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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: Trainwreck (Movie); St. Vincent (DVD), Inherent Vice (DVD), Topsy-Turvy (DVD).

Trainwreck (Movie) written by Amy Schumer; directed by Judd Apatow; starring Amy Schumer, Bill Hader, Colin Quinn, LeBron James, Tilda Swinton, Dave Attell, Jon Glaser, Brie Larson, Mike Birbiglia, Vanessa Bayer, Randall Park, Ezra Miller, Evan Brinkman, Norman Lloyd, Daniel Radcliffe, Amar’e Stoudemire, Marv Albert, Chris Evert

Viewers like me approach this one with caution. We know it stars a comedian who has made her name with a shtick that might have been labelled, back in the day, as more than a touch slutty. She makes jokes about sex in a very explicit way and she flaunts the fact that her character is the type who sleeps around. So maybe some of us would find her movie a bit offensive? On the other hand, we’re told that this is what life is like for a lot of young singles today. So maybe we should give it a try?

As expected, there is a lot on offer that’s offensive, cringe-makingly so. Is it true that young women these days indulge in locker room talk that we used to think was the exclusive preserve of horny young males? Or is it sexist of me to think in those terms? Is the movie exaggerating a point as a way of getting its own back on the part of women? Well, I don’t know whether or not it’s a true reflection of what’s happening now, but there’s no denying that it delivers lots of shocks for a viewer like me.

If you can survive the shocks, though, it becomes quite interesting to see whether or not romance might eventually be possible for someone like this flippant, potty-mouthed woman. Will she ever be able to stifle her contempt for the jerks she beds so that she might fall in love with one of them? Will she be able to quell her criticism of their sexual performance? Will she ever be able to succumb to the sweet domesticity that her married sister (Brie Larson) seems to enjoy? This being a rom-com, in spite of its atypical context, you can guess how it’s going to turn out. The romance may not seem very plausible; you might not be able to believe in the attraction between these two people in question. But never mind. It’s only a movie. As such, it can be quite entertaining.

Take Amy’s work situation. (Is it another case of Ms. Schumer's brazening it out that she has given the character her own name?) She’s a writer on the staff of a lifestyle magazine that’s trying to be very edgy, very in-your-face, with articles on questions like: a) does a man’s ingestion of garlic change the taste of his semen? and b) do some men like to masturbate to hockey fights? Amy has been given the job of profiling a surgeon (Bill Hader) who caters to star athletes. Why did Amy get the gig? Because she hates sports! There’s definitely some satire going on here. Amy’s boss is one of the worst gorgons to appear on screen since Cruella De Vil. You’ve never seen anyone who’s so vicious and who yet appears to think she’s affirming and supportive. And the role is attacked, literally, by none other than Tilda Swinton, an actor whom I’ve not often liked because most of her work seems to consist of an open-mouthed, wan gaping. Here, though, she’s so rapacious that I didn’t recognize her.

Then there’s Amy’s father (Colin Quinn). After a flashback in which we see him telling his young daughters why he and their mom are divorcing – a rant that mounts to an outrageous justification of adultery – we find him in a seniors’ residence where, thanks to some brilliant scriptwriting, his bad temper and his incisive wit lead to some great lines, not to mention plenty of mockery of the seniors' care scene.

Another intriguing aspect of the movie is the introduction of several well-known people playing themselves. Basketball star LeBron James, for instance, is a patient of the doctor that Amy’s profiling. We see James, a would-be buddy of the doctor’s, trying to direct the doctor’s budding romance. Amar’e Stoudemire, another famous jock, plays himself, as a patient the doctor’s about to operate on. Then there are real-life sports commentators who are brought in at one point, people like Marv Albert and Chris Evert. At certain points in the movie, some characters happen to be watching a kooky black-and-white film, apparently a spoof of one of those deadpan arty films, in which none other than Daniel Radcliffe plays a seedy-looking dogwalker. The appearance of these real celebrities within Trainwreck gives it a particular spin, seeming to make some sly comment on the fictive business of movie-making. Maybe it’s something like the concept of breaking down the fourth wall in the theatre.

