Sunday, September 30, 2012

Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence In The House Of God [film review]

After looking at the world of NHL pugilists in last year's outstanding The Last Gladiators (read my review here), Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence In The House Of God finds director Alex Gibney returning to investigating abuses of power, a theme that has served him well in past efforts like Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room and the Oscar-winning Taxi To The Dark Side. This disturbing exposé on the problem of child and youth sexual abuse in the Catholic Church focusses partly on the stories of five deaf men who are thought to be the first individuals to ever publicly protest abuses by clergy in the United States, after they were victimized by Father Lawrence Murphy at St. John's School for the Deaf in the suburbs of Milwaukee during the 60s and 70s. Gibney also takes a broader view of the subject by looking at other cases of clergy abuse (notably in Ireland) and the systematic cover-ups of these crimes by the Catholic Church's top officials, whose unofficial policy on the matter is to "deny, minimize, and blame", according to one journalist interviewed. "Mea Maxima Culpa's" Latin translation is "my most grievous fault".

Although the five St. John's victims have been working for over three decades to call attention to the issue and seek justice for their suffering, their story gained traction after New York Times writer Laurie Goodstein wrote an article in 2010 about the Vatican's failure to defrock Murphy, despite the fact that they were presented with undeniable evidence of his crimes and received strong warnings from some American church officials. Murphy is believed to have molested over 200 boys at the boarding school from the 50s until 1974, when he was transferred to another parish. The Vatican was alerted of Murphy's behaviour in 1963 and did nothing. Actors Jamey Sheridan, Chris Cooper, Ethan Hawke, and John Slattery give voice to the victims, who use sign language with punctuated hand slaps to express the horrors they endured at the hand of Murphy and the shame that followed. Murphy's textbook predatory behaviour found him singling out what he perceived as the weaker students and further exploiting the fact that they faced an obvious barrier in communicating over the phone with their families. Three of the victims, including Terry Kohut, who sued the Catholic Church and named the current Pope in his lawsuit, were on hand for the world premiere TIFF screening I attended and gave their emotional reaction to it afterwards at the Q & A through a sign language interpreter. Just knowing that they were in the audience and reliving their pain while seeing the finished film for the first time added an extra significance and weight to the proceedings.

The investigations resulting from the Kohut lawsuit ended up leading to the discovery of secret Vatican documents that detailed many instances of sexual abuse cover-ups that reach to the highest levels of the Catholic Church, with Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI (then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) substantially implicated. In the years before being anointed Pope, Ratzinger oversaw a Vatican council that monitored sexual abuse cases in the Church, so his post-anointment claims of being unaware of most of what was occurring seem highly unlikely. How his and his predecessor's culpability and mishandling of these tragic cases hasn't been a much larger media story is difficult to understand.

That aside, overall media coverage of child and youth sexual abuse in the Catholic Church has, sadly, become an all-too-familiar story that one almost becomes numb to. Gibney rises to the challenge of presenting a fresh take on a much-discussed important subject with this well-researched and powerful film. My only real negative about it are the re-enactments that Gibney employs, even if they are artfully composed and beautifully shot, using plenty of religious imagery. Re-enactments are a staple of Gibney's work (not to mention Errol Morris'), but the stories he tells are usually compelling enough and, in my opinion, the end results are slightly diminished with this gimmicky device that feels like an imagination crutch for the audience.   

Rating: B

Opens in the U.S. in November; TV premiere in early 2013 on HBO

Side note: While exiting a TIFF screening of Roman Polanski: Odd Man Out, I ran into Gibney (who had also just watched the documentary) and got a chance to shake his hand, tell him how much I enjoyed his work, and how forward I was looking to being at the Mea Maxima Culpa premiere the next afternoon. I refrained from mentioning my dislike of his use of the re-enactment segments.

Related post: my May 2010 review of Gibney's Casino Jack And The United States Of Money

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Sam Sniderman + Young and Dundas nostalgia...

