Dilettante's Diary

June 8/07

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

Reviewed here: Mr. Brooks (Movie); The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (DVD); Once (Movie); Kitty Slam! (YouTube); On Chesil Beach (Novel); A Good Year (DVD); Knocked Up (Movie); A Short History of Progress (Essay on Civilization)

Mr. Brooks (Movie) written by Bruce A. Evans and Raynold Gideon; directed by Bruce A. Evans; starring Kevin Costner, William Hurt, Demi Moore, Marg Helenberger, Danielle Panabaker

If you read anything about movies, you probably already know more about this one than we are inclined to divulge here. Let’s just say that Mr. Brooks (Kevin Costner) is a rich businessman, the local man of the year and a good father who always knows how to say the right thing, but he has a very, very bad addiction that he is trying hard to kick. There are some surprising and very effective plot twists early on. There are also rather too many coincidences and implausibilities, but we’re not going to complain about a murder mystery being contrived, are we? Besides, it’s not really a murder mystery, more of a noirish psychological study. Not that there’s much depth to the psychology, but it held off the summer solstice blahs for a couple of hours.

Which is not to say that there aren’t some problems. Such as William Hurt's role as the businessman’s alter-ego, the voice of temptation who is always inciting him to misbehave, a sort of personal devil hovering over his shoulder all the time and whispering in his ear. It’s rather hard to establish that the character you’re playing is real when it isn’t. Even if you’re an idiosyncratic actor like William Hurt. And if you try chewing gum constantly to make yourself seem an ordinary kind of guy, you only succeed in making your performance more annoying – from my point of view. It also doesn’t help that you almost never have eye contact with anybody. That over-the-shoulder whispering doesn’t make for much engagement between characters. At one point Mr. Brooks and his sidekick really do connect – it’s when some serious family trouble starts coming down on Mr. B – and, from then on, the tug-of-war between Mr. Brooks' two selves makes the sidekick a more integral part of the drama.

The other problem is Demi Moore as the cop on Mr. Brooks’ trail. I don’t want to do an anti-Demi Moore thing here. I gather that there are a lot of people out there who find her acting risible and I wouldn’t want to jump on that bandwagon. I think every actress in her mid forties should have a chance to show that she can still be sexy and tough. The trouble is that it seems to me that Ms. Moore is trying too hard. She works her hands too much. Her face is never at rest in front of the camera. She’s always "acting" something. Mind you, she does handle a gun well. (I would too if I’d played as many killer ladies as she has.) There was one moment when she made a flip comeback to another cop and I thought: geez, that’s what Demi Moore could be like on screen if only the script let her.

So maybe her problems in this movie aren’t totally her own fault. The writers have stuck her with lines that even Nancy Drew might choke on: "I think I missed a clue there" and "See you later, alligator." In a patently phony attempt to complicate things, they’ve given her a messy divorce, along with an escaped killer who’s out to get revenge on her for nailing him. Add to all that the fact that everybody she’s surrounded by – her colleagues, her boss, her lawyer – come across as totally fake, you end up with a movie that’s carrying you along like a hot air balloon until you reach a scene involving Ms. Moore and suddenly you hit the ground with a great big sound of expelled air.

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

 

The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (DVD) written by Christi Puiu and Razvan Radulescu; directed by Christi Puiu; starring Ion Fiscuteanu, Luminita Gheorghiu

Friends who know my loathing for the fantastical and fanciful suggested – in a somewhat grudging spirit, I think – that maybe this Romanian comedy would appeal to an "ultra-realist" like me. And it did – once I got over my shock at the extent of the realism: the hand-held camera, the grungy settings, the naturalistic lighting. (I suspect the whole thing was recorded on video rather than film.) In fact, it reminds me of the movies of the Dogma school, wherein all effects other than natural lighting and sound are considered to vitiate the purity of the work. The acting here is, for the most part, so authentic and utterly convincing, that I had to keep pinching myself to remember that I wasn’t watching a documentary.

Truth to tell, I do tend to look for a little more structure, a somewhat more scripted effect, in my entertainment. This piece is so honest and straightforward that it seems simply to have evolved. The resulting product falls into two parts that don’t quite constitute a unified whole.

The first part involves the ailing Mr. Lazarescu (Ion Fiscuteanu) and his neighbours in his apartment building. With the interaction of these vivid characters, you begin to think a sort of drama is building, although I’m not at all sure how the billing as a comedy applies. Maybe the Romanians like their humour very dry. Not to say that there aren’t ironic moments. Mr. Lazarescu’s neighbours – some of the most ordinary people ever seen on screen – fuss over him and show their concern in an affectionate way, meanwhile criticizing him behind his back and squabbling about their own minor problems. When one neighbour returns a borrowed drill to another, the owner needs to open the kit on the spot to make sure all the parts are there. A paramedic who makes an ambulance call (Luminita Gheorghiu, I think) is a middle-aged woman with dyed red hair who takes a smoke break in the patient’s kitchen.

