Life of Pi (Ang Lee, 2012) – There are two kinds of films that pose some of the greatest challenges to writers and directors: films about the nature of religious based faith and ones dealing with the very nature of storytelling. Both can seem incredibly preachy and narrow minded because they simply stick to a single point of view that can easily have holes poked into it. With director Ang Lee’s adaptation of Yann Martel’s best selling novel Life of Pi, an excellent balance is struck between the philosophical and the grounded in one of the best written and directed films of the year.
On a tip from a colleague, a Montreal writer (Rafe Spall) goes to visit Pi Patel at his home to hear his incredible story of survival at sea. Separated from his Indian family as they attempt to move their zoo across the ocean and land to Winnipeg following a shipwreck of the coast of Manilla, the young man (first time actor Suraj Sharma) struggles for survival in life boat that’s also become home to an orangutan, a hyena, and a massive Bengal Tiger with the unusual name of Richard Parker.
Following a deceptively low key, but entirely necessary and rewarding set up in which we’re introduced to Pi’s family and his life long love of every possible religion as a child, the film follows up the heartbreaking loss of his loved ones with most of the film taking place with our lead having no one to talk to other than himself. Even the narration that comes from a survivalist guidebook Pi scribbles in feels sparse and only used when absolutely necessary.
Lee’s visual eye dazzles not only because of how gloriously realized it all is, but because later in the film it will become apparent that everything you see is an intricate part of the narrative’s framework. There isn’t a single wasted breath in the entire screenplay from Academy Award winner David Magee (who previously won for the equally sharp script for the storytelling narrative of Finding Neverland), and Lee paces the film so deftly and nimbly that the passage of time Pi goes through on the boat feels real without being boring or dragging. It’s possibly the best pairing of a writer and a director in any film this year, and definitely the best for a megabudget studio production.
Suraj Sharma also deserves a special amount of consideration when thinking about the film come awards season, especially since he never even swam before acting in a film that requires him to be at sea for most of the running time. He’s the perfect intermediary for Lee to build a sometimes fantastical world around him. He still has a sense of wonder about him and a deep fear that comes through at appropriate moments. Pi never wants to do most of the things he’s forced to do in the film, and Sharma nails the struggle between the heart and the mind with a surprising amount of emotional resonance from a newcomer.
One of the biggest themes from Martel’s text actually gets a massive upgrade here. On the page, dancing around the idea of spiritualism as a form of storytelling can be a bit dicey and something that can be easily over-thought by a reader looking at the source material in a cantankerous mood. Lee and Magee cut the fat to an astounding degree, capturing relevancy without once blunting the film’s overlying statement. The conclusion of the film offers up a brilliant counterpoint to the fantasy the audience just witnessed and asks them point blank how they would possibly be able to tell the story better. It’s a gutsy and surprisingly in your face move that opens the film up to countless interpretations about its meaning and the nature of the story being told. And yet, while it’s a film that can be puzzled over and analyzed to death, it’s never boringly academic and consistently entertaining. It certainly is a rare and special kind of film with both broad and centralized appeal, and that’s something that hasn’t been seen in years.
The 3D Blu-Ray looks simply stunning and sounds as lush and vibrant as really being out at sea. There are bonus features on both the 2D and 3D discs. On the 2D version, there’s an hour long, four part documentary about the making of the film, a 20 minute look at the crafting of the film’s visual effects, a look at Richard Parker in detail, some storyboards, and a gallery. The 3D disc has five deleted scenes that can be viewed with or without 3D, a look at the visual effects progression for the film’s big shipwreck, and the trailer for the film. (Andrew Parker)
The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012) – Rarely has a film premiered with such intense anticipation from movie buffs as The Master. There are a number of reasons why. Paul Thomas Anderson has perfect batting average with his films so far (Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood) and has taken to waiting 4-5 years between movies, generating a Stanley Kubrick level of fevered anticipation every time that he picks up a camera. Then there’s the fact that the movie had to be financed independently by billionaire since no moneyman in Hollywood would touch the controversial project that may or may not have been about Scientology. It was a lot for any film to live up to, but after a triumphant awards-sweeping premiere in Venice and critical adoration dripping out of any other festival screening, The Master seemed primed to be the film of 2012. Then it opened theatrically and that all hype fizzled away.
