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July 17/09

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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: The Hurt Locker (Movie); The Longest Trip Home (Memoir); Bruno (Movie); Empire of the Sun (Novel)

The Hurt Locker (Movie) written by Mark Boal; directed by Kathryn Bigelow; starring Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty; with Ralph Fiennes, Christian Camargo, David Morse

The good thing about this movie is that it gives you the feeling of being immersed in war like no other movie does. In this case, it’s the Iraq conflict and you’re right there in the midst of the action with the US soldiers. The bad thing about that is that you may not have passed basic training and you may not be able to take it. In which case, you may have to bail before the movie’s over.

As did this reviewer. This posting, then, is not so much a review as a reaction.

The movie centers on three members of a bomb disposal unit. Most of the action in the first hour involves their dismantling of bombs found in the streets of Baghdad. One guy dons a suit of armour that makes him look like of those sci-fi "Transformers" as he stomps towards the bombs to de-activate them. The other two guys stand guard, eyes peeled for any hint of suspicious activity from surrounding balconies or minarets. Any sign of a cell phone, for instance, or a car in a place where it shouldn’t be, puts them on high alert. Ominous music raises the level of tension in these prolonged scenes almost to the point of being unbearable.

What made it literally unbearable for this viewer was the hand-held camera swinging wildly from one viewpoint to another. This isn’t so much in-your-face filming as up-your-nose filming. The photography is brilliant but sometimes it’s hard to tell what you’re looking at; you’re getting just fragments of reality. Which, I suppose, is the way it often looks to the combatants. But the frenetic camera work induced pronounced vertigo in my case. Add to that the heat, the sweat, the flies and the dust....after an hour and twenty minutes, I had to escape to the cool, damp and stable streets of Toronto.

Too bad, because this looks like a good movie. As fresh and naturalistic as it seems in style, the movie isn’t without its conventional elements. You get the conflict between the reasonable, wise team leader (Anthony Mackie) and the new member (Jeremy Renner) who’s very cocky but also very brave. Just before I left, the two of them – quite drunk – were duking it out in the barracks in a playful/serious way that was probably meant to set up a bonding that would be threatened by further danger in the line of duty. The other member of the team (Brian Geraghty) seems to be having psychological issues, given that a psychiatrist (Christian Camargo) is conferring with him. You also get the typical war movie change of mood – "relief" I think it’s called – wherein one of the soldiers forms a friendship with a cheeky Iraqi kid (Christopher Sayegh) who sells porno DVDs.

But none of this follows the usual pattern of movie narrative. You get smatterings of events thrown at you without much explanation. The consultations with the shrink, for instance. This isn’t a situation where you make an appointment, knock on the doctor’s door, enter and sit on a couch for your session. Instead, your shrink sidles up to you and starts a conversation while you’re playing video games or cleaning your equipment. When a soldier is killed, there’s no elaborate follow-up: just a shot of another soldier looking at the box containing the dead guy’s stuff. One brief scene shows a discussion about an Iraqi who has suffered what one soldier sees as a "recoverable wound". Disagreeing, the senior officer (David Morse) refuses to take the victim for treatment. Blam-blam, end of that problem. Huh? Who are these people? How does this incident fit into the story of the team we’ve been following? Maybe it comes clear later.

The acting, as much of it as I saw when not hiding my eyes, was totally authentic, spot-on. Lots of the mordant wit tossed around by the soldiers has the virtue of sounding improvised, even if it isn’t. The dialogue includes plenty of cool, hip expressions like, "We’re good to go." The complications of the relationships among the soldiers look promising. I would like eventually to find out what happens to them. Maybe someday when I’m feeling stronger. Or maybe – this said at risk of introducing the first product placement here in our commercial-free Dilettante’s Diary – someday when I have fortified myself with a Gravol.

Rating: ??? Possibly B (where B stands for "Better than most")

 

The Longest Trip Home (Memoir) by John Grogan, 2008

This memoir by the author of the very successful Marley & Me tells about his growing up as a Catholic near Detroit in the 1960s and 70s. You might expect me to say that the any author of a best-seller couldn’t possibly produce a truly worthwhile book. However, I think it would be fair to say, of the three parts into which the book is divided, that they are (not in chronological order): very good, fairly good and not so good.

