Sunday 7 April 2013

Hitting the right notes: "A Late Quartet" and "Spring Breakers" (ST 07/04/13)

A Late Quartet (15) 105 mins ****
Spring Breakers (18) 94 mins **

A Late Quartet, writer-director Yaron Zilberman’s refined study in group dynamics, opens with the members of a successful New York string quartet emerging on stage to enthusiastic applause. Hesitation follows, as everybody anticipates what’s coming; this will be the last moment for some while at which these musicians find themselves together on the same page. Peter (Christopher Walken), the quartet’s cellist and anchorman, has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s; we’re about to witness the destabilising impact of his decision to retire while his hand can still steady the bow.

From this very specific milieu, Zilberman coaxes out something small but involving, perhaps even universal. Ranks are soon broken: Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the galumphing, instinctive second violin, uses Peter’s planned departure as an opportunity to try and usurp perfectionist first violin Daniel (Mark Ivanir). This failed coup will have consequences for Robert, viola player wife Juliette (Catherine Keener), and their daughter Alexandra (Imogen Poots), a student of Daniel’s. The ideal is that the quartet’s members should share the load, and perform as one; the reality, often, is that four egos means four times the problems.

While Manhattan appears to freeze over waiting for these bum notes to be played out, Zilberman arranges his players in precise ones and twos, weighing the pros and cons of collectivity. While sometimes stiff, the technique improves our sightlines on skilled performers simultaneously playing off one another while mining their own repertoires for nuance. Hoffman’s rage and pain sit nearer the surface than they did in The Master, obliging Keener to give Juliette a ragged strength; equally, though, the film wouldn’t be as poised without Ivanir’s abrasiveness and Walken’s quiet, affecting melancholy.

When Peter puts on a recording of his late mezzo-soprano wife as a way of recalling her memory, the themes come into sharp emotional focus, and we suddenly understand these characters’ obsession with hitting the right beats: because the harmonies we create in life can resonate through the ages. Eventually, Zilberman returns us to that opening scene, though now as viewed from up in the gods, alongside a veteran who knows his best performances are behind him, and a young woman who may yet represent the quartet’s future. With this simple, elegant reframing, A Late Quartet underlines its true subject: reverberation.

We descend. Harmony Korine’s much-hyped Spring Breakers, a hangover gesturing feebly towards satire, starts with aggressively cut images of buff American dudes – most likely named Josh or Aaron – expelling beer over the sunkissed curves of pliant young Tiffanys and Kristis. Where you and I made do with a Whizzer and Chips special and Junior Kickstart on the telly, this is what the Easter holidays apparently look like Stateside: the preserve of college students with more cash than coursework, washing up on the country’s warmer shores with broadly the same impact as a thousand gallons of raw sewage.

Florida forms the dream destination for Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Brit (Ashley Benson) and Cotty (Rachel Korine), suggestible demoiselles who spend Politics 101 lectures taking such engaged notes as “I Want Penis”. In a work throbbing with phallic imagery, it’s scant surprise this trio – along with demure pal Faith (Selena Gomez) – should eventually turn to handguns to achieve their aims, turning over a diner to make their airfare, before forming a shaky alliance with Alien (James Franco), a cornrowed wannabe keen to use his personal arsenal to make megabucks in gangsta rap. Girls gone wild, y’all.

Only with the ubiquitous Franco’s arrival does this oddly listless film sit up: here’s someone capable of making mindless excess appear seductive, funny and regrettably quotable, while also suggesting how banal, empty and vulgar it might be. Korine shoots Alien’s palatial pad like an R’n’B promo – all Cristal, sunsets and neon-shaded Tangas – because that’s the fantasy these girls are living in, at least until the guns go off. At which point Spring Breakers turns into something like Deliverance with a nipple count: the girls hit the streets, and the streets hit back, dispatching its victims one-by-one – or bussing them back to Squaresville, a fate deemed worse than death.

Still, Korine is too hip for narrative momentum, and the general woozy-headedness allows one time to ponder, among other things, his representation of African-Americans as avatars of a deadly authenticity, lethally alien to Alien and his airheads. Is the film’s bleary-eyed cynicism what a corrupted popular culture deserves, or something more contemptible, that of a fortysomething director lingering over the torsos of erstwhile Disney starlets in the hope of clearing his mortgage repayments? Whichever way, it’s worked: in one weekend in the US, Spring Breakers hooked in more dollar than Korine’s previous films combined. Say a prayer for the youth of America. 

A Late Quartet is in selected cinemas and also available to view online via Curzon on Demand; Spring Breakers is in cinemas nationwide.

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