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Dustin Hoffman's directing debut in Quartet is a low-key charmer, plus 8 indie movies worth seeing

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Quartet, Maggie Smith
Maggie Smith in Quartet Photo courtesy of Lone Star Film Society
Race 2, John Abraham as Armaan Malik, fighter, January 2013
John Abraham as Armaan Malik in Race 2 at the AMC 30 Tohle Jokes
Ain't Them Bodies Saints, Sundance, movie, Rooney Mara, Casey Affleck, December 2012
Direct from the Sundance Film Festival, Ain't Them Bodies Saints, will be shown at the Sundance Cinemas Thursday night. Director David Lowery will be in attendance. TheFilmStage.com
Race 2, movie, Deepika Padukone as Elena, Anil Kapoor as Robert D’Costa, January 2013
Deepika Padukone as Elena and Anil Kapoor as Robert DCosta in Race 2 BHMPics.com
Race 2, movie, cast, January 2013
Cast members of Race 2 party it up. Race 2/Facebook
Houston Cinema Arts Festival, November 2012, Quartet, Bill Connolly, Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Pauline Collins
Bill Connolly, Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay and Pauline Collins in Quartet Momentum Pictures
Houston Cinema Arts Festival, November 2012, Quartet, Tom Courtenay, Maggie Smith
Tom Courtenay and Maggie Smith in Quartet Momentum Pictures
Quartet, Maggie Smith
Race 2, John Abraham as Armaan Malik, fighter, January 2013
Ain't Them Bodies Saints, Sundance, movie, Rooney Mara, Casey Affleck, December 2012
Iranian Film Festival 2013: Modest Reception
Film screening: Fast Talk
Reel Kids screening: Turtles Can Fly
Race 2, movie, Deepika Padukone as Elena, Anil Kapoor as Robert D’Costa, January 2013
Race 2, movie, cast, January 2013
Houston Cinema Arts Festival, November 2012, Quartet, Bill Connolly, Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Pauline Collins
Houston Cinema Arts Festival, November 2012, Quartet, Tom Courtenay, Maggie Smith
AuthorPhoto_Joe Leydon_head shot_column mug_USE THIS

Sometimes the magic happens, and sometimes it doesn’t. And sometimes when Oscar-bait films are dangled before Academy voters, nobody nibbles.

Every fall, a handful of high-class, small-budget movies with impressive pedigrees begin a stately, purposeful parade through the festival circuit – usually starting off in Toronto or New York – in the hope of generating Oscar buzz and, in January or February, actually garnering Academy Award nominations.

Throughout autumn and well into winter, actors and directors involved in these films pop up on televised talk shows and in national publications, often many weeks before said films are available to mainstream moviegoers outside of Manhattan and/or L.A.

 This pleasantly low-key dramedy is the sort of serenely old-fashioned and demographically challenged entertainment that too often gets ignored by audiences distracted by more exciting scenarios. 

Indeed, conventional wisdom dictates that Oscar nominations are the best (if not the only) way to attract attention for your sophisticated cinematic gem in the commercial marketplace. (Golden Globe nominations are very nice – but far less useful.) If you can make the final cut in the Best Picture race, or at least land some nominations in acting and directing categories, then you might at least make a profit, even if you don’t actually bring home the gold.

But when an Oscar hopeful without A-list superstars or other easily exploitable elements is totally ignored by Academy voters – well, when that movie finally does open in your town, and you think you’d like to see it, it’s probably a good idea to do so very quickly.

Quartet, one of this year’s Cinderellas that didn’t get asked to the Academy ball, opens this weekend at the Sundance Cinemas and the Edwards Greenway Grand Palace. It likely will stick around a bit longer than the similarly titled A Late Quartet (another Oscar non-nominee), which lasted a mere five days last November at the River Oaks 3.

Still, you really shouldn’t dawdle: This pleasantly low-key dramedy, adapted by Oscar-winning scriptwriter Ronald Harwood (The Pianist) from his own play, is the sort of serenely old-fashioned and demographically challenged entertainment that too often gets ignored by audiences distracted by more exciting scenarios and, yes, much younger A-listers.

As I noted last November when it played at the 2012 Houston Cinema Arts Festival:

Quartet is a seriocomic tale of harmony achieved by discordant characters. Specifically, it is a story about the residents of Beecham House, an English countryside retirement home for classical music artists.

Wilf (Billy Connolly), Reggie (Tom Courtenay) and Cissy (Pauline Collins) are enjoying their golden years in relative peace and comfort when their lives are disrupted by the arrival of a new Beecham House guest: Jean (Maggie Smith), a self-dramatizing diva who used to be their partner in a vocal quartet — and, not incidentally, Reggie’s partner in marriage.

