Dilettante's Diary

Oct 6/09

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The date above is the date on which the page was started. As new reviews are added, they will appear at the top of the page and the less recent reviews will move further down the page.

Reviewed here: The Boys Are Back (Movie); The Informant! (Movie); Belfast Confidential (Mystery);North of Montana (Mystery)

The Boys Are Back (Movie) book by Simon Carr; adaptation by Allan Cubitt; directed by Scott Hicks; starring Clive Owen; with Laura Fraser, Emma Booth, George MacKay, Nicholas McAnulty

Joe and Katie, along with Artie, their seven-year-old kid, live on a scrubby bit of land somewhere in rural Australia. Joe, a sports journalist for a major metropolitan daily, is away from home a lot. Apart from that, everything’s tickety-boo with this adorable family. Joe and Katie are crazy about each other like no married couple you’ve ever seen, while Artie entertains them with his off-the-wall antics. But then Katie [Laura Fraser] up and dies from cancer. (Fortunately for the viewer, that doesn’t take long.) Joe decides to stay home and get to know Artie.

For the first while, this movie looks like it’s meant to appeal mainly to a viewers of a certain age and gender who will thrill to the sight of a hunk like Clive Owen [Joe] sobbing his guts out over his woman. The same group are the ones who will be tittering with delight as he stumbles his way through the daily domestic chores, like scooping up dirty laundry off the floor, while muttering: "Do I have to do everything around here?".

Not surprisingly, Joe makes a lot of mistakes and some bad decisions in the parenting department. Katie’s mother appears now and then to provide a bit of tension with her skepticism about Joe’s suitability for the job of rearing her grandson. She has reason for concern. As Joe himself admits, he doesn’t run a tight ship. He has as few rules as possible, just proscriptions on things like swearing and fighting (unless in fun). Teeth brushing and hair washing don’t rate high among the priorities. Never mind that the place is strewn with dirty dishes. Too bad about the female visitor who practically gags on discovering a chicken defrosting in the bath tub.

Most of this is mildly entertaining. I liked the fact that the obvious love interest doesn’t develop the expected way. For the most part, though, it’s pretty predictable movie fare. You get voice-over banalities from Joe like: "Just when you think you’ve got everything sorted, it all starts coming apart on you." That’s just one of those melodramatic lines that’s supposed to make us think we’re being deeply moved when what’s being served up is about as deep as an Oprah episode. To up the cheap sentimental quotient even further, Katie – dead but ever beautiful – keeps appearing at Joe’s side for little pep talks.

While it might have helped to make things more palatable if there had been something likeable about Artie, a decent critic wouldn’t blame a child actor for doing what he or she is told. So let’s just say that Nicholas McAnulty dishes up the required kookiness in the role.

As for his dad, I was never entirely convinced by Clive Owen. Maybe it’s not fair to fault him for being something of a mannequin. Apart from his stature and his looks, though, his whole manner is a bit too crisp and buttoned-down, with the result that he doesn’t do the pillow fights and horseplay very well. The guy is no Robin Williams. Granted, Joe isn’t very experienced at this parenting game, so you’re willing to accept a bit of awkwardness. But Mr. Owen produces a phony har-har-har laugh that makes you think he’s never actually enjoying the shenanigans.

On the other hand, he’s very good in the quiet moments. Like when young Artie announces that he too wants to die. In the absolute stillness of Mr. Owen’s countenance, you can read Joe’s bottomless pain, his anguished love for his kid, and his guilt.

What guilt? Well, it might have to do with a young teenager from Britain who comes to visit [George MacKay]. Slight of build, he appears to be about fifteen years old. This is one of those cases with a young actor where you don’t know whether it’s a question of tremendous luck in the casting or phenomenal skill in the acting. Mr. MacKay with his tight face and his very small mouth, oozes attitude through every pore. He can convey withering teenage scorn without even trying. And, in case his looks aren’t enough to convey the message, he has a ready supply of conversation stoppers like "Deal with it!"

