Dilettante's Diary

Jan 10/09

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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: Defiance (Movie); The Sound of Music (Musical); Revolutionary Road (Movie); The Wrestler (Movie); Man in the Dark (Novel)

Defiance (Movie) written by Clayton Frohman and Edward Zwick; based on the book by Nechama Tec; directed by Edward Zwick; starring Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, Jamie Bell, Alexa Davalos, Allan Corduner, Mark Feuerstein, Tomas Arana, Jonjo O’Neill, Mia Wasiskowska.

It’s a great story. And it’s true.

It’s 1941 in Belarus and the persecution of Jews is in full swing. When the Bielski brothers discover their parents slaughtered, they take to the woods for survival. Other Jews join them and soon the brothers are leaders of a community of some fifty or sixty people living in the woods. Raids on nearby farmhouses provide food. Trees are felled to build cabins. Weapons are acquired from ambushed German scouts. There’s also some inter-action with Russian partisans who are fighting the Germans.

You’d think a movie like this would show you some gritty truths about human beings in extremity. But this movie is about as gripping and original as an average biblical saga. As risk of sounding like a smartypants, I can honestly say that comparison came to mind long before the movie actually refers to the Exodus. And just in case you don’t get the solemnity of it all, a score heavy on syrupy strings (solos by Joshua Bell) keeps impressing on you how deep and stirring it all is.

Instead of real people, we get standard characters: the school teacher who keeps quoting the Talmud (Allan Corduner); the intellectual who doesn’t recognize the business end of a hammer (Mark Feuerstein); the virginal young male (Jamie Bell) for whom a matching female (Mia Wasikowska) will be found; the doofus who keeps screwing up on sentry duty (Jonjo O’Neill); the beauty queen (Alexa Davalos) who makes herself available to the group’s leader; and the bully (you know he’s trouble from the get-go because of those rotten teeth). These people don’t serve up any natural-sounding dialogue; instead we get high-flown speech sprinkled with the likes of "We are waiting for God," and "We may be hunted like animals but we will not become like animals."

There are, of course, the predictable problems about the food supply, about who’s not doing their share of work, about love, fear, sickness and boredom. Some incidents inevitably show the campers at their worst towards their fellow humans. But none of it grabs you with the sudden revelation of truth. It’s all so lacking in any sense of real life that, when the women get a chance to bathe in a stream, we see them standing there splashing themselves while wearing full lingerie.

The one problem that does have some dramatic pull is the conflict between the two oldest Bielski brothers. Tuvia (Daniel Craig) and Zus (Liev Schreiber) fight over which of them is better fit to be the leader. (Yeah, I know, Moses and Aaron.) Zus goes for a rougher, tougher style of command, whereas Tuvia’s a more thoughtful, humane guy. The role gives Daniel Craig great opportunities to show a sensitive side that doesn’t often come to light in his other big starring role of the moment. But I must admit it’s a bit startling to see James Bond cradling wounded guys in his arms and kissing them.

In spite of all my complaining about this film, I gotta credit the film makers with a neat plot twist near the end that took me by surprise. And it must be admitted that there’s some merit in their telling us about a remarkable historical incident. Even if I don’t much care for the style of the telling, it’s enlightening to know what actually happened.

Part of what happened is a lot of gun fighting. But what is the point of showing such prolonged shoot-outs on screen? I always find it hard to follow what’s happening in these melees – whose ambushing whom? – but it’s especially confusing when much of it’s taking place in the dark. By the end of the movie, we’ve spent about twenty minutes watching smoke and flashes and bodies flying through the air. Do we need that much of it, or is somebody’s getting off on the violence?

Rating: D (for "Divided" i.e. some good, some bad)

 

The Sound of Music (Musical) Music by Richard Rodgers; lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II; book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse; suggested by "The Trapp Family Singers" by Maria Augusta Trapp; choreographer Arlene Phillips; director Jeremy Sams; starring Elicia MacKenzie, Burke Moses, Nolla Huet, Keith Dinicol, Jeff Irving, Megan Nuttall, Blythe Wilson (Princess of Wales Theatre, Toronto)

First, you gotta know where this review’s coming from.

