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Capone's Art House Round-Up with Maggie Smith in the Dustin Hoffman-directed QUARTET, and the Oscar short list doc THE WAITING ROOM!!!

Hey, folks. Capone in Chicago here, with a few films that are making their way into art houses or coming out in limited release around America this week (maybe even taking up one whole screen at a multiplex near you). Do your part to support these films, or at least the good ones…

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 (Dumbledore himself) 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 expects diva-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.

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.

-- Steve Prokopy
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