Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Movie Review: 'Calvary'

Kelly Reilly and Brendan Gleeson
Calvary opens with Father James (Brendan Gleeson), the parish priest of a coastal Irish village, sitting in the confessional, listening. He's listening to the words of an unseen parishioner who tells him the shocking and heart-rending story of the sexual molestation he’d suffered at the hands of another priest from age seven until he was 12. When Father James suggests that he report it to the authorities or seek professional help, he is told that the guilty priest is long dead. The parishioner still wants his revenge, though, and announces his intention to murder Father James himself in a week's time. “There’s no point killing a bad priest,” he reasons. Murdering an innocent man would be far more dramatic, and it’s just what he plans to do.

Father James goes to the local bishop and tells him that he recognized the threatening man's voice, but refuses to break the sanctity of the confessional. Rather, he makes the decision to go about his normal pastoral work in the hopes of changing the mind o
f his would-be assassin. He tries to intervene when he sees that the promiscuous wife (Orla O’Rourke) of the village butcher (Chris O’Dowd) has been physically abused by either him or the immigrant (Isaach De Bankolé) she’s been seeing, but he is mocked and rebuked by them all. He also attempts to counsel a sexually inexperienced youth (Killian Scott) who thinks that his pent-up impulses would be more effectively released as a soldier in combat, but bristles when the priest suggests that there's something psychopathic about wanting to join the army in peacetime. Tact is obviously not one of the good Father's gifts.

Gleeson and Chris O'Dowd
When he reports the death threat to the local police inspector (Gary Lydon), who is just concluding a dalliance with the local male prostitute (Owen Sharpe), the officer is surprisingly disinterested. In fact, cynicism and antipathy are the general reactions Father James receives throughout the town, from the virulently atheistic doctor at the hospital (Aiden Gillen) to the local millionaire (Dylan Moran) who wants to use his ill-gotten wealth to buy his way into heaven. Even the priest's own daughter, Fiona (Kelly Reilly), coming from London to recover after a botched suicide attempt, arrives with a suitcase loaded with hostility. Only the elderly American writer (M. Emmet Walsh) living out his last days in hermit-like seclusion, seems glad to see him, and that’s because he wants his help in obtaining a gun so that he may put himself out of his misery when his time comes.

Gleeson, who is onscreen for virtually the entire film, provides a masterful depiction of a man whose faith and compassion are profoundly tested. His facial expressions are deliberately kept to a minimum, but one can see the emotions working just below the surface. His interactions with the village's disbelievers and miscreants are marvelous, but his scenes with Reilly have a special resonance. One in particular — a cliffside stroll during which Fiona reveals her long-standing resentment for having been abandoned by both him and her mother (after she died, he joined the priesthood) — really hits home. “ I lost two parents for the price of one,” she laments, and his tender reaction is one of the film’s best moments.

And when a convicted serial killer and cannibal (played in a perversely fun bit of casting by Gleeson’s own son Domhnall) asks him to visit him in prison, the young man, rather than seeking repentance, explains that he just wanted “someone to talk to.” As he reminisces wistfully about watching the light going out of his victims’ eyes and feeling like God, Father James explodes, retorting “You’re not God; no — you’re not.” And when circumstances finally drive the priest to the very edge, Gleeson's meltdown is shocking and spectacular.

Writer-director John Michael McDonagh, who'd earlier teamed with Gleeson in 2011’s well-received The Guard, provides a scenario that succeeds in merging themes of faith and religion, the corruption of the church and the strange behavior of small, insular communities. And McDonagh’s decision to structure the film with a ticking-clock countdown to the fateful day is a wise one, giving it a drive that would otherwise be lacking in a story that is essentially a collection of character sketches. It’s far from a mere murder mystery, however — McDonagh is far more interested in the lives of these people than merely revealing "whodunit."

Enhanced by Larry Smith’s beautiful cinematography of the commanding Irish coastline, as well as Patrick Cassidy’s unobtrusive score, Calvary presents a powerful, mournful portrait of an earnest man of the cloth who continues to bear his cross in an atmosphere of increasing apathy and faithlessness.

Monday, August 25, 2014

'True Blood' Finale: One Last Suck

Spoilers ahead if you haven't watched yet.

Last night was the series finale of the frustratingly bad True Blood, and — as I expected — it went out with a whimper. This show has been limping along ever since Season Three, so it really came as no surprise that it would maintain its consistent level of dullness.

The producers had one last chance to inject some excitement into the climax, so what do they decide to do? That's right...have a wedding. Nothing spells excitement like a marriage ceremony. And in keeping with the style of the last 300 seasons or so, characters talked...and talked...and talked.

Bill wants Sookie to kill him with her fairie light so that he would know the True Death and she would lose her power and stop being catnip for vampires. Hoyt goes back to Jessica (even though his memory of their original relationship has been glammed from him). Handily, Hoyt's Alaskan girlfriend switches over to Jason so that he can perfunctorily settle down to a normal life and stop being a whore. Eric and Pam save the Hep V antidote-carrying Sarah Newlin from Mr. Gus and the Yakuza, only to keep her chained up in the basement to sell her blood for the rest of her life (probably the only decent part of the episode).

Then Hoyt and Jess go to Bill's house to say their goodbyes. The topic of a wedding is brought up and the action screeches to a halt while last-minute plans are made. I kept looking at the clock, refusing to believe that they were really going to burn up the rest of the episode on something so boring. Hell, I don't want to go to weddings in real-life, so I certainly don't want to be dragged into one on a show that's supposed to be all about blood and kinky sex.

