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Oct 22/10

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The date above is the date of the most recent postings. The newest reviews appear towards the top of the page, while the older ones are further down. When the page is closed, the items on it will be indexed according to the final date on the page.
 
Reviewed here: Force of Nature (Movie); Buried (Movie); The Social Network (Movie); Easy A (Movie); Jack Goes Boating (Movie)
 
Also on this page: Taking Leave of a Legend
 
 

Force of Nature (Documentary) written and directed by Sturla Gunnarson

Just as we’re celebrating the canonization Brother Andr, the first male saint born in Canada, along comes a documentary championing the patron saint of our country’s environmental movement. We all know that David Suzuki deserves such accolades, so the point of this review isn’t so much to assess his importance and his influence as to ask: how well does this tribute work as a movie?

Very well, in some ways. It’s beautifully photographed and neatly-structured. Glimpses of Professor Suzuki’s past life and his career are interspersed among excerpts from a lecture given at the Chan Centre, at the Universty of British Columbia, in connection with the famed scientist’s seventy-fifth birthday. Called the "Legacy" lecture, it's Professor Suzuki's attempt to sum up the overall message of his life’s work. Starting with a description of the Big Bang, he goes on to talk about the evolution of life on this planet, then the arrival of human beings with our formidable ability, unique in all of creation, to change the environment for better or worse. Throughout the lecture, dazzling visuals play out on a screen behind Professor Suzuki on the Chan Centre stage. Professor Suzuki makes the telling point that forces like gravity and the biosphere are realities, whereas something like "The Economy" is a mental construct of humans. And yet we worship it, bending to its needs and its "will" as though it had some objective reality.

The high point of the lecture comes where Professor Suzuki explains that, as a result of his interaction with the Haida people on the British Columbia coast, he suddenly realized that the environment is not something out there that we can manage. Rather, we are the environment. It is as much a part of us as we are of it. His discussion of the gas argon is especially striking. It’s inhaled and exhaled by us in tiny amounts in every breath we take. Being an inert gas, though, it comes and goes from our lungs unchanged. That means that particles of argon that we inhale today could be the same particles that were inhaled by Jesus Christ and William Shakespeare.

Beautifully presented as it is, none of this material is particularly new or enlightening to anybody aware of environmental issues these days. Does the movie, then, give us any new insights into Professor Suzuki as a person? Yes and no. We get some crucial biography, including the fact that he and his family members, being of Japanese ancestry, were forced into an internment camp in British Columbia during the Second World War, even though he and his parents were born in Canada. We see archival clips of him as a young scientist working for the US government and then as a hippie-like prof at UBC. The failure of his first marriage is touched on with a certain amount of candour and honesty. Professor Suzuki admits that his big mistake, maritally speaking, was that his work came before family, even while his wife was putting him through school.

Through all of this self-disclosure, I found it impossible to forget that Professor Suzuki is a media personality. Even when he chokes up while re-visiting his family’s internment during the war, you’re aware that this is a man who’s very comfortable in front of a camera. Which is not to say that his emotions aren’t genuine, only that you never have the feeling that he’s taken-off-guard. As a result, you don’t get those sudden flashes of revelation that can make for very exciting moments in a documentary that’s dealing with subjects who aren’t so media savvy.

Maybe that’s why the movie as a whole, although admirable in its execution and its subject matter, doesn’t ever thrill you or sweep you off your feet with the exhilaration of new discovery.

Rating: C (where C = "Certainly worth seeing")

 

Buried (Movie) written by Chris Sparling; directed by Rodrigo Corts; starring Ryan Reynolds; with the voices of Jos Luis Garcia Prez, Robert Paterson, Stephen Tobolowsky, Samantha Mathis, Warner Loughlin and many others.

Given the premise of this one, it was the artistic and technical challenges that intrigued me: how the hell can you make a movie that shows nothing on screen but a guy buried in a coffin? How are we going to see him down there? And what about dialogue? Who’s he going to talk to? Or will it be a long monologue?

One answer to all those questions: you bury your man with a lot of stuff. This guy is stashed away with perhaps not quite as much paraphernalia as Tutankhamun, but nearly. Among other things, he has with him: a zippo lighter, a cell phone, a flashlight, a knife, a pencil, a drinking flask, a watch, something that looks like a screwdriver and some bendable tubes that give light by some process that I don’t understand. We see him at various times by the light of the different gadgets and he talks to lots of people on his cell phone.

