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Aug 8/07

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Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
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The date above is the date on which the page was started. More recent reviews are towards the top of the page.

Reviewed here: No Reservations (Movie); Gavin Bryars (Concert); La Fille du Rgiment (Opera); Wretched Repeats: CBC Radio (Comment); Becoming Jane (Movie); The Bourne Ultimatum (Movie); A Curious Mishap (Play)

No Reservations (Movie) written by Carol Fuchs and Sandra Nettlebeck; directed by Scott Hicks; starring Catherine Zeta-Jones, Aaron Eckhart, Abigail Breslin, Patrician Clarkson, Bob Balaban

If you aren’t sick to death of the one about an unsuitable adult getting stuck with a kid, this might be the movie for you. It’s a remake of a German movie Bella Martha, which was written and directed by Sandra Nettlebeck, who is credited as co-writer here. This time, Catherine Zeta-Jones is an anal, controlling chef who has to look after her orphaned niece (Abigail Breslin). While Ms. Zeta-Jones is away from the restaurant, in steps Aaron Eckhart, a sous-chef who looks to be a threat to Ms. Zeta-Jones’ pre-emminence. Except that he’s a cute, wild and crazy guy. And guess what? He’s really good with kids! On top of it all, he loves opera. Just to show that he’s really at home on the range, he gives zany impersonations of Pavarotti while wielding the chafing dish.

So, we have on our hands a sweet, romantic movie. But is there anything interesting about it? Well, Abigail Breslin shows that her amazing performance in Little Miss Sunshine wasn’t just a fluke. She is a kid with a preternatural calm and assurance on camera. Anything else? Some viewers will enjoy the hilarity of monopoly games and pillow fights. And I suppose one should note nauseatingly upbeat scenes like the one at the pre-dawn market where the rough-and-tumble merchants bicker about whom Ms. Zeta-Jones will kiss. Not to overlook examples of the high art of film-making: when the owner of the restaurant (Patricia Clarkson) consoles Ms. Zeta-Jones in a difficult moment, the camera pans down to their hands clasped in each other’s. Foodies might be disappointed by the lack of information about cooking, in spite of all the kitchen action. But you do learn that important chefs keep taking their aprons on and off in ways that show that important decisions are happening. It’s also interesting to find out that the aprons stay a pristine, pure white, no matter what’s going on. One more point: lovers of contemporary classical music will be heartened to know that there are still big bucks in movies for such a distinguished composer as Philip Glass. His score keeps getting up your nose to tell you how you’re supposed to feel.

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

 

Gavin Bryars (Concert) Anna Maria Friman, soprano; John Potter, tenor; double bass Gavin Bryars;  Max Christie, bass clarinet; Douglas Perry, viola; "On Stage" CBC Radio Two, Sunday, August 19 (originally broadcast April 29)

New music doesn’t always thrill me but this concert caught my attention. The first part consisted of a number of "Laude" for one or two singers, with very little accompaniment, based on mediaeval texts: hooty, eery things, very sort of Hildegard of Bingen. I probably wouldn't have appreciated these pieces if it weren’t for my recent discovery of Bach’s two-part and three-part inventions for keyboard. At this point in my life, something strange and unexpected has happened: I "get" Bach. It is as if a door in my brain has suddenly opened. It may have something to do with listening to the counterpoint and really hearing what the individual voices are doing. That’s what intrigued me about these pieces by Gavin Bryars. With their strange harmonies, they're not exactly pleasant background music but, if you listen closely, it can be quite exciting to hear how the voices play off and against each other.

The second part of the concert gave the world premiere of what were billed as "Irish Madrigals" (although I don’t see what was Irish about them), songs using some of the sonnets of Petrarch, as translated into English by John Millington Synge. My only problem with these pieces was that it was very difficult to make out the words. When that happens, you’re only getting half the experience on offer.

Still, that was a lot. Even without much clarity in the text, it was obvious that poor old Petrarch was not a happy camper – a lot of moping and whining about Laura. The music conveyed the sadness, the passion, the pain in a unique way. There was something "off" about it all – as in a dream that might or might not be a nightmare. It struck me that this is what a really original artist does:takes us to places in the subconscious that we’re not accustomed to visiting. The trip can be uncomfortable in some ways but very revealing.

 

La Fille du Rgiment (Opera) by Gaetano Donizetti; conducted by Yves Abel; starring Natalie Dessay, Juan Diego Flrez, Carlos Alverez, Montserrat Caball; Vienna State Opera (Saturday Afternoon at the Opera, CBC Radio Two, August 18)

To tell the truth, I wasn’t listening very closely to this broadcast. It was on in the background most of the afternoon. There seemed to be a lot of silly palaver in spoken dialogue and relatively little music. The only question, really, was how the tenor would fare in the famous and fiendishly difficult "Ah, mes amis!" – the aria with the nine high C’s. Given that Juan Diego Flrez’s vocal pyrotechnics in The Barber of Seville on the recent Met broadcast astounded me, I was hopeful. But would he come anywhere near Pavarotti’s unforgettable performance?

