What a Drag It Is Getting Old


Just lately, I happened to watch a few comic/drama movies that all deal with issues relating to old age and death.  I hadn't set out to.  They were all in my drama backlog for different reasons.  It just worked out that way.

Song for Marion - 2012
AKA Unfinished Song
Written & Directed by Paul Andrew Williams

This was on my viewing list because I was on a Gemma Arterton binge after re-watching Byzantium.  While she does deliver one of her most human performances here, it's really a showcase for Terrence Stamp more than anything else.

Stamp plays Arthur, a man of (unsurprisingly) little action and fewer words.  He loves his wife, Marion (Vanessa Redgrave) but struggles to express it.  He allows himself a very limited set of expectations, and finds he's happy enough with that life and outward appearance, which sometimes causes him to struggle to understand or appreciate the less tightly-capped lives of others.  Marion, for example, belongs to a choir group for senior citizens, which Arthur just can't understand.  He sees it as undignified, and he sometimes fumbles in his impulse to deride the group while still adoring his wife.

Arterton as Elizabeth is the school teacher who leads the choir, selecting the kind of modern music like Salt n' Pepa's "Let's Talk About Sex" and Motorhead's "The Ace of Spades" that the middle aged find youthful when sung by the old aged.  The purpose of the group is to have fun and to share fun, and that's just a concept that Arthur struggles to get his head around.

His emotional detachment has left a great rift between him and his son, whose commitment to parenting further shames Arthur, making it even harder for him to feel capable of healing the old wounds between them.  When Marion has a recurrence of the cancer she's struggled with before, it become clear that the end for her is near, and Arthur goes into a full-tilt panic.  He feels more powerless than ever, and CAN NOT face the idea of a world without Marion.  He becomes desperate to protect her, but there's no protecting to be done.  Her fate is sealed, and keeping her in bed isn't going to stop it.  Marion insists on continuing to sing in the choir, and Arthur, more unwilling than ever to leave her side, gets dragged along (with fairly predictable and heart-warming results).

While it would be easy to accuse the film of saccharine or schmaltz or other such unhealthy comfort eating, the performances really elevated it above the level of an after-school special for seniors.  In fact, it probably plays better to people who have aging parents than the aging parents themselves.  It's not hard to imagine our loved ones struggling to remain vital and engaged in their advancing years.  Redgrave brings that vitality to Marion, which makes Arthur's sense of loss palpable.  While Arthur's character is much different, I was reminded of Stamp's performance in The Limey, as a hard man with nothing much to say struggling to express the emotions he never wanted to acknowledge he had.  While The Limey allowed him to express that frustration through violence much of the time, here, Stamp is forced to internalize it, letting us witness his pain, and his pain about feeling pain.  We also discover that he has a shockingly beautiful singing voice.  Gemma Arterton frequently plays women with hard edges; femmes fatale, quite often.  Here, she has none of that.  She has enthusiasm for her work and expresses genuine concern for Arthur's pain and her kindness becomes more beautiful than her, well, beauty.  Christopher Eccelston gets the somewhat thankless role as Arthur and Marion's son James.  Despite the absence of grandstanding opportunities, he brought a kind likeability and a pain only thinly masked by bitterness to the role.  Maybe it's just me, but I've tended to associate him with so many cold and/or villainous roles that his vulnerability here was a real eye-opener.  I found myself genuinely moved by Song for Marion, both to laughter and... that other thing.

Robot & Frank - 2012
Written by Christopher d Ford
Directed by Jake Schreier

It's dark.

Nimble fingers work the lock-pick.  A figure in black slips into the house.  He starts working the place over for valuables.  He becomes more frantic, knocking over a framed photo.  It falls, the glass cracking.  The burglar looks stunned.  His face is in the photo.  It's his house.

The burglar is Frank, played by Frank Langela.  He was a cat burglar, but he's retired now, he just... forgets sometimes.  Frank forgets a lot of things these days.

Frank's kids worry about him.  His daughter Madison (Liv Tyler) video calls as after as she can, but her work takes her overseas.  His son Hunter (James Marsden) calls and drives up to see him every week or two.  Frank resents the concern (as a reflection of his shame over needing it), but he's not always sure if Hunter is a married professional with kids of his own, or a student at Princeton.  His favorite way to fill the day is to walk into town and visit the local library.  Jennifer the librarian (Susan Sarandon) gently teases him about having read the same books over and over.  Frank has a thing for her.  After the library, he likes to have lunch at his favorite cafe.  Wait, where's the cafe?  How did there get to be a Lush here?  He ate here yesterday... didn't he?  To channel his frustration, Frank shoplifts a fancy soap, but the shopkeeper is strangely suspicious of him already.  Back at home, he adds the soap to a cache of similar items.

The more his memory goes off, the more his kids worry, and the more agitated Frank gets, until one day Hunter shows up with something for his father; a robot.  The robot is programmed to keep Frank active and engaged, encouraging a healthy regimen and a consistent routine.  Frank is, shall we say, not amused, but Hunter won't tell him the password, and so, for the time being, Frank finds himself with a white plastic shadow.  It's not long, however, before he finds that the robot makes a convenient ear for his complaints.  It's not long after that that he discovers (quite by accident) that the robot isn't overly particular about the legality of shoplifting, and Frank adds another fancy soap to his collection.

