Quartet

Tom Courtenay and Maggie Smith in Quartet

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

25 February

 

 

Enrico Caruso born, 1873

On this day in 1873, the Italian operatic tenor Enrico Caruso was born in Naples. He came from a large family and his father was a manual worker. Enrico was apprenticed to a mechanical engineer aged 11 but also sang in the church choir, where his voice stood out. He took up work as a street singer, performed in cafes and had soon graduated to soirees where he would literally sing for his supper. All the while he was studying singing and eventually made his debut aged 22 at the Teatro Nuovo in Naples. By the following year, 1896, he was having publicity photographs made. Four years later he was singing at La Scala in Milan, the most prestigious opera house in Italy, possibly Europe. Two years later he was singing at Covent Garden, London. A year after that he was at the Met in New York. Caruso arrived on the scene at the same time as sound recording was becoming widespread and his powerful yet lyrical voice eminently suited the limited dynamics of early recordings. All of his recordings were made acoustically, with the tenor singing directly into a metal horn which relayed the sound directly to a cutting stylus.

 

 

 

Quartet (2012, dir: Dustin Hoffman)

Dustin Hoffman did some uncredited directing on the 1978 crime drama Straight Time but Quartet is his first stab at real directing. And my god does he play it safe. Taking a play from Ronald Harwood (The Pianist) as his source material and drafting in a quartet of actors who can simply do no wrong – Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly, Pauline Collins – he proceeds, in the most unshowy fashion possible, to tell the story of a home for opera singers who are in their later years, where the arrival of newly retired diva Jean Horton (Smith) sets the cat among the pigeons. It seems that years before Jean (Smith) and Reginald (Courtenay) had been married, very briefly. Why it was so briefly no one seems very sure, not even Jean and Reginald, who still nurses a broken heart. Quartet explores those reasons but it’s also a story of age, coming to terms with mortality, the indignity of infirmity, its joys too, played out by stage thespians (even Connolly, least encrusted with gongs, is a stage man by training, being a stand-up comedian) who can bellow to the gods on a wet Tuesday evening. They know how to hold a room. It is to Hoffman’s credit that he prevents them from doing this. Michael Gambon, capable of stealing any film, even from under the noses of these illustrious gannets, he keeps in the background, as a makeshift impresario organising an evening of singing towards which the entire film points. On the way Hoffman, the most Method of actors, leaves it to these Method antichrists to do it their way. What’s doubly interesting is that as an actor he’s closely associated with Americana, the city and urban angst (Midnight Cowboy, All the President’s Men, Kramer vs Kramer) but here as a director he’s throwing in shots of English churches and the sun slanting over manicured lawns, while the soundtrack is a blancmange of woodwind and muted emotion. A couple of things Hoffman gets wrong – Reginald explaining to a gang of kids that opera is in fact just like rap, that’s likely to get the toes curling like a roller blind. There are also storylines set up that don’t pay off, not least in the shape of Gambon who seems almost criminally underused. But you get to hear Maggie Smith in handbag mode say “fuck off”, which is always funny. And Pauline Collins, as a twittery airhead, again shows her brilliance at stitching together a film with a performance. This isn’t the film you’d have expected from Hoffman, maybe, and it isn’t even remotely cool to like it. But it is a rather lovely film, an exercise in British understatement from the guy who once dressed up as Tootsie.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • The cast includes real retired musicians and singers, who all perform
  • Hoffman’s proper directorial debut
  • A charming portrait of the life artistic and how it wrecks a normal decent life
  • So many good performances – Sheridan Smith, Andrew Sachs, Trevor Peacock, David Ryall

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Quartet – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

6 May 2013-05-06

Naomi Watts in The Impossible

The Impossible (Entertainment One, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

The Spanish have an appetite for mutilation. Look at bullfighting, or the bloody effigies of the crucified Jesus Christ in their churches. And though this film is entirely in the English language, it has a Spanish director, writer and production money behind it. It’s very much a Spanish film.

So, parking my misgivings about a drama wrought from the 2004 tsunami in the bay marked “Anglo Saxon squeamishness”, let’s turn to the story of the nice family who copped the big wave while on holiday in Thailand.

It’s based on a Spanish family’s true experiences and does at least put a human face on the tragedy. Though human faces are pushed to one side when director Juan Antonio Bayona unleashes the monster wall of water after the film has only been running a scant number of minutes in scenes that completely eclipse Clint Eastwood’s tsunami drama, Hereafter.

