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Sept 26/08

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The date above is the date on which the page was started. The more recent reviews will appear towards the top of the page.

Reviewed here: Choke (Movie); We Are Now Beginning Our Descent (Novel); The Man Who Smiled (Mystery); Met Opera 125th Anniversary Gala (Opera); Ghost Town (Movie)

Hockey: The Musical! (Remount) if you missed the original outing, here's your chance to catch the fabulous Fringe hit of this past summer in Toronto. (See Dilettante's Diary July 5/08 for rave review.) An expanded version, with new music and some cast changes, is being mounted at the Betty Oliphant Theatre in Toronto, on Sunday, October 12 at 6:30 and 9:30 pm. Give yourself a Thanksgiving treat!

 

Choke (Movie) written by Clark Gregg; based on the book by Chuck Palahniuk; directed by Clark Gregg; starring Sam Rockwell, Anjelica Houston, Paz de la Huerta, Brad William Henke, Jonah Bobo, Clark Gregg, Bijou Phillips, Gillian Jacobs, Joel Gray

Sam Rockwell plays Victor, a guy in his thirties who has, as they say, issues. Victor’s supposedly attending a twelve-step recovery program for his sex addiction but he spends most of the meetings boinking women in the washroom. By way of a career, he works in one of those historical re-enactment parks, one with a pioneer theme. This makes for anachronistic jokes and lines like "Thou shouldst go fuck thyself." (As you know, we at Dilettante’s Diary don’t carry a notebook to movies, so quotes are given as retained by memory working without a net.) Of course, the job gives him lots of opportunities for quickies with co-workers in the picturesque sheds and barns around the site. Another of Victor’s exploits is that he pretends to be choking in restaurants. Anybody who rushes to do the Heimlich manoeuvre eventually gets hit up for cash. Victor’s operating on the Chinese principle: you saved my life so now you’re responsible for me. We're supposed to believe that this scam is the only way Victor can pay his mom’s hospital bills.

Some flashbacks to his childhood show that Mom (Anjelica Houston) was the original wild and free mom – to the point of being criminal. Maybe this is also supposed to help explain why Victor’s such a scum bag. Now, Mom’s dementia complicates the movie’s main plot line: Victor’s quest to find out who his father was. Poor old mom keeps hinting that she has a big secret to impart to Victor about his origins but she never recognizes him when he comes calling and she won’t spill the beans to the lawyers and other professionals she takes him to be.

About half way through the movie, things take a fantastical turn and we suddenly remember that we’re in the hands of novelist Chuck Palahniuk, whose Fight Club dished up some brainy acrobatics. The cleverness here doesn’t come anywhere near that level but we do begin to see that there was a reason for making Victor look so bad. It turns out that, to his astonishment, there might actually be something supernaturally good, one might even say something "redeeming" about him. This discovery gives Sam Rockwell a few moments when we see unsuspected touches of humanity in Victor.

For the most part, though, the movie’s off-putting, mainly because Victor is so unlikeable. It’s hard to think of any actor who could have stuck to the script yet made the character more watchable. Not to denigrate Sam Rockwell’s acting, but he doesn’t bring any charm – hardly even any humour – to the role. That makes it an uphill battle for the movie to win us over. The leaden dialogue doesn’t help matters either. Scene after scene is dragged down with exposition while characters feed each other information to fill in the plot.

With the constant screwing in outrageous situations, it feels at times like we’re watching a parody of a porn movie, but one that’s more cringe-making than laugh-inducing. The sleazy sex jokes involving older women in a mental hospital are offensive in more ways than one. First, it makes me angry when directors portray demented elderly people as nothing but fools. Secondly, I feel sorry for those senior actresses who had to degrade themselves so embarrassingly just to earn a few bucks.

In spite of all this drek, the movie looks like it could have had something going for it. We get to see some interesting changes in people. An airhead stripper (Gillian Jacobs) shows an unexpected side. As Victor’s pal Denny, a compulsive masturbator, William Brad Henke offers a portrait of a guy who, although many IQ points short of being a genius, has the warmth and affability that Victor so desperately lacks. Paz de la Huerta does a nice job as a rather odd doctor, whose flakiness turns out to have a good – if hokey – explanation. When Victor claims that he has trouble performing sexually with her because he likes her, she says, "Did it ever occur to you that the two are not mutually exclusive?" Lines like that make you feel the movie could have scored some good points if the material had been handled the right way. What that way is, I don’t know, but this isn’t it.