The controversial – and more likely than not Scientology based – material wasn’t the condemnation hoped for by some, and Anderson’s increasingly esoteric ways as a filmmaker proved impenetrable for the masses. However, expecting a PTA film to sweep the Oscars and intoxicate every viewer was always a mistake. He’s America’s most uncompromising filmmaker, and being removed from any sort of studio supervision only pushed those qualities of his work further. The Master is more of a delicate character piece that floats between two lost souls with a subtle build towards a remarkable emotional payoff. Some love it, some haaaaaaaaaaate it, but no one is able to brush it off. If nothing else, it was the most ambitious and artistically audacious American film of last year.
Joaquin Phoenix stars as Freddie a WW2 veteran who in the opening scenes stumbles through his last few weeks in service by getting drunk on torpedo juice moonshine and humping sandcastle women on the beach. So, he’s not well. That much is clear. He leaves the army with severe PTSD and alcoholism. Attempts to hold a job as a department store photographer and farm laborer fail miserably. Eventually he stumbles onto a boat and passes out, unaware that it belongs to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd, an author who invented his own religion called “The Cause” with a small and obscenely loyal group of followers (including his wife played by Amy Adams who may or may not be pulling the strings). Dodd sees something of himself in Freddie’s lost soul and inexplicably wants to save him in exchange for some more of that sweet homemade moonshine. Dodd’s techniques involve bizarre psychological evaluations and tests that seem as much a result of the leader’s desire to hear perverse secrets as any attempt to help others. A bizarre psychological battle goes on between the two men, with Freddie refusing to submit to any form of control and Dodd left in awe of Freddie’s almost anarchistic approach to life.
That tension between the two men is the subject of The Master. Yes there are themes flowing through about the struggle of soldiers to adapt back to society and the gentle mind control found in any man-made religion (aka all religion). That material is undeniably intriguing and very much there to be studied and enjoyed. There are deep readings possible in the material that could be tied to any number of elemental themes. However, Anderson’s focus is primarily on his central relationship and it is a fascinating one. Almost all of Anderson’s films until this point have been about relationships between fathers and sons or surrogate fathers and sons. The Master initially appears that way as well when Dodd takes Freddie under his wing to essentially replace his own skeptical son. However as the film continues and the mutual obsession deepens and becomes more complex, almost matures into a perverse love story of sorts. There’s no overt sexuality on display, but the obsession and war between the two men stretches beyond mere friendly admiration.
Those two performances are nothing short of astounding. Phoenix disappears into Freddie, delivering wildly unpredictable and damaged mind with his expected level of intensity. From his constantly uncomfortable posture (often twisting his back into a question mark) to the unexpected outbursts, it’s always clear that something is wrong with the character and yet in the actor’s capable hands that quality never feels forced or overdone. Phoenix is matched by Philip Seymour Hoffman in an equally impressive turn in the exact opposite style. Hoffman is eerily cold, controlled, and calm as Dodd, desperately trying to give off the impression of authority and only occasionally revealing cracks in his armor. Adams is just as strong as Dodd’s manipulative wife with hints of secretly being in control of it all. The rest of the cast are all excellent as well, though none have as much to do. That’s a PTA staple though, he’s one of those filmmakers who seems to be able to get the best out of his actors no matter what the role or context (don’t forget, under Anderson’s tutelage both Mark Wahlberg and Adam Sandler gave performances that generated Oscar buzz). He’s of course in total control of the movie. His screenplay feels like a meandering collection of scenes in search of structure until it all finally combines in the end. His visuals are remarkable, shooting in the near extinct 70mm film format to create images of deep focus and vibrant colors with a sort of vintage Life magazine photo feel of heightened realism. The format is usually used for grand epics, but Anderson makes it intimate and somehow that works. Oh, and the near constant brooding score from Radiohead guitarist is just as important to the tone of this movie as it was in There Will Be Blood.
