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)
No Talkbacks for this article.
Post your comment/review now
Disclaimer: Please note that Facebook comments are posted through Facebook and cannot be approved, edited or declined by OnMilwaukee.com. The opinions expressed in Facebook comments do not necessarily reflect those of OnMilwaukee.com or its staff.
Recent Articles & Blogs by Matt Mueller
Published Oct. 29, 2014
It's one of the great philosophical questions about cinema: How much does reality shape the movies we watch, and how much do the movies we watch shape our perception of reality? Long-time Shepherd Express film critic Dave Luhrssen takes on that question with his latest book, "War on the Silver Screen," along with another classic question proposed by the great Detroit philosopher Edwin Starr: War, what is it good for?
Published Oct. 28, 2014
Writer and producer Jeff Gendelman's dream project, one in the works for 18 years, is finally hitting the big screen, one that puts his childhood fascination and home in the spotlight for hopefully the rest of the world to appreciate.
Published Oct. 27, 2014
Perhaps the Hasbro-based wannabe screamer is due some credit, because as a loyal adaptation, it manages to be just as flimsy and silly as the board game on which it's based.
Published Oct. 22, 2014
For many in America, ramen is almost exclusively college dorm food, something quick and easy to make when the times are desperate and the money (or perhaps just the initiative) is low. Recently, however, ramen's reputation has begun to lose its college res hall stink in American culture.
Published Oct. 22, 2014
As the rare tank-based WWII action movie, Ayer's latest decently satisfies. When "Fury" tries to be anything more, however, the story's treading gets gummed up, and the effective machine loses steam.
Published Oct. 21, 2014
In early 2012, music fans found themselves entranced by two hypnotically romantic pop songs cryptically released onto YouTube. The songs were gorgeous, a dreamy high voice with just a touch of smokiness crooning intimate lyrics over seductively simple electronic arrangements. Everyone just wanted to know who was responsible. It was an impressive little indie music mystery ... especially since it was essentially an accident.
Published Oct. 20, 2014
In 2012, comedian Tig Notaro went through a series of intense, significant personal crises that would be overwhelming in a four-year stretch, much less in merely four months. In a matter of a few months, Notaro faced a break-up, a sudden death in the family and two potentially fatal ailments. And in the middle of all of that, she had a stand-up gig at Largo in Los Angeles. The rest, as the cliché says, is history.
Published Oct. 16, 2014
A little over a decade ago, Milwaukee musician and Testa Rosa lead vocalist Betty Blexrud-Strigens got a chance to see the legendary Patti Smith in Madison. Even though the show came quite some time after Smith's punk glory years, Blexrud-Strigens still remembers the rock legend providing a charge. Now, it's up to Blexrud-Strigens and a roster of Milwaukee artists and musicians to bring that essence back to the stage with "Smith Uncovered."
Published Oct. 15, 2014
After three years, The Rural Alberta Advantage is taking a new album on the road, including a return stop at Turner Hall Ballroom on Wednesday, Oct. 15 at 8 p.m. Before then, however, OnMilwaukee.com chatted with the band's drummer Paul Banwatt about the process behind "Mended with Gold," looking back at the band's past and spending some time in a creepy Canadian cabin. And, of course, hockey.
Published Oct. 14, 2014
Judged as awards bait, "Kill the Messenger" won't likely snag the golden glory it's looking for. Once you remove the arbitrary frame of awards season, "Kill the Messenger" is a solid, satisfyingly unpredictable and well performed journalism drama that - following the lead of "Shattered Glass" and, of course, "All the President's Men" - often plays like a tense thriller.