Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Triple Oscar Bait - Three Mediocre Reviews

December is a time when studios attempt to get Oscar's attention with lavish period pieces and independent films with supposed standout performances. Sometimes it works, and quite often it does not. Here I will attempt to save you from seeing three films (though one is quite a bit better than the others, and another will definitely reap some nominations in artistic categories). Coincidentally, all three of these films were screened at this year's Toronto International Film Festival.

A Late Quartet
A Late Quartet (not to be confused with Dustin Hoffman's directorial debut Quartet (in theatres January 11)), tells the story of a long-celebrated quartet's struggle to cope with one member's diagnosis of Parkinson's disease. Peter (Christopher Walken), Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Juliette (Catherine Keener) and Daniel (Mark Ivanir) have been playing together for twenty five years, but Peter is choosing to end his involvement since learning of the disease. With this unexpected news, Robert's dissatisfaction at always playing second violin to Daniel causes a rift in his marriage to Juliette. To make matters worse, their daughter Alexandra (Imogen Poots), an aspiring violinist, has been taking lessons from Daniel, and the once-innocent lessons have turned into a blossoming romance. 

A Late Quartet has the makings of a great film. The five principle actors give great performances, but the director, Yaron Zilberman, allows the story to become too melodramatic. At the centre, this is a story about a string quartet and their music, but the plot is muddled with the crumbling of Robert and Juliette's marriage, and especially the juvenile nature of Alexandra and Daniel's relationship. I definitely believe that Catherine Keener is a better actress than the scene in which she stumbles upon her daughter and Daniel in Alexandra's apartment. The musical focus of A Late Quartet is Beethoven's String Quartet No 14, which consists of seven uninterrupted movements. I wanted there to be more music in the film! 

A Late Quartet starts well and ends well, but the middle is a confounding emotional mess. 

My rating: 3 stars out of 4. 

Anna Karenina
Immediately after seeing A Late Quartet, I saw Joe Wright's adaptations of Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. I have never read the story, first published in 1877, but I was mildly intrigued by the visuals of the trailer, never mind that it stars Keira Knightley in her 2012 Oscar-bait role (see A Dangerous Method (2011), Never Let Me Go (2010), The Duchess (2008) and Atonement (2007). Knightley has received one Best Actress nomination, for the Wright-directed Pride and Prejudice in 2005. I had very low expectations for Atonement when I saw in it theatres, but I quite enjoyed it. And last year Hanna was #1 on Siobhan's Picks O' the Year. And Anna Karenina is unbearable for the exact same reasons that made Hanna so spectacular. Wright uses far too many distracting effects to change scenes and scenery at the beginning of the film that I became very bored and strongly considered leaving the theatre. But the film does have superior art direction and costumes. 

Anna Karenina tells the story of Anna Karenina (Knightley), who is married to Alexei Karenin (Jude Law), an aristocratic man twenty years her senior in late 19th century Russia. Anna's only solace is her young son Seryozha. While visiting Moscow from St. Petersburg, Anna meets Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson),  a cavalry officer. Eventually Anna and Vronsky begin an affair. There is a parallel story involving Konstantin (Domhall Gleeson) and his desire to marry Kitty (Alicia Vikander), who had hoped to marry Vronsky. 

Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina is widely regarded as one of the best novels ever written, but Joe Wright's adaptation is overly long (130 minutes) with awkward pacing that left me begging for the torture to end. Keira Knightley's performance begs a little too hard for accolades, and in another strong acting year, we should hope to find her name off the list of nominees. 

My rating: 1.5 stars out of 4. 

Hyde Park on Hudson
Hyde Park on Hudson was one of my choices to see at TIFF until I heard some early reviews from Telluride, where it premiered ten days earlier. I love Laura Linney, though her Emmy-winning role on Showtime's The Big C has been a little irksome recently. And not being American, I know very little about Franklin Roosevelt. It is interesting that so soon after The King's Speech, which won Colin Firth an Oscar for Best Actor, comes a film that puts King George VI (and Queen Elizabeth) so heavily on screen. Roger Mitchell's direction and Richard Nelson's screenplay are severely lacking, so it comes down to the performances. Bill Murray, as Franklin Roosevelt, is worth seeing, but the rest of the film is a waste of time. 

The film, through the narration of Roosevelt's sixth cousin Margaret "Daisy" Suckley (Linney), tells the story of a weekend in June 1939 when King George VI (Samuel West) and Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman, so heartbreaking last year in Tyrannosaur) visit Hyde Park on Hudson, New York. King George is the first British monarch to visit the United States, and his visit is to encourage the American governement to support England before the start of World War II. Franklin Roosevelt is married to Eleanor (Olivia Williams), but at this time he was becoming very close to Daisy. The two have just begun an affair, which is not a secret to the rest of the staff at the Roosevelt estate. 

When Margaret Suckley died in 1991, six months shy of her hundredth birthday, the intimate details of her relationship with Franklin Roosevelt were finally revealed. It sounds so scandalous and lurid. Too bad nothing in the film is remotely interesting. Franklin Roosevelt is depicted as almost having a variation of autism. The women on screen are very domineering, particularly Queen Elizabeth and Eleanor, and it is safe to say that the best scene is one between FDR and King George, along late at night in his office. Period pieces can be a hard sell, but a film about a single weekend involving four very prominent figures from history should be treated with a little more respect for its audience. Let's just say that I was barely entertained. 

My rating: 2 stars out of 4. 

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