There’s a laundry list of things to praise about The Master, a grand period epic that’s most powerful scenes are two small two-headed exchanges between Phoenix and Hoffman. Big and small, intellectual and mysterious, intimately character driven yet filled with grand ambitious themes, The Master is filled with contradictions. Yet, that seems entirely appropriate given the combative/loving central relationship. It’s easily Anderson’s most complex and enigmatic movie, one that demands multiple viewings to fully process. It’s worth seeing for the central performances alone (a scene in which Hoffman interrogates Phoenix for the first time is as good as anything the actors and director have ever done), while the Anderson creates a remarkably moving and beautiful cinematic package to contain those acting presents. It’s a brilliant piece of work perhaps left too tantalizingly open to instantly be labeled a masterpiece like the some of the director’s previous efforts, but one easily deserving of all the praise and dedicated analysis slathered on it already.
The film arrives on Blu-ray in another one of the remarkable and thoughtful packages that Anderson always gives his movies. First off, the transfer is astounding. While 1080p can’t quite capture the full color spectrum and definition of 70mm, it still comes closer than any other format. Even though the film is essentially a series of conversations and confrontations, this will be one of the most beautiful Blu-rays you’ll see all year. The detail and color visible in every frame is remarkable and Anderson uses those visuals to create an intoxicating atmosphere that benefits immeasurably from a hi-def presentation. On the special feature front, you’ll get no standard epk docs or even audio commentaries (which is a shame given that Anderson was one of the best in the business at chatting over his movies in the 90s). Instead the disc comes with a collection of thoughtfully crafted and compiled features as enigmatic as the film. First up is a 19-minute collection of deleted scenes edited to period music and outtakes from Johnny Greenwood’s scores. These scenes expand on the concepts of Dodd’s church and introduce a bizarre early book by the leader/charlatan that caused many who read it to commit suicide. The material all should have been excised to keep the movie’s length down, but seeing it woven into a short tone piece over a dry collection of deleted scenes was an inspired choice (and the Pheonix/Hoffman outtake at the end is hysterical). Next up is a ten-minute collection of behind the scenes footage that offers a tantalizing glimpse at the set of The Master without any backslapping interviews.
The best extra is John Huston’s 50-minute documentary about emotionally damaged World War 2 veterans Let There Be Light. Banned for years, it’s a fascinating combination of wartime propaganda as well as an unfettered glimpse into WW2 PTSD sufferers and the ineffectual treatment offered to them by the government. It’s immediately apparent that Freddie’s character came straight out of this documentary and an intriguing insight into Anderson’s writing process. Finally, the disc is rounded out with a collection of trailers created by PTA that are entertaining and artful little pieces of filmmaking in their own right. So, while it’s not exactly a conventional stack of special features, for the movie they support, you couldn’t really ask for better. The Master Blu-ray is surely one of the best that will be released this year. Like the film itself, the disc isn’t for everyone. But for those in tune with Anderson’s unique work, it’s a disc to be treasured. (Phil Brown)
Hitchcock (Sacha Gervasi, 2012) – Hitchcock would be a perfectly serviceable movie for someone who has never seen Psycho, never once heard a single anecdote about one of the most famous directors in cinematic history, and who could honestly care less either way. For anyone who does even have the slightest passing knowledge of the man and his work, this extremely fast and loose bio-pic crafted solely to net Oscars for the leading actors involved is a goofy, tooth grating, patience trying exercise to sit through.