The best part is the middle section, about Mr. Grogan’s gradual breaking free, as a young man, from his parents’ religious regime. And that took some major breaking away from. As he puts it, "To say my parents were devout Catholics is like saying the sun runs a little hot." Their courtship was based on a mutual attraction to the Church, throughout their married life they go to mass as much as possible and, in their later years, they love nothing better than watching Mother Angelica on tv, unless it’s making pilgrimages to cites of bogus miracles.

The young Mr. Grogan becomes very adept at fudging the truth, when not out-right lying, about his involvement with any representative of the opposite sex. His parents must be convinced that he has retained his virginity, no matter how unlikely that seems in the light of various circumstances. When he finally summons up the nerve to tell Mom and Dad, when he's about thirty years old, that he’s moving in with his girlfriend, the repercussions are only slightly less intense than those experienced on a certain fateful day in Hiroshima. Then comes his marriage to the non-Catholic girlfriend, with all the problems that entails – from the parents’ point of view. Followed by the controversy about baptizing their grandchildren and raising them as faithful believers.

All of this is very well told. As far as I know, no other Catholic writer has ever delineated so clearly the struggle to break free from parental religiosity. The drama in some of the inter-generational encounters between the Grogans can be quite gripping.

The author has a great knack for story telling, especially where slapstick is involved. And he gets off some good one-liners, as for example, this reference to his Mom’s assessment of the breasts of a certain female visitor as "powerful man-seeking missiles in the arms race to conquer her youngest son’s moral character." Strangely, though, none of the author’s three siblings comes through as having a distinct personality. Nor do his childhood friends, even those we meet again later in life. One or two teachers are remarkable but one would be tempted to say that Mr. Grogan’s major gift is not the portrayal of character.

Except for those parents. They’re unforgettable. Take the mother’s odd penchant for practical jokes, some of them rather mean. Not what you’d expect from somebody so pious. Then there’s the parents’ game of snuggling up and pretending to be honeymooners when driving along the highway, the four kids hiding in the back seat. The dad’s frugality is unsurpassed. He uses a paper towel three times, drying it between uses. Whenever he has finished washing the car, he can’t resist calling out hopefully to ask whether anybody can use a nice pail of soapy water. Of the two of them, the mother is somewhat more judgmental and rigid in her Catholicism. With the dad, you get a feeling that, underneath all the piety, there is a recognition that maybe family love goes somewhat deeper.

No question, though, that Mr. and Mrs. Grogan are totally devoted to each other. Which makes the last section of the book particularly engaging. The mother has Alzheimers’ and the dad wants to look after her as long as he can but it looks like he’s going to be the first to die. At first, it seemed as if this material might not rise much above the level of so many other accounts written by middle-aged children about having to deal with their parents’ demise. However, Mr. Grogan does eventually provide so much candid, factual detail about the family members’ attention to their ailing father – both at home and in hospital – that the writing is noteworthy in that respect. The final leave takings are very poignant.

What drags this section down to the "fairly" good level, though, is the author’s tendency to adulterate the fine thoughts with bathos, banality, sentimentality and clich. It is as though he doesn’t know that he has a really good thing going; he can’t resist the temptation to toss in cloying frills. Speaking of his and his dad’s lives, he says: "Mine was rising toward adulthood and future’s bright promise. His had begun the gradual descent towards life’s inescapable conclusion." We also get some not very helpful statements like: "...he wasn’t getting any younger" and "I marveled at how a medication intended to save a life could go so far toward destroying it." One chapter opens with the thud of: "Winter’s snows surrendered to spring’s trumpet call." One of the worst lapses would have to be this comment on his dad’s approaching death: "As natural a part of life’s rhythm as a baby’s first breath or a butterfly’s inaugural ascent from the cocoon." You get the impression that Mr. Grogan has never heard of the concept expressed in Martin Amis’ comment that all writing is a struggle against clich. Or maybe Mr. Grogan has simply given up the struggle.

