Quick Takes – 11.20.12

A Late Quartet

Grade: B | 1st Viewing

I must admit I was rather impressed with how successfully Yaron Zilberman managed to make the esoteric drama of A Late Quartet feel at once urgent and compelling, while managing to resist the temptation of resorting to crutches like soapiness and histrionics to get the drama across. The movie begins with the eldest member of a renowned string quartet (Christopher Walken) laying down his cello amidst news of his Parkinson’s diagnosis, thereby leaving the remaining members to quibble and feud over what is to happen to them. The second violinist (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) decides to prolong the shakeup by insisting he ought to play first chair from time to time. This comes as a frustration to the quartet’s first violin (Mark Ivanir), who asks the violist – also the second violin’s wife (Catherine Keener) – to side with him. There is a tempest-in-a-teapot quality to the movie’s dramatic rumblings, which gets handled quite adeptly as potent albeit low-key melodrama.

Co-written by Zilberman and Seth Grossman, A Late Quartet is admittedly uneven in parts. Ivanir’s performance is so underperformed that it feels like he is acting in a different movie from everybody else, and it doesn’t help that his arc gets tied to a laborious romance with the daughter of his married colleagues (Imogen Poots) that only ever feels forced. But the film’s indisputable acting heavyweights – Keener and Hoffman – manage to keep the flaws at bay with their superb chemistry as a loving-yet-unhappy couple, and Walken gives one of his best legitimate performances in years – “legitimate” meaning that he is charged here to play something other than “Christopher Walken.” Couple this with his criminally underseen work in Seven Psychopaths, Walken’s might tragically be the Comeback Kid of the Year that nobody noticed.

Keep the Lights On

Grade: B | 1st Viewing

To be honest, part of me was hoping that I might think of Ira Sachs’ intimate, softly heartbreaking tale this year’s answer to Andrew Haigh’s Weekend, and to pronounce itself as the year’s most essential gay romance. That it didn’t meet those expectations in quite the way I had hoped is certainly not a bad thing; this story of an aspiring documentarian named Erik (Thure Lindhardt) struggling to make life work with his troubled lover Paul (Zachary Booth) certainly has its share of romantic and sexy moments, but it is mostly content to explore how relationships get challenged when one partner is forced to contend with the other’s overwhelming struggle with addiction. But perhaps yet another “depressing” story of gay love is a weirdly okay thing – I often cringe, after all, at the bittersweet reality that same-sex couples will in due time become mainstream enough to warrant their own Sleepless in Seattle. Rather than projecting gay romance in the aura of heteronormativity it doesn’t need, Keep the Lights On tackles some very serious (and for some, very real) issues that are relevant to many couples, queer-identified or not.

I don’t simply mean that Sachs takes the issue of substance abuse seriously; he does, but he also paints a very plausible portrait of a couple whose bond might actually weaken – not strengthen – when faced with adversity and active self-destruction. The acting from Lindhardt and Booth might not quite match the deftness of Sachs’ script (co-penned by Mauricio Zacharias), but that script does indeed succeed in reminding viewers that relationships – even ones worth rooting for – are composed of individuals, frequently equipped with conflicting agendas. Sometimes those conflicts can be reconciled, but sometimes they cannot. Kudos to Sachs for understanding that truth.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

Grade: A- | 1st Viewing

I will not pretend that Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s modest yet utterly gripping police procedural is a film that I’ve yet mastered, but I will say that it is not even remotely the chore I expected it to be. So much had been said about Anatolia’s glacial pacing and deceptively straightforward story that I was prepared for another Meek’s Cutoff or Turin Horse-like exercise in neo-neo realism. But those titles, great as they are, make Anatolia feel like Abrams’ Star Trek by comparison. I say this not to sound like a troll or to be a contrarian, but instead to be completely truthful: at not one moment in Ceylan’s film did I feel the weight of its 157-minute runtime or the sparseness of its narrative beats. The movie is a thoroughly engaging work and, though I fully admit not everybody will love its pace or its obsession with minutiae, it is certainly one of the year’s most transfixing achievements.

Foremost among the reasons for Anatolia’s ability to transfix is Gökhan Tiryaki’s incredible camerawork, which allows Ceylan to shift seamlessly from expansive and elegant shots of the Anatolian steppes to the emotional close-ups of its characters’ haggard and world-weary faces. We follow a small band of police officers – coupled with a doctor and a prosecutor – simply as they escort two accused murderers to the remote location of their disposed body, yet one continually feels like Caylan is reaching for something grander, more profound and more beguiling. At the risk of copping out, I fear I’ve not quite determined what that grand notion might be, but I am still wrestling with it. Is Anatolia simply about the experience of ennui? Does the lack of resolution behind the motivations of the accused murderers hint at our yearning to explain the unexplainable?

I feel Anatolia’s most haunting and emblematic motif – a story the prosecutor tells of an expecting mother successfully predicting her own demise – strongly supports my latter theory, but it also suggests just how futile that yearning might be. What a tragic message, and what an engrossing, stunning challenging film this is!

What movies did you see this past week?

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  • These are from the past two weeks, since I missed last week’s installment:

    “Amélie” (A-): Second viewing. There are still certain small moments that don’t work for me, but on the whole this is a wonderful film.

    “The Cow’s Orgasm” (B): OU’s Film and Media Studies department recently screened this comedy from Greece, so I decided to go see it. Got to meet the director too, which was neat. The film itself—which (though this is a major oversimplification) is basically about two girls who explore their sexuality, rebel against the conservative mores of the time period, and discover a bit more about who they are—was good. Not overly impressive, but a solid film with a strong feminist message.

    “Argo” (A-): I see what Justin is saying about the thin characterizations, but to me it didn’t impede the movie’s ability to work as a thriller. Excellent.

    “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (A): Second viewing. I love this movie. Watching it again just made me love it even more. Currently in my all-time top twenty.

    “Headhunters” (A-): I may be reviewing this at some point (not on my blog, but elsewhere), so for now I’ll just say that I thought it was superb. Haven’t seen many 2012 releases yet (seriously, you would be appalled at how few I’ve seen), but so far it’s my second favorite of the ones I have. (“Brave” remains my favorite.)

  • Oh, and I realize that wasn’t what Justin was saying. What I meant was that I thought it was such an effective thriller than the characterization issues didn’t bother me as much as they bothered him. To me, they were enough to keep it from an A, but not enough to knock the grade down any further than that. Still, I definitely don’t think it was quite as brilliant as a lot of people do. Very good film, but hardly one that will be remembered for years to come.

  • – El Topo (B)
    Utterly bizarre, somewhat painfully self-indulgent yet a very compelling and arresting tale that has violence of a B slasher movie and surreal imagery of Bunuel (nearly). Tries to hard to deliver its mockery and satirical approach of a society infested deep in its weird ways of life, religion and politics.

    – ParaNorman (B+)
    Creepy, imaginative, visually stunning, funny and frank, this level of brilliance and originality is something animated movies specially needs these days. I had a great time watching it.

    – The Princess Bride (2nd viewing) (B+)
    Everyone loves this movie, i like it! This de-constructed fairytale is something that just wins you over with its funny lines and some of the most touching, memorable and lovely moments.

    – Hope Springs (B)
    Not what i was expecting but this is a grown up romantic dramedy from grown ups! I think both Meryl Streep and specially Tommy Lee Jones delivered brilliant performances, one of the year’s best. The movie is quite frank in its depiction of some otherwise taboo subjects but it treats them with care.

  • Genadijus

    Don’t You want that it’s a time to update Oscar predictions? The race is becoming more intensive in such categories…

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