A delicious ensemble of some of the U.K.’s most legendary seniors turns Quartet, Dustin Hoffman’s auspicious film-directing debut, into an elegant, inspired roundelay of warmth, vitality and wry humor guaranteed to win the applause of critics and melt the hearts of the audiences that turned The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel into one of last year’s most unexpected smash hits. It’s a slight but charming riff on what happens to great performers of a certain vintage when footlights fade and obscurity threatens, played by a starry cast of still-agile headliners who have already forgotten things today’s youngsters haven’t even learned yet. The result is a movie of enormous intelligence.
The screenplay by Ronald Harwood (The Dresser), adapted from his play that remains a popular staple on the summer straw-hat circuit (I saw a memorable production a few years ago at the Berkshire Theatre Festival starring the great Kaye Ballard), is set in an elegant country manor called Beecham House, a retirement home for elderly musical luminaries whose careers have seen better days. Among the proud but well-adjusted regulars are three friends who used to be opera singers: ditzy, naïve Cissy (Pauline Collins); Wilfred (Billy Connolly), a randy, flirtatious sod who keeps the ladies giggling; and famed tenor Reggie (Tom Courtenay), who was as renowned for his Rigoletto as Julia Child was for her brioche. Their snug world crashes with the arrival of Jean Horton (Maggie Smith), once regarded as one of the most revered sopranos in the history of Covent Garden—pristine and dignified as ever, but now on the waiting list for a new hip. Jean’s superior attitude and refusal to assimilate alienates the other residents and wrecks Reggie’s comfort zone completely. Once the fourth member of the group’s famed Verdi quartet from Rigoletto, she was married to Reggie for a total of nine hours before she left him for another man. Steaming hostility comes to a rolling boil when former stage director Cedric Livingston (Michael Gambon) comes up with the idea to save Beecham House from closing down by reuniting the original Rigoletto quartet for a gala fund-raiser on Giuseppi Verdi’s birthday. The big questions: Will the aging diva capitulate and sing the quartet or not? Can Reggie rekindle his love again in the time they have left? Do they all learn the meaning of friendship, responsibility and the value of being part of a cosmic family before it’s too late? Watching it play out is enchanting.
Directing with all the right fluctuating tempos, Mr. Hoffman can’t do much to hide the fact that Quartet is a small timepiece in the ticking clock of cinema history, but he blends the activities and attitudes of the old folks’ home, chock full of withering one-liners (“I saw your Barber of Seville … it brought tears to my ears”), with the faces of a veteran cast—beautiful, expressive, brimming with life and experience. At 78, Maggie Smith wears her 60 award-winning years in show business (two Oscars, two Golden Globes, three Emmys, one SAG Award, seven BAFTA Awards, an Olivier Award and a Tony, for starters) with haughty, arrogant splendor. Brilliant comic timing leavened with a brittle, dignified snobbery that masks a marshmallow heart makes the role of Jean Horton a snug glove of a fit. It is typical of so many of the parts in the autumn of Ms. Smith’s career, which her younger Harry Potter fans have come to expect—eccentric roles that allow her to live large, make grand speeches and stop the show. In Quartet, like all of her films, she is nothing less than mesmerizing, but she’s in good company. Her three comrades are undaunted by her scene-stealing prowess. Tom Courtenay, aging nicely as her ex-husband who has wasted his life on unrequited love, is pretty terrific too. Not to mention the great Pauline Collins (Shirley Valentine) and a robust but very different turn by Scottish comedian Billy Connolly, best known on this side of the pond as the secret lover of Judi Dench’s Queen Victoria in Mrs. Brown. As their conductor, Michael Gambon, in long robes and brocaded hats, still looks like Hogwarts’s Professor Dumbledore.
In their most poignant exchange, Ms. Smith asks “Why did we have to get old?” and Mr. Courtenay says, “That’s what people do.” But few do it with such grace and dignity, in a film with so much affection, tenderness and charm.r
ex reed/new york observer
zero dark thirty
After the 9/11 attacks in 2001, the CIA make al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden a prime target. Over a decade, intelligence analyst Maya (Jessica Chastain) tracks a courier she senses will eventually lead to bin Laden’s hide-out. In 2011, Maya believes she has found bin Laden in Pakistan.
