Dilettante's Diary

May 2/07

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Reviewed here: Avenue Montaigne or Fauteuils d'Orchestre (Movie); After The Wedding (Movie); Orfeo ed Euridice (Opera); The Illusionist and The Prestige (DVDs); Hot Fuzz (Movie); Mothers and Sons (Short Stories) CBC Radio Two: Weather Reports;

Note: The date above is the day on which the page was started. The more recent reviews are towards the top of the page.

 

 

Avenue Montaigne (or Fauteuils d’Orchestre) Movie; written by Christopher Thompson and Danile Thompson; directed by Danile Thompson; starring Ccile De France, Valrie Lemercier (II), Albert Dupontel, Claude Brasseur, Christopher Thompson, Dani (II), Sydney Pollack

What a delightful surprise that this movie turned out to be set largely in and around the Thtre des Champs-Elyses in Paris. Just this January, I’d been there for a concert by the Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja and Italian soprano Patrizia Ciofi. (See Dilettante’s Diary Jan 24/07). In fact, when my son and I had been planning our big night out, I distinctly remember poring over the Metro maps to figure out the best route to Avenue Montaigne. While watching the movie, I was spotting the place where I bought a program from an usher, where we sat in the auditorium, where we stood on the stairway during the intermission. The French title of the movie Fauteuils d’Orchestre (literally "armchairs in the orchestra" i.e. "orchestra seats") struck a note of special interest for me because, on the night of our visit, I remember remarking on the fact that the seats on the main floor of the theatre were actual armchairs like you’d see in a formal parlour, rather than the fold-down seats that we get in most North American theatres.

Heaven forbid that a cynical, discerning critic could be swayed by such personal associations with the setting of a movie but what can you do when you’re swept off your feet except enjoy the ride? Of course, a lot of the pleasure here had to do with the showbiz theme. In fact, there are two such stories here. The one in the Thtre des Champs-Elyses involves a classical pianist at the height of his career (Albert Dupontel) who has become disillusioned and wants to chuck it all. In a theatre across the street, a tv star with ambitions for something better (Valrie Lemercier II) is starring in a Feydeau farce. And then there’s an elderly rich guy (Claude Brasseur) who is selling off his fabulous collection of modern art in a nearby salon. The connecting link is an ingenuous young girl (Ccile De France) who gets a job in the neighbourhood bistro. She stumbles into the lives of these various characters when delivering sandwiches and drinks to them.

You might think you never wanted to see another winsome gamine type in a French movie. But Mlle De France does it with considerable style and personality, making the role entirely her own. All the rest of the acting is very good but one of the most enjoyable bits is the small part of an American film director planning a movie about Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. The director, pretty inept at French, speaks mostly English, coming across as distinctly and authentically American among all the Parisians. Turns out the part is played by none other than famous movie director Sydney Pollack. Nice to see that he is so good in front of the camera.

There’s so much to love in this movie. Like an old woman complaining that people live too long nowadays. Look at her friend in her 90s, she says: the friend has a son in his 70s "and she’s ruining his old age what with his worrying about her." And then there are those gorgeous Paris streets, the cafs with the croissants and coffee. Every time you turn around there’s another magnificent grand piano. I counted no less than three splendid Steinways filmed in loving, luxurious close-up. (Who cares if they were all one piano? I prefer the idea that they were three.) We even got to hear a fair chunk of Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto, "The Emperor". I wouldn’t have thought anybody nowadays would treat that old warhorse like the Mount Everest of the piano repertoire but, never mind, it’s a great show piece and it made for lots of fun.

Light as it is, the movie manages to say something about fathers and sons, husbands and wives, even grandmothers and granddaughters. It’s sweet, pretty, sentimental and charming. I can’t think everybody will enjoy it as much as I did. Come to that, not everybody’s as nuts about French pastry – or Steinways – as I am.

Rating: B+ (where B = "Better Than Most")

 

After the Wedding (Movie) written by Susanne Bier and Anders Thomas Jensen; directed by Susanne Bier; starring Mads Mikkelsen, Rolf Lassgrd, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Stine Fischer Christensen, Christian Tafdrup, Neeral Mulchandani

This hunky Dane (Mads Mikkelsen) works at an orphanage in India. He’s very committed, it seems to be his whole life, but he has to tear himself away to go to Denmark. The purpose of his trip is to plead with a billionaire who might give the failing orphanage a life-saving infusion of funds. While in Denmark, our hero gets involved with the billionaire’s family and the past comes back to haunt him. Eventually he has to make a very difficult decision.

