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Favourite Works: 2004-2013
Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
Sabbath's Theater by PHILIP ROTH
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A Toast to 2012
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Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 2012
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MIMC
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La Traviata: Met's Live HD Version
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How Fiction Works
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Sex for Saints
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Housekeeping
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Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 2009
Toronto Fringe 2009
Zen Wrapped In Karma Dipped In Chocolate
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CBC Radio -- "The New Two"
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The Jesus Sayings
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Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 08
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Head to Head
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Ring Psycho (Wagner on CBC Radio)
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Me In Manhattan
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MOVIES
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Reviewed here: My House in Umbria, Seducing Dr. Lewis, Master and Commander, The Ladykillers, Before Sunrise, In This World, The Housekeeper, Dreamers, The Captive, Intimacy, Gaz Bar Blues and Under The Tuscan Sun (See ratings at the bottom of the page.)

My House In Umbria (Video)
 
It surprised me to discover this video, as I'd never heard of the release of the movie in theatres. You'd think I would have, given that it's based on one of my favourite works by William Trevor, whom many consider to be one of the greatest living writers in the English language.
    The video turns out to be a fairly faithful rendition of Mr. Trevor's story about survivors of a train bombing by terrorists. One of the victims, an elderly Englishwoman, invites the others to her Italian villa to recover. Much of the story centres on their concerns about a little girl in their midst who seems to have lost all her family. The fun is in watching the hostess's self-deluded attempts to control everyone. The big drawback of the movie, though, is that you really miss the hostess's voice as narrator. That was the major charm of the book.
     Maggie Smith plays the hostess and, as always, Ms. Smith is fascinating to watch. For me, though, Ms. Smith was a touch more acerbic, more cool and intimidating, than the person I'd imagined through my reading. If you had to go with one of the great dames, someone a little cozier, say Joan Plowright, would have been closed to my idea.
     The great revelation of the movie, for me, was Chris Cooper. I'd only ever seen him before in Adaptation where he played one wild and crazy but loveable guy. Here, he plays an uptight, odious businessman. The 180-degree turn convinced me that he must be one hell of an actor.
 
 
Seducing Dr. Lewis (DVD)
 
Actually, I saw this in the theatres quite a while ago but I'm listing it here because it's probably only available on dvd now and I want to let you know that it's well worth while.
   At first, though, I thought it was going to be unbearably corny. Lots of cutesy local lore on some small island in Quebec. The kind of movie where, whenever there's any big deal going down, we see a little boy running from house to house to spread the news. Meanwhile an orchestra pumps away at some jaunty tune such as you'd hear in a documentary on kangaroos. And how very many movies have we had lately where the whole community bands together to: win that championship, fool that government inspector, put on that show???
   And yet, and yet, and yet. This one gradually won me over. I wasn't sure at first what was doing it but, in the end, I decided it must be the quality of the ensemble acting. Those actors convinced me that they really were a genuine community. And that mayor  -- what an amazing performance by a rough-hewn actor (Raymond Bouchard, I think). With the suavity of a dockyard thug, he ran that town like his personal fiefdom; yet his heart was in the right place and you had to admire the results he got.
     There were a couple of flaws, though. Some business about pressuring the manager of the local bank branch seemed too heavy-handed. And one character looked as though she had been parachuted in direct from Hollywood. Even so, her story didn't turn out as expected. I found that refreshing.
 