You're not hearing from one of those guys who rushes out to the latest musical. Before this, the last full-blown, professionally-produced Broadway-type musical that I saw was A Little Night Music in about 1975. That one didn’t please me much and I’ve not been tempted by any new ones since then. Oh, I know, people rave about Les Mis, The Phantom, The Lion King, Hairspray, etc. From what I’ve heard, though, they're too strident, too noisy for me. I guess you could say my kind of musical doesn’t stray far from the operetta tradition that preceded it.

In fact, if you ask me,The Sound of Music was pretty nearly the last good musical. I well remember the excitement about the original production that opened in 1959. The cast album (Mary Martin and Theodore Bikel) was a standard around our house. For several months you couldn’t drop into the house, night or day, without one of Richard Rodgers’ tunes greeting you at the door. A cousin of mine who lived in Connecticut told about how she had twice accompanied visitors to the Broadway production. Like any good Catholic, she was overwhelmed with guilt about the extravagance of seeing such a marvel twice. And to think that the tickets probably cost a whopping twenty dollars (US) each!

Apart from the shock of the exponential leap in ticket prices, attending this new production in Toronto was, in many ways, a time warp experience. It felt very strange to be carried back to the days when you had an engaging story bubbling along, with just enough dialogue to get you from one number to the next. Amazing how the creators made such a successful piece of theatre from the memoirs of an obscure Austrian woman. I kept thinking how thrilling it must have been to see it all unfolding for the first time. Nuns and Nazis -- how edgy is that?

But some aspects of the show look a bit tawdry today. For instance, the hoary clich of the comic character, in this case Max Detweiler, who is parachuted in for obvious laughs. Then there’s the perfunctory handling of some plot elements. Like the Baron’s break up with the rich girlfriend. It happens so fast that you find yourself wondering if somebody skipped a line or two. The "other woman" gets shuffled offstage and the Baron is engaged to Maria within about a minute and a half. Most of us expect a little more realism in our theatre these days.

And now that we’ve had nearly half a century to reflect on the lyrics, you begin to wonder if Oscar Hammerstein II was the genius we took him for. Think about that title: The Sound of Music. Is that redundant or what? If somebody goes to the hills to hear music – which is what is happening – then what is added by saying that she goes to the hills to hear the sound of music? Then there’s the couplet in the climactic song: "A dream that will need all the love you can give/Every day of your life for as long as you live." Doesn’t "every day of your life" do it? The only reason for the next phrase is that you need a rhyme. Seems we’re not dealing with a W.S. Gilbert here.

Another obvious convention of the traditional musical is the little cloud that appears on the horizon in the first act and will produce a storm near the end of the second act. In the first act of this show, the reference to the Nazi threat was somewhat jarring amidst all the frivolity. Since the 1960s, we’ve seen so many plays and films about the horror of the Second World War that this show’s teensy tremors of concern about the approaching calamity seemed trite to the point of offensive. By the end of the show, though, the seriousness of that theme does take hold.

Does this production bring anything new to the piece? Well, there’s lots of technical razzmatazz that probably wasn’t possible in the 1960s. Like a hologram of heavenly skies that greets you on entering the theatre. And Maria’s mountain meadow tilts magically up and down, oozing mist, as the need arises. Not to mention furniture and props, whole castle walls and abbey cloisters flying in and out with lightning speed.

One contemporary spin could be considered a detriment, from my point of view. Now that miking of musicals is standard, nobody articulates as clearly as they used to do. I found myself constantly wishing for the meticulous, precise delivery of old. The microphones seem to have a similarly negative effect on the singing. People rely too much on the mike to put the song across rather than on their own focus and intensity.

The acting, for the most part, is good, competent and professional, pretty broad, with not a lot of finesse. Elicia MacKenzie won the right to play Maria by beating out the competition on the "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?" show on CBC TV. Given that this is her professional debut, she does well enough in such a daunting challenge. At first, she didn't come across as having much personality, but gradually I came to believe in her as a sincere, ingenuous young person.