Some aspects of the movie, however, don’t make much sense. One of the guys that Amy’s bedding early on is a muscle-bound hunk whose main flaw is that he can’t talk dirty to her, as she wants him to when they’re having sex. That makes for a funny scene. Ditto the one where the hunk gets into a verbal slinging match with another guy but can’t help spouting insults that make himself sound gay. But why would an intelligent person like Amy try to have a relationship with such a knucklehead? (Her defence when he finds out about her sleeping with other guys: "But I don’t go to movies with them the way I do with you!") And why would Amy’s doctor boyfriend, who comes from educated parents, turn out to be such a klutz when dining out? Just for the sake of a comic restaurant scene? And don’t even ask about the ridiculously over-the-top ending. It’s an extravaganza that’s about nothing but bravura movie-making; it has about as much meaningful connection to life as a fireworks display at Disney World.

The big saving feature of the movie is Ms. Schumer’s creation of the character of Amy. As necessarily must happen, we do discover that, underneath all the sarcasm, the obscene patter, the flippancy, there is a genuine, kind person who has the same hurt feelings and the longing to be accepted that we recognize in any other human being. Maybe, in some ways, she has those qualities even more keenly than a lot of people. The eulogy that she delivers at her dad’s burial is probably one of the most honest, heart-felt and original ones that you’re ever going to witness – onscreen or off.

 

St. Vincent (DVD) written and directed by Theodore Melfi; starring Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy, Jaeden Lieberher, Naomi Watts, Chris O’Dowd, Ann Dowd

We know it’s a successful formula: an unsuitable adult is stuck with a needy kid. It has worked well in many movies. But it’s so familiar now. Is there any reason why we should watch this particular version of it?

Perhaps. The adult in this case is so unsuitable: a scuzzy older man who lives alone, who drinks too much, who plays the horses, who owes money all over town, whose girlfriend is a pregnant stripper/prostitute. The kid in question is the son, about eleven years old, of the lady who has just moved in next door to the older guy. One day, the kid can’t get into the house after school because his wallet, his keys and his phone were stolen by some bullies. So he has to turn to the curmudgeonly neighbour. The mom thinks maybe this babysitting could become a regular thing, seeing that her hospital job often prevents her from picking up her son after school. Of course, we know perfectly well where this is heading, but, along the way, there are some notable moments, like the ones when the kid is introduced to such facts of life as the race track, bars, and the pregnant stripper.

All of this would be mildly entertaining if it weren’t for an accumulation of touches that shriek of sentimentality and manipulation. The kid goes to a Catholic school and his teacher is a religious brother. In an era when there’s a dearth of vocations to religious life in North America, it’s the rare school, I’m thinking, that could have a full-fledged religious brother teaching eleven-year-olds. A brother with an Irish accent, moreover, and one who insists on wearing a Roman collar (unlike any religious brothers I know these days). This school seems to exist mainly in the mind of a writer who wants to wring as much juice as possible out of the situation, regardless of its disconnect from reality. (The religiosity is offset a bit by the fact that Chris O’Dowd plays the brother with sarcastic swagger but still...!) And why needs there be a vicious school bully who, right from the get-go, attacks our kid with unbridled venom? Because the writer needs some such drama, that’s why, no matter how fake it seems.

Other hokey touches include the one where a kid has been putting on his own necktie every morning but his mom has to help him with it on a special morning. Why? To create a tender moment. An elderly man, in a moment of rage, breaks a skateboard over his knee. That could only be possible in a world where a writer/director needs an emphatic gesture that gives viewers a jolt, even though it has nothing to do with real life.

Worst of all, the climax of the story is one of the most blatantly contrived movie endings that I’ve ever seen. We’re all used to movies, plays and novels that are propelled by the build-up to the big concert, the big race, the big test of whatever kind. We grudgingly accept that as an effective structuring device. But who can believe that a school – even a rather retrograde Catholic one – would stage a huge public event where kids would get up and deliver a speech canonizing some local person whom the kid believes to be a living saint? I can possibly imagine such a scenario as a classroom project. But a gala event in a packed auditorium, that an unsuspecting "saint" has to be tricked into attending, and where everybody from his life, even his business connections and friends from the bar, happen to be in attendance so that they can glowingly applaud the new hero....??? It’s one thing to have an uplifting, wholesome message for a movie – that ordinary, good people are the real saints among us – but it’s a bit on the obvious side to hammer that message home with a canonization.

