Two indie Manhattan melodramasone opening in Chicago theaters this week and one available OnDemandboth offer proof that glittering and sometimes gritty New York City remains a vital backdrop to frame stories of the heart.
In the first of these, Peter, Robert, Juliette and Danielthe members of a renowned string quartetare about to embark on rehearsals for their 25th season when Peter, their cellist and elder statesman, announces that he has been diagnosed with Parkinson's and wishes for their first concert of the season to be his final one. The other three respond with compassion and a few tears but, just as quickly, a long-dormant dissent becomes evident. Herein lies the theme of director Yaron Zilberman's dramatic chamber piece, A Late Quartet. Will the power of the musicianship these four have shared be enough to overcome the melodramatics that have suddenly threatened to dissolve the group?
Any film that includes Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener and Christopher Walkenalong with the unfamiliar but very talented Mark Ivanirengaged in wrestling with a dilemma like this is bound to have genuinely touching moments; there are also insightful and bitter ones filled with regrets and emotional pain. We get plenty of thesenot to be unexpected as we are most decidedly in Woody Allen territoryas the story is set in Manhattan's posh Upper East Side and covers much of his usual emotional terrain as well. But Zilberman's film (which he co-wrote with Seth Grossman) could have used some levity and, more importantly, lost one or two of its predictable, multiple subplots.
Peter (Walkin, who is tremendously moving in what is essentially the Dad part) is still recovering emotionally from the death of his supportive wife when he receives his diagnosis, and he's prepared for the worst. However, the impact of his announcement brings to light the dissatisfaction of Robert (Hoffman), who hasn't really been happy playing second violin in support of the egotistical Daniel (Ivanir), who has always played first violin in the quartet. And when Juliette (Keener), Robert's wife, doesn't immediately get behind his desire to take the lead at least on occasion, the strength of their marriage is called into question. Bereft, he spirals out of controlleading to a dalliance with a pretty dancer.
Still further complications arise when Robert and Juliette's gorgeous daughter Alexandra (Imogen Poots), a reluctant but extraordinarily talented violinist with mom issues, becomes involved in a heated affair with Daniel, which leads to further trouble that leads to something else, etc. A few less familiar twists might have helped disguise the abundance of subplots (by making Daniel gay and excising the daughter altogether, for example). The soap opera comes to a grinding halt at the climax of the film during the concert when Beethoven's glorious Op. 131 takes blissful focus, leading to an emotionally, very satisfying conclusion. A delicately balanced film, driven by these glorious actors and a gorgeous soundtrack, A Late Quartet will certainly reward filmgoers looking for melodrama gussied up with sophisticated trappings.
The heart of Manhattan also pulses through the odd little lesbian romance that is Jack & Diane, from writer-director Bradley Rust Gray. Juno Temple plays Diane, who, after starring roles in Dirty Girl and Kaboom, seems to have become queer cinema's It Girl. Kristen Stewart look-a-like Riley Keough plays Jack. (She co-starred with Stewart in The Runaways and is the daughter of Lisa Marie Presley.) The names define the relationship; the strange, feral-like Diane with her out-of-control blond mane, blank, open-mouthed stare, baby smile and voice is the femme and just what the tough-talking, short-haired brunette butch Jack has been looking for.
After an accidental meeting in which Jack plays savior to Diane, the relationship slowly proceeds. Jack is fascinated by the dainty little Diane, and Diane is touched by Jack's almost immediate willingness to drop the bravado and reveal a deep vulnerability and aching loneliness. The romance proceeds in fits and starts as the two wander around the city, mooning when they're apart and being a tad sunnier when they're together. (During one of their "off" moments, Kylie Minogue has a cameo as another potential love interest for Jack.)
But the course of young love, ever fraught, is naturally complicatedthis time by intermittent nightmares and stop-motion animated segments (done with expected finesse by the experimental filmmakers the Quay Brothers, although they seem out of place). These seem to suggest that pretty and delicate Diane is a werewolf who is between lunar cycles. The sullen mood of the film, livened by some canny musical choices, never really moves beyond or does much to develop this sorta cool premise that suggests that it will elevate the otherwise familiar material but then never really does. But again, good performances from this lovelorn duo and a sure feel for location help separate Jack & Diane from the typical lesbian romantic fare.
Department of shameless self-promotion: Attention, all you roller-disco/leg-warmer/Olivia Newton-John/Gene Kelly/Michael Beck/Muse-loving queens! My alter ego, Dick O'Day, is hosting yet another edition of Camp Midnight, the film series dedicated to presenting "the best of the worst." I'm once again teaming with David Cerda of Handbag Productions and the Music Box for a return engagement (our third!) of Sing-Along Xanadu.
The 1980 flick is one of the most fabulously hideous musical car wrecks in cinema history. We'll have a jam packed pre-show, complete with contests, surprise performances, prizes and more beginning at midnight followed by the movie, which will feature easy-to-follow lyrics on the screen, an interactive audience guide, live commentary by moi and Michael Hampton of Handbag, complimentary glow sticks and, of course, actual roller skaters whooshing up and down the aisles! www.musicboxtheatre.com
On Monday, Nov. 5, at 8 p.m. the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., is presenting an evening of nine short films under the blanket title The Great Refusal: Videos Taking on New Queer Aesthetics. The evening is being designed as a companion piece to the School of the Art Institute's "first-ever" queer-themed art show (first everreally?), which features more than 50 contemporary artists from the school and is dedicated to exploring queerness in today's culture. The film shorts, according to press materials, "focus on the power of the perverse, the sexual, and the potentially violent" which, natch, means the S&M subculture. The majority of the filmmakers will be present for a Q&A following the 65-minute program. www.siskelfilmcenter.com
Check out my archived reviews at www.windycitymediagroup.com or www.knightatthemovies.com . Readers can leave feedback at the latter website.