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Dec 2/14

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The date that appears above is the date of the most recent reviews. As new reviews are added, the date will change accordingly. The new reviews 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: The Brown Bull of Cuailnge (Play); Arcadia (Play); Mommy (Movie); The Judge (Movie)

The Brown Bull of Cailnge (Play) by Neil Wechsler; directed by Geoffrey Pounsett; starring Gabriella Colacecchio, Dylan Roberts, Antonio Cayonne, Anand Rajaram; a production of The Room; Sidemart Theatrical Grocery, Toronto; till Dec 14th.

Four Irish soldiers are stranded in the middle of nowhere. They’ve lost their company. Gradually, we realize that they’ve been stuck here for thousands of years. While trying to make sense of their situation, they rehash centuries of Irish legend and myth. Questions about the deeper meaning of things come up. One of the men says that, when the world ends, there will still be four Irishmen sitting and talking about how things were better in the past. Another character notes that it’s the possibilities of things that matter, rather than their actual fulfillment.

We have Fergus (Dylan Roberts), who’s angry and frustrated in his role as leader of the group; Ath (Antonio Cayonne) who mostly has sex on his mind; Muirgen (Gabriella Colavecchio), an ingenuous youth who can’t figure out what’s going on; and Brug (Anand Rajaram), an older man who sings songs and spins poems, reflecting on the action as a kind of Greek chorus.

I was reminded of many plays in which a small group of men is forced to work out interpersonal and existential issues while adrift in some such situation. Most notably, Steven Fry’s A Sleep of Prisoners comes to mind; also Streamers and Events While Guarding the Bofors Gun. Since I have a family connection with this production, it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to claim to present an objective review. But that doesn’t mean that readers of Dilettante’s Diary shouldn’t know about the show. I’ll just say that it’s beautifully done.

 

Arcadia (Play) by Tom Stoppard; directed by Eda Holmes; starring Diana Donnelly, Gray Powell, Kate Besworth, Martin Happer, Patrick McManus, Nicole Underhay, Michael Ball, Andrew Bunker, Kyle Orzech, Ric Reid, Harveen Sandhu and Sanjay Talwar; a Shaw Festival Production; at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, Toronto; until Dec 14th.

The setting is a bright, elegant sunroom in a mansion on an estate in Derbyshire. In the first scene, we’re back in the early 19th century. A tutor is doing lessons with the thirteen-year-old daughter of the lord of the manor. In the next scene, we jump forward to the late 20th century. It’s the same room, but now the occupants of it are, in addition to some young members of the owner’s family, two academics who are researching historical points that lead back to that 19th century scene. It appears that Lord Byron may have been a guest in the house at that time and he may have been involved in something untoward.

Some of the advance publicity claimed that this is Tom Stoppard’s best play. It certainly has an intriguing premise. I very much liked that idea that people of our own time are inhabiting a certain place and trying to trace precisely what happened there 200 years ago. It’s fascinating to see how evidence is misinterpreted, how clues are misconstrued, how connections are forced, how "histories" are made up of guesses and conjectures. The sparring between the academics amounts to what could be considered a sly satire on their profession.

However, this is a difficult play. There’s a lot of talk about the Second Law of Thermodynamics and about quantum physics. I think it all has something to do with the mysterious connections between past and present. Another question that comes up: is life on this earth doomed? One young scientist goes on for pages with his theorizing. Also, I found it nearly impossible to keep track of the complicated connections among the characters: who is bedding whom? who is marrying whom? who desires whom? who has killed – or might have killed – whom? There are many references to people we never see but whom we’re supposed to remember. Doors keep slamming in the style of a bedroom farce as people rush across the stage for no discernible reason. Somehow, a pet tortoise on the sunroom table has some significance. A boy who appears to be autistic hangs around without saying anything. A disgruntled man struts across the stage exclaiming "Sod! Sod! Sod!...." and we never know why.

This production from the Shaw Festival is all very professional and polished. But so theatrical! In the 19th century scenes, hardly anybody seems like a real person. They posture and prance like stage people. At times it seems like we’re getting warmed-over Oscar Wilde. When someone suggests taking out a newspaper ad to find a hermit to inhabit the hermitage on the property, the lady of the manor says something like: "A hermit who reads a newspaper would not be a hermit in whom one could place one’s confidence." (Not an exact quote.) The lady sounds like she’s studying to be Lady Bracknell. In what seems like an even more direct nod to The Importance of Being Earnest, the play opens with somebody playing the piano badly offstage.

Maybe the intent is to strike a contrast with the (slightly) more naturalistic feel of the 20th century scenes. After mulling it over for a few days, I am beginning to think that maybe this is the point: Mr. Stoppard could be trying to show that we – inevitably – tend to think of the past as a caricature of itself. When we cast our minds back to the 19th century, we can’t help seeing it as something like a Wilde play. Hence all the artificiality and the posing in the historical scenes.

