Liz Smith: Are Movies Better Than Ever?

“EVERTHING I learned, I learned from the movies,” said Audrey Hepburn.

BELIEVE IT or not! I have seen three movies I actually liked in this era of diminished movie-going. (Hollywood itself is practically on the ropes from loss of planning, self-confidence, belief in story-telling, outrageous re-runs,costs, sequels, prequels, landslides of vampires, aliens and other horrible things — and all the rest of it.)

And when I went to actual movie houses last week to see “Robot & Frank” … “Arbitrage” … “The Bourne Legacy” — well, I have to admit it cost a lot for tickets and there was almost no audience at the times attended.

BUT Frank Langella’s masterful way of pretending to be an encroaching Alzheimer’s-afflicted former petty crook is a stand-out performance in “Robot & Frank.” It will surely get him Oscar-nominated.

The robot his children employ to take care of him is just the most delightful and intelligent machine one has ever or will ever encounter. And having a robot one can speak to and argue with no longer seems to be a science fiction concoction because news comes as I write this that such robots are being perfected now. (According to Newsweek/Newsbeast/The Daily Beast of September 24th, the future is already well along the way. See “The Next Generation of Rescue Robots May Look Human.”)

If you want to be charmed for two hours, go see “Robot & Frank.” Thankfully, this is a “little” film with no car crashes and its story-line criminality seems less offensive because the character against whom it is perpetuated is such a jerk. (I know that’s no excuse but never mind …)

LONG AGO I used to hang out with a former showgirl and woman who married well — the delightful Dorothy Strelsin — and so I met a young actor who I thought might be going places. His name? Richard Gere.

Now Richard is doing some of his best work to date in a film that is really “about” something — Wall Street malfeasance, ambition, hard work, illusions of well being, infidelity to ideals, children and wives.

I enjoyed “Arbitrage” — which seems loosely inspired by the infamous Bernie Madoff case — from beginning to end. Here’s a modern story with an actual plot and Richard Gere is much more attractive — and getting away with a lot more — than the real Bernie Madoff.

HERE’S a good thing about both films mentioned above. The wife in each story is played by none other than Susan Sarandon. In one, she is quietly appealing, charmingly human, open and welcoming as a librarian presiding over the liquidation of actual printed books and paper.

In the second film, Susan is a chic, tough-minded and surprisingly tolerant betrayed soul who is determined to “get even” in the end. She does. She is magnificent in both movies.

ANOTHER FACET of this film that I loved was seeing my friend, the editor of Vanity Fair, Graydon Carter, playing an important role. With his white fly-away hair and his carefully delineated performance of a withholding high-finance guy, he is stellar and proves he can act with the best of them.

He didn’t have to “act” like a good guy; his real character showed through. Graydon is a man in love with his wife and children and I thought in a money-mad movie, his plus virtues of good-humor and quick silver decisions were very much in evidence. Also, he looks like a character nobody could make up.

I WAS desperate when I went to see “The Bourne Legacy,” wondering what they could possibly do for an encore based on a rogue CIA operative who nobody can seem to kill in the many over-lapping government secret agencies set up for espionage. (In these enclaves, nobody knows what anybody else is doing, everyone is quite adequately paranoid and ruthless. This, in itself, is plenty scarey without special effects!)

But the newcomer rebel, Jeremy Renner, and his surprised-upon doctor researcher Rachel Weisz make excellent protagonists against the powers that be.

The plot is so convoluted that you have to follow closely the secretive people who are inventing drugs — in pill form — for super-human stamina and intelligence, making mistakes that kill their own agents, enabling someone to launch himself across an impossible icy chasm, chasing their own operatives with killer drones, etc. (There is the usual killer chase on motorcycles through the crowded streets of Manila and I could have done with less of that because it is pretty unbelievable!)

But what helps in this Bourne escapade, fully set up for another to follow, is the casting of fabulous actors in smaller roles — Ed Norton, Stacy Keach, Scott Glenn, David Strathairn, Donna Murphy, Michael Chernus, Albert Finney and Joan Allen (the latter two are holdover from the previous “Bourne” movies.) They manage to move the plot along because they are so good, even if you seldom know which branch of what secretive government world they represent.

My favorite moment in this movie — the hero, Mr. Renner, almost-bewildered-by-his-fate, manages to trick a wolf in Alaska in order to fake his own death. The wolf “buys” it and our leading man goes on to mayhem and the strength and cunning that his handlers have devised for him in pill form.

You have to pay attention, but it’s worth it! And, I am definitely waiting for the invention of the blue pill and the green one.

This column originally appeared on NYSocialDiary.com on 9/24/12

2 comments so far.

  1. avatar Carl Monroe says:

    great to see you at the Gloria Vanderbilt thing the other week, it’s been thirty years since i drove you around Birmingham but it seems like a minute, doesn’t it? Mary Elizabeth, you done us proud. Dean

  2. avatar Rho says:

    My nephew’s wife’s first cousin is in Robot and Frank.  His name is Jeremy Strong.