Hits The Right Note: A Late Quartet


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“A LATE QUARTET” is a delightful ensemble piece about, duh, a quartet. It centers around the sudden discovery by one of the musicians – cellist Peter Mitchell (an unusually low-keyed Christopher Walken) – that he has Parkinson’s, and can therefore no longer play. The quartet, which has achieved global fame, and has been together, interdependent on one another for twenty years, is severely threatened.

Over this period, like any good relationship, they’ve come to depend upon each other and act – or play – in perfect harmony.

The idea of the quartet is of course the microcosm of how couples or whole communities live together – dependently interdependent.

Peter, aptly named (the rock) is very much the gravitational center of the group and the shock wave of his revelation, with its intimations of mortality, is the catalyst for things to start falling apart. Second violinist, Robert (the typically brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman, soon to be seen in more populist fare – the second edition of “The Hunger Games”) is the first to crack open the status quo with his demand to be recognized as an individual – by sharing first violinist duties with Daniel (Mark Ivanir).

His need to express and assert his individuality is seen not only in his demands as a musician, but also in his relationship with his wife, Juliet (Catherine Keener), also a member of the quartet, and whose well mannered passion-free affection leaves him longing and lusting for something more. Enter Ms Passion, Pilar (a sizzling Liraz Chari).

Passion doesn’t stop with Robert (who is immediately regretful of his temporary lapse).

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Daniel is seduced by Juliet and Robert’s daughter, Alexandra (a less credible, if sexy Imogen Poots), perhaps as a, somewhat juvenile, reaction to feelings of maternal abandonment.

Juliet herself has also had some sort of relationship with first violinist Daniel sometime in the past before pregnancy enforced some sort of domestic bliss with Robert.

It’s as though the minute they stop putting in the discipline and the practice that make them the finely tuned orchestra that they are, and start improvising, chaos threatens.

Yaron Ziberman’s beautifully written film, structured more like a play than a movie, explores the tension between the needs of the individual and the demands of the group; between control – playing the notes on the page – and freedom: playing from memory and passion.

It probes the very human need for self expression – which can be either selfish and destructive or, as art, and epitomized by the music of the group, a means of spiritual upliftment and grace.

Like the piece the group is rehearsing (Beethoven’s Opus 131, which has to be played without a pause so that the players are forced to adjust to each others instruments which will slowly drift out of tune) “A Late Quartet” looks at how we adjust to others and how we balance the responsibility to ourselves with our private passions, with our responsibility as social animals to others and their needs

It’s marvelously well-written, well acted and well directed. If for nothing else, go see it for Philip Seymour Hoffman’s nuanced brilliance.

 

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Intense and Operatic: The Place Beyond The Pines


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“The Place Beyond The Pines” is the first truly outstanding movie of 2013…just squeezing in before the onslaught of the blockbusters. This is a three-part story that all centers around an explosive confrontation between drifter Luke (a quietly convincing Ryan Gosling) and the steady good cop Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper).

We initially follow the narrative of Luke, a motorcycle stunt-man who is shocked into a sense of responsibility when he discovers that a casual relationship he’d had with Romina (Eva Mendes playing down her attractiveness, as a woman struggling to make something of herself) has resulted in a son.

Suddenly he realizes that his life has shifted from that of feckless drifter to father, with the demands that this new responsibility brings. With no other moral compass to act as a guide, Luke interprets fatherhood simply as the need to provide ‘things’ – a cot, various toys and trinkets. And herein lies his own test of character: his nobler instincts to live up to a sense of parental duty drives him to a course of action that is, sadly, determined by his darker, amoral side. Egged on by Robin (Ben Mendelsohn), his evil angel, he uses his motorcycling skills to turn to bank robbing. He cannot escape his drifter past, even if he tried.

The story suggests the kind of inevitability ahead of him (“if you ride like lightening”, Robin tells him, “you’ll crash like thunder”). It becomes distressingly clear that Luke’s life and character are formed of such stuff that no desire to rise to a higher realm of ‘responsible parent’ can trump the fate that his drifter soul has mapped out for him.

Character is fate.

If Luke is shocked into a sense of responsibility his past cannot live up to, Avery Cooper’s past on the other hand, forged by his strong relationship with his father, gives him a deep sense of resolve and a clear conscience-driven perspective.

Whereas Luke chooses the easier way of crime – the short-term, instant gratification of quick money, Avery is forced to confront crime, even as he becomes part of it. He finds himself briefly immersed in a corrupt scheme master-minded by the brilliant Ray Liotta (as crooked cop DeLucca). And it is up to his need to do the right thing that pits him against pretty much all his friends on the force. Avery, driven by a strong sense of guilt, has to fight his way beyond the corrupting influence of his clan to the place, as it were beyond the pines.

This is not to suggest that Avery is the unblemished goodie to Luke’s compromised baddie. Avery himself manages to do what’s right despite his own lust for power and influence. Luke wanted to cash; Avery wants the influence.

The third part of this trilogy concludes the balance between responsibility, conscience and parenthood when we meet their two children, now troubled teenagers, preparing to confront their own high noon showdown.

Mike Patton’s vibrant score adds to the operatic feel of this film; lends it the kind of gravitas Derek Cianfarance’s (who also directed “Blue Valentine”) directing and Ben Coccio’s and Darius Marder’s writing, deserves. Though Gosling, Evan Mendes and Bradley Cooper are the key protagonists in the drama, there really is a wonderful supporting cast that help lend the movie enormous stature and tremendous felt-life credibility.