When this kid forces Joe to face a few things, you feel you’re getting an insight into something very true. My guess is that there were more of these epiphanies in the book the movie’s based on. While I’m happy for any writer whose book gets made into a movie, it seems to me that it’s between the covers of a book that this story properly belongs. Let’s face it, there isn’t very much drama throughout most of the story. It’s an under-stated account of one man’s gradual coming to terms with a changed life. That sort of thing goes down better if you can take it slowly and thoughtfully, rather than having it flash past on the screen. There’s also the issue of the dad’s voice-over narration. That device tends to seem contrived in a movie but first-person narration in a book has a very natural way of inviting you into the character’s process of self-discovery.

But I must admit to really appreciating one aspect of the movie – the scenery. It’s not often that I make that comment about a movie but I’ve been reading some memoirs by Australian writers (see Dilettante’s Diary reviews of 12 Edmonston Street by David Malouf, June 28/09; and Things I Didn’t Know by Robert Hughes, Sept 18/09) so it was fun to see that barren, arid, semi-desert with kangaroos jumping out from behind the stunted bushes. Also that distinctive look of the rural Australian house: one storey, wide and flat, with a big veranda, open and baked by the sun. So inviting. Especially on a rainy Toronto day.

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

 

The Informant! (Movie) written by Scott Z. Burns; based on the book by Kurt Eichenwald; directed by Steven Soderbergh; starring Matt Damon; with Eddie Jemison, Tom Papa, Melanie Lynskey, Thomas F. Wilson, Scott Bakula

Given that it's based on events which were widely reported in the press, you may know what this movie's about. If so, you’ll be better placed to enjoy it than I was. My problem was, not knowing how it was going to turn out, and therefore not seeing what the point was, it all seemed pretty pointless until into the second hour. For my money, that’s too long to spend being bored, the exclamation mark in the movie's title not withstanding.

Without any background info, what you are presented with is Matt Damon playing Mark Whitacre, a biochemist working in the early 1990s for an Illinois company that disseminates corn products throughout the world. Mark reports to the FBI that a mole in the company is apparently sabotaging proceedings on behalf of a Japanese competitor. Once he has the bureau’s attention, he decides to spill the real beans: the top exec’s in his company are complicit in a world-wide price-fixing scheme. So the FBI persuades Mark to go undercover, wearing a wire to meetings to get the evidence needed to nail the big guns.

Sounds moderately interesting, right? It might even have the dramatic potential of something like The Insider, the 1999 movie that made a big star of Russell Crowe in his Oscar-winning performance as a whistle blower in the tobacco industry. And yet, perky music throughout The Informant! keeps warning you that it isn’t meant to be that kind of movie. On the contrary, the overall tone is Disney-bland.

Especially Mark and his wife (Melaine Lynskey). They come across as this cutesy couple who call each other "Corky" and "Ginger". He sports a wispy moustache and blocky sports coats that look like they never came within whispering distance of the word style. Big glasses adorn his adorable little nose. He seems to think of himself as a white knight, ratting on his company because it’s the proper thing to do. This is the kind of guy who, by way of voice-over asides, keeps imparting helpful hints on the meaning of life. Like the fact that a person can really save a lot of significant time in his life by flossing his teeth in the shower while waiting a few minutes, as instructed by the manufacturer, before rinsing off his hair conditioner. Meanwhile, the prissy Ginger appears always with perfect posture, like a china doll, not one strand of her back-combed and sprayed coiffure ever going astray.

Tremendous effort is put into re-creating the 1990s with the odd effect – for what reason I don’t know – of making the period look very distant. Everything’s bathed in a kind of ochre wash, somewhat like old photographs in which the colour has gone a bit off. Offices are crowded with huge, clunky computer monitors, the kind that show green lettering on black backgrounds. Portable telephones are the size and weight of bricks. Walls are adorned with unbearably banal landscapes. Since the plot isn’t all that engaging, you find yourself mulling over the decor: surely the early 1990s weren’t that bad?

Eventually, though, the point of it all begins to emerge. Even so, the truth, when revealed, isn’t all that amazing. And I can think of movies that handled similar issues in more interesting ways. We can’t say more than that without violating our policy at Dilettante’s Diary of not revealing any more than minimal plot details. Let’s just say that our Corky's a more complex character than the Disney shtick suggested.

