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Reviewed here: Family Stories: Belgrade (Play); Leaving Home (Novel); Muriella Pent (Novel); Q Is For Quarry (Mystery); The Constant Gardener (Movie); Broken Flowers (Movie); The 40 Year Old Virgin -- An Afterthought (Movie)

Family Stories: Belgrade (Play) by Biljana Srbljanovic, transl by Rebecca Ann Rugg, directed by Alexsandar Sasha Lukac (Actors Repertory Company, Harbourfront Studio Theatre, Toronto, until Oct. 8)

How to kick off the new season of theatre-going? Somehow, I wasn’t in the mood for one of those earnest pieces about Canadians in search of their identity in some small town where unsavoury secrets lurk in every closet and that new school teacher might be up to who-knows-what chicanery. So this wacky import sounded just right. We start off with a family of Serbs holed up in a bombed-out apartment in Belgrade. It’s around the turn of this century and projections on the rear wall of the set show us crowds rioting and bombs exploding. Dad is a violent slob, Mom a frazzled hag and junior a hyper-active brat. Mom and Dad are teaching him that it’s not safe to say what you’re thinking; in fact it’s not safe to think. They’re beating the message into him, literally. Enter a silent stranger who may or may not be a stray dog. Just when you think you can’t stand the screaming and the mayhem any longer, there’s a sudden shift of gears and it seems that what’s happening is not what we thought it was – maybe.

Diverse family plays come to mind, say You Can’t Take It With You, Long Day’s Journey Into Night and The Diary of Ann Frank. Take the craziness of one, the despair of the next and the terror of the last, put them all together, crank them up on speed and you have some idea of this play. Everybody involved does great work. Director Alexsandar Sasha Lukac keeps the whirlwind spinning frantically, with, thank God, some calm patches for needed respite. Matthew Deslippe holds the chaos together with his solid performance as the crotch-scratching dad. Rebecca Benson (the mom) uses her facial features to great comic effect. (My only quibble is that I wanted her voice to have a comparable range of expression; at the beginning of the play, it sounded thin and screechy, although it settled down later.) Brett Christopher, playing the kid, manages to inject charm into the role, as he always does, no matter how zany the part. I found his scenes with Janet Porter – she whimpers and cringes touchingly as the stray – some of the most convincing of the play.* Their tentative encounters bordered on something very close to tenderness. (Silly me to think it could last.) Mr. Christopher does his trademark flying leap, ending in a belly flop, about five times. I first saw this lovely shtick about five years ago in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Is he becoming known as the Evil Knievel of Toronto actors?

Diverting as the mania was, I began to wonder if it was going to lead anywhere. In the second act, when each character relates a dream, I wanted to say: enough already, people, why don’t you get to the point? Like maybe the goings-on would have more resonance for European audiences who were closer to the events: the I-guess-you-had-to-be-there kind of response? But gradually I began to think that maybe the point is that, in political madness of the kind that surrounded the Belgrade family, there isn’t any point. Just before the end of the play, though, a bit of plot kicked in. Then, Ms. Porter emerged from her largely mute role and closed the play with a harrowing speech that had my ears ringing as if her message had been pounded into them: people are people no matter what, no matter how much you abuse them, they have the same longings, the same hopes and desires, the same instinct to placate the powers-that-be and the hope thereby to survive.

* I know them both from their work at George Brown Theatre School. In fact, Ms. Porter (who was then known as Janet Green) starred in a workshop production of my play Night For A Queen, in which she played an elegant monarch, a role about as far as imaginable from this one.

 

Leaving Home (Novel) by Anita Brookner, 2005

You can see why some people hate Anita Brookner’s tiny novels, miniatures really, about insignificant lives where nothing much happens. There was the book that was all about an old lady looking forward to a drive in the country with a nice young man – who jilts her in the end. And then the one with the old gent who spent most of the book dithering about taking a young woman to tea: what should he wear? where should they go? what should he order? Talk about a J. Alfred Prufrock type whose life is measured out in coffee spoons! In reviews, I’ve seen it suggested that Ms. Brookner’s minimalist works are getting to the point of becoming parodies of themselves.