Burke Moses, as the Baron, has a beautiful singing voice (when you finally get to hear it) but he doesn’t sustain phrases with a legato line the way I remember Theodore Bikel doing in the original cast album. Mr. Moses fits the part of the studly Baron but, from our vantage point (high in the balcony), it looked like he didn’t have a neck; his chin was on his chest most of the time.

Nolla Huet has great success as the abbess. If she comes across as the best performer of the bunch, that may have a lot to do with the fact that her role is probably the most sympathetic of all of them. Plus, she gets the best song. But it pissed me off that the capacity audience started cheering wildly about fifteen seconds before she finished the final rousing high note of "Climb Every Mountain."

Still, I guess you gotta be glad that people respond so enthusiastically. That’s probably the most exhilarating thing about the whole show: discovering that there are still so many people -- of all ages --  who are willing to pay big bucks to fill the hall for a kind of theatre that a lot of us thought was dead and gone.

 

Revolutionary Road (Movie) written by Justin Haythe; based on the book by Richard Yates; directed by Sam Mendes; starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet; with Kathy Bates, David Harbour, Michael Shannon, Kathryn Hahn, Zoe Kazan, Richard Easton

Hope you catch the irony in that street name "Revolutionary Road". We’re dealing here with one of those white-picket-fence-type burbs, somewhere near New York, in the 1950s. The hubbies all take the train to work in Manhattan, emerging onto the platform in a sea of bobbing fedoras like so many lemmings looking for a cliff to drop over. Back home, the gals do their housework in dresses and high heels. Neighbours get together for cocktails and hors d’oeuvres made of pineapples and toothpicks. It’s all so conventional.

Except for April (Kate Winslet) and Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio). Somehow, they see themselves as apart from all this. They know they were meant for something better. So they get the idea to take their two kids and jet off to Paris. She’ll get secretarial work; meanwhile he’ll be able to figure out what that special contribution he’s supposed to make to the world could be. Does it work out as they hope? Let’s just say complications ensue.

Throughout this movie, I kept thinking of how my dear Aunt Agnes would react. (You may remember Aunt A’s no-nonsense reviews of some art shows. Dilettante’s Diary: Nov 25/05; May 2/06; Nov 8/06; April 14/07; Nov 16/08). Faced with the carryings-on of these two, Aunt Aggie would be muttering about people putting on airs, people who don’t know how to keep to their station in life, people who think they’re better than they are. But I was trying to like this couple. After all, their situation was interesting. I wanted to take them seriously.

So what was my problem with them? Maybe the fact that they’re so damn dramatic all the time. Take one of the first scenes. It’s the opening night of a play in which she made her debut as an aspiring actress. A total flop. On the way home, he’s trying to commiserate with her but she keeps saying she doesn’t want to talk about it. Before you can say August Strindberg, they’re parked at the side of the road, screaming and yelling at each other, he’s punching the roof of the car and she’s stomping off into the darkness alone.

And so it goes. They love each other. They hate each other. They rant and rave. So much sturm und drang. They deliver great, long diatribes that sound more like the work of an ambitious novelist than the speech of any real person. In such a welter of verbiage, you can lose the thread of the argument. The overall theme is clear enough – they’re not happy, poor dears – but sometimes, in any given crisis, you have to ask yourself: whose problem is this? what’s at stake here? At one point, it appears that we’re dealing with a husband who thinks he knows best and when his wife doesn’t conform, there’s only one solution: bring on the shrinks. That’s a theme that has some resonance for lots of us today. But it doesn’t follow through the whole movie.

Not surprisingly, some of the best moments in the movie are silent ones: April at the end of the driveway, looking up the street after she’s lugged the garbage pails to the curb; the man next door standing in his yard and staring wistfully at April and Frank’s house; April seen through the bathroom door, doing something with towels.