Anthony Hopkins plays Alfred Hitchcock as he attempts to follow up his action-adventure North By Northwest with something a bit grittier and nastier. He sets his sights on adapting Robert Bloch’s novel Psycho, which was loosely based on the real life murders of infamous serial killer Ed Gein. Met with a combination of apathy from Paramount Pictures executives and beset with constant pressure from the censorship board, Hitchcock funds the film almost entirely on his own. During the filming, Hitch’s paranoia that his writer wife (Helen Mirren) might be cheating on him reaches a fever pitch (literally in one of the film’s most unintentionally hilarious sequences), and all the way up until the last second the director questions if the film could even work at all as art or entertainment.
The direction from a way over his head Sacha Gervasi (Anvil!) and the base level script work to sabotage the actors in any way possible. There’s a very good reason why this film is being released through a subsidiary of Fox rather than from Paramount (who originally produced the film and are made to look like demons here) or Universal (who ultimately distributed the film but doesn’t get a single mention here despite some of the film being shot on their backlots). It’s probably because they wanted nothing to do with a film that turns the making of a beloved classic into an illogical screwball comedy that’s even out of time and place with the era Psycho was made in.
It’s the kind of script where every line is expository to a fault like when news reporters flat out tell Hitch to his face how old he is and question if he has anything new left in him or the uniquely ghastly moment where Hitchcock turns to his wife and refers to him as a “Hitchcock blonde” even though he never once would have said that in his life. He also sees Ed Gein in his dreams as sort of a Harvey-styled inspirational figure when Hitch never really focused that intently on Gein as the subject because the source he was pulling from in the first place barely cared that much about it. Seeing that the film is ultimately too cheap and aiming too low, we can’t even see scenes from Psycho, only snippets of the music during an honest to God “let’s make a montage” montage, or even watch them shoot on anything that even slightly resembles the set. It’s painful to look at if you have a deep appreciation for one of the greatest thrillers in the history of cinema. It makes Hitch into an impish creeper instead of a witty tyrant, and the movie around it suffers terribly for it.
Gervasi tries far too hard to inject the film with obscure film nerd jokes like having Paramount execs always walking around and talking about how the next Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis film will be the film to turn their bad luck around or people almost literally talking about how every aspect of a film is Freudian, which makes this film EXTRA SPECIAL. Wink wink nudge nudge. These moments are more insufferably pandering than they are actually funny. It’s not that a great comedy can’t be made from this material – and make ZERO mistake that this is anything other than a comedy – because Hitchcock himself was a smartass jokester. The filmmakers get that correct, but literally not a single other thing.
The female roles are so threadbare they aren’t worth talking about, which is a shame since Mirren and Jessica Biel (as actress Vera Miles) are genuinely trying to make everything work. Mirren only really gets to huff, glower, console, and repudiate Hitch whenever the script calls for it. It’s not the kind of performance anyone can really add to since it’s all on the page. Scarlett Johansson’s Janet Leigh also suffers because there’s no role there to be played. She has two settings: cute and menaced and that’s it. They are afterthoughts in typical romantic comedy fashion, making the notion that this is at all any sort of biopic even more preposterous. Anyone with a library card or access to Google could find out more about these women from searching for five minutes than they could in all 98 minutes here.
That really only leaves Hopkins, who will undoubtedly get the same push that led Meryl Streep to Oscar gold for the equally foolish film built around her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher last year in The Iron Lady. To Hopkins credit – and this probably sounds a bit backwards to say – he isn’t even trying to play Hitchcock. Sure, he’s doing the weird lip thing that Hitch had and he has some padding under his shirt, but the voice isn’t nearly the same and he isn’t nearly as volatile as the director’s reputation suggests. It’s actually a perfect choice since the film very obviously isn’t trying to be word for word a story about its subject anyway. It stops just shy of impersonation, which is what a good portrayal of a historical figure should always strive to do. It adds a certain degree of humanity, and one that the rest of the film all too sadly decides to trample all over.