Certainly, most of the dialogue he reports doesn’t show much effort to find the meaningful and the insightful. Regarding his dad’s developing interest in cooking, we get this comment: "You’ve become a regular Galloping Gourmet." To which the dad responds: "As they say, necessity is the mother of invention." Many of the exchanges around the dad’s hospital bed, with the exception of a few meaningful speeches, inevitably fall into the dreariest of trivial chit-chat. Authors tend to think that dialogue is needed to enliven a text, to lighten the look of a page. If the only dialogue people offer you is lame-ass stuff like this, you’d be better off without it, in my opinion.

In the bathetic department, there’s the son’s dilemma over whether or not to ask his sick dad to submit to a video interview about his life. How, the author wonders, could a son ask his dad to do such a thing? Wouldn’t that indicate that the son had given up, that he knew the dad was a goner? The dad would catch the message, for sure. "I might as well be asking him to record his last will and testament." Spare us the angst, Mr. Grogan, and just turn on the camera. Your quandry isn’t all that riveting.

And then there are the inconsistencies. At one point, Mr. Grogan refers to his new girlfriend’s "disastrous cooking skills" but, on the next page, he says that said girlfriend won his father’s approval with her homemade apple pie. Which is it, please: good cook or not? He refers to a "giant" maple tree that came crashing down in his family’s yard. But the tree, we learn, was forty years old. Do maples grow that fast in Michigan? Also on the subject of growing things, he says that his dad was an "accomplished gardener" who mostly stuck to "marigolds, petunias, and other tried-and-true annual flowers from the garden center." Maybe somebody who was clueless about gardening would consider a gardener accomplished who bought such routine plants and stuck them in the ground but, at this point in the story, Mr. Grogan has been editor of a gardening magazine for three or four years.

I point out these slip-ups, not just to find fault in a school-marmish way, but to wonder whether there is anybody in publishing houses these days who reads manuscripts carefully and asks questions of the author. Apparently not, in the case of an author who has produced a best-seller. He churns out his next opus and, as long as it looks to satisfy the market in some way, the trees get cut down and the printing presses start rumbling.

In spite of my quibbles about the second and third parts of the book, it was the first section that had me shaking my head most often and thinking that surely this book would never have been published, if it weren’t for the author’s enormous success with his previous book. Mr. Grogan’s reported memories of his Catholic childhood ring false over and over. For starters, he talks about making his "First Holy Confession". No Catholic ever refers to First Confession with the addition of that superfluous adjective. I’m willing to make some allowances for customs particular to the US version of Catholicism but this kind of verbiage sounds like the writer’s dressing things up for his readers.

Time and again, incidents are rounded off in a way that seems too neat and contrived. I kept looking to the front and back of the book for some indication that this was "fictionalized" material but no such note could be found, other than the statement that some names had been changed. One example of what looks pretty stagey concerns the author’s attendance at an infamous drug party as a young teen. He was able to hide from his dad the front page of the newspaper that showed the incriminating photograph of him at the party. But the parish priest showed up at the family’s door next day with said front page of the paper. You have to ask: why would the priest bring the paper to the door? Wouldn’t he assume everybody had seen it, given that it was the town’s daily paper?

Another incident that comes across as highly dubious is the one where the author and one of his buddies are forced, as punishment for some crime, to scrub walls and floors in the parish convent. There, it is reported, they are working in the nuns’ bedroom corridor, when an old nun staggers out in housecoat, without her religious paraphernalia, her grey hair standing on end. Maybe this did happen in Mr. Grogan’s past but it doesn’t read as credible. My considerable knowledge of Catholicism and the lives of nuns says that it would be less likely for two school boys to invade the bedroom area of a convent than for two US soldiers to penetrate Osama Bin Laden’s cave.

What makes the convent incident all the more suspect is the elaborate epiphany it induces in the young Grogan. He suddenly sees how unfair it is that the nuns have such a dreary place to live while the priests live in a comfortable, cozy home with all the conveniences. "Even then I had to ask, If God is really up there calling the shots, and if he is all great and all merciful as we were taught, why would he treat these women who had sacrificed their lives in his service so harshly?" Young Grogan decides the nuns need a special patron to fight for their rights – like Joan of Arc, only without Joan’s fiery ending.