 
Master and Commander (DVD)
 
When the movie first came out everybody was saying how it showed that life on the high seas was a bitch. So I was expecting a real rough ride here. Far from it. Not that there isn't lots of violence. About twenty minutes of slam-bang fighting and shooting, all told. (My wife explained to me what was going on.) But the rest of it's kind of bland. Oh, I grant you some of those sailors could use a decent manicure. But the angel-faced boy officer emerges without a scratch. Well, he does lose an arm, but from what I hear about life among sailors, he's lucky that's all he loses.
     The story doesn't amount to much. This British ship is playing cat and mouse with a French frigate during the Napoleonic wars. When the Brits are waiting for the French to emerge from the fog, there isn't much to do but what sailors do. Very interesting if you like lots of rope in your movies. Feels like a National Geographic documentary. And in keeping with the prose style of that august publication, Everybody Talks In Capital Letters. Nobody ever has an ordinary conversation. Everything is said in a portentous tone to try to make you think something awfully dramatic is going on.
    In a further attempt to stir things up, the script writers create some conflict between the captain and the ship's doctor who wants to go ashore at the Galapagos so that he can find some new species. The captain isn't having any of that, but you can't blame the doctor for trying. Who wouldn't want to do a Charles Darwin? It's the Galapagos, for godsake! Amazing, that doctor wanting to imitate Charles Darwin when Darwin was barely born.
     And how about that captain? It doesn't matter that the writers haven't given him a character. He's Russell Crowe, after all. So we get a quick flip through the catalogue of Russell Crowe-isms: here's my stern face, here's my compassionate look, here's my boiling-over shtick. And that cute grin keeps peeking out, just in case we're in danger of forgetting that Russell Crowe's actually a nice guy at heart. No matter that we can only make out about a tenth of what he mumbles, we're glad to be onboard because we know Rusell Crowe is going to kick ass, be it the French, the director, the cameraman, the makeup girl, the grip, the best boy, or whoever.
     What a treat that it should turn out that the captain and the doctor, who share a cabin, make terrific music together. We're talking Haydn, Bach and the like, duets for violin and cello. (What did you think we were talking about.) Wonderful to hear those gorgeous classical melodies drifting from their quarters at all hours. When does their next cruise leave? Can I book my ticket on the Internet?
 
 
The Ladykillers
 
What's happened to the Coen brothers? Their movies weren't always great but you could usually count on them to dish up some off-the-wall originality. This re-make of the British classic is bland and uninventive. The plot's simplistic. Some of the inter-action among the goons amuses mildly. One black man (Marlon Wayans, I think) seems to have some creative things to say in his foul-mouthed way but I could understand almost nothing of what he said.
    The biggest problem with the movie is the oleaginous mastermind of the crooks as played by Tom Hanks. When I first saw the previews, it took a minute to recognize Mr. Hanks. This would seem to indicate that there might be some pretty good acting going on. Maybe there is. Maybe the problem's with the script. The character's preciously pedantic diction (supposedly for humorous effect) made me cringe every time he opened his mouth. But other playwrights have used the same trick with not bad results. (Shakespeare, Moliere and Sheridan come to mind.) I kept wondering if it would be more palatable coming from another actor. Some people think a critic (even a self-appointed one) should be able to tell movie makers how to fix their product. Not me, not in this case. All I can say is that something's terribly wrong.
      The only thing that kept me watching was the performance of Irma P. Hall as the black landlady, the putative victim of the would-be killers. I always enjoy portrayals of indomitable old ladies. This one kills. And her cultural context -- the bible-thumping and praise-the-Lord-ing crowd -- turns out to be interesting in an unexpectedly endearing way. I found myself fascinated by the gradual revelation of her world, both inner and outer. She's worthy of a movie on her own, without  the stale attempt at crime comedy.
 
 
Before Sunrise
 
Ok, now that I've seen them both, the burning question: which is better -- "Sunrise" or "Sunset"? Well, to skip the suspense, my vote goes to "Sunset". Maybe that's because I saw it first and the chemistry between the two stars took me by surprise. Still, I think it's the better movie. It's tighter, taking place in real time. It's more of an artistic coup.You get the feeling that, having succeeded with "Sunrise", they knew they could pull off miracles, so they set the bar higher. But the main reason I like "Sunset" better is that, given all they've been through, the characters are richer and deeper. There's an aching sadness to it all: looking back at what might have been. I cared about them more and identified with them more closely. (Now why would it be that I'd identify with older characters?)
     Still, there's a freshness about "Sunrise" and the improvised telephone conversations with friends back home are brilliant. But there are more extraneous characters introduced, just for colour and variety; you have the feeling that they're playing for time. I don't remember any extraneous characters in "Sunset". In "Sunrise", pleasant as it is, I kept wondering: are young people today really that charming and funny? Maybe I don't watch enough sitcoms.
 