The main thing that makes all this watchable is Bill Murray. You’ve never seen any adult male who feels such antipathy to a kid. As with a lot of top-notch acting, what makes the performance so interesting, of course, is the marvellous way the actor can show you the character’s attempt not to show what he’s feeling. But you can smell his resentment at the situation he finds himself in. And Bill Murray does make his character’s transformation, by tiny increments, believable. It helps that Jaeden Lieberher, as the kid, is not especially winsome or cute. He’s a bit of a blank-faced nerd but his intelligence is a match for Bill Murray. Naomi Watts throws herself into the role of the Russian stripper/hooker with verve. And Melissa McCarthy turns in an understated, convincing performance in one of the few non-comic roles that I’ve seen her in.

The special features on the DVD include about ten deleted scenes. Some of them are pure fluff, more layering on of the sentimental content. Wisely deleted. Others include information that could have been helpful in clarifying plot points or aspects of characters. The deletion of these scenes provides an interesting demonstration of how filmmakers feel that they can cut a lot while retaining the essence of a story.

 

Inherent Vice (DVD) written by Paul Thomas Anderson; based on the novel by Thomas Pynchon; directed by Paul Thomas Anderson; starring Joaquin Phoenix, Joanna Newsom, Katherine Waterson, Jordan Christian Hearn, Eric Roberts, Owen Wilson, Martin Short, Benicio Del Toro, Reese Witherspoon

My main reason for watching this one was Joaquin Phoenix, who’s usually worth seeing. In this case, he plays Doc Sportello, a Private Investigator. The setting is 1970s Southern California. Doc lives in a shack by the water in some beach town. He’s scruffy and unkempt and the Los Angeles cops have contempt for him as a kind of hippie. But he appears to be incorruptible and, when he’s not toking up or blissing out on laughing gas, he pursues his leads in a bumbling style that belies his determination. And, yes, Mr. Phoenix is very watchable in the role. There’s always something interesting going on in those glowing eyes of his, under those formidable eyebrows. What his mug seems to express most of the time is a kind of bewildered conflict between innocence and scepticism.

But the movie as a whole? Not so watchable. I honestly couldn’t follow all the twists and turns of the plot. That may have had something to do with the fact that I could only catch about fifty percent of what Mr. Phoenix mumbled. Also, I fast-forwarded through parts of the movie, which meant that I missed some of the narration, delivered in the whiney voice of a young woman who is/was (?) an associate of Doc’s. Her talk may have helped to explain some plot points. But I don’t like movies that rely as heavily on voice-over narration as this one does. When used so extensively, the device strikes me as a lazy crutch on the part of scriptwriters. In this case, the tone of the narration keeps reminding you of the voice of the writer whose book you’re getting on screen and you keep thinking that maybe you’d do better to go to the original.

The main thrust of the plot – in so far as I understood it – is that a former girlfriend of Doc’s has taken up with a real estate mogul who has suddenly disappeared. Bodies keep piling up. Disappearances keep happening. Are the disappeared dead or not? Maybe Doc will find out. There’s also something about a "looney bin" that people are being consigned to against their will. Plus something about a mysterious organization known as the "Golden Fang." And a ship that is possibly being used to smuggle heroin. Things get so tangled that, at times, I wondered if it’s supposed to be a parody. For instance, there’s the scene where a cop stops a car carrying three white males, telling them that, because of the Manson murders, males with shoulder-length hair can be questioned on the grounds that they might belong to a cult.

Perhaps the best thing you could say about the movie is that it’s very "filmic" in the way it creates the atmosphere of a world that’s totally wacko, or, as the characters themselves would put it, "groovy." It’s all very noir-ish in mood and yet very colourful in a 1970s way: fuzzy black-and-white tv pictures; long-tailed, slinky automobiles. In those days before cell phones or the Internet, there’s a prominent role for telephones. The clunky machines look huge and are more vividly coloured than any that I remember from that era.

If you think you have the patience to give this one a try, you'll find that Joaquin Phoenix isn't the only actor worth watching. Josh Brolin, as Doc’s main opponent in the police force, gives us a detective who starts off very Alpha Male but becomes more and more troubled and unhinged in a way that actually makes you feel for him. On the other hand, Martin Short plays an egregiously sleazy dental surgeon, probably one of the most thankless and humourless roles he’s ever been offered. Owen Wilson is completely straight-faced in a role that has nothing comic about it. A final encounter between him and Doc points up the Wilson character’s domestic blessings as compared to the emptiness of Doc’s life. After the two men have parted, you see Doc sitting silently in his car with a look on his face that says everything about his sense of his place in the world.

