Quartet (2012)


Professor McGonagall at the Hogwart's 50th Class Reunion.

Professor McGonagall at the Hogwart’s 50th Class Reunion.

(2013) Dramedy (Weinstein) Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly, Pauline Collins, Michael Gambon, Sheridan Smith, Andrew Sachs, Dame Gwyneth Jones, Trevor Peacock, Michael Byrne, Ronnie Fox, Patricia Loveland, Eline Powell. Directed by Dustin Hoffman

Going from the spotlight to obscurity must be an incredibly hard situation to accept, particularly when it is age that has relegated you thus. Even the most beautiful and bucolic of environments may pale when compared to the limelight.

Beecham House in the English countryside is certainly a beautiful environment. Named for the noted British conductor Sir Thomas Beecham, it is now a retirement home for professional musicians – opera singers, popular vocalists, chamber musicians and the like. Like many such institutions, it faces economic difficulties and relies on benefit concerts staged by its residents, many of whom still have names that resonate on the English music scene.

The upcoming concert marking the birthday of Giusseppe Verdi is the occasion for a kind of organized panic overseen by Cedric Livingston (Gambon) – who pronounces his first name See-dric, not Seh-dric as he reminds Wilf Bond (Connolly) regularly to his great exasperation.

Otherwise, things are pretty much as normal at Beecham House where friends and colleagues Wilf, Reggie Paget (Courtenay) and Cissy Robson (Collins) live a quiet life of looking back. Wilf though is just as concerned with chasing skirt as his libido remains in full flower even if the bloom has withered a bit on the rose. Cissy is growing increasingly forgetful but it is just a part of the indignities of old age. The somewhat courtly Reggie gives lectures to opera to schoolchildren who are more interested in rap. Everything is more or less peaceful.

But things are turned upside down on themselves and into an uproar when the pretty but harried Dr. Lucy Cogan (S. Smith) introduces the newest resident – the diva Jean Horton (M. Smith), one of the most famous and beloved opera singers of her day. However, she had a tumultuous marriage to Reginald that ended with her infidelity. They haven’t spoken in decades.

But worse still Cedric wants a reunion between Jean, Reggie, Wilf and Cissy whose quartet of Rigoletto‘s “Bella figlia dell’amore” was one of opera’s greatest moments ever and has recently been re-released on compact disc – which in itself is a bit anachronistic. Jean however wants no part of it and Reggie while understanding that the revenue such a reunion would generate might well save their home is understandably unenthusiastic for such a grouping. However, he’s game and sets out to change the mind of the diva.

Cissy for some reason seems particularly motivated to see it happen and she befriends Jean who seems somewhat lost and soon the reason for Jean’s reluctance becomes clear – she’s terrified that her voice is gone, that in doing this performance her fans will always remember her for a last debacle instead of the great career she enjoyed. And as the time draws nigh for the performance, it appears certain that there may not be a home for her to live in for much longer.

This is Hoffman’s directorial debut (technically he directed Straight Time for a few days back in 1978 but withdrew after he found it too difficult to direct and act simultaneously – he doesn’t appear hear as an actor for that reason) and he chose his material wisely. As a director he’s smart enough to keep things fairly simple; there aren’t a lot of camera tricks here, the storytelling is simple and elegant. While he doesn’t show anything extraordinary neither does he make any mistakes.

This is based on a play by screenwriter Ronald Harwood, a Hollywood veteran whose résumé includes The Dresser, The Pianist and Being Julia. Like many of his works, Quartet shows Harwood’s fascination for performers and their venues. This shows performers in the twilight of their careers which you’d almost expect from Harwood who is himself a septuagenarian.

The material here holds some interest but it is the actors who really elevate the work. Connolly, one of Scotland’s great treasures, is at his very best here – a charming Lothario who has no problem expressing his sexuality, seemingly fascinated that he still has any. Wilf claims that a stroke left him without any sort of filter so he says what’s on his mind which the others seemingly forgive him for, although the wily Scot may well be just saying that so he doesn’t have to waste time and energy prevaricating.

But Courtenay will be the one I remember here. His quiet gentility has a timeless quality to it. When I think of English gentlemen, it is Reginald Paget that will come to mind. He’s polite and gentle, but also shows fits of outrage and wounded pride from time to time. More than the others he’s accepted who he is and his place in the universe. His mind is still active and seeks to learn more about the world around him but he isn’t especially eager to seek out the world in general. He wants a “dignified senility,” he tells Wilf and you can imagine nothing but for him. Courtenay is one of those actors who has appeared onscreen only periodically over the years but every time he does you find yourself wishing he would appear more often.

Maggie Smith, who received a Golden Globe nomination for her work here, delivers a haunting performance as a diva who is terrified of a future of anonymity and decay. “I used to be someone, you know” she says and it is perfectly clear how important that status was to her, to be someone. Her harsh exterior hides that insecurity that she’ll be forgotten in the end, a fate worse than death for someone like Jean. Smith, who last year performed in Best Exotic Marigold Hotel which some have (quite erroneously I think) compared this to, shows once again her extraordinary range as an actress. There are a lot of layers to the character and she nails them all, never hitting a single false note.

Veterans Gambon and Collins also deliver in their roles. Hoffman in a showing of finesse, fills much of the cast with actual retired British musicians and in a bit of a grace note during the end credits shows the mostly elderly cast with their stage credits along with pictures of them from their glory days. Hoffman shows some promise as a director if this acting thing doesn’t work out for him.

