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

Reviewed here: The Counterfeiters (Movie); Darwin: The Evolution Revolution (Exhibit); Vengeance Is Ours (Article); Forgetting Sarah Marshall (Movie); Bella (Movie); The Odd Couple (Play); Die Entfhrung aus dem Serail (Opera); The Gathering (Novel)

 

You may have noticed that there haven't been many new movie reviews on Dilettante's Diary lately. There are two things you can do about that: 1. Phone Hollywood and tell them to come up with something worth my viewing; 2. Contact the owners of the now defunct Bayview Village Cinema in Toronto and tell them to re-open because that was the most convenient place for me to catch good movies.

The Counterfeiters (Movie) written by Stefan Ruzowitzky; based on the book by Adolf Burger; directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky; starring Karl Markovics, Dedvid Striesow, August Diehl, Martin Bramback, August Zimer, Veit Stbner, Lenn Kudrjawizki

You may think that you’ve seen enough movies about the ways in which humans can perpetrate evil on each other. In which case, you might not be up for yet another concentration camp movie. But there’s a difference about this one (which won the 2008 Academy Award for best foreign film). Here in the Sachsenhausen camp, we have an group of Jews who have been selected for their various talents – as artists, photographers, chemists, etc. – so that they can turn out counterfeit British and American money. To keep these captive workers "motivated", they’re given bunks with clean sheets and blankets, as well as decent food. They even get to listen to scratchy records of German lieder while working. Most unusual of all, the commandant who runs the camp (played by the affable-looking Devid Striesow) tries to deal with them in at least a half-human style – which means that the evil that he dishes out is only more subtle.

So this isn’t the scramble for basic survival in the way of most concentration camp movies. The threat of annihilation is always there, of course. But here it involves some very specific issues of principle. The Jewish genius at the head of the work team (played by Karl Markovics) happens to be a convicted criminal, known in his profession as Europe’s best counterfeiter. A respectable Jewish banker inmate balks at having to work under the criminal’s supervision. There’s also the question of whether the criminal counterfeiter’s values might turn out to be more admirable than anybody else’s. But the main conflict is the question of whether or not the highly-skilled prisoners should, to save their own lives, turn out the expected counterfeit bills. Or should they, on principle, sabotage the whole operation? That might get them killed. On the other hand, if they churn out the expected money, it might help the Germans to win the war.

What you could call, then, a gripping moral drama. And a superbly acted one. Even without having seen all the competition, one could accept that this is a worthy choice for the Academy Award. Would it sound flippant, then, to say that I did not enjoy the movie very much? It’s awfully bleak. Only near the very end came a scene that really moved me (with the help of some sublime music): an encounter between the well-fed counterfeiters and the emaciated prisoners from other sections of the camp. While the rest of the movie is interesting in an intellectual way, this glimpse of humans at their lowest ebb gives you the feeling that you’re seeing something about life that you’ve never seen before.

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

 

Darwin: The Evolution Revolution (Exhibit) Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, until August 4

It’s all there: live Galapagos turtles lounging around in a sandy display, a huge iguana watching warily from a barren tree branch, stuffed finches whose beaks demonstrate evolution in our own time, lots and lots of insects pinned to boards, many Victorian-era scientific instruments (microscopes, magnifying glasses and the like), photos of Darwin and his family members and colleagues and, of course, explanatory videos.

The only parts of the exhibit that interested me very much, however, were the recreation of Darwin’s study at Down House and the photocopies of pages of his writings, as well as one authentic (I think) page from the manuscript of On The Origin of Species. It was cool to see a piece of the actual paper on which the great man worked out his amazing thoughts. And to get a look at the kind of room in which he was ensconced while working on them. Who doesn’t like to fancy himself or herself similarly snuggled up while working quietly on something that’s going to change the world?

