Dilettante's Diary

Feb 8/09

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

Reviewed here: Tropic Thunder (DVD); Rhubarb Festival: Out the Window and She Walks the Line (Plays); Our Academy Awards 2009 (Movies); Gran Torino (Movie); Last Chance Harvey (Movie); Lucia di Lammermoor (Opera)

Tropic Thunder (DVD) written by Ben Stiller and Justin Theroux; directed by Ben Stiller; starring Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Robert Downey Jr., Nick Nolte, Steeve Coogan, Jay Baruchel, Danny R. McBride, Brandon T. Jackson, Bill Hader, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Cruise

If the title sounds screwy, that’s because it’s meant to. It’s supposed to be the title of a cheesy memoir about a rescue operation during the Vietnam war. Some stars of crappy adventure movies are making a movie of the novel. Trouble is, they get caught up in some deep doo-doo – the real kind – when they think they’re just following the script. It’s a great concept, bringing to mind movies like Three Amigos. The multiple agonies of filming on location also recall Terry Gilliam’s documentary: Lost In La Mancha.

The premise provides for lots of delicious jokes about actors and movies, especially thrillers. Cell phones and hassles with agents intrude on guerilla warfare. Tromping through the jungle, the actors talk about their craft – "It’s what we do" – in a fatuous attempt to make it sound as if they’re like plumbers, not billionaire megastars. We get one actor declaring: "I don’t read the script; the script reads me." The same character also pronounces: "I don’t drop character till I’ve done the DVD commentary." Near the end, we even get a Hollywood awards ceremony where Jon Voigt does a mute bit as a disgruntled also-ran. The best piece of action-movie parody comes when one character intones the time-honoured farewell: "Go back and tell the world what happened here." The other character responds: "What happened here?"

In spite of its many delights, I didn’t love the movie unreservedly. That may be because of the battle context: much exploding and shooting, screaming and yelling, and dashing through clouds of smoke. (According to the special feature interviews, the opening battle took three weeks to film.) It’s always hard for me to tell what’s going on in those skirmishes. And all the noise makes some dialogue impenetrable. Maybe the speakers on our tv aren’t good enough; probably the sound would be better in a theatre. Resorting to head phones for the second half of the movie helped me make sense of things.

Robert Downey Jr., in the role of an Australian actor playing a black solider, does deserve his Oscar nomination for a supporting role. His exaggerated soul-brother accent can be difficult to understand but that’s part of the joke. Mr. Downey Jr.’s performance becomes most interesting, though, when he reverts to his character’s blonde Australian persona.

However, the actor who astounded me was Tom Cruise. I’d heard that he was in the movie but it wasn’t until the final credits that I realized which character he was playing. The surprise was so complete that I had to replay a few scenes to convince myself that it really was Mr. Cruise. Hundreds of other actors could have played the part without making any special impression but surely the fact that the great Tom Cruise erased his glamorous persona so totally in this role earned him at least an Oscar nomination?

Rating: C minus (Where C = "Certainly Worth Seeing")

 

Rhubarb Festival Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, Toronto

Since this was my first time attending, it was a bit of a shock to learn that this Rhubarb Festival of short new plays is Buddies’ 30th. This year, the festival runs for three weeks (to Feb 22). Each week, for just $17 a night, you get to choose among several plays on offer. The night I attended, there were six plays. Because some of them took place at the same time in different spaces, you could only rack up a total of four. My impression is that the pieces should be considered works in progress. The production values may be a bit iffy and there may be signs of under-rehearsal, but there’s lots of imagination and skill on display. One of the best things about the experience, for me, was findng that there were lots of people willing to troop out on a weeknight to see this sort of thing. Gives you the feeling of a vibrant Toronto theatre community.

[Disclosure: I know some of the people involved in the following two shows]

Out The Window created by Liza Balkan and the "Window Collective"; Performed by Liza Balkan.