All very dramatic and gripping. A bit too much so. We get unwanted pregnancy, infidelity, lots of lying, disease, dying, mourning and secrets all over the place. There are constant confrontations, shouting matches and tears. It’s almost a soap opera. We lurch from one crisis to another without a very clear sense of where the piece is going. For some reason, director Susanne Bier keeps interrupting the proceedings with lingering close-ups of people’s eyes while ominous music rumbles in the background – to no particular effect. All of which is to say that this one in no way measures up to Ms. Bier’s astounding "Brothers". (See Dilettante’s Diary June 15/05)

This may not be what’s intended, but I began to find the billionaire (Rolf Lassgrd) the most interesting character in all this sturm und drang. It’s one of those rare occasions when an actor gives you a glimpse into the subtleties of the inner life of a very ordinary-seeming middle aged man. At first he strikes you as a typically corrupt fat cat; he drinks too much and makes some ugly scenes. But you end up finding out that there’s a lot more to him than you expected. For me, he comes off as the most real person in the movie.

As for Mads Mikkelsen as the do-gooder, he didn’t get me very strongly on side in the Denmark scenes because I found it hard to understand him. He seems rather a stone-faced prig in the midst of the turmoil. Maybe this is because there isn’t much for him to do except react to things. So this could be the fault of the script more than of the actor. But there’s no question that his scenes in India light up the screen. There, he’s totally connected and engaged with what’s going on around him. And kudos to the child actor Neeral Mulchandani who plays one of the orphanage kids. This is one of those solemn, dark-skinned kids who conveys a preternatural gravity, as if he’s eight years old going on eighty. The scenes with him and Mads Mikkelsen inter-acting tore me apart.

Rating: D (for "Divided" i.e. some good, some bad)

 

Orfeo ed Euridice (Opera) by Christoph Willibald von Gluck; starring David Daniels, Maija Kovalevska, Heidi Grant Murphy; Metropolitan Opera orchestra and chorus; conductor James Levine ("Saturday Afternoon at the Opera" CBC Radio Two, May 5/07)

A curtailed weekend, due to an illness in the household, meant that I was able to listen to this final Met broadcast of the season in its entirety. What made the occasion even more notable was the fact that I was able to follow the score, as I had the piano-vocal version on hand (probably filched from some music teacher years ago). But there were so many cuts in this production that it was frantic work trying to find my place. In fact, compared to my score, you could say the Met was presenting the highlights of Orfeo. My Italian isn’t good enough to be able to find text really quickly. Maybe a person with perfect pitch would be able to spot the place in the score by recognizing the key in use at any given time. But that particular musical skill was not included in the batch that the good fairies dropped in my cradle. All of which is to say that, to avoid confusion, the Met should use my versions of the scores in future. Mind you, many of the cuts in this case were the dance numbers. The Met only did about one third of the chaconnes, gavottes and what-not’s called for. Which is probably just as well. Ballet on radio kind of sucks at the best of times.

The one-and-a-half-hour performance came off as pretty much an extended concert for the counter tenor and chorus, with a bit of input from a couple of women soloists (Maija Kovalevska as Euridice and Heidi Grant Murphy as Amor). David Daniels, in his best form, was certainly up to the challenge. As I understand it, this is the first time the role of Orfeo has been sung at the Met by a counter tenor rather than a mezzo soprano. I’m not entirely in favour of this fad for giving counter tenors the trouser roles that have usually been sung by women in modern times. Quite often, I wish they’d give the roles back to the women who, let’s face it, have lovelier voices. But David Daniels’ beautiful singing made a good argument for having a man in the role. And his"Che fero" – one of the most beautiful songs ever written – effectively obliterated, at least temporarily, thoughts of performances by any other singer, male or female.

 

The illness referred to above also gave me a chance to catch up on the two big "magician movies" that came out in the past year:

The Illusionist (DVD) written by Neil Burger (screenplay) and Steven Millhauser (short story); directed by Neil Burger; starring Ed Norton, Paul Giamatti, Rufus Sewell, Jessica Biel

In 19th century Vienna, a famous magican runs afoul of the Crown Prince. And let me tell you, it takes more than your ordinary Houdini-style escapism to get yourself out of that kind of predicament. The movie is enjoyable in a kind of old-fashioned, melodramatic way. I was wishing that more of the magic tricks had been explained but I guess you just have to accept that magicians have their secrets and movie producers aren’t going to reveal them.

