of the movie chronicles Chiara’s efforts to find her father. She skips a lot of her school classes to play “detective,” and this truancy has consequences that are shown later in the movie. The mystery-solving part of “A Chiara” is a little duller than it should have been. That’s because Chiara repeatedly goes back and talks to a shop owner named Antonio (played by Antonio Rotolo), once Chiara quickly figures out that Antonio knows a lot of her father’s secrets.

“A Chiara” is told from Chiara’s perspective and her determination to find out the whole truth, even if it hurts. Therefore, not much insight is given to how other members of the family are dealing with Claudio’s disappearance. There’s a powerfully acted scene where Chiara confronts Giulia about how much Giulia might have known, but that’s the limited extent that Chiara is shown having an emotional conversation with either of her sisters about their father’s disappearance.

What’s a little odd about the story is that Carmela seems surprised by how Chiara found out about Claudio’s secret, when it’s the most obvious way that anyone with access to a TV or the Internet could get this information. The only conclusion that viewers can reach is that Carmela is the type of person who likes to be deep in denial about things. It’s open to interpretation if this denial is to unselfishly protect her children or to selfishly cover up some complicit misdeeds.

“A Chiara” is a story inspired by real-life family members, who act as various versions of themselves in the movie. And that’s why the chemistry between these cast members looks so authentic. The movie is about a teenager who has to grow up very fast, but “A Chiara” at times lumbers along in how it tells this story, with the last 10 minutes of the movie looking quickly crammed in to have a rushed ending. This uneven pacing doesn’t detract from Swamy Rotolo’s memorable performance, which will keep viewers interested in finding out what happens to this teenager whose life and family are forever altered by her father’s bad choices.

Neon released “A Chiara” in select U.S. cinemas on May 27, 2022. The movie was released in Italy in 2021.

Review: ‘House of Gucci,’ starring Lady Gaga, Adam Driver, Jared Leto, Jeremy Irons and Al Pacino

November 22, 2021

by Carla Hay

Jared Leto, Florence Andrews, Adam Driver, Lady Gaga and Al Pacino in “House of Gucci” (Photo courtesy of Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures)

“House of Gucci”

Directed by Ridley Scott

Culture Representation: Taking place from 1978 to 1997, mostly in Italy and New York City, the dramatic film “House of Gucci” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with one Latina and a few Asians) representing the middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: After middle-class Patrizia Reggiani marries into the wealthy Gucci family, family members start to battle over the Gucci empire of luxury goods, resulting in one of the family members getting murdered. 

Culture Audience: “House of Gucci” will appeal primarily to fans of the movie’s star-studded cast, the Gucci brand and tawdry true crime movies.

Jeremy Irons in “House of Gucci” (Photo courtesy of Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures)

Just like a fake Gucci item, “House of Gucci” is a tacky sham that quickly falls apart. Don’t be fooled into thinking this is a high-quality movie, just because of the celebrity names and Oscar pedigrees of the movie’s headlining stars and director. The movie looks good, when it comes to production design, costume design, makeup and hairstyling. But the screenplay is atrocious, the acting is uneven, and director Ridley Scott helmed “House of Gucci” like it’s an idiotic melodrama made for mediocre television, but with a much higher budget than most TV-movies will ever have. (“House of Gucci” even has some laughably bad freeze-frame shots as lazy ways of putting emphasis on a particular emotion.)

It’s all the more reason for viewers to be disappointed that several Oscar winners and Oscar nominees have stepped into this “smoke and mirrors” cesspool of a movie. We all know that the fashion industry is all about image and how someone looks on the outside. That doesn’t mean that a movie about the Gucci empire’s biggest scandal needs to be shallow and superficial too.

The weakest link in “House of Gucci” is the screenplay, written by Becky Johnston and Roberto Bentivegna. They adapted the screenplay from Sara Gay Forden’s 2000 book “The House of Gucci: A Sensational Story of Murder, Madness, Glamour and Greed.” The “House of Gucci” movie is slipshod in certain details, by getting some basic facts wrong about this notorious murder case. And many parts of this movie are surprisingly dull. Don’t expect there to be any riveting scenes of a murder trial in “House of Gucci.” There aren’t any. There’s a poorly written, anti-climactic courtroom scene that’s rushed into the movie.

The Gucci murder case involved a complex group of real-life people, who are mostly reduced to caricatures in the movie. However, a few of the “House of Gucci” cast members make the film watchable because of their performances: Lady Gaga, Jeremy Irons and Jared Leto. They stand out for completely different reasons.

Lady Gaga is compelling to watch as the scheming Patrizia Reggiani, who was at the center of the Gucci scandal because Reggiani was convicted of masterminding a murder plot. The details of the Gucci murder case are well-documented, but in case anyone reading this review doesn’t know anything about the case before seeing the movie, this review won’t reveal who was murdered. (Although it’s pretty obvious, when you consider who would have to die for Reggiani to inherit a large share of the Gucci fortune.)

Lady Gaga’s performance as Patrizia Reggiani takes a deep dive into campiness, occasionally comes up for air in earnestness, and sometimes lounges around in limpness. Overall, Lady Gaga has the type of on-screen magnetism that even when Patrizia is doing awful things, it’s with the type of villainous charisma where you know this character is capable of convincing some people that she did very bad things for very good reasons.

A campy performance isn’t necessarily a problem if the rest of the actors are on the same wavelength. Unfortunately, “House of Gucci” director Scott failed to bring a cohesive tone to this movie. Other “House of Gucci” actors give performances that are not campy at all but come across as if they truly believe this is a serious, artsy drama worthy of the highest accolades in the movie industry in every top-level category.

That’s the kind of performance that Adam Driver gives in “House of Gucci,” where he portrays Patrizia’s beleagured husband Maurizio Gucci. Maurizio met Patrizia when he was a law student and had no intention of joining the family business. Driver’s portrayal of Maurizio has the type of personality transformation that actors usually relish.

Maurizio goes from being mild-mannered and easily manipulated when he meets Patrizia while he was in law school to becoming a ruthless and recklessly spending businessman who casts Patrizia aside when he decides to move in with his mistress Paola Franchi (played by Camille Cottin) and divorce Patrizia. Their divorce became final in 1994.

“House of Gucci” makes it look like Maurizio abandoned not only Patrizia but essentially neglected their daughter Alessandra after the divorce. The three actresses who portray Alessandra in “House of Gucci” are Nicole Bani Sarkute (Alessandra at 3 years old); Mia McGovern Zaini (Alessandra at 9 years old); and Clelia Rossi Marcelli (teenage Alessandra).

In reality, Patrizia and Maurizio had two children together: daughters Alessandra (born in 1976) and Allegra, born in 1981. The erasure of Allegra from the movie is just one of the many details that “House of Gucci” gets wrong. The movie also changes the timeline of when Patrizia and Maurizio met and got married. In the beginning of the movie, Patrizia meets Maurizio in 1978. In real life, Patrizia and Maurizio met in 1970 and got married in 1972.

In the “House of Gucci” movie version of Patrizia’s life in 1978, she was working as an office manager for her stepfather’s truck transportation business in Milan, Italy. Patrizia and Maurizio meet at a nightclub party of one of his friends. Maurizio is standing behind the bar, and Patrizia mistakes him for the bartender, so she asks him to fix her a drink. Maurizio thinks that she’s confident and sexy. He tells her that she reminds him of Elizabeth Taylor.

Patrizia seems much more interested in Maurizio when he mentions that his last name is Gucci. Patrizia asks Maurizio if he wants to dance. He says no. The scene then cuts to Patrizia and Maurizio dancing together on the dance floor. Patrizia’s persuasive personality sets the tone for much of their relationship.

It seems like the “House of Gucci” filmmakers decided to change this couple’s courtship to take place in the late 1970s solely for the purpose of having disco music in the movie’s scenes that depict the early years of their relationship. After all, Lady Gaga looks better twirling or slow dancing on a 1978 dance floor where there’s a disco ball and Studio 54-type of partiers, instead of a scene at a 1970 party that would probably have to be staged with a bunch of rich-looking hippies.

Therefore, the “House of Gucci” soundtrack serves up its share of disco music, such as Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love,” Donna Summer’s “Bad Girls,” Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” and Donna Summer’s “On the Radio.” Later, when the movie’s timeline goes into the 1980s, the soundtrack features songs such as the Eurythmics hits “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” and “Here Comes the Rain Again.” The soundtrack songs often blare in “House of Gucci” in music-video-styled sequences that further cheapen the look of the movie.