Well, Signor Flrez acquitted himself very well. His voice is thinner and lighter than the Pav’s but it’s very bright, clear, lively and deadly accurate. And no small point in Signor Flrez’s favour – his French was clearer than that of his illustrious colleague. Later on, perhaps, there was a bit of a nostalgic longing for the heftier Pavarotti version of the aria, but in the excitement of the moment there was no room for any such qualm. Put it this way: Signor Flrez’s brilliant delivery of the aria left me wondering how a human being could do such a thing. And the audience at the Vienna State Opera seemed just as thrilled as I. The vociferous ovation lasted for some 35-40 seconds, which is really something, when you consider that an enthusiastic ovation on a Met broadcast lasts on average about 20 seconds.

Michael Cavanagh has been hosting Saturday Afternoon at the Opera in recent weeks. Maybe his being a stage director of opera helps give him the relaxed familiarity with the subject that infuses his performance as host. I particularly enjoyed his interview with conductor Yves Abel on this broadcast. For my money, there hasn’t been enough publicity about this young Canadian who has risen so high and so quickly in the opera world (The Met, La Scala), so it was interesting to hear the story of his career in his own words.

Following the opera, Bill Richardson hosted the tribute to the late Richard Bradshaw of the Canadian Opera Company. Without a doubt, the whimsical and amiable Mr. Richardson has been the best of the guest hosts on the program this summer. Somewhere, I heard that he is going to be taking over as regular host. If so, this is good news. Given the context of the tribute to Richard Bradshaw, Mr. Richardson maintained a sober tone in the face of several technical glitches. I always find these foul-ups amusing. Is it just my impression that they seem to happen more often in the summer? A question of summer help, maybe?

 

Wretched Repeats: CBC Radio Two

The other day, I heard – for at least the THIRD time – Eric Friesen’s Studio Sparks intro about the ninety-year-old health nut. I’m getting really tired of repeat programming on CBC radio. The host says something like, "On my way to work today, I noticed...." And you think: oh, this is going to be interesting. But then it turns out to be something that you’ve heard several times before. You feel like you’ve been had.

It’s bad enough having to hear so much repeat programming. But the offense would be somewhat mitigated if the CBC would acknowledge the situation. My guess is that the refusal to do so is yet another aspect of the CBC’s catering to people who don’t listen to the network regularly. Granted, somebody surfing the dial might be more likely to be hooked if they don't know the material is being repeated. For the rest of us, it’s like having stale produce foisted on us as if it were fresh. Isn’t there an issue of honesty in merchandising here?

 

Becoming Jane (Movie) written by Kevin Hood and Sarah Williams; directed by Julian Jarrold; starring Anne Hathaway, James McAvoy, Julie Walters, James Cromwell, Maggie Smith, Ian Richardson.

First off, let’s admit that this movie works very well as a costume piece about early 1800s Britain. There’s a nice plot about the problem of trying to find a suitable husband for an intelligent, attractive daughter of a poor family. There’s gorgeous scenery, sprightly music, stately homes. As is the style with those movies now, we get lots of gritty realism to counter-balance the Empire elegance: flaking plaster in drawing rooms, moudly window casements. The clothes on the country folk look home made – which they probably were back in the day; the ladies’ lace ruffles seem a trifle crumpled and the men’s neckwear just a bit dingy. The ballroom scenes look more sweaty and congested than gracious. And what movie of this type would be complete without an acid-tongued Maggie Smith doing her rich bitch? If it weren’t for a few rounds of darn brutal boxing, you’d almost think you were watching a movie version of a Jane Austen novel.

But how well does it explain an important truth about the inner life of the great author? For a while, I was resting pretty strenuously. Like, do really need to be told that Jane, in addition to her other formidable accomplishments, was a wicked opponent on the cricket field? As for her way of speaking, I was willing to accept that maybe she delivered trenchant, epigrammatic speeches – although I doubt that she did. (It’s usually a mistake to assume that authors speak the way they write.) I didn't object to the attempt to show how various events in her life might have inspired bits in the famous novels. And it wasn’t hard to believe that Jane might have had a flirtation with some exceptional man. The scriptwriters brought about the inevitable outcome – which could not be avoided, given certain biographical facts about Jane – with finesse.

My only problem with the movie is the two stars. Anne Hathaway and James McAvoy are marvellous actors, no doubt about that. But I could never be persuaded that they were quite right for their roles here. In The Last King of Scotland [see Dilettante’s Diary, Nov 8/06], I found that there was something wet-behind-the-ears about Mr. McAvoy He still strikes me as being somewhat lightweight for the role of the swash-buckler who teaches Jane a thing or two about life. Mind you, he’s more interesting than any other male on offer in Jane’s circle, but I seemed to be longing for somebody with a bit more heft. Maybe I wanted a Mr. Darcy. As for Ms Hathaway, no matter how hard I tried, I could not accept that the author of some of the greatest novels in literature was a luscious movie star with huge dark eyes, bee-stung lips and million-dollar teeth. But maybe that’s my problem. Anyway, if you were to cast Jane as the spinster of my imagination, you probably wouldn’t get the backing you’d need for such a lavish movie. So I guess you should just leave your artistic scruples at the door, sit back and enjoy.