For me, the greatest satisfaction in the movie was the acting. Ed Norton has a peculiar kind of leading man appeal. He’s not good-looking enough for a matinee idol, so he seems like a human being who might plausibly have a certain star quality in the real world. Rufus Sewell, with his enormous eyes, manages to give the Crown Prince the hint of madness so suitable for that sort of role. Mostly, I was amazed with Paul Giamatti. I haven’t seen him a lot of movies, maybe just American Splendor and Sideways, but I'd thought he was pretty much typed for playing dweebs and losers. I know such categorizing isn’t fair to an actor, but first impressions – especially when they’re so strong – are lasting.

How would ever have guessed that Mr. Giamatti would be so good as a chief inspector? As the Crown Prince’s right hand man, he’s the heavy but not in the way hundreds of other actors would be. Part of his secret is that he’s blessed with one of those bland faces into which the camera miraculously reads all kind of interesting things. But I think he must also have some lively inner stuff happening that he brings to the role. You’re watching him and you’re thinking: this guy is the villain, more or less, but there’s something else. He’s a complex, fascinating person. What an actor!

Rating: C (i.e. "Certainly worth watching")

 

The Prestige (DVD) written by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan; directed by Christopher Nolan; starring Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Scarlett Johansson

This one, set in late19th century London, features a lethal vendetta between two magicians. Each keeps trying to find the ultimate trick that will finish off the other. It’s very stylish, very clever, and very complicated. You need two or three people watching it with you to help you figure out everything. That’s all fine with me. What wasn’t fine with me was finding out, after having it duly explained to me, that we were supposed to accept a certain preposterous proposition common to science fiction. Here I was thinking I was watching a reasonably sensible drama and I learn that it all turns on a bit of far-fetched nonsense. So maybe my critique of this movie isn’t pertinent since I’m so unfamiliar with the genre? That could be, but I do know a thing or two about character development and dialogue. Here we have a cockney male in Victorian London saying, "To open myself to such a relationship....." [an exact quote, I wrote it down]. Yikes. My openness to such a movie ends there.

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

 

Hot Fuzz (Movie) written by Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright; directed by Edgar Wright; starring Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Jim Broadbent, Timothy Dalton, Bill Nighy

This sounded like it might be completely ridiculous. It is. A London cop (Simon Pegg) performs such heroics that he makes all the other cops look bad. So the higher-ups promote him to Sergeant and ship him off to an idyllic rural village where he makes a nuisance of himself pursuing minor mischief. But then.....well, as you know, we don’t reveal any more plot than we have to here.

On one level this is a parody of action movies starring the likes of Tom Cruise, Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarznegger, Daniel Craig and their ilk. On another level, it’s a send-up of those gentle comedies about life in the pastures of merrie England. There's a suggestion of Miss Marple. One scene involving cloaked figures in a church yard seems to be taking us to Gilbert and Sullivan land. And, while the overall feel of the thing is much more slam-bang than Monty Python, there’s a Pythonesque feel to some of the acting. Two detectives who look like total thugs turn out to have a snarkey, supercilious manner. There’s even a rather sweet subplot about the relationship between hero cop and the flabby local cop (Nick Frost) who idolizes him. Some of the lines are genuinely funny and it must have been a picnic for all those marvellous British character actors. I suspect many of the grey heads in the audience were Brits too because they were responding gleefully to every nuance of accent and twist of phrase.

What made the movie a little less than a total romp for me was the hard driving sound track and the frenetic editing: lightning-quick cuts accompanied with zapping sound effects like a rock video. The pounding vibrated so fiercely through the whole theatre that I felt, at times, like I was on a ride at the CNE. I was wondering if the producers felt it was necessary to pump their comedy this way for the sake of viewers who are conditioned to the ever-crazier pace of television. If you want to cite artistic integrity, however, I suppose you could claim that it was all building inevitably to the climax – one of the most prolonged and outrageous orgies of violence and shooting imaginable. Not exactly my cup of tea. But those white haired Brits were laughing so hard I figured the ushers would have to mop the floor after the show.

