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Hey, folks. Capone in Chicago here, with a few films that are making their way into art houses or coming out in limited release around America this week (maybe even taking up one whole screen at a multiplex near you). Do your part to support these films, or at least the good ones…

This one could easily slip in and out of the theater near you, and you might never realize it. But if you're into films where the emotional fireworks shoot off mostly internally in its characters (or through the music they play), you might want to seek out the feature debut from Yaron Zilberman (who co-wrote with Seth Grossman), A LATE QUARTET. The film's title refers to Beethoven's Opus 131 String Quartet, a lengthy piece that is meant to be played without pause. As one character explains, as the piece goes on, the instruments slowly grow out of tune and the quartet must make minor adjustments as the arrangement continues. It's meant to mirror human relationships and how we all adjust as moods shift. And when we finally stop, we re-tune back to perfection (in theory). And if you think there's a metaphor at play here, you're smarter than you look.

The film centers on a world famous string quartet that has been playing together for 25 years. It was founded by Peter Mitchell (Christopher Walken) and Daniel Lerner (Mark Ivanir, SCHINDLER'S), who was at the time the lover of Mitchell's daughter Juliette (Catherine Keener), who is presently married to Robert Gelbart (Philip Seymour Hoffman). As they begin to plot their anniversary tour after being off the road for a time as Peter mourned the death of his wife, Peter has trouble getting back into the swing of things on cello; he can't seem to keep up. A visit to the doctor reveals early onset Parkinson's, and he decides he will play one more concert as his grand farewell.

News of his eminent departure is known sends ripples through the other players, and the reactions range from Robert wanting to take the occasional crack at 1st Violin (from his long-time 2nd Violin position to Daniel's 1st) to others simply thinking this is a sign the group should end entirely. What's fascinating about the dynamics of the group and the film is that each action, each subtle betrayal leads to another, and the small world of this gorgeous-sounding group begins to crumble as long-simmering emotions and rivalries explode at the slightest provocation. In the hands of lesser actors, this material might simply hang there lifeless. But with this exquisite combination, the angst and passion radiate off the screen like so many heatwaves.

Without giving away what few secrets A LATE QUARTET features, the wrong doings aren't simply limited to the four main characters. Imogen Poots plays Robert and Juliette's daughter, Liraz Charbi plays a sexy Spanish dancer, and the always-reliable Wallace Shawn plays a fellow musician of whom Peter must request an important favor. And all of these players figure into the devastation.

What's especially shocking is how, even with all of these misdeeds, the survival and continuation of the quartet seems foremost on everyone's mind, which means they must all figure out ways to put out the fires and move forward with the work at hand. A LATE QUARTET is the classiest film about a type of dysfunctional family that I've seen in quite some time, even when physical violence is the end result of one squabble. And needless to say, the music is hypnotic perfection.

If you ever had the pleasure of stumbling upon writer-director Julia Loktev's 2006 feature film debut DAY NIGHT DAY NIGHT, the idea that she has finally made a second film will excite you to no end. If you haven't seen it, seek it out. But where that unbelievably tense film focused on the very solitary mindset of a young female suicide bomber planning to walk into Times Square with a backpack loaded with explosives, Loktev's latest, THE LONELIEST PLANET, is about a different type of tension—that between a young, good-looking couple hiking/camping through the Caucasus Mountains in Georgia (that would be the one on the other side of the world, not in the U.S.) with a local guide and how their relationship shifts during the course of their trip.

Gael Garcia Bernal (Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN) and Hani Furstenberg (YOSSI & JAGGER) play Alex and Nica, two adventurous travelers wanting to travel to corners of the world few people seek out and following the lead of Dato (Bidzina Gujabidze). The film doesn't have much of a plot beyond some the three great scenery, but as they trek continues, there's a cumulative effect that makes the viewer feel very small and inconsequential on this large planet (thus, the title). But all the while, a low-level tension seems to be building, partially due to the sometimes-daunting wilderness and landscapes they must hike, but also because they seem to have gone a route where no other human beings exist.

Then, in one very brief scene, something happens involving others they finally do stumble upon, and Alex reacts instinctually in a way that completely changes the dynamic of the relationship between the three travelers. He regrets it, but he can never take it back. For the rest of the trip, the carefree nature of Alex and Nica has largely vanished, and what follows is a gradual repair of the couple's relationship (assuming that's possible) and hopefully some forgiveness as well.

I realize this all sounds very intellectual and possibly boring, but that couldn't be farther from the truth. That being said, THE LONELIEST PLANET moves at its own, very deliberate pace, and it's not racing to get where it's going, nor should it. Bernal and Furstenberg are completely convincing as a young couple very much in love (and a few months from getting married). They are affectionate but also have conversations that reveal that they can always entertain each other for long stretches. Gujabidze is great at parceling out little bits of information about himself that makes sure we are always guessing about his mindset and threat level (assuming there is one).

The movie is so rich with great settings that you can almost smell the woods and feel the mist and rain on your face. This is one of those rare works that seems to engage all of your senses as you're watching it, and it succeeds in getting under your skin in an often uncomfortable way. And there's not a damn thing wrong with that.

Over the last couple of years, those of us who tend to watch every documentary that comes with a 50-mile radius of wherever you live have been besieged by films about how horribly damaged our nation's education system is. Occasionally, we get glimpses of how things could be improved, but lately it's been a series of images of crying children and parents who came out on the wrong side of a school lottery, or another story of how test scores are plummeting and budget cuts are killing the few programs that work. So now we have a film that combines all of those tragic elements into a single compelling work from director Katie Dellamaggiore, offering us her feature debut.

BROOKLYN CASTLE centers on five students at I.S. 318 in Brooklyn, all of whom are members of the national champion chess team, despite the fact that most of these kids come from below-poverty broken homes. In fact, these kids have won more national titles than any other school in the country. With a slightly heavy hand, the director draws connections between the kids attempting to solve problems in their personal lives and working out intricate winning strategies on the chess board. We get to see these kids at home, in their classrooms, and most importantly, we see them studying and playing chess with their instructors, special tutors (for those who can afford them) and in riveting tournaments across the country.

One of the most frustrating things about watching this movie is how, despite their day-to-day struggles, one of the biggest obstacles to the chess team is the constant barrage of budget cuts that hit them during the early days of the recession. Whereas a few years ago, the school's budget could give the team travel and lodging money for tournament trips to Dallas and Minnesota, the team members must now constantly raise funds to make the trips possible or risk losing their titles and individual standings.

It's hard not to get caught up in the world of these intelligent, funny and sometimes suffering kids (suffering because they aren't playing as well as they know they can). BROOKLYN CASTLE even manages to make watching a chess game exciting and suspenseful and gets us caught up in the way the competitions are scored, and how big of a difference there is between a win and a draw. There isn't a single student or teacher you aren't rooting for by the end of the film.

And while the film can be a bit heavy and downright sad at times, it's still as exhilarating as just about any sports movie in recent memory. You sometimes forget how young these kids are and how fragile their egos and hearts can be at times. One loss can be devastating, especially in the lives of a child who has suffered many loses in a single lifetime. The fact that they found something like chess that they love and are good at is borderline miraculous.

-- Steve Prokopy
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  • Nov. 3, 2012, 2:33 p.m. CST


    by waxxel

    Capone, a good friend said that Christopher Walken gives his best performance ever in A Late Quartet. What do you think?