Sunday, December 30, 2012

A Late Quartet [2012]

MPAA (R)  Roger Ebert (3 1/2 Stars)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing
Roger Ebert's review

A Late Quartet (directed and cowritten by Yaron Zilberman along with Seth Grossman) is a film that I missed the first time it passed through (all too quickly) Chicago and I nearly talked myself out of seeing it this time around (It's playing at Chicago's Gene Siskel Film Center the week of Christmas-New Years 2012).  But having convinced myself to shell out the $11 to see it (the Gene Siskel Film Center is not cheap...), I'm glad that I did as I'd certainly pick it now as one of the best, most thoughtful movies of the year.  And depending on how Zero Dark Forty turns out to be (that movie isn't playing in Chicago until after the New Year) I may well pick A Late Quartet as the best film of the year.

So what is this film about?  It's a fictional story about a renowned New York based classical string quartet that's been playing together for 25 years.  When the group gets together however to begin practicing for the upcoming season, the group's founder, eldest member (the lead violinist was once his student ...) and still its heart-and-soul, cellist Peter Mitchell (played by Christopher Walken) finds a certain "weakness" in his hands and asks that the group reschedule their practice for later in the week so that he could get this strange problem/sensation checked out by his doctor.  So he goes to the doctor and after only a brief examination (with a subsequent MRI scheduled to confirm it...) he's is told that he's almost certainly experiencing the first stages of Parkinson's Disease.  Though perhaps shocked to hear the doctor's words, Parkinson's, he doesn't contest.  Perhaps he's already suspected ...

The next time the Quartet gets together for their practice, Peter breaks the news to them.  He tells them that he does not expect to be able to play through the next season and even if the drugs he's been prescribed help slowdown/control the onset of the disease, he'd like the next concert (the first of their season) to be his last.

The three others -- first/lead violin Daniel Lerner (played by Mark Ivanhir), and husband and wife, second violin Robert Gelbart (played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and viola Juiliette Gelbart (played by Catherine Keener) are shocked.  What will become of their group?  Peter tells them that he thinks that one of his current students Nina Lee could replace him, that she's already worked with the group in the past (Peter had lost his wife about year previous and apparently had taken at least some kind of a break from playing at the time).  But the group still protests.  A new person in the quartet will inevitably change it.

Who doesn't protest all that loudly and, indeed, kinda likes the "possibility of change" taking place is (somewhat inevitably) the second violinist Robert.  He suggests that this could be "the perfect time" for him to begin playing first violin occasionally (with first violinist Daniel playing second at those times...) and perhaps begin the process of having Robert and Daniel sharing each other's roles in the Quartet.  Daniel both a true virtuoso and a perfectionist finds Robert's idea utterly inconceivable ... and terribly ill-timed.  But when would be a good time...?  And so the ball starts rolling ...

Robert's wife Juiliette (as the others) has spent 25 years playing in this Quartet, pretty much her entire adult life and when one thinks about it, actually longer than she's been married to Robert who she met only as a result of their being part of the group.  As a result, Juiliette's instinctive loyalty is actually more for the well-being of the Quartet rather than her husband (who she met only as a result of it).

Both Daniel and Juiliette try to explain to Robert that he's valuable, indeed indispensable to the group as the second violin.  Since they've played so long together, Daniel indeed finds it nearly inconceivable imagining anyone playing "second fiddle" to him other than Robert.  But that's exactly it.  Robert has explained to one-too-many people -- a young flamenco dancer named Pilar (played by Liraz Charhi) who he runs into occasionally while jogging -- his role as "second violin" and would just like to play FIRST violin on occasion ;-).

Add to the mix a 20-something daughter of Robert / Juiliette named Alexandra (played by Imogen Poots) who is more-or-less inevitably also "musically gifted" as her parents but also more-or-less inevitably resentful of them because she's played "second fiddle" to their careers all her life.  All this, of course, this makes for one heck of a set-up for a story!

I found this movie a fascinating study of human dynamics and even actually worthy of reflection in the context of RELIGIOUS (Community) LIFE.   Male Catholic religious communities in particular are often rather small -- 4-5 brothers, priests, friars living and often working together.  For such an arrangement to work well, everyone has to feel valued and in as much as possible everyone is expected to contribute.  Egos have to be supressed at times for the sake of the whole.  But whose egos?  When?  :-)  It's not easy ;-).

So I found this movie to be a remarkable film that is, yes, "about a String Quartet."  But it's really about much more than that.  It's about Life ... Excellent job folks!  Just excellent!

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