I was saddened to hear about the passing of Sam Sniderman on Sunday at the age of 92. Not unlike many other fellow music junkies living in the Toronto area, I always had a warm spot for his 40,000 square foot Sam The Record Man flagship store in the heart of the city's downtown at Yonge and Dundas. The store and its legendary signage featuring a couple of massive flashing neon LPs and those "Yes this is Sam The Record Man" greetings below them were always a welcome sight for a young kid from the suburbs who would travel on the bus and subway for a good 90 minutes every few months to get his media fix at Sam's, the next door A & A Records flagship store, and the nearby World's Biggest Bookstore. I also have fond memories of purchasing my first KISS records (and many others) at the Hillcrest Mall Sam's store in Richmond Hill, which was the closest music outlet to me. I had to spend a fair amount of time in the Yonge and Dundas area a couple of weeks ago during the Toronto International Film Festival and more than ever, walking around the area made me nostalgic. Much of that was brought on by going into the World's Biggest Bookstore for the first time in years and likely my last time ever, after I'd read a couple of months ago that it was closing soon. I must say that I'm not really a fan of the major facelift that the area has undergone over the past decade. Call me old fashioned or not progressive enough, but the Times Square-lite look of the intersection is just one more reason I'm now less inclined to make a trip downtown unless I absolutely have to.

"The Yonge Street Sam's", as it was known by some, seemed to have just about everything as far as selection and I remember a younger, more ignorant me bitterly wondering why so much floor space was devoted to those boring jazz and classical musical sections that I never stepped foot in. Certainly, a healthy chunk of my sizable CD collection was purchased there. It's a cliché, but the approachable and knowledgeable staff were another plus when one shopped at 347 Yonge Street and I fondly remember getting a kick out of seeing Sniderman at the front checkouts on a couple of occasions. Other visits included sightings of The Pursuit Of Happiness' Moe Berg, Kim Mitchell, White Zombie bassist Sean Yseult, Maple Leaf Gary Leeman, and a fairly low level Canadian actress who I witnessed having a minor meltdown at the cash register (I can't remember her name for the life of me, but I'd know the face and name as soon as I saw or heard it). The store had a definite throwback charm with its slightly shabby appearance, narrow aisles, numerous bargain bins, and floors that squeaked and I swear were uneven in places. These rustic qualities simply aren't part of the equation when you're shopping in the antiseptic environment of music stores like HMV (which seem to be getting harder to find) and...well, I guess that's almost about it now in Canada, isn't it? I think there's still a few Sunrise Music stores around, but I'm not really aware of any locations aside from the flagship store across from the old Sam's. I actually probably bought more CDs from there than any other retail outlet because of their awesome membership card that let you get your tenth purchase free, based on the average amount spent on your previous nine purchases. Let me tell you, I exploited that offer to the hilt, spending around $150 a visit. It took me awhile to rack up those nine transactions, but that tenth visit when I knew I'd be walking out of there with 8-10 new CDs for nothing was probably the highlight of my month.

Sam The Record Man couldn't survive the damage done to brick and mortar music retail by illegal downloading and the iTunes store, filing for bankruptcy in 2001 and eventually struggling to keep the flagship store open until 2007 (I was amazed to find out there's a lone Sam's store still operating in Belleville, Ontario). The old sign was put in storage after the flagship Sam's store property was purchased by Ryerson University and there are currently plans to resurrect it for display somewhere on the Ryerson campus. Sniderman lived a full life and earned numerous accolades, including the highly prestigious Order of Canada. After reading a lot of the tributes that have been pouring in, it's clear that he touched a lot of people's lives and I always appreciated that he truly identified and "got" the passionate music fan...because he was a passionate music fan. Sniderman certainly made being one of them in the Toronto area a more pleasant experience.

Some information taken from this article on

Monday, September 24, 2012

Cloud Atlas [film review]

"Impressive". That's the best description I could come up with after being asked by my brother and sister-in-law about my thoughts on Cloud Atlas immediately following the film's second-ever public screening we'd just attended. Not a very incisive assessment, I'll grant you, but my head was still spinning as I tried to make sense of what I'd just witnessed over the film's jam-packed two hour and forty three minute running time. This may be one the most ambitious and epic films I've ever seen, demanding rapt attention from viewers as they're taken on an odyssey that spans the globe over 500 years and hopscotches between numerous interwoven storylines that incorporates just about every film genre available, featuring actors playing several different roles each. Cloud Atlas is based on British author David Mitchell's best-selling 2004 novel and was a huge challenge for the filmmakers to adapt and finance (its estimated budget of over $100 million also makes it the most expensive independent film ever made). The architects of this beautifully twisted madness are directors/writers/producers Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) and The Matrix's Wachowski siblings, Andy and Lana (Lana was Larry until a gender transition that was completed about five years ago). The Wachowskis, notoriously press shy, were surprisingly on hand (along with Tykwer) to introduce the film's second screening the morning after its star-studded TIFF world premiere on September 8th at the Princess of Wales Theatre. 