In This World (Directed by Michael Winterbottom)
 
Two Afghanis, one a young man and the other a boy about 15, set out from a refugee camp in Pakistan for an overland journey, hopefully to London. They pay huge sums of money to people smugglers who promise to spirit them from country to country but nothing works out as expected. It's hard to tell what's going on much of the time -- for us, as well as for the two escapees. The movie is shot documentary-style, mostly with hand-held camera, without much explanation. This gives the feel of the nightmarish uncertainty of the journey as experienced by the two Afghanis but it leaves lots to be desired in terms of narrative coherence. Eventually you get the story, but just.
   The non-professional actors do well, especially the boy. What a plucky kid! The things I learned from him!  Next time I'm escaping for my life, I'm going to keep my face blank, stare ahead of me as if I don't know what's going on, make a run for it when I see an opening, and save my sunny side for the nighttime when we're lying safely in bed and I can regale my companion with silly jokes. 
 
The Housekeeper
 
A fifty-ish Parisian male advertises for a cleaning lady. Who should answer the ad but a nubile young female. Is this just a middle-aged male fantasy? Yes and no. It's realistic and laid-back. Things proceed more or less as you think they would. No big surprises; nothing terribly dramatic. As such, it's a good look at real life. Many of the scenes have a slice-of-life feel: they're low-key and they stop short of any resolution. And, of course, there are the vicarious pleasures of daily life in Paris: the bakeries, the bread, the restaurants, the scenery, the cakes, the night clubs, the pastries --- did I mention the bakeries?
     What prevents the movie from being completely believable is that the character of the young woman is hard to understand. While Emilie Dequenne is very pleasant to watch, her motivation is unfathomable -- to me, at any rate.
      One other problem. I keep forgetting that there is going to be so much smoking in French movies. It interferes with my enjoyment of the story because I keep fuming at the stupidity of a culture that tolerates -- even encourages -- so much smoking. But, I need to feel superior to the French culture in some way, don't I?
 
Dreamers (Directed by Bernardo Bartolucci)
 
My problem with this movie when it was released theatrically was that, while the young people are very beautiful, they're very boring when they put their clothes on. But, listening to all the high-minded talk from the filmmakers in this DVD made me want to like the movie better. Signor Bartolucci fairly aches with the yearning to recreate the special zing of those crazy 1960s as he remembers them. Trouble is, he seems to have taken the project so personally that he couldn't stand back far enough to see that it wasn't working. It's fun, though, in the accompanying BBC documentary, to see him rehearsing scenes and making suggestions to the actors.
 
The Captive
 
Based on the fifth volume of Marcel Proust's A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, this movie deals with the time when Albertine is living with the narrator in Paris. I've always had some difficulty with the narrator's obsessing about Albertine's sideline in lesbianism. Was this a 19th century thing? Men today don't seem all that freaked out by the thought of sex between women, provided that those women are willing to make themselves available to men too. Was Proust protesting too much just to establish his heterosexual credentials as a revered author?
     It has always struck me (well, not since the first dawning of consciousness) as something of a wonder that a writer well known to be homosexual could have written one of the greatest -- some say the greatest -- stories of heterosexual love ever written. We know now that Albertine is really a stand-in for Proust's chauffeur, Signor Agostinelli, who was the great love of his life. The transition works splendidly in the novel.
    Presumably the updating of the setting of this movie to contemporary times  makes matters a lot easier in terms of sets and costumes. But the fuss about lesbianism becomes even less pertinent. The more serious drawback of the movie, though, is that, without the narrator's inner voice to guide us through the story, his character becomes a tiresome sad-sack, moping around all the time, fussing about his health, never cracking a smile. Which, I guess, is what Proust would have seemed like if you didn't know what was going on in his head. But it doesn't make for an interesting protagonist in a movie.
     As for Albertine, the young woman in the movie stomps around in her high heels (this is Paris, after all) with a fuck-you attitude. What is it with movie directors who love women actors who keep one frozen expression on their faces through a whole movie? This young person has none of the real Albertine's flirtatiousness, her warmth, her maddening capriciousness, even the titillating aspect of her lying and cheating.
 
