A Late Quartet


Practice makes perfect.

Practice makes perfect.

(2012) Drama (EntertainmentOne) Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Christopher Walken, Mark Ivanir, Imogen Poots, Wallace Shawn, Liraz Charhi, Madhur Jaffrey, Nina Lee, Megan McQuillan, Anne Sofie van Otter, Jasmine Hope Bloch. Directed by Yaron Zilberman

 

A string quartet is more than the sum of its parts. The members must learn to play not only with great discipline and technical expertise but must learn to anticipate the play of the other members. Only when they are thinking about one another can they truly harmonize beautifully.

The Fugue Quartet began life as a pioneering group of young musicians looking to push the boundaries of classical music and have largely done that. They approach their 25th anniversary with plans for another major tour spotlighting Beethoven’s Opus 131, one of the most difficult pieces for quartets due to the pacing and the length (seven movements instead of four). In fact, the instruments often start to go slightly out of tune by the seventh movement, forcing the musicians to compensate for each other.

But the well-oiled machine that is the Fugue is about to face their biggest crisis. Cellist Peter Mitchell (Walken), the heart and soul of the group, has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s and won’t be able to play for much longer. He determines the first concert of the 25th season will be his farewell.

The news hits the other member of the quartet hard, particularly Juliette Gelbart (Keener), the viola player who was literally raised by Peter and Miriam (van Otter), the opera-singing wife of Peter who had passed away the year previously. The news also sets in motion a number of events, starting with Juliette’s husband Robert (Hoffman), the quartet’s second violin who has chafed under the autocratic rule of first violinist Daniel Lerner (Ivanir), the technically perfect first violin who likes things the way they are – and is even trying to convince Peter to stay.

Peter’s mind is made up though and he has thoughts of his replacement (Lee) although he’ll have to pry her away from the leader of her trio (Shawn) who isn’t inclined to let her go. In the meantime Robert has announced that he no longer wants to play second violin exclusively; he wants to alternate in the first chair. Daniel is having none of it and to Robert’s dismay and frustration, Juliette supports Daniel and not him.

This leads to a particularly dumb move on Robert’s part which sets in motion events that will pull Robert and Juliette’s daughter Alexandra (Poots) who is also a musician, and threaten to tear apart the quartet before they make it to the farewell concert.

First-time filmmaker Zilberman gets to work with an extraordinary cast and he makes the most of it; this might well be the most well-acted movie over all I’ve seen this year. Walken is on a role of really good performances and he continues it here. But it’s Hoffman who really impresses. This is one of his best roles in the past five years. At first you think Robert is being petulant and childish but as the movie progresses you realize that this is a man who has been second fiddle in every aspect of his life, not just in the quartet. It’s heartbreaking to watch him self-destruct.

Poots is a revelation. I’d thought her just a pretty face more or less but she has a scene with Keener in which long-percolating resentments between mother and daughter finally see the light of day and as such resentments often are it’s ugly and captivating.

The movie isn’t what you’d call fast paced; although the Beethoven piece is rousing and lively, the music that moves through the movie is the current of these musician’s lives. They live quiet, comfortable lives that are filled with the most beautiful music on earth. Heck, they’re responsible for making a lot of it so why not?

This is a movie about rhythms interrupted and so it might at times not sit well with those who like their movies to be more tranquil. It is also quite predictable (does anybody not see what Danny’s character does coming from nearly the beginning of the film?) and at times has that snooty pretentiousness that you only find in the fine arts.

I really liked this movie. It takes a look at the discipline that goes in to being a world class musician, and at how being part of a group – not just in rock and roll or even just in classical music but ANY group – requires the egos be put aside, that the focus is and always must be the good of the whole over the needs of the individual. It is not natural for human beings to think that way which makes it a minor miracle when they do.

REASONS TO GO: Plenty of good performances both musically and from the actors.

REASONS TO STAY: Predictable in places and pretentious in others.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some bad words scattered here and there and a few scenes of sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: At one time Ethan Hawke was cast in the film but had to withdraw due to scheduling conflicts.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/6/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 72% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100. The reviews are respectable.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Footnote

STRING QUARTET LOVERS: The actors received rigorous training in how to properly play their instruments but the music you actually hear is from the world-renowned Brentano Quartet.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: The Mummy (1999)

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Kung Fu Panda


Kung Fu Panda

Sometimes we all need a little kick in the behind.

(2008) Animated Feature (DreamWorks) Starring the voices of Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, Ian McShane, Jackie Chan, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, David Cross, Randall Duk Kim, James Hong, Michael Clarke Duncan, Dan Fogler. Directed by John Stevenson and Mark Osborne

 

Dreams are generally not handed to you. In order to achieve them, hard work and sacrifice is almost always required. The question becomes how much are you willing to give in order to make your dream come true – and is it worth it.

