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Mar 9/12

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Favourite Works: 2004-2013
Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
Sabbath's Theater by PHILIP ROTH
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A Toast to 2012
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La Traviata: Met's Live HD Version
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How Fiction Works
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Sex for Saints
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Housekeeping
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Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 2009
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Zen Wrapped In Karma Dipped In Chocolate
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CBC Radio -- "The New Two"
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The Jesus Sayings
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Head to Head
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Ring Psycho (Wagner on CBC Radio)
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Me In Manhattan
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About Me
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MOVIES
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The date that appears above is the date of the most recent reviews. As new reviews are added, they will appear towards the top of the page and the older ones will move further down. When the page is closed, the items will be archived according to the final date on the page

Reviewed here: In Darkness (Movie); War Horse (Theatre); Smut (Short Stories)

In Darkness (Movie) written by David F. Shamoon; based on the book by Robert Marshall; directed by Agnieszka Holland; starring Robert Wieckiewicz, Benno Frmann, Agnieszka Grochowksa, Maria Schrader, Kinga Preis, Herbert Knaup, Marcin Bosak, Kryzysztof Skonieczny, Milla Bankowicz, Oliwer Stanczak

This isn’t exactly the kind of movie that you expect to enjoy – especially when you find out that it lasts two and a half hours. You’re going to spending much of that time underground with some Jews who are hiding in the sewer system of a Polish city. In this true story, they spent about fourteen months there during the last stages of the Second World War. The Pole who’s in charge of maintenance of the sewers discovers them. Instead of turning them in for the bounty the Nazis are offering for every Jew, he decides to let them stay – for cash. The Jews have a good supply of money with them, so they pay him a daily rate to bring them food and keep their hiding place secret.

Thus, we get the kind of drama that always develops around people hiding in close quarters, be they soldiers, refugees, stowaways or victims of pogroms. There’s sexual tension, thievery, squabbles about food. Two children fight over crayons. Not to say that there aren’t tender moments too – as when two little kids stage a little show for the adults. Over and above the typical hardships facing people in hiding, this situation has the extreme horror of the squalor, the stench, the rats, the dampness and the threat of flooding. A major crisis comes early on when their Polish protector decides to move the Jews to a safer hiding spot in the sewers but there’s only room for about twelve people in the new location. Who gets to go and who is going to be left behind, probably to die?

Obviously, all this helps to drive home, yet again, the horror of the holocaust. Without denigrating the suffering of the people involved, though, it needs to be said that the movie makes for somewhat problematic watching. Given the fact that so much of it takes place underground, in darkness, with people’s faces illuminated only by the intermittent glare of flashlights, it’s not easy to get to know the characters. That makes it hard to care about them as individuals, to feel personally involved in their struggle. It’s also tricky to figure out what’s going on much of the time. So much of the action is furtive and obscure that, rather than sympathizing, you feel baffled. In retrospect, you can figure out most of what happened but, while the events are playing out there in the sewer, you don’t feel very engaged in them.

What does prove very engaging is the character of the Polish guy who’s protecting the Jews (Robert Wieckiewicz). We often see him in his life above ground, inter-acting with his wife and child, his young assistant, the shopkeepers and the Nazis. Time and again, he has to resort to clever subterfuges so that the discovery of his secret won’t prove fatal to him. Shrewd, cynical and self-seeking, he’s not exactly a bad man but his horizons are very limited and he’s no intellectual. For instance, it comes to him as something of a startling new idea when his wife (Kinga Preis) points out that Mary and Jesus and the apostles were Jews. His wife’s ambivalence about his involvement with the sewer-dwellers strikes a very authentic note but their mutual approach to the situation develops in a very moving way.

What helps director Agnieszka Holland make her points is excellent background music, notably a plaintive lament from Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, at a crucial moment. Later, when the Jews are huddled beneath a Catholic church, the lofty music overhead helps to provide an ironic counterpoint to their misery. The only false note in the whole thing, to my taste, would be the shot of a man’s hand extended to help one of the children. The backlighting on the hand makes far too melodramatic an effect, an intrusion of Michelangelo, you might almost say. Apart from that one slip, the movie builds through some truly terrifying developments to a very emotional climax and an ending that says something well worth hearing.

Capsule Comment (in lieu of a rating): Something of an endurance test, but worthwhile.