The first sign that Patrizia is willing to do whatever it takes to get what she wants is when she stalks Maurizio on campus at his law school. She follows him into a library and pretends to “coincidentally” run into him again. This scene is like something right out of a Lifetime movie. Maurizio has no idea that he’s being targeted, so he goes along with Patrizia’s seduction and is eventually convinced that their relationship is true love.

Irons gives an understated and believable performance as Rodolfo Gucci, Maurizio’s widower father, who is the only Gucci family member who holds on to his dignity in this movie. Rodolfo is immediately suspicious of Patrizia and her intentions for his only child. Rodolfo doesn’t come right out and use the words “gold digger” when he warns Maurizio not to marry Patrizia, but Rodolfo expresses his concerns that Patrizia is not a woman of substance and that she seems to be latching on to Maurizio because of the Gucci family fortune.

Even though Rodolfo vehemently disapproves of Patrizia, it turns out that Rodolfo and Patrizia actually agree on something: They both think that Maurizio should go into the Gucci family business. However, Maurizio’s refusal to follow his father’s wishes leads to him being estranged from Rodolfo for a while.

Maurizio is kicked out of the family home and cut off from his family’s financial support. With nowhere else to go, Maurizio moves in with Patrizia and her parents. Maurizio gets a job working for Patrizia’s stepfather Fernando (played by Vincent Riotta), who’s depicted in the movie as someone who engages in shady business practices.

To put an emphasis on how much Maurizio is estranged from his former life, when Patrizia and Maurizio get married in a church, the movie makes a point of showing that the pews on the bride’s side of the aisle are filled with her family members and friends, while the pews on the groom’s side of the aisle are almost empty. George Michael’s 1987 song “Faith” is played in the movie’s soundtrack after Patrizia and Maurizio exchange vows and walk happily out of the church. This soundtrack choice is an example of more of the movie’s carelessness with details, because the wedding took place years before “Faith” was released and before Michael was even a pop star.

Meanwhile, Rodolfo’s older brother Aldo Gucci (played by Al Pacino, hamming it up in the type of moody roles he’s been doing recently) doesn’t trust Aldo’s dimwitted son Paolo (played by Leto) to be in charge of any part of the family business. Aldo reaches out to Maurizio to come back to the family fold, but Maurizio still hesitates. Patrizia eventually joins forces with Aldo to persuade Maurizio to reconcile with his family and become part of the Gucci business empire. Maurizio eventually agrees, because at this point in his life, he still wants to please Patrizia. For a while, Patrizia and Maurizio made their home base in New York City during Maurizio’s rise in the Gucci business.

More scheming and manipulations ensue, exactly like how you expect them to play out in a movie that is plagued with clumsy clichés. Patrizia and Maurizio are not shown having any meaningful conversations that are not about his family, money or business. In other words, the movie falls short of convincing viewers that Maurizio and Patrizia had a deep emotional love that would make him blind to her gold-digging ways.

Maurizio and Patrizia have a passionate sex life in the beginning of their relationship, so the movie implies that lust, not love, was what really brought this couple together. The sex scenes in “House of Gucci” aren’t very sexy because they look more like parodies of soap-opera-styled sex. Items on tables are shoved aside and crash on the floor to make room on the table for whatever sex act occurs. Any vigorous thrusting doesn’t look erotic but looks more like someone having a robotic workout routine at a gym. And the orgasms sound very fake.

It’s not much of a surprise that “House of Gucci” is a very “straight male gaze” movie where only women’s nude private parts are shown, not men’s nude private parts. And speaking of people in “House of Gucci” in various states of undress, this movie has a semi-obsession with Patrizia being seen in bathtubs or saunas. Apparently, the filmmakers want viewers to think that life is supposed to be more luxurious if you take baths instead of showers.

The supporting characters in “House of Gucci” are either over-the-top ridiculous (Salma Hayek as Giuseppina “Pina” Auriemma, a self-described psychic who befriends Patrizia), or bland as bland as can be (Jack Huston as Gucci financial advisor Domenico De Sole; Reeve Carney as fashion designer Tom Ford) with no intriguing personalities. Pina is a stereotypical con artist who gives vague predictions to Patrizia (“I see a big fortune coming your way”) and mystical-sounding advice, such as telling Patrizia that Patrizia should wear more red for “protection” and more green for “cleansing.”

The fashion industry is a mere backdrop to the betrayals and lies that usually originate from Patrizia and spread like a virus to other members of the Gucci family. For example, “House of Gucci” wastes an opportunity to give a fascinating insider’s look at the Gucci empire. Instead, the movie gives trite portrayals of the massive reinvention that the Gucci brand underwent from the 1970s to the 1990s. The movie serves up a fast-food version of what happened on the business side of the Gucci story.

“House of Gucci” unrealistically makes it look like it was only Patrizia who had the business sense to tell the family in the 1980s that it was devaluing the Gucci name by licensing the brand to cheap-quality merchandise, and that they needed to go back to Gucci being synonymous with luxury. The Gucci brand was then repositioned as “hip/trendy” (not old-fashioned) luxury. For all of her supposed business skills, Patrizia isn’t actually showing doing any real work as a so-called Gucci powerhouse. According to this movie, all she seems to be good at doing is telling people what to do.

The “House of Gucci” role of fashion designer Ford, a native of Texas who is credited with helping further reinvent the Gucci brand in the 1990s, is literally a walk-on role: The most memorable things that he does in the movie is give the traditional end-of-show designer stroll on a runway after showing a collection, and when Ford reads a newspaper article that praises him, he walks out of the room to say that he can’t wait to call his mother.

At no point in the movie is anyone in the Gucci empire shown having a strong relationship with Ford, even though he was a driving force at Gucci, where he worked from 1990 to 2004, with most of those years spent as Gucci’s creative director. There are some hints that De Sole had his own agendas and ambitions, but the character is written in a completely boring and hollow way. Unless you’re a fashion aficionado who knows about De Sole and his further ascent in the Gucci empire, you might have a hard time remembering his name after watching this movie.

“House of Gucci” is also problematic in how it portrays women, because the three female characters with the most prominent speaking roles are either villains (Patrizia and Pina) or a mistress (Paola). Vogue magazine editorial executive Anna Wintour (played by Catherine Walker), actress Sophia Loren (played by Mãdãlina Ghenea) and Paolo’s wife Jenny Gucci (played by Florence Andrews) have meaningless cameos in “House of Gucci.” Even back in the 1970s to 1990s, when this movie takes place, women were so much more important in the fashion industry than what “House of Gucci” makes it look like.

Out of all the portrayals of the Gucci men in “House of Gucci,” Leto’s performance as Paolo is the flashiest one. Much of the performance’s standout qualities have to do with the top-notch prosthetics that Leto wears to make him look like a completely different person who is heavier and older than Leto’s real physical appearance. However, Leto does show some actor panache by having an amusing Italian accent, and he plays Paolo’s buffoon role to the hilt, bringing some intentional comedic moments.

Leto’s performance is only marred by some silly-looking scenes, such as when Paolo does an awkward dance of jubilation with Patrizia when she deceives aspiring fashion designer Paolo into thinking that his horrendous fashions are fabulous and worthy of being part of the Gucci brand. It’s the type of scene that looks like something Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd would’ve rejected for their Two Wild and Crazy Guys act on “Saturday Night Live.” Paolo’s words and actions get more cartoonish as the movie goes along. A low point is when Paolo urinates on a Gucci scarf in a fit of anger.

Unfortunately, the best performance efforts by the “House of Gucci” cast members can’t overcome the very cringeworthy screenplay that ruins this movie. In one scene, when Patrizia and Maurizio have an argument, she chokes up with tears and says: “I had no idea I married a monster.” He replies coldly, “You didn’t. You married a Gucci.” In another scene, Pina snarls at someone, “Don’t fuck this up, ’cause I’ll put a spell on you!” In another scene, Paolo says, “Never confuse shit with chocolate. They may look the same, but they’re very different. Trust me, I know!”

The Paolo character might want to warn people not to confuse defecation with chocolate, but viewers should be warned not to confuse “House of Gucci” with being a superb film. For a movie that’s supposed to be about a haute couture/luxury fashion brand, it wallows in the muck of cheap gimmicks, sloppy screenwriting and a lack of self-awareness about how horrendous the worst parts are. The end result is a tawdry mess. And you can’t erase the stink from that.

Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures will release “House of Gucci” in U.S. cinemas on November 24, 2021. “House of Gucci” is set for release on digital and VOD on February 1, 2022. The movie’s release date on Blu-ray and DVD is on February 22, 2022.

Review: ‘Time Is Up’ (2021), starring Bella Thorne and Benjamin Mascolo

October 3, 2021

by Carla Hay

Benjamin Mascolo and Bella Thorne in “Time Is Up” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Time Is Up” (2021)

Directed by Elisa Amoruso

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city and in Italy, the romantic drama “Time Is Up” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: At an unnamed high school, a “good girl” who’s an aspiring physicist falls for a “bad boy” who’s a rising star on the school’s swim team, even though she already has a boyfriend who’s on the same swim team.

Culture Audience: “Time Is Up” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching cliché-ridden, badly acted dramas about teenagers.

Sebastiano Pigazzi and Bella Thorne in “Time Is Up” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Time Is Up” is an example of what happens when filmmakers think that all you need for a romantic drama are some pretty actors and a scenic trip to Italy. It’s too bad they forgot about actually making a good movie. This substandard film is like being in a car wreck of teen drama clichés. And that’s not just because the movie actually does have a car wreck, which causes the female protagonist to experience amnesia soon after she has fallen in love with someone new.

“Time Is Up” is also one of those movies that has a trailer that gives away 85% of the plot, including the amnesia part of the story that doesn’t happen until the last third of the movie. There’s only one plot twist in the movie that isn’t in the trailer: It involves a secret same-sex affair of two people whose reputations would be ruined if the secret got out.

“Time Is Up” director Elisa Amoruso co-wrote the movie’s atrocious screenplay with Lorenzo Ura and Patrizia Fiorellini. The movie attempts to go for the tone of an epic romance, but in reality, “Time Is Up” is a cheesy teen soap opera. One of the movie’s biggest flaws is in its casting: The main actors who portray high schoolers look too old to be in high school.

We’ve seen this formula too many times before: A “good girl” in high school falls for a brooding “bad boy.” If he goes to the same school, he’s usually a new student who’s a mysterious and troubled loner. There’s usually some obstacle that prevents them from getting together right away. (The obstacle is usually a love triangle.) And so, the would-be couple will spend a lot of screen time pouting and eyeing each other lustfully before one of them makes the first move.

“Time Is Up” is a parade of pouting by cast members who know how to look sullen and bored more than they know how to act. Vivien (played by Bella Thorne) is in her last year in high school in an unnamed U.S. city. She’s an aspiring physicist (with a preference for quantum physics), who spouts this laughable, pseudo-physics mumbo jumbo in a voiceover narration in the beginning of the film:

“In the void, pairs of particles are continuously created. Their only destiny is to meet and disappear into each other. When two particles that have interacted with each other are separated, they are no longer distinct particles. The same thing happens when two people fall in love. Even when life pulls them apart, they’ll always carry a trace of the other person inside.”

As soon as you hear this silly schmaltz, you know you’re going to have to brace yourself for more as this movie plods to its very predictable end. Vivien attends an unnamed private high school, where most of the students come from privileged families. Her boyfriend Steve (played by Sebastiano Pigazzi) is a star of the school’s male swim team. Vivien has a sassy best friend (played by Bonnie Baddoo), who seems to be just a token character because the filmmakers never bothered to give her character a name.

Also on the school’s swim team is a new student named Roy (played by Benjamin Mascolo), a heavily tattooed rebel who lives in a trailer park. Roy has a swimming scholarship to attend the school. He has the talent to be the best swimmer on the team. Roy was born in Italy and moved to the U.S. with his family when he was in middle school, so he still has an Italian accent.

But when Vivien and her best friend attend a swim practice, it looks like Roy could be putting his scholarship in jeopardy. Roy has been slacking off during practice, so he gets yelled at by the team’s coach Dylan (played by Nikolay Moss). Dylan warns Roy that if Roy doesn’t improve, Roy won’t be chosen for the swim team’s competitions, and he could lose his scholarship.

Roy shouts back at Dylan: “What are you? My dad? I already have one! I fucking hate him!” Meanwhile, Steve smirks nearby when he sees this conflict between Roy and Dylan, because Steve wants to be considered the team’s best swimmer. Steve feels somewhat threatened that Roy (who’s a better swimmer) could outshine Steve on the team.

One day, Steve, Vivien and Vivien’s best friend are riding in Steve’s car when Roy becomes the topic of the conversation. Vivien’s best friend thinks that Roy is very attractive, and she mentions that she wouldn’t mind having a one-night stand with Roy. She asks Steve for more information about Roy. Steve says that Roy mostly keeps to himself.

Vivien and Steve seem to have a solid relationship on the outside. But lately, Steve has been very preoccupied and doesn’t have time for Vivien in the way he used to have time for her. He’s also not as affectionate with her as he used to be.

Vivien’s best friend notices that the romance between Vivien and Steve has cooled down. Even though Vivien insists that she’s happy with Steve, her best friend comments, “You’re not happy. You’re serene, which is totally different.”

The romantic spark has also apparently dwindled in the marriage of Vivien’s parents. Early on in the film, Vivien (who is an only child) finds out that her mother Sarah (played by Emma Lo Bianco) has been having an affair with another man. Vivien’s businessman father (played by Giampiero Judica), who doesn’t have a name in the movie, is away from home a lot because of his work.

As for Roy’s family, he lives with his widowed father (who’s a mechanic) and pre-teen sister in a dumpy and cluttered trailer. Roy’s father is American, and Roy’s late mother was Italian, which is why Roy and his parents lived in Italy for the first 11 or 12 years of his childhood.

Roy later tells Vivien that one of the reasons why he has hard feelings toward his father is because Roy didn’t want to leave Italy, but it was his father’s decision to move to the United States after Roy’s mother passed away. Roy eventually reveals to Vivien how Roy’s mother died. (Antonella Britti portrays Roy’s mother in this brief flashback.)

At a costume party at a student’s house, Vivien and Roy see each other across the room and they start dancing together. And because this movie is filled with teen movie clichés, a fight inevitably breaks out at the party. You don’t have to be a psychic to know who ends up in the brawl.

Vivien and Roy have another encounter when she’s in the parking lot of a restaurant at night. It’s the same restaurant where Vivien saw her mother on a date and kissing another man. In the parking lot, some young thugs start to harass Vivien. But lo and behold, Roy shows up and comes to Vivien’s rescue.

It turns out that Roy knows these troublemakers because he’s been involved with some criminal activities with them. Later in the movie, Roy is shown committing burglary by breaking into a house with one of his hoodlum pals. They don’t get caught, and the burglary is never mentioned in the movie again.

Vivien’s problems at home and her problems with Steve have upset her to the point where she starts doing her own version of rebelling. There’s a scene where she shows up in a classroom where the teacher is handing out a test to the students. Vivien doesn’t even sit down before she decides she’s going to walk out of the class without taking the test. She doesn’t just walk out. She has to do a dramatic, pouty saunter, as if she’s on some kind of fashion runway.

And what do you know: The swim team is traveling out of the country to go to a swimming competition. And guess where they’ve gone? Italy. Vivien wants to bring the passion back to her romance with Steve. And so, she decides to go to Italy to surprise Steve at the hotel where the swim team is staying.

For reasons that won’t be revealed in this review, Steve isn’t available for most of the trip. But guess who’s available to show Vivien around this part of Italy? You get the gist of what happens in the movie’s trailer. There are no real surprises in how Roy ends up courting Vivien, even though he tells her in a not-very-convincing way that he doesn’t want to fall in love.

Vivien and Roy get together, of course, and they even have (cliché alert) a couple’s signature song: Frankie Valli’s 1967 hit single “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You.” Expect to hear this tune played multiple times in the movie.

“Time Is Up” is plagued by a lot of uneven acting. Thorne can sometimes rise to the occasion in the melodramatic scenes. But too often, she recites her lines in a wooden and emotionless way. Mascolo is even worse, since his acting is very stiff and unnatural in too many parts of the movie. He’s an example of an actor who was hired more for his physical appearance than anything else. The fact that Thorne and Mascolo became a couple in real life doesn’t help their lackluster acting skills in this movie.

The rest of the cast members are adequate in their performances, which are overshadowed by the cringeworthy dialogue throughout much of the movie. The cinematography often tries to make “Time Is Up” look glossy and glamorous, but mostly the movie comes off looking like a badly edited and cheap-looking romance novel. And worst of all for a romance movie, the main characters have personalities that are as plastic as Ken and Barbie dolls. At least Ken and Barbie aren’t as forgettable as this lazy and unimaginative film.