Po (Black) is a big, goofy panda who lives in the Valley of Peace. The animals there live in peace and harmony, overseen by the benevolent temple on the highest peak guarding the town from those who would cause harm. Therein dwell the Furious Five, a group of five kung fu warriors of world renown. Po worships them and dreams of being one of them. However, he is the son of Ping (Hong) a humble noodle shop owner whose secret ingredient makes his noodles better than anyone else and Ping knows that Po’s dream is foolishness itself.

Within the temple is the Dragon Scroll, a parchment which explains how to become the Dragon Warrior, the ultimate kung fu practitioner. Snow leopard Tai Lung (McShane) wants this scroll not to become the valley’s ultimate protector but to dominate and become a cruel tyrant, wreaking revenge on the master who spurned his dreams.

Tai Lung has escaped from his prison and means to take what would not be given to him. The temple announces that their venerated abbot Oogway (Kim) is going to select the Dragon Warrior who will be given the scroll and the power to protect the Valley. The entire village ascends the mountain to see who will be accorded this great honor. Po is sent by his father to go sell noodles at the temple.

Everyone assumes that one of the members of the Furious Five will be chosen – Tigress (Jolie), Mantis (Rogen), Monkey (Chan), Viper (Liu) or Crane (Cross). Maybe it will be their venerated master, Shifu (Hoffman). However when Oogway chooses Po, the entire village goes into shock. Surely there must be a mistake.

Po has no training and it appears, no aptitude for Kung Fu. What he seems to be best at is eating, and he does that pretty much non-stop. Shifu figures that he can discourage the young panda out of becoming the Dragon Warrior and thus allow one of his more deserving students to achieve that honor. However, Tai Lung is approaching and time is running short. Will Po stay and find his inner hero? Or will he leave and watch from the sidelines as one or all of the Furious Five save the day?

Of all the  CGI animated features I’ve seen this is my favorite that doesn’t begin with the Pixar logo. Yes, I understand its faults and shortcomings but for whatever reason I connect with it. Maybe because I’m quite Po-like – I love to eat, I dream about being a superhero and I have a pretty laid-back nature most of the time (that sound you just heard was Da Queen snorting). The animation is also pretty impressive, from the faux Chinese landscapes to the rippling fur on Shifu, Tigress and Tai Lung.

The story is a bit rote and predictable and certainly is aimed at the Nickelodeon set. There is a good deal of physical humor, much of it revolving around Po’s weight and clumsiness (which some might argue reinforces stereotypes about overweight people, not necessarily a message we want to send to kids). Also, there is almost zero character development for everyone other than Po, Sifu and Tigress. Even Tai Lung really is given a kind of cursory character background as to why he is a villain. Most of the non-feline Furious Five all kind of blend together. Makes me wonder if they could have done a Terrific Trio instead.

There are some moments of real beauty – one involving Oogway and peach blossoms – as well as some imaginative fight scenes (especially the one between Po and Shifu involving a dumpling and chopsticks). This is a pleasing film aesthetically, enough so that parents won’t get bored when watching it for the umpteenth time with their kids.

In fact, the movie is much like it’s protagonist – kind of dumb, kind of lovable and ultimately it just steals your heart. Even if you aren’t into the old chop sockey movies that are clearly the touchstone behind the genesis of Kung Fu Panda you’ll still get a kick out of this animated classic.

WHY RENT THIS: Gorgeous animation. Nice work by Black, Hoffman and McShane.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Predictable story aimed squarely at less discerning audiences.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some action sequences which might overwhelm the littlest tykes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: James Hong, who voiced noodle shop owner Mr. Ping, is the son of an actual noodle shop owner.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: As with most hit kid films, there are plenty. The DVD came as a stand-alone or in a two-pack with the short animated feature Secrets of the Furious Five. The original DVD included featurettes on how to make noodles like Mr. Ping and a kid-centric instruction manual on how to use chopsticks. There’s also a Dragon Warrior Training Academy interactive game, a music video of the theme song, an animation video jukebox featuring songs from each of DreamWorks’ Animation Studio’s movies to that time, and a nice PSA  on saving wild pandas.  The two-pack also includes an instructional video on how to draw the characters from Kung Fu Panda, an interactive Dumpling Shuffle game, and fun featurettes on how to determine which Kung Fu fighting style is your own and how to figure out which sign of the Chinese zodiac you fall under. The Blu-Ray has all of these in addition to BD-Live downloadable content which includes a Day in the Life of an actual Shaolin monk and the opportunity to hear Po from various other language soundtracks. “Squidoosh” just sounds a whole lot of different in Swedish my friends.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $631.7M on a $130M production budget; the movie was a huge hit.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Tales From Earthsea

Make Believe


Make Believe

Voguing, teen magician style.

