Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Calvary, A Five Star Life, Alive Inside

A Five Star Life

Alive Inside

Irish dialogue (without subtitles) + religious themes = I was never the target audience for "Calvary."

But even the friend who dragged me to see it consented to walking out after 70 of its 100 minutes. Here's yet another example of a movie that tries to score cheap points with bilious misanthropy and knee-jerk nihilism, and winds up the opposite of cool.

Brendan Gleeson (does anybody not like him?) plays Father James, the parish priest of an intensely beautiful and wind-swept seaside community. "Calvary" opens with the good father in the confessional, where one of his congregants tells him that another priest, now deceased, raped him for years as a boy. This man, his identity known to Father James but not to us, vows to kill the father "Sunday week" precisely because he is innocent of any wrongdoing, so as to maximize the publicity the act will garner.

The movie follows Father James around town as he attends to his regular duties and debates whether to inform the police of the threat on his life. The cartoon characters who comprise the population include an irascible old drunk, a callous doctor, an indifferent bartender, a nouveau-riche poseur, a hot-headed butcher and the African immigrant cuckolding him, as well as Father James' money-grubbing subordinate. Each treats the father shabbily at best, cruelly at worst, behaving toward him as nobody I know would toward a virtuous man of the cloth. Character actors as good as Chris O'Dowd, M. Emmet Walsh and Issach de Bankolé are among those wasted. Mousy Kelly Reilly, with her cataract of bangs, casts her usual pall over the movie as Father James' suicidal daughter.

The yuppie tells Father James he's so wealthy that he could take a prized painting off his wall and urinate on it. He proceeds to do so. When the phrase "on one's knees" is used in the presence of the butcher's wife, she takes the opportunity to make a vulgar sexual reference toward the father. Then his faithful dog goes missing. You fear someone has killed it. Someone has. (It's that kind of movie.) Father James is in fact murdered, an act filmed by writer-director John Michael McDonagh from three angles, and in grisly detail. "Calvary" is a depressing and headache-inducing geek show staged by a man who's clearly lost his way.

It tells you all you need to know about first-time director Maria Sole Tognazzi's "A Five Star Life" that the movie is "sponsored" by an industry group called The Leading Hotels of the World. It's as inviting as a photo spread in Departures magazine - and as coldly commercial. Margherita Buy (really) plays Irene, who holds the enviable job of luxury hotel critic, and the best scenes show her at work, measuring everything from the thread count on the bedding to the temperature of the room-service soup with atomic precision. On her returns home, we meet her sister Silvia (Fabrizia Sacchi), two nieces, and ex-flame Andrea (Stefano Accorsi), from whom Irene hides whenever she sneaks a smoke. One day he has a row with his new girlfriend and bums a cigarette, yielding the movie's best line. "Oh, thank God," Irene says, without a trace of irony. "I'm so glad you've started again!" 

In a movie told exclusively from Irene's POV, Tognazzi occasionally errs by staying with these secondary characters after her departure. (How would she know?) Also, Irene's hotel-lounge encounter with an author (a bloated Lesley Manville) by whose fortune-cookie philosophizing she is moved when she happens to catch her later on television feels coincidental and inauthentic. There's nothing phony, though, about the movie's commitment to sybaritism, which remains steadfast to the end. In the last scene, Silvia phones Irene, from whom she hasn't heard in a few days, to check on her whereabouts. "I'm at the airport. There was an opening for a job teaching English at a school in Tanzania, and I accepted it. I want to take a new direction in my life." An uneasy silence from the other end of the line. "Just kidding," Irene assures her. "I'm cashing in frequent flier miles to go to Shanghai!"

In the best scenes in the documentary "Alive Inside," nursing home residents suffering from dementia or Alzheimer's who have idled for years in unresponsive states light up like glowworms when a former social worker named Dan Cohen puts iPods in their hands, headphones over their ears, and presses play, and they hear the music they love from their younger years. Suddenly they communicate - in full, coherent sentences, even paragraphs - and begin to move muscles weak with atrophy. Check out this video of Henry, from about the 0:42 mark: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fyZQf0p73QM 

The filmmaking isn't as special as those moments. Director Michael Rossato-Bennett interviews experts from neurologist Oliver Sacks to musician Bobby McFerrin, but I would have appreciated a slightly more rigorous scientific explanation of the effects of music on the brain (though, admittedly, some of these remain unknown). He's also bitten off more than he can chew, outlining a critique of the nursing home industry and the entire American health care system that he cannot fill out in 75 minutes. Scenes of Cohen pounding the pavement to raise funds for his Music and Memory nonprofit add nothing. The take-away from "Alive Inside" is simple: construct your own "just in case" playlist, and make sure your loved ones know to keep the music playing.

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