Rachel Getting Married: maybe so, but sister Kym (Anne Hathaway) is the center of attention.
This week’s selections represent the best 2008 had to offer, starting with an invitation to the wedding of the decade.
Rachel Getting Married (2008)
Many were quick to complain about Jonathan Demme casting a feature film as if it were a United Nation of Benetton commercial, but Rachel Getting Married shows more emotion and compassion — combined with a genuine understanding and appreciation of the fabric of humanity — than the director’s previous five features combined. In one of the decade’s most durable performances, Anne Hathaway plays a career substance abuser (and worse) given a three-day pass from rehab in order to attend her sister’s wedding. Taking the title at face value, audiences went in expecting a JLo or Julia Roberts kind of reception. What they got was a largely improvised weekend with an acutely dysfunctional family that was more honest and emotionally complex than anything the studios would dare greenlight. Because he’s never one to judge or wag fingers, Demme’s heartfelt cinema comes close to carrying on the tradition of Jean Renoir and Leo McCarey. And as much as one might decry shaky-cam and improvised dialogue as a lazy-person’s approach to storytelling, Demme shut down my complaints with his incorporation of both, proving there’s no such thing as a bad technique, just ham-handed technicians. After squirming through the opening scene, the hand-held approach became virtually unnoticeable, except for those extraordinary moments when it became poetry. I’ve always been a strong Demme supporter: Melvin and Howard is the second best film of the eighties, topped only by Raging Bull. With the exception of Silence of the Lambs — Demme doesn’t lack the heart needed to make a slasher film — I’ll gladly make a case for all of his movies, including Beloved. Make that especially Beloved!
Il Divo (2008)
A brilliantly structured film based on the life of Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti (Tony Servillo), a nondescript, hunchbacked dwarf who quietly ran roughshod over his country’s politics for almost fifty years. The film’s high octane visual style seldom jibes with either Servillo’s frozen performance or the action that’s going on around him. This is not what most American viewers expect from an epic, which may account for why the film never caught on. It presumes that audiences are both eager and willing to pay attention. Il Divo clocks in at less than two hours, and the viewer had best be wide awake and alert for every second it’s on screen. Writer-director Paolo Sorrentino involves a lot of Italian politics with which he takes for granted the audience is familiar, wherever they’re living and watching. There are also a slew of colorful ancillary characters, some of whom are barely on screen long enough to be identified. Was the assault of names, many of which were emblazoned in red across the screen, intended to give the audience the same overwhelming feeling Sorrentino had while researching the material? I saw the film three times the week it played, always to empty houses, and found a DVD copy in my Christmas stocking. While I’ll never tire of watching Sorrentino’s camera, it remains unclear whether complete comprehension is a goal worth setting. A colleague who first saw Il Divo at the Palm Springs Film Festival looked as though he’d been subjected to strychnine-laced eye drops when asked his thoughts on the film. “It’s too damn hard to follow,” he said through contorted lips. “You’ll probably love it.” Sorrentino’s stylistic profusions and references to past forms were instantly absorbed, but the film’s infrastructure will always be impenetrable for this apolitical soul.
Tony Manero (2008)
A sociopathic John Travolta impersonator wreaks havoc over an impoverished section of Santiago in 1978 — four years into Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship. No film of 2008 appealed more to my dark side than Tony Manero. Who among us has never wanted to bash in the skulls of a theater owner and her projectionist for daring to change a picture in mid-run, before one has had enough chances to properly study it? I must confess to having never seen Tony Manero in a theater. (It happens.) It played as part of the San Diego Latino Film Festival’s Cinema en tu Idioma, series and I have never stopped thanking Ethan Van Thillo for the introduction to writer-director Pablo Larrain (No, Neruda, Ema). The screener they sent sat in my stacks until a little over a month after the fact. It was just after Thanksgiving, and a bad case of the flu had kept me from the multiplex for over a week. I desperately combed my collection for something new to watch, and it was then that I first met Tony. Actually, I first met Tony Manero around the same time Raúl Peralta (Alfredo Castro) did, in 1977 when Saturday Night Fever premiered. You think that I have a Jerry Lewis fixation? It pales in comparison to Raúl’s devotion to Manero. Raúl owns a white suit (shades of Gene Siskel), competes as Tony in a celebrity lookalike reality TV show, and is putting the finishing touches on a dinner theater adaptation of the movie. All this, and he still has time to visit his local cinema every day to watch his magnificent obsession light up the multicolored dance floor. Raúl is also a serial killer, and you didn’t want to be working either booth — ticket or projection — the day Grease replaced SNF. An original, dare I say visionary picture that continues to speak to me on far too many levels.