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Mar 28/10

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Favourite Works: 2004-2013
Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
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How Fiction Works
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Housekeeping
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The date above is the date on which the page was started. As new reviews are added, they will appear towards the top of the page, while the older reviews will move further down the page.

Reviewed here: Hot Tub Time Machine (Movie); Mother (Movie); 'Art' (Play); Micheal Zarowsky's Amazing Offer (Art); A Prophet (Un prophte) (Movie); The Ghost Writer (Movie)

Hot Tub Time Machine (Movie) written by Josh Heald and Sean Anders; directed by Steve Pink; starring John Cusack, Clark Duke, Craig Robinson, Rob Coddry, Sebastian Stan, Lyndsy Fonseca, Crispin Glover, Chevy Chase, Charlie McDermott, Lizzy Caplan, Collette Wolfe.

Far be it for us to promote movie censorship here at Dilettante’s Diary. However, this movie raises the possibility of a special classification: restricted to people under age 18. You see, people who have reached a certain state of maturity need to be protected from wasting their money as a result of a foolish wish to think that they might be able to appreciate something aimed at people who haven’t yet developed any discrimination when it comes to movies and for whom the height of hilarity consists of sexual references which are as graphic as possible.

Not that I was hoping for any high art in this one. The preview gave the impression that it would be trashy but the word was that the jokes were good. For a while, it looked as though that might be the case. Early on, a guy is recovering in hospital from an apparent suicide attempt. While he’s lying there out of it, a couple of friends murmur in hushed tones about the various reasons that he might have wanted to kill himself. His loser-ish traits add up pretty quickly. At which point, the guy sits up and reams out his so-called friends for thinking so badly of him. Plus, he points out that if he had intended to kill himself he would have done a good job of it.

To help him recover from his ordeal – suicidal or not – the two friends, along with the nephew of one of them, take him to a ski lodge where they once had a wild weekend. The lodge has fallen on hard times, though. A one-armed porter (Crispin Glover) throws their luggage around clumsily, angrily rejecting offers of help. Which is about the end of the fun – for this viewer, at any rate.

But the movie soldiers on. While basking in a hot tub, the four guys happen to spill some chemically dubious beer on the controls and – Presto! – they’re whipped back in time to their famous 1986 weekend. As it turns out, though, 1986 really isn’t far enough back to be very interesting. You get turtle necks and ski bunnies, lots of fake-looking soapy snow, shots of Ronald Reagan on tv, and jokes about the fact that Michael Jackson is still black. Nobody knows anything about email or texting.

Excuse me for being picky, but if you’re looking for 1980s authenticity, how come not one person in that gathering of ski bums smokes? Another quibble -- strictly speaking, you shouldn’t have somebody mouthing "Awesome!" in that era, but I’m willing to forgive the slip because it comes from the mouth of Lizzy Caplan who, in the role of a journalist, provides the only sense of an authentic human being among any of the women on view.

The humour now includes multiple incidents of projectile vomiting, erection issues and an elaborate scenario playing up the uproarious horror of the possibility that one guy might be forced at gun point to perform fellatio on another guy. A recurring joke about the porter's losing his arm crops up frequently. Each time, some horrendous accident looks like it’s going to cause the arm loss, but it doesn’t, which leads one of our fearless foursome to comment that it feels like they’re being cheated. This sort of thing delighted the audience the movie was intended for.

Meanwhile, metaphysics and science fiction get tossed around like a the contents of a drunken sailor’s stomach. The "butterfly factor" and chaos theory come up too. Even the 1986 nuclear accident at Chernobyl gets a nod. Among the brain-teasers:  Can you go back to the past and prevent the future from happening? Can you, in the case of the young nephew, do anything about your being conceived? Parenting questions, which arise in that context, are resolved in a way that’s as subtle as a freight train barrelling towards you.

When the guys get back to the present – as, not surprisingly, they do – some things have changed from the way they were at the start of the movie. Whether there was some explanation for that, I couldn’t say. By this point, I wasn’t making any attempt to follow the proceedings.