Rating: E (as in the Canadian "Eh?" i.e. "iffy")

 

We Are Now Beginning Our Descent (Novel) by James Meek, 2008

James Meek, a Scots reporter who has spent time in Afghanistan covering the war, has written a novel about a Scots reporter who has spent time in Afghanistan covering the war. For most of the book, I was inclined to feel that James Meek the reporter does a better job than James Meek the novelist. Like well-written journalism, the book gives you a good idea of what it’s like to be on the ground in the midst of this conflict. Among his more thoughtful observations about war, Meek notes a strange intimacy of imagination that unites the bomber to his victims. On the other hand, television viewers back home have to be careful not to let their imaginations turn the foreign enemies into real people. Not surprisingly, some of Mr. Meek’s most intriguing insights relate to the media’s role in war. Editors, he says, prefer the brief, punchy articles of someone reporting from a distance, rather than the more nuanced reflections of a reporter who knows the complexity of the situation first-hand.

The novelistic aspects of the book are handled with somewhat less skill than the journalistic ones. It’s hard to get a fix on Adam Kellas, the Scots reporter who is the central character. While in Afghanistan, he seems a relatively sensible fellow, although the thriller he’s writing about Afghanistan, given the samples we’re shown, seems a bit ludicrous. On returning to Britain, he starts rushing around on bizarre exploits. After trashing the house of some friends with whom he was dining, he impulsively books a first-class ticket to America on a plane that leaves immediately. In America, disaster strikes in a way that seems somewhat improbable until you realize it was his expectations that were far-fetched.

With regard to other people in the novel, it appears that bringing characters to life isn’t Mr. Meek’s main gift. Several pages are spent describing Kellas’ interpreter in a prosaic way without conjuring up any sense of the presence of the man (although he does make a stronger impression later). Two women in minor roles – one a former girlfriend and the other an editor – lash out in vicious ways quite unlike the behaviour of any adults I know. In the final third of the book, Kellas encounters a wise, elderly man who does turn out to have a unique personality, but he goes on pointlessly for about ten pages, regaling Kellas with exotic theories about Jesus and a story about teaching a secret creative writing course to some CIA personnel. As far as I can tell, the material has nothing to do with the rest of this novel.

And yet, a strange love affair flickers through the book, coming into clear focus mostly near the end. This is the best part of the book, for me. What happens between the lovers doesn’t follow any typical script but their story has an oddly compelling quality. Take this, for instance: "The expression in Astrid’s eyes was so intense, and made Kellas feel so much a part of the world, that for a moment he experienced an ecstatic sense of discovery, as if he had found that a thing he had always known of and had always wanted had, in fact, belonged to him all along, and all he had lacked was the words with which to claim it."

In spite of what that passage might suggest, this is a love story that is utterly life-like, in that it’s mostly about compromising and adjusting to reality. One of Mr. Meek’s favourite questions keeps cropping up: do we love someone as he or she truly is, or is it some figment of our imagination that we’re in love with? One of the most telling comments in the whole book comes after Kellas’ attempts to find his way to something like real love leads him through an emotional and physical quagmire. He’s left with the observation that a man starts out looking for love and, in the end, settles for dignity.

 

The Man Who Smiled (Mystery) by Henning Mankell 1994 (English translation by Laurie Thompson, 2005)

A young lawyer asks Detective Kurt Wallander to investigate the death of his father (the lawyer’s) in a road accident. The son suspects it wasn’t an accident. Wallander declines to take on the case because he’s recovering from the trauma of having shot and killed somebody in self defence (presumably in a preceding novel). In fact, Wallander has decided to retire from the police force. When the young lawyer is shot to death, though, Wallander feels compelled to swing back into action.

At first, I’m thinking: why should a police detective be so shook up about having shot and killed somebody? Granted, it’s not something I’d want to have on my resume but Wallander’s a cop, after all. But then I recalled that this is Sweden, so maybe we’re dealing with a kinder, gentler crime scene here. Pretty soon, though, kinder and gentler became dumber and duller. My review of another Kurt Wallander mystery by Henning Mankell (One Step Behind, Dilettante’s Diary, on the page "Summer Mysteries 07") ended with the conclusion that it must not be one of Mr. Mankell's best books. It’s hard to imagine how he could have written one less effective than this one. The only real mystery, as far as these two books go, is why Mr. Mankell has any reputation at all as a mystery writer, let alone the stellar one he seems to enjoy.