Apart from that, though, I found the exhibition somewhat under-whelming. It’s hard to say why. What was I expecting? What more could have been provided? Part of the problem is that, for somebody who has read a lot about evolution, the oft-repeated explanations become tiresome. So maybe the exhibition’s aimed at people who know virtually nothing about evolution? Fair enough. But then there’s the question of the set-up. It’s a bit hard to know which way you’re supposed to proceed. Each display has identical explanations written at strategic points around the perimeter. That’s an advantage for crowds because it enables lots of people to get the message without creating congestion around one sign. If you’re by yourself, though, it takes a lot of reading to find out that you don’t have to stop at each sign. Still, you’re afraid of missing some new information.

And then there’s the ambiance of the room itself. In one spot, I was bombarded by audio tracks from three separate video presentations. Not exactly inspiring. Ditto the basement location. No matter that we’re in the new section of the museum, it feels somewhat dingy and cavernous, no matter how much the designers of the exhibit have tried to spruce up the surroundings.

What would have served Darwin – and me – better? Maybe a ticket to Down House and a stroll in the gardens.

*****

This was my first visit to the renovated museum. There are those who love the new jagged, crystal of the addition hanging over Bloor Street and those who are less enamoured. Count me among the latter. Inside these new rooms, you get only little patches of daylight from strips of glass in odd positions, mostly at the floor level in the rooms I visited. The angular rooms themselves feel thrown together and impermanent. Granted, there’s lot of open space for arranging exhibits any which way, but it’s apparently going to take some time for me to feel comfortable in the premises – or, better still -- excited by them.

 

Vengeance Is Ours (Article) by Jared Diamond, The New Yorker, April 21, 2008

This is the worst article I’ve ever read in The New Yorker. Correction: it’s the only truly bad article I’ve ever read in that magazine. Bad, not in the style of the writing or the quality of the journalism. But in the conclusions it reaches.

Jared Diamond, the famous anthropologist (among other things), tells of Daniel Wemp, a young aboriginal man he came to know in New Guinea. While Daniel leads a relatively civilized life now, he was brought up in a village in an area of the New Guinea highlands beset by wars among clans. Because Daniel’s uncle was killed in a battle against another clan, it fell to Daniel to avenge his uncle. In the subsequent battle, the man who was responsible for the skirmish that killed Daniel's uncle was not actually killed but he was wounded in the spine, an injury that paralyzed him for the rest of his life. According to Mr. Diamond, Daniel expresses lasting satisfaction, even glee, at having avenged his uncle so thoroughly.

By way of contrast, Mr. Diamond points to the case of his own father-in-law, Jozef Nabel. Jozef, a Polish Jew, passed up the perfect opportunity to kill the man who had been responsible for the deaths of Jozef’s mother, his sister and his niece in the Second World War. Jozef decided to let the Polish state deal with the man but, when the state was finished with him, the man had spent only one year in prison. Jozef lived the rest of his days tormented by regret and he died with an ineradicable feeling of guilt for not having avenged his women folk.

From these two case histories, Mr. Diamond concludes that the thirst for vengeance is an inescapable dynamic of human nature and it must be reckoned with. Acknowledging that peaceful co-existence would be impossible if the dishing out of vengeance were left to individuals, however, he notes – with apparent approval – the fact that some states encourage the recognition of vengeful feelings by such means as the witnessing of executions by family members of victims.

Until now, I greatly admired Mr. Diamond’s writing and research, especially his book Guns, Germs and Steel. In this article, though, he has fallen into the fallacy of arguing from the particular to the universal. Mr. Diamond has spoken to two people who felt that they were obliged to avenge the killings of their relatives. This does not prove that the thirst for revenge is integral to human nature. All it shows – and you would think a person as astute as Mr. Diamond would see this – is that our values are largely shaped by the cultures in which we are raised. From the wealth of background given in the case of Daniel, it's very clear that his culture taught him that revenge was honourable, even obligatory. We aren't told about the values in Jozef's upbringing, but the same dynamic could have been operative.

To say that the thirst for revenge is a human urge that should not be thwarted is no more valid than to say that pink must be the colour for girls and blue for boys. Mr. Diamond scoffs at states and "their associated religions and moral codes" which teach that seeking revenge is bad. Granted, teaching -- or cultural conditioning --  is what we’re talking about here, not moral absolutes. But when it comes to cultural conditioning, I could cite for Mr. Diamond many cases of people who have seen that it is far better to forego revenge and who have lived happy, fulfilled lives as a result of forgiving those who have seriously wronged them.