Ewan McGregor and, particularly, Naomi Watts work like donkeys to keep this from being an exercise in shouting and, against all expectation, they succeed. The Impossible, bizarrely, successfully, is more an actors’ film than you might expect, more than your standard disaster-movie SFX spectacle.

 The Impossible – at Amazon

 

The Facility (Momentum, cert 18, DVD)

A bunch of people who don’t know each other spend the weekend at an isolated clinic where they are to be guinea pigs in the trial of an unknown drug. What could possibly go wrong?

Quite a lot, as it happens, and much of it is memorably nasty in the debut by writer/director Ian Clark, whose variant on the aseptic white room thriller (see Cube) gabbles through its set-up but then settles down nicely for the running-around screaming bit that these sort of films invariably work their way towards.

The Facility is well cast, knows how to play with genre expectations, has a couple of amusing thoughts about the older generation and their bloody recreational drug-taking – kids these days, eh – and marks Ian Clark out as a man to watch.

The Facility – at Amazon

 

Gangster (High Fliers, cert 15, DVD)

A Canadian film about one of the country’s more notorious hoodlums, Edwin Boyd (the film’s title in some areas), a WWII veteran driven by some shellshock and a fair amount of greed into becoming a bank robber.

Scott Speedman is Boyd, Kelly Reilly is his wife, Brian Cox barrels on to lend a bit of much needed weight, and the whole thing has been shot in that vaguely sepia tone achieved by turning the colour knob down a bit (ok, a lot).

Which is pretty much a metaphor for the whole film – an efficiently told tale, nothing more.

Gangster – at Amazon

 

Midnight’s Children (Entertainment One, cert 12, DVD)

Sneaked out with no fanfare as if it were a guilty secret, and on DVD only, tellingly, this adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s novel about the birth of modern India says a lot without saying very much at all.

The story – two children, one rich, one poor, switched at birth – is familiar enough. Its preoccupations – race, class, gender and the return of the empire – mark it out as a cultural product of the 1980s, as does the literary style, with its digressions into magic realism.

Which possibly is making it all sound much more interesting than it is. Because what is strange about this film is that it manages to have it all – charm, humour, breadth, budget, depth, politics.

It’s an epic, in other words, or should be, but its fleetingly episodic nature makes it impossible to get a handle on it. Perhaps the decision to get the book’s writer to do the screen adaptation wasn’t such a wise one.

Midnight’s Children – at Amazon

 

The Tower (Entertainment One, cert 15, DVD)

Now here’s a nice little curio, a complete crib from The Towering Inferno, done in Korean, set in a huge double skyscraper on Christmas Eve, where a succession of well introduced characters – the cute kid, the pretty young woman, her nervous beau, the stuck-up bitch, the dodgy builder, the fireman – are subjected to disaster movie mayhem.

The acting is about as over the top as it gets, particularly among characters further down the cast list, but this is a highly effective film, beautifully made, with some fabulously staged set pieces. There’s even a “die you callous bastard” Richard Chamberlain moment, which warms the cockles.

Tower – at Amazon 

 

Quartet (E One, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut isn’t quite what you’d expect from one of the world’s most famous Method actor mumblers. Unless you expected a drawing-room drama peopled by British actors of cut-glass diction.

The trailer had me reaching for a noose but the film itself, set in a home for retired musicians, is a guilty pleasure. But then it has Maggie Smith in it, and her gift for comedy is well to the fore in a script about an ageing diva (Smith) being coerced into performing Rigoletto by three other residents – Pauline Collins, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly.

Sensibly, Hoffman at no point lets us see the stars singing or even miming – since there is no way in hell that they would be plausible – and has packed the supporting cast with real singers of a certain age. Which really gives this gentle wallow an air of authenticity, an ideal accompaniment to Ronald Harwood’s script, which examines age, decay and death in a genteel unfussy fashion. Cocoa probably mandatory.

Quartet – at Amazon

 

Billy Liar (StudioCanal, cert PG, Blu-ray/DVD)

Tom Courtenay again, in one of the films that first made his name, and the reputation of the British New Wave of the early 1960s.

An adaptation of Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall’s play about a penpusher at a funeral business whose fantasy life both helps him escape the daily grind and prevents him from properly breaking free of it.

The film gave a breakthrough role to Julie Christie, as the free spirit Billy is fixated on, and this 50th anniversary restoration also reminds us of the beauty of John Schlesinger’s widescreen, deep-focus cinematography, which dresses the drab industrial settings with a wash of monochrome glamour.

Billy Liar – at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013