Vertical Entertainment released “Time Is Up” for one night only (via Fathom Events) in U.S. cinemas on September 9, 2021. The movie was released on digital and VOD on September 24, 2021.

Review: ‘Luca’ (2021), starring the voices of Jacob Tremblay, Jack Dylan Grazer, Emma Berman, Saverio Raimondo, Maya Rudolph, Jim Gaffigan and Sandy Martin

June 16, 2021

by Carla Hay

Alberto (voiced by Jack Dylan Grazer) and Luca (voiced by Jacob Tremblay) in “Luca” (Image courtesy of Disney/Pixar Animation Studios)

“Luca” (2021)

Directed by Enrico Casarosa 

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed Riviera town in Italy, the animated film “Luca” features an all-white cast of characters portraying the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: In a world where sea monsters can transform into humans when they’re on land, a teenage sea monster rebels against his parents’ rules by hanging out on land, and he makes plans to run away with another teenage sea monster who has become his best friend.

Culture Audience: “Luca” will appeal primarily to people interested in predictable but enjoyable animated films about family, friendship and self-identity.

Alberto (voiced by Jack Dylan Grazer) and Luca (voiced by Jacob Tremblay) in “Luca” (Image courtesy of Disney/Pixar Animation Studios)

How do you know you’re watching a Pixar movie, besides the great visuals? The lead characters are usually male and struggling with identity/self-esteem issues, they go on an adventure with least one sidekick, and they find out the meaning of life with some tearjerking moments. The End.

Pixar Animation Studios’ “Luca” (directed by Enrico Casarosa) follows this same formula to mostly entertaining results in this story about sea monsters and humans. It’s not a groundbreaking animated film, but it’s a definite crowd-pleaser that can appeal to several different age groups. The underwater scenes in the movie are the most visually stunning, but it’s not too surprising, considering that Pixar is also the studio behind 2003’s far superior, Oscar-winning “Finding Nemo,” which was set primarily underwater. “Luca” spends most of the story on land.

Pixar, which is owned by Disney, sets itself apart from Disney Animation Studios by putting more emphasis on original stories about characters who want to feel comfortable with themselves for the first time in their lives. Therefore, the adventures in Pixar tend to have more at stake on a personal level than defeating an evil villain, because low self-esteem is often the story’s biggest villain. The visuals in Pixar films also tend to be more intricate and dazzling than Disney Animation films.

However, it’s concerning that when the world’s population and movie audiences are at least 50% female, Pixar continues to have a majority of feature-length movies where the stories are dominated by male characters. Maybe that’s because almost all Pixar movies are written and directed by men. “Luca” is no exception. The “Luca” screenplay was written by Jesse Andrews and Mike Jones.

Pixar films tend to be very male-centric for lead protagonists, whereas Disney Animation films have more of a gender balance in their lead protagonists. (Disney princesses. Need we say more?) Disney Animation also has a mix of films that are from original and adapted screenplays, since many classic children’s books and fairy tales have been made into Disney animated films.

“Luca” takes place in Italy in an unnamed town near the Riviera, which is populated by sea monsters that can transform into humans when they’re on land. Because human beings have a reputation for killing sea monsters, it’s become normal for sea monsters to fear and mistrust humans, just as many humans fear and mistrust sea monsters. Therefore, it’s not unusual for parent sea monsters to teach their children never to go on land.

That’s the case with Luca Paguro (voiced by Jacob Tremblay), an adolescent sea monster, who sounds like a boy who’s about 13 or 14. His overprotective parents—Daniela Paguro (voiced by Maya Rudolph) and Lorenzo Paguro (voiced by Jim Gaffigan)—have instilled strict rules that Luca can never go on land (anything above the sea is called “the surface”) because it’s too dangerous. Daniela is more paranoid than Lorenzo is about Luca going on land because she’s certain that Luca will be hurt or killed if he does.

Luca’s parents keep him so sheltered that they don’t tell him that sea monsters have the ability to transform into humans when they’re on land and can go back to being sea monsters when underwater. If a sea monster is on land, and water touches a sea monster’s body, the sea monster’s body takes on sea monster physical characteristics, depending on how much water has made contact with the body. And you know that’s going to happen in this movie when Luca gets into some precarious situations.

Luca’s crusty-voiced grandmother, who doesn’t have a first name in the movie and is called Grandma (voiced by Sandy Martin), lives in the Paguro household. Grandma has been to the surface, where she says she hung out with humans to do things like play card games, so she isn’t afraid of the surface like Luca’s parents are. In one early scene in the movie, the family is having a meal together around a dining room table when Grandma starts to tell a happy memory of her time on the surface. However, Daniela gets upset and verbally shuts down Grandma by ordering her never to talk about her surface experiences to Luca.

Luca is a lonely sea monster who doesn’t have any sea monster friends underwater. He spends his days hanging out with fish. His favorite is a fish named Giuseppe. But since these fish can’t talk, Luca is starting to feel isolated. Luca secretly wishes that he could go to school with other kids, but his parents are apparently homeschooling him. His father breeds and handles show crabs for a living, and Luca is expected to do the same thing when he becomes an adult.

One day, Luca sees a young male sea monster in a diving outfit. At first, Luca is afraid because he thinks the individual in diving gear is a human. But the sea monster reveals himself to be a teenager who sounds like he’s about 15 or 16 years old. His name is Alberto Scorfano (voiced by Jack Dylan Grazer), who ends up capturing Luca with a fishing hook and bringing Luca to the surface.

It’s how a terrified Luca finds out for the first time that he has the ability to become a human when he’s on land. Alberto lives in an abandoned castle tower, and he says that his single father is frequently away because of the father’s busy job demands. There’s no mention of Alberto’s mother in the story.

Alberto is a bit of a daredevil and mischief maker. In the movie’s opening scene, two fisherman—elderly Tommaso (voiced by Gino La Monica) and young Giacomo (voiced by Giacomo Giannotti)—are on a boat at night. Giacomo is concerned about fishing in this part of the water, because he’s heard stories about deadly sea monsters living in the area. Tommaso is dismissive of these stories. But then, a sea monster (which viewers later find out is Alberto) steals some of items from the boat, including a gramophone, and the two fishermen chase him away.

In his newfound human body, Luca feels scared but excited. Alberto teaches Luca how to walk on two feet and other ways to navigate himself as a human. The two boys end up becoming fast friends. Luca sneaks off to spend time with Alberto as much as possible while his parents are working or asleep. (Luca uses a makeshift decoy to fool his parents if they’re watching from far away.) However, Luca knows that what he’s doing is strictly forbidden by his parents. And it’s only a matter of time before they find out his secret.

One of the first things that Alberto tells Luca when they meet is that everything is better above the surface. Alberto also says that the Vespa scooter is “the greatest thing that humans ever made.” Alberto even has a poster that says that a Vespa scooter equals freedom. It’s Alberto’s dream to have a Vespa scooter so that he can travel around the world. Soon, this dream becomes a shared obsession for Alberto and Luca.

In order to get the money to buy a new Vespa and start this dream adventure lifestyle, Alberto wants to enter a scooter racing contest called the Portorosso Cup, which is held on the other side of the sea where the main part of the town is. At first, Luca is hesitant, but Alberto convinces him to be his racing partner in the Portorosso Cup. Alberto builds a makeshift scooter to enter the contest.

When Luca’s parents find out that he’s been sneaking away to go on land, they punish him by telling him that Luca will be temporarily sent to live with his stern Uncle Ugo (voiced by Sacha Baron Cohen), who doesn’t seem to like children very much. Luca’s reaction? He runs away from home. Luca is now more motivated to win the contest so that he and Alberto can run away and start their adventurous life together without any parental supervision.

During Luca and Alberto’s blossoming friendship, Alberto teaches Luca how to get rid of self-doubt, which Alberto calls Bruno. There are many references in the movie to Bruno, which is the type of self-doubt that causes naysayer voices in someone’s head that tell people they can’t do something or that they’re not good enough. Thankfully, the movie doesn’t have actual Bruno voices because that would be too tacky and distract from the story.

The reigning Portorosso Cup champ is an arrogant bully named Ercole Visconti (voiced by Saverio Raimondo), who has won this contest several times in a row. And he has no intention of ever losing. Ercole predictably has two male sidekick followers—a brunette named Guido (voiced by Lorenzo Crisci) and a blonde named Ciccio (voiced by Peter Sohn)—who don’t speak for most of the movie and passively follow Ercole’s orders.