Our guy, Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds), has been working as a truck driver for a US company in Iraq. Now, he's being held for ransom. If some ally of his doesn’t come up with $5 million by midnight, his captors are going to leave him to expire underground. One of the reasons they left the cell phone and lighting equipment with him is that they want him to record a video for them to broadcast.

In spite of the various sources of illumination, though, it can be difficult to tell what’s going on at times. Conroy does a lot of grunting and groaning and squirming around. His rough wooden coffin, although roomier than the typical funeral home offering, apparently doesn't allow him much freedom to move. But why he's trying to do so isn't always clear. The cramped quarters make for an in-your-face movie in a very literal way. Ryan Reynolds should be thankful that he has such a good set of teeth. They glow beautifully in the gloom; maybe that’s what got him the role. On the other hand, since we spend so much time looking up his nose, he might have wished for more elegantly sculpted nostrils.

At its most interesting, the movie becomes a study in telephone use today – the "your-call-is-important-to-us" culture, with all its bizarre ramifications. Hardly anybody actually answers their phone when Conroy tries to contact them. Much of the time, he gets nothing but answering messages. When he does contact live human beings, they’re always telling him things like: "I need you to....stay calm/listen carefully/tell me [whatever]." Lots of good opportunities for voice-acting here. Conroy gets inane questions like: "And where did you say you’re buried, sir?" And given that his language isn’t always as refined as it might be: "There’s no reason to be rude, sir."

Engaging as it is for a while, this telephone opera eventually palls. Call me a Luddite but I prefer dramas in which people interact with other people vis vis, not through gadgets. For one thing, viewers who aren’t totally up to speed on cell phone apps may have trouble figuring out what Conroy’s attempting to do at times. Little icons and symbols on the phone’s screen don’t always convey a clear message to some of us.

Meanwhile the script piles on one damn thing after another: a visit from a snake, a fire, a cave-in, the spilling of the contents of the flask. Conroy’s captors keep making threatening calls. It’s not clear to me why they set a midnight deadline; why not just let the guy linger until somebody coughs up the cash, or doesn’t? But the demands of a thriller require us to be aware that time and oxygen are running out. So are the phone’s batteries. To underline the pathos of Conroy’s situation, the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra labours mightily. (Come to think of it, he can’t be that lonely with all those musicians on hand.) Even with such formidable musical backup, however, it’s all so contrived and gimmicky that the moments that are supposed to tear at your heartstrings – family contacts, mostly – come off as nods to conventional values.

The one unconventional aspect of the whole enterprise would be the ending. But that twist comes too late to turn the movie into the kind of thing I was expecting: a script worthy of Samuel Beckett, a searing self-examination in dire circumstances that would reveal something special about being human. Not this routine adventure story that, when the final curtain comes down, doesn’t even make a very persuasive advertisement for the efficacy of the technology that’s featured so prominently.

Rating: D (as in "Divided" i.e. some good, some not so good)

 

Joan Sutherland – Taking Leave of a Legend

My highschool girlfriend was Joan Sutherland. By that I mean that my idea of a thrilling Friday evening was to spend it with her. I’d borrow her two-disk album "The Art of the Prima Donna" from the local library, take it home and thrill to her glorious sound well into the night.

My first encounter with her in person was when she came to Detroit to sing Lucia di Lammermoor in the Met production. That was in the early 1960s, soon after her history-making Covent Garden debut in the role. This being my second or third trip to the Masonic Temple where the Met performed on its spring tour, my brother and I found our way backstage, where we joined the tumultuous throng around the diva’s dressing room after the performance. While she was flipping through the program to find a page to autograph, she muttered in her Aussie twang: "There’s nothing in 'ere but advertisements for automobiles!" (Welcome to Detroit, Joan.)

In Vancouver about a decade later, I found a way to sneak into the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, without paying, for Joan’s performances. My subterfuge involved nearly bumping into her backstage. Apart from the autographing session in Detroit, though, I never met her. But I relished the anecdotes from the many people who had worked with her in Vancouver.