The major challenge in telling this particular ripped- from-the-headlines story is underlined by a sequence late in the film. Jessica Chastain’s CIA agent has a face-to-face with a White House aide (James Gandolfini) she needs on side in order to get her inferences about the location of Osama bin Laden acted upon. The aide asks her how long she has worked for the Agency, and learns that practically her entire 12-year career has been devoted to this single target. When he probes deeper, trying to get a handle on why this lonely, debilitating campaign is so important to her, Maya shuts him down. He’s not cleared for any information she might give, even if she were so inclined.
A more conventional movie would have given its lead actress an Oscar clip speech here — about a loved one lost in the struggle, or a commitment to country and cause — but director Kathryn Bigelow and writer-producer Mark Boal remain as tight-lipped as any spook. Chastain’s haunted, intense presence makes a human space in a movie populated by unnamed individuals whose backstories have not been declassified. It’s as pared-down and un-judgmental as any objective documentary, even when Maya’s senior colleague (Jason Clarke) is waterboarding a detainee. Chastain conveys an arc, as Maya goes from flinching in a corner at her first interrogation to dodging bullets when she becomes an assassination target, but moments of character — an analyst (Jennifer Ehle) hoping to sweeten a deal with a defector by making a cake — have to be snatched between the matter at hand.
Bigelow and Boal, reteaming after The Hurt Locker, initially planned a film about the CIA’s frustrating, fruitless search for bin Laden, until events overtook the project and provided a last-reel payoff. There’s a structural similarity to a Law & Order episode: the long, set-up act focuses on intelligence-gathering, with a whole new set of characters — the strike team dispatched in Blue Thunder-lookalike helicopters to assail bin Laden in his lair — brought on and swiftly established for the climax. The film takes care to endorse no party line. When President Obama (seen only in a TV interview, renouncing the use of torture) ends “the detainee programme”, the CIA simply adjust its tactics.
We don’t see any political discussion about what to do with the intel gathered by Maya and her colleagues, but we get a sense of the decade-long tangle of scraps of information gleaned from interrogations and surveillance which makes for a mystery that constantly simmers but threatens never to come to the boil. Few films have conveyed the grinding routine of spying as strongly as this — and the way that big targets have to be located by the ripples they leave even as they stay invisible.
Like Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, it’s a relatively new kind of American patriotic war movie, counterprogramming jaded paranoid fantasies like the Bourne movies or the liberal horror stories (Redacted, Rendition, In The Valley Of Elah, Green Zone etc.) thrown up by the War On Terror. It’s measured, seething with suppressed emotion, unafraid of slow stretches and false trails, snapping shut like a mantrap when blood is shed. If it grips in a more intellectual, journalistic manner than its Oscar-winning predecessor, it’s because Chastain’s character is necessarily absent during the climax — though she has a terrific post- traumatic outburst when the case is closed.
Gripping throughout, with an impressive central performance, this is like a Dogme 95 redo of a Chuck Norris film — by heroic effort, the good guys find and kill a bad guy. How you feel about that is something Bigelow leaves you to decide.
Big-screen adaptation tickles the eyeballs, jerks the tears
As the Oscar-winning director of “The King’s Speech,” Tom Hooper knows a thing or two about plumbing history for a story that will speak to the movie-going masses. Still, it’s one thing to make a movie based on the largely ignored backstory of a stuttering monarch. It’s quite another to adapt a beloved, eight-time Tony-winning stage phenomenon for the big screen.
Enter the long-gestating “Les Miserables,” Hooper’s $61 million adaptation of the sing-through musical based on Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel. It arrives Tuesday (Dec. 25) in theaters rather than on the traditional Friday, taking advantage of the long holiday weekend and offering fans of musicals a full-to-brimming (if less than bright and shiny) 2-hour-and-37-minute Christmas gift.