But then we leave the apartment for a series of strung out episodes as Mr. Lazarescu is shunted from hospital to hospital. I suppose you could say that the "comedy" continues in a kind of grim way – in that he receives a different diagnosis every five minutes. Since I haven’t watched any medical shows on tv, I can’t say whether or not the scenes here are anything like the ones on those programs. Nor do I know enough about things in Romania to say whether the appalling situations depicted are meant as an ironic comment on the Romanian health care system. ( I was reminded of Denys Arcand’s The Barbarian Invasions.) For all I know, this may be a straight reporting of the way it is. Clearly, Bucharest is not the place to have a medical emergency. Since no one else seems to take responsibility for you, it’s apparently up to your ambulance attendant to steer you through the system and thus to determine whether you live or die.

As for the doctors Mr. Lazarescu encounters, I’ve seen just enough of House while passing through the tv room to suspect that some of the actors in this movie were trying too hard to imitate the eponymous star of that show. Some of the prima donnas that Mr. Lazarescu encounters are unbelievably ornery. That was the only respect in which the believability of the movie let me down.

For the most part, it kept me riveted. I think its deceptively artless look conceals a sophisticated intelligence at work. It pulls you in and makes you care about the fate of its hero in ways that much glitzier films only dream of doing. And in its sneaky way, the movie manages to say something pretty basic: some of the people you encounter in your time of need will be bastards and some will be decent people but, in the end, you’re gonna die alone.

Rating: B minus (where B = "Better than most")

Further note: Having now watched the interview with the director, I have to say that it's delightful. Mr. Puiu speaks English very well but with just enough hesitation to convey a boyish, self-deprecating charm. He's as natural as any of his actors in front of the camera: frequently scratching his head, breaking into an impish grin when his thoughts take him in certain directions. The most interesting revelation of the interview, for me, was that all the spontaneous-looking naturalism of the film was very carefully planned! Three weeks' rehearsal, no less. I guess that tells us a thing or two about how good works of are are made, eh? Mr. Puiu's comments on the name of the main character particularly interested me. I had been wondering if there was any reference intended to the biblical Lazarus. That seemed a pretty far-fetched possibility, so I decided that the name probably didn't have any biblical resonance in Romanian. But Mr. Puiu says that he intended the reference. One of the things he was trying to show was how a nobody like Lazarus -- just some guy -- might have met his end. So much for my artistic perceptivity!

 

Once (Movie) written and directed by John Carney; starring Glen Hansard and Markta Irglov

The previews suggested that this might be my kind of movie: one of those low-budget, independent charmers. Well, there certainly is charm is this story about a scruffy Dublin street musician (Glen Hansard) and a Czech flower seller (Markta Irglov). Scenes of him improvising songs for her on the back of a bus; then her dragging her vaccuum cleaner through the streets like a pet raccoon on a leash.

But somthing special happens in an early scene in a music store. The guy is teaching the girl a song (turns out she’s a dab hand at the keyboard). She masters the chords pretty quickly and starts harmonizing on the vocals. We get the whole process from first tentative chords to triumphant finale – it’s a long scene in real time – and something very unusual happens. You can really feel the chemistry building up between them and you get totally wrapped up in a sort of spell.

This movie gives us the Dublin that I haven’t seen on screen since The Commitments. Only this movie has none of the latter’s in-your-face cleverness. Here, it’s all very slice-of-life and laid back. Some of the dialogue sounds improvised and the hand-held camera creates almost a documentary effect. When we visit the apartment where the girl lives, you can feel the grime on the walls. This is real poverty, unlike the designer kind in the Breaking and Entering [Dilettante's Diary March 8/07] when Jude Law visits Juliette Binoche’s cute little hideaway. In this apartment, guys who live across the hall barge in unannounced to watch tv whenever they like. The movie’s loaded with such idiosyncratic details. When the street musician and pals practise in his tiny bedroom, dear old dad totters in with tea in a tin teapot on a tray and mugs for everybody. A couple of times, the young pair stumble on pianos that they think are great. To me, they sounded pretty crappy but I suppose that’s in keeping with the characters' low expectations of life. Which helps to make them endearing.