For years True Blood was coasting along on its reputation as a sexy shocker, something the writers of the increasingly dull and verbose storylines forgot to inject into the proceedings. Yet stubborn viewers like myself kept coming back to the coffin, thinking, "Maybe this year it'll be back." But it never did.

Let's face it — after Maryann the Maenad got done in by Dionysus at the end of Season Two, the show became the real Walking Dead — or should I say Talking Dead — despite the stunt casting of actors like Rutger Hauer, Christopher Meloni and Evan Rachel Wood — and the flashy evil of Denis O'Hare's Russell Edgington.

It was clear the series had nowhere to go by Season Four, with the perpetually irritating Marnie character played by Fiona Shaw. Then, in Season Five, Bill gets promoted by the Authority and becomes obsessed with the naked, blood-covered Lilith. And just think about all the werewolves and shape-shifters that have run around the show throughout the years — they mostly served as red herrings to provide gratuitous shots of the actors' naked butts when they reverted to human form.

And my God, all the talking. I can just see the directions in the scripts: "Bill and Sookie go into the living room and talk." "Jason and Jessica go out onto the porch and talk." "Lafayette and James sit down on the couch and talk." You get the idea.

In the finale, so much time was spent on that flipping wedding that characters who were once so important to the show made wordless cameos in the final scene — if they showed up at all!

And the characters we're left with — the long suffering Bill and Sookeh, Hoyt and Jess, Arlene and Holly, Jason and his new squeeze — are like the last guests at a boring party you can't wait to leave.

Speaking of parties, we get an abrupt three-year time leap at the end of the episode, with all the surviving characters sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner with their human (or vampire) mates, including Sookie, who has settled down and produced progeny with a mystery man (who keeps his back to the camera). At least we get Eric and Pam triumphantly marketing the Sarah-derived New Blood and opening the New York Stock Exchange. A little more of that stuff would've gone a long way.

Today the web is abuzz with fans and ex-fans criticizing this episode, comparing the disappointment to the Dexter series finale. The difference between True Blood and Dexter, however, is that Dexter kept trying to get its mojo back while this show seemed content to sink into inanity. I really thought they would have tried harder to create a memorable final season, but the fatigue had really set in...and it was terminal.

Friday, August 15, 2014

'Boyhood' is Transformatory Cinema

Ellar Coltrane
Requiring an impressive long-term commitment from the talent involved, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood captures the passage of time in a wholly unique and memorable fashion. Shot in 39 days over the course of 12 years, the film follows the same cast of characters as they grow up, grow older, and change. This is no mere gimmick — Boyhood also has a compelling and deeply moving narrative.

Six-year-old Mason, Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) is the son of hard-working, divorced Olivia (Patricia Arquette) and the younger brother of sassy Samantha (Lorelei Linklater). When we first meet them, their charming but perpetually adolescent father (Ethan Hawke) is roaring back into their lives, having been absent for the past year and a half. Gifts in tow, he promises to be a more devoted father. Olivia, who is holding down a full-time job while attending college to get her teaching degree, bounces from man to man in search of the perfect mate who will help complete her idealized view of “family.” Her quest takes her all around Texas, moving from Houston to San Marcos, a small town near Austin, with Mason, Sr., always bringing up the rear to stay near his kids.

Unfortunately, Olivia’s choices are pretty bad ones, as her two subsequent husbands turn out to be abusive alcoholics with control issues. Mason, Sr. starts a new family with a woman who comes from rather religious parents, tamping down his wild streak. Here, Linklater shows how the parents’ decisions affect their children — Olivia’s terrifying second husband threatens their very lives, and Mason, Sr.’s new life precludes the ownership of his beloved muscle car, the GTO he’d promised to give to his son on his sixteenth birthday.

Still, as they move from town to town and school to school, the kids continue to roll with the punches, each forming their own distinct and independent personalities. Surrounded by adults eager to dispense advice — his father included — Mason, Jr., has a pretty good sense of self by the time he’s reached his teenage years, and the bemused expression he frequently wears indicates his general outlook on life — it’s all kind of silly. Samantha changes, too, becoming less of a complainer and more of a responsible big sister.
Arquette and Coltrane

The passage of time in the film is realistic and subtle — no spinning headlines or leaves flying off of calendars here. Well-chosen songs from different eras within the 12-year time span, occasional references to current events and changes in the appearances of the actors themselves give viewers the cues they need to know where they are. And by setting the action in Texas, where time moves at its own rhythm, Linklater has the luxury to tell the story at his own leisurely pace — but even at 164 minutes, the film never wears out its welcome.

The casting is ideal. Hawke (who starred in Linklater’s similarly time-tripping Before Sunrise series) is great as the erstwhile Mason, Sr., and Arquette brings a lot of heart to Olivia. Their ability to jump back into these characters for a few days each year is something to admire. Also fine is Linklater’s daughter as Samantha. The real find here is Coltrane, whose transformation from typical kid to artistic teen is a marvel to behold. One hopes that in the future Linklater will give us a glimpse of the adult that Mason, Jr., has become.

Thanks to the fine work of cinematographers Lee Daniel and Shane Kelly, Boyhood looks great and flows seamlessly, despite its more-than-a-decade production schedule. It’s a landmark in many ways, and one that will be analyzed and appreciated by aficionados for generations to come.


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