In the review of One Step Behind, I cited the detective’s compulsive thoughts as the best aspect of the book. His thoughts in The Man Who Smiled are somewhat less engaging than those of the Hardy Boys, as I remember them. I stopped counting the number of times Wallander made banal observations like: There’s some puzzle here! or If only I could figure out how all the pieces fit together! or There’s something fishy here! The author piles on the tedium with observations like: Wallander could not escape the feeling that there was something odd about the deaths.... or He knew that there was something that did not add up. Wallander and a young cop spend a long night trying to convince themselves of facts that have been obvious to the reader from the first chapter. In fairness to Wallander and his colleague, though, one must admit that they might not have read that first chapter. Presumably, then, author Mankell is to blame for providing us with the information that makes his detective look literally clueless.

Not many of the other characters score highly in terms of believability. Wallander’s boss dithers like a mother superior about the possibility of the investigation’s ruffling the feathers of the local Pooh-Bah. A male cop tries a childishly clumsy ploy to undermine a young female officer recently arrived on the force. Even the two thugs lurking in the shadows don’t manage to measure up as villains: they leave a murder weapon where it can be easily found; on sneaking into Wallander’s apartment, they move stuff in the refrigerator, tipping him off as to their snooping; they dump a murdered body in a location that obviously ties them to the murder; finally, at the climax, they conveniently fail to have their guns drawn.

Maybe some readers would take these lapses as part of the charm of a crime novel somewhat less violent and relentless than others. But some of the quirks in the writing strike me as nothing but the results of carelessness or laziness. At one point, Wallander remembers, when he was a kid, seeing his father in a restaurant fight: "...a beefsteak dripping with gravy and dark brown onion rings were dangling from his father’s arm..." Was the old guy some kind of a magician to pull off that dangling beefsteak trick? On page 275, Wallander won’t phone a certain venue to ask for a certain witness, because that would alert the suspect. Apparently Wallander – or author Mankell – has forgotten that, as recently as page 251, he did in fact phone that venue to ask for the same witness in exactly the same context. At the climax of the book, Wallander penetrates a castle on a winter night and what detail does the author add to make the scene more real for us? Air conditioning fans. There had been no previous reference to the fact that Sweden was having such a mild winter.

In that castle, Wallander is, of course, captured by the bad guys. And then comes one of the author’s most stunningly trite observations. When Wallander wakes up after being bonked on the head, we’re offered this realization: "He was going to have to get out of the castle." Good thinking, Wallander! Mankell, too!

 

Metropolitan Opera 125th Anniversary Gala (Conducted by James Levine, Marco Amiliato and Patrick Summers; starring Rene Fleming, Ramn Vargas, Thomas Hampson, Dwayne Croft and Robert Lloyd)

Since all the important people were invited to this huge event, I can only assume that my free tickets were lost in the mail. On the understanding, then, that no slight was intended on the part of the Met management, I gladly bought a ticket to the HD Live Broadcast so that I could still be present, digitially speaking.

Even in that mode, you couldn’t help feeling that this was a truly spectacular event: Rene Fleming starring in excerpts from three operas. It’s the first time the Met has built a gala around a woman. We were repeatedly reminded that Ms. Fleming’s costumes were specially designed for the occasion by big designers whose names didn’t mean anything to me but all the ladies in the audience gasped on hearing them: Christian Lacroix, Karl Lagerfeld and John Galliano. Ms. Fleming’s authentic jewels were on loan from some world class bijouteries. You’d think the weight of that fortune hanging around your neck would cramp your singing style a bit, but apparently Ms. Fleming had no such problem.

However, the enormity of the occasion seemed to weigh on Host Susan Graham a little, to the point that, in her opening comments, she was slightly hoarse – something it worries me to hear in a singer. As the evening got rolling, however, she loosened up and the vocal hitch smoothed itself out. She was at her best in the droll ad-libs with the people she was interviewing. So was a newly svelte Deborah Voigt in her interviews with members of the crowd watching the proceedings on screens in Times Square. A somewhat more senior woman on the Met team (whose name I didn’t catch) conducted some gracious interviews backstage and in the lobby of the opera house.

