Toronto Roundup: Men Behaving Badly -- from Teachers to Singers to Monty Python

Toronto Roundup: Men Behaving Badly -- from Teachers to Singers to Monty Python

Sep 17, 2012

In the House still

In the House

Francois Ozon is this year's example of show, don't tell. While fellow fest selection Writers continually shouted its writerly premise within the dialogue, Ozon's In the House (Dans la Maison) simply is a writer's story. Fabrice Luchini plays Germain, a withered teacher sick at the increasingly diminishing returns offered by his students until one, Claude (Ernst Umhauer), breaks through the monotony, turning a "what I did on my Saturday" assignment into the beginning of a captivating voyeuristic tale.

Against his better judgment, Germain takes Claude under his wing, stubbornly ignoring all the problematic aspects of the rapidly growing novel, a story recounting the student's obsession with classmate Rapha's house and mother (Emmanuelle Seigner). Germain's art-gallery wife, Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas pulling out her impressive French), tries to warn him about the dangers of this obviously true account, but the story is too tantalizing to ignore – Germain would rather let everything fall apart than stop the obsession, or scarier still – stop reading.

The teacher and student only occasionally talk about the act of writing; it's the unfolding of the story, and Germain's bright excitement about it, that bring the literary magic. Writing becomes not about typing or pretension, but about the unmistakable desire to open a good book and read more and more and more.

Shepard and Dark still

Shepard & Dark

It is the rare instance when a celebrity can be outshone by a hermit.

In her first feature-length documentary, Treva Wurmfeld uncovers the friendship of actor-playwright Sam Sheperd and his decades-old friend and archivist Johnny Dark. The pair had met in 1960s Greenwich Village by chance, becoming fast friends and even family when Shepard married actress O-Lan Jones and Dark married her mother. Over the course of decades, familial drama and wildly different lives, the pair amassed hundreds of letters. When given the chance to donate the correspondence and have it published, Sam and Johnny come together to face the past, present and future.

Dark is a genuine scene-stealer – a warm and engaging personality with a compulsion to archive experiences that's at odds with his isolated lifestyle. Through Dark we receive much of the story – how the couples lived together, struggled through the health issues that plagued Dark's wife, and how the family persevered when Sheperd deserted the family for a life with Jessica Lange. This is a straightforward documentary that thrives in the fleeting idiosyncratic moments – the humor of two old friends bickering like grumpy old men, the rare scenes when Shepard lets his guard down and ruminates on his life and struggles.

The filmmaker also wrote about her experience for the Wall Street Journal, which provides an interesting addendum to the proceedings.

Greetings from Tim Buckley still

Greetings from Tim Buckley

It's a daring spin, to take late musician Jeff Buckley's life and frame it through his later, estranged father Tim Buckley – one that only partially succeeds. Rather than focus on the former's short life (he drowned in 1997), writer-director Daniel Algrant chooses to reveal a young man in the shadow of his absent father as he agrees to participate in the 1991 tribute concert in Brooklyn, "Greetings from Tim Buckley." Tim's music scores the affair as Jeff's interactions with the organizers (specifically a girl named Allie, played by Imogen Poots) are peppered with glimpses of his father on the road (Ben Rosenfield as a way too cherubic and smooth-faced Tim).

Penn Badgley is surprisingly good as Buckley. It's difficult for the Gossip Girl star to completely fade into his character, but he does – when Jeff sings. The actor does a bang-on job re-creating the singer's oral melodies, but the scenes are so fleeting that the focus on his father feels like a derailment – the camera veering off in the wrong direction. The film's two most magical moments come when Badgley is allowed to be Buckley without his father's shadow. In one scene he sings in a record shop, his voice flowing from note to note as if Buckley had entered the room; in another chill-inducing glimpse, he sits with Gary Lucas (Frank Wood), playing guitar and creating the starting chords for "Grace."

The premise is at its strongest when Tim and Jeff's music begins to bleed together, the father sounding like son and vice versa, but these brief moments can't balance the shackled magic in Jeff's persona, even with his emotional trip to Amsterdam, New York to visit his father's hometown. Buckley fans can only hope that Mystery White Boy, the reigns of which have just switched hands to director Amy Berg, can re-create the artist on-screen, and finally let his music shine without shadow.

Song for Marion still

Song for Marion

There is nothing particularly unique about Song for Marion, but that isn't to say TIFF's closing night film doesn't have its charm. This is Terrence Stamp v. Young @ Heart, the story of the quintessential old man so walled off from life that he alienates everyone he loves in stodgy stubbornness. It's a simple story of a man who must learn to break through the walls and engage if he hopes to have any more fulfillment in life.

Vanessa Redgrave, in one of her rare, mirthful characters, plays Marion, a woman dying of cancer who brightens her days with the local seniors choir – a group of old folks led by an earnest young woman (Gemma Arterton) mysteriously transplanted into their small town. As Marion gets sicker, her husband Arthur (Stamp) unleashes his anger on the group and on his son (a woefully under-utilized Christopher Eccleston).

It's obvious where the film is headed – this is a film of simplicity, not complexity, one that will resonate for those who can relate to the character archetypes and sweet story, and likely alienate those who do not.

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A Liar’s Autobiography: The Untrue Story of Monty Python's Graham Chapman

Instead of working as a biography, A Liar's Autobiography works like a conversation – specifically, a conversation beyond the grave with Monty Python's Graham Chapman. Using personal recordings made just before the pipe-smoking comedian's death in 1989, directors Bill Jones, Jeff Simpson and Ben Timlett gathered a mix of animation studios to bring Chapman's words to life – a Waking Life-esque mix of artistic visions that allow the man to have one final performance.

Chapman talks honestly – and dishonestly – about everything from his upbringing and schooling to how Monty Python was formed, how he came out as a gay man, and how he struggled with alcoholism and drunken promiscuity. Though the piece follows a rough chronological order, it's best digested as disparate glimpses – the disjointed histories we tell orally, without the structured editing of a written, published piece. There are moments easily forgotten and others that resonate, but all bring an intriguing backstory to the worlds Monty Python offered ("Sit on My Face," for example, earns its own contextual backstory).

It might not work as a well structured biography, but it's like a brief respite from the finality of death – our chance to see Monty Python reunited (the troupe perform most of the voices of secondary characters), and Graham Chapman star one last time.


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