Thursday, November 29, 2012

Movies that aren't about what they're about: A Late Quartet and Brooklyn Castle

Someone on a mailing list I subscribe to reviewed Brooklyn Castle, starting out with "even if you're not interested in chess (I'm sure not!), you should see Brooklyn Castle, because it's not really about chess..."

Or something like that. We've all heard or said something like that as a recommendation, and it fits both of these movies to a certain extent: A Late Quartet is less about people who play classical music than a close-knit group pulling itself apart, and Brooklyn Castle is more about how schools enrich kids outside of pure knowledge than chess. Sometimes that's for better, as Brooklyn Castle actually has worthwhile messages to impart about education and the importance of what schools do outside the classroom, and sometimes for worse, as A Late Quartet becomes a pretty standard soap opera.

I must admit, though, that as I say it, I cringe a little bit, even when talking about a movie where this is a benefit. Would it be so bad if Brooklyn Castle was "about chess"? As much as I like the movie, I think a lot of documentaries wind up talking to a too-receptive audience at times because they are trying to influence opinion as opposed to give information. By including "it's not really about..." when we recommend movies, especially documentaries, we do two things: First, we wind up steering films toward people who maybe won't take anything new away from them. It strikes me that it might be useful to use things like the chess in Brooklyn Castle almost like a trojan horse, to deliver a message about how important enrichment programs are to those who might not already be on board.

But more importantly, it means we're recommending stuff by saying that the audience won't learn something new, like that's a positive! It doesn't just hold with documentaries, either; I saw a review of A Late Quartet that implied the classical music stuff was dull and the soap opera material was the interesting drama, which is pretty close to the opposite of how I viewed it. After all, the melodrama was familiar (and not that well-executed), while the music was potentially new. I would have enjoyed learning more. That's an issue I often have with documentaries - the ones I find most fascinating are the ones that deliver knowledge, while the ones I often see praised are often the ones which feature narrative and a message. Even in a narrative feature, though, I really like learning new things, and find it odd that it is so often treated as something only to be reluctantly included in features.

A Late Quartet

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 22 November 2012 in Somerville Theatre #2 (second-run, digital)

A Late Quartet starts out with a fair amount of promise: It's got a cast full of fine character actors, a somewhat unusual setting in the world of classical music, and a premise that is easy to grasp but which has the potential for great drama. All of this is good enough that when the story wanders into conventional soap opera territory, one might groan a little - all the movie has going for it, and they're going to spend time on this?

The New York-based string quartet "Fugue" has been playing together for about twenty-five years. Peter Mitchell (Christopher Walken), the oldest member, plays cello; Daniel Lerner (Mark Ivanir) is first violin; Robert Gelbart (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is second; and his wife Juliette (Catherine Keener) plays viola. They're intertwined in other ways, too; Peter is a professor during the off-season and the Gelbarts' daughter Alexandra (Imogen Poots) is in his class, good enough that he recommends Daniel tutor her. It's a cozy situation, but a tremor in Peter's hands turns out to be the early stages of Parkinson's, and medication can only do so much for so long.

Writer/director Yaron Zilberman establishes a couple of interesting and overlapping themes early on: There's the fear of change versus its absolute inevitability; there's how music can be a living, evolving thing from performance to performance or static and practiced, and how people can be much the same. Zilberman doesn't play coy with any of this; heck, Peter ruminates on those sort of things when lecturing Alex's class. But there's something to it, and the details of this particular setting are interesting enough to resonate for even non-enthusiasts.

Full review at EFC.

Brooklyn Castle

* * * (out of four)
Seen 23 November 2012 in Landmark Kendall Square #8 (first-run, digital)

Chess isn't the only noteworthy extracurricular at Brooklyn's Intermediate School 318 - principal Fred Rubino mentions that marching band and other activities may also have funding issues in one scene of Brooklyn Castle - but the students there are remarkably accomplished at it, having won (as of the time of filming) 57 school, grade-level, and individual trophies since the program began a dozen or so years earlier, and they send dozens of students to tournaments to which schools that don't have sixty percent of their students living below the poverty line only send a handful. That's a bunch of kids with interesting stories that make for a pretty good movie.

The documentary doesn't focus on the whole team, of course, but about a half-dozen students: Rochelle, about to enter high school and on track to become the first black female to attain a "master" rating; Pobo, a gregarious kid and natural leader also involved in student government; Alexis, the son of South American immigrants worried about which high school he'll be accepted to; Justus, a soft-spoken prodigy with confidence issues; James, a much more outgoing sixth-grader with similar talent; and Patrick, a kid with ADHD and an uphill climb to make the travel team. Time is also spent with their families and teachers.

Here's something to ponder - if you made Brooklyn Castle about the marching band, or the swim team, or some other activity, you could make a great many of the same points but get different reactions from the audience. The movie is not, as one might assure potential audience members, "about chess", but chess might seem a particularly worthy activity to viewers, since it seems closer to academics than most of the others. One of the interesting ideas lurking around the edges, though, is that this is not necessarily the case: The kids fill their schedule with up to seven chess classes per week and are just as nervous about placement tests as any student. Rochelle's mother, though supportive, points out that regular schoolwork must come first.

Full review at EFC.

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