Saturday, November 12, 2011

One Saturday, Five Movies

Whew! Just spent 13 consecutive hours at the AMC Palace, minus an hour here and there for meals. Let's recap.

Zack, you mentioned being taken by the doctor in Anatolia, but I found the character of the prosecutor to be the most absorbing, as he tells the story of a young wife who predicted her own sudden death. The doctor hears this and asks a few questions, and it emerges that a) the woman in the story was the prosecutor's own wife and b) her sudden death may have been a suicide. Much of the film is taken up with the lawmen wandering around the Turkish countryside in the middle of the night trying to find this corpse. I was imagining what headlines I'd write if I were reviewing the film and came up with "Dude, Where's My Carcass?" The movie also struck me like a Harold and Kumar film, though the Turks would change their names to Hayrettin and Kemal. I've seen a couple of Ceylan's other films, and they are indeed not pulse-pounding thrill rides. Yet they do hold your interest with their anecdotes and jokes, here told by the cops among themselves to kill the boredom as much as anything else. I found the film as quietly absorbing as you did, Zack, and you're absolutely right about the visual splendor. The sight of leaves blowing from the trees lit up by headlights, or the ghostly appearance of a village mayor's beautiful daughter during a power outage, are unforgettable sights.

The Artist is enormously charming, and with Harvey Weinstein pushing it, the general public will undoubtedly get to see it. Someone behind me in line for the film saw a promotional photo and mistook Jean Dujardin for Gene Kelly. The resemblance is pretty uncanny, especially the way they both have the same wide, hammy, self-satisfied smile that serves them well when they're portraying movie stars. I wasn't prepared for how emotionally draining the film is, considering that it starts out as a light comedy. You'll hear lots of people compare it to Charlie Chaplin's films, but I think the better comparison might be to The Last Laugh, F.W. Murnau's 1924 silent masterpiece that's also about a man who falls wrenchingly from grace only to be redeemed. In any event, it's been too long since we had a movie with tap dancing in it, so for that alone the movie's worth a look.

I took in Slacker 2011, which isn't a remake of Richard Linklater's Slacker, but rather a takeoff using the same general idea, with the narrative following first one character, then another as they wander around Austin. Each scene is done by a different director, but they don't bring much individual style or sensibility to the scenes. There are a few odd bits of innovation like a segue when an eight-year-old Caucasian boy walks through the door of a coffee shop and comes out as an Asian woman in her 20s. Still, it's not enough, and if the movie hadn't had the Slacker title or Linklater's seal of approval, I would have lost interest in it much earlier than I did.

The main attraction was undoubtedly Andrew Disney's Searching for Sonny, which packed the largest auditorium at the Palace and also drew a pretty good crowd for the extra screening at 10:00. The film was shot in Fort Worth, though it takes place in an unspecified Texas city where many of the locations have the same names as places here (Overton Hills, Trinity Park). Jason Dohring (who did tremendous work on the TV show Veronica Mars) plays a New York City pizza delivery boy named Elliott who returns to Texas for his high-school reunion, invited by his old buddy Sonny Bosco (Masi Oka). Yet when he gets back he finds that Sonny has vanished, so he has to put heads together with his loser brother Calvin (Nick Kocher), his nerdy friend Gary (Brian McElhaney), and the girl he once had a crush on (Minka Kelly) to solve the mystery of Sonny's disappearance, which leads to financial schemes and murders. Everybody eventually notices that the events are mimicking the plot of a stage play that Sonny wrote in high school.

The crowd gave the film a rousing ovation. I found the movie to be loud, ramshackle, and a bit of a mess, especially near the end. Yet I also found it clever, funny, stylish, and slickly edited, which is a nice starting point for a first-time feature filmmaker. Andrew Disney told me he was heavily influenced by Rian Johnson's polarizing indie noir thriller Brick when he made Searching for Sonny, and you can see he's going for the same stylized, unreal tone, but with more humor. Among the misses: Calvin's unexplained hatred for Irish people, which we're supposed to take as a ridiculous prejudice, but it doesn't come off. Among the hits: Gary smuggling Elliott and Calvin into a homecoming dance. Some of the throwaway jokes score better than the set pieces; when a security guard asks via walkie-talkie if a reported streaker is male or female, the answer is "A boy, just like you like it." I was reminded of a movie I saw earlier this year, Aaron Katz' Cold Weather, which is also a comedic noir thriller set in, and filmed in, a city that's not known as a film noir backdrop (Portland, Ore.). I think Cold Weather did better at balancing the comedy and the thriller elements, while Searching for Sonny struck a more consistent tone. The ultimate test of any debut feature is whether it makes you interested in seeing what the filmmaker does next. I want to see what Andrew Disney does next.

There was a Q&A session with Disney and his actors and producers after Searching for Sonny, but I ran out of it because of Shame, and even though I missed the beginning of the NC-17-rated film (which, by numerous accounts, contains a shot of the lead actor's penis), I still found it to be one of the best movies of 2011, with the best performance I've seen all year. Michael Fassbender stars as a successful New York City businessman named Brendan who tries to hide his sex addiction when his sister (Carey Mulligan) crashes in his apartment for a few days.

Before his Inglourious Basterds-related fame, Fassbender teamed with director Steve McQueen on a drama called Hunger about the Irish prisoners who went on hunger strikes in the 1980s to protest British rule. It was an excellent debut for McQueen, an Englishman who's not related to the similarly named movie star from the 1960s. Hunger was as austere as you'd expect for a movie set in sterile Irish prisons, but Shame is no less austere for being largely set in swanky Manhattan restaurants and apartments. However, this movie does display a sense of humor that wasn't evident in Hunger.

The most impressive thing here is the seething rage that Fassbender brings to his performance. Brendan is an angry man, because he's in love with his sister and can't have sex with her. He's an emotional cripple; when he goes on a date with a co-worker (Nicole Beharie), their conversation is strikingly normal, but when she wants to have sex with him, he can't perform. He can only do it with hookers and sex workers and anonymous women (and the odd man) who are looking for a quick orgasm and nothing more. Brendan's interactions with his sister are all kinds of unhealthy, ranging from a rancorous argument on his couch to a tiff when she walks in on him while he's masturbating, an initially funny scene that turns rather frightening. Yet his love for her and his despair are palpable in the film's climactic scenes, when she enters a spiral of her own. Fassbender has been in four movies this year (including the upcoming A Dangerous Method, in which he's also excellent as a man acting sexually against his better judgment.), but he's nowhere as vivid in any of them as here.

Well, I need to catch the rest of the film, including Fassbender's penis. Zack, what did you think of We Need to Talk About Kevin?

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