A Late Quartet

Unleash your passion

Allow me to share a lovely tidbit concerning movie dialogue, as suggested to me by a certain poet with whom I saw Yaron Zilberman’s A Late Quartet: “It’s good dialogue if a character says something and you’re not sure if they’re right.”  Yes.  In real life, your friends don’t speak in laconics, in absolutes, in spartan phrases that tie the meaning of everything that’s happened that day into a pretty bow.  A Late Quartet features dialogue so rich and a plot so adeptly structured that we not only appreciate and recognize the complexities of the characters’ conflicts, but we also know what else they’re thinking about as they speak.

As the story begins, an era ends: Peter Mitchell (Christopher Walken), cellist in a famous string quartet – The Fugue, who have played over three thousand concerts – has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, and has decided that this will be his final season.  The rest of the quartet is comprised of Daniel (Mark Ivanir), the controlling and humorless First Violinist, Juliette (Catherine Keener), the viola player, and Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Juliette’s husband, who thinks the quartet has grown dull and predictable due to Daniel’s failure to “take risks” (including his steadfast refusal to play Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14, Op. 131, without the music in front of them).  After Peter’s quiet announcement that he will only play one more show, Robert reveals that he would like to begin switching chairs with Daniel.  Since Peter’s replacement will not require this change, the group suspect that Robert has desired this for some time, and we soon bear witness to his inferiority complex not only within the quartet, but at home.

The film is split into three main conflicts.  Chiefly, Peter’s departure from the quartet and the struggles of the group to not only come to terms with his illness and abrupt exeunt after twenty-five years, but also to find someone worthy of replacing him – they push for Nina Lee (played by herself), but she’s already in a trio with the stubborn Gideon (Wallace Shawn), and remains a Godot character until the end.  Secondly, Robert’s frustration with the quartet spills into his home life, and he winds up having a one-night stand with a running buddy (Liraz Charhi), which he’s unable to hide from Juliette even for a day.  However ill-intentioned Hoffman’s characters have been in the past, Robert never becomes a stock “bad husband” character, and his attempts at Juliette’s forgiveness are heartfelt and sincere.  Lastly, Robert and Juliette have a daughter in her early twenties, Alexandra (Imogen Poots), who is taking private violin lessons with Daniel.  Their antagonistic student-teacher relationship veils not only mutual admiration, but a secret love/lust, and they begin an affair, which the headstrong Alexandra is less than hesitant to reveal to her mother, whom she believes has not been there for her due to the quartet’s seven-month-a-year touring schedule.  These issues, while organically developed and expertly paced, come to a head during a final practice at Peter’s house, and the fate of the quartet and their relationships hang in the air during the only possible climax for this story: the first concert of the Fugue’s final season.

Finally, we have a film not based upon contrivance, not a half-hearted remake, not a blasphemous adaptation of a beloved novel, and not cash-raking action fare.  It also doesn’t get caught up in its own “science” – the film explores the inner workings of a string quartet, and in such detail that any musician would likely be convinced that Zilberman knows his material, but nothing is included that does not push the story forward or deepen the characters.  This is the kind of film that should be taking home little golden men in February, and not just because of its structure and depth.  The performers, who have lately fallen into unchallenging roles (with the exception of Hoffman, whose role in The Master was a gem at the center of an otherwise disastrous film) shine as the members of the Fugue, and clearly spent time learning at least the basics of their characters’ instruments and how to make themselves look like professionals doing their life’s work.  Keener plays Juliette as a realistically conflicted and humble mother, wife, and friend.  Walken ceases his predictable comedy and self-parody to remind us that he’s an Academy Award winner and can radiate dramatic multitudes (not just caricature) with his mannerisms.  Ivanir plays Daniel as a sympathetic loner, and despite how inappropriate his relationship with Alexandra might be, we want him to have something good for a change.  Imogen Poots is Alexandra, and her rather angsty acting style sticks out due to her being the only young character in the film, but she holds her own with the older, more experienced actors, and the careful writing prevents Alex from ever coming off as a bratty kid.

I know a few people who will likely tell me that they haven’t seen Walken in a film this year, and wonder what he’s doing.  Those are the same people who would find a film like this “boring” – no fighting?  No superheroes?  No galactic threat?  I say screw the galaxy.  Try caring about human nature.  As the above-mentioned poet concluded about this film, “There’s nothing stupid in it.”

A Late Quartet (2012); written and directed by Yaron Zilberman; starring Catherine Keener, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Christopher Walken, Mark Ivanir, and Imogen Poots.

Skyfall

Last rat standing

The 007 film series took a step forward in the Brosnan era: despite the movies not being very good, the introduction of a female “M” (leader of MI6) was a progressive change.  This time around, we get three powerful female figures, which is all well and good until two of them die and the third becomes a secretary.  Skyfall, in spite of its strengths as an action movie and its inarguable superiority over the abysmal Quantum of Solace (Olga Kurylenko’s performance notwithstanding), is a step backwards in nearly all other ways.