(2010) Documentary (Crowd Starter) Neil Patrick Harris, Lance Burton, Krystyn Lambert, Bill Koch, Hiroki Hara, Derek McKee, Siphiwe Fangase, Nkumbozo Nkonyana, Gay Blackstone, Joan Caesar, Joe Diamond, Kyle Eschen, Ben Proudfoot. Directed by J. Clay Tweel

Magic is meant to look effortless;  a wave of the hand, a gesture, a subtle movement and the impossible becomes real. Getting that sort of effortlessness takes hours of practice and unbelievable discipline. For teenagers, that kind of commitment is rare indeed, particularly when it comes to something so ephemeral and let’s face it, something with bleak career prospects.

The World Magic Seminar in Las Vegas is perhaps the most prestigious gathering of magicians, conjurers and illusionists in the world. Each year they present a Teen Magician competition for up and coming talents ages 13-18. This is the real deal; there is some pretty decent prize money not to mention an opportunity to be noticed by people who can help you along in a potential career.

They come from all over the world; a magic duo from South Africa (Fangase, Nkonyana) who work their own culture and the allure of the World Cup (which was held in their country the year after this particular Seminar) to tell a story; a young man from rural Japan (Hara) who practices his craft obsessively in remote places, lonely and misunderstood by those who live in his village.

They also come from the United States as well; a beautiful blonde from Malibu (Lambert) with ambition and drive, one who understands the difficulties faced by a female magician and already armed with membership in the prestigious Magic Castle and mentorship from an established magician; a youngster from Colorado (McKee) who has tremendous potential but may or may not be ready for the competition; a veteran participant (Koch) who is entering his last year of eligibility and wants to go out in a blaze of glory.

For all their dedication and determination, these are all still teenagers with all the social awkwardness and angst that it implies. Their self-discipline and sacrifice is to be admired as it would be in a gymnast or a figure skater going for Olympic gold. Most kids have no more ambition than to have their parents buy them the latest videogame, or to hang out at the mall with their friends – or even more likely, in Internet chat rooms.

I liked the way first-time director Tweel got us to know and care about these kids. Not all of them are people you’ll want to be best friends with, but you’ll at least want to spend some time with them and hope they find the success they’re looking for. While Lambert’s single-mindedness has been off-putting to some critics, I found that she was no different than some of the student council members I’ve known. She is a young woman who knows what she wants and is determined to go after it; far from being off-putting, I found that commendable as most women are discouraged from those sorts of things as being non-feminine. Trust me, she’s very feminine, quite pretty and if she continues her pursuit will undoubtedly go far, whether that pursuit is magic or something else.

I found myself enchanted with Hara’s approach to magic which is quite visual and blends the subtle and the showmanship quite nicely. Also the South African duo, who came from a background of poverty the American contingent might have been surprised at, was charming and guileless. To some extent, the American kids all had an eye on their own career and were somewhat guarded on-camera; it was when they let their guards down that I felt that the movie was at its most compelling.

This might be a bit hard to find in video stores but you can order the DVD from the movie’s website. This isn’t the kind of hard-hitting documentary that tackles issues that affect us all, but it is a slice of American pie that comes straight from the heart (even if not all the participants are American). There’s enough warmth and charm here to make it worth viewing; whether or not it bears repeated viewing is truly a matter of personal taste but for my money if you get an opportunity to check it out by all means do so.

WHY RENT THIS: A look at young people dedicated to their craft and some beautifully staged magic tricks. Makes you care about the participants.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Somewhat scattered in its approach. Somewhat disposable subject as documentaries go.

FAMILY VALUES: A few mildly bad words scattered here and there but otherwise fine for general audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Producers Ed Cunningham and Seth Gordon were previously responsible for the documentary King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a how-to tutorial on how to perform some of the magic tricks shown in the movie, as well as some that are not.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $13,141 on an unreported production budget; I’m thinking this movie broke even at best but probably didn’t.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist, Rebel

Black Swan


Black Swan

The stuff that nightmares are made of.

(2010) Psychological Horror (Fox Searchlight) Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder, Benjamin Millepied, Ksenia Solo, Kristina Anapau, Janet Montgomery, Sebastian Stan, Toby Hemingway, Sergio Torrado, Mark Margolis, Tina Sloan. Directed by Darren Aronofsky

The pursuit of perfection in art is a long-standing tradition. It is a noble ambition but it is not without its pitfalls. Perfection is a very lofty goal and the closer one gets, the sharper the knives that guard the way there.