Trashy: Spring Breakers


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“Spring Breakers” follows the story of four sexy, bikini-clad college girls who, as part of that American teen rite of passage, spring break, break away from the sterility of college work and shared dorms to its hedonist antidote of drugs, sex and partying.

Things go wrong, they’re busted for a drug-related misdemeanor and are rescued by their knight in shining armor – a gold tooth flashing, hip hop spewing, gun toting, fast car driving, money splurging, hair braided James Franco as Alien, a low life gangsta drug dealer and pimp.

It is with him in his world of drugs and danger and death that the girls come into their own.

Perhaps writer/director Harmony Korine (who has given us such movie classics as “Snowballs”, “Umshini Wann”, “Act da Fool” and “Trash Humpers”) was suggesting that as day to day living becomes less and less inhibited (after all, you don’t need Florida spring break for sex, drugs and rock n’ roll) the need to escape to your own existential self (he makes heavy weather of the girls intoning that they’re really truly themselves at last) demands greater extremism.

Truly intense pleasure, he suggests, goes beyond the mere physical – sex and drugs – to the satisfaction of deeper desires – for them it’s money and power. In one scene, we see one of the girls (they’re mainly –deliberately – undistinguishable one from the next: three hot blondes and the religious one, who stands out for being brunette) writhing erotically upon a bed of bank notes and cooing, “ooh money makes my pussy wet”.

It is as two of the girls wearing pink Pussy Riot balaclavas shoot everyone in sight that they come… into their own. The essence of being American, it is suggested, eventually all comes down to money, guns and violence.

At least, that is what he would have us think.

It’s Mr. Korine’s excuse for ninety minutes of soft porn titillation. Not that I have anything against ninety minutes of soft porn titillation…just don’t dress it up as anything more. Which is why “Spring Breakers” is a profoundly dishonest film. Whereas Tarantino uses a B-movie palette to craft stories that are quite distinctly Tarantino-esque with that brilliant dialog he’s so well credited as demonstrating, this trashy film pretends to be using the grammar of the sexploitation beach and sex movie to make a deeper statement about the human condition.

When really he’s using the excuse of making a statement to revel in exploitation.

Despite its crudeness, James Franco was excellent and invested a sense of reality in a movie that had precious little of it. He needs a better agent that man.

 

 

Intelligent & Clever: IN THE HOUSE


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“IN THE HOUSE” is an intelligent and cleverly gripping tale of obsession, voyeurism and creativity (which director Francois Ozon, who did the deductive “Swimming Pool”, would have us see as linked). Fabrice Luchini is Germain, who, like all the adults in the film is depressed and frustrated. He’s a teacher who, one day, sets his rowdy, generally uninterested class a project, to write about what they did that weekend. As he is reading out, sneeringly, to his wife (the ever outstanding Kristin Scott Thomas) excerpts of the expected rubbish his students hand in, he comes across a well-written story from Claude (Ernst Umhauer), a boy who sits silently at the back of the class.

Claude’s story tells of how, attracted by the middle class smell of the mother and the seemingly perfect bourgeois world of Rapha Artole, one of his classmates, he begins to insinuate himself into the life of the family. The short two page observation of what either actually happened or was fantasized as having happened, ends with the words, “To be continued”

Germaine and his wife Jeanne (Kristin) are gripped and, in order both to encourage a talented student and, like any reader of a tale, to find out what comes next, Germaine urges Claude to keep on writing. The boy becomes the Scheherazade to the Germaine’s, as his on-going story seduces them into its narrative spell, and like any good story, transports them away from their banal lives into the vicarious thrill of living through the lives of others – in this case, the lives of the Artole’s, Claude’s surrogate family/artistic creation.

We too follow, gripped by Claude’s evolving lust for Esther Artole (Emmanuelle Seigner as Rapha’s mother) which, as a manifestation of a sixteen year old boy’s obvious fantasy, may or may not have actually been consummated. Beyond this centerpiece of shape shifting creativity (as Germaine comments and offers suggestions, so does the story change) multiple other stories – layers of reality – emerge.

Jeanne’s story is of her failing art gallery (her major exhibition features pornographic blow up female nudes with the faces of dictators, symbolizing the dictatorship of sex, even as Claude begins his sexual conquest and as Jeanne questions her husband’s own sexuality) and may represent the failure of her own marriage.

Rapha Artoile Sr’s story hints at the immanence of his nervous breakdown, driven to distraction as he is, by an intrusive, disrespectful boss from China (paralleled in Jeanne’s gallery’s second major exhibition – featuring a pretentious Chinese artist).

Esther, Rapha’s wife is, like Germaine, an unfulfilled artist, but is initially made out, by Claude who we increasingly realize is an untrustworthy storyteller, to be simply a bored and vacuous housewife preoccupied with nothing grander than home improvement.

In other words, Claude presents us with one story, but through misdirection, we see multiple others.

“In the House” is at its heart therefore about how reality is observed and about how art enhances the acuity of our own powers of observation. For the centerpiece story (essentially the reality of a young man’s lust for an older woman) contains deeper truths despite itself, enabling us to observe and appreciate the less romanticized realities of the slowly destroying lives of the characters we meet in the film.

Only the French could give us a drama like this – wordily talking about art and its role in our lives, filled with existential angst and celebrating the beauty of women well past their Hollywood golden years.