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QUARTET

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B-

An old folks’ movie in terms of both its characters and its intended audience, Dustin Hoffman’s first completed directorial effort (he started “Straight Time” in 1978 but was replaced by Ulu Grosbard) can be thought of as this year’s version of “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”—except that the locale is a British retirement home for elderly musicians and the emphasis is more on the humorous side, though sentimentality is hardly in short supply. “Quartet” is actually pretty thin stuff, but it’s been cannily cast for maximum effect, and Hoffman gives the actors plenty of room to do their thing, aided by Barney Pilling’s editing, which keeps the pace to a stroll.

Beecham House—named after Sir Thomas Beecham, the famously eccentric English conductor—is a lovely rural estate that’s been transformed into a domicile where over-the-hill orchestral and operatic performers can spend their golden years in relative comfort and comradeship. As the script, adapted by Ronald Harwood from his own play, begins, the emphasis is on three residents who are old pals who sang together on stage. The sparkplug is Wilf (Billy Connolly), who seizes on the excuse of a minor stroke to say whatever he likes whenever he chooses, including making semi-comic romantic advances to the home’s attractive young doctor (Sheridan Smith). Wilf’s closest friend is Reginald (Tom Courtenay), a restrained, staid fellow who enjoys holding classes to introduce opera to students more interested in hip-hop. And hovering around them both is Cissy (Pauline Coffins), a charmingly daffy lady who used to perform with them both.

Their delicate balance is abruptly altered with the arrival of Jean (Maggie Smith), a former prima donna who performed regularly with the trio but whose brief marriage to Reginald—which ended in her quick infidelity—has left him wounded and angry. A good deal of the picture is devoted to their gradual reconciliation.

But even more is given over to what might be described as a geriatric version of the old “let’s put on a show!” plot so beloved of old MGM Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney movies. An annual Beecham House fund-raising concert at which residents perform for contributors is being prepared by officious, flamboyant Cedric (Michael Gambon), and he has the bright idea of having Jean sing, along with Wilf, Reginald and Cissy, one of their old staples—the famous quartet from Verdi’s “Rigoletto.” Jean, knowing that her voice isn’t what it once was and preferring people to remember her from her recordings, refuses and it’s up to the others to cajole her into reconsidering. It will come as no surprise that everything culminates in the big night, when we watch various acts by residents that we’ve seen them practicing intermittently in their final form, all while the four principals struggle to overcome the last-minute obstacles to their big reunion.

All of this is harmless enough fluff, sparked by winning turns from Smith (as in “Downton Abbey” deliciously haughty), Courtenay (his customarily reserved, reticent self), Collins (the epitome of the dotty English spinster) and Gambon (furiously egotistical and imperious). A little of Connolly’s rambunctious verbalizing, frankly, goes a long way, and there’s an awful lot of it here, but the fault is more in the script, which overdoes the sort of slightly naughty banter that’s designed to appeal to the over-sixty crowd, than with the actor who delivers it. The supporting cast is filled with actual musicians and singers of a certain age, shall we say—the most notable of them soprano Gwyneth Jones, who in her big musical number at the benefit (from “Tosca”) shows that there’s plenty of strength left in her voice. A particularly nice touch occurs in the final credits, where color photos of them are placed beside black-and-white stills of their younger selves.

John de Borman’s elegantly lush widescreen cinematography gives the setting an autumnal glow in both interior and outdoor scenes, while Dario Marianelli’s score, incorporating scads of references to familiar classical standards, fits comfortably with the numerous snatches of pieces performed by the cast.

As for Hoffman, his direction doesn’t show any great personal stamp, but it’s obviously affectionate toward characters that—like him—are rather outsized individuals, and generous toward the actors playing them. His “Quartet” might not plumb any great depths, but it’s an engaging tribute to the tenacity of oldsters determined to retire without being retiring.

THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN

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B-

Setting aside the obvious redundancy of rebooting a superhero franchise with an “origins” movie despite the fact that a perfectly fine one barely a decade old already exists, Marc Webb’s “The Amazing Spider-Man” scores over Sam Raimi’s 2002 “Spider-Man” in a number of important respects. Unfortunately it also suffers from defects that keep it from the top rank in this overcrowded genre.

