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May 18/08

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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: Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanomo Bay (Movie); Iron Man (Movie); The Visitor (Movie); Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim (Essays); Barrel Fever (Short Stories and Essays); Seasons on Harris (Travel); Cold Service (Mystery)

Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay (Movie) written and directed by Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg; starring John Cho, Kal Penn, Rob Corddry, James Adomian, Danneel Harris, Eric Winter, Neil Patrick Harris, Jon Reep, Missi Pyle

Sometimes you head off to a movie even though your better judgement says no. You know it’s not gonna be really nutritious fare, artistically speaking, but hey, what’s the matter with pigging out on junk food once in a while?

So here we have Harold (John Cho) and Kumar (Kal Penn) getting into deep doo-doo because of some confusion between the words "bong" and "bomb". Mistaken for terrorists, they’re shipped off to Guantanamo Bay. Not that they spend more than one scene there. For most of the movie, they’re on the lam from the authorities trying to re-capture them.

In case your artistic conscience is still squawking, you can point out that the movie does have some good points. For instance, some nice satire on racism in the person of one government agent (played with malicious glee by Rob Corddry) who’s so rabidly xenophobic that the sight of non-white skin makes the needle on his terrorism radar jump off the scale. Neil Patrick Harris does a neat turn playing himself as a tv star, with implications that work well plot-wise. There are a couple of good surprises – one involving a preppy bridegroom (Eric Winter) and another involving a dorky poem. A scene in a Texas brothel takes on an ironic twist that’s entertaining.

Apart from that, the movie isn’t much more than an exercise in seeing how far you can go in the gross-out department. The first scene features a loud, prolonged and very odorous bowel movement, the stench of which lasts pretty well for the duration. Consider it a kind of olfactory backdrop to an overdose of inane jokes about urination, defecation, genitals and drugs. In case that isn’t enough, generous dollops of full frontal female nudity guarantee satisfaction for the young teenage boys who have sneaked in despite the "Over 18" rating. On the less gratifying side for such viewers, the movie’s obsession with fellatio would seem to show that the fear of being forced to perform it is their number one nightmare.

Still, even a geezer who’s a little beyond such fears and thrills might enjoy the movie more if only there were something engaging about the two stars. With Harold and Kumar, you get the tried-and-true "odd couple": the one guy (Penn) being an uncouth slob and the other guy (Cho) being relatively polite and good-looking. You’d think their racial combination – Korean and Indian – would bring something special to the act. But there aren’t any sparks happening between them. This combo feels like a tv skit that has outlived its fun quotient. In those old "on the run" movies starring the famous buddies teams, you had guys with a certain chemistry happening between them. What you get here is a heck of a lot less than Bob and Bing with dirty mouths.

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

 

Iron Man (Movie) written by Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby and others; directed by Jon Favreau; starring Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Terrence Howard, Jeff Bridges, Shaun Toub, Clark Gregg, Faran Tahir, Sayed Badreya, Leslie Bibb.

You might not think this was my kind of movie. Neither did I. It’s based on a comic book, for heaven’s sake. But I’d been hearing good things about it. Plus, when I was plunking down the admission fee for one of my arty movies, lots of sensible-looking grown-ups were lining up for this one. So who was I to abstain?

Robert Downey Jr. plays Tony Stark, a fiendishly brilliant inventor, the head of the company that provides the world’s most advanced weapons. He’s also a playboy, filthy rich and the coolest thing Hollywood can imagine. This guy makes James Bond look like Elmer Fudd. But, about twenty minutes into the movie, something causes him to experience a kind of epiphany and things start to take a different direction. Don’t worry, the violence keeps escalating. Lots of US military involvement. Scenes in Afghanistan’s caves and villages. And, as you might expect, the villain turns out to be somebody you weren’t expecting.

Mr. Downey brings everything anybody could want to the role: arrogance, guts, sex appeal, glamour, genius, wit and that under current of malevolence that makes it all so enjoyable. But his Tony has a side to him that you don’t get in your typical action hero. It’s not exactly that he wears his heart on his sleeve; rather, he’s required to wear a mechanical gizmo on his chest that keeps his heart going. While that may be just a device concocted by the script writers, Mr. Downey shows you the occasional glimpse of the frailty that goes with the condition.

It’s great fun to see Gwyneth Paltrow as his "assistant" because you know that, being Ms. Paltrow, she’ll bring a lot more than the requisite bimbo quotient to the role. And she does: irony by the bucketfull. On the other hand, Jeff Bridges as Tony’s business partner, adds some interesting nuances to a role that is, as far as I can tell, rather atypical for him.