 

Forgetting Sarah Marshall (Movie) written by Jason Segal; directed by Nicholas Stoller; starring Jason Segal, Kristen Bell, Mila Kunis, Russell Brand, Bill Hader, Jonah Hill

When I first saw those ads plastering the subway cars, I was like: So who’s Sarah Marshall? For all I knew, this could be a reference to some tv sitcom star. Or maybe this was one of those trick advertisements and Sarah Marshall would turn out to be the check-in girl at your local car rental franchise. So I admit it, the publicity sparked my curiosity to the point of my coughing up the price of admission. But it’s not just because of my suggestibility. Part of it has to do with the dearth of movies worth seeing lately.

Given all the hype, you probably know the premise. Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell) is the fictional star of a tv crime show who dumps her boyfriend Peter (Jason Segal). Thrown into a sobbing, gut-twisting funk, he goes to Hawaii to try to forget about her. And guess what tv celebrity happens to be staying at the same hotel – with new boyfriend in tow?

Kristen Bell, with her features as tight as a Barbie doll’s but less personality, doesn’t evoke much sympathy. Maybe she’s not supposed to. But the trouble is, it’s hard to see how a twit like her would get such a hold over a character like Peter.

See, Peter’s character is the whole point of the movie. As a comedian and a writer, Jason Segal has done himself a huge favour in writing this vehicle to showcase his talents. He comes across as one of the best of the hip comics who are setting a new tone for comedy these days. His character of Peter has many of the traits that are becoming familiar: the guy who is something of a doofus but he’s also sensitive, intelligent and funny. One of the neat things that Jason Segal brings to the character is the way he can convey mixed messages. You see him trying to act one way but you know he’s feeling something else – as for instance when he’s enthusing about a dorky present from the girlfriend or when he’s trying to be gentlemanly towards a new female acquaintance while his mind is on you-know-what.

When it comes to self-deprecation, nothing can top the scene where he sits at the piano hammering out a song about what a loser he is. Unless, of course, it would be the glimpses of his fleshy nudity (full frontal). There aren’t many actor/writers who are willing to take the physical comedy so far as to make a joke of their naked bodies. You might see this as suggesting something generous and unstinting about the man, as if he’s saying, "Here I am...I’m giving you my all." On the other hand, maybe you don’t want to go there. Let’s just note the effect on his portrayal of Peter. Since he’s always at a disadvantage in these situations, the nakedness helps to underline the vulnerability of the character.

Star vehicle though this may be, Mr. Segal hands out good parts to other actors. Mila Kunis, as a hotel receptionist, has a very empathetic presence on screen, so much so that she makes you wonder how Peter could have fallen for the Marshall airhead. Russell Brand plays a Brit rock star whose egotism is so total and unflinching that he unexpectedly becomes interesting. Even a fatuous surfboard instructor (Paul Rudd) gets a memorable cameo.

As writer, Mr. Segal also comes up with lots of great lines. One of my faves: "I’m sorry I didn’t turn out to be the kind of person we thought I was going to be." When Peter storms out of a row in the ex-girlfriend’s room, passing a wedding party on the hotel lawn, he blurts out: "Oh, a wedding in Hawaii – really original!" One of the hotel employees (Jonah Hill) asks the British rock star if he has listened to a demo that the hotel employee gave him. "I was going to listen to it," the rock star says airily, "but instead I went on living my life."

With so much of Mr. Segal’s talent on display, it’s a pity that one has to notice his shortcomings as a writer. The place where he falls down is plot. He needs additional muscle on his writing team to come up with more clever ideas. As it is, the momentum of the movie sags badly in the middle. For lack of anything more inventive, there’s lots of stupid sex to make the kids in the audience feel that they’re having a good time: like a contest between ex-lovers in adjacent hotel rooms to see who can have the noisiest orgasm. A geeky guy on his honeymoon has some sex problem that’s never very clear but the graphic advice – and demonstrations – delivered by other guys provide more yuks for the teen viewers.

