Dilettante's Diary

June 28/12

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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: Moonrise Kingdom (Movie); Music Heals (Concert); From Grave to Cradle to Now (Memoir); The Dictator (Movie)

Moonrise Kingdom (Movie) written by Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola; directed by Wes Anderson; starring Jared Gilman, Kara Hayward, Bruce Willis, Ed Norton, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Jason Schwartzman, Harvey Keitel, Bob Balaban.

If you don’t read reviews of a movie before seeing it (and I usually don’t), you might have a bit of trouble getting the point of this one. I’m still trying.

It’s the early 1960s and we’re on an island on the east coast of the US. Sam, a boy of about twelve (Jared Gilman), escapes from scout camp and meets up, by assignation, with Suzy, who's about the same age (Kara Kayward). He’s a geeky and unpopular orphan who paints watercolours. She gets into a lot of trouble with family and teachers. He wears glasses and a raccoon-skin hat and smokes a pipe. She wears lots of mascara and a trainer bra. For their getaway in the woods, she brings a suitcase full of fanciful books and cans of cat food. He supplies camping gear and know-how. The two of them have an uncanny communication and they seem to feel some genuine love (twelve-year-old version) for each other. Meanwhile, family and civic authorities are frantically looking for the two kids.

About half-an-hour-in, I’m thinking: maybe this is supposed to be one of those wistful things where it’s the kids who have the right approach to life and the adults who’ve got it all wrong. But why is everything surrealistic and off-kilter? The camp that our pal escapes from doesn’t look anything like a genuine wilderness encampment. It looks more like a fake camp on a game board. Frances McDormand, as Suzy’s mother, communicates with the rest of her household through a bullhorn. Tilda Swinton, as an anal-retentive social services worker, wears a bright blue uniform with a cloak and hat that make her look like a musical theatre version of an old time Sally Ann warrior. How can we get any message about the kids’ world versus the adults’ world if neither of them looks real?

Admittedly, there are some droll bits. When the scout troupe’s dog, who has accompanied the runaways, gets killed by pursuers, Suzy asks whether he was a good dog. Sam answers: "Who’s to say? But he didn’t deserve to die that way." And there's an enjoyably subversive aspect to the boy’s using his scouting skills to undertake this project that isn’t exactly consistent with scout’s honour. As for the two young actors, the best thing they have going for them is that neither of them is Hollywood cute. But their dialogue never sounds natural. There’s nothing spontaneous about them. For the most part, they sound like young actors spouting portentous lines, almost as if they were acting in a pageant.

On the whole, the adult actors fare better, many of them obviously enjoying the off-the-wall situations this movie puts them in. (Although I hate to reveal too much plot, for purposes of our discussion here, you need to know that the kids are caught, then escape several times.) Ed Norton turns out to be not such an awfully priggish scout master when he tells Sam that the camp he set up with Suzy deserved a "commendable" rating. Bruce Willis, as the island cop, has a good scene where he tells Sam something like (not an exact quote): "You may be more intelligent than I am. Well, let’s take it as a given that you are. But even intelligent people sometimes put their finger in an electric socket." Frances McDormand has a remarkably honest scene with her daughter, who happens to be in the bathtub at the time, while sublime Schubert lieder plays in the background. And then there’s the scene where Ms. McDormand and Bill Murray, the girl’s father, both parents being lawyers, lie in their twin beds and discuss some of the fundamental realities of life. There’s some good shtick when Jason Schwartzman, who appears to be a sort of non-denominational chaplain for the scouts, steps into what might be seen as a Friar Lawrence role, bringing to mind resonances of Shakespeare’s great opus on the plight of frustrated young lovers.

But the overall feel of the movie’s too contrived, too hyped-up, too "arty" to let you feel much connection with the goings-on. The very insistent musical background underlines everything in boldface italics. That musical emphasis is most noticeable as the movie builds towards a really horrible storm that’s going to descend on the island -- and, wouldn't you know! --  the parish church is working on a production of Noye’s Fludde, that tiresome chestnut by Benjamin Britten. As the momentous climax draws nearer and nearer, you get the feeling that it’s all supposed to have some cosmic consequences. But darned if I know what they are.

Clearly, director and co-writer Wes Anderson has been trying to come up with something other than the typical movie with the conventional plot, as in his previous oddities such as The Royal Tenenbaums, Rushmore and The Life Acquatic of Steve Zissou. But maybe a misfire like this one shows why we get so many movies that follow predictable formulae: they work.

Capsule comment (in lieu of a "rating"): Too kooky to connect with.