Ultimately, then, the movie turns out to be essentially a character study. As such, Mr. Damon makes a good job of it. In the end, I found him interesting and convincing, although I was bothered at first by his relying too much on a stodgy walk, a device that actors often fall back on when trying to portray someone less cool than themselves.

But I can’t forgive Mr. Damon for one slip of the tongue. Regarding the woman’s name 'Regina', he remarks that it’s also the name of the capital of Saskatchewan. Nice tip of the hat to Canada – except that he pronounces the city’s name as though it rhymed, not with ‘Carolina’, but with ‘Sabrina’.Tsk-tsk. It’s not as if we’re terra incognita in Mr. Damon’s world. After all, he spent a lot of time in Toronto, filming Good Will Hunting, the movie that made him a star. Considering that we treated him so well, you’d think he’d have learned to pronounce the names of our provincial capitals properly.

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

 

Belfast Confidential (Mystery) by Colin Bateman, 2005

The Globe and Mail’s rave review for this book made me think it would be one of those couldn’t-put-it-down mysteries. On the contrary, I abandoned the book several times before, with some misgivings each time, taking it up again. The process led to an important insight about reading.

The setup is that we’re in Belfast, where the sectarian troubles are fading to a distant memory. Dan Starkey is a newspaper reporter and his friend, known as Mouse, edits a glossy lifestyle magazine called "Belfast Confidential." Each year, the magazine publishes a "Power List" of the most important movers and shakers in Belfast. The city’s would-be celebs compete frantically to be included. This year’s list is nearly compiled when Mouse is found tied and incinerated in the torched offices of the magazine. His widow asks Starkey to try to find out who murdered his old friend, and why.

This scenario provided hardly anything to like, as far as I could see. Take that Belfast context, for starters.You have the feeling that the author has a somewhat sarcastic attitude to the settling of the troubles. He almost comes out and says that he preferred the old days of open hostility. The fact that he seems to harbour some residue of hatred does not sit well, even though one can try to overlook the fact that his sympathies clearly lie with the Protestant side.

The relationship between Starkey and Mouse doesn’t help to restore any sense of the worthwhile and the admirable. Their friendship is fuelled by drinking and cursing and marked by a distinctly "matey" chutzpah that thrives on reciprocal negativity. Maybe it’s a particularly Irish thing about male bonding but it’s a total turn-off, if you ask me.

Even more off-putting is the premise of Mouse’s magazine. Are we really supposed to care about this inane quest to get listed as an important person in some fatuous magazine? And what about Mouse, the guy who was master-minding the thing? Are we supposed to admire his hob-knobbing and sucking up to the rich and powerful, his driving around in fancy cars loaned to him so that he can make a good impression? Heaven forbid that we at Dilettante’s Diary should ever discount the life of any human being, but we found it hard to get very worked up about this guy’s demise.

And then there’s the character of his surviving pal. Starkey’s one of the most inept investigators ever. He keeps getting drunk and making stupid decisions. To say he’s somewhat irresponsible would be like saying that Michael Jackson was a little vain. Not to mention Starkey’s puerile sexism. Regarding a fight between two women, he said that it looked like a "lesbian wrestling match ". Why not a "female wrestling match"? Has Starkey never heard of such a thing? If he has, why the snarkey "lesbian" qualifier? I suspect it has something to do with a peculiarly Irish and unsavoury attitude to all things sexual.

Which brings us to one of the things that bothered me most  -- Starkey's relationship with his long-suffering wife, Trish. Again, it’s a partnership expressed mostly in negativity and bickering, much of that brought on by Starkey’s lying. But you get the feeling that we’re somehow supposed to intuit that, under all the scrapping, they’re a very loving couple. In fact, most of the bickering ends with jokey sexual overtures. That shtick becomes so cloying that the negativity is almost preferable.

Hence my quitting the book several times. As with most books, though, I kept coming back, on the off-chance that it might still have something to offer. And it did.

What the process showed me – maybe not for the first time, but this was certainly a vivid reminder – is that it’s all a question of tone. As a reader, you gotta catch it. If you can home in on the tone that tips you off to the kind of thing the writer is trying to do – more or less the way some insects can identify a certain pitch made by the buzzing wings of a potential mate* – then the book works for you. If you can’t the author’s efforts are all in vain.