Just when you thought the plot had nothing new to offer, though, along comes one of those "lets-put-on-a-show" scenarios: a wacky musical involving puppets that sends you home feeling good, thanks to its unexpected, ingenuous charm.

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

 

Bella (Movie) written by Alejandro Gomez Monteverde and Patrick Million; directed by Alejandro Gomez Monteverde; starring Eduardo Verstegui, Tammy Blanchard, Manny Perez.

You should know about the final shot of this movie: a man, a woman and a kid are walking along a beach and, as the camera pulls back, we see a kite in the shape of a butterfly dancing over their heads. If that does it for you, fine. But don’t say you weren’t warned.

Me, I began to squirm much earlier on. This girl is walking down the street and she encounters a blind homeless man. He offers to give her one of his origami creations if she will describe the day for him. So she does, complete with birds and flowers. I almost expected the two of them to break into a chorus of "What A Wonderful World."

The reason said girl (Nina) is roaming the streets is that she’s just been fired from her job as a waitress in a Mexican restaurant in New York. Her asshole boss (Manny) didn’t know that the reason for her being late so often was that pregnancy was making her sick in the mornings. But don’t worry, the restaurant’s chef (Jos) has befriended her. Jos, an impossibly hunky and soulful guy, has walked off the job to accompany Nina on her prowl – which doesn’t please Manny who happens to be Jos’s brother.

Nina and Jos’s day on the lam ends up at his family’s home where Nina is treated to effusive hospitality. A night on the beach ensues. Nina and Jos bare their souls to each other. Each of them has a personal tragedy to offer. I’ve never watched Oprah but my guess is that it’s a bit like this.

Not that I’m against people searching each other’s souls and helping each other to find meaning. But they should seem at least a little like real people. Nobody in this movie is anything other than a device contrived for a movie – except for Tammy Blanchard as Nina, whose natural believability is a pleasure to watch from beginning to end. As Jos, Eduardo Verstegui is never more than a symbol of a hurtin’ man. True, the camera loves his deep eyes, his tangled black hair and his oh-so-white skin but it takes more than that to make a character. Manny Perez, as the brother, plays a one-note ogre with an ugly scowl. As for the rest of the family, I kept wondering why all of them speak with thick Spanish accents except for the Mother -- who looks the most Spanish of any of them but speaks English as well as "Emily" the Bell telephone girl.

Not that Nina herself was bothered by any of this. She found them all marvellously loving. But their schtick was enough to make me throw up and I’m not even pregnant.

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

 

The Odd Couple (Play) by Neil Simon; directed by Stuart Hughes; starring Diego Matamoros, Albert Schultz, Derek Boyes, Kevin Bundy, Oliver Dennis, Michael Hanrahan, Krystin Pellerin, Amy Rutherford (ended May 3)

If your inner aesthete wonders why you’re going to see an old chestnut like this, you might answer that you’ve always thought of it as one of the classic, well-constructed Broadway comedies and you want to see if it still clicks along as smoothly as the subway on a good day. Also, you want to see if Toronto’s resident professional company (so to speak) brings anything new to the forty-year old piece.

Well, the Soulpepper team can hardly be said to bring anything fresh to the play – unless you count as a contemporary touch Albert Schultz’s wearing his baseball cap backwards. It’s to the company’s credit, in fact, that they don’t try any up-dating of the play. We’re back in the 60s when girls wore pink lipstick and cleaning ladies charged $1.50 an hour. Within that context, everybody involved gives their all to present the play just as it was meant to be. Director Stuart Hughes keeps things moving and designer Lorenzo Savoini provides a beautiful set for the actors to do their moving in. Albert Schultz (Oscar) and Diego Matamoros (Felix) play well off each other as, respectively, the slob and the anal-retentive fuss budget. The supporting male actors, with their Archie Bunker accents, establish the ambiance of the poker club. Krystin Pellerin (Cecily) and Amy Rutherford (Gwendolyn) are delightful as the ditzy British sisters from upstairs.

