Monday, January 02, 2012

Sense of Place: Tales from the Golden Age, Small Town Murder Songs, and Sedona

There's a good entry to be written about the three very specific places where these films take place, but it's been the better part of a month since I saw some of them and would like to get to plowing through a few other things. So let's pretend I did before I start binging on TWIT stuff, okay?

Amintiri din epoca de aur (Tales from the Golden Age)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 3 December 2011 at the Brattle Theatre (Special Engagement)

When Cristian Mungiu last took audiences to Romania before the fall of communism, he gave us the tense, oppressive 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days; it seldom referenced the Ceaușescu regime directly, but still managed to perfectly evoke what a terrifying prospect having the government poking into every aspect of one's life must be. A single challenge can, perhaps, be met with pluck and determination, but Tales from the Golden Age suggests, in witty fashion, that getting through it on a daily basis requires a healthy sense of the absurd, and retells (with the help of several other Romanian directors) six urban legends that, back in the day, were only whispered.

In the first, "The Legend of the Official Visit", a small village spends days preparing for a motorcade with an important Party official to pass through town, changing plans based on what they hear from previous stops and the whims of a pair of advance scouts. It's a fun little character piece, with Alexandru Potocean making a fine straight man as Gheorghita, the mayor's aide tasked with actually pulling everything together. By the time this section reaches its conclusion, it has jumped onto a metaphor that doesn't quite match its story, but still delivers a fitting punchline before the screen of text explaining how legend has the story ending.

That's somewhat the pattern with the next segment, "The Legend of the Party Photographer", in which the nervous title character (Avram Birau) and his assistant (Paul Dunca) are charged with snapping a picture of Ceaușescu meeting with a French diplomat - and perhaps more importantly, retouching it so that it sends the proper message to the workers who will be seeing it in the paper. Of all the segments, it's perhaps the easiest for outsiders to digest - it attacks an easy target, and does so like a well-oiled machine, with an especially good contrast between its two leads, who (along with Mungiu) don't just make them stock characters, but inject a serious darkness into their contrasting personalities. I suspect the reasons for that contrast are what help "Party Photographer" resonate later; of all the stories, it probably maps to other times and places best.

Full review at EFC.

Small Town Murder Songs

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 5 December 2011 at the Brattle Theatre (CineCaché)

A body is found at the beginning of Small Town Murder Songs, but the identity of the dead girl isn't that important. This, after all, is the sort of movie that is less about the victim or perpetrator of a crime than the man notionally charged with solving it. Peter Stormare can handle that sort of focus, but it might perhaps have been nice for there to be a little more to the film.

Stormare plays Walter, the Mennonites chief of police in an Ontario farming town. A girl's body has been found up by the lake, and there are few enough leads that Walter starts to focus on Steve (Eric McIntyre), a shady character he saw in the area the night of the murder. But is this because Steve is a genuinely viable suspect, or because he's shacked up with Walter's ex Rita (Jill Hennessy)? Walter may be a pious man now, but his anger has certainly gotten the better of him in the past.

Though it's an invstigation that moves things forward; Small Town Murder Songs isn't really a mystery; it moves in a pretty straight line and there aren't nearly enough suspects or twists to make it a game worth playing along with. Instead, the investigation is an engine that pushes Walter to the next place we need to see him, with scattered flashbacks and asides doing more to explain the path that led him to this particular point in his life rather than the crime he's trying to figure out. Those are only doled out in piecemeal fashion, of course; writer-director Ed Gass-Donnelly probably figures that too many specific, clear bits of cause-and-effect would make Walter seem less human and more like just a purpose-built character.

Full review at EFC.


* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 19 December 2011 at the Brattle Theatre (CineCaché)

Since it has already screened, the description for Sedona is no longer on the Brattle Theatre's website for reference, but it included the words "quirky", "spiritual", "magical", and "miracles". Well, at least three of the four. Now, there's nothing wrong with any of those, but line enough of them up - and use them as selling points, as opposed to things for the audience to discover - and there's a good chance that the movie is trying way too hard.

Sedona, Arizona, certainly is a pretty town, set amid some awe-inspiring scenery, which is why Scott (Seth Peterson), his partner Eddie (Matthew J. Williamson), and sons Denny (Trevor Sterling Stovall) and Jeremy (Rand Schwenke) are there on vacation, even if Scott is the sort who tends to bring his work and Blackberry along with him. Tammy (Frances Fisher), on the other hand, aims to just pass through on her way to an important sales presentation in Phoenix. However, when Denny wanders away from his family and Tammy gets involved in a truly bizarre automobile accident, they wind up dealing with more of the town and its residents than they'd planned.

Sedona is the sort of movie that is built on coincidence that occasionally works as serendipity, which is okay to a certain extent. The trouble is, writer/director/producer/editor Tommy Stovall seems to think that it rises to the level of destiny or magic, something that happens because Sedona is so very special, and that's not something it earns by a long shot. The natives talk a lot about "the vortexes" in a way that makes one wonder if they know the meaning of the well as a fair amount of other mystical mumbo-jumbo that maybe resonates with the residents but ends up just piling contrivance on top of bad decision. Oh, Stovall and his movie have a sense of humor about it at times - some of the goofier residents come in for a ribbing - but lots of characters, like the astrologist/pedicurist played by Beth Grant, are apparently meant to be taken seriously.

Full review at EFC.

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