Nina (Portman) is a ballerina who has spent her entire life dancing, looking for that elusive opportunity – to dance the White Swan in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, perhaps the most famous ballet of them all. She has been relegated to the company, much to the display of her mother Erica (Hershey), who is an ex-dancer herself and with whom Nina lives in a small, dingy apartment.

When prima ballerina Beth MacIntyre (Ryder) is abruptly dismissed from the troupe by artistic director Thomas Leroy (Cassel), suddenly Nina’s goal is very much in reach. However, Leroy wants to “re-imagine” the classic ballet, so he wants the same dancer to dance both the White Swan (symbolizing the pure and virginal) as well as the Black Swan (symbolizing the evil and sexual). It is normally performed with two different dancers for good reason; the two roles require completely different psychologies from those who dance them.

Nina believes she can dance both roles, but Leroy is reluctant; she’s fine as the White Swan, but lacks the sensuality and aggressiveness that the Black Swan demands. Newcomer Lily (Kunis) seems to have the Black Swan down but lacks the precision and discipline required to do the White Swan. After Leroy, who has a long-standing reputation as a manipulator who takes sexual advantage of his dancers (he was also Beth’s lover) attempts to kiss Nina and gets a bitten lip for his trouble, he changes his mind and believes she has some of the Black Swan within her.

At first Nina and Erica are overjoyed, but the walls begin to crumble. The stress of dancing both parts begins to eat away at Nina’s already-fragile psyche (she is into self-mutilation in a big way) and she begins to see some scary visions of black swans and imagines that Lily is out to get her. Nina’s own burgeoning sexuality begins to waken and with it awakens the Black Swan, Nina’s own dark side come to life.

Aronofsky who last directed The Wrestler (which is his most straightforward film to date) is well-known for being unafraid to explore the psyche, and for facing the darkness as well as the light. This may be his best film to date in many ways; certainly I felt that it is one of the most artistically gifted movies of the year.

Part of that belongs to Natalie Portman. She has received an Oscar nomination for her role as Nina, and quite frankly, if it were up to me I’d give it to her now. This is not only the best performance of the year it is one of the best ever. Portman has to go to some raw and sexual places in this movie, exploring places that most people never share with others. She masturbates, has sex with a woman and slowly loses her mind until she finally embraces her dark side. It’s a brilliant and brave performance and is the main reason you should go and see this movie.

However, you should be warned – Aronofsky relies very much on shaky, hand-held camera work in the film. I understand that he was trying to capture the kineticism of dance. However, I personally am prone to vertigo and so I have a particular sensitivity to these kinds of things. I got physically ill during the course of this movie and I would think most people with balance issues are going to do the same. I think the technique was used far too much during the movie and I downgraded it several pegs because of it. Even those not afflicted with my issues reported some queasiness watching the movie.

The supporting cast is very good, particularly Cassel as the arrogant director who is nothing short of a sexual predator. He is arrogant and self-centered, not a villain precisely but certainly someone who mercilessly pushes Nina down the road to madness. Kunis does some career enhancement work as the sexually aggressive dancer who may or may not be manipulating Nina. This is a side of her we’ve never seen and Kunis shows off not only her sexuality but a dark side that is at odds with her image. This should certainly erase all thoughts of “That 70s Show” from your head.  Best of all is Hershey as the high-strung mom. Hershey has aged nicely but you’d never know it here; she is lined and careworn, a shade too skinny and probably in need of a long vacation. She makes you nervous every time she’s onscreen which is exactly right for the character. Her overprotectiveness has warped Nina and you wonder if mommy dearest might not be the sickest one in the movie.

I admire the ambitions of Darren Aronofsky and I especially admire Portman’s brave performance. This is a movie that will be starting some conversations for quite awhile if I don’t miss my guess. It’s a shame that the movie had the physical effect on me that it did; this could easily have gotten a much higher rating than it did.

REASONS TO GO: Natalie Portman gives one of the best performances you’ll ever see. A very realistic backstage look at an art form where discipline is brutal and absolute.

REASONS TO STAY: Handheld cam excess makes it dizziness inducing. Some of the psychological aspects are confusing and disjointed.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some intense scenes of sexuality including some same-sex and masturbation scenes, as well as some disturbing images.  

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the course of the film, Natalie Portman sustained twisted and dislocated ribs as well as a concussion.

HOME OR THEATER: Given the penchant for shaky-cam, I’d say home is better.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Motherhood