The histrionics come to a head in a scene where a psychiatric patient, the son of a friend, comes to visit them. The patient (Michael Shannon), a man in his thirties, has undergone umpteen sessions of electric shock therapy. That means that he can tell the truth when nobody else can, right? As he begins to uncover the nasty secrets about April and Frank, the fan spits shit all over the place. The climax of the scene has the man’s mother (Kathy Bates) flapping her red fingernails in the air and exclaiming, "He’s not well! He’s not well!" One of those gems that deserves a special place in the pantheon of over-the-top movie scenes.

Still, it might all have worked if you had the right actors in the two key roles. I could, after all, imagine how this stuff might go down in a novel. And I’d like to think I’d be sympathetic to two young people who looked pretty much like you and me but who had some inner sense of themselves as special. (Don’t we all?) But it seemed to me that, in spite of some good acting going on, the leads are both miscast.

Acting students who hope to work in movies spend time analyzing their "hit". That's the impression that their face gives on camera, without any acting. The point is that the camera conveys a certain sense of a personality and you shouldn't stray too far from that in your movie roles. That's because a film doesn't let you get away with the kind of fakery that might convince an audience for a stage play.

Which is why Kate Winslet doesn't work for me as an American woman. One can understand her wanting a career in American movies – lots more jobs than in British ones. No matter how hard she tries to make herself sound American, however, she remains the quintessential upper class Brit, in my view. In fact, much of her mellow, modulated speech in this movie sounds post-synched. But even if she did manage to sound just like an American, I can never see her as the woman next door. With her sculpted face, her huge eyes and her wrap-around lips, she is clearly a Drama Queen. Her character in Revolutionary Road is supposed to be a failed actress and yet this woman is an actress in every inch of her body. When she’s sitting at the kitchen table, trying to make small talk with a friend, she’s like Princess Margaret (albeit prettier) chatting up the coal delivery man.

Leonardo DiCaprio fits well enough into the role of the Disneyland 1950s dad but he shows no hint of the special fire that’s supposed to be burning inside him. What was it that he was hoping to do in Paris? Paint? Write? No sign of any such inclinations. The Winslet character says that he’s the most interesting man she’s ever met. Huh? Maybe she’s confusing the actor with the character. If you were thinking of this as the guy who has played roles as diverse as Howard Hughes and Arthur Rimbaud, then maybe you’d find him intriguing. In this role, he’s about as fascinating as bubble gum.

But maybe the problem isn’t just the actors. It could be the directing. If only everything wasn’t so exaggerated, so extreme. Even that scene with the looney guy could have come off believably if hadn’t verged on the gothic horror genre. If only it had been underplayed just a little. If the people in the movie had come across as somebody you might know rather than as players in a huge spectacle. Nobody seems to occupy his or her space in a life-like, spontaneous way. Everything, including the sets, seems a set-up for fireworks. These rooms look less like places where people might live than studied attempts to recreate what 1950s decor might look like to an art director. One of the phoniest aspects of it all – those two kids are hustled off screen, whenever the plot requires, much more easily than any kids I ever knew.

One character who comes through it all with some authenticity is Kathy Bates as the real estate agent who befriends Frank and April. With her curly hair, her dark red lipstick, her oh-so-white teeth, her plump body squeezed into a corset, with lots of bosom spilling over, and yes, those red fingernails, she brought to life a certain kind of 1950s woman that I knew well. Apparently, we’re meant to take this one as a busybody, a somewhat ridiculous person, but she was the only one in the movie who elicited in me any feeling of shared humanity.

Rating: D (for "Divided" i.e. some good, some bad.)

 

The Wrestler (Movie) written by Robert D. Siegel; directed by Darren Aronofsky; starring Mickey Rourke; with Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood, Tod Barry, Mark Margolis, Wass Stevens, Ernest Miller, Mike Miller.

My first impression of Mickey Rourke is still vivid after nearly thirty years. I’m not even sure which of Mr. Rourke’s early movies it was, but suddenly we were in the presence of this remarkable dude. I was like: where did they get this guy? There’d never been anybody like him on screen before. He didn’t fit into any of the categories of male movie actor. He came across as some quirky individual who was totally his authentic self and whom the movie-makers just happened to find and to persuade to go before the camera.