Mainly because I couldn’t care much about the four guys. These creeps make the losers in Hangover look like Noel Coward sophisticates. John Cusack, as one of the producers, gives himself star billing as an actor. That’s a mistake, if you ask me. He doesn’t have the star power to carry a movie like this, being a less masculine, and therefore less interesting, version of his sister Joan. Craig Robinson wanders around as a boring sadsack who's worrying about whether he’s cheating if he has sex with somebody else before he meets his wife. As the dweeby young nephew, Clark Duke is about as appealing as any dweeb.

The one member of the foursome worth any attention is the obnoxious Lou, as played by Rob Coddry. The guy's  foul mouth – it’s like a garden producing flowers as poisonous as they are colourful – commands respect. Only a few of his lines, however, are repeatable on a respectable website. When somebody in the heat of argument pleads, "That’s what my heart tells me," Lou responds, "Your heart’s a f****n liar." His come-on line to a glitzy woman who’s wearing a fur coat: "I don’t give a shit about animals either." Despicable, selfish, destructive and impulsive, this guy has so much vitality that he subverts the movie by showing how dreary the rest of it is. Which would be totally in character for him.

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

 

Mother (Movie) written by Joon-ho Bong and Eun-kyo Park; directed by Joon-ho Bong; starring Hye-ja Kim, Bin Won, Ku Jin, Mi-sun Jun, Yoon Jae-Moon, Young-Suck Lee

Pity the poor critic. Other people can watch a movie, then declare simply whether they liked it or not. In this case, for example, a viewer like me might say that he found the movie "interesting but not very satisfying." But that’s not good enough for a reviewer. You’ve got to come up with the reasons why it wasn’t satisfying.

Which can be tricky in the case of a foreign movie. You can never be sure whether your failure to appreciate a movie fully is due to the fact that you can’t quite catch the tone. Is this a cultural problem. That is to say, are you simply not familiar with the type of movie this culture produces? Or is the movie something of a dog’s breakfast on anybody’s terms?

That’s the question with this submission from South Korea. The young adult son (Bin Won) of a single mother (Hye-ja Kim) is charged with the murder of a high school girl. The main evidence against him is that, on the night of the murder, he was seen near the spot where her body was found draped over the roof of a house. A golf ball that can be traced to him was also found nearby. The guy’s mother takes on a Miss Marple role, in the hopes of proving he’s innocent.

Sounds like standard mystery fare. (In fact, the preview makes it look like some dark Hitchcockian tale.) But what about the elements that verge on farce? Like the young man’s connection to that golf ball. It stems from an encounter that has him and his pal involved with some rich golfers in a melee straight out of the Keystone Cops.

The mother has a similar knack for ending up in kooky situations. At one point, she finds a golf club that looks like it has blood on it. Thinking it a valuable piece of evidence, she scurries off to the cop shop in a downpour, protecting the relevant part of the item with a plastic glove. But the red marks turn out to be lipstick, not blood. That’s because a young woman had been pretending it was a microphone. The young woman in question had been making love with her boyfriend while the mother/sleuth was watching them from the closet where she found the golf club.

Then there’s the mother’s dealings with a lawyer. At first, he’s stand-offish because she can’t pay enough. Out of the blue one day, however, the lawyer’s driver scoops her up and takes her to meet the lawyer in a club where he’s carousing with sloshed colleagues and some women who look like hookers. Here, the lawyer proposes an insanity plea for the woman’s son. Is this the way a hot shot Korean lawyer would typically treat an impoverished client?

It’s hard to tell whether things like this would look as bizarre to a Korean audience as they do to me. Not to mention one of the weirdest aspects of the whole situation: the relationship of the suspect with his mother. When he’s taking a pee, she inspects his plumbing, while simultaneously trying to pour some nourishment down his throat. Come bedtime, we see them curled up together. There’s apparently nothing sexual about it – even if he does throw an arm over her chest – but it’s never quite clear whether this arrangement, when discovered, gets the reaction from townspeople that we North Americans think it would deserve.