At certain points, it felt like this was going to be a great movie. Some wonderful, rah-rah moments when all the stops are pulled out, the flags are waving, the band is playing and our hero emerges victorious from battle. Also, some delicious, wry comedy, especially in the "romantic" bits. Some great lines. When Tony expresses the fear that he’s going to be killed in a week if such-and-such doesn’t happen, he’s told, "Then this is a very important week for you." I wasn’t sure that Mr. Downey and Ms. Paltrow always managed to hide the fact that they knew this was a comic book they were acting in. But they kept me guessing, so that’s to their credit.

In the end, though, the intriguing human dynamics were vastly overpowered by the comic book elements, mainly as demonstrated in the technological wizardry. (It takes ages for all the credits regarding special effects, animation, illustration, graphics, etc to roll by.) I kept trying to keep an open mind but the mayhem obliterated any sense of plot or character, as far as I could tell. While this isn’t the kind of movie I see often, my guess is that this one outdoes all contenders when it comes to explosions. No doubt, it will gratify the little boy in all those viewers (male and female) who fantasize about building themselves a suit of armour which will transform them into an invincible, all-powerful avenger. The little boy in me fantasizes more about slaying my enemies with a well-aimed word.

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

 

The Visitor (Movie) written and directed by Thomas McCarthy; starring Richard Jenkins, Haaz Sleiman, Danai Gurira, Hiam Abbass, Marian Seldes

A university prof living in Connecticut (Richard Jenkins) seems lost since the death of his wife, a concert pianist. His attempt to revive his spirits by taking piano lessons isn’t working very well. On a visit to New York, he meets (through an odd set of circumstances) a couple; the man (Haaz Sleiman) is a Syrian who plays the drum and the woman (Danai Gurira) is a Senegalese who makes jewelry. Not too surprisingly, the prof’s involvement with them begins to fill up the empty spaces in his life.

I liked lots about this movie. It’s photographed, directed and edited with great style and skill. Terrific tension is created simply by a man’s moving down an apartment hallway opening doors. Another thing I liked is the elliptical story-telling: you see somebody about to ask a question but instead of wasting time with the question, we cut to the answer. A middle-aged man and woman climb into bed to comfort each other; next thing you know it’s morning and you realize you don’t need to know what happened in bed. Most likeable of all is the presence of Haaz Sleiman in the role of the young Syrian drummer. His charisma makes every scene that he’s in engaging.

So why didn’t the movie totally grab me?

For one thing, if you make a movie about a dry-as-a-stick university prof, you risk ending up with a dry-as-a-stick movie. A viewer can tire of watching Mr. Jenkins’ impassive mug – not exactly one of those faces that gives the camera lots to work with. All the other actors, apart from Haaz Sleiman, seem to be singing from the same straight-up, dignified hymnal. Not many sparks of spontaneous life from any of them.

But the more serious problem with the movie is an inconsistency of tone. You think you’re watching a gentle, human-interest thing about a lonely man’s coming out of his shell, but, all of a sudden, it seems you’re supposed to get worked up about justice issues regarding illegal immigrants. (Sorry, but we have to reveal more plot here than we like to.) Not that there aren’t film-worthy issues at stake, but it seems like the cruise director has changed destinations in mid-voyage. Maybe I could deal with that, except that, in the end, all the fuss doesn’t amount to much. What’s bound to happen happens. Nobody could have done anything to stop it. (Note to film-makers: it doesn’t make for very good drama when the villain of the piece is the faceless government; you gotta have some conflict with an on-screen bad guy.)

What it all comes down to is that the movie doesn’t take you anyplace new. We know that the US government is tough on illegal immigrants, especially since 9/11. We also know that what any desolate university prof needs is to discover his inner drummer. So maybe that’s why, in spite of the movie's many virtues, you walk away with an "is-that-all-there-is?" shrug.

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

 

Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim (Essays) by David Sedaris, 2004; Barrel Fever (Essays and Short Stories) by David Sedaris, 1994

There are two ways to read David Sedaris. You can sit back and enjoy the laughs – and there are lots of them. Or you can go all nerdy about it and try to figure out what makes his writing so good. Nerdy is what we’re all about here at Dilettante’s Diary, so here goes.

One thing I’ve been able to figure out is that Mr. Sedaris’ writing works best when his own character – i.e. his assumed character as narrator of these pieces – takes centre stage, indeed, when his character is the point of the essay. In a couple of essays – one on Christmas customs in different cultures, another about eavesdropping on conversations in a restaurant – the author remains, for the most part, a detached observer. These pieces, in my opinion, fall slightly below the quality of the rest. Not that they aren’t interesting, just that they have less of that unique something that makes for an inimitable David Sedaris piece.