A few years ago, well-known Toronto actor and director Liza Balkan witnessed a disturbance from the window of her apartment near the corner of Lansdowne and College Streets. This play, based on actual court records regarding the incident, offers an intriguing dance around the concepts of evidence, truth and perceptions of reality. On a simple, bare stage, the voices of lawyers interrupt Ms. Balkan’s evidence, challenging her perception of things. They cite the fact that she is an actor and a director: does this give her expertise in knowing what motivates people, what causes them to do what they do? To add yet another level of fascination, the very concepts of theatre and performance get jumbled. Scenes are stopped mid-way, then run again. Even the audience gets involved. You don’t find out until the very end exactly what it was that Ms. Balkan saw. The dry, legalistic summary of the findings makes the incident all the more shocking.

 

She Walks the Line by Hope Thomson; directed by Patrick Conner; performed by Sky Gilbert, Ryan Kelly, Geoffrey Pounsett, Christopher Sawchyn and David Tomlinson

An exercise in outrageous camp, this one opens with a hilarious premise. Two men in drag, as women detectives, are lamenting the fact that the life of a private dick is very lonely and dangerous, "especially for a woman". The older one clearly has the hots for the younger one. But in comes a dishy rich guy who wants the women detectives to find his stolen painting. Now the younger detective has the hots for him. But, of course, rich guy is saddled with a bitchy wife – another guy in drag. A swarthy Italian butler in a muscle shirt completes the farcical lineup. Piano accompaniment adds lots of mood. Celebrated Toronto performer and writer Sky Gilbert, as the older female detective, casts enchantment all around with a bluesy song. I don’t know whether the play is intended as an out-and-out parody of Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency but I couldn’t help enjoying what seemed to be a nod in that direction.

 

Our Academy Awards 2009

We’ve kept you waiting long enough. So here are the official Dilettante’s Diary pronouncements on the most crucial questions facing the world right now.

Leading Actor:

In any other year, Sean Penn should get it for his sympathetic portrayal of a gay martyr in Milk. This year, though, it needs to go to Mickey Rourke for his astounding work in The Wrestler. Here we get a look into the battered, bruised soul of somebody we’ve never seen on screen before. (In terms of polling strength, it doesn’t hurt that the role is seen as a triumphant comeback in the actor's troubled career.) In other company, Frank Langella would have a good shot at the title for his work in Frost/Nixon. For my taste, Richard Jenkins was dull in The Visitor, although I can appreciate that people who know him from other roles would enjoy this change of pace. I hear Brad Pitt’s very good in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button but the length of the thing and the sci-fi premise put me off. But I can well imagine the fun in watching Brad turn from a wrinkled geezer back to a bodacious babe magnet. (I’d nominate him for a supporting actor award for his hilarious turn in Burn After Reading.)

Leading Actress:

This one is hard to pick because three of the ones I’ve seen areof equal merit: Ann Hathaway in Rachel Getting Married, Meryl Streep in Doubt and Kate Winslet in The Reader. I haven’t seen Angelina Jolie in The Changeling because it sounded too hokey. Nor have I seen Melissa Leo in Frozen River because that one slipped beneath my radar. Has it been released hereabouts? On balance, I’ll give the award to Ms. Hathaway because she needs the attention more than Ms. Streep or Ms. Winslet.

Supporting Actor

Heath Ledger’s gonna get it. When it comes to the sympathy vote, it’s hard to beat a dead guy. Whether he deserves it for any other reason, I can’t say, because The Dark Knight isn’t my kind of movie. Of the nominees I’ve seen, I’d give it to Philip Seymour Hoffman (Doubt) who proves yet again that he can inhabit vastly different characters more fully than any other actor can. I liked Josh Brolin in Milk but it wasn’t a standout performance, compared to Mr. Seymour Hoffman’s. I haven’t yet seen Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder, although I look forward to catching it on DVD. Nothing wrong with Michael Shannon in Revolutionary Road but performances as weirdos don’t particularly impress me. In terms of acting skill, it’s far easier to play these nut cases than to incarnate an ordinary person in a believable way. But Hollywood loves to salute the crazies, which just goes to show that those movie stars need to learn a thing or two from me about acting.

