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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Tuesday, Oct. 21, 2014

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Billy Connolly, Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay and Pauline Collins star in "Quartet."
Billy Connolly, Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay and Pauline Collins star in "Quartet."
Christopher Walken and Al Pacino star in "Stand Up Guys."
Christopher Walken and Al Pacino star in "Stand Up Guys."

"Quartet," "Stand Up Guys" put spotlight on our on-screen elders

We’re barely over a month into the new year, and a theme is already starting to emerge.

It seems 2013 is the year of aging.

Besides the typical January fare – cheap horror movies ("Texas Chainsaw 3D"), even cheaper comedies ("Movie 43") – theaters have been getting slammed with films about getting old. Some of them try to say that age is just a number, especially if that number is attached to an ’80s action hero (Sly, Arnold, Bruce Willis) trying to prove he’s still got it – even if the box office returns would prove otherwise (the jury is still out on Willis and "A Good Day to Die Hard").

There’s also Michael Haneke’s Oscar-nominated "Amour," whose painful depiction of the cruel forces of age and time finally came to town this past month.

If that wasn’t enough, there are two other movies featuring veteran actors and actresses coping with their golden years: "Quartet" and "Stand Up Guys." Neither of the two films have the flashy explosions nor high profile awards hype of their brethren, but they do provide the modest pleasures of watching some of Hollywood’s finest embrace their grey with grace. Well … one of them does.

Let’s go with the good news first and talk about "Quartet," Dustin Hoffman’s modest directorial debut. Veteran British stage and screen actor Tom Courtenay stars as Reg, a former opera great now living in a gorgeous country home for retired musicians. He passes the time teaching music classes and leisurely enjoying the company of his friends, the randy Wilf (Billy Connolly) and the bubbly Cissy (Pauline Collins).

Their peaceful retirement starts going out of tune when the diva Jean Horton (Maggie Smith), the fourth member of Reg, Wilf and Cissy’s renowned quartet, as well as Reg’s estranged ex-wife, arrives at the retirement home in an egotistic harrumph. He can’t simply ignore her either; the house’s ringleader (Dumbledore himself Michael Gambon) insists on the legendary quartet performing "Rigoletto" for their annual fundraiser.

Ronald Harwood’s screenplay (adapted from his own play) isn’t innovating much with its familiar "one last show to save our home" story, and Hoffman isn’t much for exciting or fancy theatrics. It’s a modestly directed film with an equally low-anxiety set of storylines and characters, almost to the point that "Quartet" threatens to be too timid and safe to make an impact.

But Hoffman is an actor’s actor, and as you’d expect, he appears to be an actor’s director as well, much to the benefit of "Quartet." The Oscar-winning actor draws sweetly sincere performances from his veteran cast, including a tender lead performance from Courtenay and a satisfyingly snippy turn from Smith. It’s essentially a better-dressed version of her role from "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel," but what can you say; she does it well. Connolly also provides some needed energy as a wily Scot who hasn’t met a staff member he wouldn’t flirt with.

"Quartet" is fluff, but thanks to the high-caliber cast in front of and behind the camera, it’s harmless fluff, as well as a warm opportunity to see some great actors take their well-deserved bows.

If Hoffman’s film is a graceful bow, then "Stand Up Guys" is a tired, desperate reunion tour. Christopher Walken and Al Pacino play Doc and Val, two old gangster pals reuniting after Val gets done with a 28-year prison sentence. The reunion is meant to be short lived; their former boss (Mark Margolis) wants Doc to kill his friend, a task that obviously doesn’t sit well with the weary, guilt-stricken Doc. As a result, he decides to make Val’s last hours as memorable as possible, including multiple trips to a brothel and breaking their old pal (Alan Arkin, currently basking in the glow of an Oscar nomination for "Argo") out of a retirement home for some carjacking antics.

The promise of watching these old dogs hang out and have some fun on the town has its allure, but "Stand Up Guys" doesn’t provide the kind of adventures befitting acting legends like Pacino, Walken and Arkin. Instead, Noah Haidle’s script ladles on lifeless conversations that sound as exhausted as their stars look and embarrassing escapades, including a late night run for Viagra that ends unfortunately just as you might expect. There should be a law against making Michael Corleone the victim of an extended erection joke.

Director Fisher Stevens – most known for playing Ben in the "Short Circuit" movies – shoots the film warmly, but he can’t hide how tone-deaf "Stand Up Guys" plays. Half of the film wants to be tug at heartstrings and create sad drama, while the other half plays like a warmed-over version of "The Hangover" for senior citizens, featuring childish behavior and hard-to-swallow sequences of absurd wish fulfillment (including its cop-out ending).

Everywhere the guys go, they find beautiful younger women who find them riveting – Pacino even manages to swindle a dance from one gorgeous bar patron with his salt-and-pepper beard, wild cockatoo hair and a vulgar come-on – and tough young gangsters who are easily put in their place by grumpy old men. I’d be more accepting of this "they just don’t make ‘em like they used to" idealism if our heroes – especially Val – didn’t seem like profane hooligans.

The story is an unfortunate mix of sweet and sour, but at least the cast is game. It takes a while, but as the main duo grows into their on-screen relationship, they’re a decent bit of fun together. Plus, the only person who can out-"Whoa!" Pacino is Walken, who often seems to be acting in a sweeter, more soulful movie. He’s good. "Stand Up Guys?" Not so much.

"Quartet": *** (See it soon)

"Stand Up Guys": **  (Rent it much later)

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