The newest Bond story, not based upon any of Ian Fleming’s original material (most of which has been exhausted by the twenty-three films), follows James Bond (Daniel Craig on his third run) as he fakes his own death, retires from MI6, and becomes reinstated after a crisis calls for his expert attention.  M (played by Judi Dench for the seventh and final time) needs Bond to deal with a cyberterrorist and former MI6 agent called Silva (Javier Bardem).  Silva, though, is obsessed not with wealth, not with base destruction, not even with Bond himself, but with M and her apparent disregard for her own agents.  “Mommy,” as he refers to her, once left Silva to die after a failed operation, and instead of killing himself while captive, Silva only succeeded in melting his own jaw with cyanide, making him look a bit like Richard Kiel’s “Jaws” character from Moonraker.

Silva’s style of terrorism revolves around hokey Youtube videos linked with the message “Think on your sins.”  When Bond returns to action, the film plays like it’s the first time Bond is doing any of this stuff (which they already tried in Casino Royale, with less tedious results).  He fails all of his tests, but is allowed to go after Silva anyway, and teams with agent Eve (Naomie Harris) and the newly-appointed Q (Ben Whishaw) to – to what?  We don’t really know.  But after a few stylized fight scenes (one of which involves an enormous CG komodo dragon), Bond finds himself on Silva’s personal island, where the latter runs his operations from a single laptop and a 1980s supercomputer.  Silva tells a parable about rats (which, given its level of attention in a film of this type, must be the scripture by which the story’s metaphors, ironies, and ideologies operate until the end), after which Bond dispatches his guards and takes the villain into custody.  We get the feeling this capture was too easy, however, and soon learn that Silva’s plan was to be captured, make his escape, and kill M after a public humiliation entailing her admission of MI6’s failures.  What follows might be the most well-shot gunfight of this year’s films.  It includes not only the main players, but also Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), M’s boss, who thinks MI6 is an old fossil not worth the government paychecks it absorbs.  The film’s third act explores some Bond backstory (all invented for the film) and visits Skyfall Manor, Bond’s childhood home, where the caretaker (Albert Finney) is still watching over things.  Bond reveals to him the film’s entire plot in a nutshell: “Some people are coming to kill us.  We’re going to kill them instead.”

Throughout the film, we are told that sometimes “the old ways are best,” yet the only callbacks to the original Bond movies are brief references in the form of an Aston Martin and the old Dr. No theme song that appeared in almost all twenty-three onscreen adventures. Soon after, though, the Aston Martin is blown up, and Judi Dench is replaced by Ralph Fiennes in the role of M (a role originally inhabited by Bernard Lee and taken by men up until 1997’s Goldeneye), indicating that the best of the “old ways” is the idea of a man-centric action fantasy, not the beloved conventions of the series, and certainly not the progression the films of the 90s strove for.  The line about the “old ways” is spoken by Finney’s character as he places a combat knife in front of Bond.  This is meant to be foreshadowing (Bond, of course, will end up killing Silva with the proverbial “Chekhov’s Knife”), but to the unenlightened, I offer this tidbit: you should not realize that an event was foreshadowed until after the event happens.  If the film gives you a clue and you figure out what’s going to happen before it happens, that’s not foreshadowing; it’s just a clumsy spoiler.  Hasn’t Sam Mendes heard of the old “two weeks til retirement” trope?

Skyfall snatches a defeat from the jaws of victory when it comes to its female characters.  It also contains several holes we’re expected to overlook: what is the purpose of Severine (Bérénice Lim Marlohe), other than to be naked and dead?  Why include her sad backstory and only keep her alive for five minutes, with Bond later referring to her demise as a “waste of good Scotch” (not to mention that he took advantage of her after she mentioned suffering sexual assault in her youth)?  How does Silva know that Bond will go through such an arduous quest (and survive) to capture him?  If he wanted to be captured, why not simply turn himself in to MI6?  Why is Eve, who saved Bond multiple times in the film’s early scenes (including defeating an armed henchman with nothing but a high-heeled shoe) considered “not cut out” for field work?  Why doesn’t she participate in the final battle at Skyfall Manor?  The revelation that her surname is “Moneypenny” demonstrates a slight misunderstanding of the character, but since they’re seating her behind a desk until further notice, I assume we’re not supposed to care.

In the original novels and short stories, Bond was complex.  His smoking and drinking were considered vices, and he often found himself in rehab and the hospital.  His womanizing, so glorified in the films, was an unbearable sex addiction in Fleming’s stories, and he lost the women because he either failed to protect them or they got sick of his bad habits.  To its credit, Skyfall attempts to reignite some of what made Bond human, not just a super-spy, though it’s not the same stuff Fleming used.  It’s not even from the same bucket of clay.

