TIFF 2012 Part II

Films reviewed here:

  • Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God
  • When Day Breaks
  • Quartet
  • Lore
  • Still
  • Hyde Park on Hudson
  • A Few Hours of Spring
  • Great Expectations
  • A Late Quartet
  • The Suicide Shop

Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God ***

Directed by Alex Gibney / USA

Twenty years ago, I sat in the Cumberland cinema watching John N. Smith’s The Boys of St. Vincent, a two-part docudrama from the National Film Board about child abuse in the Mt. Cashel orphanage.  At the time, the topic was highly controversial and there were debates about whether the CBC would air the film.  The Church and other institutions run for the supposed good of children could still pretend that child abuse didn’t happen or was extremely rare.  Defenders could still huff and puff with credibility about how their work was insulted and defamed by the accusations.

Times have changed, or should have.

Alex Gibney’s target is much higher than a parish priest, a teacher or a Scout master — it is the Pope himself.  The office responsible for dealing with unsavoury clerics was once headed by Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope.  He would have known the long history of cases going back decades, the coverups, the confidential settlements, the shuffling of bad priests between parishes.

Silence in the House of God covers some familiar territory, but its focus is five students who were abused at St. John’s School for the Deaf in Wisconsin during the 1950s.  Their history provides the long trail right to the top of the Church.

After setting us up for a great, institution-wrecking scandal, Gibney backs away leaving the impression that Pope Benedict actually would prefer a stronger attack on corruption within the Church, but is a prisoner of the Curia.  The wrong-doers have powerful friends.  Gibney left me feeling uncertain just what he believed, and the conclusion does not fit with the arc he was following.

I came away from this screening disappointed by the hype in its program description, but, far worse, saddened.  The subject is now so commonplace, outrage and denial battle out of public view while the “news” looks elsewhere for scandal, or simply closes it eyes.

This is an HBO production, and it will screen in the USA in November 2012.

When Day Breaks / Kad Svane Dan ***½

Directed by Goran Paskaljevic / Serbia / Croatia / France

Misha Brankov is a kindly, retired music teacher living in Belgrade.  His life is moderately comfortable, and he is respected by his colleagues and students, even if he’s a bit old fashioned for their taste.  One day, he receives a box from the Jewish Museum that has been unearthed on the site of a former fairground, a site that became an internment camp not long after it opened.  In the box are documents from Misha’s family, his real family, one he didn’t know existed.

When the Jews were rounded up, Misha’s parents gave their young son to friends, the Brankovs, and he grew up as a Serb on their farm.  Misha’s real name is Weiss, and late in life his family history has been turned upside down.  In the box is an unfinished piece of music by his father, Isaac, and Misha’s dream is for this to be performed.  He tries to get friends to lend their orchestra and choir to the cause, but they (who are Serbs) don’t care about the past.

One of Misha’s students, a promising violinist, lives in a rundown Roma village on the former campsite.  A Roma band will play the music instead.

After the screening, director Goran Paskaljevic talked about “Misha” and the problems of modern Serbia.

The character Misha is based on a close friend.  He is played by Mustafa Nedarevic, a Muslim who lives in England, works in Sarajevo playing Croatian roles, and here plays a Serb, then Jew living in Belgrade.  He is a wonderful soul, a man out of his time, and it is the strength and tenderness of his acting that make this story work so well.

The abandoned fairground is real.  It still exists in the heart of Belgrade as a Roma camp, a sad, ignored reminder of a dark past many would prefer to forget.

Quartet ***

Directed by Dustin Hoffman / UK / Adapted from the play by Ronald Harwood

Quartet, Dustin Hoffman’s first feature as a director, is a marvellous film to watch, almost like a theatrical version of Masterpiece Theatre complete with the usual rep company of actors.  It is an entertainment, and a chance to see favourites do their star turns, but nothing more.  With an A-list cast and a small predictable plot, the fun is in watching the story unfold.

The scene is a very well-to-do seniors’ home for retired musicians, Beecham House, one that is sufficiently grand to be at home in period drama and certainly better than the digs most retired artists can afford.  Indeed, the “extras” in the cast are just that — retirees — and when called on to perform, they certainly can.  (Stay for the credits to see who they all are with touching then and now photos.)

There is a house tradition of mounting the quartet from Rigoletto as an annual gala on Verdi’s birthday.  Cedric (Michael Gambon) is very much the head of this production, although his cast tends to ignore him while he flaps about trying to pull things together.  Wilf (Billy Connolly) and Cissy (Pauline Collins) are chums each coming apart at the seams in their own way, while Reggie (Tom Courtenay) has a more reserved, older-but-wiser feel.  Into this mix comes Jean, Reggie’s ex-wife (Maggie Smith), still very much the diva and definitely not accustomed to retirement and her somewhat reduced surroundings (if one can call Beecham House “reduced”).