One of the most interesting interviews, for me, was the one with Nico Mulhy, the wunderkind in his mid-twenties, whom the Met has commissioned to compose an opera. Mr. Mulhy explained that his opera will be about making connections through false identities on the Internet. In that respect, Mr. Mulhy certainly brings his generation’s concerns to the world of opera. As he pointed out, though, the business of disguises and false identities is one of the oldest themes in opera. Maybe it was due to nerves, but he came across as slightly geeky, albeit in a pleasant way. His quirks were somewhat off-putting but then it occurred to me that probably Mozart had a similar effect on people.

Among some of the other interviews was the one with Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who explained how Times Square came to be closed off for the broadcast of the opera on the big screens. It’s good to hear about how the city of New York gets behind a big cultural event like this. Francesco Clemente, the painter of larger-than-life portraits of several Met divas, which portraits are now on display at the Met, struck me as a courteous, genial person. From what I saw of the cartoon-ish portraits, though, they didn’t capture the individual personalities of the singers very well. I was glad that Ms. Voigt button-holed some visitors from places like Sweden and England in the Times Square audience. For those of us opera-goers who fear we may be a dying breed, it was heartening to hear from one young American traveller who had just stumbled on the Times Square opera broadcast. She was so thrilled that she said she’d definitely be returning to the opera.

As usual with these HD live transmissions, we had lots of fascinating glimpses of backstage activity during the set changes – which were very complicated, given the fact that we were dealing with three operas. At the centre of it all, in a tuxedo, was the shaved-headed young technical director of the Met. Although he looked calm and unflappable, now and then the mikes picked up stagehands’ comments like "Where’s your door frame?" and "We’re just faking it here."

Starting our appreciation of the musical program at the end, I have to say that the final scene of Richard Strauss’ Capriccio (Conductor: Patrick Summers) amounted to something of a watershed event for me. It suggested that I might actually like Richard Strauss’ music. Previously, my in-the-flesh experience of his operatic ouput was my attendance as a young man at a production of Salome. At the time, I was definitely not ready for it. In the meantime, there have been several radio hearings of the final trio from Der Rosenkavalier and innumerable reiterations of "The Four Last Songs". Beautiful music, up to a point, but never enough to persuade me that Richard Strauss churned out anything other than great washes of shapeless, romantic mush. This conclusion to Capriccio, however, struck me as gorgeous. Perhaps it helped to have a gorgeous woman to focus on throughout. The fact that the music was so moving seemed all the more remarkable, given that the subject matter was a rather abstract and inconclusive reflection on the relative merits of words and music – although, both genres were, admittedly, linked to would-be lovers.

Compared to the other music on the program, Massenet’s Manon (Conductor: Marco Amiliato) seems to verge into operetta territory. At least, this is the main impression of the opening of the third act – the hoop-la of the carnival where Manon displays her silliest qualities. In the St. Sulpice scene, though, things get pretty serious as Manon tries to tempt her former lover away from his sacerdotal career path. When it comes to an emotional tug-of-war, Massenet gives you a real knock-down-drag-out fight. Ramn Vargas, hardly a matinee idol at the best of times, looked somewhat at a disadvantage corsetted in a black cassock. But he has such an ingenuous, boyish personality – with his bright eyes and his wide grin – that you can’t help liking him. It helps that he’s a formidable singer, too. Apparently, he has never played this role before, so it was ballsy of him to do it at a gala like this. Maybe his unfamiliarity with the role was what made him react with bug-eyed astonishment at one point when Manon was crawling all over him. That produced hearty laughter from the ladies sitting next to me. Not at all the appropriate reaction, it seemed to me. We were in church, after all.

For the second act of La Traviata (Conductor: James Levine), set in Violetta’s country house, Christian Lacroix had decked Ms Fleming in yards of tulle and satin bestrewn with pink rosebuds, a creation that struck me as the perfect thing for tending to your farm chores. As Germont Sr, Thomas Hampson proved that he has a very powerful voice. When he was ordering Violetta to end her scandalous affair with his son so that the son’s sister could make a decent marriage, I was wishing Ms. Fleming would do a little less acting – not so much grimacing and flailing around. However, when she finally succumbed and uttered the plaintive words, "Dite alla giovina"(Tell the young girl) – the plangent pianissimo of her voice made tears spring instantly to my eyes. Splendiferous as Ms. Fleming’s voice is in all respects, maybe she is at her best in these quiet moments. Her touching "N’est-ce pas ma main?" in Manon gave me a similar thought.

