Heading the post-Thanksgiving roster of films playing at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center are “A Late Quartet,” about a fictional chamber music ensemble, and “Brooklyn Castle,” about a real-life middle school chess team.
Before the Friday, Nov. 23, screening of “A Late Quartet,” Hye-Jin Kim on violin, Ronald Lowry on cello, and Scott Woolweaver on viola of the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber Music Society will perform the seven-minute first movement of Beethoven’s G-Major String Trio. “Brooklyn Castle” is scheduled for Sunday, Nov. 25.
“A Late Quartet”
In “A Late Quartet,” cellist Peter Mitchell (Christopher Walken) leads the New York-based Fugue String Quartet. Already struggling with the death of his wife, Peter learns that he has developed early-stage Parkinson’s disease. It is certain to end his music career and raise questions about the string quartet’s future. The role represents a new direction for Mr. Walken, who has so often been typecast as a psychopath.
Meanwhile, second violinist Robert Gelbert (Philip Seymour Hoffman) decides it’s time for him to challenge first violinist Daniel Lerner (Mark Ivanir) for his position in the group. Robert’s wife Juliette (Catherine Keener) sides with Daniel, her former lover, infuriating her husband. As if the quartet’s personal dynamics were not already overheated enough, Robert and Juliette’s daughter Alexandra (Imogen Poots) brings her own set of resentments and emotional dalliances into the mix.
What keeps “A Late Quartet” from deteriorating into a high-toned soap opera is director Yaron Zilberman’s confident evocation of the classical music world. With the actual music dubbed by the Brentano String Quartet, the viewer sees how each of the cinematic musicians brings a crucial component to the group.
The quartet begins practicing a demanding, seven-movement Beethoven piece that it must perform without interruption. In addition, scenes of the interactions between master and student provide an unprecedented behind-the-scenes look at how musicians work. Peter describes how he learned an important lesson from world-famous cellist Pablo Casals; Robert and Juliette bid at an auction on a new instrument for their daughter; Daniel makes a bow for his student. Just as important a contribution to the movie as its insights into the music world is the skill of the five primary actors at creating a sense of authenticity.
“A Late Quartet” may not suit every moviegoer’s taste, but it is as accomplished a movie as the world-class musicians it portrays.
The documentary “Brooklyn Castle” also takes the viewer into a specialized world of experts. The surprise is that they are young chess players who attend Intermediate School 318 in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant district, where a majority of the children come from families living below the federal poverty level. Members of I.S. 318’s chess club have won 26 national chess titles over the past 10 years.
“In 318, the geeks are the athletes,” says one of the school’s administrators. Director Katie Dellamaggiore develops intimate portraits of these child experts, who take up to seven chess classes a week with teacher Elizabeth Vicary at their school.
Rochelle is an eighth grader whose goal is to become the first African-American female chess master. Seventh-grader Pobo has a big personality and political ambitions but cries when he loses a match. The adults — parents as well as teachers — shepherding their young charges talk about the many benefits chess playing offers. With more possible chess moves than atoms in the universe, it teaches the students how to learn deeply about a subject. The game also helps them learn that the truth isn’t quite so simple as right or wrong.
The chess club at I.S. 318 offers these underprivileged kids the chance to travel to tournaments around the country, and encourages levels of aspiration that might never have occurred to them otherwise. Michelle wants to be a lawyer; Alexis, whose South American parents hope he will be the first in the family to go to college, thinks he may want to be a criminal investigator. Patrick doesn’t let his struggles with ADHD stop him.
Into the midst of this remarkable success story marches the 2008 economic meltdown with budget cutbacks for I.S. 318, along with New York’s other schools. Undaunted, the kids plan fundraisers to keep the club going. Without turning overly saccharine or sentimental, “Brooklyn Castle” tells a story of opportunity, optimism, and achievement in the midst of hardship. It’s one well worth watching.
“A Late Quartet,” with special MV Chamber Music Society performance, Friday, Nov. 23, 7:30 pm.
“Brooklyn Castle,” Sunday, Nov. 25, 7:30 pm.
M.V. Film Center, Vineyard Haven. $10; $7 for M.V. Film Society members. For more information, visit mvfilmsociety.com.