A movie this expansive should have a large cast, considering how many characters appear - not so in this case, though. Principal actors Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, and Xun Zhou each take on multiple roles that plays loose and fast with the actors' ages, races, and genders (Susan Sarandon, Keith David, James D'Arcy, and Doona Bae also have smaller roles). Having so many dimensions to explore with all of their characters must have been acting nirvana for this lot. For the most part, they pull off the various requirements of the roles, many of which require a significant amount of prosthetics and makeup (click here for a look at some of the characters). Several of the roles were so well disguised that I was completely clueless that a certain actor had played the role until the end credits visually made some of the big reveals (learning that Berry played the white Victorian housewife and Grant a war paint-layered native completely floored me). Sticking around until the end is an absolute necessity for Cloud Atlas - the oohs and ahhs from the sold-out Winter Garden Theatre audience as they discovered who actually played some of the parts was a wonderfully unique filmgoing experience for me. For all of the positive aspects that the race bending and gender bending idea brings to the film, there is the distinct whiff of gimmick attached to it. Things do get a little silly when you have Weaving seemingly playing an Asian character whose makeup produces more of a Vulcan look (which may have been intentional on the filmmakers' part), as well as in full drag playing a Nurse Ratched-like character. The latter obviously has parallels to Lana Wachowski's own life and although the nurse character provides some decent laughs, I was a little hung up on how it seemed one of the character's main functions was to generate laughs purely based on the surreal sight of Weaving playing one truly ugly looking woman. Perhaps I'm reading too much into it.  

Weaving does provide one of Cloud Atlas' most memorable roles, as the seriously creepy Old Georgie, who terrorizes one of Hanks' many characters. Hanks does some of the best work I've ever seen from him, playing four different characters that range from an unscrupulous doctor in the 1800s to going far against type with maybe the film's standout character, a modern-day thuggish British writer named Dermot Hoggins who gets the ultimate revenge on a critic for a bad review. Berry is excellent with her main roles playing an ambitious reporter in 1970s San Francisco and a political figurehead (from what I could grasp) aligned with one of Hanks' characters in the far future, in one of the film's few storylines that doesn't quite work. Also great is Broadbent as both a composer and playing a man tricked into living in a retirement home, who provides the film's best comic relief. 

The weighty Cloud Atlas themes of interconnectedness, philosophy, reincarnation, oppression, and destiny, along with the film's highly challenging pace and complex non-linear storytelling construct will prove daunting to many - that's okay, however. I was lost a number of times - not Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy-level lost, mind you, but definitely out of sync with what was happening onscreen. This is the type of daring film that demands multiple viewings to completely grasp the filmmakers' grand scope and there's nothing wrong with a little audaciousness from Hollywood once in a while. Even with a big-name cast, it'll be very interesting to see how the otherwise difficult-to-market Cloud Atlas will fare at the box office come late October.

Rating: A-

Opens in North America on October 26th

Friday, September 21, 2012

Roman Polanski: Odd Man Out [film review]

Director Marina Zenovich follows up her acclaimed 2008 documentary Roman Polanski: Wanted And Desired (read my review here) with the intriguing, if slightly less impactful Roman Polanski: Odd Man Out, which had its world premiere at TIFF. Wanted And Desired brilliantly dissected the details of Polanski's mishandled 1977 statutory rape case, the filmmaker's subsequent fleeing of the U.S., and his life since that time. Odd Man Out adds further perspective and insight into the man and his case, while also examining the unforeseen effects that the preceding film had on both Polanski's and Zenovich's lives. Even considering the evolution of the story with Polanski's unexpected 2009 arrest in Switzerland on an American warrant and his subsequent imprisonment, I was mildly skeptical as to whether or not the filmmaker merited another feature-length doc from the same director so relatively soon after the first one. The excellence of Wanted And Desired gave Zenovich the benefit of the doubt from me, however, and what she presents in Odd Man Out more than justifies another Polanski doc. 