As for the son’s character, it presents more of a mystery than the actual murder. Is he mentally challenged or not? People tend to refer to him as "retard" (as the subtitles put it). He has a terrible memory when it comes to important matters like what he was doing on the night of the murder. Is that because he’d drunk too much or is he just plain stupid? From the way his mouth hangs open most of the time, the latter supposition would seem to be most likely. That gormless expression not withstanding, people refer to him as beautiful. One young woman even rhapsodizes about the guy’s eyes. I’ve seen button holes that were more entrancing. So what are we supposed to think? Is this a cultural difference or are the references to the guy’s beauty meant satirically?

For me, all these questions subvert the murder mystery. If it had been set in middle America, say, there wouldn’t be much point in watching such fiddle-faddle. Were we, then, supposed to be congratulating ourselves on watching something "foreign", something so-not-Hollywood? Granted, the movie does offer plenty of interest of the National Geographic kind. On the nature front, there are the fields of waving grain, bordered by evergreens, mountains in the background. That love-making session the mother spied on took place in a humble shack in an idyllic setting on a river bank graced by overhanging trees. In the town, the networks of tiny lanes and craggy stairs lead to cluttered dwellings that, although they look like what might be called hovels, offer fascinating curiosities for viewing.

Other eye-opening material includes details like the way the town’s junk collector (Young-Suck Lee) lives. When a guy is released from prison, somebody sings him a congratulatory song to the tune we know as "Happy Birthday". And you come away from the movie convinced of one thing: no matter how poor these people are, they cling to their cellphones like artificial hearts keeping them alive.

Hye-ja Kim in the central role, appears in virtually every scene. At first, I found her acting a little broad for my taste but she eventually makes an affecting impression with her peculiar combination of fierce strength and delicate sensibility. Thanks to her genuineness, the movie says a lot about the lengths to which a desperate mother will go for her kid. We even learn about some very dark shit that happened in their relationship some years ago. The message that comes through is that a person needs to get through the bad stuff, hold their head up and carry on, no matter what happens. But I can’t help wondering whether that necessarily includes all the shenanigans.

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

 

‘ART ‘ (Play) by Yasmina Reza; translated by Christopher Hampton; directed by Morris Panych; starring Peter Donaldson, Colin Mochrie and Evan Buliung; Canadian Stage Company, Toronto, until April 10.

This was one of those cases where an annoying audience very nearly ruined a good night at the theatre. For me, the piece on offer – essentially a witty, extended conversation over several scenes – brought to mind theatrical experiences somewhat akin to those provided by the likes of Samuel Beckett, Edward Albee and Eugene Ionesco. The Canadian Stage subscribers wanted it to be The Three Stooges.

Far from being any such goofballs, the three men in question are Serge, Marc and Yvan, friends living in Paris. Serge has recently bought a painting for 200,000 francs. It’s totally white and featureless, except for a few barely discernible diagonal lines and one horizontal one. Marc’s and Ivan’s reactions to this purchase take the play into a scintillating exploration of friendship. Long simmering resentments come to the surface. Energy is expended over arguments about whether someone’s attitude is "smug" or "obnoxious". Ruthlessly candid opinions about one marriage and another intended marriage get aired. Therapy sessions come into the discussion. The play forces you to wonder: why do men form friendships and what does male bonding mean, given that guys can seem to hate each other so fundamentally?

Although the play isn’t really about art – maybe that’s why the title gets quotation marks – the white canvas makes a fascinating metaphor. It’s all a question of what we impose on it. Intriguing questions about the work crop up: is it all-white, after all? can traces of other colours be found on it? does it evoke feelings in and of itself, or because we want it to?

For the Canadian Stage audience, though, the white canvas was ridiculous. Every time it appeared, it got a laugh. To the members of this audience, it was unimaginable that anybody would purchase such a thing. The premise of the play was, for them, preposterous. Their enjoyment seemed to derive from the fact that they found the spectacle of grown men yelling at each other about a white canvas as much fun as Ultimate Fighting Championships.

