Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Love's Obstacle Courses

Love comes with a wide range of challenges. In the traditional wedding vow, taken from the Church of England, each spouse promises:
"To have and to hold from this day forward
For better, for worse, for richer, for poorer,
In sickness and in health, to love and to cherish,
Till death us do part."
What sounds ideal at the time of one's wedding can get sorely tested as a relationship grows over time. George and Ira Gershwin's classic, Nice Work If You Can Get It, sums up one of love's biggest challenges:

In Shakespeare's comedy, A Midsummer Nights Dream, Lysander notes that "the course of true love never did run smooth." As the years roll by (and as dishonesty, disillusionment, depression, and despair slowly eat away at a couple's love), what was once so tender and sweet may turn bittersweet -- or just plain bitter. Even after one partner dies, a maelstrom of hopes, memories, and resentments may remain in the heart of the survivor. Consider this vastly underappreciated song from Stephen Sondheim's 1981 musical, Merrily We Roll Along:

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Although, chronologically, Fausto Brizzi's romantic comedy, Ex, only covers the period between Christmas and Valentine's Day, it runs the gamut of emotions with its examination of love, sex, and fidelity, Italian style. Structurally modeled after some extremely popular English romantic comedies, Brizzi's two-hour romp shows just how much can happen in the lives of six couples over the course of a mere eight weeks.

  • The film begins as Sergio (Claudio Bisio), a divorced university professor, stands in the living room dressed in a Santa suit as his ex wife tells him everything he did wrong (and adds insult to injury by informing him that their children saw right through his disguise). Although Sergio and his friend Luca have soured on love, they haven't managed to completely eradicate it. When Sergio's former spouse is killed in an automobile accident, he must take over the responsibility of caring for their two teenage daughters. Soon after they've moved in with him, Sergio walks in on one daughter, Valentina (Martina Pinto), as she is making love to her boyfriend, Giampi (Matteo Urzia). Forced to realize that his daughter is no longer a little girl, Giampi's request for a condom doesn't make Sergio any happier.

    Giampi (Matteo Urzia) and Valentina (Martina Pinto)

  • Luca (Silvio Orlando) and his wife Loredana (Carla Signoris) have been married for more than 25 years. Constantly at each other's throats, the volatility of their relationship is evident from their vicious arguments, their yearning to breathe free, and the misery that has enveloped them since their children left home. But when Luca storms out and goes to live with his son Andrea (Vincenzo Alfieri), he starts acting like a teenager. Andrea is mortified by his new roommate's behavior (there's nothing quite as embarrassing as watching your father trying to sing Sex Bomb while dancing with a girl half his age). When Andrea calls with the news that Loredana has been injured during a robbery at a supermarket and is lying unconscious in the hospital, Luca realizes how much he needs his wife back in his life.
Carla Signoris, Claudio Bisio, and Silvio Orlando
  • Corrado (Gianmarco Tognazzi), a waiter, is a nervous groom who wants a large plasma TV almost more than he wants to get married. When he brings his fiancée, Elisa (Claudia Gerini), to the church where his parents were wed, she receives a bit of a shock. Her former lover, Don Lorenzo (Flavio Insinna) is the priest who will perform the marriage. Before she got engaged, Elisa had a habit of grading all her lovers in her diary (Lorenzo got an A+ for his prowess at making love; Corrado only rated a C-). As the wedding date draws near and the secrets of her diary are read to her girlfriends at a wedding shower, Elisa is obviously having doubts about marrying Corrado.
  • Caterina (Nancy Brilli) and Filippo (Vincenzo Salemme) are in court, hoping that Luca will grant them a divorce. There's just one problem: Neither wants custody of their children. Their kids would just as soon get divorced from their parents. Their son wishes his father would take him to the Planetarium. Their daughter desperately wants to attend a performance of La Boheme. But Caterina is much more interested in her fashion business (which her husband refers to as a walk-in closet in Milan) and Filippo, who is busy running several clubs, has no interest in spending time with his children.
Urbano Lione, Nancy Brilli, and Vincenzo Salemme
  • As the film begins, Paolo (Fabio de Luigi) is pretending to be a burglar who is threatening Monique (Cécile Cassel) with a gun. But the fun they derive from role playing evaporates on the night Monique pretends to be a hooker and is left standing on the side of a highway in a torrential downpour as Paolo is stuck in traffic, trying to pick her up. To make matters worse, an obsessive/possessive cop has been brutalizing Paolo and threatening to kill him if he ever again sees Paolo with his ex-girlfriend (Monique). But when Davide (Alessandro Gassman) is shot in the stomach by a supermarket robber and taken to the hospital, it is Paolo, the surgeon on call, who must save Davide's life.
  • Mark (Malik Zidi) , who works for a tour agency in Paris, is passionately in love with Luca and Loredana's daughter, Giulia (Cristiana Capotondi). But when Giulia is offered a new position in Wellington, New Zealand, Mark quickly discovers the challenges that accompany a long-distance relationship. Although they communicate frequently by webcam, he can't help being jealous of Giulia's hunky new surfer friend in New Zealand, a co-worker named John (Colin Moss). When the pressure becomes too much, Mark quits his job and impulsively travels to New Zealand, arriving just in time to learn that John has driven off with Giulia. Meanwhile, Giulia has decided to surprise Mark by visiting him in Paris. When she uses her key to enter their old apartment, she finds a strange, nearly naked woman lying on the bed and a man (who unbeknownst to her, is one of Mark's co-workers) taking a shower. Furious, she heads right back to New Zealand. As luck would have it, as Mark and Giulia are changing planes in the Hong Kong airport, they sense each other's presence. After passing each other on a set of parallel escalators, they have the kind of romantic reunion that movies are made for.
Ex is meticulously and magnificently plotted from start to finish, with lush visuals by cinematographer Marcello Montarsi and a remarkably sensitive musical score by Bruno Zambrini. Blessed with a strong cast of versatile actors in lead roles, one gets the sense that the creative team had a very good handle on the type of movie they wanted to make. As the director explains:

"I wanted to do a film along the lines of Love Actually, so I studied that picture very closely. Another film was Crash, directed by Paul Haggis. The atmosphere has nothing to do with what I was looking for, but the structure was ideal. I wanted to try for a Crash with a comic tone, mixing and matching the stories of important moments in the characters' lives.