This gets Frank thinking, and the thinking gets his mind back in the game. He gets more engaged in his own life and the world around him.  He develops more of a relationship with the robot, which is frankly (no pun intended) fairly narcissistic, given that the robot really only acts as an extension of Frank's needs.

Robot & Frank deals with the issue of aging, regret and (most especially) memory in many ways.  There's a major reveal late in the movie that plays a little fast and loose with memory for the sake of emotional impact, but there are other instances which it's more more balanced and thoughtful.  Frank is forced to make a decision about Robot's memory, and while the issue of their potential friendship would seem to be the more obvious cause for his turmoil, I really think that it has more to do with his pain about his own memory.  Yes, there's still a sense of empathy for the "other" for which he has developed some sort of feelings, but then the "other" doesn't HAVE emotions with which to empathize, and again, I believe much of this interaction reflects Frank's narcissism.  That doesn't make Frank a bad guy.  It just means he's scared, and not without cause.

Peter Sarsgaard brings a pretty strong "I'm sorry Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that" tone to the robot's voice, which kept me wondering what he might eventually do.  It straddles the line between calming, and disturbing-because-it's-so-determined-to-be-calming, which I'm not sure is as effective as it should be.  In fact, it was so unsettling that I thought it was Michael Emerson (Lost, Person of Interest) until the credits.

One interesting discovery in Robot & Frank is that Frank Langella has a charming side.  I've gotten so used to his playing villains, heavies and other emotional pressure cookers that I was completely unprepared for how disarming he could be.  Given his responsibility for carrying the film, that quality transfers to the overall product in a highly effective way.

Get Low - 2009
Written by Chris Provenzano & C Gaby Mitchell
Directed by Aaron Schneider

Some actors spend their careers playing a wide variety of characters, putting on accents and trying to lose themselves in the character.  Robert Duvall isn't that kind of actor.  He's rarely done accents, and rather than going wide, he goes deep.  thoughtful southerners with great depth of character.  His characters needn't be specifically southern, but he brings that to them, and whether they're outwardly reserved or gregarious, these things cover and tap a deep well of personal character buried inside of them.  That depth gets an incredible opportunity to stretch its legs once more in Get Low.

Because I had originally added Get Low to my viewing list in the fits of a Bill Murray view-a-thon, it had completely slipped my mind that Robert Duvall was in it when I finally sat down to watch it, for for the first ten minutes or so, I could not identify who was behind the unruly beard and taciturn demeanor of the old country hermit.  Duvall plays Felix Bush, the backwoods hermit in 1930s Tennessee.  Felix is the stuff of local legend.  Kids dare each other to break windows in his cabin, and adults in town gossip about his history.  Did he kill someone?  Did he kill a LOT of someones?  You heard he robbed banks?  I heard something even worse.

When the local preacher visits (at considerable risk to his well-being) to tell him that one of his old associates has passed on, it serves as a conduit for Felix to confront the looming specter of his own mortality.  He hitches the cart to his cantankerous old mule (kindred spirits, no doubt) and ambles up the main street of town to discuss his own funeral arrangements with the parson.  Laying a grubby wad of "hermit cash" on the table, Felix grills the preacher about what he'd say in his memory.  The evasive response which dances around his reputation does not please Felix, and the wad of cash is gruffly withdrawn.  In an economic bit of narrative, there is another family coming into the church on their own business.  The young husband happens to work for the local funeral home, so he picks up on Felix's desires to plan a funeral as well as his dissatisfaction with the church.  His stepmother just happens to be a pivotal figure from Felix's past with whom he's reluctant to engage.  To cap things off, one of the locals decides to demonstrate his manhood by hurling insults and threats at the old man of rumors, and find himself with the "stuffing" kicked out of him in short order.

The young man, Buddy, reports back to Frank Quinn (Bill Murray), the owner of the funeral home, that the notorious old mountain man is looking for a funeral with a wad of cash, and they travel out to the homestead to make their pitch.  Getting a look at the place, Frank immediately promotes Buddy to sales associate and sends him in alone.  Felix's reputation once again becomes a topic of conversation, which gets the old man to thinking.

After the initial reluctance inherent to his character, Felix arrives at a plan.  He wants to plan his funeral.  It should be, he decides, a party, with food, music and the sharing of every story that anyone had ever heard about him.  If that meant gathering the people of four counties, then so be it.  Oh, and one more thing; he wanted it while he was still alive.

Through the process of planning Felix's funeral party and dealing with all of the issues that he and the town had with each other, peeks at his history emerge, hinting at why he sealed himself off from the world some 40 years prior, what his relationship with Miss Mattie (Sissy Spacek) had and had not been, and who the woman was in the old photograph that he talked to at night.  He has his own story to tell, but his own laconic nature, and ultimately his shame present obstacles that seem insurmountable to him at this late hour in life.

And that's what Get Low is really about.  Felix has imprisoned himself in his solitude over the guilt and shame that he carries from his past.  It's a heartfelt and deeply moving portrait of regret turned in upon itself.  As I've been rolling it around in my head the past few days, I've found myself comparing and contrasting it to another of Duvall's greatest performances in The Apostle.   Where The Apostle's Sonny flees his past and can't resist being who he's always been, Felix becomes so trapped in the past that surrenders the gregarious character he once was to sink into solitude and the bitterness that such isolation begets.

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