 

Topsy-Turvy (DVD) written and directed by Mike Leigh; starring Jim Broadbent, Allan Corduner, Timothy Spall, Martin Savage, Lesley Manville, Ron Cook, Charles Simon and many others.

When this movie came out (1999), Dilettante’s Diary didn’t yet exist. That means we have no written record of my first impressions of the movie. But I remember clearly that it was a big deal for me. Having fallen in love with Gilbert and Sullivan at an early age, I was eagerly looking forward to this movie about their work. As I recall, the film intrigued me and yet, there was something about it that I found vaguely dissatisfying; it certainly wasn’t quite what I’d hoped for. On seeing it again (thanks to the loan of the DVD from a friend), I’m fascinated, I have a better appreciation of it as a work of art, but it still leaves me somewhat puzzled.

There’s so much to love, though, especially for a theatre buff. All that backstage stuff. The rehearsing, the bickering, the rivalry, the vanity, the hurt feelings, the drugs, the threats of dismissal, the show-must-go-on spirit. Timothy Spall gives a touching picture of a performer trying to maintain his dignity when his big number is cut. In the Victorian context, the theatrical setting brings up some special issues. Like performers – including the tenor – balking at the fact that they aren’t allowed to wear corsets under their costumes. Actresses having to learn to walk as true Japanese, not as the cutesy puppets that they’d been aping. A performer being informed that the cockney accent he has adopted doesn’t work for a character whose origins are in the Japanese working class.

Those kinds of specific notes to the actors come, here, from the character of W.S. Gilbert, played by Jim Broadbent. It isn’t until you read the on-screen essay included with the special features that you discover the significance of Gilbert’s interventions. This initiative of his was, in fact, the beginning of the role of the director in theatre. Until then, I gather, stars simply informed the other actors of how things would be done, or the cast, as an ensemble, muddled through to some sort of agreement about the proceedings. From this time on, it would be a director who would pull everything together and whose authority would be final (at least in principle).

Mike Leigh plunges us into the Victorian atmosphere right up to our necks. Grand homes with lavish furnishings. Everybody so polite. Everyone always referred to as "Mr." or "Miss," even in the most heated arguments. A man apologizes graciously to a woman for having been so rude as to use the word ‘prostitute’ in her presence. In the women’s dressing room, we see the complicated architectural structures that went under their voluminous everyday skirts. Among specific chronological markers, we get the introduction of such a new-fangled thing as the "reservoir pen" – what we would call a "fountain pen." And there’s a vivid demonstration of the clumsy and inexperienced handling of that confounded new invention known as the telephone. These items seemed to me to be worked into the script a bit too obviously but, still, they serve their purpose.

The movie opens in the hot summer of 1884 in London, when Richard D’Oyly Carte’s opera company isn’t doing so well with Gilbert and Sullivan’s latest offering, Princess Ida. Something better is required for D’Oyly Carte’s Savoy theatre. The two men are under contract to him but Sir Arthur Sullivan (Allan Corduner) is not pleased with the book that Gilbert is presenting to be set to music: far too much of the silly, fantasy world that critics have dubbed Gilbert’s "Topsy-Turvy" milieu. D’Oyly Carte (played with admirable stoicism by Ron Cook) calls the men together and tries to broker some kind of compromise. To no avail. Sullivan, for relief, goes off for a fling in the brothels of Paris.

It isn’t until Gilbert visits a Japanese exhibition in Knightsbridge that things begin to take a turn for the better. You can see how Victorian London would have been astonished at this encounter with real Japanese culture – beautifully restrained women performing tea ceremonies, Kabuki theatre, dancing, sword fighting. Gilbert, having attended the event reluctantly, on his wife’s insistence, finds himself charmed. The exhibit sparks a new jolt of cleverness and originality in him. The book of The Mikado begins to take shape in his mind.