To believe that this American boy in grade seven or eight would come to such a militantly feminist understanding of the sexual roles among religious takes more faith in the character’s maturity and wisdom than I can summon. It seems far more likely that Mr. Grogan is casting onto his immature self, perhaps unconsciously, the attitudes that he thinks will strike a sympathetic chord with today’s readers.

Other instances of portraying his juvenile self as implausibly astute include the time that his dad gave him an impromptu sex lesson involving the male and female parts of a garden hose. "It occurred to me that never before had any father pressed into service a garden hose to demonstrate the act of sexual intercourse." Really? How would such a young kid have any sense of what had or had not been done before in the way of parental sexual instruction? Then there was the time that his mother got together with some Jewish neighbours for a Seder. "I suddenly realized: there was no one true faith and no chosen people." Really, a dazzling insight just like that at the age of ten or eleven? Would that we had all been so perspicacious as kids.

Not to say that all the childhood reminiscences are so high-mined. Through nearly all of this first section of the book, Mr. Grogan’s main purpose seems to be to demonstrate what hellions he and his Catholic pals were. Prank after prank is trotted out. Admittedly, I may not be the ideal reader for such material, in that I’m currently writing a memoir about my Catholic childhood, but it strains credulity that anybody could be as superficial and thoughtless -- excepting those occasional illuminations -- as Mr. Grogan paints himself and his cohorts to be. Granted, the underlying message seems to be that his parents are reasonable and loving through it all and that the author himself will eventually turn out to be a decent, responsible person, but the recital of misdemeanours gets tiresome.

One incident where it seems to me that he’s crediting himself with devilish attributes far beyond his reach is the time when he’s talking about a reading lesson in grade two. The nun calls on him to stand and read but he has an erection because he has been sitting there imagining the nun naked. Now, I can’t speak for the psycho-sexual development of all little boys, but I think it’s generally acknowledged that the hormones don’t start having those kinds of effects at age seven or eight.

Furthermore, what Catholic little boy would be trying to picture a nun naked? We all knew that the nuns didn’t have naked bodies under all that gear. What they did have there, nobody knew. You weren’t supposed to know. It was a mystery. Like the Blessed Trinity.

 

Bruno (Movie) written by Sacha Baron Cohen and Anthony Hines; directed by Larry Charles; starring Sasha Baron Cohen; with Gustaf Hammarsten

Sometimes, no matter how bad the buzz about a certain movie, you gotta see it. Let’s say you’re really interested in the key artistic personnel; you’ve so admired what they’ve done previously that you’re determined to see their latest efforts, no matter what. And, even if the work turns out to be badly flawed, you might want to spend more time analyzing it than it would seem to deserve. Why? Because you think almost anything these artists do would be worth careful consideration and because you want to see how this piece might eventually fit into the overall picture of their work.

As in the case of Bruno, largely conceived by and starring Sasha Baron Cohen. His Borat was so original and interesting that I was keen to see whatever he did next. If for no other reason, simply for the acting. Here’s this guy who imprinted himself on the world’s consciousness with his unforgettable portrayal of a hairy klutz overloaded with machismo. And now he’s got the nerve to present himself as this outrageously faggy fashionista? I had to see how that worked.

Let’s get this out of the way right off the top: Bruno is nowhere near as good – or as clever or inventive – as Borat. To say that, though, is somewhat irrelevant because the terms "as good" or "less good" hardly apply. Bruno is so appalling, in some ways, that it bursts the bounds of any aesthetic judgements. Instead of trying to assess the movie on the basis of any critical standards, then, all I can do is describe it’s effect on one viewer. 

My experience started off with a sinking feeling somewhat comparable to the gravitational pull on a space shuttle re-entering the earth’s atmosphere.