Which is not the way it struck me. First of all, you had to be convinced that these guys were Parisians. The production tried to drive that home by showing movies of the streets of Paris as the scene shifted from one apartment to another.You had to understand, then, that these were not typical Canadian guys. Yes, it might be outlandish for good ole Canucks to find themselves in such a situation, but not for Parisians. The situation, then, is not as outrageous as the audience at Canadian Stage wanted it to be.

Mind you, I can’t help thinking Morris Panych’s direction may have encouraged the audience to think in terms of farce. No opportunity for a cheap laugh was overlooked. For instance, when two guys are searching in couch cushions for the tip of a felt pen, they turn their asses to the audience and do jerky movements with their bodies. The shtick is particularly inappropriate in the case of one of the guys, because it turns out that he is opposed to this search for the pen’s tip.

The actor playing that role, Peter Donaldson, has the best time of anybody with this fare. Playing the most ballsy, opinionated and domineering of the three friends, with his stentorian voice and his commanding presence, he anchors the production and, with his perfect timing, provides the most laughs.

At the other end of the spectrum, there’s the character of Yvan, the somewhat bland and acquiescent guy about to be married. As played by Evan Buliung, Yvan looks twenty years younger than his two friends, but never mind; maybe that’s the way Parisian friendships go. At times, Mr. Buliung's acting exhibits the drifting body syndrome – the failure to make definite moves and to stand still. Granted, this may be meant as a function of his character’s indecisiveness. When the character finally gets a chance to vent, however, Mr. Buliung earns a hearty round of applause with his tour-de-force speech that goes on for about ten pages about complications regarding the invitations to his upcoming wedding.

I found Serge, as played by Colin Mochrie, less clearly defined than the other two characters. Apart from the fact that he was a dermatologist and that he liked buying avant-garde art, I can’t remember anything definite about him. I’m wondering if that could be because, according to the program, Mr. Mochrie’s experience has been mostly in television and film. Maybe the proximity of the camera makes for an easier projection of character than what’s required on stage. Mr. Mochrie’s comic technique was top-notch, though.

The play, which won author Yasmina Reza a Tony in 1998, makes for great fun, but this production lags when the discussion gets a little more serious and less funny. That lull might not have been so obvious if the audience hadn’t been so ravenous for belly laughs up to that point. But there’s no denying another flaw in the play: the device whereby characters drop out of the action and address their thoughts directly to the audience, while the other characters stand frozen. I would have thought that trick had worn out its welcome long ago.

The play would have proceeded perfectly well without these interruptions. But the author had to introduce this device early on, because she needs to fall back on it as a means to end the play. I’d have gone home happier if the ending had seen the three guys sorting things out among themselves. Their turning to us to make their final report made me feel too much like the presiding judge.

 

Wondrous Watercolours by Micheal Zarowsky

We don't tend to post commercial blurbs here on Dilettante's Diary, but I can't help passing on this news from artist Micheal Zarowksy. You may recall mention of his excellent work in recent reviews of "The Artist Project" and other shows. He's one of the few artists who has developed a truly distinctive way of seeing and conveying the world's beauty. Many of his watercolours are on paper but others are painted on prepared birch panels, by means of a special technique he has invented; this means they don't have to be framed under glass.

Now Mr. Zarowsky tells me he's making the rare offer of selling his works at reductions of 50% or more. If you care about watercolours of exceptional quality, give your eyes a treat and visit his website: www.zarowsky.net. The website will tell you how to contact him about buying a painting.

 

A Prophet (Un prophte) (Movie) written by Jacques Audiard and Thomas Bidegain; directed by Jacques Audiard; starring Tahar Rahim and Niels Arestrup; with Adel Bencherif, Hichem Yacoubi, Reda Kateb, Gilles Cohen, Antoine Basler, Leila Bekhti, Pierre Leccia

Given that most critics are busting their guts trying to outdo each other with superlatives for this movie, you might wonder how a humble website like Dilettante’s Diary could demur. The movie won the Grand Prize at Cannes, for heaven’s sake. Are we going to claim that it didn’t deserve the honour? Not exactly. Let’s just say it didn’t thrill us to the core of our being.