So why wasn’t I totally thrilled with a movie that’s so original, so non-Hollywood? Partly because there’s so much music. A lot of the story is told through songs. I gather that Glen Hansard, the actor, wrote many of them; offscreen, he heads an Irish band called "The Frames". I have no authority to comment on music of this kind – sort of a folky, bluesy rock – but it sounded ok to me. Trouble is, I could hardly understand any of the lyrics. Which meant I was missing a lot. About fifty percent of the dialogue was impenetrable to me too, thanks to the thick Dublin accents. Especially in the case of the young woman. If you take a Czech accent and overlay it with a Dublin brogue – well, you end up reading a lot into smiles and glances.

But, ultimately, I think what disappointed me most about the movie was the fact that I didn’t really get the girl. In the end I had to ask if she was just stringing the guy along. Was it all just a tease? Granted, the open-ended, unresolved feeling is very true to life – and that’s supposed to be a major virtue in my artistic Credo. But maybe that sort of thing doesn’t always work as well in a movie as it might in a short story?

Rating: C minus (where C = "Certainly Worth Seeing")

 

Kitty Slam! (YouTube) by David Straus and friends

Until now, I was a YouTube virgin. But my friend David Straus directed me to this item that he has posted there. It’s funny, ironic and quite droll – if you don’t mind watching two little kittens beating on each other.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XTGfW1SY8jw

As for the rest of YouTube, the thing that amazes me is that the written comments on the videos are mostly incoherent, practically illiterate. Readers of Dilettante's Diary are so lucky!

 

On Chesil Beach (Novel) by Ian McEwan, 2007

You may remember that the New Yorker published the first chapter of On Chesil Beach as a piece of short fiction. It impressed me so much that I mentioned it in Dilettante’s Diary [Dec 27/06] even though we don’t often discuss short stories here. The big worry was that the rest of the book wouldn’t measure up to the beginning. No fear. The book is thrillingly good. One of the best I’ve ever read. I loved every line.

Most of the novel takes place on the wedding night of a young, innocent couple in the early 1960s. Mr. McEwan’s main focus is an exploration of the minds of the newlyweds as they approach the consummation of the marriage. Swinging from one to the other, he conveys each person's mindset with utterly convincing detail and authenticity, making a kind of suspenseful dance of their contrasting attitudes. While this see-saw between the inner worlds of the partners is what makes the book, I also loved the filling-in of the back story: their families, their education, their courtship. It all rings perfectly true and you feel you’re there in those oh-so-English universities, concert halls, gardens and cottages. I was also fascinated by Mr. McEwan’s masterful structuring of the whole thing – the way he shifts seamlessly back and forth in time and in points of view without ever jarring you or boring you. Like Bach or Mozart, he knows how to juggle theme and variations perfectly.

The small amount of dialogue in the novel achieves maximum effect with a minimum of words. Especially in the final section, the few strangulated speeches are both tortured and poignant. As a result, the story is permeated with an ineffable sadness. It has to do with the inability of people to communicate, the failure to say what needs to be said because of inexperience and a lack of precedent for knowing how to talk about certain things. In some ways, then, the book is a lament – if not a cry of outrage – over the sexual stupidity and hypocrisy of an earlier time than ours. Who ever thought a novel could make you see the good side of the blatant sexuality that confronts you on all sides today?

But that’s not the main value of the novel, as far as I’m concerned. To me, it rises to the top of the pile because it expresses so well the pain, the ambivalence, the confusion, the love and the frustration of being human. This sublime work makes you glad that books can still be written that can move you so deeply. It makes you feel that the whole writing and publishing thing – the commercialism, the hype, the competition, the sacrificing of trees – is worthwhile after all.

 

A Good Year (DVD) screenplay by Marc Klein, based on the novel by Peter Mayle; directed by Ridley Scott; starring Rusell Crowe, Albert Finney, Freddie Highmore, Marion Cotillard, Archie Panjabi

Given the phenomenon – cultural and commercial – of Peter Mayle’s books, we needs must have something more than the 1993 tv mini series which was based on A Year In Provence. But did we need such a contrived, artificial concoction as this? It features a ruthless whiz (Russell Crowe) in the London financial world who inherits from his uncle (Albert Finney) a vineyard estate in Provence. Nice contrast of worlds, there. Trouble is, the guy is an extreme prick. And not even a very original one. His motto, for instance, is that tiresome clich "Winning isn’t everything – it’s the only thing." So it’s hard to care much about him. Even though the scriptwriters often have him speak out loud to himself, as if they don’t trust the actor to show us what he’s feeling. In Provence, he keeps running into visions of his uncle imparting words of wisdom to Prick’s boyhood self (Freddie Highmore). Like those yuccky paintings where you see a guy fishing and his grandfather is hovering ghost-like over his shoulder. To contrast with Prick’s worldly, venal character, we have a noble vineyard manger who spouts platitudes. Which would be tolerable if it didn’t sound like he had hired Stephen Harper’s speech writer. The whole thing feels like a desperate attempt to make something of very thin material. The plot so lacks energy that speeded-up car sequences and a frenetic tennis game are inserted in an attempt to liven things up. Russell Crowe pulls off a few moments of roguish charm but, apart from that, the only enjoyable thing about this movie is fantasizing about what you would do if you inherited an estate basking in the warm, expansive, golden ambiance of Provence.