Craig gives his best Bond performance yet (the pressure to match Bardem’s performance as Silva probably contributed to that), and Naomie Harris is gorgeous, fun, and serious in the role of Eve.  Ola Rapace appears as Patrice, a silent hitman who should have been in the film for longer (but whose duel with Bond is shot on a wonderfully atmospheric set).  Whishaw’s new, younger Q is expertly handled, reflecting the relationship Bond had with the character in the old movies, and strongly echoes Desmond Llewelyn’s voice.  While Casino Royale was the be-all-end-all attempt at adapting one of Fleming’s books, Skyfall feels like a wholehearted attempt to reboot the films.

When asked why one of my students liked this film, he replied, “It has guns and attractive females.”  Who nowadays would believe that this film series was birthed from a series of beautifully written spy novels about an emotional, conflicted, and truly heroic character?

Skyfall (2012); written by Neal Purvis and John Logan; adapted from the original James Bond character by Ian Fleming; directed by Sam Mendes; starring Daniel Craig, Naomie Harris, Judi Dench, and Javier Bardem.

The Man With Iron Fists

Tiger-style!

The fights in The Man With the Iron Fists are about what you’d expect given any knowledge of its narrow range of influences: they’re numerous, long, gory, and full of glamorous-looking airborne kicks and the occasional dismemberment (see also: bull-shitsu).

It was only a matter of time before RZA created his own martial arts epic, considering the effects of those classic kung-fu favorites on his music and virtually everything he’s ever produced.  The film comes off as a love note to the beloved genre, albeit without much in the way of reinvention or originality, and the film occasionally skirts a Tarantino-esque style of tribute (namely in the opening and ending sequences).  The main issue is that RZA chooses to cast himself in the title role instead of a more adept actor, and while I’m not sure I’d be able to resist the temptation of casting myself as the central character in a film that resembles a generic arcade fighting game, there’s a certain responsibility that comes with having the money and privilege to actually make that choice, and RZA’s performance doesn’t match that of the other actors in the film, leastways not enough to afford his character the lead role.

The story sees Thaddeus (RZA), an escaped slave and expert blacksmith, trapped and destitute in Jungle Village, a made-up place somewhere in an anachronistic era of China in which people apparently spent their days fighting with inventive weapons.  Though he feels badly about it, Thaddeus makes a living creating deadly weapons for bad people, most notably the clan of Silver Lion (Byron Mann), a turncoat warlord who murdered his adopted father in order to seize power.  Silver Lion’s closest advisers include Brass Body (Dave Bautista), a mercenary with the inexplicable power to turn his body to solid metal with the bat of an eye (amendment: an era of China in which people fight with inventive weapons and magic powers), and Poison Dagger (Daniel Wu), a hooded figure who serves as the film’s codex for 3/4 of the story until he’s needed for a fight scene.  The other main power structure in Jungle Village is Madame Blossom (Lucy Liu), the self-proclaimed Queen of the village, who runs a brothel, the women of which practice (unbeknownst to the villagers) “black widow style,” another seemingly magic-based form of fighting.  Eventually, a Man With No Name type figure who calls himself (ugh) “Jack Knife” (Russell Crowe, who I still can’t believe did this film) wanders into town in search of fortune.  Through one thing and another, Jack becomes involved in a revenge plot against the evil Silver Lion, allying with the stoic Thaddeus and Zen-Yi (Rick Yune), the real son of Silver Lion’s murdered stepfather.

The cast of characters is ambitiously huge and also includes Jamie Chung as Thaddeus’ girlfriend, Cung Lee as Bronze Lion (Silver Lion’s main crony), Gordon Liu as an ancient monk, Grace Huang and Andrew Lin as the Geminis (fighters hired by the Emperor to guard his gold, the film’s MacGuffin), and Pam Grier as Thaddeus’ mother.  The film is paced in such a way that an audience may be confused as to whether each character is receiving her/his proper amount of screen time, but in the end, things seem to fall into place.  The cast and its use resembles Sonny Chiba’s The Street Fighter series (originally X-rated in America for its violence, which is somewhat laughable now), in that it features a group of fighters with various seemingly unstoppable styles, and relies on its main character to devise techniques for defeating each of them.  Thaddeus, I think, cheats a little bit, and Crowe’s character carries a gun, but it’s still somehow easier to root for them than the heartless bastards they’re up against.