Me, I think she’s a genius. Her books hook me from the first sentence to the last. Granted, there’s not a lot of drama or excitement but the re-creation of the characters’ inner lives involves me completely. Paradoxically, though the canvas be so small, I feel as though I’m getting a complete view of the whole sweep of life, at least from one person’s perspective. If you wanna talk poetic precedents, for me it’s not so much a case of Tom Elliot’s coffee spoons as Bill Blake’s seeing the world in a grain of sand. The writing can get finicky at times – I can’t always follow a character’s obsessive chain of thought – but I feel that I’m living and breathing with the character all the way. And, since it's an Anita Brookner character, you can be sure there’ll be some intriguing thoughts on offer. Just a couple from this book: "I was not even pleased with myself for showing a modicum of moral courage, for moral cowardice would have served me better" and "Friendship sometimes demands less than full disclosure, and it may be more comfortable to abstain from an accountability which may leave one open to criticism."

In Leaving Home, a mousey young British woman named Emma Roberts tries to  make some kind of life for herself apart from her mother. The love between the two women is quintessentially British: under-stated, undemonstrative, genteel, reticent, yet real. In Paris where she studies classical gardens, Emma’s friendship with a flamboyant young French woman emphasizes her own interiority. Drawing near the end of my reading of the novel, when it became clear that many potential developments weren’t going to pan out, I began to be aware of how every other novel jollies you along, stuffing you with print candy, giving you the kind of thrills you think you crave. Aren’t Ms. Brookner’s novels much closer to real life – at least as it is for most of us – with their quiet disappointments, their heartaches, their reasonable compromises? As Emma says at the close of her story:

"I am more or less comfortable, more or less contented. Not everyone is born to fulfill an heroic role. The only realistic ambition is to live in the present. And sometimes, quite often in fact, this is more than enough to keep one busy. Time, which was once squandered, must now be given over to the actual, the possible, and perhaps to that evanescent hope of a good outcome which never deserts one, and which should never be abandoned."

What more is there to say?

 

Muriella Pent (Novel) by Russell Smith, 2004

My attempt to get a handle on what's been happening recently in Can Lit  continues with this latest novel of Russell Smith’s. (Mainly, I know him as the Globe and Mail expert on men’s fashions.) His first novel How Insensitive was enjoyable for the enthusiasm propelling the story of a young writer on the make in Toronto. The main problem with the book was that few of the characters other than the writer came to life. No such problem in this new book. It’s mainly about a wealthy Toronto widow who dabbles in the arts and a Caribbean writer who, while on an exchange program, lives in her mansion. Mr. Smith creates the inner life of the widow (Muriella Pent) very well, although some of her antics stretch credulity a little. The indolent, world-weary writer comes off very believably too. So does a black woman who is an Arts Council bureaucrat. Through his depiction of her, Mr. Smith skewers political correctness. To his credit, though, he doesn’t write her off as a cartoon, making it clear that, in spite of her fatuous side, she is a thoughtful, intelligent woman. One of the most likeable characters is a somewhat dweebish young bachelor who serves on the Arts Council. I would like to have seen more of him.

My problems with this book have to do mainly with narrative drive and dramatic structure. There was a feeling that How Insensitive was a story the writer simply had to tell. This new one doesn’t have the same urgency. As the separate lives of the widow and the writer are being laboriously sketched at the beginning of the novel, you can’t help wondering why you should care about them. Seemingly aware of this problem, Mr. Smith (or his editorial advisors?) lifted a sex scene from the middle of the book and placed it at the front as a kind of teaser to assure us that something will eventually happen. Without that, I might not have kept reading.

There are scenes that seem to lack any dramatic point – for instance a meeting between the widow and a young woman friend. Ok, they have to get to know each other, granted. But a scene should propel a story forward. Actors these days love to talk about their goals in any given scene and the obstacles they must overcome to reach those goals. That tension gives them something to "play". In some of Mr. Smith’s scenes, there are no goals, no obstacles, hence nothing to play. And not much to engage a reader. Same problem with a couple of scenes involving the young bachelor and a buddy. They horse around in an inane way, but to no purpose.