 

War Horse (Theatre) based on the book by Michael Morpurgo; adapted by Nick Stafford in association with the Handspring Puppet Company; directed by Nicholas Hynter and Nick Starr; featuring Melanie Doane, Tatjana Cornij, Bvrendan Murray, Richard McMillan, Steven Yaffee, Alex Furber, Brad Rudy, Dylan Roberts, Neil Foster Araya Mengesha, Ryan Hollyman, Tamara Bernier Evans, Patrick Galligan, Bruce Godfree, Brian Paul, Patrick Kwok-Choon, Rahnuma Panthaky, Geoffrey Pounsett, Addison Holley, Cara Hunter, James Retter Duncan; Princess of Wales Theatre, Toronto

The reviews have been fabulous. Everybody’s saying it’s the theatre event of the season. Friends who’ve seen it are tossing around words like "magic" and "wonderful". And there’s a close family connection to one of the cast members. (That, by way of disclosure.) So we had to see it.

But wasn’t there bound to be some disappointment after all the hype?

No. It’s true what they say. This is a wonder-filled production. You see things here you’ve probably never seen in theatre. (At least I haven’t)

Such as the First World War. Who would have thought they could give you that on a stage in downtown Toronto? It's all here: the guns, the flares, the bombs, the shrapnel, the poison gas, the tanks, troop carriers, the noise, the blood, the poppies, the trenches, mutilated bodies, the nurses in their white veils.

And of course, the horses.

As you probably know, the story revolves around a horse that's bought as foal by a farmer in Devon. The farmer's son names the horse Joey and trains him to plough. Eventually (we’re surely not revealing too much plot here, since you probably have the gist of it already), Joey finds his way into the war as a mount for a cavalry officer.

You probably never thought that a life-sized puppet of a horse, manipulated by three actors who can be seen plainly, could become such a believable and loveable character. But it does. These horse-handlers have managed to produce the quivers, the whinnies, the snickers, the snorts, the twitches of the genuine equine article. And the way the various characters talk to and respond to Joey helps to build up a sense of his character. Rightfully, he occupies centre stage as the true star of the show.

Which points up what makes this show so magical: it invites the audience members, in a way few shows do, to be involved in the creation of the work by using their own imaginations. Your willing belief in the illusions becomes an integral part of the experience. This goes not just for Joey, but for the other puppet and various devices. It’s amazing how a small puppet of a goose on rollers can create the sense of a lively barnyard. Or how puppets of crows flapping over decaying bodies can make you smell the corruption and decay. With a minimum of set and props, some overhead projections of a bit of sky or rooftops set you down emphatically in the various locales, be they idyllic farms and villages, desolate battlefields or the tossing waters of the English Channel.

Several moments deserve to be called coups de theatre. One of the most striking is the moment when we see Joey’s transformation from young colt to full-grown horse. Others occur when a semi-circle of chorus members (actors in smaller parts) suddenly seems to appear out of nowhere. I suspect these effects are achieved partly through a very clever lighting design. Because banks of lights upstage are facing the audience, it means we can’t see what’s happening behind them until the actors emerge from the gloom in an eery way. Sometimes, they’re singing very lusty songs that rivet your attention. Another very effective musical element is provided by two women who stroll through the proceedings, one with a violin, the other with an accordion, providing vaguely Gaelic-sounding ballads that add a haunting effect to the narrative.

All these astounding production values, you should know, are put to the service of a very simple, straight-forward story. The characters are not complex; the conflicts are standard. Don’t go looking for George Bernard Shaw. In spite of the context of the war, it’s essentially a sweet, sentimental tale. But aren’t all horse stories?

 

Smut: Two Unseemly Stories (Fiction) by Alan Bennett, 2011

Ordinarily, a book that consists of just two short stories wouldn’t get much attention. (It probably wouldn’t even get published.) But when you’re dealing with Alan Bennett, the situation is far from ordinary. As one of the celebrated members of the Beyond the Fringe troupe from the 1960s, and the author of innumerable prize-winning tv scripts and movies, such as The Madness of King George and The History Boys, not to mention his very entertaining memoirs and journals, he can command a certain respect for practically anything he chooses to publish.

Even a little volume with such a dubious title. The first story tells about Mrs. Donaldson, a widow, who regularly acts as a patient in training sessions for medical students. Since that gig doesn’t bring in quite enough cash, she decides to take in roomers. The first ones to take up her offer are a medical student and her boyfriend. Sounds pretty anodyne, in the way of, say, an Anita Brookner novel. But, true to the promise in the title of the book, the dear lady gets herself into a rather peculiar and atypical (for her) situation with her roomers. The fact that Mr. Bennett can make this rather preposterous situation very nearly believable is surely a credit to the seductive skill of his story-telling.