It’s wonderful to see the various bits of the famous and celebrated work come together. There’s Gilbert sitting by the fire, reading from the notebook on his lap: If you’re wondering who we are, we are gentlemen of Japan, on many a vase and jar, on many a screen and fan.... A true lover of Gilbert and Sullivan can’t help thinking: Imagine hearing those words spoken aloud to the world for the first time! Maybe not quite up there with the most momentous moments in culture – like, say, hearing "To be or not to be" issuing from a rehearsal room in 16th century London – but a significant milestone in theatrical history all the same.

One thing that I remember from first seeing the movie is that I was taken aback by the downscale look of the first production of The Mikado as it was represented in the movie. It didn’t seem to have the wit, the brilliance, the style of Gilbert and Sullivan productions as I’d come to know them. It was almost as if the co-creators hadn’t yet become Gilbert and Sullivan of glorious legend. Maybe I’d been spoiled by the Brian Macdonald productions of the operettas at the Stratford Ontario Festival. Mr. Macdonald gave us streamlined shows that sparkled with contemporary wit and design; in spite of their antique settings, they looked as up-to-the-date as any stage shows could. Maybe that’s why I found the look of the movie’s version of the original production tacky, or rinky-dink – like something that your local Gilbert and Sullivan society would stage in the church hall. Those awful wigs, for instance! On consideration, though, I have to admit that the production, as shown in the movie, could have been a knock-out for Victorian audiences. It certainly was extravagantly colourful and exotic. Granted, the stage looked awfully crowded but, the Savoy theatre appeared to be very small compared to what we’re used to today, so the audience probably accepted the cramped look of the show as the norm.

In spite of all the pleasures the movie offers, there are moments that aren’t exactly dull but are somewhat lacking in momentum. We have to sit through some rather plodding expository dialogue that sets up the situations and establishes the era. For instance, the information that attendance at the performances even of the great Sarah Bernhardt is flagging because of the heat. Some scenes simply fill out the movie in the sense of history or documentary. Those scenes, for instance, where Gilbert is teaching the actors how to say his lines, how to move. Or the scenes where Sullivan is correcting the orchestra’s playing. Yes, all that must have occurred; these scenes help us to see what it must have been like, but they don’t engage us in any kind of dramatic pull.

It’s well known, of course, that Mike Leigh creates his movies by spending something like six months with his actors in exploring the characters and situations before a word of script is written. What evolves in that process is something that doesn’t fit into any of the typical filmic formulae. The finished work is more sprawling, more open ended. That could be why this movie has something of a Robert Altman feeling about it (not just because of its length of two hours and forty minutes). You end up with something that’s closer to real life than to a typical movie, something along the lines of Mr. Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller. In that light, I can accept that Topsy-Turvy isn’t the usual showbiz bio pic. But it includes elements which, although germane to the lives of the individuals pictured, don’t have any relevance to the story of the production of The Mikado. For instance, there’s a scene with Gilbert’s elderly and ailing father (Charles Simon). It has nothing to do with what’s happening in the rest of the movie and could, like some other bits – a singing of Sullivan’s "The Lost Chord," for instance – easily have been cut, to the movie’s advantage.

To give Mr. Leigh full credit, the film does end on an ambivalent note. Although we know that The Mikado went on to tremendous success for a century and more, Mr. Leigh doesn’t want to leave us on opening night with a note of unmitigated triumph. Rather, we get Gilbert in his bedroom, musing with his wife Kitty about the fact that success seems rather empty. Try looking for that message in any Hollywood epic! And the final moments of the the movie show the woman who plays Yum-Yum gazing into her dressing room mirror, trying to convince herself that she really is beautiful. Then we move to the stage where she is standing alone singing her big aria, "The Sun, Whose Rays Are All Ablaze" The impression is not so much one of elation or satisfaction but, rather, a plaintive wish that the glory of the stage not be so fleeting.

Which brings me to my final beef about the movie. As in the case of this aria, we get only brief snatches of the loveliest songs. Such as the tenor’s "A Wand’ring Minstrel. Of course, one accepts that you can’t expect a complete performance of every aria in a movie that isn’t meant to be an exact replica of a full performance. But the singing in the film, what we get of it, is all of high calibre, bright and refreshing, if not necessarily perfect in every respect. (I believe all the actors did their own singing.) The credits say the soundtrack is available on Sony. Would one dare to hope that the CD would include the full renditions of these beloved songs?

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com