To begin with, there’s only the flimsiest pretext for a movie. You’ve got this loser of an Austrian gay man who decides to come to the US to try to become world famous. The plot is so thin that it requires his voice over (in a kitschy mix of English and German) to take you from episode to episode. There’s only one on-going relationship throughout – with a long-suffering assistant (Gustaf Hammarsten). A lot of the jokes and the in-your-face sexuality, especially in the first part of the movie, are cringe-making. Bruno’s attempted talk show hits such a low mark that it’s hard to remember ever seeing anything so dismal on screen. And yet, it has to be admitted, that one mime sequence, involving Bruno’s imagined encounter with the spirit of a pop star returned from the dead, is very funny and very skilfully performed. And very dirty.

But there’s no point complaining about bad taste. Bad taste is the point of the whole thing.

It strikes me, though, that the biggest problem isn’t with the sketchy structure or the gross-out content but with the character of Bruno. Unlike his predecessor, Borat, this guy is neither charming nor funny. It’s hard to say why, exactly. The premise for the two characters would seem to be much the same: a guy who’s totally clueless but who thinks he’s really cool. In the case of Borat, though, there was something engaging about the irrepressible chutzpah of the dimwit, supposedly from Kazakhastan, who wanted to take on the world. You knew that people from Kazakhstan weren’t so bad, of course. Still, it was amusing to think there were remote corners of the world where really dumb people were trying, quite ineptly, to ape Hollywood trends.

Considerably less amusing, I find, is the spectacle of this self-obsessed gay man who thinks the world owes him recognition for his supposed talents. Is that because of my notions of political correctness? Am I being my selective in my sensitivity about targets of ridicule? In other words, is it ok to make fun of people from supposedly backward countries but not ok to lampoon gay men? Hard to say. All I know is that Bruno’s swishing around made me very uncomfortable. He was just too awful to be funny: the walk, the talk, the lisp. You could almost say it was a case of bad acting. I couldn’t believe any human being could be like that.

For me, then, the question doesn't arise as to whether Mr. Cohen is being unfair to gay men. For sure, some people will complain that he's commiting a crime with this presentation of a derogatory stereotype. I guess people who feel they might be implicated will have to speak for themselves. But this portrayal doesn’t affect my sense of gay people in the least. Mainly because this guy’s so unreal: his repulsive mannerisms have no relationship to the behaviour of anybody.

Setting aside the behavioural shtick, there's no question that, thanks to the writer/performer, Bruno gets off some very funny lines. As when he says that he found Africa full of "African Americans". And when he explains that he gave his adopted black boy an African name: O.J. Bruno's attempt to broker peace between Israel and Palestine founders, to marvellous effect, on his failure to grasp the difference between Hamas and hummus. (I’m giving give away some of the best lines here because, given the terrible reviews, you need to be shown that the movie has some good things going for it.)

The movie improves exponentially when the focus shifts from Bruno to the people he encounters. At such points, he sits back and watches while the point of the scenes becomes the social issue that he’s observing. You see the writer letting his intelligence work with the situation. An early taste of this comes in Bruno’s interview with a fashion model. He’s commiserating with her on the difficulties of the job: things like having to remember to put the left foot after the right foot when you’re walking on the runway and then, on top of all that, sometimes having to make a turn.

Another instance of wickedly astute observation comes in a scene where Bruno consults an evangelical pastor about the possibilities of going straight. The pastor’s answers to Bruno’s straight-faced (pun intended) questions about what or what cannot be done with musical instruments are surely unprecedented in the arena of sexual consultation.

For me, one of the best scenes involves Bruno’s attempts, in his going-straight agenda, to learn from a martial arts instructor how to protect himself from homosexuals. The instructor, apparently a totally sincere, red-necked, middle American, says that it can be very hard to identify homosexuals because some of them dress just like you and me, same as with a terrorist. But, says the expert, the sure tip-off is when some guy is overly friendly: homosexual for sure.

In these scenes we’re getting social satire of the best. By that I mean an exaggeration of certain aspects of a situation that makes you see something that you always sorta knew but now you see more clearly how ridiculous it is. As for example, the red neck’s prejudices about gays or the pastor’s implausible advice about going straight.