An intriguing idea, to be sure. But I wish the play had made me care less about the concepts than about the characters. One of the reasons I didn’t feel engaged with them is that there’s a scarcity of meaningful relationships. Good drama should make us feel that we’re caught up in the characters’ struggle to work out the dynamics of their inter-relating. There’s hardly any of that in this play. Oh, there are a few superficial tugs – X may seem to be attracted to and/or flirting with Y – but that’s all rather superficial. That’s partly because some of the characters are under-written. You never get a real feel for the kind of person this character is, apart from his or her ideas.

Could it be that people who love this play are the kind of sophisticates who appreciate theatre loaded with intellectual content? Judging by the empty seats after intermission, it appeared that several people at the performance I attended didn’t consider themselves in that camp. I stayed on, in the hope of finding out what was so amazing about the show. The second act was a little more promising, a little brisker, but, in the end, all the talk and disputation was tiresome and disheartening. Could anything have been done to make the much-touted brilliance of the play shine a little more brightly for me? Perhaps I could have become more involved in the heady dance of ideas if a more intimate, more personal tone had been established – as in a movie. Admittedly, that would be difficult to achieve in a venue like the Royal Alexandra Theatre.

 

Mommy (Movie) written and directed by Xavier Dolan; starring Anne Dorval, Antoine-Olivier Pilon, Suzanne Clment, Patrick Huard, Alexandre Goyette, Isabelle Nlisse.

Xavier Dolan’s films don’t always thrill me but you have to take note of his work if you care about what’s happening in the world of innovative and imaginative movies today – especially Canadian ones.

One of his main themes is the complicated relationships between mothers and sons. In this case, we’re talking really complicated. Steve is about fifteen years old, and he’s been in a lot of trouble. His mom, Diane, or "Die," has decided to take him out of the institution where he’s been staying, and take care of him on her own. Long before a diagnosis is specifically mentioned, you can see that Steve has ADHD. He’s also extremely volatile. Because he’s so difficult to handle, she can’t take a full time job. (The dad died a few years ago, leaving her with big debts.) She has been warned about the difficulty of managing this kid but, in her plucky, defiant way, she’s game to try.

For the first half hour, I hated this movie. Die, in spite of her good intentions, struck me as an annoying woman who can’t get her shit together. She’s chewing gum and smoking nearly all the time. She wears enough rings on her fingers to stock a jewelry store and her key ring has so many bits of metal dangling from it that it could anchor the Queen Mary. Most of the time, she and Steve are yelling at each other. The insults they throw back and forth, complete with graphic sexual references, would make a prison guard blush. My patience wears very thin vis a vis people who live the way these two do.

To make matters worse, there’s the pretentious photography and direction. The movie opens with a shot of Steve’s boxers rippling on the clothes line and then we get a moody Die picking an apple off a tree. Obviously, there’s supposed to be something terribly significant about all this but it looks stagey and exaggerated. Then we get a car crash, with Die emerging from her vehicle bloodied and staggering. Why? The crash and the injury have nothing to do with the rest of the story. The accident appears to be staged only as a way of giving Die a grand entrance.

It’s all so contrived. I kept saying to M. Dolan: if you have a story to tell, just tell it, without all the artifice.

After a while, though, I began to feel that the arty approach was suitable to his subject. He’s dealing with two difficult people in an extreme situation. The over-blown style of the movie helps to convey the feeling of their living on the edge. And, thanks to the excellent acting, their relationship does become very believable. You can see that, in spite of all the cursing and the violent flare-ups, there is love on both sides. Anne Dorval is an actress who’s too beautiful for the role of Die. Ms. Dolan’s look – her "take" as they say in the biz – is a bit too dignified for this frowsy woman. But she does manage the tricky balance between the chronic non-achiever and the proud, loving mother who aspires to better things. Antoine-Olivier Pilon, as Steve, eventually wins your sympathy for this kid who can’t understand himself and who longs to be free of the demons that cause so much trouble for himself and his mom.

Still, there are enough Xavier-Dolan-type quirks in the movie to make the watching more problematic than it needs to be. Why would anybody take her troubled teenage son to a Karaoke bar for a discussion with a lawyer about her legal troubles? And what’s with this neighbour of Die’s? At first, it appears that Kyla (Suzanne Clment) can’t talk. Then we learn that she has a stuttering problem. Ok. But it seems that she’s also had something like a nervous breakdown, although she says she’s a teacher on sabbatical. The house she lives in seems furnished in a temporary way, with boxes stacked everywhere. There’s a man (Alexandre Goyette) on the scene – either a husband or a boyfriend – and a young girl (Isabelle Nlisse). But Kyla abandons them constantly to hang out with Die and Steve. Granted, the relationship with Kyla is important to Die’s struggles, but the strangeness of Kyla’s character seems to be one of those concoctions that appeal to a director/writer’s kooky side without any other point in the movie.