During the time that Alberto and Luca spend time in the town among humans, Alberto and Luca befriend a human teenager, who’s close to Luca’s age. Her name is Giulia Marcovaldo (voiced by Emma Berman), who is friendly and adventurous. She comes to the town every summer to live with her divorced father Massimo Marcovaldo (voiced by Marco Barricelli), who generously gives the three teens the money that they need for the Portorosso Cup entry fee.

Of course, getting to the Portorosso Cup isn’t without its problems. Ercole wants to thwart these young upstarts and does what he can to ruin their chances of winning the contest. Luca’s parents find out that he’s run away, and they go to the town to try to find him. Luca sees them, and has to spend a great deal of the movie trying to hide from his parents.

Meanwhile, Alberto gets jealous when Luca and Giulia start to become close. Arguments predictably ensue. In the preparations for the Portorosso Cup, the tables somewhat turn as Luca becomes more confident and Alberto becomes more insecure. And the Portorosso Cup isn’t just about winning, but in this movie it becomes a way for Luca, Alberto and Giulia to learn about how they can handle obstacles and what they really want to get out of life.

One of the best things about “Luca” is that it doesn’t clutter the movie with too many characters. The story is also very easy to follow, although it’s not very original, since a lot of animated/family films have already done the “high-stakes contest” as a plot device to have the heroes face off against the villains. All of the actors give fine performances, although it’s too bad that comedian Baron Cohen essentially has just a cameo as Uncle Ugo, whose time on screen is so brief it seems like a waste of Baron Cohen’s talents.

The most irritating flaw of “Luca” is its unrelenting promotion of Vespa. It comes off as aggressive shilling/product placement. And it somewhat taints the movie’s story because Vespa is elevated as this product brand that is the equivalent of freedom and happiness. It’s a shallow and materialistic message, even though the movie has a larger message of self-acceptance that’s more important.

The mistrust and prejudice that some humans and sea monsters have for each other are obvious metaphors of real-life bigotry. Just like in real life, some individuals are narrow-minded and hateful, while others are not. However, the movie has mixed messages about “assimilation” where individuals in the minority feel like they have to be more like individuals in the majority in order to be accepted.

Some viewers might have different opinions about what kinds of message this movie might be sending where a sea monster wants to live as a human. Alberto says in the beginning of the movie that human life on land is superior to animal life in the sea. That’s a message that probably won’t endear “Luca” to animal rights activists.

However, people need to see the movie to find out how these issues of species superiority and inferiority are handled. Because sea monsters can turn into humans, the movie takes the interpretation that they’re almost like biracial people who feel pressure to identify as one race over another. It’s enough to say that the main characters in “Luca” find out that real freedom comes from not being afraid to be who you are and not letting others put you into a narrow box of what they think you should be.

Disney+ will premiere “Luca” on June 18, 2021. The movie will have an exclusive, limited-run engagement at Disney-owned El Capitan Theatre in Los Angeles, beginning June 18, 2021.

Review: ‘The Truffle Hunters,’ starring Aurelio Conterno, Angelo Gagliardi, Carlo Gonella, Sergio Cauda and Gianfranco Curti

March 28, 2021

by Carla Hay

Sergio Cauda and his dog Fiona (pictured at left) in “The Truffle Hunters” (Photo by Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw/Sony Pictures Classics)

“The Truffle Hunters”

Directed by Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw

Italian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place mostly in rural Piedmont, Italy, the documentary “The Truffle Hunters” features an all-white group of people, from middle-aged to elderly, who are involved in the business of harvesting, selling and buying truffles.

Culture Clash: The truffle hunters, who are set in their traditional ways and live without modern technology, are part of a dwindling group of people whose livelihoods are threatened by climate change, pollution and construction that destroys forest trees.

Culture Audience: “The Truffle Hunters” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in a rarely seen Italian community that knows where to harvest coveted delicacies such as white Alba truffles.

Gianfranco Curti in “The Truffle Hunters” (Photo by Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw/Sony Pictures Classics)

The cinéma vérité-styled documentary “The Truffle Hunters” (which was filmed during a three-year period) is the type of movie that people will either find fascinating or dull. There’s no really no in-between, because viewers’ interest in watching this movie will largely depend on how much they want to peek into the secretive world of how the rare delicacy of white Alba truffles are found in Piedmont, Italy. It’s a very niche subject that isn’t supposed to be a blockbuster movie for generic audiences.

Directed by Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw, “The Truffle Hunters” takes place primarily in rural Piedmont, Italy, where several middle-aged and elderly men are continuing their traditions of truffle hunting in the forests. It’s a very competitive and mysterious tradition, where truffle hunters do not like to share information with anyone over where they find their truffles. The only real loyalty that they have in their truffle hunting is to their beloved dogs that they rely on to sniff out the truffles.

That doesn’t mean that friendships can’t be formed among the truffle hunters. It just means that even among close friends, it would be bad for an individual’s business to reveal secret truffle locations or ways that they find these locations. When they get together to talk business, they often lie about what they found so that they can mislead their competitors.

As a result of this cutthroat mentality, the dark side of truffle hunting is mentioned several times in the documentary: The hunting dogs are often at risk of ingesting poison that competing hunters put in the woods. No one is seen in the documentary actually planting the poison. But as soon it’s mentioned that truffle hunter dogs get poisoned, you just know that it’s probably going to happen to someone’s dog in this movie.

Because of all the deceit and dog murders involved in truffle hunting, truffle hunters can be very solitary and paranoid when they do their work. When they do gather in duos or groups, it’s usually so they can try to get information that will be in their own best interests. But they can’t really completely trust each other because of all the risks of sharing valuable information with rivals, many of whom don’t hesitate to murder dogs for the sake of trying to get ahead of the competition. Muzzles are placed on the truffle hunting dogs to try to protect them from poison, but these muzzles aren’t always effective in preventing a dog from ingesting something deadly.

In some of the scenes in “The Truffle Hunters,” cameras were placed on the dogs, so that there’s literally a dog’s eye-view during the truffle hunt. As expected, these are the part of the movie where there’s a lot of shaky cam footage. It’s an eye-catching technique that gives more of an adrenaline-pumping perspective of what it’s like to be on the hunt for truffles, since the dogs often run during the hunt, while their elderly human masters do not.

As shown in the documentary, the truffle hunters who are staunchly traditionalist refuse to go “high-tech.” The truffle hunters featured in the movie live in homes without computers, Internet access, cell phones or even televisions. And it should come as no surprise that truffle hunting in this part of Italy is not a job that is very welcoming to women. You get the feeling that the men involved in truffle hunting think of it as an exclusive fraternity, and they want to keep it that way.

The documentary is often very slow-paced, but it allows the viewers to have a sense of how lifestyles in this isolated rural area are stuck almost in a time warp, and people are reluctant to change. Truffle hunting is also a job that is having difficulty attracting young people, who are inclined to want jobs that pay more money or are located in more populated areas. None of the truffle hunters featured in the documentary has anyone in younger generations of their families who are willing to continue these traditions of finding truffles.

That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a demand for white Alba truffles. In fact, demand has risen, as these types of truffles have become increasingly harder to find. That’s partly because of the changing landscape/terrain affected by climate change, pollution and urban development that cuts down forest trees for wood or to make way for buildings. And it’s partly because there are less truffle hunters available to find and harvest truffles.

“The Truffle Hunters” might frustrate viewers who prefer documentaries that identify people by showing their names on screen when the people are speaking or first appear on screen. There are no “talking head” interviews, so viewers will find out an individual’s name if someone else says that person’s name in the movie. The people who are featured the most in the movie are:

  • Sergio Cauda, who was 68, when this movie was filmed, is the most adventurous and social one in the group. He hunts every day with his dogs Fiona and Pepe.
  • Aurelio Conterno, who was 84 when this movie was filmed, is a never-married bachelor with no children and has no humans living with him. He treats his female dog Birba like a kid who is his best friend.
  • Gianfranco Curti is an ambitious, middle-aged truffle dealer who buys from the truffle hunters and and sells to local and international merchants and restaurants.
  • Angelo Gagliardi, who was 78 at the time this movie is filmed, is an eccentric poet/farmer who wants to get out of the truffle hunting business because he thinks it’s become too corrupt. Just like Conterno, he’s the only human in his household and treats his dog (Nina) as his most trusted companion.
  • Egidio Gagliardi, who was 83 when this movie was filmed, is Angelo’s cousin and a truffle hunter/salesman who works with scientists to find the right trees and conditions to cultivate and harvest truffles.
  • Carlo Gonella, who was 88 at the time that this movie was filmed, sneaks out at night to find truffles, much to the disapproval of his wife Maria Cicciù, who fears for his safety when he’s truffle hunting.
  • Paolo Stacchini, who was 78 at the time that this movie was filmed, is a truffle authenticator/judge whose job is to determine the quality and value of individual truffles.