It’s when Mr. Sedaris’ self – and this usually means his somewhat bumbling, hyper-sensitive gay personality – acts as the fulcrum for the essay that you get the juiciest stuff. For example: his memories about trying to hide his rampaging feelings during a game of strip poker with boyhood friends. Or his irrational feeling of guilt as a gay man when helping a young boy carry some stuff down a hotel corridor. Or the dark night at his house in France, when a stranger arrives and everything begins to seem like a horror movie.

The thing that raises Mr. Sedaris’ writing above the level of run-of-the-mill humour is his sharp observation of the human species. The essay "Santaland Diaries", a piece about his stint as a Christmas elf in a department store, offers lots of slapstick but you also get notes worthy of an anthropologist's attention about how shoppers behave at that time of year. In another essay about a kid making a mess of preparing hot chocolate, he says: "This is what I like about children: complete attention to one detail and complete disregard of another." In an essay about romantic movies, he notes how little film-worthy material you can find in a long-term relationship: "Look, they’re opening their electric bill!" Noting the way someone teases a little boy about whether or not he has a girlfriend, Mr. Sedaris says, "It was an idea of children as miniature adults, which was about as funny to me as a dog in sunglasses."

Throughout the essays, you keep encountering Mr. Sedaris’ unforgettable characters – his mother, his weird sisters, his dad and, above all, his younger brother Paul with the heart of gold and the filthy mouth. They’re as funny as any characters ever committed to paper; yet they’re drawn with the insight of a skilled novelist. Remembering his dad’s grandiose promises to his kids, the son notes: "...we grew to think of him as an actor auditioning for the role of a benevolent millionaire. He’d never get the part but liked the way that the words felt in his mouth."

Some of the keenest observations have to do with the inner workings of the writer’s own being. He listens to his infant niece coo over the phone "....in that satisfied baby way that makes me understand how someone could bring a child into this lousy world of ours." When a somewhat abrasive sibling tells him that she doesn’t welcome his visit, he tells us, "I’m supposed to feel good that Tiffany has gotten this off her chest, but first I need to make it stop hurting." Later in the same visit, he can barely listen to her because he’s so pre-occupied with her abysmal housekeeping; but then he chastises himself for expecting her to "become an entirely different person." Recalling the day when his dad said that young David would have to find somewhere to live other than the family home (because, it eventually turned out, of his gayness), the writer remembers how his dad was sitting formally poised behind his desk: "I felt as though he were firing me from the job of being his son." In a memory of childhood, he describes his family’s trip to a cottage their dad’s thinking of buying: "What would ultimately last were these fifteen minutes on the coastal highway....When older, even the crankiest of us would accept them as proof that we were once a happy family...." Anton Chekhov doesn’t get much closer to the heart of things than that.

An especially intriguing element enters into some of the essays. It’s the way the author tends to see the strangeness of people in a sympathetic light. You get the feeling that, perhaps because he sees himself as an odd-man-out, he doesn’t shun weirdos. In fact, they seem to gravitate to him. There’s the memory pertaining to a childhood Hallowe’en when some neighbours came dressed up and looking for candy on November first. What you get mainly is the author’s embarrassment on behalf of those people who had so little sense of what was normal behaviour. Then there’s the situation where someone who hires him for an apartment cleaning expects some sort of erotic entertainment. Granted, there’s a strong element of farce, as the client keeps trying to de-rail the housekeeping process with sex play. What you take away from the story, though, isn’t the outrageousness of it all but the author’s sympathy for the other man who has, through a misunderstanding, made a fool of himself.

For me, the most striking piece about misfits is the one about Mr. Sedaris’ conflicted friendship with a troubled young girl in a slummy neighbourhood. After forcing her friendship on him, the kid turns against him viciously. The main impression is not of the unfairness to him; the lingering effect is the sad recognition of the fact that people like her and her screwed-up family are so difficult to reach in a friendly way. You might say that, except for certain whimsical comments in passing, the humour has evaporated from a piece like this. In that way, this pre-figures, for me, the kind of writing Mr. Sedaris has been doing lately for The New Yorker – for example, his piece about his association in Normandy with a neighbour who was a convicted pedofile. Not much to laugh at there. But it’s poignant in a way unlike anything else you’ve ever read. This seems to suggest that Mr. Sedaris’ writing will always be interesting – which is good news because you can’t expect a guy to keep churning out the laughs forever.