But the bigger problem is the one that plagues many movies featuring main characters with a developmental deficiency or a mental illness: there’s nowhere to go in terms of that character’s development. Without wanting to get too academic about it, I have to say that, in theatre, novels and movies, we long to learn why humans are the way they are and why they act as they do. In Steve’s case, there’s nothing to learn. He’s sadly afflicted and there’s nothing he can do about it. One minute he’s nice, and the next minute he isn’t. We watch in frustration as he flounders around but there’s no satisfaction in terms of an insight to be gained from watching his struggle.

That leaves us with Die’s development as a character. We do see her growing and learning. Towards the end of the movie, a speech of hers about hope provides the key to the whole thing. But the change is a one-sided affair. Drama works better when the tussle between two people leads to new places for both of them.

 

The Judge (Movie) written by Nick Schenk, Bill Dubuque and David Dobkin; directed by David Dobkin; starring Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, Billy Bob Thornton, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong, Dax Shepard, Ken Howard, Emma Tremblay, Mark Kiely, Lonnie Farmer, Grace Zabriski, Balthazar Getty, Denis O’Hare

Judge Palmer (Robert Duvall) has been presiding from the bench in a small Indiana town for some 40 years. He’s such a fixture locally that everybody – including his sons – addresses him as "Judge." His beloved wife dies suddenly and his son, Hank (Robert Downey Jr.), a big-city lawyer, comes home for the funeral. Hank has been alienated from his dad for many years. But, just as Hank’s about to head back to the city, the dad finds himself in some serious legal trouble. Obviously, Hank is the one who might be able to defend him adequately. Can the two of them patch up their differences and make a winning team?

Not hard to imagine how well that pitch would fly at a meeting of Hollywood producers.

And it looked to me at first like this might turn out to be a really good movie. One of the early scenes was especially promising. Two estranged brothers meet at their mother’s wake and all they can talk about is the difficulty of finding parking in the neighbourhood of the funeral home. What an insightful glimpse of real people in a real situation! I was hoping for lots more of these revelations of human nature that we don’t see unless some gifted writer shows them to us.

Unfortunately, however, the movie soon develops into a formulaic melodrama cum courtroom mystery. You can almost see the plot points lined up on a graph. Before Hank can take over his dad’s case, for instance, we have to see that the local lawyer (Dax Shepard) favoured by the dad is a nincompoop. Old wounds, old grudges are dug up as in many a family saga. That leads to a lot of recrimination along the lines of: "Why did you....(do such and such)" Fatal cancer is thrown into the mix. At one climactic moment, we have to have a near-tornado. (Bring on the wind machines.) People keep making grandiloquent speeches about the majesty and the impartiality of the law. Atticus Finch, of course, gets mentioned. A bad guy who turns up from the past (Mark Kiely) has to be egregiously awful.

To offset the sturm und drang, we have to have the requisite Hallmark moments, abetted by treacly music. An old girlfriend of Hank’s (Vera Farmiga) adds intrigue. His precocious daughter (Emma Tremblay) ups the sentimental quotient when she arrives for a visit. Hank’s mentally handicapped younger bother (Jeremy Strong) provides a further tug to the heartstrings.

This is the kind of movie that will appeal to people who love a story with impressive-sounding rhetoric, seemingly high stakes, lots of human interest and satisfying resolutions. For those people, the movie will press all the buttons that have been pressed so often and so predictably before. For me, though, the movie would have been unwatchable if it weren’t for the acting.

Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall give us characters who are endlessly interesting, no matter how cloying the situations that the script puts them in. In Mr. Downey’s case, I think the key is his irony. He always seems to be leaning back a bit and sizing things up. The look on his face tells you that what he’s thinking is often at odds with what the characters around him are feeling. That helps to make the cornball content go down a bit more easily. Robert Duvall’s performance is a masterpiece of a curmudgeonly, crusty geezer who’s constantly revealing new and surprising sides to him. Yes, he is a tough old bugger and some of his attitudes and choices are objectionable, but he makes you see that he can be reasonable and that he does, when all’s said and done, live by guiding principles.

As for actors in supporting roles, I was very impressed by Vincent D’Onofrio as Glen, Hank’s older brother. In subtle, almost indecipherable ways, but to great effect, Mr. D’Onofrio conveys the ambivalence, the diffidence, the uneasy familiarity his character feels towards this brother with whom he’s had a difficult history. I don’t remember much about Billy Bob Thornton’s previous performances but it struck me that this one – a complex, sly, sensitive prosecutor – might be a different turn for him, very successfully negotiated.

Near the end of the movie, the Robert Duvall character blurts out: "You are." It takes a second or two to twig to his meaning. It’s the answer to a question posed much earlier. That brilliant touch made me wish the movie had more scriptwriting like that and less of the movie-of-the-week genre.

 

 

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