Intimacy
 
Who would ever have though that the Brits would excel at sex on screen? It's surprising that classically trained actors (Mark Rylance, one of the stars, is a well known Shakespearean actor) would expose themselves so completely and vulnerably on screen. This is the most explicit sex that you're ever going to get in a movie outside of porn. (Not that you or I would know anything about that genre.) In fact, it's more erotic than porn because, these being good actors, they make you care about their characters.
     Not to say that the two main characters -- a man and woman who barely know each other and who meet for sex -- are likeable. They hardly ever speak to each other and when they do, it's not easy to make sense of what they say about their feelings and motives. In the end, I began to get some understanding of what was going on. Perhaps the fact that they kept me wondering and questioning is the most important thing.
      But the guy who steals the show is the fat shaggy actor [I'll find his name] who plays a jilted husband. Mercifully, he keeps his clothes on for the duration. He's superb as the jolly clown suffers on the inside. The naturalness of his acting is so attention-grabbing that, in their scenes together, he tends to make Mr. Rylance look just a touch theatrical. [Later: the name of the remarkable actor playing the husband is Timothy Spall.]
 
Gaz Bar Blues
 
The hype about this one led me to expect some gritty, cinema verite thing. It turns out to be as brightly lit and colourful as the typical Disney movie. That look doesn't feel quite right for a story, set in Quebec in the 1980s, about an old guy running a gas station with the help of his sons. There's not a spot of grease on the premises. And yet this is a place where guys supposedly pee in the sink on a regular basis.
     It's a very good movie, though, mainly because of the acting. This is the second Quebec movie I've seen lately in which the acting is the main attraction. (The previous one was Seducing Dr. Lewis.) Everybody's perfect; not a false note in any of the performances. Special kudos to Danny Gilmore (I think he's the one) who plays the 14-year-old son. Where do they get a young teenager  who is so perfectly natural and believable, who seems never to have noticed that he's on camera?
     The pace is slow and the story is more episodic than tightly-plotted. One subplot about the oldest son's trip to Europe doesn't fit the mood of the rest of the movie; it takes us too far outside the frame of the tightly-knit community around the gas station. Our full attention is required to get to know all the members of that group. It reminds me of a soap opera, not in the pejorative sense, but in the way that it meanders along and you feel that you'll be tuning in next week to find out what's happening to the characters you're coming to appreciate more and more.
 
Under The Tuscan Sun
 
Suitable for a mildly pleasant evening's watching with one's partner. It feels like a travelogue with lots of colourful characters thrown in for dramatic effect. In the way of colourful characters in exotic locales in movies, these folk tend to spout words of wisdom that our heroine needs to hear at any given moment. What saves it from being far too cute and sentimental is Diane Lane's performance as an American who buys a villa in Italy while escaping a painful divorce. Her brash, off-hand manner fends off the threatened sucrose attack.

Ratings:  (Please remember that these ratings are about my personal response. I'm not attempting to predict how anybody else will react.)
 
My House In Umbria: C
Seducing Dr. Lewis: B
Master and Commander: D
Ladykillers: E
Before Sunrise: B
In This World: D
The Housekeeper: C
Dreamers: E
The Captive: E
Intimacy: C
Gaz Bar Blues: C
Under The Tuscan Sun: D
 
(For an explanation of the ratings system, see movie page.)