Rating: C minus (where "C" = "Certainly worth seeing)

 

Mothers and Sons (Short Stories) by Colm Tibn, 2006

Short story collections don’t generally rate very high on my must-read list. My obsessive mind prefers one story to mull over during the time it takes to read a book. However, the Irish writer Colm Tibn’s reputation (finalist for many prestigious prizes and winner of several) makes you feel that you don’t dare miss his latest. And there’s no question that all of the stories in this collection are worth a look. In some way or other, each of them examines relationships between mothers and sons. Frequently, it’s a question of a mother’s having to face the fact that her son is becoming more manly and distancing himself from her. That makes for some poignant moments.

But, in several of the stories, the focus is diffuse and the writing something less than brilliant. (Mind you, the dialogue often sings in a uniquely Irish way.) In one story about a mom who was a minor pop star in her day, there’s too much filling in of the back story, too much of what Ernest Hemingway would call "telling" as opposed to "showing". A story about a young widow involves too much prosaic explanation about her business affairs. In a story about drugs and gay sex, the loopy drug experience isn’t captured by the stilted writing. As for the explicit sex, the clinical details, as often happens with this kind of thing, tend to sabotage the feeling. A particular difficulty with writing about gay sex comes to light. When you can’t use both the possessive pronouns "his" and "hers" with reference to the partners’ bodies, the all-purpose "his" makes it hard to tell whose body parts you’re referring to. The resulting mental picture can be pretty tricky to sort out.

After the Irish content of the short stories, the shift to the Pyrenees for the setting of a novella (about 75 pages) takes some getting used to. In fact, it takes a long time to figure out where you are (unless you have read the cover blurb, which I never do until after reading a book, as it usually reveals too much of the narrative). Having accepted Mr. Tibn’s credentials as an authority on life in Ireland, you can’t help wondering what he knows about life in rural Spain. Maybe that’s not the author’s fault; maybe it’s just a problem of packaging. Still, the material feels as though it’s sitting in rather thin topsoil, unlike the rich loam in which the Irish stories are rooted. The novella offers some interesting glimpses of peasant life, apparently taking place around 1960, but the writing is strung-out. You think you know what the story’s about but it keeps wandering off in another direction, eventually meandering to an inconclusive ending. With the great masters of short story writing – William Trevor, Alice Munro, James Joyce – that loss of direction never happens.

One story in this collection, however, is an absolute masterpiece. "A Priest in the Family" tells about an elderly woman’s courageous way of facing a difficult situation. From start to end, the story is perfect in every sentence. The tension never lets up. Every moment feels utterly real and authentic. The ending is one of those Irish scenes, as in Roddy Doyle’s Paula Spencer, where the most important things in life managed to get said in vague, incoherent statements and silences. It left me in tears.

 

CBC Radio Two: Weather Reports

Horray! The weather forecasts are back on Radio Two. Can we claim this as a victory for Dilettante’s Diary? (See "Changes at CBC Radio", March 23/07.)

It was driving me crazy trying to find out what was going to happen with the day’s weather. One way was to switch over to Radio One for the news, followed by Andy Barrie’s comments on the weather. But that long news report began to feel superfluous, now that Radio Two was conditioning us to the shorter ones. Worse still, I felt bad abandoning Tom Allen for those ten minutes. Was it to be assumed that what he was playing on "Music and Company" during that time wasn’t worth hearing?

I tried looking out the window and judging by what the people in the street were wearing. But would I go with the teenager who was sauntering off to school in her earphones and her underwear? Or would I go with the old guy shuffling along, bundled up in a scarf and a hat with ear flaps?

I tried falling back on native cunning in the way of prehistoric man. But it was getting kind of awkward sticking some naked part of my anatomy out of the cave every morning to try to get a take on the day’s weather.

Now I can rejoice in the luxury of the technological advances of our age which bring me reliable and accurate predictions of the day’s weather (and even, quite often, the next day’s). And I’m fine with those shortened news blurbs on Radio Two. Let’s face it, there usually isn’t much that you have to know in that department. The weather report is the only vital aspect of the news. There’s a saying that much depends on dinner, but quite a bit depends on the weather: what you wear, where you go, whether you have to take an umbrella, whether you can hang out the laundry. So I’m delighted that the authorities at CBC Radio Two have acknowledged what’s really important in our lives.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com