Not that it’s unimpressive. Every frame holds your attention. It’s one of those movies where you come away with the feeling that you’ve really "seen something". Mainly, that’s because of the style. The photography, emphasizing blues and greys, looks way cool. Blood spraying all over the place also helps to create a happening feeling. Plus, the in-your-face editing makes things move quickly.

That kind of editing probably goes by a technical name that professional film folk toss around, but I’ll call it "foreshortened scene switching". One scene cuts out before you’re ready for it to end and you’re on to the next scene. Say two guys are talking about doing something: you don’t reach the point of the discussion where they agree on a plan; you simply jump to the execution of the plan. Realizing that you were expecting a lot of unnecessary exposition, you feel like a stick-in-the-mud, but so much better for the movie. You can’t help admiring the efficient story-telling.

In its episodic way, the story tells about Malik El Djebena, a nineteen-year-old Arab, who’s thrown into a French prison to serve six years. On what grounds, it’s not very clear. But never mind. The point of the exercise is to show how he struggles to learn the prison system and survive. Mainly, that means coping with the Corsican prisoners who control the place. First, they subject him to a ghastly trial to show that he must submit to them. After his successful completion of the ordeal, he comes under their protection. Which is not to say that they treat him as an equal. You expected a French prison to be free of racism? Hardly. Young Malik becomes their servant, making coffee for them, washing their dishes, running errands. As they come to trust him more, he starts doing business for them outside the prison on his day passes: something to do with turf wars between the Corsican and Italian gangs over control of things like casinos.

This certainly offers one of the grimmest, most real-seeming takes on prison life that I’ve ever encountered. It makes the HBO series "Oz" – with its benevolent social workers, chaplains and decent human beings among the prisoners – look like Sesame Street. No such glimmers of light hereabouts. It surprised me, though, to find the prison lifestyle not so very Spartan. These guys have their tv’s, their DVD players, their cell phones, their drugs, even their hookers (for the guys on good terms with the guards). It was the sight of the fresh baguettes delivered to the cells every day that made me think the place might not be so bad for a brief sojourn. At least, not in terms of physical comforts.

Emotionally? That’s another matter. If the movie makes one thing very clear it’s that we nice people really should do our best to stay out of prison. Poor Malik, alone and friendless, looks like Pip landed in a Kafkaesque nightmare instead of in the comparatively benign landscape of Dickensian England. As Malik struggles to stay on his feet, it’s one damn crisis after another. No matter how hard he tries to play the game right, nothing ever works out quite the way he hopes or expects. It’s all so bewildering and complex.

And not just for Malik. For the movie-watcher too. Which is where I run into trouble. It can be very hard to tell what’s going down at times. (Maybe it’s easier for those viewers who, being fluent in French, Italian and Arabic, don’t have to rely on subtitles.) Not a lot is explained. Shit happens and, like Malik, you have to make sense of it the best you can. You could say, then, that this movie falls into the "It-Is-What-It-Is" category of film. The film-maker is attempting to throw life at us in all its chaos and meaninglessness. It’s simply a question of watching what happens and waiting to see what happens next.

So what is there to engage our emotions – apart from the pleasure of the watching-a-train-wreck kind? Well, we keep hoping in a vague way that Malik will get through it all ok, but we can’t really share his struggle. That’s because Malik’s not what you’d call an articulate fellow. When asked a question, his frequent response is a few seconds of silence, after which comes a shrug and maybe a mumbled: "Je sais pas." (i.e. "I dunno".) Granted, I’m an excessively verbal guy, but I find it hard to relate to people who have little to say for themselves.

For lack of self-exposition, another way we might get to know a character would be through his or her relationships with other characters. Here again, this movie gives us little to go on. Malik has only two relationships of any significance. The most pressing one is with the boss of the Corscian thugs – a role played with marvellously casual malice by Niels Arestrup. This man becomes a kind of father figure to Malik in a Machiavellian way. But we get little sense of how Malik feels about the guy, mostly just furtive glances, minimal verbalization and a watchful effort not to bring on the guy’s wrath.

