A Late Quartet Reviews
Essentially an acting master class, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, and Christopher Walken all turn in remarkable performances that should be the model for any young actor. Walken, especially, in his later years continues to show a sensitive, emotional side.
However, the film is poorly paced. Particularly, after a comic scene in which the stoic, severe Daniel is forced to gather his clothes and slip out the fire escape, we get another tear-ridden scene filled with pop psychology and emotional effusions. What is more, the character look like they've been crying or are about to cry is almost every scene.
Overall, though I like the work by the actors, I think a skilled director could have turned this into a truly fine film.
It's the story of the labyrinthan and conflicting relationships between the members of a veteran string quartet, with loyalty, jealously, sex, and ambition pushing the envelope on everything. The catalytic event is a diagnosis of Parkinson's disease, forcing the retirement of the groups cellist father figure, played by Christopher Walken.
Every performance is a gem, but Christopher Walken is a revelation, since he usually plays weird over the top surreal clowns (albeit compellingly each time). Here he plays a real man, facing death and decline with his whole heart and soul on display. P.S. Hoffman does his usual angst filled disapointment filled character with his usual skill, as his wife, Catherine Keener gets to do a more muted but well calibrated take on on her bitchy brutally honest but soulful charcter, Israeli Mark Ivanir plays the star lead violinst, a distant, arrogant but alpha male with sensitivity, I haven't seen him before in anything. English up and coming Imogene Poots plays the daughter of the couple, who enters into a sexual relationship with Ivanir (his mother's old flame) causing the group to almost flame out.
As much as I loved it, be warned the movie involves lots of talk about Beethoven and classical music that may bore some viewers (I loved it). Further, the film which feels very real most of the time, depends on French Farce like coincidences and meolodramatic over the top tropes to advance its story, which may annoy some viewers hooked up on realism. First time feature writer/director Yaron Zilberman does a wondeful job here, and I look forward to his next film.
Finally, the wonder that is Beethoven's opus 131 is the star of the show, and its melancholic, mournful yet life affirming strains are lived up and matched by this terrific chamber film.
"A Late Quartet" was directed and co-written by Yaron Zilberman, only his second film. His first film was a 2004 feature-length documentary called "Watermarks," about an Austrian sports club that was a training ground for Olympians. Shut down by the Nazis in 1938, its mostly Jewish members were scattered across the world but reunited by Zilberman for the making of the film.
With "A Late Quartet," his first fictional film, Zilberman explores the world of top-flight classical music. A world-famous string quartet is approaching its 20th anniversary. The stresses and strains of, in a sense, being married to each other for so long are starting to show. Much has been said over the years about the strains of being in a rock band for many years, where a handful of individuals have their personal, economic, and creative lives completely interwoven. But little has been said about this in other musical worlds. Until now. "A Late Quartet" brilliantly captures what this might be like.
The quartet members are played by three famous actors and one lesser-known but equally powerful actor. Mark Ivanir (whom I've never heard of until now) plays the founder of the quartet and lead violinist. The others are played by Philip Seymour Hoffman (second violinist), Catherine Keener (viola), and Christopher Walken (cello).
All are wonderful, but it was a special thrill to see Walken as the cellist. Known for playing action-movie sociopaths and other various and sundry nutjobs, Walken at long last comes in from the wild to play a highly civilized, bookish man. There is no crazy in his character. Walken can't rely on histrionics here. He's got to convey his character in an under-stated way, and he does it masterfully. I'd like to see him nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his work in this film.
One scene in particular has stuck with me. Walken's character was recently widowed. His wife was an accomplished opera singer. One night, when he is feeling most alone in his big empty apartment, he sits in the dark listening to one of her albums. The grief and loneliness register on his face in a way that shook me greatly.
One of the many things I love about "A Late Quartet" is that its characters go through the same kind of traumas and struggles that you and I go through. Adultery, lust, career advancement, jealousy, cross-generational relationships, juggling career and family, youth, aging, illness, death, cruelty toward those you love the most.
Look at that list. Those are just some of the themes that come up in "A Late Quartet," and yet it doesn't seem over-stuffed. The film breathes, flowing with the normal rhythms of everyday life. It's also not particularly long: 100 minutes. Zilberman is such a masterful filmmaker that he doesn't waste a second. Every move has meaning. Every turn of the corner involves a gentle revelation of what this quasi-family is going through. Its secrets are revealed in the quiet, understated way of a great piece of chamber music. It's not in your face; it's in your hands.
The film takes an unusual context, a string quartet, where four adults and their families lead exceptionally intertwined lives in order to show in sharper relief the kinds of things with which everyone struggles. It explores so many aspects of life, gets one pondering about so many elements of one's own life, and does this elegantly and artfully. In other words, "A Late Quartet" is a major work of art.