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

 

Knocked Up (Movie) written and directed by Judd Apatow; starring Seth Rogan, Katherine Heigl, Paul Rudd, Leslie Mann

You can’t blame me for giving away the plot this time. The title pretty well says it all. Katherine Heigl, the woman involved, plays an upwardly-mobile tv host and Seth Rogan, a scuzzy Vancouverite, plays a scuzzy Vancouverite. You know that this character, being Canadian, will turn out to be a really nice guy under all the scuzz, so there’s no great surprise about how the story ends. What makes the movie are some inventive scenes and great writing along the way.

Such as the bit where a dad tells his son, "You’re the best thing in my life," and the stunned son responds, "That just makes me feel sorry for you." (Not exact quotes; I didn’t have my recorder handy.) And some nice satirical notes on contemporary mores and yuppies with their "life plans". An experiment with how to have sex during pregnancy – or how not to – is very amusing. When two women confront a hulking black doorman outside a club, the scene takes an unexpected turn. And a scene involving two guys in a Las Vegas hotel room starts out very droll, although it veers towards the mawkish later on.

Given that I ultimately enjoyed this movie a lot, you have to know that it was a struggle to get through the first half hour. Some of the characters were making me sick. Like the guy’s housemates – a bunch of creeps who are constantly stoned. Their running joke is that one of their group has bet that he won’t shave or get a haircut for a year, which means that his pals take every opportunity they get to insult his hairiness. That’s supposed to be funny? Not to somebody who came of age in the Hair generation. I get the feeling that these are the kind of cretins that younger people find funny on sitcoms but, to me, they barely register as human. At the other end of the scale of objectionable, is the Heigl character’s sister played by Leslie Mann. She’s so anal that you keep wondering what could make her loosen up a bit and then it hits you – with some regret – that what she really needs is a weekend with aforementioned cretins.

The plot involves too many jokey details that are either irrelevant (a house exploding and a plague of pinkeye) – or implausible (portentous stomach rumbles). The words "penis" and "vagina" occur more times than in a Sue Johanson video. In the end, though, I was willing to forgive all the flaws because the inevitable climax works so well. The contributions of an off-the-wall male maternity nurse and a stubborn Asian obstetrician have a lot to do with making things interesting. And there are just enough unexpected twists to make you feel that you’re dealing with a very real situation. Probably, the startlingly explicit close-ups of the birthing help in that respect too. In fact, there was only one aspect of the whole thing that struck me as unrealistic from a medical point of view – that prosthetic belly. In the opinion of this amateur obstetrician it was riding far too low.

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

 

A Short History of Progresss (Essay) by Ronald Wright, 2004

I always have a book for reading in doctors’ and dentists’ offices, at the barber’s – that sort of thing. It has to be a book that’s interesting enough to take my mind off the waiting, but a bit dry, one that I won’t mind putting aside when called, one that won’t threaten to impinge on my more entertaining night time reading. The fact that I was actually tempted to open this book a couple of times in the evening at home is a very high recommendation.

Not that Ronald Wright needs my praise to make a success of this publication of his 2004 Massey Lectures which were broadcast on CBC Radio’s Ideas. Readers have responded with the best kind of approval – lots of sales. (An illustrated version of the book was on the market last Christmas, I believe.) Many thoughtful people now are convinced of his central thesis – that we’re riding a runaway train to ruin if we think technological progress can keep depleting the earth’s resources with no price to pay. And, having read this book, I’m as convinced as anybody. Occasionally, Mr. Wright makes a sweeping statement that you think could be challenged by someone from an opposing point of view but, when you check out his very extensive footnotes, you find that his claims are well substantiated.

One of Mr. Wright's insights that most interested me is his observation that, nearly always, when a civilization is dying, the powers-that-be squeeze everybody else for more money to support the lavish lifesytle of those at the top, to beef up the military and to keep the authorities in power. Hmmm.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com