So much for the production. But the play? It's well-constructed, as remembered, and the conflict between the mismatched roommates holds your attention. Sad to say, however, Neil Simon’s wit seems a bit stale – especially the laborious wise-cracking in the first ten minutes when the guys sit around razzing each other. Many of the jokes reminded me of the comment (by Oscar Wilde, I think) that the basis of much American humour is exaggeration. For instance, Oscar’s noting that, while Felix’s wife had his room re-painted when she threw him out, when Oscar throws Felix out he’s going to have his room "bronzed".

The play’s more serious shortcoming from today's perspective is the situation. Back in the 60s there was something startling about the concept of two failed husbands living together. As far as I know, divergent male approaches to housekeeping had never been explored on screen or on stage. But how many movies and sitcoms since then have given us a similar deal? We’ve had comic versions of every imaginable combination of house mates: male, female, straight, gay, bi, with variations and permutations on all of the above. Much as you might admire Neil Simon’s originality in taking on the subject in the first place, his version can’t help seeming less daring than it once did.

Which is not to say that it isn’t worth seeing. The Soulpepper production brought to mind what people used to say about the kind of theatre that kept London’s West End thriving. Ladies from the provinces would come to town for a day of shopping, then they’d drop into the theatre "for a bit of a giggle". They weren’t expecting the most exciting theatre in the world; the idea was just to pass a few hours pleasantly. Does Toronto have a place for theatre like that? Maybe. But Soulpepper’s ticket prices – $70 including taxes and surcharges for a Friday show – make for a pretty expensive giggle. They've got to find some way of bringing the ticket prices down if they want us provincials to keep dropping in.

 

Die Entfhrung aus dem Serail (Opera) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; conducted by David Robertson; starring Diana Damrau, Matthew Polenzani, Alexsandra Kurzak, Steve Davislim, Kristinn Sigmundsson, Matthias von Stegmann; Metropolitan Opera Broadcast, May 3. (CBC Radio Two’s "Saturday Afternoon at the Opera")

Once again the Met ruined my Saturday afternoon. I had lots of things to do (like  posting reviews on this website), so I wasn't planning on listening very closely to the opera. It's not as if the story's a real grabber: two guys try to rescue their girlfriends from a villain but the villain captures all four of them and sends them off to be tortured and killed, except that the villain changes his mind, presto – happy ending. My plan was simply to carry on with my work but leave the radio on in the other room, just to catch the really good arias, especially the opera's most famous one, "Marten aller Arten".

But damn it all, the first act starts with a gorgeous tenor aria. And the second act with a soprano one; then the third act with another tenor one. Matthew Polenzani sings the Mozart splendidly. As does Diane Damrau, acquitting herself especially well in the celebrated "Marten aller Marten." What with all the rushing into the other room to listen, there was precious little time for work. So I finally gave up and just listened. Given that this was the Met's final broadcast for the season, maybe I was meant to hear the whole thing.

 

The Gathering (Novel) by Anne Enright, 2007

In my childhood, it seemed that all Irish people spoke in the lilting, musical tongue of the angels. Indeed, all things Irish in those days were deemed to have a touch of the celestial about them. In subsequent years, however, it has come to my attention that some Irish people have a decidedly harsh edge to their voices. Anne Enright – if my memory is correct regarding her recent chat with Eleanor Wachtel on CBC’s "Writers and Company"  – has one of the Irish voices of the more edgy variety.

So does the voice of the narrator of The Gathering as heard in my imagination. In this Man Booker prize-winning novel, Veronica, a middle-aged woman, one of a huge brood of Hegarty siblings, sounds uncomfortable in her skin. Apart from her unquestioned love for her kids, she’s always at odds with the world. It would appear that she feels spouses must necessarily hate each other. She seems to feel equal amounts of helpless love and furious loathing for her mother – whom she variously describes as intelligent or so vacant as to have hardly any presence. As for Veronica’s siblings, a few pleasant memories from long ago linger on, but there seems to be nothing flowing among them now but prickliness and misunderstanding.