Some facts and details from the first film are expectedly revisited, usually with some sort of update where relevant. Most notable is the bizarre retraction of statements made in Wanted And Desired from David Wells, one of the rape case's former prosecutors and a central figure of that film. Samantha Geimer, the then-13-year-old rape victim, is also interviewed extensively (as she was in Wanted And Desired), reiterating that she has forgiven Polanski and wishing everyone would just move on with their lives. Not to sound insensitive to what she's gone through, but I was a little puzzled at the contradiction in her expressed exasperation at the continuing media attention, yet still being willing to talk about Polanski and the case (along with her mother and husband) in a prominent documentary.

The centrepiece of Odd Man Out is Polanski's 2009 arrest, which was followed by over two months spent in a Swiss jail and seven more months under house arrest at his Swiss chalet, all while the threat of extradition to the U.S. loomed over him. The motives for the timing of the arrest are murky and curious, especially considering Switzerland's long-held tradition of neutrality and that the 79-year-old filmmaker had either lived or vacationed in the country for decades. Many think that the high profile of Wanted And Desired was the prime reason - directly or indirectly - for his detainment, a proposition that weighs heavy on Zenovich. She also looks at other possible intriguing factors, including that Switzerland might have wanted to cooperate with the U.S. government in exchange for leniency surrounding a matter of tax evasion charges between the two countries involving Swiss bank UBS, or that the resurrected case might have been used for attention by a Los Angeles District Attorney with higher political ambitions. The media firestorm that erupted after the arrest is also thoughtfully examined (click here for an amusing picture of the media circus outside Polanski's chalet during his house arrest). 

Once again, Zenovich gracefully navigates the delicate waters of the Polanski-as-victim portrayal that the facts in her films conflictingly make unavoidable. The director actually had an interview scheduled with him for a short film follow-up to Wanted And Desired, but he was arrested just before that interview was to take place. As interesting as that exchange would have been, the latest developments in Roman Polanski's long, strange life almost certainly make for the more engaging film experience that Odd Man Out delivers. 

Rating: B

An "I kid you not" side note: In the lineup for the movie, just before I had turned my iPod on (and thank God I didn't miss this), a woman who clearly wasn't familiar with Polanski's history asked her friend if he would be attending the screening. 

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Everybody Has A Plan (Todos Tenemos Un Plan) [film review]

Everybody Has A Plan marks the fourth Spanish-language film for Viggo Mortensen, who spent a number of years in his youth living in Argentina. His latest project finds him playing identical twin brothers in the film noir from Argentinian first-time feature director Ana Piterbarg, who also co-wrote the screenplay.
The premise: Agustín (played by Mortensen) would appear to have the ideal life. He's a pediatrician with an attractive wife (Claudia, played by Soledad Villamil) living quite comfortably in Buenos Aires. The couple's plan to adopt a baby derails when Agustín changes his mind at the last minute, leading to a huge rift that brings to the surface the true unfulfillment that Agustín feels with his life. In the midst of a depressive episode where Agustín decides to lock himself in a room, Claudia leaves for some time away and Agustín soon receives a visit from his estranged twin brother, Pedro (also played by Mortensen), a beekeeper who reveals he has terminal lung cancer. Certain circumstances lead to Agustín eventually escaping his obligation-filled existence and assuming his brother's identity, taking up residence in Pedro's rundown shack in Argentina's Tigre Delta island region where the brothers grew up. A romance develops with one of Pedro's much younger bee farm helpers (Rosa, played by Sofía Gala Castaglione), while Agustín becomes caught up in the fallout from Pedro's past criminal affairs with some shady locals.
Mortensen is solid as the brothers, who only share a few scenes simultaneously. Sometimes it could be difficult telling them apart, although the Pedro character tended to be a little more rough around the edges and frankly, I couldn't distinguish the characters' subtle accent differences Mortensen talked about using at the post-screening Q & A. Regardless, his comfort level with the Spanish language is certainly never an issue. Villamil and Castaglione turn in quite fine supporting work, but Daniel Fanego as the proverbial villain is a definite weak link in the film. Other than looking rather creepy, I found the role underwritten and the actor lacking in screen presence.
Piterbarg and cinematographer Lucio Bonelli do a nice job of capturing the dank and swampy atmosphere of the isolated delta area, which not surprisingly is a magnet for criminals and outcasts and makes for a nice backdrop for the malfeasance that drives the narrative. The director also specifically lets a number of questions hang, adding to the film's mystery, but occasionally there's some story choices that are befuddling. Most glaring are the ease with which Agustín sells to others that he's Pedro, as well as the fact that Agustín doesn't bolt after being beaten by locals thinking he's Pedro, just shortly after arriving in the Tigre Delta.
Everybody Has A Plan's flaws, not the least of which also includes some overly languid pacing, results in a decidedly unremarkable viewing experience.
Rating: C-