A great deal of the documentary shows what happens in the transaction phase of the truffle business. Truffle dealer Curti has taken over the family business from his father, but Curti is shown to be someone who is not as well-respected by the local truffle hunters as his father was. The hunters feel that Curti’s father was more polite and more understanding in dealing with the truffle hunters.

If there’s a “villain” in the movie, it would be Curti, who tries to lowball the hunters on purchase offers. At one point in a sale negotiation, he offers €150 for 100 grams of truffles. He’s a tough negotiator who puts up a lot of resistance to buy at a suggested higher price. In another scene, he has an argument with an elderly man named Franco, who accuses Curti of coming into his territory and buying truffles from his hunters.

And it’s shown later in the movie that Curti only sees truffles as a way to make as much money as possible, not as a food delicacy that he personally enjoys. In one scene, he has dinner with his daughter (who’s about 7 or 8 years old) and smugly says that it’s ironic that he sells so many truffles because he and his family don’t even eat truffles.

Because the dogs are so important to truffle hunting, they are exalted more than a typical household pet. Cauda takes a bath with his dog Fiona in his bathtub. Conterno thinks Birba is the best truffle-hunting dog in the area, and he cooks special meals for her and has conversations with her as if she were human. Gonella gets his favorite dog Tritina blessed by a local priest during a church service.

Conterno and his dog Birba are probably the ones who are considered the most successful truffle hunters in this group. And they appear to be sought-after by people who know the reputation of this dynamic truffle-hunting duo. In one scene, an unidentified man in his 30s has a meal at restaurant with Conterno and tries to entice the truffle hunter into sharing some the tricks of his trade.

The younger man says to Conterno: “You’re 84 years old. You have no wife, no children. You’re the best truffle hunter. Can you show me your secret spots? Or can I go truffle hunting with you?’

Conterno replies, “Never! Never! We can go truffle hunting, but in your place or in a place where neither of us knows. We can go to a new place.”

“The Truffle Hunters” also shows some of the disillusionment and strained relationships that can happen with people involved in truffle hunting. According to the “Truffle Hunters” production notes, cousins Angelo Gagliardi and Egidio Gagliardi didn’t speak to each other for 10 years, even though they lived only two miles from each other. Curti’s often-abrasive manner has caused tension because he’s aggressively positioned himself as the truffle dealer who wields the most clout with these truffle hunters.

Farmer spouses Gonella and Cicciù seem to have an overall happy marriage, but nevertheless bicker about his truffle hunting. She often gets exasperated and worried when he sneaks off to truffle hunt and she can’t find him. She doesn’t think it’s safe for him to truffle hunt in his advanced age. The spouses do have some harmonious moments together, such as a scene where he helps her sort and clean tomatoes in their kitchen.

And the dog poisonings have caused a certain distrust in the truffle-hunting community, because fellow truffle hunters who can be outwardly pleasant to each other can also secretly plot to murder each other’s dogs. The situation is compounded because it’s hard to prove who’s been poisoning the dogs. Even if there were eyewitnesses, you get the feeling that the people in this community wouldn’t snitch or go to the trouble of having anyone arrested for this crime.

Angelo Gagliardi also expresses why he wants to quit truffle hunting, by saying that “there are too many greedy people. They don’t do it for fun or to play with their dogs or to spend some time in nature. They only want money … People use poisons to kill the dogs.”

The die-hard truffle hunters who want to continue truffle hunting until they’re dead or physically unable to walk in the woods are clearly doing it as a passion, first and foremost. They don’t see it as a hobby or fleeting interest but as a way of life. They’re also truffle hunting because they like the competition aspect of this type of work. Truffle hunting is embedded in their identity, and they all naturally want to be considered “the best.”

Greed and egos certainly factor into truffle hunting. However, the documentary shows that these hunters are not the ones making the most money from truffle sales. The hunters seem to be happy with making enough money to live comfortably, because they’re definitely not getting rich from truffle hunting.

A certain part of the documentary also shows the process of preparing white Alba truffles at an auction house. They’re treated almost like rare jewels, with inspectors, deluxe displays and media photographers taking pictures. During an auction shown in the documentary, one truffle sold for $110,000.

The pomp and circumstance of truffle auctions are quite the contrast from the modest and simple lives led by the truffle hunters who go in the woods to find these treasured items. And that seems to be the whole point of this documentary: The people who harvest luxurious white Alba truffles probably have fascinating stories to tell and take pride in a custom that’s so rich in tradition that you can’t put a price tag on it.

Sony Pictures Classics released “The Truffle Hunters” in select U.S. cinemas on March 5, 2021.

2020 Venice International Film Festival: lineup announced

July 28, 2020

by Carla Hay

Frances McDormand in “Nomadland” (Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures)

The 77th annual Venice International Film Festival—which takes place September 2 to September 12, 2020 in Venice, Italy—has announced its lineup. The high-profile U.S. releases competing for the festival’s biggest prize (The Golden Lion) are director Chloé Zhao’s road-trip drama “Nomadland,” starring Frances McDormand; director Mona Fastvold’s “The World to Come,” starring Vanessa Kirby, Katherine Waterston and Casey Affleck; and director Hilal Baydarov’s “In Between Dying,” which is a joint production of the U.S. and Azerbaijan.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 edition of the Venice International Film Festival is expected to have online  virtual screenings and events. Almost every film festival scheduled for 2020 that was scheduled to take place in or after March has been cancelled for the year or has been reconfigured as an online/virtual festival.

In 2018, the Venice International Film Festival signed the 5050×2020 pledge to have 50 percent of the festival’s films directed by females, by the year 2020. But the male-dominated lineup of directors for the 2020 edition of the festival shows that it has a long way to go in fulfilling that promise. Only 18 of the 61 feature-length films (or 29.5 percent) announced in the list below have female directors.

The Venice International Film Festival is one of the most important festivals in the world, and it serves as a launching pad for likely Oscar contenders. In 2019, movies that had their world premieres at the festival that went on to Oscar glory included “Joker” and “Marriage Story.”

The festival’s opening-night film (director Daniele Luchetti’s “Lacci”) and closing-niight film (director Stefano Mordini’s “Lasciami Andare”) are both Italian movies that are premiering out of competition.

Some of the other high-profile movies that will premiere out of competition in the 2020 edition of the festival include director Roger Mitchell’s comedy “The Duke,” starring Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirren; director Park Soon-Jung’s drama “Night in Paradise”; director Luca Guadagnino’s drama “Salvatore – Shoemaker of Dreams”; director Alex Gibney’s documentary “Crazy, Not Insane,” which examines the psychology of murderers; and director Nathan Grossman’s documentary “Greta” about environmentalist Greta Thunberg.

Here is the lineup for the 2020 Venice International Film Festival:

IN COMPETITION
“And Tomorrow the Entire World,” Julia Von Heinz (Germany, France)
“Dear Comrades,” Andrei Konchalovsky (Russia)
“The Disciple,” Chaitanya Tamhane (India)
“In Between Dying,” Hilal Baydarov (Azerbaijan, U.S.)
“Laila in Haifa,” Amos Gitai (Israel, France)
“Le Sorelle Macaluso,” Emma Dante (Italy)
“Lovers,” Nicole Garcia (France)
“Miss Marx,” Susanna Nicchiarelli (Italy, Belgium)
“Never Gonna Snow Again,” Malgorzata Szumowska and Michal Englert (Poland, Germany)
“Nomadland,” Chloé  Zhao (U.S.)
“Nuevo Orden,” Michel Franco (Mexico, France)
“Padrenostro,” Claudio Noce (Italy)
“Pieces of a Woman,” Kornel Mundruczo (Canada, Hungary)
“Sun Children,” Majid Majidi (Iran)
“Wife of a Spy,” Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Japan)
“The World to Come,” Mona Fastvold (U.S.)