On the basis of this movie, Mickey Rourke is still a unique presence on screen. Here he plays "Randy the Ram". As you might guess from the title, Randy's a wrestler, but somewhat past his prime (if you pick up a pun relating to beef, you’re not far off): a battered hulk in a much-abused body, with a mane of stringy blonde rat’s tails, his eyes swollen half-shut much of the time. He still takes on matches, he still has fans from his glory days, but it’s a tough slog. He lives in a trailer – when he isn’t locked out for not paying his rent. He’s estranged from his daughter. When he needs somebody to talk to, there’s only a stripper who can’t decide whether to treat him as a friend or a client. Health problems mean that he might no longer be able to do the one thing he’s good at – getting into a ring and going through the motions of beating up somebody and getting beaten up in return.

Mickey Rourke’s portrayal of this gentle giant is so amazing that it makes you appreciate in a new way what a movie camera can do. I’m not sure exactly what the inventors of the gizmo intended it for. Telling stories? Making people laugh? Painting pretty pictures? Teaching moral lessons? Conveying themes? Here, the camera works as some kind of new medical diagnostic tool that serves up for our inspection, like no other device can, a slice of raw, hurtin’, bleedin’ humanity. You feel that you’re seeing a human being in a way you’ve never seen one before.

This poor wreck of a creature constantly screws up, he’s not very good at explaining himself, he’s not the brightest thing on two legs, but, underneath all the bruises and the scars, he’s such a nice guy. When the Asian hairdresser who’s dyeing his hair prattles away in a foreign language, he responds as cordially as if he were Prince Charles at a tea party. When boisterous neighbourhood kids wake up him after a rough night of sleeping in his van, he lunges out the door and you think he’s gonna kill them. But what ensues is a high-spirited session of play-fighting, all the kids ganging up on him in a massive tussle. You'll have to believe me when I say that, after getting to know this man in all his complexity, I actually felt a teeny bit more tolerant towards the slobs jostling me in the subway on the home.

As you know, we don’t indulge in over-intellectualizing here at Dilettante’s Diary, but this movie inevitably brings classic comparisons to mind. The Beauty and the Beast, for starters. After the fanfare of the opening credits, which play against a collage of Randy’s triumphant clippings from twenty years ago, we spot him slumped in a chair in a makeshift dressing room which happens to be a school classroom. (He's just made a disappointing appearance in the school's gym.) The view is from behind – a bulging body, topped with that straggly blonde mane. For the next few minutes, we can’t get a good look at his face; it’s almost always in shadow or obscured by the hair. We keep wondering what kind of monster we’re dealing with here. When we do finally get a good fix on him, that creased, bloated face ain’t easy to look at. But – surprise: pretty soon that battered mug delivers one of the sweetest smiles you’re ever gonna see. Clearly, there’s tremendous goodness lurking inside this guy, even if he hasn’t always been able to call on it when it was most needed. But don’t expect any princely metamorphosis of this Beast. If you’re thinking of some kind of Rocky Balboa triumph, you better stay home.

Among other allusions, the connection with Jesus, is unfortunately, made a little too explicit by the stripper’s (somewhat implausible, in the context) reference to Isaiah’s Suffering Servant who, as we know, took quite a beating. Still, there are genuine resonances with Jesus’ passion. Lots of the physical punishment dished out in the ring parallels the abuse inflicted on Jesus by the soldiers. And there are times when our hero is mocked, much in the way Jesus’ tormentors taunted him. Then, if you want to see it that way, there's the stripper in the Magdalene role.

But the reference that strikes me most forcibly is King Lear. We have a guy who’s cast out of the world he knows, the world in which he had some respect, some standing. He’s stripped of nearly everything, there’s no place left for him, no place for him to go where he can find love and acceptance. And don’t forget his daughter problems. Life becomes a daily struggle to try to maintain some dignity. Forced to work in a deli, with his blonde mane bundled in a hairnet, he looks a fool. And yet he tries for some semblance of hope and happiness. So I have to work in a deli now, while the cheers of adoring fans are still ringing in my ears? I might as well play it up, pretend that I’m having fun.