It also is a film that arrives laden with high interest but even higher expectations. That’s due partly to the affection that audiences have for the stage musical, but also to the sheer size of the production, with its intertwining stories of revolution, romance and redemption. The result is by no means emotionally nuanced -- this is a sad film, and it never wants its audience to forget that. But those great expectations are largely met in what ends up being an ambitious but satisfying cinematic journey built upon a sense of grandeur -- albeit one coated with alternating layers of grime and tear-jerking emotion.
It also immerses audiences in the world of 1863 France, as Hooper fills the screen with credits-to-credits production value -- from the costumes to the makeup to the enormous sets -- while at the same time filling his cast with a list of names any director would kill to work with.
Granted, his version of 19th century Paris is not a pretty place. (It’s amazing the amount of squalor that $61 million can buy.) It’s dirty, it’s diseased, it’s cold, dark and damp. That might not have been the case for the cake-eaters of Paris, but this story isn’t about the cake-eaters. It is about the tired, the poor, the huddled masses who have not only fallen through the cracks but who fill those cracks to overflowing.
Among them: the pitable but noble Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a prisoner serving out the last days of a 19-year sentence. His crime: stealing bread to feed his starving family. Naturally, he is bitter and he is angry and -- with the court-applied label of “dangerous” depriving him of gainful employment -- he is destined to a life of crime.
And then he meets a man of the cloth who changes his outlook and his future in one fell swoop, an act of kindness that Valjean -- after assuming a new identity -- spends the rest of “Les Miserables” trying to live up to. That brings him into the lives of, among others, a dying prostitute (Anne Hathaway), a dirt-smudged orphan (played as a youngster by Isabelle Allen and as an adult by Amanda Seyfried), a pair of crooked but comedic inn-keepers (Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen), and a band of flag-waving revolutionaries.
All the time, Valjean, rehabilitated but still a fugitive, is being pursued by the lawman Javert (Russell Crowe), whose black-and-white views on justice -- along with a single- mindedness that crosses over into obsession -- won’t let him rest until Valjean is back behind bars where he belongs.
So, no, lest there be any confusion, “Les Miserables” is by no means all sunshine and roses. Rather, “wrenching,” “heartbreaking” and words of that flavor spring to mind - all preceded by words like “relentlessly” or “exhaustingly.” But one needs look no further than that title -- which translates roughly to “Damn, I’m glad I wasn’t alive then” -- to know that Hugo’s emotional, woe-filled story will not end well for some (or even most) of its characters.
The inherent danger with such a story is that it wouldn’t take much for it to become laughably overwrought, as tragedy after tragedy befalls its characters. Here, though, Hooper dodges that particular pitfall thanks largely to his homerun-hitting cast, the members of which are a joy to watch as they expertly juggle the twin tasks of emoting while at the same time singing every line of dialog.
Of course, we all knew Jackman could sing, but the real surprise is Hathaway, as the dying prostitute Fantine. Once more, she proves that people should stop being surprised by the breadth of her talent, as she provides some of the film’s most moving and emotionally wrenching moments in a role that is likely to bring her the second Oscar nomination of her career.
On the flip side, the richness of Hathaway’s vocal performance exposes the weaknesses of others’. Crowe’s tenor, for example, sounds strained at times, reminiscent of Ewan McGregor’s flawed but still charming singing in “Moulin Rouge.” Still, none of the cast is so out of register or off-key as to embarrass themselves or to detract greatly from the film.
What we’re left with is a love-it-or-hate-it film. Those determined to resist its deep-seated romanticism - or its operatic approach - will probably emerge from the theater as miserable as the film’s characters. But those who are willing to give into it, and who want to take a grand cinematic voyage, stand to be greatly rewarded.
There are no screenings today
Tomorrow, Mon, May 20, 2013
Dir: Sam Raimi Starring: James Franco, Michelle Williams, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz
Dir: Derek Cianfrance Starring: Bradley Cooper, Ryan Gosling, Ray Liotta, Eva Mendes
Dir: Sam Raimi Starring: James Franco, Michelle Williams, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz