Dilettante's Diary

Sept 22/06

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MOVIES
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Reviewed here:  The Journals of Knud Rasmussen (Movie); The Science of Sleep (Movie); "See" (Painting Exhibition); The Englishman's Boy (Novel); Diana Krall (on "After Hours"); Bon Cop, Bad Cop (Movie)

The Journals of Knud Rasmussen (Movie) directed by Norman Cohn and Zacharias Kunuk

This is one of those movies where you’ll really wanna watch – preferably one with a dial that shines in the dark. The only way I got through it was by frequent checking the time to see how much was left to endure. I’d been hoping that these film makers would pull off  another miracle with Inuit material the way they did in Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner). That movie also moved at a glacial pace (all three hours of it, as I recall). You just had to sit back and accept that this was the Innuit way of telling a story. But at least there was a story.

In this movie, its hard to tell whether there is or not. Most of the time, you can’t figure out what the hell’s going on except that it’s something about a 1912 encounter between white explorers and aboriginals in the Arctic. You get lots of loving shots of people sitting around the fire eating, chatting, dancing, sewing. There’s some instructive stuff on building igloos. And lots and lots of very monotonous singing. Little smidgens of themes emerge – loyalty to elders, conflicts between old religions and new – but themes don’t do it for me.

This could be the movie for you if you are the kind of person who can sit patiently with a sort of National Geographic attitude of: it’s good for us to learn all about some of Canada’s first peoples. If you can enjoy 15 minutes close-up on a guy telling how he became a Shaman, you’re a better man than I. Me, I want a movie with an eye for entertainment values. You know: Inuit boy meets Inuit girl, they rub noses....that sort of thing.

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

 

The Science of Sleep (Movie) written and directed by Michel Gondry, starring Gael Garcia Bernal

The previews made me wary of this one because it appeared to have heavy doses of fantasy. Five minutes of fantasy in a movie makes me crave for an hour of gritty, kitchen-sink realism to get me grounded again. On the other hand, I was in the mood for something light and amusing. It looked like this movie might deliver on both scores.

Gael Garcia Bernal plays a nerdy young guy in Paris who’s stuck in a boring job with weird co-workers. To escape, he indulges in freaky scientific theories and invents things like time machines. There’s a child-like, imaginary quality to his inner world. At the same time, he’s one of those sexual innocents who can blurt out quite gross things. And he has a very vivid dream life. In fact, he seems not quite able to distinguish between his dreams and reality. (Neither can the viewer of the movie.) Normally, dreams in movies don’t interest me. All that made up stuff – who needs it? (In novels, I’ll sit through about one paragraph of a dream.) But the dreams worked for me here, probably because they show the dreamer’s confusion about issues in the real world: his feelings about his co-workers, his mother and his deceased father and, most of all, about the girl across the hall (Charlotte Gainsbourg).

None of this would work if you didn’t have an actor like Signor Bernal in the role. I know he’s in danger of becoming a hot new movie commodity but he still strikes me as spontaneous, charming and quite funny at times. Even so, the material stretches a bit thin. There’s so much fantasy that the real stuff – mainly the relationship with the girl – doesn’t have quite the impact that it should have. I suspect that there isn't a huge general audience for this movie. Why do I think that? Maybe because the matinee I attended turned out to be a private showing.

But I can’t help liking a movie with lines like this one that a boss tosses at two bickering co-workers: "If you can’t stop fighting, don’t be friends." And scenes like the one where two cops intervene when an old upright piano being delivered to an apartment crashes down the stairs into the street. The concerned cops look on as the piano is finally installed in the apartment. Then the beefy cop steps up to the keyboard. He finds that the key of C Major doesn’t sound too good. But C Minor works just fine.

Rating: C  (Where "C" = "Certainly worth seeing")

 

"See" (Painting Exhibition at Edward Day Gallery, Toronto, October 1-2)

Dilettante’s Diary doesn’t often venture into the really happening art scene of Queen Street West in Toronto. So it was kind of exciting to head out to the opening of this show of 11 artists, one of them being my friend Carolyn Grand from the Toronto Watercolour Society. In this show, though, Carolyn’s showing the other side of her artistic talent. All the artists in the show are students of oil painting at the Avenue Road Arts School.

Finding the gallery wasn’t all that easy for somebody as unfamiliar with Queen West as I am. I walked past without realizing that it’s tucked into the side of a courtyard opening onto a blank, industrial-looking streetscape. The steady flow of hip and stylish Torontonians in and out of the courtyard gradually clued me in. Inside, the gallery was a mob scene and it took a while to locate Carolyn’s paintings. They’re lovely oils, smallish (about one square foot, roughly), mainly beach and cottage scenes. One particularly dazzling one shows several bathers on a beach, a little boy standing among them as the focal point. The control of the complicated composition, of the colour and of the figure work is impressive. A picture of people playing on a field creates an interesting backlit effect from a burst of sunlight behind a building in the background. There were lots of other striking works in the room – some moody landscapes and some exotic florals that particularly caught my eye – but the crowd and the hubbub made it impossible to get a good look at everything or to take note of all the artists’ names.

 

The Englishman’s Boy (Novel) by Guy Vanderhaeghe, 1996

It took me quite a while to get to this classic by one of our most distinguished authors. Let’s hope the Canadian literary scene hasn't been holding its collective breath for the past ten years waiting to hear my verdict. I’d scanned a few pages of the book when it first came out and wasn’t inclined to pursue it any further but this summer it was lying on the coffee table at a relative’s home where I had  time to kill. I found the first chapter – about Indians around a campfire – off-putting. This is one of those cases where appropriation of voice really bugs me. I’m thinking: what does this author know about what those Indians were thinking and feeling? Political correctness aside, the material struck me as phony.

However, there was still time to kill, so I waded further into the book. Once it started to become clear what was going on, there was a lot to enjoy. Back home, I ordered it from the library. The book is set in the 1920s and a young Canadian working in Hollywood has been commissioned by an eccentric movie mogul to track down a cowboy named Shorty McAdoo and to get his story for the great American movie. Presumably, McAdoo will tell what the wild west was really like, as opposed to the mythical bunk movies were dishing out in those days. So we get chapters of McAdoo’s story narrated in the third person, alternating with the young Canadian’s first-person account of his attempt to get the story. McAdoo comes off the page as a marvelously cranky geezer. His story has an authentic ring to it; all the details about cowboy life sound very convincing (except for the occasional anachronism in the cowboy slang). I especially liked a section about McAdoo’s working in a brothel as a handyman when he was a teenager.

But my interest flagged about two-thirds of the way through the book. One could cite various flaws in the writing – such as passages where a character talks for pages with insignificant interjections from another character, or the fact that sometimes it’s hard to follow the logical sequence of the dialogue, or the fact that the much-delayed revelation McAdoo’s big secret seems anti-climactic – but I think the main problem is that the quest for the great American movie isn’t a real grabber. I guess we’re supposed to get caught up in the glamour and drama of the early days of Hollywood. Names like Chaplin, Fairbanks, Bow and Pickford are tossed around. They didn’t do it for me. You wonder how Mr. Vanderhaeghe conceived the idea for such an odd novel. It seems that he could have written a really entertaining book about cowboys. Or about Hollywood in the 1920s. Somehow, in combination, the two themes diminish each other.

 

Diana Krall (On "After Hours", CBC Radio Two, Sept 18/06)

I don’t get jazz. People will tell me to listen to a jazz version of a famous song by, say, Ella Fitzgerald. They’ll say, "Isn’t it great what she does with that melody?" And I’ll go (to myself, probably): "No. I prefer the original melody straight up without all the distortion." The guy who runs the store where I go for photocopying always has jazz on CJRT radio playing in the background. One day, as a bonus to the business transaction, he was giving me a free lecture on the restorative powers of jazz. It keeps you calm, he said, it refreshes your mind, it relaxes you, it improves your outlook on life. He sounded like one of those holistic health promoters. He came almost to the point of saying that I was at serious risk, physically and spiritually, if I didn’t take some jazz every day. But it was like trying to sell the merits of Impressionism to a guy who’s colour blind. I have come to the conclusion that I lack the jazz gene.

However, when checking the radio alarm at bedtime, I sometimes listen to a bit of Andy Sheppard’s jazz program "After Hours" on CBC Radio Two. Not for the music. For Andy. He sounds like such a nice guy – ordinary but interesting, friendly without being pushy, knowledgeable without being pedantic, intimate without being embarrassing. You figure he's the kind of guy who would take a decent shot at rubbing out any school yard bully who bothered his little brother but he wouldn’t go around advertising his willingness to do so. I’m thinking of nominating Andy for the Bob Kerr title as the Most Natural Host on Radio Today.

The other night, though, there was another voice on the program – a woman’s. She was speaking in a slow, laid-back drawl. It wasn’t until she mentioned her husband Elvis that I realized it was Diana Krall. (Can’t think why I happen to know about her and Elvis Costello.) Andy was interviewing her and playing pieces from her new CD. It was interesting hearing her talk about  jetting back and forth with Elvis between Manhattan and Nanaimo. About her being nervous playing at Oscar Peterson’s 80th birthday, then her incredulity at finding herself hanging with him at his home after. About her hopes for the twins that she’s expecting. She sounds totally unpretentious (although you never know, with a star, whether or not that’s just another role).

What was particularly fascinating was the difference between her speaking and singing voices. In speech, she sounds flat and dull, barely able to summon up a coherent thought. (Mind you, a person may not be at her best in the setting of the hotel-room-publicity-tour interview.) All her expressiveness and articulation goes into her singing. I was really getting into the sound of it – pretty, warm, cozy without being affected in any way. Very musical and lilting. Sexy but not ridiculously so. Plus, she was delivering the melodies without screwing them up in any way.

Does this mean that there might be a jazz singer that I like, and a Canadian at that? I would be fine with that, I suppose. Except that I'm not sure that I could deal with such a radical shake-up of my self-image.

 

Bon Cop Bad Cop (Movie) directed by Eric Canuel, written by Leila Basen, Alex Epstein, Patrick Huard and Kevin Tierney, starring Colm Feore and Patrick Huard

It’s always interesting to find out what a Stratford superstar does during the off season. Here, Colm Feore plays an OPP detective teamed with Patrick Huard, a Quebec detective. One of them is retentive and proper, the other ballsy and free-wheeling. (Guess which is which.) They’re forced to collaborate because a murder victim is found draped over the sign that marks the border between the two provinces. That gives you some of the idea of the farcical tone. You have to endure some more painful setup but once the relationship between the two guys starts clicking, some good stuff happens between them. It wouldn’t be fair to say that M. Huard outshines Mr. Colm because the Quebec cop certainly has the better role. To give him credit, though, M. Huard brings beaucoup de Qubcois charisma to it. I particularly liked a scene where they’re stuffing a body into the trunk of a car and he gives the Ontario cop a lesson on French swearing. You get the feeling the movie’s hinting that maybe this is what it could be like: Quebec and the rest of Canada getting along in a chippy but friendly way.

But the charm quotient accounts for only about one-third of the movie. The rest consists of some sort of outlandish story about a series of killings that have something to do with hockey. The violence is so extreme that it has a comic book quality – backed up buy a deafening rock beat and flashy digital editing. Whether that sort of thing will draw anybody in, I don’t know but it certainly ruined the party for me. Either the movie is having an identity crisis (how Canadian, you might say) or the movie-makers don’t seem to know who they’re appealing to. They’ve cast Rick Mercer as a loud-mouth hockey commentator like you-know-who. The guy is egregiously obnoxious, not a funny line in sight. Who’s going to buy Rick Mercer in that role? No Canadian that I know.

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

 

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