Ultimately, it could be that the most important satirical thrust of the movie is to point out the fatuity of the Western World’s celebrity craze. And that’s not only about the people like Bruno who are pursuing fame. The hoipoloi who follow the celebs are just as much a part of the pathology. Take a scene in the studio of a talk show where Bruno discusses his attempts, as a single parent, to raise a child. When the audience members in the studio twig to his outrageous attitudes to parenting, they go all righteous and aggressive, almost tarring and feathering him. Not that I watch tv talk shows, but I get the impression that audiences nowadays are groomed to behave in this Pavlovian way. They know this is how you get to be in a studio audience at the feet of a star, which is as close as you’re ever gonna get to being one.

While security guards were bundling Bruno out of the studio after this fiasco, I felt an unexpected twinge of sympathy for the guy. For that brief moment, he seemed like a person worth caring about – somebody who wasn’t trying to be funny just now but who was simply suffering some of the pain of being human. But I guess my compassionate impulse shouldn’t have come as any surprise. Clowns are always at their best on the point of tears.

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

 

Empire of the Sun (Novel) by J. G. Ballard, 1984

If you’ve heard anything about the movie based on this book, you’ll know that it’s set in Shanghai during the Second World War, just after the attack on Pearl Harbour. The Japanese are in control of the city and expatriates are scrambling for cover. The story follows the fortunes of a young Brit named Jim, about eleven years old. His parents, members of the diplomatic corps, have disappeared and he survives by camping out in abandoned houses, eating from tins of sardines and whatever else he can find in people’s larders. Eventually, he’s consigned to a prisoner of war camp but that’s by no means the end of his adventures.

Again, it was Eleanor Wachtel’s "Writers and Company" (CBC Radio One) that made me want to read this novel. Her interview with author J.G. Ballard, originally taped some years ago, was re-broadcast after his recent death. In spite of my eager anticipation, however, this was another of those books I had to abandon about half-way through.

Not that it doesn’t have something to offer. It’s packed with impressions about what conditions were like in Shanghai at the time. You feel that the author lived through it and that he’s eager to tell you all about it. But that’s the trouble. The author’s telling you stuff endlessly without creating believable and engaging characters.

The biggest failure in this regard is the kid Jim. Mr. Ballard can’t seem to make up his mind what kind of a kid he is. At times Jim expresses truly kid-like sentiments: for instance, his conviction that he has caused the war. At other times he’s far too sophisticated and perspicacious. We keep getting observations along the lines of: "Already Jim could see that Basie liked to control the young sailor and was using Jim to unsettle him." That seems too savvy by half for an eleven-year-old. Further evidence of Jim’s implausible insight includes such sentences as: "he knew that far from being concerned for their unwanted prisoners, the Japanese would leave them there all night," and "....he felt saddened by the memory of all he had been through, and of how much he had changed." Really? An eleven-year-old feeling nostalgic about the self he has left behind?

Granted, it’s not easy to create believable kids in fiction. But you get the feeling here that Mr. Ballard isn’t so much entering the mind of a real boy as giving us what he, the adult writer, wants the boy to be thinking and feeling. In other words, the author’s voice is far too obtrusive. That’s the main thing that sabotaged any enjoyment I might have found in the story.

Many other aspects of the writing contributed to the disappointment. There’s hardly any life-like dialogue. Two of the characters who are supposed to be colourful – a couple of scoundrels whom our little hero encounters – engage in expository dialogue so clumsy that it’s practically inept. We’re also hit with such clangers as the statements that "the corpses in the gutters seemed livelier," that "death was an elastic term" and that Jim’s head, when he was lost, was "filled with a dozen compass bearings." In a moment of boredom, Jim is reported to have "counted the blue bristles around the lips of the Japanese soldier guarding them." And here I thought it was only God who had the count of our hairs.

None of which is to say that the book isn’t loaded with the attributes of a typical best-seller. You have the Dickensian story of the orphan-like kid staggering from one crisis to another and surviving by his wits. You have an episodic tale that, for lack of artful structure, simply keeps piling on the pathos thicker and thicker. You have the plethora of detail that is typical of the genre, in this case the descriptions of conditions in the ravaged city (which doesn’t necessarily mean that the historical facts and the overall political situation come through  clearly). Above all, you have the deadeningly monotonous drum roll of misery. All of which spells a real treat for the lovers of mediocrity who fuel the phenomenon of best-sellerdom.

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