Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Short Takes: "A Late Quartet", "Bridget Jones' Diary", and more

Coriolanus (dir. Ralph Fiennes, 2011)

For his directorial debut, Ralph Fiennes took on a unique challenge: a modern-day-set adaptation of Coriolanus, one of Shakespeare's last tragedies and least-produced plays (before this, there were no filmed adaptations of it). The story involves divisive war hero of Rome, Caius Martius (Fiennes), being banished from the country under pressure from the people, and must join with his much-hated rival, Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler), to exact his revenge. So how does Fiennes the director compare to Fiennes the actor? The latter wins out in this film. As Martius, Fiennes burns with barely-concealed rage, his bald head throwing his piercing eyes into sharp relief. He's clearly relishing the opportunity to play this role. As a director, Fiennes brings out some pretty terrific performances in his actors, including one of Butler's finest and dependable work from Brian Cox as Martius' advisor and Jessica Chastain as Martius' wife. The best, though, comes from Vanessa Redgrave. As Martius' mother, she chews over every line of dialogue (the script, by John Logan, retains Shakespeare's original dialogue) and delivers a monstrously great performance. However, Fiennes relies way too heavily on handheld cameras, making the cinematography very distracting and giving the film a very disjointed sense of setting. Not everything works, but it's a decent first try. B-

A Late Quartet (dir. Yaron Zilberman, 2012)

The first narrative film from documentary filmmaker Yaron Zilberman, A Late Quartet is a pleasant chamber piece for its actors. On the eve of their 25th anniversary of playing together, the members of a world-renowned string quartet - first violin Daniel (Mark Ivanir), second violin Robert (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman), violist and Robert's wife Juliette (Catherine Keener), and cellist Peter (Christopher Walken) - are thrown for a loop when Peter announces he's in the early stages of Parkinson's disease, and will only play one more concert before retiring from performing. With the group's future in jeopardy, tensions old and new boil to the surface, with Robert and Juliette's daughter, Alex (Imogen Poots), getting involved as well. Zilberman doesn't provide much visual flair to the proceedings, and his script, co-written with Seth Grossman, doesn't really break new ground in the situations that arise. But that hardly matters when the four central performances are as terrific as these, especially Hoffman, who's the most troubled by these changes. Like the musicians they play, these actors are perfectly in tune with one another, and they create a beautiful acting concerto. B+

Bridget Jones' Diary (dir. Sharon Maguire, 2001)

Even thirteen years later, Bridget Jones' Diary still feels like a vital edition to the romantic comedy canon. Of course, it's all about a London woman - Bridget (Renee Zellweger) - who has to choose between her loutish boss (Hugh Grant) at the publishing company she works for or the prickly human rights lawyer (Colin Firth) her parents try to set her up with. You probably already know where this is going even if you've never seen it. However, what sets this film apart is the sparkling wit on display, most notably from Zellweger herself. Putting on an admirable British accent, she turns Bridget into a rom-com heroine who feels like a real human being, proudly showcasing her imperfections without playing them as a manic pixie dream girl. And Zellweger gets an opportunity to showcase her genuinely terrific comedic chops. Though their characters are really more caricatures than anything else, both Grant and Firth make the most of it, the former oozing sleaze while the latter is all barely pent-up indignity. It's hard not to be charmed by this film. B+

Blow-Up (dir. Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966)

I belong to a small minority of cinephiles who just don't like Italian countercultural director Michelangelo Antonioni. To me, his films lack engagement, and more often than not it's difficult to really get into one of his films even when the technical skills he displays are admirable. Blow-Up, his first film in English, is well-regarded as a mod masterpiece, and the "plot" (it's very loose) follows  Thomas, a London photographer (David Hemmings) who may have accidentally photographed a murder. The majority of the film is really just Antonioni hanging out with Thomas, and though Hemmings has an easy charisma, the character isn't one that you'd really want to hang out with. Vanessa Redgrave - in one of her earliest roles - fares better as Jane, the mysterious woman that may be involved in the murder. She plays Jane as an enigma that won't be broken unless she chooses to be, and her scenes hum to life with the possibilities of what could have been. It's a greatly celebrated film, and there are aspects I admire, but I don't mind saying that I don't get it. B- (Best Shot discussed here)

Wonder Boys (dir. Curtis Hanson, 2000)

Wonder Boys is the kind of slice-of-life film that justifies the analogy of films being short stories, even though it's based on a novel by Michael Chabon. English professor Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas) is having a pretty bad day: his wife has left him, he's suffering from writers' block while trying to complete the follow-up to his much-ballyhooed debut novel, he's struggling to keep his affair with the university chancellor's wife (Frances McDormand) a secret, and one of his students, James Leer (Tobey Maguire), is the social pariah of his class and bonds with him. On top of that, his agent, Terry (Robert Downey Jr.), is in town to pressure him to turn in a draft of his novel. Steve Kloves Oscar-nominated script has fun juggling these elements, and director Curtis Hanson playfully stages each incident was wit and grace. But the film belongs to the actors, particularly Douglas, McDormand, and Maguire, who all do terrifically understated work. It's a fine lark that, while maybe not remarkable, is certainly enjoyable. B

How Green Was My Valley (dir. John Ford, 1941)

John Ford - the legendary director best known for his John Wayne-starring Westerns and inventive thrillers - only made one film that won a Best Picture Oscar, and it was this film about a Welsh coal-mining family struggling to keep afloat in rapidly-changing times. The film's focal point is young Huw (Roddy McDowell), the youngest son in the Morgan clan. Over the years, Huw watches as his father (Donald Crisp) and mother (Sara Allgood) try to hold the family together amidst labor disputes, mining disasters, and the destruction of the landscape they call home. As Huw matures, so does the film, tackling difficult subjects such as labor unions and environmentalism with an even-keeled approach that never threatens to overwhelm the film. Instead, Ford never lets the film get too far removed from Huw's perspective, only straying for a romantic subplot between Huw's sister Angharad (Maureen O'Hara) and new-in-town minister Mr. Gruffydd (Walter Pidgeon). It's a testament to Ford's talent that even his "message" movies never lose sight of their characters, always putting them before the thematic material. It's a fine example of his prodigious filmmaking. A- (Best Shot discussed here)

Zorba the Greek (dir. Michael Cacoyannis, 1964)

If Blow-Up is a "hangout" movie that doesn't quite work for me, Zorba the Greek is an example of one that does (for the most part). The premise of Greek director Michael Cacoyannis' Crete-set romp is simple: Basil (Alan Bates), an uptight British writer, comes to Crete to investigate a piece of land he's inherited. On his arrival, he meets Alexis Zorba (Anthony Quinn), a free-spirited peasant who becomes his guide, confidant, and friend. The two learn important life lessons from each other, culminating in a dance on the beach. It's about as harmlessly and effortlessly entertaining as one could hope for, but there's still surprising depth here, particularly in Zorba's relationship with hotelier Madame Hortense (Lila Kedrova) and the fate of a widow (Irene Papas) who catches Basil's attention. At nearly two-and-a-half hours, the film does come off as a bit bloated in some parts, which serve as lulls between the high moments. But the undeniable charm and talent of Quinn's performance - easily the best in a career full of terrific work - carries the film through the patchier parts and gives it its infectious joie de vivre. It's hard to avoid grinning widely by the end. B+ (Best Shot coming June 3)

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