A film like this relies 95% on its fight scenes, and despite the obvious wire-work heavily featured throughout, there’s a sense of consistency.  The sheer amount of fighting is exhausting, but nothing comes out of left field (judge for yourself whether that’s good or bad).  Women get a short straw here (all, as you’d expect, are either dead or prostitutes), but Lucy Liu’s performance is more dedicated and fun than it needs to be.  Crowe, who has gained considerable weight (and apparently lost it for Les Miserables), is reliably funny and likeable, despite his character’s womanizing tendencies.  The best performance, though, has to be Byron Mann as the deliciously evil Silver Lion, such a sociopath that he makes fun of his victims’ pleas before slaughtering them.  Mann makes the role fun without going over the top (maybe a task in and of itself when considering how over-the-top the movie is anyway).

Something I can’t help but notice – slavery seems to be a hot topic lately.  Cloud Atlas had a slavery storyline, there’ve been three movies about Lincoln out in the past year, Tarantino’s Django Unchained involves a slave hunting down slave owners, Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave is being adapted into a film next year, and now, even a pulpy fight-movie by RZA has an abrupt and obligatory back-story in which white guys in cowboy hats beat the hell out of Thaddeus and throw the “n-word” around.  Of course, this is an issue that we may never come to terms with as a nation and as a people, but I have to wonder why this year is the time in which to act it out.

The Man With the Iron Fists (2012); written and directed by RZA; starring Russell Crowe, Lucy Liu, RZA, and Byron Mann.

Wreck-It Ralph

Flattery don’t charge these batteries

Better than the numerous video game references, better than the oft-clever humor, and better than the wondrously varied color pallet, is the fact that two of the four core characters in Wreck-it Ralph are female.  A children’s movie that doesn’t throw the No Girls Allowed Clause around?  A boyish-themed film for young adolescents in which the very act of being female isn’t a bizarre quirk relegated to supporting-cast love interests?  Who knew?  Refreshingly, this film is for both boys and girls, as the deuteragonist, Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) is given as much personality, back-story, and aspiration as the title character, Ralph (John C. Reilly).  At heart, it’s a movie about outcasts, something I will always be attracted to.

The movie is directed by Rich Moore, who made a bunch of Simpsons episodes, and is just as adept at directing CG characters.  The story follows Ralph, an arcade villain who is left out of his game’s “cast parties,” if you will, because he’s big, clumsy, a bit of a dope, and prone to destroying anything he touches (whether on purpose or otherwise).  The title character of Fix-it Felix, Jr. (Jack McBrayer), is given all the credit, and despite feeling badly about leaving Ralph out, doesn’t quite understand what his fake nemesis is going through.

Finally, Ralph goes “Turbo,” a meta term for a game character that once left his game and invaded another one.  While trying to prove himself to the characters of his own game, he enters Sugar Rush, a generic character-based kart racer similar to Diddy Kong Racing or Mario Kart, and soon meets the quirky Vanellope, who seems to have a glitch in her programming.  As such, she is not allowed to race (and thus is never seen by players), a rule decreed by the corrupt King Candy (Alan Tudyk), whose name is conspicuously swiped from Candy Land.  Ralph and Vanellope decide to help each other out, and from there, the film hits all of the expected formulaic story points that a film of this type (let’s call it a Children’s Romantic Comedy) must.  The heroes have a falling out, get back together, save several days, etc.  The secondary story follows Felix’s quest to get Ralph back (for his own personal gain, because Ralph’s absence causes Fix-it Felix, Jr. to malfunction, threatening the game’s existence in the arcade), with the help of Sergeant Calhoun (Jane Lynch), the main character of Hero’s Duty, a Time Crisis knockoff wherein the player battles endless waves of bugs that share a hive-mind even in the game’s meta-world.

The world of Litwak’s Arcade is surprisingly charming and involving.  The film’s various video game references serve as in-jokes to people who get them (there’s everything from a misplaced Metal Gear Solid exclamation point to an expertly-placed portrait of Chun-Li), but there’s satisfactory accessible humor for everyone else.  Sarah Silverman’s prolific voice acting contributes multitudes to the hilarity and overall adorable nature of Vanellope.  Much of Calhoun’s charm is that she actually looks like Jane Lynch, and her prickly demeanor (said to be the result of her being programmed with “the most depressing back-story ever”) leads to some funny Odd Couple scenes with Felix, whose inherent goodness and naïvete don’t bode well for his survival outside of his own game.

Even the exposition is handled well.  Early on, a hologram of Sonic the Hedgehog reminds the citizens of the arcade world that they’re only allowed to die within their own games; if they die anywhere else, they’re kaput for good.  The supporting cast, bright and shiny and packed with characters like Taffyta and Candlehead (Mindy Kaling and Katie Lowes), is varied both in gender and personality, and the filmmakers wisely choose not to turn any beloved real-life game characters into main cast members (we all know how that turns out, don’t we, Uwe Boll?).

Not since Despicable Me has there been a CG-animated film with such heart.  Now, can we get a Candlehead spinoff?

Wreck-it Ralph (2012); written by Jennifer Lee and Phil Johnston; directed by Rich Moore; starring John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Jane Lynch, and Jack McBrayer.