Like the earlier picture, this one narrates how young Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield replacing Tobey Maguire) was bitten by a radioactive spider that left him with special powers, including the ability to climb walls, and turned him to crime-fighting after the death of his beloved Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) at the hands of a robber. But it gives him a different romantic interest—Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone, just okay), like Mary Jane Watson from the comic pages—and a different villain to confront—Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), a one-armed genetics researcher whose experiments cause his transformation into The Lizard. That creature is part of the comic lore, too.

While the basic elements come from the comics, though, screenwriters James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent and Steve Kloves have tinkered with them to give the script an emphasis on Peter’s pain over the loss not simply of his uncle, but of his father as well. They’ve added a prologue that shows Richard Parker (Campbell Scott) as a colleague of Connors who’s forced to flee some nefarious baddies with his wife Mary (Embeth Davidtz), leaving young Peter (Max Charles) with Ben and his wife May (Sally Field). It’s during their attempted escape that they were killed in a car crash. It’s his discovery of his father’s long-hidden notes that takes Peter to Connors’ lab, where he’s bitten by that spider, and also gets close to Gwen, a classmate working there as an intern.

In concocting this scenario, the scripters turn Parker’s story even more than was true in the comics into one of personal loss that’s not unlike the premise of the undervalued “Superman Returns,” which was suffused with a similar longing for home and family. And because Garfield is extraordinarily good at embodying that sense of pain at the absence of his father (as well as guilt over the death of his uncle and the responsibility he feels for Connors’ passage to the dark side), the human quality of the picture is its strongest element. (Garfield, it might be noted, is convincing as a gangly high school kid even if he’s actually in his late twenties, although it was probably unwise to cast Charles as his younger self; the tyke looks as though he should have grown up to be Maguire, not his replacement in tights.)

The choice of Gwen as Peter’s girlfriend also leads to the introduction of her father, a police captain (Denis Leary), to the mix. As a result of Lear’s typically stentorian performance, Captain Stacy becomes this version’s replacement for Jonah Jameson who, along with his paper the Bugle, is imply omitted from the plot. There’s a pro forma feeling to the material involving the Stacys, but at least playing against Stone and Leary, as well as Sheen (excellent as usual) and Field, gives Garfield some good emotive opportunities.

Ifans brings a tragic quality to Connors that works well too, in the same way that Alfred Molina brought surprising depth to Doc Ock in “Spider-Man 2.” But unfortunately the choice of villains also means that we have to put up with his alter-ego, The Lizard. In effects terms the beast is decently enough rendered. But for anyone who’s seen the fifties creature feature “20 Millions Miles to Earth,” it looks all too much like a colorized version of Ray Harryhausen’s Ymir.

That might not be so problematic were the fight scenes between it and Spidey not so disappointingly messy. In “Superman Returns” Bryan Singer opted for grandeur, going for an almost balletic quality that gave his film real beauty though (some argued) stinting on the visceral excitement. A few of the choices in the action sequences here are impressive; the use of what might be termed Spidey-vision, when the camera shows his swinging from building to building from his perspective, is a particularly nifty touch. And in general the simple motion shots of the hero winging his way across the urban landscape are fine, as is a sequence in which Spidey rescues a kid from a car dangling from a bridge. (The 3D effect, especially in the IMAX format, is nicely used here.)

But when matters shift to combat between Spider-Man and the Lizard, the visuals look more plastic and computerized. That’s especially the case in the big finale, which goes for broke with a very silly scheme by Connors to release a toxin into the atmosphere that will turn all New Yorkers into reptiles, answered by Spidey’s efforts to replace it with an antidote formulated by Gwen. The confrontation includes an especially ill-advised intervention by crane operators (coincidentally colleagues of the guy whose child Spidey saved in that car), who line up their rigs to provide the wounded hero with a direct route to the Lizard. The scene of regular Joes helping out Spidey is obviously an attempt to go Raimi’s elevated-train scene in “Spider-Man 2” one better, but while the earlier sequence was mercifully small-scaled and brief, this one is huge and labored. And unfortunately it’s characteristic of the whole overstuffed last reel.

But while its Big Moments might disappoint, the more intimate ones in “The Amazing Spider-Man” are surprisingly strong, thanks to Garfield’s deft performance. He makes the movie worth watching.

Might one suggest that some enterprising writer begin work on a biographical script about Anthony Perkins as a vehicle for Garfield? His physique is spot on, and many of his expressions are extraordinarily close to the late actor’s. It would be a perfect fit.