Cinema reviews: A Late Quartet, Spring Breakers, Thursday Till Sunday and more

“Quartet” is a dangerous word in a film title. Its aspirations can seem recklessly high (Beethoven, T.S. Eliot) or, after the recent luvvies’ farrago Quartet, suicidally low. At first A Late Quartet seems closer to the latter. Three famous actors – two luvvyish in an American way, Christopher Walken and Philip Seymour Hoffman, while a third, Catherine Keener (Being John Malkovich, Capote), is getting as close to acting Damehood as modern Hollywood comes – are joined by a lesser-known fourth. Mark Ivanir’s European accent adds class or kitsch, according to taste. Playing the harsh, dragooning purist, the leader and first violin of the New York “Fugue Quartet”, Ivanir all but says: “Me Anton Red Shoes Walbrook. You my victim-collaborators.”

We steel ourselves for a let’s-put-on-a-concert plot, Quartet-style, in which the stakes will be high. Save Carnegie Hall? Save the Met? Save Beethoven’s reputation in an age of diminishing attention spans? But the plot’s main heart-tugging newsbreak comes quickly. Walken announces he has early-stage Parkinson’s disease. The Fugue will soon need a new cellist. The foursome commences its swan song season.

From this point the film just gets better. Beethoven is a miracle doctor, his Opus 131 Quartet the greatest medicine ever prescribed for sentimentality. That disease is routed here by every chord or phrase at every rehearsal. Ivanir himself delivers early – in director Yaron Zilberman’s musically literate script co-written with Seth Grossman – a passionate appraisal of the quartet’s opening, that aching sigh broken on a wheel of cadence. (The Tristan moment before Tristan.) Soon it doesn’t matter how close the drama sails to triteness, whether it’s second-violin Hoffman’s adulterous affair, threatening his marriage to viola player Keener, or Ivanir hopping into bed with their music pupil daughter Imogen Poots. Or even Walken looking ever pastier as that hair mops over that cello head, making him resemble some picturesque, doomy longshanks out of a Daumier sketch.

If you gaze deeply enough into apparent triteness, you always find humanity. The daily stuff of pain and tragedy, treated with perception not whimsy, finds a match in Beethoven’s music: especially in a late quartet famed for its pauseless progress through seven movements, each more intense than the last in its despairing luminosity. The actors, all allowed their individual cadenzas as the drama-fugue unfolds, persuade us that a quartet on the stage is as delicately organic as a quartet on the page. The harmonies must finally triumph, however vitalising the intervening discords and conflicts. Insightful and incandescent, this is a film for both music lovers and movie lovers.

Ignore everyone who says, “Don’t see Spring Breakers.” They will probably add: “It is bad, mad and dangerous to go near. It is full of sex, violence and hysterical comedy-drama, much of it politically incorrect.” Film-maker Harmony Korine has been, to date, a virtual dictionary definition of frustrating promise. The youthful prodigy who wrote Kids went on to make the messy, fitfully intriguing Gummo and Julien Donkey-Boy. He seemed – variously – a rebel without a cause, a Rimbaud without Verlaine, a Tarantino without talent, a cuckoo without spring. (His main fame came from US chat show appearances, in which he perfected the image of the idiot hippy savant.)

No wonder, with this film, the nay-sayers still hold out. Spring Breakers is extremely goofy: a comedy/thriller/delirium about four bubbleheaded girls trying to run wild, and sometimes succeeding, in vacation Florida. Drink, drugs, sex and robbery with minor violence. The film’s style is psychedelic super-trash: lollipop colours, multispeed montages. Crowning all is an uproariously OTT performance by James Franco. Rasta-bearded, sporting a silver tooth, he croons his speeches as the gangsterish beach bum who bails the girls from jail (for a small-time robbery), then makes them his “pussy power” army against rival hoodlums. Pink ski masks; machineguns; bikinis. Madcap scenes of militaristic prepping, followed by madcap mayhem.

The tongue is firmly in Korine’s cheek. The film is a headlong style extravaganza, a deadpan-lunatic graffiti job on the Hollywood crime/action thriller (with ex-Disney starlet Selena Gomez, among others, bravely incinerating her image) and a pulp passacaglia whose permutating moods include a Liberace-ish sequence by the poolside. As Franco serenades his girl soldiers with both kinds of ivories, piano keys and glinting teeth, kitsch aspires no further nor higher.

Ignore everyone who says “nothing happens” in the wonderful Chilean film Thursday Till Sunday. Little by way of story may do. A youngish family – mum, dad, two kids – take a car trip to the northern beaches, partly so dad can visit land left him by his father. The “story” is the changing landscape: from dusty highways to a bosky tenting idyll, in some Eden filled with strange shadows and magical play of light and colour (lamp-lit tent cloth is a marvellous medium for gauzy trompe l’oeil), then to a finale bleak and Antonioni-esque in a desert filled with loss, foreboding, hurt, quarrel.

Is the film about innocence? Paradise gained or lost? It is certainly about the nuances at play in a family bottled together, like lighting, for a trip that seems innocent – in the everyday sense – until the electricity of change draws out the flickers and errant fires. When a gunshot rings out, startling the family as dad tries to steal fruit from a tree overhanging a wall, we might well be in some theme-and-variations on the Garden of Eden, though writer-director Dominga Sotomayor Castillo never belabours us with metaphor. Her confidence of craft is apparent in the long opening shot: a static take – the house on departure morning framed through the window of a woken child’s bedroom – in which layers of action and convergence tell us, in a single choreographed tableau, everything for which other directors would require a flurry of shots and screeds of dialogue.

is the opposite kind of art movie: inertia all the way through. Turkish director Muzaffer Ozdemir’s middle-aged architect hero, passively played by Kanbolat Gorkem Arslan (think of a novocained George Clooney), goes back to his rural childhood roots and discovers – all the usual stuff. Disillusionment; fleeting nostalgia pangs; goats; the hurdy-gurdy grind of cracker-barrel philosophy, rendered in runic subtitles.

The Odd Life of Timothy Green
is Disney gone pathologically fey. A little boy materialises, from a wish, for childless couple Jennifer Garner and Joel Edgerton. The erratic film-maker-fantasist Peter Hedges (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, Pieces of April) doses us with middle-American parental paranoia – can the boy play football, can he excel in school? – before his adoption fable peter-pans out in gilded, wistful mush.

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