As a backdrop, there are numerous reflections on Beethoven's difficult life, as this quartet specializes in Beethoven. This provides beautiful resonance with other time periods, expanding the reach of the film.
What of the film's flaws? Yes, there are a couple. There are one or two moments when the quartet's struggles come across as shrill squabbling, and the issues they're fighting about sometimes feel predictable and reminiscent of a soap opera. I would have appreciated Zilberman working a bit more to inject an element of surprise into the story. The entanglement between the lead violinist and the daughter of the second violinist did once or twice seem predictable, similar to many soap operas we've seen before.
But these moments constitute about 2% of the film. At all other times, "A Late Quartet" is superb.
For first time director Zilberman, whose only previous credit is the 2004 swimming documentary 'Watermarks', the task of directing such a trio of acting heavyweights as Hoffman, Walken and Keener must have been a considerably intimidating one. The same can be said for the relatively unknown Ukrainian actor Ivanir, the odd one out on a roster of top quality American acting talent. Both men hold their own admirably. Casting an unknown for the part of Daniel was an inspired choice as his character, a Russian immigrant, is himself something of an outsider amongst the quartet. A familiar face in the role wouldn't have conveyed this quite so convincingly. Equally impressive is the young English actress Poots, who gets some of the film's most dramatic scenes. She may bear a physical resemblance to Scarlet Johansson but, unlike the American star, she can act. Hoffman and Keener are brilliant, as you would expect, but the standout is Walken, here allowed the opportunity to play a real character and not just a parody of himself.
Zilberman wisely gives his cast freedom, employing what Spielberg refers to as a "quiet camera", eschewing any flashy camerawork. On this evidence, he's a director of some promise. Unfortunately, his script, co-written with Seth Grossman, lets him down. Every scenario on display feels like one we've seen countless times before. The musician who is slowly losing the use of his hands? The daughter who accuses her artist mother of not being around her enough during her childhood? The performer tortured by a lack of recognition of his talents? All stale as June bread on an August picnic.
While its story is nothing we haven't seen before, the performances from its ensemble cast and some stunning work by legendary cinematographer Frederick Elmes make 'A Late Quartet' a worthwhile watch. As a scriptwriter though, Zilberman could heed the advice of that old musician's joke, "How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice!"
Right off the bat, "A Late Quartet" has certain things going for it like a great cast(nobody does thankless as well as Catherine Keener while it is nice to see Christopher Walken cast so against type), good music and intelligent thoughts on important themes like mortality. But sadly, it is not as good as it should have been due to its being forced, especially in its cliched soap operatic subplots that lead into a surreal climax, the more so after a little research. For example, Peter is already suffering from the death of the love of his life which could alone cause him to reexamine his life, so why also burden him with Parkinson's? At the same time, Alex's outburst comes as a breath of fresh air with its sudden injection of honesty into the proceedings.
To pull off such a feat, a superb cast is needed. A Late Quartet masters this, with Philip Seymour Hoffman as his usual brilliant self, Catherine Keener inhibiting her role perfectly, Christopher Walken having a refreshingly straight performance, and Mark Ivanir having one of the more calculated and interesting performances of the film. All of the actors have palpable chemistry with each other, which is very much needed for the film's many melodramatic moments. Their exchanges feel real, their intensity is undeniable. The film's smart script, which focuses on characterizations, allows the actors the necessary room to breathe, an especially daunting task for an ensemble cast and a shorter film.
One should not go in to A Late Quartet expecting a clinic on how a Quartet is run, or the finer points that such music involves. This is simply a background to a moving story on the lives of a group of inter-connected people at a crossroads. Taken on these merits, A Late Quartet is a strong success, smartly written, executed well, and appropriately moving.