The plot pivots on efforts to reunite the quartet for a fund-raising performance to benefit the retirement home. But that’s more or less a mere excuse to entertain the audience with the spirited interplay among the four lead players and their interactions with co-star Michael Gambon (Smith’s partner in the Harry Potter franchise)."

To that, I would add that Oscar-winning actor Dustin Hoffman, here making his debut as a feature film director, indulgently allows his superlative senior-citizen stars all the time and space they need to elicit laughs, generate pathos and generally wring every last juicy drop from their vividly written characters.

The old pros don’t abuse their privilege. Even the delightfully hammy Connolly goes just so far, and no further, while swaggering through the proceeding as an aging roué with a fondness for inappropriate remarks, and a weakness for flirting with the retirement home’s quite lovely and much younger head doctor (Sheridan Smith).

Collins is by turns sweetly silly and deeply touching as a blithe spirit slipping into senility, Gambon is amusingly cantankerous as an aging lion who runs the retirement home’s annual fund-raising show with a whim of iron, and Smith – whose current reign as the queen bee of Downton Abbey might slightly boost this movie’s box-office potential – strikes the perfect balance of haughty disapproval and pained melancholy as she considers the dispiriting drawbacks of outliving her heyday as a world-renowned opera star.

If Courtenay comes across as first among equals, that’s only because the 75-year-old stage and screen actor – who will always be remembered by movie buffs of a certain age as the bright young star of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962) and Billy Liar (1963) – so effectively and arrestingly underplays the pain, pride and prickly wit of Reggie, an amiable yet reserved fellow who, like many other residents at Beecham House, has wistfully acclimated himself to obscurity in his retirement.

Reggie claims he actually was looking forward to “a dignified senility” -- until Jean dropped back into his life.

By the way: The aforementioned movie buffs of a certain age might have a giggle each time Maggie Smith answers to the same name as the character she played way back in 1969’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Not incidentally, she won an Oscar for that one.

KEEP ON SUNDANCING

Last Sunday, David Lowery’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, a set-in-Texas tale of star-crossed lovers on the run, had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, Robert Redford’s annual winter wonderland for indie cinema in Park City, Utah. Next week, it’ll be screened one night only – Thursday, to be precise — in Houston at, appropriately enough, the Sundance Cinemas.

 The H-Town premiere is part of Sundance Film Festival U.S.A., a program designed to share this year’s Sundance harvest with cineastes in cities far from the snow-covered climes of the Beehive State. 

The H-Town premiere is part of Sundance Film Festival U.S.A., a program designed to share this year’s Sundance harvest with cineastes in cities far from the snow-covered climes of the Beehive State.

Starring Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, Ben Foster and Keith Carradine, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints has been hailed by Variety critic Peter Debruge as a “gorgeously shot” indie drama that is “lyrical, almost feminine in its sensibility,” while Todd McCarthy of The Hollywood Reporter calls the film “a beautiful, densely textured elegy for outlaw lovers separated by their own misdeeds,” and “a lovely thing to experience” on the big screen.

CultureMap editor-in-chief Clifford Pugh will moderate a question answer sesson with Lowery and producer Toby Halbrooks at the conclusion of the screening.

Tickets for the Thursday screening are now on sale at the Sundance Cinemas website.  

OTHER SCREENS, OTHER CINEMA

The Iranian Film Festival continues this weekend at Museum of Fine Arts, Houston with screenings of The Iran Job (1 p.m. Saturday), Rhino Season (7 p.m. Saturday) and Modest Reception (5 p.m. Sunday).

Also at MFAH: Kurdish filmmaker Bohman Ghobadi’s Turtles Can Fly (1:30 p.m. Sunday), an acclaimed Iranian-French-Iraqi co-production that views the downfall of Saddam Hussein through the eyes of displaced people – many of them children – in a Kurdish refugee camp near the Iraq-Turkey border.

14 Pews offers the H-Town premiere of Fast Talk, Debra Tolchinsky’s provocative documentary about Northwestern University debate team members who are trained to launch their verbal volleys at warp-speed to score wins. It will be shown Saturday at 7 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m.

Aurora Picture Show is co-sponsoring a program of nine experimental shorts from the 11th annual Asian Film Festival of Dallas at 5 p.m. Saturday at the Asia Society Texas Center.

And there’s yet another new Bollywood import at the AMC Studio 30: Abbas Mustan’s Race 2, a high-speed action-adventure (with songs) that just happens to be a sequel to the same director’s Race (2008). But, gosh, I guess you already figured that out for yourself, didn’t you? 

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