OUT OF COMPETITION – Fiction
“Assandira,” Salvatore Mereu (Italy)
“The Duke,” Roger Mitchell (U.K.)
“Lacci,” Daniele Luchetti (Italy) – *Opening Film*
“Lasciami Andare,” Stefano Mordini (Italy) – *Closing Film*
“Love After Love,” Ann Hui (China)
“Mandibules,” Quentin Dupieux (France, Belgium)
“Mosquito State,” Filip Jan Rymsza (Poland)
“Night in Paradise,” Park Soon-Jung (South Korea)

OUT OF COMPETITION – Non-Fiction
“City Hall,” Frederick Wiseman (U.S.)
“Crazy, Not Insane,” Alex Gibney (U.S.)
“Final Account,” Luke Holland (U.K.)
“Greta,” Nathan Grossman (Sweden)
“Hopper/Welles,” Orson Welles (U.S.)
“La Verità Su La Dolce Vita,” Giuseppe Pedersoli (Italy)
“Molecole,” Daniele Segre (Italy) PRE-OPENING TITLE
“Narciso Em Ferias,” Renato Terra, Ricardo Calil (Brazil)
“Paolo Conte, Via Con Me,” Giorgio Verdelli (Italy)
“Salvatore – Shoemaker of Dreams,” Luca Guadagnino (Italy)
“Sportin’ Life,” Abel Ferrara (Italy)

OUT OF COMPETITION – Special Screenings

“30 Monedas – Episode 1,” Alex De La Iglesia (Spain)
“Omelia Contadina,” Alice Rohrwacher, JR (Italy)
“Princesse Europe,” Camille Lotteau (France)

HORIZONS
“And Tomorrow The Entire World,” Julia Von Heinz (Germany, France)
“Apples,” Christos Nikou (Greece)
“The Best Is Yet to Come,” Wang Jing (China)
“Careless Crime,” Shahram Mokri (Iran)
“The Furnace,” Roderick Mackay (Australia)
“Gaza Mon Amour,” Tarzan Nasser, Arab Nasser (Palestine, France, Germany, Portugal, Qatar)
“Genus Pan,” Lav Diaz (Philippines)
“Guerra e Pace,” Martina Parenti, Massimo D’Anolfi (Italy, Switzerland)
“I Predatori,” Pietro Castellitto (Italy)
“La Nuit Des Rois,” Philippe Lacote (Ivory Coast, France, Canada)
“La Troisieme Guerre,” Giovanni Aloi (France)
“Listen,” Ana Rocha De Sousa (U.K., Portugal)
“Mainstream,” Gia Coppola (U.S.)
“The Man Who Sold His Skin,” Kaouther Ben Hania (Tunisia, France, Germany, Belgium, Sweden)
“Milestone,” Ivan Ayr (India)
“Never Gonna Snow Again,” Malgorzata Szumowska and Michal Englert (Poland, Germany)
“Notturno,” Gianfranco Rosi (Italy, France, Germany)
“Nowhere Special,” Uberto Pasolini (Italy, Romania, U.K.)
“Quo Vadis, Aida?,” Jasmila Zbanic (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Austria, Romania, The Netherlands, Germany, Poland, France, Norway.
“Selva Tragica,” Yulene Olaizola (Mexico, France, Colombia)
“The Wasteland,” Ahmad Bahrami (Iran)
“Yellow Cat,” Adilkhan Yerzhanov (Kazakhstan, France)
“Zanka Contact,” Ismael El Iraki (France, Morocco, Belgium)

Review: ‘Love Wedding Repeat,’ starring Sam Claflin, Olivia Munn, Eleanor Tomlinson, Joel Fry, Freida Pinto, Jack Farthing and Aisling Bea

April 10, 2020

by Carla Hay

Allan Mustafa, Freida Pinto, Joel Fry, Olivia Munn, Sam Claflin, Tim Key, Jack Farthing, Aisling Bea and Eleanor Tomlinson in “Love Wedding Repeat” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“Love Wedding Repeat”

Directed by Dean Craig

Culture Representation: Taking place in Italy, the romantic comedy “Love Wedding Repeat” has a predominantly white British cast of characters (with some representation of Asians and one black/biracial person) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: At his sister’s wedding, a man tries to reconnect with a potential love interest and prevent a highly intoxicated uninvited guest from spoiling the wedding.

Culture Audience: “Love Wedding Repeat” will appeal mostly to people who have little or no expectations for a romantic comedy to be very romantic or very funny.

Sam Claflin and Olivia Munn in “Love Wedding Repeat” (Photo by Riccardo Ghilardi)

Imagine being at a wedding reception and being stuck at a table with mostly annoying people who say and do ridiculous things. That might give you an idea of what it’s like to watch “Love Wedding Repeat,” a very misguided attempt at being a romantic comedy. The movie (written and directed by Dean Craig) is based on the 2012 French film “Plan de Table,” which translates to “Table Plan” in English. “Plan de Table” was a flop with audiences and critics when it was released in France, so it’s kind of mind-boggling that the “Love Wedding Repeat” filmmakers wanted to do a remake of a flop. However, changing the setting to Italy, making it an English-language film with a mostly British cast, and altering some of the plot elements did not make “Love Wedding Repeat” an improvement on the original film.

“Love Wedding Repeat” is also split into two different storylines, with the same characters but with alternate endings. This split personality of the film ultimately falls flat, because it makes the first half of the film look like an even more of a time waster than the second half. The latter half is the one that’s supposed to have the “real” ending. The way that the movie transitions between the two storylines is clumsy at best. Penny Ryder, a Judi Dench sound-alike, does some brief voiceover narration playing the “oracle” of the movie, where she spouts some mystical-sounding mumbo jumbo about fate, destiny, and how one little action can have a big chain reaction on people’s lives.

In every movie with the word “wedding” in the title, there are two people in the story whom the audience is supposed to want to end up together. In “Love Wedding Repeat,” those two people are Jack (played by Sam Claflin) and Dina (played by Olivia Munn). At the beginning of the movie, it isn’t clear what Jack does for a living (he later tells Dina that he’s recently qualified to be a structural engineer), while Dina is an American journalist whose specialty is covering wars. They’re visiting Italy for some unknown reason and now have to go their separate ways back to their regular lives.

The movie begins with Jack and Dina having a starry-eyed romantic stroll in Italy in their last night together on their trip. Jack tells Dina, “This has been a pretty special weekend.” Dina replies, “You’re not as irritating as I thought you would be.” Dina is a friend of Jack’s younger sister Hayley, who apparently set them up on this blind date.

As he leans in to give a goodbye kiss to Dina, they’re suddenly interrupted by Jack’s former college classmate Greg (played by Alexander Forsyth), who literally comes out of nowhere to barge in between them and is completely oblivious that he’s ruined a romantic moment. The movie is filled with these types of unrealistic barge-ins where people randomly show up to cause uncomfortable situations.

Greg than proceeds to embarrass Jack by telling Dina that Jack used to have the nickname Mr. Wank in college because Jack was known for “wanking” (British slang for masturbating) a lot back then. Jack denies that he was the person with the nickname Mr. Wank, but based on how the scene is played, viewers are supposed to believe that Jack probably did have that nickname.

Meanwhile, Greg can’t take a hint that Jack and Dina want to be alone together (this movie is filled with socially clueless people), so he prattles on while Jack (who’s too spineless to end the conversation with Greg and get him to move along) watches with a frustrated expression on his face. Since Jack doesn’t have what it takes to get rid of Greg, Jack then makes the decision to say goodbye to Dina by giving her an uncomfortable handshake instead of a kiss. The disappointed look on Dina’s face shows that Jack had a chance to possibly continue their romantic connection, but he blew it.

The movie then fast forwards three years later. Jack is in Italy again, this time for the wedding of his sister Hayley (played by Eleanor Tomlinson), who is apparently marrying into a well-to-do Italian family, since the wedding is taking place at a large and beautiful estate. (The production design and cinematography are the best things about “Love Wedding Repeat.”)

Jack and Hayley’s parents are dead, so Jack will be the one to give away the bride. And wouldn’t you know that at this big wedding where there are hundreds of guests and numerous tables at the wedding reception, Jack will be seated at the same table as Dina, Jack’s ex-girlfriend Amanda (played by Freida Pinto) and Amanda’s current boyfriend Chaz (played by Allan Mustafa). It’s mentioned at some point in the movie that Jack and Amanda dated each other for two years after he and Dina first met each other in Italy, but the relationship between Jack and Amanda ended horribly because she was a difficult shrew. Jack describes Amanda as a “nightmare of a girlfriend.”