Supporting Actress

In my opinon, definitely not Amy Adams – which means she’ll probably get it, since Hollywood knows nuns like I know Martians. For someone who does know nuns, her performance in Doubt gave us a caricature of an innocent, wide-eyed member of the species. Viola Davis has good moments in Doubt but the role’s too small for an Academy Award. I haven’t seen Penlope Cruz in Vicky Cristina Barcelona or Taraji P. Henderson in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, so I’d have to give it to Marisa Tomei in The Wrestler – an interesting portrayal of a complex woman. Speaking of which, Jane Lynch deserved a nomination for giving us a wry look at an odious contemporary character in Role Models.

Best Film

For sheer entertainment value, Mamma Mia! was the best. Ok, ok, a lot of people preferred the stage show. (We didn’t go because we heard that the amplification was too intense.) So what if Pierce Brosnan can’t sing and has a beer belly? That added to the charming impression that it was all about ordinary people, not movie stars.

As for the nominated ones, the only one we haven’t seen, for previously-mentioned reasons, is The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Of the others, The Reader, Frost/Nixon and Milk all had some things going for them but Slumdog Millionaire had more: plot, suspense, fast pace, marvellous design and amazing settings. So we won’t complain if it wins, which it probably will.

Best Director

We’re a bit skeptical about this award, generally. How can you tell how much of the success of a film depends on the director? Lots of times, it may be just the director’s good luck that everybody else makes him or her look good. If you have to give this award to somebody, though, make it Danny Boyle for all the same reasons that we picked Slumdog for best picture.

Best Foreign Film

The only ones I’ve seen are The Class and Waltz with Bashir. Both of them are noteworthy in unusual ways. But The Class said a hell of a lot more to us about the issues that smack us in the face everyday.

Best Adapted Screenplay

By rights, you should know the original source to evaluate an adaptation fairly. I don’t, in the case of these nominees. (Do the Academy members?) Strictly as a film, without showing its literary sources awkwardly, Slumdog Millionaire works best of any of the nominees that we’ve seen, the others being Doubt, Frost/Nixon and The Reader:

Best Original Screenplay

Of the nominees, we saw only Happy-Go-Lucky (hated it!), Milk and In Bruges. For a Gus Van Sant, movie, we found Milk somewhat conventional, so we’ll go with the odd little charmer In Bruges.

               *******

Gran Torino and Last Chance Harvey (Movies)

Neither of these movies was on my must-see list. Clint Eastwood’s macho shtick has never interested me much. As for Dustin Hoffman, it was a bit of a stretch trying to accept him as a romantic lead forty years ago, but now....? However, word filtered through that both movies might be better than expected. And there comes an afternoon when you’re too tired for anything except movies. That’s why they're there.

Gran Torino: written by Nick Schenk and Dave Johannson; directed by Clint Eastwood; starring Clint Eastwood, Bee Vang, Ahney Her, Christopher Carley, Brian Haley, John Carroll Lynch.

The total fakery of this movie jumps out at you in the first scene. It’s supposedly a Catholic funeral. You have people coming into church and making elaborate genuflections and signs of the cross in a way that nobody does anymore. Obviously, the actors have just learned the rubrics. Even more improbably, you have a widower standing at the front of the church by his wife’s coffin, nodding to people as they arrive. The ceremony starts with the priest walking out in his vestments and preaching over the coffin.

The people who wrote this drivel know as much about Catholicism as I know about life on Mars. At one point, you get somebody asking the priest "Won’t you give me confession?" (Terms normally used: "hear my confession" or "give me absolution".) So what does it matter? Am I such a devout Catholic that I can’t stand to see the sacred rites misrepresented? Not at all. But to have so much error thrown in my face feels like an insult. It sends the message that the filmmakers didn’t take me seriously enough to try to get things right.

If that’s their attitude, why should I trust them about anything? Do they have anything worthwhile to say? If so, why would they take such a cavalier, unconcerned approach to authenticity?