In this case, it suddenly struck me, about a third of the way through the book, that Colin Bateman is the P.G. Wodehouse of mystery writers. Starkey is the Bertie Wooster of detectives. In other words, he’s not supposed to be responsible and clever, he’s supposed to be a doofus – Get it???

I finally did. And then Starkey started to remind me of other entertaining anti-heroes of modern fiction: Gulley Jimson of The Horse’s Mouth by Joyce Cary, and John Self of Martin Amis’ Money. As with those losers, what redeems Starkey is self-knowledge. "If there is a dark corner to hide in, or a lie to get me out of trouble, then that is my perennial choice," he admits at one point. Regarding a character he finds in an extremely compromising situation, comes this: "He was stranded in the hopeless wilderness that lies between being pathetic and a total clown. It was a place I knew well."

By which point, Belfast Confidential was becoming very enjoyable. Admittedly, it’s not so much a mystery as a picaresque – which my dictionary of literary terms defines as a rogue’s adventurous romp. Let’s face it, Starkey really doesn’t do much detecting. That’s hardly necessary, considering that the suspects start dying off one by one. Starkey’s more like a hapless dolt who finds himself immersed in a mystery. Or, as his wife puts it, Starkey’s a "shit magnet." Occasionally, he tries to do some genuine sleuthing but most of the breakthroughs come handed to him by someone else. Twice, he’s rescued from near-death by the deus-ex-machina device.

Inept though he may be, the guy’s worth saving for the sake of his wit. Interviewing a very beautiful woman named May Li, he notes: "May Li would have something up her sleeve. And I was suddenly determined to look up it." He offers this eulogy for an outrageously camp character: "Live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking apartment, with just a hint of pastel." Even a joke reflecting his unfortunate political sympathies made me smile: describing a burial he attended, he notes that he "stood within spitting distance of the Republican Plot, although I resisted the temptation." In a desperate moment, he thinks he sees a picture of the Blessed Virgin smiling at him. But he doesn’t return the smile: "It would only end in tears." Surely Starkey’s most brilliant quip comes when he’s staring down the barrel of a gun and his would-be executioner complains that Sparkey’s talking to much. "Well," Starkey says, "Conversation’s a dying art."

It’s not just in the one-liners that Mr. Bateman’s invention shines. Some passages of dialogue reflect layers of mutual confusion that bring to mind the work of writers as revered as Samuel Beckett. And then there are Mr. Bateman’s wondrously unprecedented comic scenes. One that stood out for me was an encounter with a master criminal in a basement vault that takes a totally unexpected turn. Say what you like about the incorrectness of making fun of disabilities, but Starkey’s faking of Tourette’s Syndrome for strategic purposes in another tight spot springs from genuine inspiration. Regarding one incident, if anybody had told me that yet another Viagra joke was going to loom large, I might have tried to skip that section, thereby robbing myself of some good laughs.

In spite of which, I can’t claim that we’re dealing with a masterpiece here. The plot’s a bit unwieldly and the book, at 400 plus pages, feels long and discursive. The mystery aspect of it, apart from a few tense scenes, isn’t very gripping. And some of the characters, especially one bad cop, don’t rise much above cardboard caricature status.

Still, it’s pleasing to find that many of those earlier annoyances are resolved. The Belfast troubles eventually come in for some insightful comment, even with regard to the resolution of the mystery. It becomes clear, then, why the author planted those little barbs on the subject earlier on.

Most agreeably, the relationship between Starkey and his wife does not go unexamined. When Starkey’s challenged on the subject – from an unlikely source – his apologia for his behaviour towards Trish reveals a love – and an unexpected wisdom – that are undeniable. In the final moments of the book, Starkey has plucked a blossom from a field and given it to her. Trish asks whether it’s a flower or a weed. A flower, Starkey says. How does he know? Because, he explains, "it looks like one."

You can finally see how somebody could love the guy. Maybe you do too.

* Not sure if science supports this reference. I made it up.

 

North of Montana (Mystery) by April Smith, 1994

This was another case where a rave review of an author’s recent book drew my attention to an earlier one by the same writer. But the title of Ms. Smith's debut novel misled me. I was expecting a contemporary ramble through cowboy territory. No way.

