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.
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.
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!