"Give me the child until he is 7," the Jesuit saying goes, "and I will give you the man." Michael Apted's "Up" series says it's nowhere near that simple. This unique enterprise, which began as a documentary experiment almost a half century ago, has grown into an inspiring testimonial to the unpredictability of the human spirit.
The first installment, produced by Granada TV in 1964, was called "Seven Up!" The idea was to interview 14 English 7-year-olds, representing a variety of social and economic backgrounds; later, filmmakers decided to track them at seven-year intervals. The assumption was that England's class system would prove to be the main determinant of their future. Inevitably, class has played a significant role, but far from the only one. In "56 Up," you can still see flashes of persistent personality traits as the film moves back and forth between the present and haunting, black-and-white footage of the children discussing their hopes and dreams. Yet these middle-age subjects are also wondrous variations on the theme of their 7-year-old selves.
Paul, who was found living in a children's home, looked so pained way back then, so deeply unsure of himself, that it was almost painful to watch him speak, and hard not to see him as a loner-to-be. Yet here we are 49 years later and he's happily married, with kids who are fulfilling rich destinies of their own. He's not yet a poster man for self-confidence, but he knows it. He seems to get needed support from his wife, and works with her at a retirement village where, he says, people "just tend to get on with their lives no matter what."
Getting on with their lives is a pervasive theme. Tony, a tough little Cockney from London's East End, wanted to be a jockey and didn't make it, but he managed to pass The Knowledge, the formidably difficult test for London taxi drivers, then buy his own taxi and earn a good living for himself and his family. He makes fleeting allusions to his periods of wayward behavior, which he regrets, and his high hopes for a real-estate venture in Spain were blasted by the global recession, which he had predicted with fateful accuracy. Yet his anger at what he sees as the cluelessness of the governing class hasn't dampened his zest for life, or his sense of wonder at such transformations as the tatty dog track of his youth giving way to a resplendent Olympic stadium.
Suzy, born to privilege and clearly destined to be a highflier, lost altitude by quitting her boarding school at 16 and going to Paris, where she worked for a while as a secretary. But "for a while" is another of the film's pervasive themes, since many heartening changes awaited her and her fellow subjects as they grew into adults. The young woman who said she didn't like babies had three of them in a good marriage that lasted for a long while; now she seems serenely happy, and surrounded by friends and family who love her.
Life, it's been said, is what happens when you're waiting for something else. Neil has spent much of his life waiting for more of the same, meaning poverty, alienation and homelessness. Acknowledging the influence of what he terms a nervous complaint—"I sometimes can be found behaving in an erratic fashion"—this abundantly intelligent but troubled man lives inside his head, writing books that no one wants to look at, let alone publish. At the same time, and against the heavy odds of mental illness, he lives a life of public service as a local councilman and lay minister. Since neither post pays a decent wage, he is both an integral part of the community and someone who continues to live, almost homeless, on its margins.
Neil resents the supposed celebrity that the "Up" series has brought him. "It's not for this program to expose my private feelings, and yet many people feel that it has." Other subjects question whether the series has provided rounded pictures of who they are, or only snippets of their lives at set intervals. Over the course of 49 years, however, these snippets have coalesced into an enthralling group portrait, not yet complete by any means, of individuals who have flourished, for the most part, thanks to their own resilience; who have been nourished, to a remarkable degree, by loving spouses and family; and whose grave disappointments, in a few instances, have been less attributable to the grip of class than to the vagaries of economics.
Last week the journal Science published news of a fascinating psychological study, involving 19,000 people ages 18 to 68, in which subjects consistently underestimated the degree to which they would change in the future, even though they knew how much they had changed in the past. "56 Up" reminds us that change is ceaseless and often dramatic, bringing growth we could never have dreamed of as little kids.
When the classic Warner Bros. logo comes on the screen at the start of "Gangster Squad," it's in a tint, somewhere between color and black-and-white, that holds out a twofold promise: post-World War II Los Angeles brought back to life in the lavish style that only a Hollywood studio can provide, and a movie from the studio that made many of the greatest gangster films in Hollywood history. The first part of the promise pays off. The style is sumptuous—film noir rendered in the saturated hues of "Dick Tracy"—and the details are a historian's delight: Union Station, the Brown Derby, Slapsy Maxie's, Clifton's Cafeteria, Zippo lighters all a-click, streetcars sharing the streets with shiny Packards, Cadillacs, Studebakers, Hudsons, a fugitive Nash and a stately Chrysler Airflow. The second part pays off for a while with audaciously lurid characters and over-the-top action, but there's only so much style can do to spiff up shriveled substance.
The story, a freewheeling fiction that Will Beall concocted from Paul Lieberman's nonfiction book of the same name, concerns six LAPD cops recruited to be as ruthless as their adversary, the mobster Mickey Cohen, who's played by Sean Penn. (Think "The Dirty Half-Dozen," "Dragnet" without scruples or "L.A. Confidential" dumbed down and heated up, but especially "The Untouchables," reprocessed with supplementary gunfights that grow numbing and interminable.)
The squad members include Josh Brolin's Sgt. John O'Mara, an honest cop who's better at plunging in and punching out than at abstract thought; Ryan Gosling's Sgt. Jerry Wooters, a blithely amorous ironist, and four other explosive picaresques played by Anthony Mackie, Robert Patrick, Giovanni Ribisi and Michael Peña. Emma Stone is Grace, Cohen's girlfriend and "etiquette tutor." Mr. Penn's psychopathic monster is fun to watch when he's contemplating violence or unspeakable mutilation, but not when he's committing it. And an extraordinary amount of mayhem is committed, so much so that the movie's original opening last fall was delayed after the movie-theater massacre in Aurora, Colo.; some of the violence was dialed down (not all that much, to judge from what's still on screen), and a sequence depicting gunfire in a movie theater was relocated to a soundstage Chinatown.