The stories in Barrel Fever show a very different writer. They have a youthful energy, a wild, crazy quality missing from the later work. Here the younger David Sedaris is at his unbridled best – and worst – as a writer. Some of the pieces don’t stand up very well as fiction; they veer off madly in all directions. If you put a story down, you can have a hard time figuring out what the hell it’s all about when you come back to it. But the satire rips with gusto as, for example, in "Seasons Greetings", one of those awful newsletters where a smarmy, sanctimonious mother tries to put a cheery face on the disasters that have befallen her family in the past year. In another newsletter, a gay man purports to document all the homophobic slights that he has suffered but his behaviour is confirming the worst suspicions of homophobes. That might seem like Mr. Sedaris is skating close to political incorrectness until you realize that the objects of the satire aren’t gay men as such but people who are always seeing themselves as victims.

There’s a gleeful naughtiness in the way the writer gives free reign to his gay fantasies. Yes, there are pornographic elements in them. But not for "prurient intent", as the courts used to say. The point, rather, is the narrator’s delight in saying some of the things he’s saying. It’s like a lot of stuff has been bottled up in this young man for a long time; rather than dish it out with the solemnity of a D. H. Lawrence, he’s going to have fun showing how dirty he can be. I, for one, can’t help sharing in the enjoyment of the exercise.

On top of which, there’s great writing in terms of the characters. One of Mr. Sedaris’ best themes is the relationship between the gay son and his mother. And let me tell you, these mothers of gay men are nothing like Amanda Wingfield. In one of the pieces, the son helps his mother get revenge on the women who seduced her husband away from her. An even more memorable piece is the one about the dying mother whose acerbic comments alienate her daughters while her gay son seems to get a kick out of her socially unacceptable behaviour. He doesn’t even mind her bequeathing all her worldly goods to the National Rifle Association.

One or two of the stories don’t seem to have any special resonance. In one, a somewhat deluded grad student stalks a famous writer. The only point of this story, I suppose, would be that it’s something that does happen. Another story seems nothing more than a young person’s fantasy about winning several Academy Awards. Again, the main point would be just that this is a fantasy everybody has – except that David Sedaris the anthropologist/novelist makes his presence felt in a vignette of a certain kind of small-town woman that the young dreamer meets during a long bus ride on his imagined trip to the top.

In a couple of stories, the humour is muted. A story about a guy who sleeps in his sister’s garage and looks after her baby struck me as being much like one of Raymond Carver’s white trash stories. Another story, in a relatively straight-faced way, portrays a decent young man who works as a humble gas station attendant at the behest of his pastor. You wonder: where’s the malicious humour? Has David Sedaris pulled in his fangs? Well, no, not completely. The satire is still there, in comments like the one where the young man notes that the gas station’s washroom is used for regrettable purposes by "confused and lonely men".

Maybe the most telling thing that can be said about Mr. Sedaris’ writing has to do with the way this review came about. A couple of months had passed since my first reading of the books and it was necessary to read large portions of them again to refresh my memory. That second reading turned out to be just as much fun – if not more so – than the first. Not many writers can do that for you.

 

Seasons On Harris: A Year in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides (Travel) by David Yeadon, 2006

Reading this book proved to be a divided experience for me: enjoying the material  but feeling annoyed with the writer. You could say it was like visiting a relative who lives in a really cool city. You’re glad to have your relative’s place to stay because there’s so much to see and do in the area. Only problem is that you have to put up with your host’s rather fussy habits and irritating chit-chat when you get home in the evening.

First the material. This is Mr. Yeadon’s account of the year that he and his wife Anne spent on Harris, one of the islands in Scotland’s outer Hebrides. We get descriptions of coastline: wild and rugged in some places; golden, pristine beaches in others. The weather sweeps us up in the turbulence of its constant changes: snow, deluge, mist, fog, glowing sunshine – often all in one day. I enjoyed the many visits with islanders, the constant cups of strong tea by the fireside, not to mention the scones, jam and other delicacies. It was sobering to learn about the banishment of poor crofters by greedy landowners and the enforced migration to places like Australia and Canada. Sight-seeing jaunts to the amazing geological formations of various uninhabited rocky islands proved interesting (although one guano-encrusted outcropping tends to look like another after a while). The facts about the weaving of the famous Harris tweed by individual islanders in their tiny cottages fascinated me and the culmination of the pleasure was my running to my closet and finding there a long-loved sports jacket proudly sporting the official crest of Harris Tweed.

But putting up with Mr. Yeadon’s writing and his banal observations was not so pleasurable. Apparently, Mr. Yeadon has had great success with several books of this kind. You get the feeling that he cranks them out a bit too easily. He has also, reportedly, done lots of writing for National Geographic. I suppose that could leach the soul out of anyone.