I found myself really liking this movie early on from the absolutely magnificent gardens and spaces in Beecham House and environs to the charm of the actors. While there were a few spots which seemed to be a bit on the too-sweet side, for the most part this is a really good movie that has to do with aging gracefully which I suppose anyone could do if they had a place like Beecham House to do it in – a place filled with music in all hours and in all corners. I could certainly retire happily to a place like that.

REASONS TO GO: Connolly is a gem. Courtenay, Smith and Collins are very much underrated who make the most out of every opportunity. Gambon is marvelous. Beautifully shot.

REASONS TO STAY: Can get treacly in places.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a few bad words here and there and some mildly sexual suggestive dialogue.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the second movie of the same title that Maggie Smith has been in; the first Quartet came out in 1981 and is completely unrelated to this one.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/5/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100; solid reviews here.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: How About You?

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Intermedio

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House on Haunted Hill (1999)


House on Haunted Hill

All sorts of photo ops in the House on Haunted Hill.

(1999) Supernatural Horror (Warner Brothers) Geoffrey Rush, Famke Janssen, Taye Diggs, Peter Gallagher, Chris Kattan, Ali Larter, Bridgette Wilson, Max Perlich, Jeffrey Combes, Dick Beebe, Lisa Loeb, James Marsters, Peter Graves. Directed by William Malone

 

When done correctly, the haunted-house movie can be nearly ideal entertainment; claustrophobic, scary and sometimes spectacular, depending on the visual bent of the director.

Unfortunately, it’s very rarely done well, despite many attempts; my favorite remains The Legend of Hell House, which scores regular appearances on late-night television and is readily available on home video.. The House on Haunted Hill is a remake of a William Castle B-movie classic, updated for the ’90s with a stellar cast and crackerjack effects.

It begins at an insane asylum as the demented inmates riot against a sadistic staff, leading to a tragedy that kills all but five. Flash forward to the present, when theme park maven Stephen Price (Rush) – a sly tribute to the original movie’s star Vincent Price – has just finished debuting his newest roller coaster (actually the Incredible Hulk coaster at Orlando’s very own Islands of Adventure theme park, an experience I highly recommend if you haven’t already been) and is preparing to throw a birthday party for his less-than-loving wife (Janssen). He plans an unforgettable shindig.

However, the guest list is mysteriously altered, leaving only five complete strangers to try Price’s challenge; he’s put up a million dollars per guest (that’s five million dollars total) to be awarded to anyone who spends an entire night without leaving the notorious property known as the most haunted place in Los Angeles. This is, if you haven’t already guessed, the former asylum. Of course, you have to survive in order to collect. Who will it be – the mild mannered physician (Gallagher), the heroic leading man (Diggs), the plucky comic relief (Kattan) or the beautiful, sexy and intrepid woman (Larter)?

As is the case with many haunted house flicks, the house itself proves to have its own lethal intelligence. What was a mean-spirited prank turns into a fight for survival among stereotypes…err, I mean, characters. The writers throw in a misleading and totally unnecessary subplot involving Price’s marital woes and attempts by both parties to frame the other for murder, but it doesn’t wash for a moment.

The cast is led by Rush as Price, a showman along the lines of P.T. Barnum — or even, gulp, William Castle, the B-movie impresario who once wired theaters playing one of his movies to deliver mild electric shocks to patrons during key moments of the film. Rush is always outstanding and he manages to rise above the material here.

Taye Diggs makes for an excellent hero; he has a future as a widescreen leading man. Kattan provides comic relief as a caretaker who knows all too well what the house is capable of and proves to be one of the bright spots of the movie, something I never thought I’d say about the guy.

The effects are dazzling at times; the appearances of various ghosts and ghouls are genuinely creepy. The specter of Dr. Vannecutt (Jeffrey Combs) is particularly disturbing; it still weirds me out whenever I’m reminded of his appearance on a surveillance camera. The climactic portion of the movie revealing the monster at the heart of the haunting is a computer-generated Lovecraftian nightmare, but takes up far too much screen time; it would have made for better scares to show us less of the thing and more of the actors reactions to it.

In fact, as good as the effects are, they occasionally overpower what could have been a better movie if the filmmakers had focused more on genuine suspense and atmosphere instead of overpowering the senses. This got some notoriety as being the first film to be released from Dark Castle, the production company headed by Joel Silver, Robert Zemeckis, Gil Adler and Terry Castle, the daughter of the legendary producer. While they have since branched out from remakes of classic Castle films, they remain one of the finest regular producers of horror films in Hollywood.

“Less is More” is a truism that Hollywood moviemakers espouse onscreen but rarely follow behind the camera. House on Haunted Hill could have benefited from a budget slashed even more effectively than the designated female victim (see if you can guess who she’ll be at the beginning of the movie) who goes brainlessly and inevitably to her fate, wandering around in a dangerous house with a video camera – by herself. Kinda sums up the whole movie if you ask me.

WHY RENT THIS: Nice eye candy. Rush and Kattan give nice performances. Larter and Janssen are easy on the eyes.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Overreliance on special effects. Would have done better creating more atmosphere and showing the monster less.

FAMILY MATTERS: Graphic horror violence, gore, some sexual images and lots of bad language; not for the squeamish.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The first person to get killed in the movie, a male nurse, is played by the writer of the screenplay Dick Beebe.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There are trailers for both the 1999 and 1959 versions of the film, as well as a 20-minute feature comparing the two.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $40.9M (North American box office figures only) on a $37M production budget; factor in worldwide box office and chances are this made money.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: The Tempest