I also have problems with the tone of the book. Mr. Smith’s main intent seems to be satirical but there are enough missteps to make me wonder how to take the book as a whole. For instance, that scene of the meeting between Muriella and her young female friend. No less than three times, Mr. Smith tells us that they’re eating cake with frosting like semen. What is that supposed to achieve? It seems like some kind of snarky observation on the part of the writer, as if he’s trying to point out that he notices something that they don’t notice, thereby making them look ridiculous. Why would he want to do that? Is it supposed to be funny? Satirical? Symbolic? I find it pointlessly gross. Muriella’s neighbours in the posh enclave where she lives never seem the least bit real. Their threats about having her expelled from their midst are utterly implausible. A meeting of the neighbourhood residents serves up nothing but cliche and pomposity. Another irritating tick of the writing is that people in conversation are reported as laughing far oftener than people do and at nothing that’s actually laugh-inducing. One last quibble. (I hate to be school-marmish, but these slips undermine my confidence in a writer.) At one point the author mentions a bouquet made of hollyhocks and lobelia. Does Mr. Smith have any idea what he’s talking about here? Top marks for fashion, Russell, but zero for flower arranging.

 

Q Is For Quarry (Mystery) by Sue Grafton, 2002

What to do on a weekend when you’re too tired to do anything but turn pages, you’ve run out of good books and the library’s closed? Luckily, this item discarded by a friend who was trimming his book collection came to hand. You would have thought that Sue Grafton would have run dry long before reaching this point in her series of alphabetically based mystery titles starring Kinsey Millhone. Apparently not. In Kinsey, Ms. Grafton has created a very successful character. Having read eight or ten of the series, I still find that Kinsey’s breezy manner makes for good company and her wry wisecracks actually make me laugh now and then.

In this one, she’s investigating the decades-old murder of a young woman whose body was found in a quarry. The victim was never identified. Unusually for a mystery, Ms. Grafton includes a lengthy note at the end of the book, explaining that the novel is based on a true case, describing how it came to her attention, and detailing some of the differences between the fictional and the real story. Most surprisingly, the book ends with photos of a sculptural re-creation of the actual victim’s face. The note ends with a plea to anyone who might recognize her to contact the investigators.

One of the side effects of growing older and wiser is that you become more aware of the filler authors use to pad their mysteries. The most obvious one is the "Watson" character. If the detective simply plodded ahead on his or her own,  most mysteries would be a lot slimmer. But having a confidant doesn’t just serve as filler. The back-and-forth discussion between the two enhances the obsessive aspect of the experience for a reader: maybe this? or maybe that? or how about such-and-such? In this book, Kinsey has two collaborators, both of them older guys in ill health, so that makes for quite a bit of extra business. But I’m not complaining because it’s all handled well. Another filler device that Ms. Grafton falls back on is the list. First there’s the "I-did-this-and-then-I-did-that" list. Then there’s the descriptive list. Every time we approach a new setting or a new character we get a list of attributes. If you cut out those lists, the book would be about one-fifth shorter. Again, the overall feel of the book is enjoyable enough, so I’m not complaining. When it comes to description, though, I prefer the kind of writing in which the author gives a few select details to create just the right effect. The one aspect of filler that bugs me in this book is the on-going saga of Kinsey’s discovery of her peculiar family history. In fact, the re-appearance of this theme, carried over from a previous novel, gave me a feeling of deja vu, making me think for a while that I’d read this book before. Maybe it’s a motif that grabs devoted readers of the whole series who want to know more about Kinsey but I found that it intruded on the main story.

The Constant Gardener (Movie) Directed by Fernando Meirelles

The movie opens with a guy saying goodbye to his wife at the airport. "See you in a couple of days," he chirps. How do we know that, within five minutes’ screen time, we’re going to see one of them on a morgue slab? It could be the studied casualness of the farewell. It could be that the scene fades to white. Or it could be that this movie is based on a John Le Carr novel.