 

Music Heals (Concert); Glenn Gould Studio; Toronto; June 23/12

Ricker Choi isn’t your typical financial wiz kid. True, he has an MBA and he works as a business consultant for one of the big banks, specializing in financial risk management. But he’s also a very accomplished pianist. In addition to several other major prizes won over recent years, in 2010 he won second prize in the 2010 Berlin International Amateur Piano Competition and, just this year, he won third prize in the Paris International Competition for Outstanding Piano Amateurs.

As a way of sharing his musical gift, in 2006 Mr. Choi started an organization called "Music Heals", whereby he stages concerts for the benefit of local charities. That first concert, in a church hall, drew about sixty people. Since then, his concerts have been staged for Oxfam, Sick Kids Foundation and World Vision Canada. This most recent concert, the net proceeds of which will go to United Way, drew a sold-out house of over 300 to the Glenn Gould studio. Probably as a result of the very reasonable ticket price – just twenty dollars – the audience overflowed with families and children.

Mr. Choi’s talents include, not just pianism and financial expertise, but also organizing, promoting and producing. He acts as the primary organizer of the concerts. And he also provides charming commentary on the music he plays.

For this concert, Mr. Choi invited four recent winners of the North York Music Festival to perform as well. The festival’s founder, Ella Poret, introduced each of them. Alix Volkov, just ten years old, gave a stunningly confident rendition of Georg Goltermann’s Capriccio for cello. Sophia Anna Szokolay delivered Henryk Wieniawski’s Polonaise Brillante, op. 21, with majestic, commanding panache. Fourteen-year-old Julia Pandolfo played Pablo de Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen (Gypsy Airs), op. 20, with superb facility, demonstrating a smooth, silky tone with nary a squeak or squawk in the fiendish gyrations of the piece. Starting in a more mellow mood, Alexander Volkov built to rollicking excitement in Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Valse Scherzo, op 34.

Mr. Choi’s pieces in the first half of the concert were two of Franz Liszt’s compositions based on Petrarch’s sonnets, then Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz No. 1, "The Dance in the Village Inn." As promised by Mr. Choi in his introduction, the meditation on Sonnet 123 gave us a dreamy, angelic quality, while Sonnet 104 produced turbulent passion. The pyrotechnics of the Mephisto Waltz made for a mini-opera, following the line of the narrative Mr. Choi had given by way of introduction.

Regarding "October" from Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons, which opened Mr. Choi’s selections for the second half of the concert, he explained that, while the composer hadn’t laid down any particular story for the music, he, Mr. Choi, liked to think of it as the parting of two lovers, the treble part being the female voice and the bass representing the male. Mr. Choi’s playing made the plaintive inter-twining of the two voices as eloquent as the dialogue between voices in a Bach composition; the way they faded off into nothing at the end was especially poignant.

When it came to the second movement from Yin Chengzong’s Yellow River Piano Concerto, a lush romantic piece that carried the listener on waves of scenic grandeur, it only increased one’s appreciation of Mr. Choi’s talents to learn that he was playing the version of the piece that he himself has arranged for solo piano. Following the very sprightly playing of Bla Bartk’s Romanian Folk Dances, Sz. 56, Mr. Choi wound up the concert with Alfred Grnfeld’s Soire de Vienne, Op. 56, a medley of waltz tunes from Johann Strauss, Jr.

As the gorgeous melodies were washing over the audience, I began to wonder if an event like this points to the future of the arts in our civilization. Perhaps there will be less hoop-la about the superstars. Maybe more attention will be paid to the very accomplished artists in our midst who can give wonderful experiences to people at a fraction of the cost of tickets to the Big Name extravaganzas. www.rickerchoi.com

 

From Cradle to Grave to Now (Family Experience) by Ian Powell, 2012

Early in this dramatic account of a family's ordeal, as told from a dad’s point of view, comes the following passage:

At 12:10, vacuuming the kitchen, I didn’t hear the phone. Minutes later, my wife Rachel, handed me the phone saying gravely, "Listen to this. It’s the police about Drew. I’m going to get ready to leave."

The recording stated that the police had found Drew near tracks in West Toronto bleeding from a serious head injury.

So begins the telling of one family’s harrowing experience. To this day, though, nobody knows for sure what had happened to Drew, the thirty-year-old son of Rachel and Ian, and the older brother of Neil and JJ. Given that Drew had been found hurt near train tracks, it was assumed that he’d been hit by a train; yet all his injuries were from the eyes up.

But the cause of the injury proved to be virtually irrelevant, given the battle that the family members, especially Drew, had ahead of them. At first, doctors gave the Powells very little hope that Drew could survive the severe battering his brain had taken. A large portion of his skull had been removed, in order to allow for the swelling of his brain. His head soon appeared to be more than twice its normal size.

Gradually, though, hour-by-hour, then day-by-day, Drew began to defy the odds. Five years later, the recovery – for everyone – is still going on.