The second story revolves around a very handsome – and very narcissistic young man – whose mother is infatuated with him and who does not approve of the unattractive woman he has decided to marry. He has chosen her because she has lots of money. The cast is rounded out by the young man’s rather lacklustre father and another young man about whom we can’t say anymore without giving away too much. Nothing less than a sexual farce of multifarious couplings develops around these five people, something that might be a blend of Muriel Spark and Beaumarchais. (At one point, the tone of the writing also made me think of Graham Greene’s lighter works, eg, the short story "May We Borrow Your Husband?"and, sure enough, along came references to Mr. Greene.)

As to the salacious promise of the title, nothing very graphic or explicit is depicted. Yes, sex does occur but not in a way that most of us would call "smutty". Maybe the mere mention of certain things is supposed to be titillating. It seems that a certain British attitude to such matters infuses the stories, a sort of slap-and-tickle sensibility, the kind of thing that was so well summed up in the title of that famous play No Sex Please: We’re British.

Quite apart from any questions about the subject matter in Smut, the writing shows that Mr. Bennett is at his best as a dramatist. The dialogue snaps and crackles electrically. It surprises me, though, that some of the narrative passages have a rather ponderous quality. There’s even a certain clumsiness that you wouldn’t expect from a distinguished gent like Mr. Bennett:

True, the ignorance of the students gave him umpteen opportunities for sarcasm in which he was happy to indulge except that having begun by showing off a good deal he had got the idea (rightly) that this wasn’t a side of him that Mrs. Donaldson much cared for.

This proposal too, was not unexpected, her first line of defence her not long-removed appendix and the presumed need to treat her recently perforated abdomen with some consideration.

He and Betty had once done it in a tent overlooking Nidderdale, and [sic] area of outstanding beauty though it was it had not been a success and a vile tea in Pateley Bridge had not redeemed it.

Even allowing that the "and" is probably a typo, that last sentence doesn’t read well. You get the feeling that the material may have been composed orally without careful attention to how it would work on the page. One of the most troublesome and irritating aspects of the written text is the dearth of commas. Many lines, for lack of that simple device, require re-reading to make sense of them:

That apart it might be thought strange, his sexual inclinations being what they were....

...her mother-in-law had been neither so when Graham arrived home from the bank and there was always a delicious meal to be had it was a novelty.

The reflection problem (of which Betty was unaware) was unwittingly solved when hanging up some of her clothes she opened the wardrobe to reveal that the interior of the door was backed by a full-length mirror, so once she was in the bathroom Graham with a little experimentation worked out that fully opened the wardrobe door would give a decent account of what, all being well, would be taking place on the bed.

Something seems to have gone wonky with syntax in this one:

Careful about money an offer like this would normally have appealed to Graham but even he could see that acceptance risked turning what was a transaction into a relationship.

These somewhat surprising blemishes wouldn’t be mentioned if we weren’t dealing with a writer of such distinction. In any case, they don’t sabotage the many satisfactions the book offers. Trivial as the material is, you can find some meaning in it. The first story would seem to show that our behaviour in certain situations may show us that we’re not who we thought we were. The moral of the second story would have to be that, no matter where you’re positioned in any network of relationships, you may have no idea what’s going on with the other members. Succinct and droll lines come along now and then, such as: "Graham’s father having nothing to say, said nothing." The medical students in the first story may seem to be egregiously obtuse but you certainly get a vivid sense of the generational divide between them and Mrs. Donaldson. And this passage, a certain textual bumpiness not withstanding, would bring a knowing smile to any reader who’s been observing the human condition for more than a couple of decades:

One of the functions of women, Mr. Forbes had long since decided, was to impart an element of trouble into the otherwise tranquil lives of men. His wife, for instance, though almost alarmingly robust, claimed to be seldom altogether well, though it wasn’t anything one could put one’s finger on. True the trouble was often to do with that department Mr Forbes might have been expected to put his finger on but rarely did while at the same time being something intangible which, unless the man kept it in the forefront of his mind, allowed him to be accused of a lack of consideration and of being heartless. What was wrong, Mr Forbes felt, even with someone as stalwart as his wife was that the man was not perpetually aware that there was something wrong. That was what was wrong.

 

You can hear the chuckling from Jane Austen's niche in the Abbey.

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