There’s only one reason. It’s that man standing there so improbably beside the coffin, facing the congregation. The main problem with this movie is that you’re dealing with Clint Eastwood.

Mr. Eastwood has directed himself in the absurd character of an ageing American named Walter Kowalski who lives in a frame house in a dumpy part of town somewhere in Michigan. A rugged wreck, he keeps boasting about his fighting in the Korean War and his long service on the assembly line at Ford. A racist, sexist and borderline alcoholic (judging by the number of crumpled beer cans on the porch at the end of the day), he constantly spews misanthropic comments. His grown sons and their families are all dolts who – surprisingly? – don’t feel a whole lot of affection for Walter. Sometimes you wonder if his muttering to himself is a sign that he’s going insane; at other times he seems to be addressing his gentle old dog, Daisy.

Whatever his other accomplishments in the film world, it’s unbelievable that Clint Eastwood has any status whatever as an actor. He snarls and scowls his way through this film in what can only be called the baring-your-fangs school of acting. (On the other hand, maybe he just wants to show us that he still has pretty good choppers – constantly clenched – for his age?) He so needed somebody to tell him to pull back on the over acting.

That’s the trouble with being your own director. Another hazzard of such a dual-responsibility is that you won’t be able to resist the temptation, every time you have a big moment on screen, to give other actors three-second reaction shots just to emphasize how amazing you are. And, if you aren’t particularly gifted at humour, your attempts to inject some into the proceedings, as in the kibitzing between Walt and his barber (John Carroll Lynch), may be about as amusing as a couple of front end loaders crashing into each other.

The main storyline is that a Hmong family moves into the house next door to Walter’s. To say that Walter does not take kindly to them would be like saying that foxes are not kindly disposed to chickens. However, this being a mainstream US film, and Clint Eastwood being the icon that he is, you can probably guess what some of the developments will be. Do you think that stand-off with the neighbours will last? (Hint: the family seriously lacks a strong male presence.) Do you think Wally will sort (as the Brit’s say) the cretinous thugs who threaten the neighbours? Do you think Wally might have a serious health problem that he’s keeping secret? Do you think a horrible memory might be weighing on his soul?

Alas, we can’t answer any of these questions because, as you know, we reveal only the minimum of plot details here at Dilettante’s Diary. But keep thinking. Chances are, you could spare yourself the price of admission.

As for the other actors, the only one who manages to create a believable character is the dog Daisy. The teenage brother and sister next door don’t fare so well. Bee Vang, as the brother, was told by somebody that, to portray a young man unsure of himself, you hang your head and slump your shoulders. So he does. Period. As the sister, Ahney Her has a flippant, in-your-face attitude to Walter’s insults but she can’t handle English dialogue. If she’s required to say more than one sentence, she gets the rhythm of the words all wrong and it’s impossible to decipher her meaning.

The role of the priest is one of the most ludicrous aspects of the movie. This young whipper-snapper, who seems to think he’s in a Bing Crosby movie, keeps referring to his parishoners as his "flock". For some inexplicable reason, he can never seem to remember how Wally wants to be addressed. Worse still, this padre badgers Walter about going to confession in a way that no priest ever would. There’s no reason at all for this cleric to be such a dork except to provide Wally with another target for his invective. Christopher Carley struggles to give this clown some dignity but you keep wondering if the poor man will ever be offered a part in which he’s asked to play anything but a baby-faced klutz.

A couple of other questions were bothering me throughout the movie: what was the point? and who was it supposed to appeal to? At times, it looks like an ad for the National Rifle Association. Walter stock firearms like Betty Crocker stocks spatulas. Although there are lots of young people in the movie, I can’t imagine any young viewers taking pleasure in this geezer’s wheezy display of potency. Maybe the movie’s supposed to appeal to ageing guys who want to fantasize that they can still mix it up like good old Clint. Possibly it’s hoped their wives will tag along for the sake of the moral edification that Clint’s rough-hewn justice delivers.