In this book, Ian Powell tells the gripping story of the family’s journey from that fateful day. He includes moments of fear and near-despair, anguish and stress, as well as high-points of hope and joy. But the book isn't just an Oprah-style confessional about an ordeal. Mr. Powell’s experiences as a CEO and a motivational speaker come through powerfully in the many helpful pointers, even "to-do" lists, he provides for people who may be going through similar ordeals. In that respect, the book is intended primarily as a guide for healthcare professionals and relatives dealing with someone who has suffered serious brain injury. But it makes enthralling reading for anyone.

It would be impossible, however, for me to pretend to offer an objective review of the book, since I know Drew’s family very well, having been friends with his mother since childhood. (Pseudonyms are used for all the family members throughout the book, for reasons of privacy.) All I can do here, then, is to point out some of the book’s many merits.

One of the most prominent among them would be the emotional honesty of the dad, Ian, in his telling of the story. He talks about the "Sack of Dread" that he carried around with him and how he had to keep taking diversionary tactics to prevent the sack from being pierced and spilling over. Still, it sometimes did. Ian’s perfectly candid about the resulting meltdowns. He also makes very interesting observations on how a father’s role in a son’s recovery might differ from a mother’s. Not that there are any set gender roles carved in stone. But he notes that a father often tends to think that he should be able to fix things; when he can’t, it can be very hard for him to learn patience. And most men in such a situation will have to learn to talk about their emotions. At the same time, for the "take-charge" type of dad, learning to listen to the patient is vital. By that, Ian means the kind of "deep" listening that sets aside one's own needs and background noise. He says it’s like acquiring the ability of "hearing a spring breeze through the cacophony of a city street."

And when it’s a son who is engaged in a prolonged and difficult recovery, proverbial father-son conflicts can become exacerbated. At one point in Drew’s recovery, when he was back living with his parents after his long sojourn in various hospitals, he had to ask Ian to stop hugging him every time he went out the door. When Ian asked why, Drew answered: "It’s like you don’t expect to see me again." That comment hints at some of the primordial issues that father and son had to work through once again. There was the difficult question of how much independence a father could grant a son whose faculty for judgement had been severely damaged and who was on a gradual path towards regaining his ability to make reasonable decisions for himself. Something of that process is reflected in the title of the book, with its allusion to near-extinction, then re-learning the basics of living, then gradual return to adult competency.

As for the involvement of the other family members in dealing with such a crisis, Ian says that each person will turn out to have skills and abilities that might not have emerged before. Accompanying a family member on the road to recovery is an active, not a passive role, Ian stresses. He goes into some detail about the ways in which family members, because of their long association with the patient, and their shared memories, can have a special effect on the patient’s recovery. He gives special credit to his wife Rachel for her finesse in dealing with health professionals. Ian says that Rachel developed such good rapport with hospital staff and such excellent observational skills regarding Drew’s condition that she virtually became a member of the team when doctors made their rounds.

The first part of the book, detailing the immediate aftermath of Drew’s accident and his prolonged recovery, intersperses Facebook reports posted by his brother Neil at the time it was all happening with retrospective commentary from today’s point of view by his dad, Ian. (While the chronology can thus be a bit difficult to sort out, the reader catches on eventually.) Following that narrative aspect of the book come Ian’s many tips for people involved with a brain injured patient. One of the things that he emphasizes for families – something that the casual reader might be least likely to think of – is the matter of grooming. Ian counsels family members of a seriously injured patient to think carefully about their appearance before showing up at the hospital each day. The family member should look in the mirror each morning and ask: what message am I giving by my appearance today? Not only will an attractive attire and a pleasant demeanour lift the spirits of the patient – when he or she reaches the stage of noticing such things – it will also help to show hospital staff that family members are on the ball and this will inevitably have beneficial results in terms of patient care.

Regarding issues quite apart from direct dealings with the patient, Ian warns that parents may very well need help from professional therapists to deal with their own struggles through their child’s recovery. He points out that establishing rapport with the families of other patients, learning about their struggles and doing whatever’s possible to help them, will lead to a necessary sense of objectivity about one's own family's troubles. He also mentions the importance of acquiring good legal backup, as soon as possible, in order to set out on the right foot in discussions with employers and insurance companies.

One of the strongest messages that comes through in the book is that Drew’s family had to accept what had happened and build from there. "That way you can take joy from small gains....We were grateful for Drew’s life that was. That was over. We then became grateful for each moment of Drew’s second life." Much the same spirit comes through in a short, very touching essay by Drew that’s included in his dad’s book. Drew says: "...I feel quite lucky to be very close to the kind of person I was before this incident, both in my body and in my mind. I have some issues, but I see them as ‘quirks’ rather than a disability." Emphasizing the positive aspects of his life now, he ends with a heartening message which, although directed to other people who’ve experienced brain injury, contains a lot of wisdom for everybody:

One thing to remember is that a large part of answering the question "Who are you?" is the brain in your head. It’s who you are as a person and your life comes from it. That part of who you are has potentially, and possibly significantly, been altered. The question going forward may be, "So who are you now?