Malik’s only other relationship is with his brother, a family man supposedly dying of leukemia (although he appears to have more energy and stamina than most of us on a good day). This involvement, while tainted with crime like everything else in the movie, is presumably meant to provide a contrast to the threatening situation with the Corsican, to show that Malik has at least some contact with a world that offers a chance of a wholesome life based on worthy values. But all that’s by way of inference. No way Malik is going to start baring his soul.

None of which is to fault Tahar Rahim in the role. He’s totally credible as the young hoodlum, not completely corrupt yet, but trying to do whatever he needs to do to survive. Just occasionally, Mr. Rahim lets us see the Malik who might have been or maybe could still be. When one of Malik’s errands on the outside takes him on his first plane trip, we see a look of childish pleasure on his face as he gazes at the layer of clouds beneath the plane’s wing. Later on that same trip, he's looking wistful while wading in the waves on a beach near Marseille. The poignancy comes through loud and clear in those moments. Am I the only one, though, who found them a trifle stagey?

One that that didn’t look so contrived came near the very end of the movie, when Mr. Rahim gives a dimply smile that reminded me, incongruous as it might seem, of the young Pierce Brosnan. Nothing could be more improbable than to see a glimpse of that glittering young movie star in this grubby convict. Which, perhaps, makes the point of the movie as well as anything could.

Rating: C (i..e "Certainly worth watching")

 

The Ghost Writer (Movie) written by Robert Harris; directed by Roman Polanski; starring Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Kim Cattrall, Olivia Williams, Tom Wilkinson, Jon Bernthal, James Belushi, Timothy Hutton, Eli Wallach, Tim Preece

You can’t really criticize a thriller for being plotty, but maybe you can ask that the plot elements be doled out with a certain amount of finesse and subtlety. Which is not what happens here.

We start with Ewan McGregor, as the writer, at a lunch meeting with his agent (Jon Bernthal) who’s proposing an assignment on the memoirs of a former British PM. While writer and agent wolf down delectable morsels, we’re supposed to digest lumps of expository dialogue, along the lines of: "You remember him, don’t you?" and "Wasn’t he the guy who....?" Then comes a conference with the publisher and editors where the dramatic conflict is about as subtle as in the typical encounter in the ring at Madison Gardens. For no reason other than to set up a phony struggle, a snooty British editor (Tim Preece) doesn’t want the McGregor character, while the US publisher (James Belushi) is interested.

Once the job is assigned – as if there were any chance that it wouldn’t be – Mr. McGregor embarks on an adventure so spooky you keep expecting ravens to swoop down out of nowhere and start croaking at him. The former PM is holed up on an isolated island somewhere on the east coast of the US. As far as the eye can see from his bunker-type villa, there’s nothing but vast, sandy stretches, angry grey seas, dark skies, howling winds and lashing rain. And don’t miss the eery creaking of the sign outside the creepy hotel where the writer’s billeted. Or the malevolence oozing from the only other occupant of the hotel bar. Not to mention the gasping reports from an old geezer (Eli Wallach) about strange goings-on at the beach one night.

Turns out, the writer’s predecessor in this job went overboard and drowned while returning on the ferry from the mainland. In case that doesn’t arouse your suspicions, we get portentous lines like, "Somehow, he didn’t seem suicidal." When the new writer gets into the car provided, he finds the GPS programmed, by the previous writer, to some mysterious destination  Naturally, our guy follows the directions, knowing perfectly well that there’s a good chance that the journey had something to do with getting the other writer murdered. That’s going well beyond the job description for a ghost writer, if you ask me.