Rating: C (i.e. "Certainly Worth Seeing")

 

The Bourne Ultimatum (Movie) written by Tony Gilroy, Scott Z. Burns; directed by Paul Greengrass; starring Matt Damon, Joan Allen, David Strathairn, Julia Stiles, Paddy Considine, Albert Finney

Given that we’d had a stressful week and were suffering through a heat wave, I thought this thriller would be the perfect thing for a family outing. WRONG! Actually, I was enjoying the first half hour: lots of excitement and action, flipping from one city to another, constant surprises and complications of the kind that make me wonder how scriptwriters manage to think of these things. But then I started to feel queasy because of the hand-held camera. That device is such a blatant attempt to liven things up that I understand why film-makers resort to it, but they really should append a warning to the film’s listing. In this case, it was making me seriously regret the pastries consumed at tea time. So I tried closing my eyes and listening to the movie. That made the leaden dialogue stand out more. Lines like, "You connect the dots" and "This is only the tip of the iceberg." Any minute, I was expecting to hear, "There’s more to this than meets the eye." One character in particular (played by David Strathairn) sounded like an automaton reading lines off a Teleprompter. None of this was dispelling my discomfort in the digestive department, so I left after forty-five minutes. The family members who stayed told me that the people who looked bad turned out to be bad and the ones who looked good turned out to be good. But there was a neat car chase and a great fight – if you like that sort of thing.

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

 

A Curious Mishap (Play) by Carlo Goldoni; directed by Paul Griffin; starring Andrew Massingham, Alix Sideris, Scott Florence, Madeleine Donohue, Dylan Anthony Juckes, Thea Nikolic; Odyssey Theatre, Strathcona Park, Ottawa, until August 26.

So you’ve had enough of the summer Shakespeare in the parks. You’ve done your bit for the avant-garde by sampling the experimental works at the Fringe and Summerworks. Want something different? Try this production at Strathcona Park in Ottawa.

You don’t often get a chance to see the kind of thing that Odyssey does. The company was established 22 years ago to explore performance styles involving dance, clowning, music and Commedia dell’arte, a type of theatre which emerged in the Italian Renaissance. Compared to Shakespeare, Commedia dell'arte seems very basic, almost elemental. The actors spout lines emanating from stock characters with about as much subtlety as puppets. The emphasis is on the absurd plotting and the physical comedy. Quite often you get hints of class warfare with scheming servants showing up their masters. And there’s usually a resounding moral to the tale. If you can throw yourself back a few centuries in a history-of-theatre way, it can be very entertaining.

A Curious Mishap may not be the best of the many plays by the 18th century writer Carlo Goldoni, most famous nowadays for A Servant of Two Masters. In Mishap, two star-crossed lovers are about to be separated by the girl’s father, so they decide to pretend that the young man is in love with the ditzy girl next door – a plan that leads to incredible complications. I found the plot twists intriguing and there’s a nice lesson that hits you over the head at the end. But don’t go looking for a lot of literary art in lines like "Good heavens, tell me it is not so!" (Not an exact quote, but you get the idea.) Mainly, the text acts as a springboard for lots of dazzling physical work by the actors and some very imaginative staging by director Paul Griffin. He has chosen to set the production in the 1920s Britain of P.G. Wodehouse, an interesting and defensible choice, if not an obvious one. We get striped bathing costumes, pencil moustaches and tinny songs on the Victrola.

In keeping with the spirit of Commedia dell’arte, some of the actors wear masks. Not all of them use the masks equally well here; occasionally the masks seem to obscure the speech. But Andrew Massingham, a Stratford Festival veteran in the role of the father, plays the device brilliantly. His work shows how, with the appropriate movements of the head, the mask can – contrary to all expectations – be more expressive than the plain face.

Madeleine Donohue (a close relative of ours), one of the actors not wearing a mask, gets some good laughs as the next door ditz. But this totally unbiased reviewer couldn’t help wondering how a young woman who looks so stunning in her red and black flapper outfit could be a wall flower.

Dylan Juckes’ plays the young lover as an over-the-top twit. Which made me wonder if maybe the director encouraged some of the actors to go a bit too far. When you camp things up too much, you run the risk of making the audience think you didn’t consider the material good enough to play it straight. On the other hand, if you tried to bring Juckes’ performance down to earth, we would have lost those spectacular leaps of joy like a kangaroo on speed. And what a loss that would have been!

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com