Sunday, January 20, 2013

The music never ends

The title of A Late Quartet holds at least two meanings, one to do with Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14, Opus 131, written during the final year of the composer’s life, and one to do with the musicians at the film’s center, celebrated collaborators for some 25 years who suddenly find themselves splintering apart due to a mixture of illness, professional dissatisfaction and marital strife. From a cool distance, much of the drama looks fairly conventional, even soapy. The script, by director Yaron Zilberman and co-scenarist Seth Grossman, is a tidy arrangement of rising tensions and carefully graded complexities, of betrayals, struggles and fresh alliances. The four protagonists (plus one—there is a young budding musician added to the mix) allows for a tasteful, not too busy amount of shifting between narrative threads. But I think A Late Quartet transcends its conventions in more ways than one. It’s the product of a filmmaker who clearly believes in the integrity of great music and of the musicians who devote their lives to bringing great music to fierce, fluid, glorious life. It doesn’t hurt that the actors are uniformly superb.

Peter (Christopher Walken), the cellist, is the Fugue Quartet’s eldest member, a widower who learns he’s experiencing the early stages of Parkinson’s. For Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the news of Peter’s condition functions as a reminder of life’s bracing brevity; Robert’s weary of being second violinist, of being an underappreciated husband to violist Juliette (Catherine Keener), of having the group constantly take its cues from Daniel (Mark Ivanir), the rather stodgy first violinist, who always chooses perfection over passion—though his passions seem set to be awakened by Alexandra (Imogen Poots), his attractive, assured young student, who also happens to be Robert and Juliette’s daughter. Despite Peter’s affliction the group chooses to forge ahead with a planned performance of the Opus 131, a challenging, gorgeously detailed piece of approximately 40 minutes which demands that each of the musicians play at a brisk pace, without pause even to retune. There’s an engaging, relaxed scene in which Peter tells his class an anecdote about a misunderstanding he once had with Pablo Casals; the moral of the story is to never underestimate the potential for innovation or freshness in what seem in the moment like mistakes. But Peter’s too long in the tooth to allow himself to fumble his way through a piece of music he reveres, or to diminish the power of what he and his colleagues have worked so hard to develop.

The final scene of A Late Quartet, very nicely cut together by Yuval Shar (from coverage shot by the great Frederick Elmes), is thus very moving not only for the beauty of Beethoven’s music or the actors’ performances or our familiarity with the characters and their individual problems, but because, whether or not we know anything about music, we’ve also been led to understand what at stake artistically. This is a film about what it means to be an artist, the sacrifices made, the heights that can be reached, the discoveries made along the way. None of this is a revelation, but it is wise. And Walken most especially is at his best here. His strange cadences and embodying of jumbled emotions are a kind of music all their own. Walken alone is reason to see (and hear) this film. 

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Mr Universe goes to Summerton

Perhaps in some alternate universe it would be possible to watch The Last Stand as anything other than the vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s comeback after a political career that you could call unlikely if it didn’t transpire in the state of California. But in that alternate universe there would be little reason to even watch a movie as dopey and conventional as The Last Stand, aside from some chuckles and whatever pleasure is supposed to be derived from watching bodies flail under automatic rifle fire. So let’s stick to reality here: it’s an Arnie movie. And not a memorable one.

I’ve defended Schwarzenegger in the past—not his acting chops, obviously, but his rightful place in the movies. But the roles we’ve needed Schwarzenegger to play have uniformly been extraordinary, superhuman, or nonhuman. Who else could be Conan? (Certainly not Jason Momoa.) So just whose idea was it to cast Schwarzenegger as the county lawman in sleepy Summerton, Arizona? Whether shooting the breeze with the local diner staff or drinking beer on his front porch, Sheriff Ray Owens seems to have been written as a man of ordinary, humble heroism. When did they sneak in the bit about Owens having spent five years working narcotics in Los Angeles? Was it before of after they added that line, delivered near the film’s end, that cryptically acknowledges the fact that this Owens is, like his Sinaloa cartel overlord opponent, a foreigner? Was Owens written for Tommy Lee Jones and then later retrofitted for the Terminator? Or was Owens always meant to be a massive bodybuilder with an Austrian accent who looks awkward trying to answer the phone and pour a cup of coffee at the same time?

Maybe it was all a joke from the beginning. But if that’s the case the joke is a pretty limited one, however many laughs The Last Stand might generate from our sheer awe at witnessing the return of this singular mega-star. He always said he’d be back, but now that he’s back he actually seems stiffer than ever, with line readings that make it seems like he’s hypnotized, and lines that are anyway so baldly expository as to defy belief. “Someone needs to stay and keep the peace,” says Owens in the first scene. Turns out he’s quite serious about that. Even when an impossibly wealthy criminal organization, trigger-happy and armed for megadeath-overkill, invade his town of senior citizens, Owens won’t back down, even though he's only got three bright green deputies and almost no firepower. And he’s totally immune to corruption, even when the Mexican sleazebag villain offers him $5-million to look the other way. (Though really, doesn’t sleazebag know what this guy takes home on a single picture?)

The supporting cast is mostly overqualified and underused: Harry Dean Stanton shows up to put on a farmer outfit and say “Get off my land” for three minutes; Forest Whitakker plays an ornery fed and chews scenery like an underfed dog; Luis Guzmán gets to fire big guns, make a few jokes and wear a ten-gallon hat. Korean director Kim Jee-woon (The Good, the Bad, the Weird) keeps things fleet enough but hardly seems interested in the story. In short, it’s just a paycheque for all involved—though no one’s cheque is likely as fantastically large as Arnie’s. Here’s hoping his next movie is a lot more fantastic too. IMDb has him slated for another half-dozen within the next 12 months.  