Sometimes such youthful amours wither with maturity. Not this one. Her voice still strikes me as one of the outstanding phenomena of the twentieth century. Some people, when it comes to peaks of human achievement that they’ve witnessed in their lifetimes, think of the instances when Olympic records are smashed, or when fortunes are acquired or when breakthroughs in science occur. But one of the things that makes me most grateful to have been alive in this time is the fact that I could hear Ms. Sutherland. (Luciano Pavarotti inspired somewhat similar sentiments, although I only heard him in person once.) Her voice was like no other; there’s simply no explaining it. I think composers like Bellini and Donizetti would have been astounded to hear what she could do with their music. Her voice soared to the upper stratosphere with an ease and agility no other voice could emulate. Lots of good singers have handled the same music very well but, to give some sense of the difference, you could say that their voices have been bell-like – bright and ringing, in a slightly percussive way – whereas Joan’s was rich and resonant, with an effortless-seeming, floating quality. If something about the structure of her vocal equipment made it difficult for listeners to hear the words clearly....well, as her Canadian colleague Judith Forst once said in a radio interview in response to that complaint about Joan: "Get over it!" Words could gladly be sacrificed for such stunning vocalism. 

It has always seemed to me that there was a slightly sad undertone to the dazzle of Ms. Sutherland’s spectacular career. There was something a bit ungainly about her size and she wasn’t the greatest actress on the opera stage. Some people – myself not included – even considered her unattractive. All things considered, you had the feeling that life for Dame Joan was a bit lonely at the top. All the more reason, then, to admire her down-to-earth attitude, her refusal to put on airs, her insistence on remaining, at heart, a sensible Australian girl.

As you may gather, then, we’re in mourning around here.

 

The Social Network (Movie) written by Aaron Sorkin; based on the book by Ben Mezrich; directed by David Fincher; starring Jesse Eisenberg, Rooney Mara, Joseph Mazello, Armie Hammer, Max Minghella, Andrew Garfield, Josh Pence, Brenda Song, Justin Timberlake, Douglas Urbanski, Denise Grayson, et al.

Let’s say you don’t give a damn about the "social network". You wouldn’t open Facebook if it was the only book available on a desert island. But there’s all this hype about a movie on the subject. Could it be of any interest to you? Could it be any good?

Well, yes, on both counts. Because it includes many of the great movie motifs of all times. At the heart of the thing, there’s the misunderstood and under-appreciated little guy who rises to unimagined heights. Think Rocky and Slumdog Millionaire and Billy Elliot, etc. Plus the theme of loneliness at the top. And the rivalry between close friends, the suggestion of betrayal, amounting almost to a Cain and Abel thing. Not to mention the movie moral that always makes us poor suckers leave the theatre feeling good: when big bucks come on the scene chicanery can’t be far behind. Plus drugs, sex, glamour, lots of good-looking young people. And the mystique of a Harvard setting, with the sense that conveys of a connection to US history. As a secretary in the President’s office at Harvard tells some visitors: "This building is a hundred years older than this country." Juxtaposed with that, you get recent history that feels cutting-edge and fast-breaking, pushed along by music that keeps the pulse pounding.

All of which would amount to nothing if it weren’t well done. But it is.

Most of the movie takes place in flashback, in the context of depositions to hear evidence in two suits against Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook. First, there are two rich brothers who claim that, after they’d enlisted Zuckerberg’s help to set up a social network based in Harvard, he stole their idea and turned it into Facebook. Then there’s the more poignant suit by his best friend, Eduardo Saverin, co-founder of Facebook and its original backer. He’s now found that he’s been squeezed out of co-founder’s niche and his shares in the company have shrunk to almost nothing.

All that legal falderal could have sunk the movie but, thanks to brilliant editing, it flashes back and forth between the intense, plodding hearings and the re-enactment of the dizzying events they’re investigating. Mind you, it’s hard to tell for sure what’s real and what’s fictional. In one scene, Larry Summers, the president of Harvard (Douglas Urbanski), gets all snarkey and sarcastic in a way that we wouldn’t like to think a Harvard president would. But never mind. For the most part, the movie’s entirely convincing.

Even the actors who play the lawyers, roles that don’t involve much other than sitting and firing questions across a table, come across with a mesmerizing immediacy and an authenticity that you don’t get in typical Hollywood ventures. Denise Grayson, a blonde attorney who has nothing to do but ask for clarification of people’s statements, makes a striking effect with her attempts to be fair and impartial.