A conflict is inevitable between Reggie and Jean.  Cissy might not even make it to performance night after a fall brings on a minor stroke, and Cedric worries incessantly that his show won’t come off.  In the end, everything (well mostly everything) works out.

Hoffman has the good sense not to have his non-singing stars actually attempt Verdi.  We know their characters have sung it, in spite of themselves.

If anything, Quartet is just light comedy, even if a bit too neatly worked out.  Much loved actors are together on the screen with the real musicians behind them doing minor turns.  We will miss them all soon enough.

Opens January 2013.

Lore ****

Directed by Cate Shortland / Australia / UK / Germany / Adapted from Rachael Seiffert’s “The Dark Room” by Robin Mukerjee and Cate Shortland

We are in Germany at the end of World War II.  The family of an SS officer is preparing to leave home in Bavaria, destroying papers, to vanish if they can.  Meanwhile, their children are not quite sure what is happening — they have lived a well-off, sheltered life thanks to their father’s position.  Now they will be left to make do on their own.

The eldest, Hannelore (Saskia Rosendahl) takes charge four younger siblings — her twin brothers, a sister and infant Peter — on a trek to Hamburg where their grandmother lives.  They have little money and jewelery to trade for food, and co-operation from those they meet becomes progressively harder.  One of the twins even gets them kicked out of a temporary home for stealing, and a petulant, indulged childhood does them little good in new circumstances.

On the road, they meet Thomas (Kai-Peter Molina), a man with Jewish papers who clearly knows how to look after himself.  He is rather well fed for a Jew in these times, and his skills suggest a military background.  Thanks to Thomas, the children get through a few scrapes, but Lore remains dismissive of Thomas as a Jew, a type she has been brought up to hate, despite the help he brings.  Only much later will she learn that this is a false identity, one taken because “the Americans like Jews” and it will make things easier for him with occupying forces.

Eventually, the children will reach grandma’s house, but the war will never leave Lore who has seen too much, and fallen from privilege to the role of a hated German.

Lore is a movie told, for “our” audience, from an unfamiliar viewpoint.  We see the fall of Germany from the losers’ point of view, but the children are guilty of little more than being born into a military family.  Lore is not entirely sympathetic, and she still carries some of the arrogance of her former life.  It is hard not to watch this story through a lens of revenge, and our view of innocence is relative to a context we know through history far better than the characters we watch.

Shortland’s direction is excellent and never falls into tear-jerking melodrama.  The performances from the child actors, especially Saskia Rosendahl, are strong and without this the story would not work.  This movie is difficult to watch, but very much worth seeing.

Lore has opened in Australia.  It has a US distributor but no announced opening date there.

Still ***

Written and Directed by Michael McGowan / Canada

Craig and Irene Morrison are a crusty old couple living on their farm.  The family house is old and sturdy, but Irene’s declining health makes it difficult navigate.  Craig decides to build a new one.  If that’s all that happened, our story would be over before the titles.

St. Martins, New Brunswick, may be rural, but officialdom and bureaucracy find their way even into small places.  Craig’s small-scale farming runs afoul of new food regulations, and his do-it-yourself building project attracts a building inspector who insists on all manner of detailed plans and adherence to codes.  Craig himself is a carpenter, the son of a shipbuilder, and he knows how to build a house.  His attitude to the inspector is to ignore him with open contempt for rules that make no allowance for skill and experience.

Meanwhile, Irene’s health problems and the difficulties they brings to Craig are a battle on a much smaller, personal scale.  Will the new house even be finished while Irene can enjoy it?

James Cromwell and Genviève Bujold are magnificent as the Morrisons.  Cromwell has just the right mix of cantankerous stubbornness and tender love for his wife.  Bujold is just as strong, but in a quieter way.  Together they are a perfect fit.  The movie is really Cromwell’s as the main plot turns on his attempts to just carry on life in a way he (and by extension, the audience) regards as perfectly reasonable.

Eventually, Rick the inspector (Jonathan Potts) wins out, and Craig winds up in court to defend the new house from demolition.  He wins at least a détente, and the Morrisons move in to live out their remaining lives.

Watching this story, I couldn’t help wondering how much was true, and this question came up after the screening.  Director Michael McGowan replied that, broadly, the scenario was accurate, although the timeline has been compressed for dramatic reasons.  For example, the Morrison’s legal battles were more complex with five separate court appearances.  The compromise verdict allows the house to remain while they live.  Irene’s health has now declined and she is in a nursing home.  Whether the house will ever be torn down remains to be seen.