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing

Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) immediately followed the young director’s sole musical Waltzes from Vienna (1933). The musical was a genre Hitchcock felt unsuited toward and Waltzes a project he was deeply unhappy with and a box office failure to boot. Hitch was over a dozen films into his career yet still far from firmly established. Which means that The Man Who Knew Too Much couldn’t have come as more of a relief. It was a superb example of what would become Hitch’s characteristically pithy approach to the thriller and proved hugely popular both at home and abroad. This is the film that garnered Hitch’s first offers from Hollywood, the place that would eventually steal him from England more or less forever, and the place where he’d eventually remake The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1954. The latter version has often unfairly overshadowed the original, as Hitch’s US productions have tended to do to the British ones generally, but the original is now available on a terrific new DVD and Blu-ray from Criterion.

It opens in St. Moritz, where Bob (Leslie Banks) and Jill (Edna Best), an English couple, along with Betty (Nova Pilbeam), their adolescent daughter, are on holidays. The early scenes reveal an ongoing flirtation between Jill and Louis (Pierre Fresnay), a debonair foreigner and competitive skier who seems a far more exciting guy than Bob; then Louis, some hours after narrowly surviving a potentially fatal accident on the slopes caused by Betty and a dachshund who never reappears (the wiener vanishes!), is assassinated while dancing a fox-trot with Jill. Any implicit karmic causality is left up to the spectator to ponder; from this point the characters will be too busy negotiating their unexpected role in a complex web of criminality to pause for such moral abstractions. Turns out Louis was a spy; he utters some cryptic information to Jill with his dying breath; Betty’s kidnapped; Bob and Jill return to London, find out about another planned assassination to take place at Royal Albert Hall, and play cat and mouse with a motley array of heavies. There’s a memorable chair-throwing fight, undertaken when the bad guys worry that gunfire will draw too much attention—sound was still a new and dangerous thing in the movies in 1934. Key aspects of the plot, with its ordinary people as unwitting heroes, anticipates Hitch’s trademark “wrong man” films, the first of which, The 39 Steps (1935) is coming right up. Though in the case of this Man it is in fact the woman who’s the more interesting co-protagonist, a refreshingly resourceful Hitchcock blonde who just happens to be a champion sharpshooter.

Still, make no mistake, the enduring stars of The Man Who Knew Too Much are two others: Hitchcock himself, whose bracing economy, elegant montages, clever references to British reserve, startling imagery—see the shot of captive Betty, windswept and surrounded by fur—and deadpan approach to violence—the falling bodies in the final shoot-out aren’t dwelled over for a moment—enrich every scene, and actor Peter Lorre, fresh from stunning audiences as the child killer in Fritz Lang’s M (1931), sporting a flamboyant white streak in his hair, often smiling, laughing, seemingly high, embodying evil with precisely the sort of ease, sophistication and weird charisma that Hitch would favour when casting villains throughout his career.  

Saturday, January 12, 2013

At times a drag, at others, more than a drag

The third feature from Montréal writer-director Xavier Dolan is a truly ambitious, truly modern love story and a definite improvement on its predecessor, the facile and overly derivative Heartbeats, but Laurence Anyways’ 168-minute runtime and incessant detours into slow motion florid fantasy at times feel like audacity for audacity’s sake, an emphasis on décor that neglects emotional depth. Because there is a quieter, more impressive sort of audacity at work in Dolan’s approach to notions of self-determination, of gender, sexual preference and sexual identification most especially, that easily rivals and in some way betters the gender-bending philosophical currents running through the equally lengthy, overbearing and similarly long view-taking Cloud Atlas. Precious few films are so broad as Laurence Anyways in their ideas of who we fundamentally are, how we come together and how we drift apart. Likewise, few films meander through the worlds they create with such jejune patience-trying pretension.

With the arrival of his 35th birthday, high school teacher and budding writer Laurence (France’s Melvil Poupaud) decides he’s really a woman and needs to dress the part, at the very least. Understandably, his girlfriend Fred (Suzanne Clément) has a hard time with this, yet she’s supportive, encouraging him to don eye shadow and ladies wear when he goes to work. Laurence and Fred have a cocoon-like relationship, a rare level of shared life and experience and sense of fun that precariously resembles codependence. There is some initial giddiness to Laurence’s radical shift in optics, spurred by an even more radical shift in internal self-awareness, yet his personal and professional status quo is undeniably rocked, and the couple’s life quickly gets complicated and imperiled. Thus begins an on-again/off-again love story spanning over ten years and promising to go on for many, many more.

As with Heartbeats, Dolan’s narrative and camerawork overwhelmingly favours the woman; Clément, a tremendously resourceful actor, does the emotional heavy lifting, while Poupand’s Laurence seems mostly pretty, and pretty vacuous, in comparison. There are some truly arresting scenes of relationship meltdown and moving moments of intimacy, but so much of Laurence Anyways, set in a 23-year-old’s idea of the 1980s, feels like music video or perfume ad pastiche. Dolan’s embracing of high style is welcome in theory; in execution it feels like a mish-mash. Best to focus on the hearts beating underneath all the directorial overstatement; it’s in the heart department that Dolan may yet prove to be a genuine wunderkind.