A Late Quartet (2012)

2014 #57
Yaron Zilberman | 106 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

A Late QuartetSet in the rarefied world of classical music performance, A Late Quartet charts the fallout among the members of a highly-acclaimed New York string quartet when their leader (Christopher Walken) announces his impending retirement.

A talented cast work wonders in this straightforward drama, layering emotion and plausibility over a sometimes heavy-handed screenplay. Particular praise is warranted for Walken, Philip Seymour Hoffman as the group’s suddenly-ambitious second violin, and, in the key supporting role outside the quartet, Imogen Poots. Equally holding his own among the better-known names is Mark Ivanir, the quartet’s precise and entrenched first violin. As the fourth member, Catherine Keener is probably given short shrift, her personal relationships and backstory used to illuminate others rather than herself.

Some have criticised the narrative’s basic tenets, for it being quite the coincidence that a group who have been together for almost a quarter of a century should have such a tumultuous few weeks all of a sudden. I think that’s allowable: Walken’s diagnosis and proposed retirement sends shockwaves that bring long-standing issues and feelings to a head — that feels plausible to me. It remains a bit melodramatic at times… but then, isn’t that just artists for you?

Christopher WalkenWhere it does make a mistake is in divorcing Walken from the rest of the group for so much of the time. He ends up going to Parkinson’s groups and doing exercises as if this is some kind of “Issue of the Week” TV movie, while everyone else gets on with the plot. Some of the best bits belong to him though, like the story cribbed from a real musician’s autobiography.

Also worthy of note is Frederick Elmes’ beautiful photography, which is really crisp and warm (praise also for the Blu-ray authoring, I guess). Plus snow-blanketed winter New York always looks majestic.

A Late Quartet isn’t revolutionary or even exemplary in many respects, but as personal-relationships dramas go, the top-drawer performances give it appeal.

4 out of 5

Centurion (2010)

2011 #82
Neil Marshall | 97 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 15 / R

Last week, as I’m sure you’re aware, I posted the top ten films I’d watched in 2011. Among them were three I’ve yet to post a review for… so what better way to begin finishing off my 2011 reviews than with those. So here’s the lowest, #9…

CenturionThe fourth feature from writer/director Neil Marshall (despite owning his first three on DVD, this BD rental is the first I’ve actually watched — story of my life) is a bit of a departure: where the first three were horror (or at least horror-leaning) flicks, Centurion is an action-adventure crossed with something a little more artsy. Only a little, mind. Think Seraphim Falls.

The story involves a Roman legion (a real one, in fact — the story is based in historical fact) venturing into Scotland to take on the natives. They get massacred, the survivors try to get home alive. The story moves quickly, keeping the momentum up. Indeed, at times it moves so fast that some characters seem to be given short shrift. There’s a “who will survive?” element to the plot — Marshall’s horror roots showing through, perhaps — but you can largely guess which order they’ll be shuffled off in based on, a) how much screen time the character has, and b) the good old deciding factor of “which actors are most recognisable”. Predictability doesn’t really matter though, because there are (perhaps) a couple of surprises in store, and it’s only one element of the story.

Run, Fassbender, runRegular readers may know that I have an ever-growing dislike for films that begin at or near the end for no good reason (and most of those that do have no good reason to do so). Centurion’s opening line notes that “this is neither the beginning nor the end” of the lead character’s story. Oh dear, thought I; though perhaps “nor the end” signifies we might reach this point suitably distant from the credits, maybe. Not meaning to spoil it, but we’re there just 10 minutes later. Nice work Mr Marshall.

And with the mention of credits, allow me to note that both the opening and closing credits are wonderful, reminiscent of Panic Room’s much-exalted titles without being a clone.

The characters who do get screen time are well built. Most of them conform to regular men-on-a-mission types, but in the hands of actors like Michael Fassbender and David Morrissey that doesn’t matter. This seems like an appropriate enough point to note that Fassbender is fast becoming, if he isn’t already, an actor where it’s worth watching something with him in even if it doesn’t otherwise appeal. His mixed choices of blockbusters/mainstream-skewing movies and acclaimed artier fare suggest pretty impeccable taste. (Or, at least, tastes that match my own.) Olga the ScotThe cast is packed with people who, even if you don’t know their names, there’s a fair chance you’ll know the faces (assuming you watch your share of British drama): in addition to Fassbender and Morrissey there’s Dominic West, JJ Field, Lee Ross, Paul Freeman, Liam Cunningham, Noel Clarke, Riz Ahmed, Imogen Poots, Rachael Stirling, Peter Guinness… not to mention Film Star Olga Kurylenko. Recognisability doesn’t guarantee quality, of course, but that’s a pretty good list.

On the action side, there’s a selection of excellently choreographed fights. Lots of blood and gore, but surprisingly not gratuitous considering we have all manner of limbs being lopped off, decapitations, heads being shorn in two, and so on. It’s unquestionably graphic, but it doesn’t linger — the battles are hectic, fast, a blur… but in a good way: you can see what’s going on, but it feels appropriately chaotic.

On the artsy side, the Scottish scenery is extraordinarily stunning. Helicopter shots are put to marvellous use. Think Lord of the Rings, only this was shot on our own fair island. The filmmakers went to extremes to achieve this — it’s entirely real location work, beyond the back of beyond in the depths of a snow-covered Scottish winter; no green screen, no CG enhancement — and their effort has paid off. It looks thoroughly gorgeous. I fear I’m overemphasising the point, but… nah.

Stunning sceneryI really enjoyed Centurion, appreciating its mix between brutally real action and stunning scenery, with a slightly more thoughtful side emerging in the final act. It’s also always pleasant to see a film that runs the length it wants to at a reasonable speed, rather than padding itself to reach two or even two-and-a-half hours. Splendid.

4 out of 5

Centurion placed 9th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2011, which can be read in full here.