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Jan 29/15

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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: Lungs (Play), The Grand Budapest Hotel (Movie); The One Hundred-Foot Journey (Movie)

Lungs (Play) by Duncan Macmillan; directed by Weyni Mengesha; starring Lesley Faulkner and Brendan Gall; Tarragon Theatre, Extra Space, Toronto; until Jan 25

He suggests that they should have a baby. She recoils, flabbergasted. It’s such a big subject!!! She needs time to think about it!!! How can he drop this bomb now, while they’re standing in a line at Ikea???

He backpedals, he apologizes, but the conversation carries on...now they’re in their car, still discussing it....now they’re in bed....now they’re at the breakfast table....talking and talking and talking....

And so it goes for 70 minutes without intermission. Other subjects come up, but everything revolves around this one big question: parenting. She’s working on her PhD and he’s a would-be musician. Are they good enough to be parents? After all, they recycle, they support independent coffee shops rather than the big chains, they don’t leave the tap running while they brush their teeth, they watch documentaries, they read books about "things." On the other hand, what right do they have to produce one more human being who will add an enormous carbon footprint to our overburdened planet?

While the questions whirl around, the whole play is like one long conversation. No props, no miming of them, no furniture, just a bare stage. Each time that there’s a sudden shift in situation, the actors keep talking without a break. It takes a few lines before we, the audience, twig to the different circumstances of each scene. The context of the last scene is especially hard to catch. I got it just in time. It would be a pity to think that anyone might not have.

That’s why, immediately after seeing the play, I was wishing that the director or the playwright had included a few more clues to the scene transitions. On further thought, however, I’ve decided that the seamless flow of the conversation from one setting to the next – as though it were taking place all at once – was probably the most ingenious aspect of a very clever play. The uninterrupted conversation acts as a metaphor for life. Don’t we all feel sometimes that it rushes by in a blur?

In the first few scenes, I was worried that the man and woman (they’re not named) were a stock couple. She’s pretty and vivacious, very voluble, inclined to emotional outbursts. He’s the stodgy guy, a bit of an oaf actually, who means well but who can’t help putting his foot in his mouth every time he opens it. Which means that he, as is typical in this kind of encounter, comes in for a lot of artillery fire from her. After a while, though, they move away from the standard types and, as they reveal their depths and their idiosyncracies, meanwhile exploring their feelings for each other, they become genuine individuals. Quiet moments allow for heartache, even despair to creep in.

Brendan Gall and Lesley Faulkner are perfectly matched as this couple. The dialogue is extremely rapid fire. Sometimes they’re talking over each other. Sometimes she’ll rant for a long passage without finishing a single sentence. The electricity that crackles between them ignites explosions in the audience. I’ve seldom heard so many outburst of gunshot laughter in a Toronto theatre.

You sometimes hear it said, as the current clich goes, that a play or a performance takes you on a journey. This one certainly does. We see tremendous growth and change in these two people. I’m not sure that the place we’re taken to is entirely original or surprising; in other words, the message of the play isn’t revolutionary or startling. But it depicts, with accuracy, pathos and humour, the raw truth about the lives of two people you and I know very well.

 

The Grand Budapest Hotel (Movie) inspired by the writings of Stefan Zweig; written by Wes Anderson and Hugo Guinness; directed by Wes Anderson; starring Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, F. Murray Abraham, Jude Law, Tilda Swinton, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Jason Schwartzman, Saoirse Ronan, La Seydoux, Tom Wilkinson, Owen Wilson, Mathieu Amalric, Bob Balaban

It’s not that this movie is badly made. But it’s a kind of movie that I don’t like: episodic, strung-out, far-fetched, a compilation of fantastic incidents, with a voice-over narrative and lots of onscreen text to help us keep track of times and places. If this is a fair sample of the work of Stefan Zweig, on whose writings the movie is supposedly based, that’s one name I can delete from my must-read list.

We start with an elderly author (Tom Wilkson) telling us about how he fell upon a tale of daring and intrigue. Then we see him as a young man (Jude Law) arriving at a grandiose but fading hotel in some fabled European country. He encounters the owner of the hotel (F. Murray Abraham) who decides to tell him at great length how he acquired the establishment. This takes us back to some point in the early decades of the 20th century when the future owner was starting work at the hotel as a lobby boy (Tony Revolori). His boss was the concierge, Monsieur Gustave,(Ralph Fiennes), a suave, personable gentleman who provides intimate services, shall we say, to his female guests. When an elderly, rich favourite of his (Tilda Swinton) dies in her castle, he needs must rush to her obsequies. That leads to hoary plot lines: disputes about a will, the theft of a priceless work of art, prison time, escape from prison, dashes across the snowy Alps pursued by a bad guy....and on and on.