Fausto Brizzi

It was a real challenge, coming up with a script able to hold together what appears to be a film of separate episodes so that, in the end, it all follows a single theme. I’m a great fan of English comedies. Apart from Love Actually, I’m talking about films like Four Weddings and a Funeral or Notting Hill (in which Hugh Grant is simply superb). But in addition to great actors -- and all those who appeared in my film were top-flight performers as well -- the key to those English comedies, with their wry humor, is the excellent writing. Working with my trusted team of screenwriters, even more attention was placed on the writing than usual. As for the camera work, Ex is shot in a glossy style in luxuriant settings: Rome, Paris, and New Zealand."

Brizzi's film includes some wonderful little moments for secondary actors. One of Mark's co-workers teases him about the fact that New Zealand was used as the location for Middle Earth in the film version of Lord of the Rings. His imitation of how Mark should assert his primitive masculinity (without knowing that his boss is standing right behind him), is a priceless piece of comedy.

Similarly, when Luca sneaks into what he assumes to be his wife's hospital room and confesses his love for Loredana in a long, poignant monologue, the patient's real husband (Fabio Traversa) enters the room. Finding a strange man at his unconscious wife's bedside, the man starts calling her a slut as Luca beats a hasty retreat.

If you're fluent in Italian, you can watch most of Brizzi's romantic comedy online here. In the meantime, here's the trailer:

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Over at New Conservatory Theatre Center, a winningly-directed production of Beautiful Thing is scoring strongly with gay audiences. Originally written in 1993 by Jonathan Harvey, a film version was released in 1996. New Conservatory Theatre Center, which staged Beautiful Thing in 1998 in a production directed by Ed Decker, is now reviving the play to mark the 10-year anniversary of its West Coast premiere. As Andrew Nance (who played the role of Tony in 1998 and is directing the current revival) notes:
"The people in the play are really fully realized creations of Jonathan Harvey, so the audience really believes in their struggles and cheers for them to succeed. I remember the audiences deeply responding to the message of the show which, to me, is that love will get you through anything."
Ben Carver and Gigi Benson (Photo by: Lois Tema)

A tightly written five-character play designed to be played on a simple unit set, Beautiful Thing has lost none of its comedic or dramatic impact. Set in a housing project in southeast London, the action revolves around the following characters:
  • Jamie (Ben Carver) is a young man raised by a single mother who has never known his father. With no real friends, Jamie is constantly teased by his gossipy neighbor, Leah. As a first step toward accepting his homosexuality, Jamie has managed to steal a copy of Gay Times magazine and learned where to find the nearest gay bar.
  • Ste (Brant Rotnem) lives next door with his abusive father and drug-dealing older brother. Although he attends school with Jamie, Ste is heavily into sports. Having been raised in an all-male household, he's taken plenty of beatings from his alcoholic father (and occasionally had to step over the old man's body when his father passed out in the gutter). On a particularly difficult night, he seeks refuge in Jamie's apartment.
  • Sandra (Gigi Benson) is Jamie's high spirited, if not particularly bright mother. Although Sandra boasts that "I can put two and two together and occasionally get four," she is devoted to her son's well being and has a clear fondness for Ste. When Ste asks if he can stay the night, she quickly consents (warning Ste that he and Jamie will have to share a bed and sleep "top to toe"). She has not told Jamie about a potential new job which could change their lives.
  • Tony (Cory Tallman) is Sandra's latest boyfriend. An extremely affable and nonjudgmental artist, Tony has a surprisingly helpful knowledge of how to handle someone who is having a bad drug trip. A good natured and ingratiating kind of man who prefers to avoid confrontation, Tony is an extremely "clingy" type of boyfriend.
  • Leah (Shubhra Prakash) is an obnoxious young neighbor who has been kicked out of school due to her repeated problems with drugs. A nosy gossip who frequently locks horns with Sandra, she is devoted to the memory of Mama Cass Elliott and often plays her recordings at an outrageous volume.
Under Andrew Nance's guidance, the performance sits very nicely on Rob Vogt's set. Not only did the appealing cast kept their accents intact throughout the evening, the play does not show its age at all.

Sandra and Leah's sarcastic digs hit their mark with timeless accuracy and the two confused young men were totally believable as they struggled to come to terms with their sexual orientation. The bedroom scenes with Jamie and Ste were staged with a wholly believable combination of tentativeness and tenderness.

Ben Carver and Brant Rotnem (Photo by: Lois Tema)

If Beautiful Thing has lost none of its relevance with the onset of cell phones, the Internet, and the legalization of civil partnerships in Great Britain, perhaps that's because the delicate process of understanding, accepting, and wholly embracing one's homosexuality never loses its dramatic potential. The production continues at New Conservatory Theatre Center through January 3, 2010. You can order tickets here.

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