The Blu-ray is a nice package for people who actually enjoyed the film, though. There’s a commentary track with Gervasi and writer Stephen Rebello, some behind the scenes footage shot by Gervasi on his phone, several featurettes about Hitchcock that are far more factually accurate than the film itself, a look at Hopkins’ transformation, a look at Danny Elfman creating the score, and a deleted scene. (Andrew Parker)
Smashed (James Ponsoldt, 2012) – There are a lot of things in this life that we can be addicted to: alcohol, drugs and god knows what else, but believe it or not one of the most addictive things in the world can be other people. Smashed is an intense little dramedy that takes a look at the price of substance abuse and the real sacrifices that people have to make in order to get sober.
Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Charlie (Aaron Paul) are a young married couple whose bond is built on the mutual love of music, laughter and drinking…especially the drinking. When Kate’s drinking leads her to dangerous places and her job as a school teacher is put into jeopardy, she decides to join AA and get sober. With the help of a new friend and sponsor (Octavia Spencer) and the vice principal at her school, the social awkward but well intentioned Mr. Davies (Nick Offerman), Kate slowly begins to take steps towards improving her life, but sobriety is going to be a lot harder then anticipated. Her new lifestyle brings together a number of troubling things to light: her relationship with her mother, the lies that she told her employer (Megan Mullally), and even her relationship with Charlie is called into question as she’s increasingly unsure if it’s a relationship or just a boozy diversion from diving head first into adulthood.
More than just a rehash of films like Barfly or Looking for Mr. Goodbar, it’s actually so much more. It eliminates any unnecessary melodramatics and replaces them with pure emotion that’s a healthy mixture of both laughter and pain. Director James Ponsoldt assuredly frames every scene to make it feel important while still managing to stay understated enough to let his actors to take control and be immersed in the highs and lows of the emotional ride that they’re taking us on.
As an alcoholic hitting rock bottom and slowly pulling herself up, Mary Elizabeth Winstead really hits it out of the park, as we see her world slowly spiral in a variety of directions. She makes the character a likable mess of a human being that we end up rooting for thanks to of a glimmer of hope that lets us know that she wants to get better. Aaron Paul is wonderful as her husband and drinking buddy. He embodies the pain of a man losing his best friend and loved one but is powerless to stop it with aplomb. Offerman, Spencer, and Mullally give memorable performances, adding to the ensemble, but they’re all so strong that there aren’t any scenes to really be stolen.
Picture and sound quality are first rate and the special features on the Blu-Ray include a feature length commentary track with director James Ponsoldt and star Mary Elizabeth Winstead, a making of Smashed, a look at the red carpet premiere from the Toronto International Film Festival along with the Q&A, and some deleted scenes. (Dave Voigt)
Playing for Keeps (Gabriele Muccino, 2012) – The romantic comedy Playing for Keeps has an excellent first 45 minutes mostly because it isn’t trying to be a standard rom-com. What starts off as a curiously winning mixture of a kids sport’s movie and a racy, adult sex farce, however, gives way somewhat suddenly to become something that’s merely okay and not at all surprising. That wonderful opening makes the film still fairly passable, it’s just a shame the wild and hilarious tone of this ensemble piece couldn’t be sustained.
Former Premier League soccer star George Dryer (Gerard Butler) left the game with an ankle injury at age 36, and his skills and pride never recovered. Moving back to Virginia to be closer to his son (Noah Lomax) and his ex-wife (Jessica Biel), George is almost flat broke and pinning all his employment hopes on landing a gig as a TV sportscaster. When the opportunity to coach his son’s soccer team falls into his lap, he sees this as a chance to reconnect with his former family, but he gets more than he bargained for when the parents of the kids on the team turn out to be largely horny nutbars.
In this set up of characters, the film manages to be delightful and full of some truly hearty belly laughs that come courtesy of a gang of well cast pros. Judy Greer gets to show off her always uncannily strong comedic chops as a loopy single mother who’s essentially stalking George. Catherine Zeta-Jones gets a more naturally fitting role as the sexpot who could give George his big break in television if he plays his cards right. Uma Thurman doesn’t get as much to do as the cheating wife of the team’s main financier and the town’s biggest nutjob, but the man playing her husband sure does.