In fact, the handling of the writing assignment is the phoniest aspect of this movie. The writer is given a 600-page typescript of the memoirs and told that he has six hours to read it. That might be possible – barely –  but not if you’re reading the stuff out loud to yourself – as this writer does, something no writer in real life would do. Nor would any writer jump into his first interview with his subject, open his laptop and start typing the first line of the proposed book within less than five minutes from the start of the meeting. Occasionally, we get glimpses of the original manuscript in which the writer has crossed out some paragraphs. And yet, the opus was so utterly boring (he fell asleep during that six-hour first read) that it needs complete re-writing. So why waste time crossing out paragraphs, especially when your original four-week time limit for the job has now been cut to an utterly implausible two weeks?

Admittedly, I’m harping on a personal issue here. In my view, the job of ghost writing – any kind of writing, for that matter – isn’t getting the respect it deserves. That matter probably isn’t going to loom very large for most viewers. And, to be fair to the movie, it does provide enough stimulation, I suspect, to satisfy lots of people. My guess is that it’s probably not much worse – or better – than the thriller fare that you find typically on tv (if you watch it, that is). I suppose it’s just a question of whether you’re willing to cough up the price of a ticket in order to have a couple of hours free from commercial interruptions.

If you are, then you’ll no doubt be entertained by the mystery that unfolds. As well as that business of the disappearance of the writer’s predecessor, there’s the political crisis reaching out to ensnare the former PM: he’s being accused of having illegally handed over some suspected terrorists for torture. One of them died as a result. Then there’s an angry father who’s stalking the former PM, hoping to make him pay for the death of the stalker’s son in war.

For me, all this amounted to mildly entertaining diversion but my attention frequently veered towards the ambiance of that bunker the former PM was inhabiting. I kept thinking about the good luck of the artist who was commissioned to fill the walls with all those fabulous abstract paintings. The sleek, modern, minimalist look of it all struck me as the most distinctive aspect of the movie. It’s been so long since I’ve seen any of Roman Polanski’s work that I can’t claim any familiarity with it but I suspect the arty approach in this one may have a lot to do with his being at the helm.

But he made a serious misstep, in my opinion, in the casting and direction Pierce Brosnan as the former PM. Granted, the character is supposed to be a pompous ass and a liar, but Mr. Brosnan gives us a caricature. When the attacks on his integrity reach the point that he has to issue a statement of self-defense to the media, he starts puffing and shaking his jowls in a way that reminded me of that long-lost era in Canadian politics when the most reliable item in any comic shtick was an impersonation of John Diefenbaker.

The question arises, though: am I being unfair to Mr. Brosnan? Is it because I am so sold on his image as the suave, intelligent leading man that I cannot buy him in this role of the officious bore? Would I believe the performance if I had no previous impression of Pierce Brosnan? Quite possibly. But I do have a previous impression of the man in question. That’s the whole point of the star system. Even so, Mr. Brosnan managed a neat departure from that image when he played doofus-types in Matador (see review on page "Feb 16/06") and Mamma Mia! ("July 21/08) Why couldn’t he have done the same with this character?

Look at what Tom Wilkinson does in the role of an iffy college professor. Admittedly, one’s previous impressions of Mr. Brosnan are more vivid than those of Mr. Wilkinson. Still, Mr. Wilkinson makes you forget all that as you confront this character. The guy is obviously shady, conflicted, lying – but he fascinates, you don’t quite know what to make of him. Of course, Mr. Wilkinson’s character is a college professor. Maybe that gives him an advantage, in that it may be our conditioned response to take such a person seriously. But are we going to admit here that we necessarily see a college prof as authentic while assuming that a politician must be windbag? Even if we did, I’d want the actor to make the windbag a real one.

As for the two women in roles of any importance in the movie, I don’t get Kim Cattrall (the former PM’s assistant). Probably, viewers who know her well from her tv career totally dig her persona but here she seems affected to the point that I had to wonder if she was doing a spoof on the role of the blonde bombshell attached to the James Bond type. But Olivia Williams, as the former PM’s troubled wife, struck me as interesting and intriguing in every scene. It was a surprise, then – and in a way it wasn’t – to discover that she is the same actress who made such a strong impression in An Education. This is an actor who dispenses with the glamour expected from women in so many films, especially thrillers, and gives us, instead, complex characters worth getting to know.

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

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