Saturday, December 8, 2012

A Late Quartet

The real problem with the sort of award-baiting drama like A Late Quartet is that we're most likely to end up wanting to strangle all the characters. That's one reason this movie was low on the list of flicks to see. I mean, look: The story of a string quartet which is thrown into upset when the cello player announces he has Parkinson's disease and the remaining three are juggling their ambitions and personal lives practically reeks of the potential for narcissism and neuroses.

It must be said that this movie manages to have you not want to strangle the characters, and actually kind of feel for them. And since there are a lot of the expected icky moments, that's actually kind of a feat.

Christopher Walken plays Peter, the widowed cellist who discovers when the group gets together for a new season, that he can no longer play in time. Walken is such an icon, so easily parodied and so comfortable parodying himself, it's almost surprising to see him play a role so straight, and so sensitively.

Philip Seymour-Hoffman plays Robert, the second violin, and classic beta male, who's neglected by his wife and being wooed by a hot-'n'-sexy flamenco dancer (Israeli actress Liraz Charhi) who thinks he should be more aggressive about playing the first violin.

Catherine Keener plays Juliette, the mother of a brilliant young violinist (played by the lovely English actress Imogen Poots) whose daughter is a bit miffed that she missed out on most of her childhood.

And, if you seen the trailers, the movie stars these three Oscar-winning-or-nominated actors, plus a fourth guy: Ukranian Mark Ivanir plays Daniel, the emotionless first violinist who uses the quartet as a vehicle for his own artistic expression, perhaps at the expense of others.

The relationships between Peter, Robert, Juliette and Daniel are more complex and deep than I'm letting on, not because they're shocking twists but more because the story hints and reveals at its own pace, which is more enjoyable and less pretentious than I'm making it sound.

As regular readers know, my theory of film criticism is that most film critics have the same visceral like/dislike reaction to film that audiences have, and then they backfill their reviews with "reasons" why they liked or disliked it.

I mention this because, having noted that this is the sort of movie that makes me want to strangle the main characters, I didn't here, and ended up liking the movie a lot. So, what follows are my justifications, which I (of course) think are legit.

The big thing, I think, is that while the story concerns the feelings, ambitions and neuroses of the characters, it's not exactly about those things. It's about the string quartet. It's a world class quartet that all the members have sacrificed greatly to be part of and to cultivate over 25 years. So, the characters are not just responding to their internal issues, but what they would or wouldn't give up to save the quartet.

And, in truth, musical groups, even in the classical world, often don't last long. Back in school, my guitar teacher and his partner would win awards for their playing, which he maintained was less due to raw talent and more to the fact that they had been playing together for 10-15 years where most had only been playing together a year or two.

Each of the three (non-Walken) characters have their chances to destroy the quartet, and we get to see and know how and why they might do so.

Now, I specifically will rule out the acting as a reason I liked this. The acting was great, of course, but it always is in these films. I thought it was especially good here, but I think that's more to do with the characters themselves.

Walken, as mentioned, but Hoffman also manages to heave his mottled body around convincingly. (Seriously, he jogs in this movie, and I always think, "I believe you do jog. I also believe it doesn't seem to help much.") He manages the beta male thing very well, without being too unlikable. (It was a little hard to figure out what the flamenco dancer saw in him. You know he's a world-class musician but I'm not entirely sure he pulled off that combination of master performer/somewhat insecure man. I'm not sure he didn't either.)

Keener's character is interestingly thin. She plausibly inhabits the roles of wife, daughter, mother, lover and is often the sounding board off which the other characters play. It works, I think, because she's neither wholly victim nor wholly villain. The movie doesn't pander to the cliché of women who do no wrong.

Amusingly, I was particularly taken with Mark Ivanar's performance. He's a stereotypical cold Russian musician, obsessed with form and meticulous planning. (That's a stereotype, right?) It sort of looks like they took the least actor and gave him the least challenging part—but in a lot of ways, his role was the most challenging and interesting, and his story ends up being heartbreaking, maybe especially so.

The music helps, too. Lotsa Beethoven.

I admit I teared up at the end. Not a wheezy sniveling cry, but a misty-eyed Mark Ivanar moment of poignancy.

Recommended. The Boy liked it, too.

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