Oddly enough, Still was actually shot mostly in Golden Valley, Ontario (south of Lake Nipissing) with only the scenes around the trial in St. Martin’s itself.  Mongrel Media is the Canadian distributor, but there is not yet a release date.

Hyde Park on Hudson **½

Directed by Roger Michell / UK

What more could one ask for?  Bill Murray as a feisty Franklin D. Roosevelt.  King George VI and Queen Elizabeth.  A love interest on the side with Laura Linney.  For starters I would hope for better balance and credibility among the characters, and less of an homage to a President from a film produced in the UK.

The story occurs at Springwood, a country estate in Hyde Park, New York, owned by Roosevelt’s mother.  FDR gets away from the pressure and scrutiny of Washington with weekend escapes, and it’s here where we meet another side of the great man.

One day, a distant cousin, Margaret “Daisy” Suckley (Linney), receives an unexpected invitation to visit the President.  Her job, it seems, is to be a diversion, someone to amuse him and, as it will later develop, to help with physical urges that his wife, Eleanor (Olivia Williams), finds unappealing.  Daisy doesn’t quite know how to deal with the attention and her growing role as a common sight around Springwood.  Although she may be part of the furniture, Daisy is not alone and will find that FDR has other diversions.

The centrepiece of the story is a visit from the King and Queen.  This is a very different couple, almost unrecognizable, from the pair many will know from “The King’s Speech”.  His Majesty (Samuel West) is unsure of himself, and is forced to match his own reticence against the brash American’s extrovert character.  If you believe the King would have been somewhat scattered and intimidated by his task in meeting FDR, then West’s portrayal works well.

The Queen (Olivia Colman) reeks of disdain and barely tolerates those who are so far below her socially though they may be a politically powerful family.  She is particularly annoyed to find the bedroom decorated with prints of the Americans defeating the Brits in the war of 1812.  Unfortunately, Colman portrays Queen Elizabeth as remote an out of touch, not the sort of reputation the future Queen Mother would have especially after her wartime experiences.

There is some good comedy in the collision of American cuisine with British manners as FDR organizes a picnic at which hot dogs will be served.  The Queen regards this as gauche, a trivialization of the visit, but King George is game.  His bite into the hot dog cements friendship between two nations and sets the stage for their alliance.  Well, yes, maybe.  As for Daisy, invited to the picnic by FDR, one must wonder whether a hot dog is just a hot dog.

Bill Murray manages to pose well as FDR, but the script doesn’t tell us much about him beyond being a self-centred man used to ordering the world to suit his fancy.  Only in his private chat with King George does he come out of himself with a father-and-son sort of relationship that actually seems to work.

I found this part of the story particularly unsatisfying because it implies FDR made King George what he was, gave him confidence in his future as a leader of his country, and all that followed might have been different otherwise.

All-in-all, the script felt like a cobbled-together comedy of manners.  Daisy’s story gives us, the audience, a viewpoint of a simple person caught up with great people, and an excuse for a fly-on-the-wall view of events.  The royal visit would not stand on its own, and the movie needs the frame of FDR’s dalliances to fill out the time and the plot.   Is it a valid portrait of any of the characters, or an appropriation of real people with too much dramatic license?

My vote is for the latter and, hence, my low rating.

A Few Hours of Spring / Quelques heures de printemps ***

Directed by Stéphane Brizé / France

By now, you have probably noticed that many of my selections in this year’s festival concern the elderly.  We seem to have a bumper crop both because audiences are aging, and because there is a wealth of acting talent among the older generation.

As A Few Hours of Spring begins, Alain (Vincent Lindon) is fresh out of prison, without work and broke.  He moves in with his mother Yvette (Hélène Vincent), a woman set in her ways, her routines, in having everything “just so” in her apartment and her life.  It is not a happy arrangement.

Alain gets a job and, later, a girlfriend Clémence (Emmanuelle Seigner) but the conflict with Yvette continues.  When he learns that his mother has cancer and is planning assisted suicide in Switzerland, Alain must stop thinking just of himself.

That journey is shot in a matter-of-fact way, and this perpetuates Yvette’s love for order and preparation right up to the end.  Only in her final moments does she confess to Alain that she is afraid of dying, and the two finally share a last intimacy.

Distributed in Canada by Les Films Seville.

Great Expectations **½

Directed by Mike Newell / UK

I had great expectations for this movie, but was disappointed, hence the less than stellar rating.  The plot is well-known and there are plenty of movie and TV adaptations as a point of comparison.  (I will say right up front that my favourite is the 1999 BBC version with Charlotte Rampling, Ioan Gruffudd and Bernard Hill.)  When a director like Mike Newell comes along with an A-list cast including Ralph Fiennes, Helena Bonham-Carter and Robbie Coltrane, I expect an event.

