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Thursday, October 22

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Column Fri Jan 25 2013

Quartet, The Man in the White Suit, Port of Shadows (Le Quai des brumes) & The Waiting Room



Covering some of the same ground as last year's The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and covering it much better comes what is shockingly the directorial debut of Dustin Hoffman, Quartet. Quartet is written by Ronald Harwood (Being Julia, The Pianist, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), based on his play. Both films are about finding the pleasures still available in life to those of a certain advanced age, but Quartet doesn't take itself quite so seriously and feels less like pandering than Marigold Hotel. Of course, neither one is in any way hurt by the fact that they both count Maggie Smith among their stars.

Quartet is set in Beecham House, a retirement home for musicians and singers, so naturally the residents spend a great deal of the time rehearsing for a big annual show that helps raise money to keep the place open. And while the the likes of Tom Courtenay, Bill Connolly, Pauline Collins, and Michael Gambon prepare for the gala, rumors begin to spread among the staff and residents that a big star will be joining their ranks; the star of course turns out to be Smith's Jean Horton, a soloist who used to be married to Courtenay's Reggie Paget (if only for nine hours, until she confessed an affair that broke his heart and forced him to leave her). In fact, the pair along with Connolly and Collins formed an unstoppable and quite popular quartet that broke up when Jean left.

Jean's expects dive-style treatment at the home, but Smith wisely doesn't play the egomaniacal singer for big laughs. In fact, Hoffman keeps the proceedings on a fairly even keel, as if he's been making understated British film his entire adult life. Of course with Connolly in the mix, there's a bit of racy dialogue thrown into the mix, but the film manages to be amusing with resorting to cheap jokes at the expense of its older cast. Instead, Hoffman seems to revel in the film's more emotional moments when Jean and Reggie square off over their break up.

Naturally, everyone in the home wants to quartet to reunite for the concert, and while we're never in any real doubt how things will turn out, life is not about the destination; it's about the journey. And this particular journey is quite elegant and enjoyable. I don't want to give the impression that the film isn't without a few funny moments of broad humor. Gambon's Cedric -- the show's director and apparently a big fan of silk robes -- is a bigger ham than any of the performers. People may be quick to draw comparisons between Smith in "Downton Abbey" and Jean, but Jean is a woman who simply wants to be left alone. And while she does submit a few zingers here and there, Smith isn't going for the throat the way the Dowager Countess usually does. Fans of "Fawlty Towers" should keep an eye out for Andrew Sachs (who played Manuel) as one of the residents as well.

Quartet is a sweet, not particularly challenging film (they don't all have to be) that benefits a great deal from exceptional casting and sure-handed direction from Hoffman. The perfect blend of heartfelt and humor, the movie glides through its story about artists trying to cling to that one thing that made them feel special and apart from the rest. I'm guessing a few of us have felt or will feel that way at one point. Sure, this one is safe to take the grandmother to, but I think Quartet can be enjoyed by all. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

The Man in the White Suit

It wasn't until right after college that I discovered the Ealing Studios comedies (and no, I don't mean Shaun of the Dead, although that was shot at Ealing), a string of brilliant satires most of which starred Alec Guiness and were shot in the late 1940s and early part of the 1950s. I'm talking about works like Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), Passport to Pimlico (1949), The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), and The Ladykillers (1955). But to this day, one of my absolute favorites is 1951's The Man in the White Suit, a film that seems to be a critical statement against how big business tries to squash the ambition of the creative thinkers, but then it turns around and becomes a rallying cry against innovations that could potentially put working folk out of a job and put big companies in danger as well. It's bizarre to see the working class fighting side by side with big business, but it's also ironic and very funny.

Directed by Alexander Mackendrick, The Man in the White Suit stars Guinness as Sidney Stratton, a young research chemist who keeps taking low-level jobs at textile mills, so he has access to equipment where he can secretly work on an invention that will revolutionize the garment industry. At one such job, his plan is uncovered but eventually supported by the mill owner's daughter Daphne (Joan Greenwood), and he creates a fabric that repels dirt and never wear out (how you're supposed to sew or alter a material that can't tear is anybody's guess).

On the surface, the idea is a dream come true for the textile company, until they realize that people wouldn't ever have to replace garments every again. Meanwhile, working people who used to be Sidney's friend also being to deduce that such a fabric would mean their washing and mending jobs would vanish because of this innovation, so they try to stop it being produced. Almost overnight, Sidney becomes the most hated man in the business, and his critics try to crush his invention before it really gets a chance at being implemented.