The show gets stolen in these early moments by a gleefully unhinged Dennis Quaid who keeps acting like he just chased lines of cocaine with a six pack of Red Bull as Thurman’s husband in the most truly subversive note the film can muster. In this role Quaid goes whole hog as someone who wants to live fast and die young (with some severe anger management issues), but who still wants to live out the American dream. He has no trouble loaning George sports cars worth more than his life, bribing to get his kid to play goalie, and asking randomly if his new buddy can bail him out of prison. It’s so absolutely riotous to watch him that he’s almost worth the price of admission on his own.
But just as things seem to be getting crazier and more farcical, director Gabriele Muccino (the sap behind the dreadfully manipulative Will Smith dramas The Pursuit of Happyness and Seven Pounds) and writer Robbie Fox (delivering his first screenplay since So I Married an Axe Murderer) simply stop caring about the far more interesting and magnetic characters drawing George into their world, and instead throws together an entire second half devoted only to the ill advised storyline designed to get Biel and Butler back together again.
The problem with this story line is that it’s very apparent from the outset why these two characters shouldn’t be together, and there’s nothing in the opening moments to suggest that it’s even a remotely good idea. It’s not that Biel and Butler don’t work well together, but their characters by design are not meant to have any chemistry and there’s nothing that can be done to work on that. The best moments between the two come in that great opening where they function more realistically as friends with a shared history. As a couple, it’s just hard to root for them even if they do have a child to keep them in close proximity. Hints that George will be leaving for a job at ESPN in Connecticut and that his wife will soon remarry to a guy that really doesn’t like George don’t add any suspense since the film brings back all its quirky characters and misuses them in a finale that resolves things far too neatly and easily.
Ultimately what saves the film from being an almost heartbreaking loss in a close game is the good will and natural charm that Butler brings to the role. Pairing him with good actors constantly energizes his performances and his way with child actors is impeccable. He can do the romantic leading man thing in his sleep, but he brings just enough extra to the table to make it a bit better than it should be overall. It starts as a fun film for everyone in the audience, but it ends up being only passable to people who were dragged there by significant others.
The Blu-ray comes with seven deleted scenes and two brief behind the scenes featurettes. (Andrew Parker)
This Must Be the Place (Paolo Sorrentino, 2011) – Long delayed and never theatrically released in Canada, the English language debut of filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino finds itself very quietly and unceremoniously being dumped onto a feature free DVD this week, but it’s worth a watch simply because of how endearingly bizarre it is. It’s a mid-life crisis and coming of age film wrapped into one quirky and emotionally top-heavy bundle that’s still compulsively watchable if the viewer can find a way to get behind the sometimes abrasively aloof protagonist at the centre of it all.
After spending almost 30 years living out his days quietly in the Irish countryside with his firefighter wife, burnt out goth rocker Cheyenne (an extremely pale, moussed, and lip-stick sporting Sean Penn) learns of the death of his estranged Jewish father back in New York (after about 30 full minutes of lush character set-up that could have been its own movie). The return home sets him on a cross country trip to possibly confront or confab with the Nazi who tortured and humiliated his departed daddy.
Penn constructs a performance that demands full attention and a sense of empathy that not every viewer will be able to give. It’s an interesting character played by an actor making all the dramatic decisions around him. The writing and direction are all Sorrentino, but the way that people interact and buy into the film falls entirely on Penn’s slouched shoulders. His obviously Robert Smith inspired appearance and halted, lilting line delivery is something damned near impossible to get used to, but he brings such humanity to the part, making Cheyenne someone that’s comfortable and confident in their own skin, but highly sceptical, remorseful, and questioning about a lot of the choices that led to him being a recognizable figure. A sequence where he breaks down in front of real life musician and Talking Heads frontman David Byrne (who penned and sang the song the film gets its title from) might be one of the most heartfelt and inspiring scenes of inner turmoil being expressed in quite some time. It’s a special performance, but one that requires actual analysis.