What I got was more a sketch that left me wondering how Dickens would ever get by within the limits of a 2-hour screenplay.  Fiennes is suitably threatening as Magwitch and Bonham-Carter isn’t too over-the-top as Miss Havisham (type casting, you say?), but a lot goes by too quickly, notably the whole back-story of Joe the blacksmith and his family.

In recent years, I have noticed that the Dickens adaptations are getting shorter and shorter, budget cuts no doubt the reason, but in the process are losing the very details that make the stories Dickensian.  Production values and great actors can’t make up for cuts and simplification in the text.

A Late Quartet ***½

Directed by Yaron Zilberman / USA / Screenplay by Yaron Zilberman & Seth Grossman

A Late Quartet brings us a new feature director, Yaron Zilberman, and a story with music that doesn’t require the audience to be filled with classical aficionados.  Four string players, the “Fugue Quartet” are about to launch their 25th season.  When they gather for rehearsals after a summer break, something is not quite right — the cellist, Peter,  keeps running aground with fingering and cannot keep up with the other players.  Soon, he will learn that he has Parkinson’s disease and will have to retire.

Long-lasting string quartets are a family, of sorts, and losing one player is difficulty for everyone.  Each has a different reaction.  Their debate about who should replace Peter turns on how each sees the quartet and whether it should even continue.

This type of story could be quite trivial, of passing interest even to chamber music fans, without the care that has been taken by the director and the wonderful cast.  The quartet itself — first violin Daniel (Mark Ivanir); second violin Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffmann); viola Juliette (Catherine Keener); cello Peter (Christopher Walken) — is not just actors playing at being a quartet.  There is a real sense of four people who have shared their adult lives and now face a breakup.

The quartet credibly acts the role of musicians.  Zilberman took pains to understand what quartet playing was all about, photographing a real quartet (The Brentano, who also provide the music) and deciding on which passages, which points of view would be included in the screenplay.  The actors worked with music coaches so that they could “play” credibly along with the music track without the usual cinematic diversions of keeping the instruments out of shot or using doubles for the fingerwork.  This allows the physicality of playing to be on screen together with the facial expressions and the interaction between players so crucial to a live performance.

Christopher Walken is particularly good as Peter, a role where (as he said in an interview) he is not playing a monster, for a change.  Peter is older than the other members of the quarter, and this alters his relationship to them.  As the first to reach an age and condition where he must retire, Peter forces the group to look at themselves and who they will be.  This is a family story, sort of, but without the usual relationships.

The only false note for me was an affair between Daniel and Alexandra (Imogen Potts), daughter of Juliette and Robert.  This had the feeling of an invented crisis, a way to drive a wedge between members of the quartet who were already dealing with their professional breakup.  Daniel has to have everything just so (his highly annotated music has a level of detail beyond credibility, and I have looked over the shoulder of a lot of players at concerts in my time sitting down front in audiences), and his affair seems to be as much something born of a need to prove himself.  A dramatic device, maybe, but it doesn’t feel right.

The work they are playing isn’t just any quartet, it is Beethoven’s Opus 131, the quartet in C#-minor, written near the end of his life and in a completely radical structure of seven connected movements.  Zilberman mentioned at the Q&A that his film follows the arc of the music with discrete sections mirroring the temperament of each movement.  I had not noticed this during the screening, but will be watching and listening when I get a chance to see this movie again.

I’m not sure whether this movie will find an audience based on its cast and hold them, draw them into its world of chamber music and the complex relationship of players who must know and trust each other so well over so many years.  I hope so.  Opening is planned for late November.

The Suicide Shop **

Directed by Patrice Leconte / France / Belgium / Canada

My first exposure to Patrice Leconte came with the film Monsieur Hire, and I have looked forward to his work ever since.  Here, in 2012, Leconte arrives with an animated film, and not just that, a musical about a shop where suicide is the family business.  Certainly that’s dark enough for starters, and could be another little gem like Les Triplettes de Belleville.  Alas, it didn’t turn out that way.

The premise is wonderful — Le magazin des suicides has been a family business since the mid-19th century thriving on the need to help needy folks on their way, so to speak, in just the right manner.  There is only one problem — the next generation arrives in the form of Alan Tuvache, a son with a sparking, sunny outlook on life.  He is not cut out for the darker side of, er, life.

The first problem is that Leconte (or maybe his producers) decided to go with 3D, but this isn’t stop-action, and the result is 2D characters manipulated in space to give a sense of depth.  For me, the 3D just got in the way and made me think this was lazy animation, an alternative to actually drawing depth into the picture.

The second problem is that the “musical” side of this movie gets out of control, especially toward the end, and what could have been a tight plot gets tedious as we wait for the song to get out of the way.

This would have been a good one-hour romp, but at 79 minutes, Leconte overstays his welcome.