The eponymous Montana, we learn, is a street that divides a posh part of Los Angeles from a less salubrious one. Up-and-coming FBI agent Ana Grey has to cross the dividing line several times in the process of her investigations. What launches them is the brutal murder of a Latina immigrant who acted as a nanny for the family of a wealthy doctor. To Ana’s astonishment, she finds out that the victim was a relative of hers by way of her long-lost Latino dad. Things get more complicated when a fading but still famous movie queen accuses the doctor of getting her addicted to pain killers. The FBI gives Ana the job of nailing the doctor.

We’ve revealed a little more plot here than we like to. Otherwise, it would have been difficult to give the sense of the book. What with the crossing of various plot lines, Ana’s visits with her grandad, her failed attempts at romance, a bit of travelogue, and her musings on her past, it’s not so much a mystery as an account of a few weeks in the life of a female FBI agent. We get the politicking in the cop shop which has become de rigeur to the point of tediousness in this kind of material, although the dialogue among the agents is lively and convincing. While some of their characters come through clearly, others remain not much more than names tossed around. It’s as if we were seeing them on screen and we’d get to know them just by their recurring appearances.

All which gives the impression that the author was hoping her book would provide the basis for a tv series. As mysteries go, it feels rambling and self-indulgent. But the main reason it doesn’t succeed as a whodunnit is that, while Ana’s investigating the doctor, we more or less lose sight of the mystery about the cleaning lady’s death. In other words, there isn’t much suspense. And I didn’t believe the FBI’s determination to get the doctor, given the iffy case against him. Supposedly, the agency was bending over backwards to placate the famous movie star. I didn’t buy it.

The star’s character is well conveyed, though. She behaves in a way that seems exactly how some ageing beauty celeb would: impulsive, narcissistic, deceitful....and charming, when she wants to be. One scene that struck me as absolutely true had the old girl sweeping into the FBI offices for an impromptu meeting, leaving a trail of gawking agents behind her, settling in the director’s office, chatting privately with her manager and paying no attention to the various flunkies who were gathering around, until she finally condescended to turn and bestow a dazzling smile on the assembled minions.

As for Ana’s character, comparisons to Sue Grafton’s detective, Kinsey Millhone, are inevitable, in that both fictional women are single, thirty-something, feisty detectives. Ana’s marginally the more interesting of the two, what with her many personal issues to sort through. She can also get off some pretty good one-liners. Finding herself at one point in a huge swivel chair in her boss’ office, she says, "I feel like some bizarre shrunken monarch about to be dethroned by centrifugal force." She tells of being enthralled with the ageing movie star during a prolonged lunch "while baby octopuses commit suicide off our plates." On a visit to Boston, when a native of that city comments that it’s getting cold, Ana figures that must be a "Boston euphemism for hypothermia."

However, I had some problems with her character. For one thing, she seems to have a hazy notion of sexual ethics when it comes to relationships with her peers. Not that I want to be a prude about this. I’ve enjoyed lots of books about people whose morals were a lot worse than Anna’s. But don’t we expect something a little better in the heroes and heroines of our mysteries?

One thing I certainly don’t expect in them is superstition. In the process of her investigation, Ana visits a "spiritualist" who spouts a lot of mumbo-jumbo and recommends various occult rituals. Afterwards, Ana professes herself "unaccountably moved" by the hocus-pocus. That’s one agent that I certainly wouldn’t want trying to avenge me.

Nor would I want to rely on anybody so susceptible to the destabilizing effects of autonomic responses. Here we are confronted, yet again, with a plethora of these cheap writing tricks meant to indicate strong emotion. From now on, I’m going to call this the "flushing and flashing" syndrome. You know the kind of thing: "Panic flushed through me...." and "I felt a cold flash of fear...."

Without trying to keep a really close count, I found roughly twenty-five instances of things like: quickening heartbeat, dull thuds in the chest, ice in the bowels, bodily vibrations, tendrils of rage, adrenalin pumping, shudders, and panic rising like vomit. No doubt the tv version with have commercials for pharmaceuticals to deal with these disturbances.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com