The movie’s one virtue is that the macabre ending – if you can stick it that long – offers a certain black satisfaction. That got me wondering whether the movie could have worked with other actors. You could imagine somebody like Walter living next door to immigrants and running into the kinds of problems he does. A subtle, skilled actor might have made the part believable. But that’s beside the point. The preposterous, overblown role was clearly meant for Clint Eastwood to strut his ridiculous stuff one more time.

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

 

Last Chance Harvey: written and directed by Joel Hopkins; starring Emma Thompson, Dustin Hoffman, Eileen Atkins, Kathy Baker, Liane Balaban, James Brolin, Richard Schiff, Bronagh Gallagher

Dustin Hoffman plays a divorced American visiting Britain for his daughter’s wedding. Emma Thompson is a single woman of a certain age with a dumb job. They’ve each been having a really bad day when they meet in an airport bar. Mutual commiseration leads to ....well....one thing and another.

It don’t whether it’s just in comparison to Gran Torino that this one seemed so real, but the contrast surely helped. In fact, this one’s so true, it’s painful. At a pre-nuptial gathering, the awkwardness around the Hoffman character makes you want to squirm. Everybody’s trying to be cordial but you can smell the anxiety. Emma Thompson, on a blind date that’s going up in smoke, tries to make pleasant faces and happy remarks but her desperation is all too recognizable.

Every moment on screen, Ms. Thomson is fascinating. She presents a woman we all know – somebody who’s attractive and smart, but weary of the dating game. The look on her face seems to say she knows that time is slipping away but maybe a girl should just forget all that? She can look smashing but you sense that she’s a little wider in the hips than she’d like to be. Thinking a lot about Ms. Thompson’s performance, I’ve come to the conclusion that what makes her so interesting is that, unlike so many actresses, she isn’t trying to be beautiful. There’s no artful posing about her. She knows she’s a good-looking woman but she’s perfectly willing to let the camera catch her looking haggard and every bit her age. She lets the weariness show through the good cheer. I think what I’m talking about here is a fundamental good sense in the actor that has the effect of making us trust her character.

For my taste, Dustin Hoffman still relies a little too much on the cutesy come-on. And I thought, at first, that his character was given too much stupid slapstick, as if to make him funny and endearing. But gradually you learn that this tendency to put the wrong foot forward is essential to the character; in fact, it’s fundamentally the way he sees himself in relation to others. That leads to some great moments when you see into the man’s soul and discover things you’ve never seen in anybody in a movie or in real life. At those points, you find yourself thinking: yes, Dustin Hoffman really does deserve to be counted among the great screen actors of our time.

Some actors in smaller parts also provide special pleasures. Torontonian Liane Balaban, as the bride, does beautiful work in the tricky business of balancing feelings for the father who’s never been a very big part of her life and the stepfather who has. Kathy Baker catches just the right mixture of acid and affection in the role of the estranged wife. Bronagh Gallagher’s would-be matchmaker is a bit over the top but you have to love her kindly Irish enthusiasm.

It’s unfortunate that, because it’s perceived as a frothy romance, only women of a certain age will see this movie. It deserves more attention that that. In fact, the romance part of it -- which is kept within realistic bounds -- isn't all that important. It’s about something more basic than romance: two human beings meeting and connecting. The two actors deserve a lot of credit for managing to pull off what is, for the movies, a pretty atypical combo. Ms. Thompson, in heels, towers over Mr. Hoffman. Then there’s the age difference, which comes in for some ironic mention. We even get some nice flipping of British-American stereotypes. True, the Hoffman character is a go-for-it  American guy and the Thompson character is more polished, more cultivated. Whenever she mentions a literary work, though, he knows the author’s name, even if he hasn’t read the book. When he remarks that she’s much more candid about her feelings than he expected a Brit to be, she responds: Didn't you know? We’ve had a character change since the death of Princess Diana; now we let the emotion flow out of us like water.