If you look at the cast list, you might get the impression that everybody loves Wes Anderson’s wacky moviemaking so much that they’ll drop everything to be involved. Not that there was much commitment required in this case. Most of their roles probably didn’t amount to any more than a day’s shooting. Several of the smaller parts they've taken are so undistinguished that they could have been done just as well by unknown actors. For some of the actors who have larger roles – Tilda Swinton, for instance – it must have been fun to get all dressed up in gaudy makeup and wig as if they were camping it up in the Christmas panto. If you’re tempted to speak of any of these characters as two-dimensional, you should probably see an opthalmologist about your problem with double vision.

The one exception in the department of shallow characterization would be Mr. Fiennes in the role of Monsieur Gustave. There is something interesting in watching him trying to sustain his perfectly urbane, polished manners, no matter how desperate the situation, speaking in complete, elegant sentences – except when he occasionally explodes and starts firing off swear words like the worst of us. One good character, however, isn’t enough to make a movie.

Nor are the droll Wes-Anderson touches sprinkled here and there. As, when somebody throws a man’s cat out the window and he collects his dead pet in a plastic bag from the coat check downstairs. Or when two guys in grubby rags are escaping from prison and their enabler gives them ties and perfume atomizers in preparation for their meals in the train’s dining car.

To make up for lack of interest in what’s going on onscreen, kitschy, middle-eastern-sounding music on balalaikas and such instruments intrudes constantly. The only enjoyable music is the swelling sound of one of those glorious Russian male choirs. Unfortunately, the best of it comes during the final credits. Mr. Anderson does manage to build some excitement into the climax of the movie but, by then, it’s too late to make me care much.

 

The One Hundred-Foot Journey (Movie) based on the book by Richard C. Morais; screenplay by Steven Knight; directed by Lasse Hallstrm; starring Helen Mirren, Om Puri, Manish Dayal, Charlotte Le Bon, Amit Shah, Farzana Dua Elahe, Dillon Mitra, Aria Pandya, Michel Blanc, Juhi Chawla.

A family in Mumbai runs a big, successful restaurant. One of the young sons (Manish Dayal) acquires a love of cooking from his mother (Juhi Chawla). But the restaurant is torched and the mother is killed in a political uprising. The father (Om Puri) takes his kids and flees to Europe. After several failed attempts to settle elsewhere, they land in a village in France. An abandoned restaurant on the edge of town turns out to be just right for them. They move in and set up shop. Only problem: directly across the street (just one hundred feet away) is a restaurant that has a Michelin star. How can the Indian family’s cuisine compete with that, especially given that the owner of the other restaurant is a haughty snob (Helen Mirren) who’s determined to undermine the Indian family’s enterprise?

Well, the names Spielberg, Winfrey and Disney are behind the movie, so you have a pretty good idea how things will work out. Conflicts are predictable and easily managed. Scenes are pretty. Photography is luscious. Music is beguiling. Romance sprouts in two generations. I’m guessing that the novel on which the movie is based reeks of even more of these charming and delectable touches. Even if there weren’t a plethora of movies these days that try to capitalize on our society’s fascination with cooking, the manipulative and contrived quality of this one would scuttle it.

So that you won’t think my response is based simply on personal antipathy to inspiring and wholesome material, a few examples of the movie’s cornball quotient:

  • A woman who wants to talk to the owner of a restaurant comes and sits in it all night, waiting for an encounter with him. Why not just walk up to him in the daylight and speak to him? Because that would rob us of the dramatic image of the woman slumped over with her head on the table.
  • In order to prove to a young French woman (Charlotte Le Bon) that he knows how to make French sauces, the young Indian chef sets up a picnic by the side of a river, with his sauces in little jars on a pristine white linen cloth, so that he can hail the busy young woman as she’s riding by on her bike on the other side of the river, and she, apparently having nothing else to do, can cross over (a bridge is nearby, fortunately) and join him on the grass for a picnic of French sauces, her makeup all the while remaining as perfect and intact as that of a model in a soap commercial.
  • A cook in the French restaurant (Vincent Elbaz, I think), of whom we have no reason to suspect any such thing, turns out to have terrorist accomplices to carry out his nefarious intentions.
  • A gratuitous act of violence causes the venomous French restaurant owner to exhibit kindness and charity that her character shows no previous aptitude for.

Obviously, this confection is meant for people who like their fare to be sweet and comforting, to hit all the pleasure buttons while bypassing the centres of good taste

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com