But the whole thing could fly or flop on the efforts of one actor. Jesse Eisenberg will be nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his work here. (And the film will be nominated for Best Film.) Mr. Eisenberg makes the enigmatic Zuckerberg both fascinating and believable. Which is saying something, because Zuckerberg is one strange dude. He’s obviously brilliant and clever. But he’s pretty much of a dork too. His first website, the one that led to Facebook, started in a fit of pique over a girl who told him: "You’ll go through your life thinking girls won’t go out with you because you’re a nerd. But that’s wrong. It’s because you’re an asshole." This genius of social networking is no maestro of the social graces. He’ll throw a bottle of beer to a girl and, when it falls and breaks because she can't catch it, he throws another one and it falls and breaks too. His sense of humour could be described as either extremely droll or inexplicable. As when, during a deposition, it’s noted that his friend funded the company first to the tune of $1,000 and then with an additional $18,000. Someone comments that that makes a total of $19,000. Zuckerberg calls time out to check the arithmetic, then announces that it’s correct.

There’s something innocent about Mr. Eisenberg’s face that helps you to think that maybe the character can’t be quite as Machiavellian as he seems at times. You never know whether he means to be insulting. Is his arrogance intentional? Is he screwing his best friend on purpose? Would that be because of Zuckerberg’s envy that the friend was accepted into an exclusive Harvard fraternity and Zuckerberg wasn’t? Is it true, as he claims, that the rich boys are suing him, not over his supposed theft of intellectual property but because this is the first time in their pampered lives that things haven’t worked out as they wanted?

Mr. Eisenberg keeps you guessing as to what’s going on in the mind of this guy. In the end, a woman who has befriended him says: "You’re not an asshole but you try awfully hard to be one." The fact that you come away wondering about that shows that Mr. Eisenberg has given you one complicated and intriguing human being.

Rating: B (where B = "Better than most")

 

Easy A (Movie) written by Bert V. Royal; directed by Will Gluck; starring Emma Stone, Penn Badgley, Amanda Bynes, Dan Byrd, Thomas Hayden Church, Patricia Clarkson, Cam Gigandet, Lisa Kudrow, Malcolm McDowell, Alyson Michalka, Stanley Stucci

High school comedies don’t rank very high on our priority list here at Dilettante’s Diary. The premise of this one looked even less promising than some: a girl on some sun-drenched California campus tries to get a reputation as a slut. But the movie turns out to work the way movies were always supposed to. It makes you wish people really were so attractive and clever and funny.

Especially Olive, the teen in question. Her girlfriend’s been bugging her for sexy bulletins about her private life, so Olive (Emma Stone) makes up a tale about a weekend of sex with a college guy. Somebody in a washroom stall overhears the conversation. The news rapidly spreads through the school. Deciding to make the most of the situation, Olive struts around school wearing a scarlet "A" on her skimpy top. She hopes this will boost her marks for the classroom study of Hawthorne’s classic. Strictly speaking, the teacher should deduct a few points because it’s not really adultery that Olive’s suspected of committing but I suppose the other kids wouldn’t get the connection if she went around adorned with the more appropriate "F".

In any case, it’s not the literary allusions that matter so much as the fact that Olive’s shtick leads to some hilarious and unexpected involvement with kids who want her services in diverse ways. Not that everybody appreciates her new persona. Inevitably, she has to fend off harassment from evangelical teens. Not to mention the fulminations of an irascible principal (Malcolm McDowell).

Ms. Stone has the good looks to make you enjoy watching her but she’s not so gorgeous that you can’t see the wit shining through. Actually, you’d have to be both hearing and visually impaired to miss that. At the outset, Olive’s telling us her story on a webcam posting. (This is one movie where a first-person narration works perfectly.) Before this sex scandal, she says, she was just another teen who had a boring life and felt anonymous. "Cutting edge stuff, eh?" she quips. When one of the bible-thumpers expresses the pious hope for Olive that God will have a sense of humour on judgement day, Olive shoots back: "Oh, I have seventeen years of anecdotal evidence that he does." One of her best lines: "I always thought that pretending to lose my virginity would be more special. Judy Bloom should have prepared me."