In terms of the writing style, you try to be forgiving about the many adjectives. This is, after all, a travel book, so there’s bound to be description. But Mr. Yeadon seems far too pleased with his ability to spin words. This proclivity tends to get out of hand especially when it comes to the weather. For example: "The only steady, mitigating element in this chaotic confusion is the North Atlantic Drift, or Gulf Stream, which at least, and with an admirable degree of constancy, soothes the more outrageous excesses of climatic exhibitionism." Or "....such a deceiving tranquility could be eradicated in minutes by sudden force-12 hurricanes seemingly conjured up by their own sneaky malicious volition." His skill with words pleases him so much that he doesn’t hesitate to make them up, as for example, his reference to "solitudinous" scenery. He also likes to use two words where one would do, as for example, his reference to "exotically odd" places.

One can appreciate the attempt to catch the flavour of the local dialect but, it gets tiresome reading page after page of speeches like: "Ah, a’ don’ think there’ll be much chance of that on our wee place! We’re too stubborn! I jus’ wish we could find more for our youngsters....things to keep them on island doin’ worthwhile work an’ such." You feel that you’re stranded in an endless run of Brigadoon. And speaking of dialogue, none of Mr. Yeadon’s editors seems to understand that "giggled" and "chuckled" are not words that can be used to indicate dialogue in place of the simple "said". Mr. Yeadon, should try giggling or chuckling a sentence and see what happens.

More annoying than those writer-ish ticks, however, are the lapses of intelligent thought. In describing a group of male and female teenagers in a town square, Mr. Yeadon raises the question of whether their Calvinist heritage has affected their mutual flirtation. But then he undercuts the subject with this useless comment: "But kids will be kids. Thankfully, I guess." While sitting on the edge of a cliff, he watches birds making swoops and dives that seem intended as a taunt to him. He starts to think maybe he could emulate the birds' acrobatics. "It was a dangerously seductive sensation." Really? One hopes the island’s drop-in clinics offer emergency psychiatric counselling. He visits an abandoned island where a tiny community of hardy Scots had lived a primitive existence for centuries. Although acknowledging that life could have been tough in some ways, he allows himself to be swept away by a romantic, sentimental – and utterly fatuous – longing for their "certitude and harmony".

After nearly 400 pages of this sort of thing, it’s startling to read that Mr. Yeadon considers Paul Theroux one of his favourite travel writers. I had been thinking, for a couple of hundred pages, that what this book needed was a healthy dose of Theroux-like skepticism. In distinct contrast to the latter writer, Mr. Yeadon falls in love with nearly everybody he meets. Salt-of-the-earth types, they all have a twinkle in their eye or an irrepressible grin. Such admirable, sturdy souls! Mind you, Mr. Yeadon does note that he encountered some islanders who exhibited narcissism and one-upmanship. Those blighters get only one sentence, though, and we’re quickly back to the wholesome, heart-warming folks that Mr. Yeadon encounters everywhere he turns. His bland drawings of them, inserted into the text, don’t help to make them any more life-like (although some of his landscape sketches have flair).

Sad to say, the character who comes off as the most cloying is Mr. Yeadon’s unfortunate wife Anne. She’s ever at hand, being helpful and wifely, encouraging and appreciative, with the occasional gentle tease lobbed in the direction of her husband, just to show us that the gal has a bit of spirit in her after all. I would think that any writer's painting such a sickeningly sweet picture of their spouse would be automatic grounds for divorce. Or at least for a definitive separation when it comes to travel.

 

Cold Service (Mystery) by Robert B. Parker, 2005

In this "Spenser" mystery, our hero agrees to help his pal Hawk avenge a killing. Hawk had been hired as a bodyguard but his employer got killed anyway and Hawk got shot up in the process. All the trademarks of Robert B. Parker’s mysteries are here: the fast pace (thanks mainly to short sentences and short chapters), the gritty realism and, above all, the trenchant, witty dialogue. Nobody can toss insults back and forth like these guys.

As for the relationships of the two men with their women, you could argue that they add a more human dimension to the story or you could see them as not much more than padding. But you would have to take account of the fact that Spenser’s girlfriend, the psychiatrist Susan, has some worthwhile observations to make when she gets involved in the case. As for example: "You need to know what you know, what you don’t know, and what you have to know. And you need to have it in mind. You need to know what part of what you want to do can be done now, and what needs to wait, and what it needs to wait for."

Still, I didn’t enjoy this as much as some other Parker mysteries. There’s a lot of palaver about Ukranian mobsters trying to take control of all the crime in town. Not very pleasant people to be spending your time with. And I’m not sure that I totally buy this business of guys like Spenser and Hawk taking the law into their own hands, even if the psychiatrist girlfriend does eventually give her tacit approval.

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