Ralph Fiennes plays an attach with the British High Commission in Nairobi. His wife (Rachel Weisz) gets wind of something rotten in the program for administering AIDS drugs. Hence the morgue slab. Much skulduggery. Corruption in high places. As usual with this genre, very hard to track who did what and when and why. Car chases. Lots of rhythmic percussion on the sound track to signal danger. Extensive use of hand-held camera to make things even more dizzying. (I didn’t need the aggravation.) We get lines from Mr. Fiennes like "I have to finish what she began" and "I have no home." Occasionally I was bothered by the niggling thought: why don’t the bad guys just kill him like his wife? But, then, I don’t really understand these things. Besides, we wouldn’t have much of a movie if that happened, would we?

For me, all this would have worked better if I’d cared about the protagonists. Ms Weisz’s character is becoming one of the most tiresome of current movie clichs: the feisty female who barges into some man’s life and becomes a pain in the ass. He's supposed to put up with her crap because she's so hot. This pair are about as hot as leftover pizza. The flashbacks show their romance as silly and shallow. He smiles too much and her laugh sounds forced. I stopped caring about them as people after about fifteen minutes. Which shows, I guess, that you can’t make fully rounded characters out of Mr. Le Carrs square ones. (Hope you bilingual readers get the pun!)

One aspect of the movie did help me to feel the afternoon wasn’t entirely wasted – the look at life in Africa. (When I start praising the National Geographic quality of a movie, you know something’s wrong.) For instance, the sight of a train inching its way through the colourful throng crowding the tracks. And that singing – all those close harmonies – really sends me. Have we, with our great wealth and luxury, created any folk music bursting with such uncontainable joy? One charming episode showed crowds of school children hollering "How are you?" at the tops of their voices to a British woman passing by. Apparently this was what they had been taught to do. She had to keep responding, "Fine, thank you, how are you?" And near the end of the movie came a truly harrowing scene of a raid on a village in South Sudan (not that it had anything to do with the plot). As mounted warriors swept down from the hills, men, women and children ran desperately for fear of being carted off or killed. Made me wonder how I would fare in such a situation. Raised disturbing thoughts along the lines of: how is it that life can be so disproportionately easy for some and so cruelly hard for others in this world?

By the end of the movie, though, boredom had returned me to my parochial world and my petty gripes. Like getting ripped off by that title. We get a few seconds of Mr. Fiennes puttering with potted plants and there’s a reference to nasturtiums. No hints about pruning your roses, not even a reference to composting from this so-called "constant gardener". I call that false advertising.

Rating: E (as in "Eh?", i.e. iffy)

Broken Flowers (Movie) Written and Directed by Jim Jarmusch

After the bloated Constant Gardener, I was in the mood for some light, droll Americana – something hip and cool in the spirit of Bill Murray’s recent work. But Broken Flowers starts out looking contrived and sentimental. Mr. Murray plays Don Johnston, an over-the-hill Don Juan, who receives an anonymous note, supposedly from an old girlfriend, stating that she gave birth to his son 19 years ago. The real shocker is that the young man may come calling on his dad. A friendly neighbour Winston, (Jeffrey Wright), with a hokey penchant for mysteries, pounces on the letter as a riddle to be solved. He plans a trip for Don to check out his old girlfriends to see which one might be the letter writer.

Setting aside the fact that I don’t much like road movies, there’s the question of why Don would agree to such a journey. He’s obviously not enthused about the prospect of meeting his progeny. Ok, maybe he’s bored with his life and has nothing better to do. His latest girlfriend has walked out on him and he’s retired, having made a bundle in computers. So off he goes. Then it looks like we’re in for a series of encounters with old flames. Great work for some mature actresses but not a very dramatic structure. After a while, it could become just a game of trying to see how each woman will outshine the others’ performances. We start anticipating the different types the women will turn out to be. (And it would help versimilitude if at least one of them had put on a pound or two since her fling with Don.)