Always remember to enjoy the paths you take finding the answer to that new question.

To read the first chapter and testimonials or to order the book, click on:  From Grave to Cradle to Now 

 

The Dictator (Movie) written by Sacha Baron Cohen, Alec Berg, David Mandel, Jeff Schaffer; directed by Larry Charles; starring Sacha Baron Cohen, Ben Kingsley, Jason Mantzoukas, Anna Faris, Sayed Badreya, John C. Reilly

A person approaches this latest offering from Sacha Baron Cohen with a mixture of attitudes. The man’s first movie, Borat, was so original that you’d be willing to see him through a couple more, even if the second one wasn’t very good, which Bruno wasn’t. (You can see reviews of them both on Diletttante’s Diary pages dated Nov 8/06 and July 17/09.) But then there’s the thought that the falling off in that second movie may indicate that first big success was a fluke. Maybe the guy doesn’t have what it takes for the long run. Maybe it’s time to cut the guy down.

So you arrive at the theatre with sharpened hatchet in hand, just in case. But it doesn’t really need wielding just yet. On the basis of this movie I’d say that Mr. Cohen doesn’t deserve to be banished from movie-land forever. Nor does he rate crowning with the laurels of a genius. The most curious thing about the movie, in fact, is the question of why it doesn’t succeed as a whole even though it has so many good things going for it.

One of the best things about the movie is that it has a real plot, unlike Mr. Cohen's other movies. (Warning: some plot spoilers here.) He plays the Supreme Dictator of a fictional country in North Africa who executes minions with about the same level of concern that most people bring to installing a roll of toilet paper in the bathroom. His excesses with paid lovers and such look like they’re going to get pretty boring, but then he’s summoned to the UN to defend his policies.

And this is where things get interesting. Ben Kingsley plays one of the dictator's closest confidants who, in attempt to overthrow the dictator, arranges that his body double gets into the powerful position of the real guy during the US sojourn, while the real guy is cast out to fend for himself on the streets of New York. His trying to win his way back into power makes for lots of intriguing twists; it also provides a wonderful opportunity for an actor to play not just his character, but his character’s lame-brained double.

Along the way, several very clever bits emerge. Some of my favourites:

  • A torture session falls apart because the victim keeps taunting the torturer about the fact that none of the instruments of torture are state-of-the-art.
  • The torturer is played by John C. Reilly (uncredited), one of the nicest guys in movies.
  • The dictator and his loyal supporter (Jason Mantoukas), while planning to take a reconnaissance helicopter ride over Manhattan, are talking about the necessity to act like ordinary Americans, which leads to a an argument about the dictator’s acting abilities, with reference to his several acting awards – bestowed on him by himself.
  • When the dictator is perched on the edge of a bridge, ready to commit suicide, one of his loyal followers tries to rally the dictator's sense of pride, pointing out that his wearing crocs makes him look like a man who has given up all hope.
  • A sexual situation produces a hilarious twist on the old adage about the difference between giving a man a fish and giving him a fishing rod.
  • Some delicious satire surfaces in a speech in which the dictator tries to convince the US that it should try a dictatorship as a form of government: you could have the majority of the wealth in the hands of 1% of the people; you could deprive poor people of adequate health care; you could have a media conglomerate that controls public opinion....etc. etc.

With so much ingenious stuff in it, why doesn’t the movie work as a whole? I don’t think it’s the extreme vulgarity. Without being particularly amused by it, one can grant that twelve-year-old boys will enjoy it, having sneaked into the R-rated movie as they undoubtedly will. Same could be said regarding the slapstick and fecal humour.

I suspect that what’s fundamentally wrong with the movie is the character at the heart of it. In Borat and Bruno, Mr. Cohen was playing characters who, although stupid and narcissistic, were not particularly malevolent. They weren’t doing any harm to humanity on a large scale. Not so with the dictator. Even if he does turn out to be a doofus in many ways, it’s a little hard to see the humour in a character who's as dangerous as we know some tyrants to be these days. One scene that made me particularly uncomfortable on that score was the one where an aide was talking to the dictator about some teen-age boys the dictator had sexually abused. The dictator kept insisting that the victims had been enjoying themselves, no matter that the experience led them to commit suicide. Funny? Not very.

All of which is to say that I think Mr. Cohen still has tremendous gifts as a comic writer and actor. Here’s hoping the next character he develops proves to be a better showcase for his talents.

Capsule comment: many comic sparks fail to ignite this one.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com