And she's not the only one with good lines. Lots of delicious smaller roles here. Dan Byrd has some very touching moments as a gay teen who pleads with Olive to help save him from his reputation. I found Lisa Kudrow compelling as a guidance counsellor who’s clearly conflicted about some things. But the two actors who stand out in supporting roles are Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucci as Olive’s parents. They positively glow. Would that we could all be as warm, witty and sexy as they are. At one point, their son, who’s black, is complaining that he’s never going to reach puberty. They counsel him not to worry because they both reached puberty late. The kid points out that that’s irrelevant, because he’s adopted. The dad bursts out: "Who told you that??? We were waiting for just the right time!" When Olive’s gay friend appears at the front door, mom flirts with him and then calls upstairs in her best Amanda Wingfield style: "You have a gentleman caller, honey, and I do believe he’s going to ask for your hand in marriage!" When Mom comments that Olive’s new outfits make her looklike a stripper, Dad hastens to assure her: "But a high end one – for governors and athletes."

Eventually, as nearly always happens, the comic inventiveness can’t be sustained for a whole movie. The hilarity subsides and we settle for some homely truths and humanist values. Issues like what it means to be an outsider get tossed around. And the importance of privacy. Hardly objectionable messages, but the laughs were more fun than the lessons.

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

 

Jack Goes Boating (Movie) written by Robert Glaudini (screenplay based on his play); directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman; starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, John Ortiz, Amy Ryan, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Thomas McCarthy

Philip Seymour Hoffman is the rare actor whose work is so interesting that I’ll watch virtually any movie he’s in. And, given that this one is his directorial debut, it’s a must-see for me, even if the reviews haven’t been raves (which I gather they haven’t).

As Jack, Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a shy, fat, socially awkward bachelor who’s a limousine driver. His best friend Clyde (John Ortiz), also a limo driver, tries to help him connect with a woman. It’s the Marty theme for the 21st century. Connie, the woman Clyde has in mind, appears to be about forty. When she says something about the fact that she likes boating, Jack promises to take her for a row. Two problems with that: it’s winter now, plus Jack doesn’t know how to swim. So Clyde undertakes to teach him. Then Jack stumbles into offering to cook a dinner for Connie. Which means he’ll now have to learn to cook too.

In a quiet movie that reeks of kitchen-sink realism the way this one does – it takes place mostly in crowded, dingy apartments – the main thing is whether or not you can believe the characters and what’s happening with them. No problem on that score with Philip Seymour Hoffman. You quickly come to see him as a real person, with his hesitations and his insecurities, and yet with a kind of stubborn integrity. (Except I can’t see how any limousine driver gets away with such dirty, ratty hair, even if his uncle does own the company.) With another actor in the role, Jack’s inchoate mumblings and his monosyllabic responses might verge on parody. But Philip Seymour Hoffman helps you to see a special kind of intelligence lurking behind his silences. It’s almost as if life’s too complicated to say anything too clearly. When a woman asks him during pillow talk what he wants to see in a woman. He mutters: "You mean you, er...???" The swimming lessons make for more exposure of Mr. Hoffman’s near-naked bulk than you may be ready for, but the performance is yet another worthy addition to his accomplishments and one that’s different from all the others. Let’s just hope he has his hair washed and cut next time.

As the perfect foil to Jack, his pal Clyde is everything Jack isn’t: charismatic, quick off the mark, engaging and attractive (if diminutive, compared to Jack). John Ortiz makes a very strong screen presence in the role. He’s especially remarkable in the way he can hint at undercurrents of trouble beneath his cheerful mein.

Since they say casting is the most important part of a director’s job, it could be in the choice of the two women actors that Mr. Hoffman has let himself down. As Lucy, Clyde’s wife, Daphne Rubin-Vega stomps around with an angry pout on her face. You keep wanting to tell her to ease up a little. Maybe she has her reasons for the constant mad-on but she definitely does not make for a sympathetic screen persona. As for the role of Connie, given that it would be difficult for any actress, I can’t say for sure whether Amy Ryan does it any better or worse than anybody else would. There’s something borderline ditzy about Connie. She acts like somebody who’s been deeply hurt and needs to be handled carefully. It takes time to warm up to her. In other words, you’re not sure whether or not you really want her and Jack to get together.

The point seems to be to compare Jack’s life and his expectations with Clyde and Lucy’s marriage. But the way they keep warning him that any long-term relationship runs into fidelity problems makes you wish he had more positive role models. Eventually, everything explodes in a melodramatic way that undermines the believability the movie had going for it up to that point. The message, apparently, is that things work out for some people and not for others. True enough, but you don’t come away feeling that you’ve learned anything especially helpful about human affairs.

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

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com