The sight of Guinness running around dingy old England in his iridescent white suit (it even glows in the dark a bit since the fabric is slightly radioactive) is an image for the ages. He begins his professional life as a shining example of a member of the lower classes making good in the corporate world, but soon he becomes the object of resentment for both. But Guinness is so blissfully ignorant of the damage his discovery might cause and more than a little hungry for recognition of his genius that fails to see what's right in front of him. The Man in the White Suit is one of the most poignant works that Ealing made in this period, and it remains a relevant parable to this day. You should not miss your chance to see this gorgeous black-and-white film on the big screen. A beautifully restored print of the film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

Port of Shadows (Le Quai des brumes)

A film of pure and dense emotion and atmosphere, director Marcel Carne (Children of Paradise) and writer Jacques Prévert's 1938 exercise in sacrifices of the heart, Port of Shadows, is a fog-bound story of life and love in the rundown, port city of Le Havre (for those who saw the recent film Le Havre, you know it well) where a deserting soldier named Jean (Jean Gabin, of The Grand Illusion, Renoir's The Lower Depths and Pépé le Moko) wanders into town looking for a place to lay low until he can get out of the country.

In no time at all, he lands up at the loneliest bar ever in movie-dom, but he's able to secure some civilian clothes, a fake passport, food, lodging, and a stray dog. He also meets and manages to save the beautiful, 17-year-old Nelly (Michele Morgan, of The Fallen Idol), a runaway whose fading innocence makes her the object of desire for several bad elements in the town. But she falls for Jean's rough good looks and take-charge attitude, and before long they're plotting their escape from France to Venezuela. Above all else, Jean gives Nelly a sense of worth and hope for her seemingly dead-end life, and while the pair plan their escape, Carne never really lets us believe for a second that they'll get out unscathed.

I had never seen Port of Shadows before recently, but I recognized a certain desperation in its tone that seemed to be a part of many French films of the pre-World War II period (Germany was invading France two years later). The theme of the day seemed to be "The world's ills are about to come crashing down on us, and there's nothing we can do to stop it." And that certainly seems to be the case with these lovers, who seem to become targets the minute they meet. They are lost souls who find the smallest shred of happiness together, which of course means their fate is sealed. And as easy as it is to get lost in their story, it's also quite possible to lose oneself in the film's style, in which Port of Shadows is absolutely dripping. I don't know if there's such a thing as shadow noir, but if there wasn't before 1938, this movie invented it. And it's effectively used to convey mood and state of being. In the film's opening sequence, Jean is almost run down by a truck that comes zooming out of said pea soup.

The plot of this film is deceptively simple, but what fleshes it out and breathes life into it are the exceptional performances, Carne's transcendent direction, and Prévert's poetic words. It's a moving and gloomy work, well worth seeing. A devastatingly gorgeous, digitally restored print opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

The Waiting Room

Many years ago during one of the several retrospectives of master documentarian Frederick Wiseman that I've been to, I saw his powerful film Hospital, which I believe began life as a TV movie (likely shown on PBS, as many of his films are today). Wiseman is unique because he offers no verbal commentary, no narration, no interviews, no title explaining exactly what we're seeing, and yet everything is made clear through brilliant editing and access to his subjects that begins weeks, even months before cameras start rolling.

Clearly borrowing from Wiseman, with no less of an impact, is director Peter Nicks feature debut The Waiting Room, which appears to be built around a single, very long day in the Highland Hospital waiting room in Okaland, California. With no on-camera interviews (although I believe there are a few audio interviews scattering sparingly throughout) or narration, Nicks allows us to get to know the stories of these unfortunate people, none of which seem to have health insurance, many having been unceremoniously dumped in this place from other hospitals. Nicks doesn't have to offer up commentary because the hours-long ordeal of waiting, dealing with admission paperwork, trying to find a place for the homeless or mentally ill, and attempting to bill these people who have no money is criticism enough.

Since many of the doctors in this facility are also working in the emergency room, anytime a life-threatening injury comes through the trauma center, all the doctors must leave the waiting room patients, which only adds to the frustration of the other patients. This is not like any television show you've seen; these are the most patient, even-tempered group of medical personnel I've ever seen. Yes, it's possible they're this way because of the cameras. But even as patients in pain or those who have been waiting the better part of a day are screaming out their frustration to these doctors and nurses, they maintain their cool in the pursuit of getting the details they need to treat these men and women.

Not that we needed more proof that the health care situation in America is broken, but for those who still doubt, The Waiting Room is further proof. The film offers tears, laughs, agony, anxiety, faith, and the occasional burst of rage. It's not an easy work to watch, but it feel essential that everyone try. The movie was actually on the Oscar short list for Best Documentary Feature, but didn't make the final five nominees, which is a shame because it's a bitter pill well worth swallowing. The film will screen at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Saturday, January 26 at 3:15pm and Monday, January 28 at 6pm.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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