Given the tremendous power of this character study, this movie would have earned one of our highest ratings ever, except that I had some problems with the script. Granted, the creation of the character of Randy is a great achievement on the part of both the actor and the writer. And I did like the fact that the movie remains open-ended. Nothing much is resolved. In other respects, though, I found the script somewhat beneath the grandeur of Mickey Rourke’s work. It’s a very literal, straight-line script. Realistic, yes, but nothing particularly clever or imaginative in the way of story-telling. In one scene, you get too much emphasis on a certain piece of equipment that you know is going to cause horrific injury. In other contexts, you get somebody telling Randy "You should do such and such" and in the next scene you see him doing such and such.

Foremost among those "somebody’s" that Randy relates to is Marisa Tomei as his stripper friend. Ms. Tomesi captures perfectly the various shades of the woman: glamorous and brittle one moment, ageing and washed-up the next minute, domestic and ordinary later on. Evan Rachel Wood as the estranged daughter has about three scenes total, and she makes a harrowing impression each time. Another actor who has an uncanny effect in a relatively small role is Tod Barry as Randy’s boss in his warehouse job. Somehow or other, Mr. Barry manages to be poisonously insulting and dismissive in an almost genial way, with a imperturbable smile.

Warning: A viewer’s enjoyment of this movie may be significantly enhanced or threatened by one element – the wrestling. You have to sit through about ten or fifteen minutes of it. If you like that kind of thing, fine. Me, I’ve never understood why people enjoy watching other people get the shit beaten out of them. Not to mention the gore. In this case, the worst of it comes in the medical clean-up after the fights. The clinical detail had me averting my eyes but that wasn’t much of a relief because, down the row from me were a couple of headless torsos: two ladies were ducking behind the seats to avoid seeing the screen.

And yet, some aspects of the wrestling world fascinated me. Particularly the way the opponents acted so gentlemanly towards each other in the dressing rooms. They planned their manoeuvres like groomsmen discussing their functions in a wedding. Sometimes there was mention of the various weapons they had hidden around the ring. My favourite line: "Are you ok with the staple gun?"

Rating: B+ (Where B = "Better than most")

 

Man In the Dark (Novel) by Paul Auster, 2008

Some years ago, Paul Auster came to my attention as a writer worthy of note. So I duly devoured some of his books. Although I can’t remember much about them, I was impressed. The first page of this slim volume presented an elderly book critic lying in bed, thinking about the two women upstairs, his middle-aged daughter and her daughter, whose boyfriend had recently died. That looked promising.

But a couple of pages in, we’re plunged into a totally different story. A guy finds himself in a deep hole in the earth. On getting out, he discovers an alternate-reality version of the US, one where the 9/11 terrorist attack never happened. Following the disputed election of 2000, it seems, various states have been seceding from the union, with the result that the nation is now embroiled in full-scale civil war. Our hero finds himself saddled with a soldier’s uniform and a commission to effect an assassination that will, presumably, stop the fighting.

It turned out that this was a story that the old man in bed was concocting to pass the hours of the night. I don’t much go for these science-fiction-ish stories but this one became more interesting when it looked like the fictional scenario was going to impact on the reality of the old writer lying in bed. But the war story suddenly came to an end. For the rest of the book, we were left with the sleepless guy re-telling movie plots and stories about people he had known. His granddaughter comes in and they pass the hours till morning in a question-and-answer session, with him describing his love affair with her grandmother. One last recollection, after the granddaughter falls asleep, has the old man’s account of one of the brutal crimes that have become symptomatic of our troubled times.

The point of it all? Maybe it’s about our need for stories to help us through the night. Maybe it’s about an elderly person’s attempts to find, though his stories, a reason to keep on living – and to pass that motivation onto his granddaughter? Something like that might make a good novel. But this feels like a lot of rambling that the writer couldn’t be bothered structuring into a book that would stand on its own. It doesn’t help that the writing is so slack as to fall back far too often on clichs: "least of his worries," "play it closer to the vest," "plucks up his courage," "giving vent to the rage," "lower circles of hell." Middle of the night ramblings indeed! Bring on the chamomile tea.

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