In the standout gangster epics of Hollywood's golden era, singular actors like James Cagney played unforgettable individuals—not a few of them raging psychopaths—with a fervor that still made room for moral complexity. The battling brutes of this tale aren't meant to measure up to such illustrious antecedents; they're only offered as action cartoons. But Mr. Beall, a former LAPD cop, has written a script so devoid of feeling that the cartoons blur into thin line drawings, while what's been done with the marvelous Ms. Stone—i.e. next to nothing—is downright criminal. The director, Ruben Fleischer, previously worked with Ms. Stone and Jesse Eisenberg, among others, in "Zombieland," which was as light on its feet as this one is leaden. The unsung stars of "Gangster Squad" are the production designer, Maher Ahmad, the costume designer, Mary Zophres, and the cinematographer, Dion Beebe. They're the elegance squad.—J.M.
Before we get to the quartet in "Quartet," which is set in a comfortable English home for retired musicians, let me tell you about a duet performed by a couple of aged vaudevillians, with accompaniment from a geezer's muted trumpet. Their song, the golden oldie "Are You Havin' Any Fun?," comes out of nowhere, and provides a delightfully raffish interlude in an unexpectedly affecting comedy about people who, as one phrase of the lyric understates it, "ain't gonna live forever."
How much fun you have in the early stretches of the film, which marks Dustin Hoffman's directorial debut, may depend on your tolerance for geriatric whimsy. (Ronald Harwood adapted his stage play to the screen.) Cissy, a dotty old dame played by Pauline Collins, is always amused, she says, when people say that old age isn't for sissies. Billy Connolly's Wilf keeps making suggestive remarks to a pretty resident doctor played by Sheridan Smith. Only later do we learn that Wilf's lechery is his stroke talking; a mild frontal-lobe episode has made it difficult for him to censor himself. But the story is soon enriched by Tom Courtenay's presence as Reg, who has taken up residence in the home out of concern for his old friend Wilf's well-being. Then things take a turn for the dramatic with the arrival of Reg's ex-wife Jean (Maggie Smith). She's there as a charity resident, after falling on hard times, but Reg, still wounded by betrayal and divorce, wishes she weren't there at all.
Cissy, Wilf, Reg and Jean are former opera singers with once-lustrous reputations; they constitute the movie's quartet of central characters. The plot turns on the question of whether they'll be willing and able to sing the quartet from "Rigoletto" in a concert that may provide the retirement home with desperately needed funds. It's a pleasure to watch the working-out of the predictable conflict: the prideful Jean won't take part, no matter what, even though we know that she will in the end. But it's a privilege to watch peerless actors at the peak of their powers: Ms. Smith, revealing the terror beneath Jean's pride; Mr. Courtenay, expressing Reg's deep hurt, and his need for reconciliation, with exquisite delicacy. Mr. Hoffman's direction is impeccable, John de Borman's camera bathes the story in warm radiance, and the end credits are not to be missed, since they reveal who's really who in the supporting cast.
'Coal Miner's Daughter' (1980)
Michael Apted has called the "Up" series the experience he treasures most in his career, but there's so much for us to treasure in his exemplary biography of the country singer Loretta Lynn. Sissy Spacek's performance in the title role won her a richly deserved Oscar, and it's complemented brilliantly by Tommy Lee Jones as Loretta's husband, Doolittle Lynn, and Levon Helm as her father, Ted Webb. Tom Rickman adapted the screenplay, a model of its kind, from the autobiography that Lynn wrote with George Vecsey.
'The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner' (1962)
Tom Courtenay was a skinny 25-year-old when he played the title role in Tony Richardson's contribution to the angry-young-man cycle of English films. Mr. Richardson's angry-old-man saga, "The Entertainer," is the superior film, thanks to the one-of-a-kind performance of Laurence Olivier, but Mr. Courtenay is pretty remarkable as a reform-school boy who navigates the perils of his institution by running, and running, and then, provocatively, stopping. Michael Redgrave is the reformatory governor. Alan Sillitoe expanded the screenplay from his story of the same name. Walter Lassally did the excellent black-and-white cinematography; the story couldn't have worked in color.
'The Hurt Locker' (2009)
Yes, it won an Oscar, and it was directed by Kathryn Bigelow from a screenplay by Mark Boal; they're the team who did "Zero Dark Thirty." But I'm directing you to it now because the superb Anthony Mackie, whose talents are totally squandered as a knife-wielding cop in "Gangster Squad," plays one of the three men in the film's bomb squad, operating in wartime Iraq. Far from being squandered, Mr. Mackie is coolly impressive and intensely effective. (The other two are played by Jeremy Renner and Brian Geraghty.) The cast also includes Guy Pearce, whose role is notably foreshortened.
Write to Joe Morgenstern at firstname.lastname@example.org
Corrections & Amplifications
The creators of the film "Seven Up!" later decided to track its subjects every seven years. An earlier version of this column incorrectly said they made that decision at the time of the original film. Also, a scene in the film "Gangster Squad" takes place in a soundstage Chinatown. An earlier version incorrectly said the scene showed a soundstage in Chinatown.
A version of this article appeared January 11, 2013, on page D3 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: '56 Up': Life, Not by the Numbers.