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

 

Lucia Di Lammermoor (Opera) by Gaetano Donizetti; conducted by Marco Armiliato; production by Mary Zimmerman; design by Daniel Ostling; costumes by Mara Blumenfeld; starring Anna Netrebko, Piotr Beczala, Mariusz Kwiecien, Ildar Abdrazakov, Michaela Martens, Colin Lee, Michael Myers. Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus; Met Opera HD Live Transmission (Feb 7/09)

As far as this reviewer is concerned, this performance had a couple of strikes against it before the curtain went up. In the first place, Lucia was one of the first operas I ever saw and it starred none other than Joan Sutherland. That’s what you call starting at the top. Ever since, I’ve been skeptical about any soprano’s likelihood of matching up to Dame Joan’s impossibly high standard.

Secondly, I was really looking forward to Raimondo Villazn’s partnering of Ms. Netrebko in the role of Edgardo. These two are touted as opera’s hot young duo these days but I’ve yet to see Signor Villazn in action. In December 2007, the Mexican tenor opted out of a scheduled appearance as Romeo in the Met HD Live broadcast of Gounod’s take on the famous tragedy (see review Dilettante’s Diary, Dec 8/07). On arrival at the theatre for this Lucia, we learned that Signor Villazn had cancelled yet again, to be replaced by the young Polish tenor Piotr Beczala – who, we presumed, would sing well, but we’d been so looking forward to seeing his celebrated colleague strut his stuff.

Then the opera begins and you think: what a lot of hokey claptrap. You’ve got Lucia, who falls for Edgardo, who happens to be the wrong guy, since his and her families are sworn enemies. Meanwhile Lucia’s brother Enrico, who seems to have serious control issues, insists that she marry Arturo who’s going to save the family from financial ruin. Apparently, Enrico got caught up in some subprime mortgage fiasco or some Ponzi scheme. I dunno, it’s all so silly that it's not worth trying to understand.

But once the gorgeous melodies start flowing, none of that matters. Signor Donizetti catches you and carries you along on an emotional ride that your heart can’t resist even though your head is telling you that it’s all drivel.

Ms. Netrebko may not have quite the magical, langorous, floating quality to her coloratura that Dame Joan had, but she is gifted with a marvellously burnished sound in the middle and lower registers that reminds me very much of "La Stupenda". It’s a sound like one of the woodwinds, perhaps an oboe. I didn’t hear a real trill in Ms. Netrebko’s performance and her final high note was screechy but I’m inclined to forgive that because of a moment in the second act at the end of the big battle with Enrico. I thought the singing was finished – they were standing there glaring at each other – but Ms. N suddenly picked a high note out of the stratosphere that was electrifying.

As expected in any Met production, the rest of the singing was very good. Piotr Beczala may not have the sex appeal of Signor Villazn but his singing was bright, clear, ringing and right on. A lot of fuss is made about the star quality of baritone Mariusz Kwiecien (Enrico) but I didn’t find anything particularly beautiful about his voice, although it certainly is impressive in terms of volume and dramatic impact. For me, there was more pleasure in listening to the velvety bass of Ildar Abdrazakov (Raimondo). In what might be thought of as a throw-away part, Colin Lee, as Arturo, the unwanted groom, scored a hit with his beautiful, expert singing of one delicate, difficult aria.

The drab Victorian design, as opposed to the opulent approach more often taken, worked well enough. The first scene, with the local men searching for a fugitive on the heath, looks like an old black and white movie: lots of capes and tweedy hats and walking sticks against a glowering sky. In the same act, Ms. Netrebko has to struggle to sustain the romantic image while a little top hat fastened to her head at a rakish tilt makes her look like the Planter’s Peanut man in the Labour Day parade. But I did like very much the business accompanying the signing of the dreaded marriage contract in the second act. A photographer was lining everybody up for a formal photo of the occasion and his manipulating of the assembled personages fit the music beautifully. And it seemed altogether appropriate that a doctor would come rushing in with his black bag to administer an injection in the mad scene. Except it left me wondering whether Lucia had actually died of thwarted love, assisted suicide or medical murder.

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