Tuesday, September 23, 2014

2014: A Good Summer for Movies

This summer just past, we saw a handful of movies that were good for the more mature and thoughtful viewers.

First up was "And So it Goes" with Diane Keaton and Michael Douglas. The title is lame, but I was interested in Michael Douglas' performance because I had recently seen him do a fabulous job as Liberace in an HBO special movie. The actors delivered great performances and the chemistry worked. The set was a duplex that was so quirky that it was like a character itself, what with banging screen doors, and all that. The plot was rather weak, but it made a satisfying illusion of love among the wrinklies. Diane Keaton, though she still has flair, has very textured skin, and Douglas is pretty wrinkled as well.

Woody Allen's new movie was "Magic in the Moonlight." Even though it's title has an attractive ring, there was something stilted about the pace of this work that kept it from having sizzle or bite—compared with the fabulous "Blue Jasmine," for instance. It wasn't until the next day that I realized how deeply felt it was. I believe it is a sort of valentine to Woody's wife, Soon-Yi, who is infamously over 30 years younger than he.

Colin Firth plays a magician who doesn't believe in magic. In fact, he makes a point to reveal frauds who claim to have ESP. His character is the epitome of the self-satisfied pompous ass, the kind of character who would be interpreted comically in a sit-com, all puffed-up and humphy. Colin Firth plays it to the hilt and with deadly sincerity. He spins out his skepticism with suave intellectualism. Firth plays an aspect of Woody that Allen, as an actor, cannot portray: the self-satisfied intellectual. Woody's acting role is the inept whiner, but in his heart, his cynicism about life is underpinned by wide reading and deep intellectualism. Suffice it to say, the pompous magician gets his comeuppance in the form of a young clairvoyant who convinces him of her powers. The part is played by Emma Stone, a young woman who has a style that reminds me of Mia Farrow, one of Woody's earliest stars. Despite her fair coloring, she stands for Soon-Yi, who, I believe, is the magic in Woody's life. The statement here is that there is some nebulous magic in life, not definable, not explicable, not rational, but very real, and it makes life worth living.

Another romance among the oldies was "Love is Strange." In this case, the oldies are a gay couple, played by John Lithgow and Alfred Molina, but the director's point is that gay love is pretty much the same thing as heterosexual love. Though the acting was faultless, for me it was the problem that both men are so large and bulky; their embraces looked very awkward. The story was excellent for its realism and the diversity of its characters. The script was thoughtful, if somewhat slow-paced. If this movie lacked anything, it was shape. It wasn't exactly a protest against the Catholic church's irrational attitude toward gay marriage; it wasn't exactly a documentary of the housing shortage in Manhattan; it wasn't exactly a character study or a romance. It was all that and more. Molina played a music teacher, and there was a lot of excellent music. Lithgow played an artist, and there was a lot of good art, as well as a good impression of the way an artist works. I'm not sure whether this shapelessness is a flaw; an entertainment is more dynamic if all the themes work together, but real life has a way of being a little of this and a little of that until it fizzles out, as it did in the movie.

The romantic couple in "My Old Lady," played by the divine Kevin Kline and the almost-plain Kristin Scott Thomas, are not quite oldies, but they are on the edge. They've had a lot of failures and they are running out of options. The story depends on a French real estate method that is so weird it is like an arbitrary plot mechanism, but I checked, and this system, called "viager," is really in use. In the viager system, an owner can sell their apartment, while retaining the right to live there for the rest of their life, sort of like a reverse mortgage. The buyer gets a low price on the apartment, but they must make payments to the owner for the rest of their life. If the owner dies young, the buyer gets a good deal; it's a form of gambling. So Kevin Kline inherits from his father a fabulous apartment in the heart of Paris, but it is occupied by the former owner, a 92-year-old woman, convincingly played by Maggie Smith (who is only 79).  In addition to the apartment, Kline's character also inherits regular payments to the old lady for the rest of her life. Her daughter, who is predictably hostile toward him at the outset, warms to him as the story of their parents' adultery, and the effect it had on each of them, is gradually revealed. This romance has satisfying shape: it is an analysis of the effects of adultery. For entertainment values, we get Paris: the apartment with its own garden, the Seine, the scenes. The magic of Paris is symbolized by a young woman singing by the Seine, letting her voice echo off the stone walls that line the river in the city; the first time I was there, an opera singer was crooning in a metro tunnel in the wee hours.

All these movies seemed to lack pizzazz. There were moments of boredom or slowness. Of course, we get a steady diet of violence, sex, and fast-paced cutting. If you can transcend the craving for action and surprise, these movies offered rich and relevant themes; they were satisfying to the viewer who is mature, in the best sense of the word.