As you might guess, Veronica’s feelings about sex aren’t exactly mellow. She mentions penises a lot but she seems ashamed of her parents – her father, at least – for being so sensual as to have produced so much progeny. (I’ve never understood that observation about the supposed hyper-sexuality of the parents of big families. After all, it only takes one episode of sex every year to keep the babies coming.) On the other hand, it’s not as if she’s particularly pleased about her infrequent sex with her husband. No happiness there on either side of the bed. She’s obsessed, for some reason or other, with her grandmother Ada’s having had to choose between two suitors. And what does our Veronica have to say about the choice Granny finally did make? "For a woman like Ada, every choice is an error, as soon as it is made." Huh?

You want to cut Veronica some slack because she’s dealing with a tragic death in the family. At the same time, you want to grab her by the lapels and ask what’s wrong with her. It would almost be a relief if you found out that she’s an alcoholic or that she had some such affliction; that would at least help to explain her cranky take on everything. But no such explanation is ever forthcoming. After a while, you simply have to accept that this is the way life is for this woman. In that sense, maybe there’s something peculiarly Irish about the novel’s stew of conflicting emotions. It sometimes seem to me that, of all people (at least, of the ones I know), the Irish are the most prone to bouts of wild, uncontrolled feelings not susceptible to analysis and understanding.

Not to say that Veronica doesn’t have lots of insights worth paying attention to. I can’t remember a book so crammed fascinating observations on life and people. In one of the first ones that hit me over the head, Veronica notes the differences between the concepts of fact and conjecture, dead and alive, drunk and sober: "Out in the world that is not the world of the Hegarty family, we think these things are Not The Same Thing." On the very next page, she’s talking about what she has suddenly realized about motherhood: "....most of the stuff you do is just nagging and whining and picking up for people who are too lazy even to love you..." Then this about growing up among the Hegartys: "....there was great privacy in a big family. No one got into your stuff except to steal it or slag you off." One night in bed, after a bout of loveless sex with her husband, she tries to drag him into a discussion about the meaning of it all. Getting minimal response, she reflects: "I think he means that there is a limit to these things, to the way men think.....I think he means that this side-by-side business is all we’ve got." Most stunning of all, this observation about a child molester named Nugent: "When Nugent saw a child he saw revenge....and a way out of it all; the whole tedious business of human exchange that a man has to go through in order to get what he might want. Think of it. The bitterness of the man and the beauty of the boy."

Near the end of the novel, Veronica makes this comment about one of her daughters: "I do not know if the child is brilliant or odd – she can’t make things connect up, somehow, but when they do it is always amazing." That just about sums up Veronica herself. She can drive you wild with her mixed up chronology; straightforward narrative isn’t her thing. Worse still, she’s constantly mulling over some terrible thing that happened in the past but she eventually admits that she’s not sure if it did. In one crowded family gathering, she thinks she feels her husband’s warm hand on her back but when she turns, he isn’t there and she doesn’t know who touched her. So why mention it? You begin to wonder if Anne Enright isn’t capable of writing a coherent novel. Maybe she’s just recording a whole lot of impressions without any thought of whether or not they add up to an intelligible whole for the reader. The question arises: is the novel about anything, after all? One possibility that comes to mind is that family life is hell. Then this leaps out at you: "....I find that being part of a family is the most excruciating possible way to be alive."

And yet, there is a kind of pay-off to the mysterious hand on the back – not in the way you’d expect, but it comes to stand as a symbol of something Veronica’s seeking. And you do finally come to appreciate the implications of the grandmother’s involvement with those two suitors; the situations was more complicated than anybody realized. Most importantly, you do begin to get some sense of what is important to Veronica, what might give her a reason to keep on living. Hint: look closely at the second paragraph of this review.

So the book ends up being a satisfying read. Still, I was left with a niggling worry that author Enright was offering a sop to me and all the rest of the readers out here who are presumed to have conventional minds and morals and to expect a little optimism in our narrators. Any author knows that it’s all very well for a reader to marvel at a protagonist’s insights into life and people but, if she doesn’t offer you some sort of lifeline of hope, you’re probably not going to like the novel. Does Anne Enright, then, really believes in her book’s life-affirming message? Maybe. But, for me, Veronica’s contrarian attitude may prove to be the more lasting impression.

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