At just over 100 minutes, this character drama appears to run a reasonably comfortable length on paper, and often is in execution at quite a few times, yet there are still spots that feel a touch undercooked, with development especially being too tight for its own good, because outside of occasions in which expository dialogue goes crowbarred in (Oh man, Philip Seymour Hoffman delivers a confrontation speech to Catherine Keener nearly at the hour mark that is bloated to no end with borderline random little-known facts), as well as even an awkwardly forced sequence in which our lead quartet watches a documentary on them that outlines their origin, there is hardly any bit of development to this film, whose driving characters are portrayed well enough to sustain a fair degree of your investment, but not with enough genuine meat in the story structure department for you to gain all that firm of a grip on things. What further distances the impact of drama resonance is, as I said, its going haunted by melodrama, which isn't so exceedingly immense that you feel as though you're watching Hallmark filler, but very firmly secured, growing greater and greater as plot unravels, until, after a while, genuineness slips just enough for you to go thrown off. Sure, there is enough inspiration in direction and acting for emotional resonance to feel more genuine that the drama itself at times, but inspiration in execution of flawed concept structuring can only do so much to battle back issues that were established from the pen-to-paper stages, and sure enough, with histrionics come predictability and issues in full dramatic kick. What further throws off your full engagement value with this film's various subplots is, of course, inconsistency in the focus on these subplots, which aren't tossed all over the place, but much to unevenly handled, to where certain plot layers go pushed too far into away for their return to be all that organic, and that really messes with the film's momentum, though perhaps not as much as a degree of aimlessness. While the film definately shaves off some time by scrapping much development, lost time all too often goes made up for through padding, made all the more glaring by slow spells that, against my fears, rarely, if ever slip into dullness, but help in giving plotting a kind of aimless feel that brings all other flaws in story structure to light. There are a fair deal of moments in this film that are genuinely strong, but there are too many issues in this film's decent, but underdeveloped, melodramatic and even aimlessly padded script, whose issues stand as just pronounced enough to hold back the final product's full potential. Still, much like the band, the audience plays on, or at least would be hard pressed to not, because as improvable as this film is in plotting and drama, its high notes keep you coming back to a flawed story that still keeps up a reasonable degree of dramatic sharpness, as well as musical sharpness.
If this film is going to keep up its integrity as a study on a string quartet, it's going to need to really play up classical string musicality, and does so quite well, with the Brentano String Quartet supplying this film's soundtrack with fine renditions of many an excellent classical piece, especially Beethoven's String Quartet No. 14, Op. 131, a piece whose being played in this film that discusses, if not all-out rather heavily focuses upon it on more than a few occasions, helps in keeping you grounded in the final product. Sure, this film's music isn't sweepingly dynamic, much less strikingly powerful, nor is it featured all that often, but this lovely soundtrack smoothly breathes some degree of life into this film, helping in keeping it lively, and helping in reinforcing thematic weight, while what reinforces dramatic weight are the fair deal of high spots in this film's story. The film is too flawed in its story structure and dramatic structuring, getting to be aimless and melodramatic, so of course potential is diluted, but not so much so that it can be ignored, as this film's plot concept, while not too extraordinary, or even all that refreshing, has enough conceptual kick to its intelligence and humanity to keep you, to one degree or another, intrigued. The value of this film's concept is all too often betrayed, but still stands firm enough to hold your attention, while your investment goes adequately sustained by what is done right in the directorial efforts of Yaron Zilberman, who doesn't do too much to compensate for the missteps in his and Seth Grossman's script, but keeps up enough juice in the air to keep you reasonably entertained throughout the film, until we come to a moment in which Zilberman wakes up and delivers on genuine dramatic resonance, which stands to have more to it, as far as quanitity and quality are concerned, but gives this film its share of truly strong moments, including the ending, which is still too abrupt to not feel rather offputting, but would have gone horribly wrong if Zilberman didn't handle it with such unexpected genuineness that cleverly and rather deeply draws from atmosphere with enough attention to delicacy to comfortably tie everything around, or at least as much as it can with its abruptness, and deliver a pretty rewarding final note to a flawed, but generally dramatically engaging movement. Zilberman, as director, does only so much, but what he does do ultimately proves to be enough to get the final product by as decent, with golden occasions, some of which go carried, not just by Zilberman, but by a certain strength that stands as consistent throughout this film. If there was more acting material to this film, then we would be looking at some excellent performances that rank among some of your better ones of 2012, but as things stand, this film fails only to put its excellent cast to good use, as each performance feels genuine, with emotional range and layers that help our performers in defining their undercooked characters as humanly compelling, and by extension, probably more than this film's script deserves. This film's script isn't bad, or even mediocre, being genuinely decent, but still too flawed for the film to achieve the overall goodness that it almost claims, thanks to inspired performances, on and off of the screen, that hit just enough to make this film a nevertheless enjoyable one, with occasions of strength that stand to be a bit more recurring.
To bring down the final note, this film find its potential undercut by considerable underdevelopment that distances dramatic resonance about as much as the melodramatic touches that grow greater and greater as the film progresses, and aimlessly so, thanks to the bland padding that gives you enough time to meditate upon shortcomings and find that the final product doesn't quite hit as many high notes as it should, which isn't to say that this movement doesn't go smooth enough to sustain some degree of your investment, boasting a strong soundtrack, as well as a story concept that goes handled well enough by Yaron Zilberman, as director, and carried far enough by strong performances, to make "A Late Quartet" a reasonably entertaining and sometimes impacting drama, in spite of its shortcomings.
2.5/5 - Fair