But the most touching moment of the whole evening – at least for me – was a completely unexpected one. I was taken totally by surprise at the opening of the gala when the orchestra struck up "O Say Can You See?" and James Levine turned to conduct the audience in that nearly un-singable anthem. In Canada, we haven’t sung the national anthem in movie theatres and concerts halls for years, so I'm wondering: why this nationalistic display at the Met? Perhaps it’s something the Met does only on opening nights of the season. It moved me very much to see all those New Yorkers standing there singing, with their hands on their hearts, (except for the latecomers who were scurrying down the aisles or the audience members who were giggling at the cameras). It struck me that these people too want to feel proud of their country whose reputation has become so tarnished, at least from this point or view. My heart went out to all those rich, beautiful, powerful Yanks doing what they do so well – putting on magnificent opera.

 

Ghost Town (Movie) written by David Koepp and John Kamps; directed by David Koepp; starring Ricky Gervais, Greg Kinnear, Ta Leoni.

It's an old theatrical ploy: the one where people come back from the dead with messages for the living. As far as I’m concerned, that shtick had worn out its welcome back when some British writer used it in a play about a nerdy university student’s attempt to avenge his murdered father. In that case, there was only one ghost prowling around Elsinore. Here we have a hoard of them scurrying around Manhattan.

The catch is that a guy named Bertram (Ricky Gervais), recently underwent a surgical procedure during which he "died" for seven minutes, a phenomenon which has given him the ability to see these ghosts. The problem is that they keep bugging him to help them with their unfinished business. To get them off his back, he agrees to help Frank (Greg Kinnear) – the pushiest of the ghosts – in his efforts to prevent his widow (Ta Leoni) from marrying again.

We’ve revealed more of the plot than usual for Dilettante’s Diary because you need that elaborate setup to appreciate the rich comic potential of the resulting situation. See, Bertram decides that the way to deter said widow from her intended second marriage is to present himself – Bertram – as a more attractive alternative. Only trouble is, Bertram is a pretty unpromising prospect when it comes to romance. In the first place, he’s plump and not exactly studly. Secondly, he’s a dentist which, according to the movie’s value system, makes him a card carrying member of the most boring segment of the population. But more damagingly, he’s a smug, self-centred, racist misanthropist. He can hardly open his mouth without insulting someone, intentionally or otherwise. When he refuses the widow’s invitation to a big reception, she asks if it’s because he doesn’t like crowds. "Oh, I don’t mind the crowds," he says. "It’s the individual people in a crowd that I can’t stand."

Ricky Gervais makes the most of this repellent character, showing by way of his bland narcissism, that he has no idea how offensive he is to the rest of humanity. One of Mr. Gervais’ best bits of business involves getting himself tangled up in a morass of words when he tries to explain anything, producing an inchoate gobbledy-gook that leaves his listeners gaping. His physical comedy can also be very effective. One bit involving his character’s over-active gag reflex had me laughing helplessly, in spite of my better judgement.

As for his co-stars, Ta Leoni does a good job of showing initial repugnance masked with politeness, gradually giving way to ambivalence. Greg Kinnear’s performance, on the other hand, bothered me. I have liked him in many movies – especially Little Miss Sunshine – but there’s something forced about him here that made him almost unwatchable for me. Granted, it’s a pretty thankless role. He has to show himself a cad of the first order and yet somehow make himself not entirely odious. In order to pull off that difficult feat, Mr. Kinnear seems to be resorting to a lot of mugging. Maybe the character didn’t sit very well with him.

The movie ends with tidal waves of sentiment that only the most steely viewer could resist. But I’m not sure that I bought the life lessons that were supposed to be learned. At one point, Bertram says he’s discovered that the problem with the ghosts is not that the dead people can’t let go but that we can’t let go of them. An interesting idea – except that everything that was happening in the movie seemed to be making the opposite point. I was perfectly willing to accept the life-affirming message, but the logic of it all – if that term can be applied – escaped me.

Rating: C minus (Where C = "Certainly worth seeing")

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com