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Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Savannah Film Festival: Chapter 4

Posted by on Wed, Oct 31, 2012 at 9:00 PM

(For Chapter 1, go here. For Chapter 2, go here. For Chapter 3, go here.)

The 15th Annual Savannah Film Festival continues, but my work is done.

Although the event runs through next Saturday, my wife and I headed home Wednesday, with six features, one short and several celebrity sightings under our collective belt (a belt greatly expanded by the treats found here).

The highlight of the festival? It would have to be witnessing the great Stan Lee accept a Lifetime Achievement Award in front of an appreciative crowd. Lee was as charming, funny and gracious as always, noting the quality of the many films based on his comic books (“If I had known I was that good, I would have asked for a raise”) and acknowledging the prize bestowed upon him (“I want to thank you for your taste, your judgment, your acumen in deciding to award this to me”). Now 89, he’s long been a national treasure, and it was a kick seeing him in the flesh.

And now, on to the remaining films.

ON THE ROAD — There was enough of a hint of all that jazz to director Walter Salles’ 2004 effort The Motorcycle Diaries, a look at the early years of Che Guevara, to signal that he might have been the proper person to bring Jack Kerouac’s landmark novel On the Road to the big screen. Instead, this look at the Beat generation ends up missing too many of its own beats to ever succeed. Enlisting his Motorcycle writer Jose Rivera as his accomplice, Salles approaches Kerouac’s raw, restless and spontaneous work in such a staid and conservative manner that the movie might just as well have been directed by the stodgy Richard Attenborough. Sam Riley and Garrett Hedlund deliver underwhelming performances in the two roles that simply must engage audiences from the get-go. Riley is aspiring writer Sal Paradise (the character based on Kerouac himself), who longs for the freedom of the open road; Hedlund is irresponsible hedonist Dean Moriarty (aka Neal Cassady), who joins him on many of his cross-country adventures. Salles and Rivera chart the men’s encounters in acceptable vignette fashion, but there’s very little sense of the thrill of discovery in what’s presented on screen, with the filmmakers dutifully checking off a CliffsNotes highlight before moving forward. I wonder what a director like David Cronenberg might have brought to the party; his whacked-out 1991 version of William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch wasn’t a complete success, but it exhibited a go-for-broke strategy that’s sadly missing in On the Road. Speaking of Burroughs, he appears here in the form of junkie-poet Old Bull Lee, played with the proper measure of eccentricity by Viggo Mortensen. And while it’s open season on Kristen Stewart these days, with the put-upon actress having to contend with hatred generally reserved for al-Qaeda operatives, she’s just fine in her too-few scenes as Dean’s first wife, the teenage Marylou; ditto for Kirsten Dunst as Dean’s second wife, Camille, Amy Adams as Old Bull Lee’s spouse, and Steve Buscemi as one of the bisexual Dean’s johns. These supporting players all add color and dimension to an otherwise sterile piece, not unlike interesting footnotes found peppering the pages of a dull college textbook.

Review of Quartet after the jump.

QUARTET — Of all the reviews I’ve penned this year, none have received as much negative feedback as my mixed review for The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, with angered readers assuming that my soft stance on the film meant that I clearly was a unrepentant gerontophobe (one lady amusingly stated that my “bigoted” review meant that I “actually write for Creating Loathing”; nyuk nyuk). I’ll be expecting handwritten mea culpas from every last one of them, given my appreciation for this new movie in which the mean of the principal actors’ ages is a hearty 73 years. Of course, let’s take care not to oversell this piece, which is the sort of genteel art-house offering that will thrill older audiences and — ahem — Oscar voters but seems unlikely to break out with those who don’t know Downton Abbey from Howards End. With his directorial debut, Dustin Hoffman has turned to a stage piece by Oscar-winning scribe Ronald Harwood (The Pianist), with the playwright himself tweaking this for the big screen. The result is a low-key charmer set in a British retirement home for musicians, where three of the four members of a beloved quartet now reside. Reginald Paget (Tom Courtenay) is the most collected of the group; Cecily Robson (Pauline Collins) is the flightiest; and Wilfred Bond (Billy Connolly, the spring chicken of the primary performers at 69) is the randiest. When the final member of the quartet, Jean Horton (Maggie Smith), shows up to live at the residence, the other three have mixed emotions, since it was her actions that split up the group as well as her own marriage to Reginald. But despite any prior misgivings, the three decide to talk Jean into joining them for a historic re-teaming at the home’s fundraising concert. As expected, Connolly ends up with the bulk of the choice quips as his Wilfred Bond lusts after the ladies — it takes a skilled comedian to avoid turning the character into an off-putting lecher, and he pulls it off (his crack about “wood” is priceless). Collins’ Cecily, meanwhile, earns our sympathy as the one most affected by the downside of advancing age (specifically, what it does to the mind), while Smith and Courtenay make a handsome pair as their characters try to discover if there’s anything left to salvage from their past love. As the cherry on top, Michael Gambon — Dumbledore himself — turns up as the easily agitated director of the home’s musical program. Like everyone else involved with Quartet, the actor seems to be having a good time — a sentiment shared by viewers tuned into this melodic chamber piece.

(The Savannah Film Festival continues through Nov. 3. Full details here.)

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