Monday, November 5, 2012

Three other highlights from Denver Film Festival opening weekend: Quartet, Sister, and Casting By

Quartet was the Big Night film on Saturday. Like the opening night film, The Last Quartet it deals with serious music (I prefer the term ‘serious’ to the term ‘classical’ music).

Beecham House is a very opulent ‘retirement’ home for musicians and other performers. Each year, the residents put on a gala: it is a bit like the Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland musicals – ‘let’s get a barn and put on a show!’ In this case the barn looks a bit like the manor house in Downton Abbey and ‘kids’ are replaced by superannuated performers. But just as I found those old Rooney/Garland movies entertaining so too did I enjoy Quartet. Tom Courtney, Maggie Smith, Billy Connolly and Pauline Collins play retired opera singers who in their professional past had performed Verdi’s Quartet together. Maggie Smith, just before the gala, herself retires to Beecham House. It is proposed that they reunite to again perform Quartet at the gala.

Of course, nothing is that simple: there are numerous complications, not the least of which is a long unsettled love relationship between the Smith and Courtney character.

This film is enjoyable for the performances, not just of these four actors but everyone else in the film. The residents are portrayed by performers actually playing themselves. A wonderful device in the end credits is to identify the performer with ‘then’ and ‘now’ photos.

As I have noted in the past, there is a real film audience in an older demographic and this film, like Stand Up Guys, will appeal to that.

Sister is a compelling film by Ursula Meier. It is the Swiss submission for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nomination. Simon (Kacey Mottet Klein) is a twelve year-old boy living in poverty in a valley below a wealthy ski resort in the Alps. He shares a tiny apartment in a rundown building with his sister, Louise (Lea Seydoux), who is clearly much older – perhaps in her mid- to late-twenties. She is also rarely there, given to quitting jobs, taking off with men for days at a time or on drunken binges. It is Simon who seems to be holding things together, keeping the rent paid and buying food. He does this by stealing what he can (and he is very good) at the ski resort and selling it.

This is a sad but unsentimental film and both Klein and Seydoux are remarkable with performances that are unsettling. Watch the trailer.

Casting By is a documentary by Tom Donohue. It focuses on casting directors, particularly Marion Dougherty and the process (and how it has changed) of casting motion pictures.

Dougherty, who started in live television in New York in the fifties, really changed the way movies were cast. In the old Studio System, contract players were assigned roles in motion pictures based on their type. Dougherty, working primarily with New York stage actors changed that. Her success in casting such successful television series as Naked City and Route 66 eventually brought her to motion pictures and eventually Hollywood.

The documentary features directors who talk about the serious collaborative role that casting directors, like Daugherty, but also many that she mentored including Juliet Taylor and Wally Nicita, play in successfully finding exactly the right actor for the role.

The documentary also notes that the vast majority of casting directors are women; Dougherty said that the reason so many women ended up doing casting is because it didn’t pay very well – men wouldn’t do it.

I was actually cast by Daugherty and Wally Nicita in Escape From Alcatraz, so it had special meaning for me. As scenes in the Doc featured Marion surrounded by hundreds of actor photos, I realized that at some point, my photo was among those.

This is an HBO documentary, so it should show up on HBO at some time in the future. Also, perhaps the Film Society will bring it back at some point for a regular screening at the newly named Sie Film Center on Colfax. Under any circumstance, I particularly encourage my actor friends to see this film.

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