Lots of reasons why this movie shouldn’t work. So why does it? Bill Murray, that’s why. More specifically – his face. He has mastered deadpan to the point that it has become the most wickedly expressive device imaginable. When his doofus of a neighbour congratulates him on the news that he is a father, the look on Mr. Murray’s face says more than most actors could squeeze out of a 25-line soliloquy. When he’s listening to young women gossip on a bus, the tiny smirk that begins to light up his features becomes more exciting than fireworks over Niagara Falls. Sometimes, whole minutes go by while we stare at his face; nothing else happens and we don’t even notice the passage of time.

I think Mr. Murray has created a new type of man for the 21st century: the man who says little because he realizes the pointlessness of most of what is said, a man who knows – you can tell from the look on his face – that he could never get away with saying what he’s thinking. In the most touching scene in the movie – it broke me up – he says only three words, "Hi, there, beautiful," (or something like that). It’s so moving because you know there’s nothing more that can be said. Even with so few words from the main character, the movie says a hell of a lot about loneliness and about connection. You get the feel of what it would be like for a man like Don to wonder if he has a child out there

The pace is slow, not much happens. I foresee, months down the line, lots of disgruntled customers returning this DVD to the store without having watched it to the end. For me, the ending came suddenly and unexpectedly. That’s one of the surest signs of a damn good movie

Rating: B (i.e. better than most)

 

The 40 Year Old Virgin (Movie) directed by Judd Apatow, written by Judd Apatow and Steve Carell (see "Afterthought" below)

What made me think there could be something good about this movie? Put it down to my eternal optimism, my naivete and the fact that I’m so totally out of it. I tend to forget that comedy these days consists of saying as many dirty words as possible, while being as gross as you can about intimate things. We start with our 40 year old nerd (Steve Carell) waking up in the morning with an erection ("morning wood" as they say) which presents difficulties when he tries to pee. That’s about as classy as the comedy gets. Other bits include a little, brown Mahatma-Gandhi-type man with a foul mouth. (Get the joke???) Then there’s the birth control clinic where parents and kids sit in a group asking cringe-making questions. A much talked about waxing scene, where our hirsute hero gets his chest done, wears out its welcome in the first minute of its ten minute (approx) length. During this gawdawful scene, as for much of the movie, you don’t know where to look.

And yet little gems crop up surprisingly – like finding diamonds at the bottom of a cesspool. Catherine Keener , who plays the inevitable right woman for our man, charmed and delighted me every minute she was on screen. Kat Dennings, playing her resentful daughter captures that teen-age surly something perfectly. (Lots of young actresses are mastering that shtick, though. Guess they don’t have far to look for models -- other movies and tv shows.) And there was one scene that struck me as clever social commentary: two straight guys, while blasting each other to smithereens in a video game, swap endless insults in a routine of "I know you’re gay because....". The movie ends with one of those rollicking song and dance numbers where all the actors come out and leap around, looking goofy. Makes you think you’ve been having a great time even if you haven’t.

Rating: E (as in "eh?" i.e iffy)

An Afterthought to 40 Year Old Virgin:

It occurred to me after posting my review that maybe I hadn’t been fair to this movie. At risk of admitting a mistake and jeopardizing my credibility as a critic, I hope this admission convinces you that I’m being honest with you. At any rate, perhaps the show of humility will win you over.

The fact remains that much of this movie grossed me out. In the original review, I didn’t mention the drunk woman vomiting over the face of the hero. Or the young woman masturbating with the shower nozzle. And then there was the egregiously eye-popping "wardrobe malfunction". But mostly what offended me was the thought that we live in a world where a man’s most intimate issues can be joked about in such a coarse way by friends, employers and neighbours. Can a movie about premature ejaculation be far behind?

Still, after posting the review, I was bothered by the vague thought that there was something good about the movie that I hadn’t mentioned. And now it’s clearer to me what that was. No matter how much people joked about the nerdy hero, he came off as a decent human being with his own values. It's to Mr. Carell's credit that he pulled off such a difficult balancing act. In the end, you had the feeling that the film makers wanted you to see him as a worthwhile person, even if he was a bit odd. Apparently his teasing friends and acquaintances were meant to see that too. And I suppose that takes a fair bit of the sting out of the nastiness of the rest of the movie.

Revised rating: D ( = Divided, i.e. some good, some bad)

You're welcome to respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com.

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