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Place Beyond The Pines [film review]

The Place Beyond The Pines derives its title from the English translation of the Mohawk name for Schenectady, New York, where the film is set. Director Derek Cianfrance's third feature is the follow-up to 2010's widely praised Blue Valentine, a movie whose supposed magnificence was lost on me. Cianfrance reteams with one of that film's stars, Ryan Gosling, for one of The Place Beyond The Pines' three segments that unfolds over a 15 year period with interconnected storylines that mixes elements of crime drama, teenage angst, questions about fate, and the complexities of father-son relationships.
The first segment is unquestionably the film's strongest, with Gosling further refining the brooding anti-hero character that seems to have become his stock-in-trade. His Luke character is introduced in the film's great opening scene that employs an extensive single tracking shot, as the audience views his heavily tattooed body and carnival motorcycle stunt rider profession, which convey Luke's societal fringe elements without saying a word. Luke's white trash status is also reinforced by the repeated wearing of a Metallica Ride The Lightning muscle tee and a ratty white t-shirt worn inside out in public, tag and all (I love that the latter is never addressed by any characters Luke meets). A reconnection with a woman (Romina, played by a solid Eva Mendes) he had a quickie fling with the last time his job brought him to town reveals that he's the father of her two-year old son. The news awakens Luke's paternal instincts and he attempts to insert himself back into the pair's lives, despite the complication of another man in Romina's life. Desperate to prove he can provide for Romina and his son, Luke ends up robbing banks, with the assistance of a scruffy auto mechanic he's met (an excellent Ben Mendelsohn providing some understated comic relief). Aspects of Luke and his deeds immediately bring to mind Gosling's role from last year's Drive. Despite the similarities in roles surprisingly played so close to each other, Gosling's unpredictable, violence-prone character commands the screen for the approximately hour long length of his segment. His storyline does admittedly benefit from the best writing of the three segments, courtesy of screenwriters Cianfrance, Ben Coccio, and Darius Marder.
Gosling's dynamism and that first segment's brilliance are only highlighted by the significantly diminishing returns that follow it. Segment two stars Bradley Cooper as a rookie cop who found himself involved in Luke's story, with other subplots involving police corruption, morality, and an unhappy marriage also playing out. I've always found Cooper to be a rather dull actor and his performance here hasn't changed my opinion; that, combined with the segment's derivative story, managed to effectively kill my segment one buzz. The writing is also too uneven - Cooper's character is set up as a smart, moral person, yet those qualities are a little too conveniently discarded when he's presented with a career-altering decision. Bruce Greenwood is memorable in a small role as a high-ranking cop, while Ray Liotta's minor role as an intimidating, crooked cop feels like the kind of role we've seen from him dozens of times already.
Segment three completes The Place Beyond The Pines' downhill slide, focussing on the teenage sons (played by Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen) of Gosling's and Cooper's characters. As the snoozy storyline featuring bratty behaviour from the screwed up high school students developed, I could never get past the fact the segment hinged on their chance meeting and eventual friendship. That meeting, considering the inextricably linked history they share via their fathers, was simply far too coincidental for me to suspend disbelief. Also distracting: a time jump of 15 years reveals Cooper's character and that of his wife (played by Rose Byrne) to have seemingly not aged at all, while Mendes' Romina looks to have aged about 25 years.
I respect the fact that Cianfrance took some risks with The Place Beyond The Pines, which had its world premiere at TIFF - he throws in a major plot twist relatively early on and the movie's segmented structure is definitely a gamble and somewhat unconventional, but unfortunately, the loosely connected narrative and performances don't hold together over the course of the film's too-long 140 minute running time. The disappointing ending shouldn't come as much of a shock to anyone who has just witnessed the decline from the first-rate quality of the riveting opening segment to the progressively inferior chapters that follow. As the last third of it plays out, that swing has been so dramatic that it almost feels like we're watching an altogether different movie.
Rating: C+