It also helps quite a bit that Penn and Sorrentino allow the film to be legitimately funny outside of a somewhat obvious camp appeal. The humour that shines through the sometimes off-kilter material is unforced and situational. It’s snappy, unforced interactions that do a nice job of off setting Penn’s overpowering presence. A supporting cast that includes standouts Frances McDormand (as Cheyenne’s wife), Judd Hirsch (as a 79-year old, hard nosed Nazi bounty hunter), and an all too briefly glimpsed and unusually warm hearted Harry Dean Stanton (as an old school diner patron), also elevates the material.
Where Sorrentino’s gorgeous looking film stumbles, however, is this nagging feeling that somewhere along the line a full hour was cut from the film. The opening thirty minutes suggest a far more epic vision that simply had the legs cut from underneath it, and it’s a shame because watching Cheyenne in his day to day life is actually pretty fascinating and thoughtful. The ensuing road trip that finds him going across the country also has moments of real brilliance, but they’re somewhat ineptly assembled with threads being picked up and dropped before they’re given time to have a maximum impact on an already emotionally satisfying movie. It devolved into a series of scenes that feel truncated. Then again, the tone is already purposefully alienating and distancing, so it might have been a conscious choice. I’m just not entirely sure it was the right one to make overall. Still, This Must Be the Place has a lot of compassion and kindness towards its characters and the audience, and that’s what makes it truly worth spending time with. (Andrew Parker)
A Late Quartet (Yaron Zilberman, 2012) – More of a character study and look into the loves of creative types, the debut feature from filmmaker Yaron Zilberman feels assuredly like the work of a filmmaker wise beyond his years in terms of direction, but the work of a writer who needs to hone his skills just a little bit more. This examination of the inner workings of four musicians backed into personal corners in a time of crisis gets away with quite a bit thanks to four stellar performances and a keen sense of authorial personality that more than make up for some wonkier storytelling elements.
After over 3,000 concerts together, a world renowned string quartet finds themselves at a personal and professional crossroad. The heart and soul of the group, cellist Peter (Christopher Walken), has been diagnosed as being in the early stages of Parkinson’s Disease and he wishes not only to be replaced, but for the group’s first performance of the new season to be his farewell. The concept of working without him causes a ripple effect in the lives of lead violinist and perfectionist Daniel (Mark Ivanir) and the married coupling of second violinist Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and viola player Julie (Catherine Keener). Complicating matters is how Robert wishes to branch out, an unseasy romance between Daniel and Robert and Julie’s daughter (Imogen Poots), and Julie coming to realize she might not be able to love Robert the way he wants and needs to be loved.
As an actual quartet, the principals work splendidly both together and as separate parts. Hoffman brings a nice and fiery intensity to Robert’s frustrated and literal second fiddle. It’s easy to see through Walken’s dignified and warm performance how Peter is the glue that holds the crew together. Ivanir, who has always been a great, underused character actor, gets the showy, bullheaded role, and Keener slightly gets the short end of the stick playing the waffling wife and mother that she’s played before, but she does it well.
As a director, Zilberman has an assure visual style and he clearly knows how to bring the best out of these veteran actors, but the screenplay (co-written by Seth Grossman with Ziblerman) features a bit too many on the nose moments of “big emotions” and on-the-nose dialogue that spells things out for the audience rather than finding character and story beats out for themselves. It’s a strange choice for a movie based around something as nuanced and open to interpretation as classical music. Also, while it’s an unassuming crowd pleaser, it often pushes Walken’s more interesting and soulful character into the background for large chunks of the film. Still, overall it’s a pleasant diversion with a lot of old pros doing what they do best.
The Blu-Ray includes only a very brief EPK styled featurette. (Andrew Parker)