And apparently, Amanda hasn’t changed since she dated Jack. Amanda and Chaz are a bickering couple who are obviously mismatched. She’s cold-hearted, bossy, and shows a lot of contempt for Chaz, who is annoyed with her because he proposed to Amanda six months ago and she still hasn’t given him an answer. Chaz is so insecure that he’s fixated on comparing his penis size and sexual skills to Jack’s and other men’s, and Chaz constantly brags that he’s the best of them all. That’s essentially what his character is about for the entire movie. Meanwhile, it becomes apparent during the course of the film that Amanda still has some unresolved feelings for Jack.

Also seated at the same table are Jack’s close friend Bryan (played by Joel Fry), a high-strung, self-absorbed aspiring actor who wants to meet a famous Italian movie director who’s at the wedding; Rebecca (played by Aisling Bea), a tactless motormouth who has a crush on Bryan; and Sidney (played by Tim Key), a socially awkward car-insurance agent who’s desperate to give the impression that he’s not boring. There’s also a “surprise” uninvited guest who’s seated at the table: Marc (played by Jack Farthing), a former childhood classmate of Hayley’s who’s obsessively in love with her and very upset that she’s getting married to someone else.

Jack and Dina are very happy to see each other at the wedding. They’re both available—Dina recently broke up with a work colleague who cheated on her with several other women—but, of course, this wouldn’t be a romantic comedy without obstacles to keep this would-be couple apart. “Love Wedding Repeat” uses very flimsy plot devices to prevent Jack and Dina from spending a lot of time together at the wedding reception, even though they’re seated at the same table.

The main “obstacle” is that a very intoxicated Marc—who’s unexpectedly shown up at the wedding while high on cocaine, which he continues to snort throughout most of the movie—is determined to ruin the wedding by revealing a secret in order to humiliate Hayley and get her new husband to possibly break up with her. (It’s very easy to guess what the secret is.) Hayley panics when she sees Marc and demands that he leave, but he refuses.

Hayley’s new husband Roberto (played by Tiziano Caputo), another clueless person in the movie who can’t read body language and nonverbal signals, sees Hayley and Marc having a tense conversation together. Roberto is oblivious to the tension and instead goes over and assumes that Hayley is talking to an old friend.

Hayley tells Roberto that Marc was just about to leave because he showed up uninvited and there isn’t room for him at the wedding reception. But instead, Roberto insists that Marc stay because they can find room for him at a table. Of course, it happens to be the same table where Jack, Dina, Amanda, Chaz, Bryan, Rebecca and Sidney are seated.

But instead of getting security personnel or some other people to remove Marc from the premises, Hayley makes the dumb decision (as one does in stupid movies like this) to enlist Jack’s help by begging Jack to put a strong liquid sedative that she happens to have in her purse and secretly put the drug in Marc’s water glass at the table where they’ll be sitting. Before the guests arrive in the ballroom where the wedding reception takes place, Jack sneaks in and puts some of the sedative in the glass next to Marc’s name card.

After Jack puts the sedative in the water glass and makes a hasty exit from the nearly empty room, a group of young kids who look to be about 5 to 7 years old then suddenly appear and head right to the same table, where they immediately rearrange all the name cards on the table and then immediately leave. It’s the only table in a roomful of tables where these kids pull this prank. Even for an already unrealistic romantic comedy, this pivotal scene has absolutely no credibility whatsoever. “Plan de Table”  had at least a more plausible way for the table name cards to be rearranged, since it was the ex-boyfriend who did it.

Of course, the rearrangement of the name cards means that Marc will not be the one who gets drugged with the sedative. In the first half of the movie, Bryan is the one who accidentally gets drugged. In the second half of the movie with the alternate storyline, Jack is the one who accidentally gets drugged.

The ending presented in the first half of the movie is actually pretty morbid, so when the movie’s “oracle” announces that viewers can see how one action can make things turn out in many different ways, you pretty much know by then how the movie will really end. Between the first and second storylines, there’s an unnecessary quick montage showing each scenario that would’ve happened if each person at Jack’s table had ingested the sedative in the drink, before getting to the scenario that Jack is the one who accidentally gets drugged.

Throughout the course of the film, there are plenty of wedding movie clichés, such as an intoxicated person making an embarrassing speech, a mishap with the wedding cake, a big fight, and a wedding guest getting unwanted attention from someone who wants to hook up with that person. And, of course, since the sedative is the catalyst for the “problems” in the movie, the person who ingested the drug becomes incoherent or falls asleep at the wrong times.

The movie also has several illogical aspects in order to set up a slapstick scenario. For example, Bryan is an actor who is Hayley’s “maid/man of honor,” and yet he’s shocked to find out on the day of the wedding that he’s expected to give a wedding speech, so he doesn’t have a speech prepared at all. And even though they are seated at the same table, Jack and Dina are mostly kept apart at the wedding in both storylines, because Jack is too busy running around trying to keeping Marc from ruining the wedding. Jack knows the secret that Marc wants to announce at the wedding, so Jack is frantic about not letting that happen.

In the movie’s first storyline, Dina also gets unwanted attention from Sidney, who’s worn a Scottish kilt and keeps complaining about how much the kilt “chafes” at his genitals. (You can bet this is used for at least one slapstick moment in the movie.) And in the alternate storyline in the second half of the film, it’s the famous Italian movie director Vitelli (played by Paolo Mazzarelli) who zooms in on Dina, which is an obstacle for a heavily drugged Jack to have some quality one-on-one time with Dina.

The biggest problem with this movie is that even in the often-unrealistic genre of romantic comedies, “Love Wedding Repeat” is filled with so many conversations and scenarios that are too phony to take. The people who end up coupling aren’t very believable together. And there are parts of the movie that are very dull. Bryan and Jack aren’t the only ones who fall asleep in this story. You might fall asleep too while watching this movie.

If you’re the kind of person who expects romantic comedies to have a big scene where a person frantically runs to catch up to someone and reveal true feelings before it’s too late, then you’ll be happy to know that “Love Wedding Repeats” delivers on that predictable trope too. It’s unfortunate that the movie’s cast, who are otherwise talented, are saddled with roles and dialogues that are obnoxious or incredibly boring and unoriginal. “Love Wedding Repeat” is a disappointing movie that certainly doesn’t need to be repeated through a remake or a sequel.

Netflix premiered “Love Wedding Repeat” on April 10, 2020.

Scripps Networks to Launch Food Network in Italy

April 6, 2017

Giada De Laurentiis (Photo courtesy of Scripps Networks)
Food Network star Giada De Laurentiis (Photo courtesy of Scripps Networks)

The following is a press release from Scripps Networks:

Scripps Networks Interactive, the leading global developer of engaging lifestyle content, announced today the launch of Food Network in Italy. The leading global culinary lifestyle channel will launch on May 8 on free-to-air LCN 33. Food Network is the first dedicated multi-platform food entertainment channel to launch in Italy.

“The launch of Food Network in Italy, a key growth market for Scripps Networks Interactive, represents a significant milestone in the global expansion of this brand,” said Phillip Luff, managing director of UK & EMEA for Scripps Networks Interactive. “Italy offers a rich and dynamic culture, where food is in people’s DNA, and Food Network’s unique and entertaining programming will engage the many millions of Italians who celebrate food.”

Food Network is a unique lifestyle channel that connects viewers to the power and joy of food. The channel strives to be viewers’ best friend in food and is committed to leading by teaching, inspiring, empowering and entertaining through its talent and expertise.

Food Network will offer a mix of local original productions and flagship international shows across genres including culinary entertainment, competitions series and in the kitchen cooking techniques. In addition to original local commissions, which will be produced in Italian, all programming will be dubbed in Italian.

To accompany the on-air offering, Food Network will launch a localized website featuring tested recipe collections, tips and food hacks, in addition to a social media presence on Facebook and Instagram to showcase exclusive clips and behind-the-scenes content.

Scripps Networks has appointed Viacom International Media Networks Pubblicita’ & Brand Solutions to represent Food Network’s advertising sales efforts for both linear and digital properties.

Scripps Networks Interactive first entered the Italian market with the launch of Fine Living on DTT in 2014. Fine Living focuses on lifestyle programming that offers an inspiring mix of modern living, style and design entertainment from around the world, seen through a local lens. In 2016, the channel has witnessed its greatest performance growth with a 33 percent ratings increase and 36 percent increase in total TV share.

Food Network launched in 1993 in the United States and is today a top 10 cable network. Food Network is now available in more than 160 million households across the U.S., Canada, Europe, Middle East, Africa, Asia-Pacific, Latin America and the Caribbean.

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