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June 23/08

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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: The Edge of Heaven (Movie); My Lobotomy (Memoir); And When Did You Last See Your Father (Movie); Belonging (TV Movie); The Bucket List (DVD); Being Shelley: The Poet's Search for Himself (Biography)

The Edge of Heaven (Movie) written and directed by Fatih Akin; starring Baki Davrak, Nurgl Yesilay, Tuncel Kurtiz, Nursel Kse, Patrycia Ziolkowska, Hanna Schygulla

In the first episode of this rather complicated movie, an elderly Turk widower living in Germany invites a middle-aged hooker to live with him. He’ll pay her as much as she made in the brothel; all she has to do is keep him company and sleep with him. From that unconventional beginning, evolves a cats’cradle of a plot linking far flung characters in action that moves back and forth between Germany (mostly Hamburg and Bremen) and Turkey (mostly Istanbul).

For those of us not familiar with that part of the world, the movie offers interesting glimpses of life in the streets and back alleys of Istanbul. Not to mention life in a Turkish women’s prison. The question of Turkey’s application to join the European Union comes up. And we see some left-wing agitation for more freedom in Turkey. Back in Germany, we learn how Muslim heavies can bully Turkish women living there. The tense stand-off between native Germans and Turks resident in Germany ends up as one of the key themes, although it came across very subtly to me. Probably you have to be closer to the situation to get the full impact of what the movie has to say on that score.

Among the actors, I especially liked Baki Davrak, as a young Turk professor in a German university. His brooding, thoughtful presence gives you the sense of an interesting man who’s always trying to figure life out. As his father, Tuncel Kurtiz shows that the genial old codger can turn into something quite other, while Nursel Kse gives us the sadness in the hooker who hasn’t quite given up hope. Nurgl Yesilay’s ballsy female Turkish radical burns with authenticity that sears you. At first, I found Hanna Schygulla as a middle-class German mother enigmatically bland but she ultimately shows the steel in her.

Although quiet and slow-moving, the movie is put together very succinctly. You never get more than you need in a scene. Frequently, a dialogue breaks off before its conclusion but the next scene shows the consequences. Still, the movie, at slightly more than two hours, would have received a higher rating from me if it had been a little more tightly focused, less desultory. I kept thinking that maybe this was the kind of rambling story that works better in a novel, where you have more time and leisure to get to know the characters and to settle into the locales. As in one of those sprawling epics of E.M. Forster’s.

Perhaps a subconscious memory of Forester’s famous "only connect" brought him to mind. Because connecting is what these characters cannot do. The thread running through the movie is that two characters are searching for someone, each of them for someone different. In both cases, the paths of hunter and hunted cross with extraordinary coincidence but without either of them being away of the proximity of the other. In the end, other connections are established but not the expected ones. That, I think, explains the title: nobody ever actually lands in the heavenly destination. Close is the best you can hope for. As far as I can tell, the original German title of the movie Auf der anderen Seite, means "On the other side" which, without the specific reference to Heaven, has a somewhat more ambiguous feel. Two violent, accidental deaths in the movie help to underline the message of the fleeting, chancy quality of life: make the most of what you have because you can lose it without any warning.

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

 

My Lobotomy (Memoir) by Howard Dully and Charles Fleming, 2007

The days are long gone when somebody could hold the floor at a cocktail party by talking about their operation. But you must admit that Let me tell you about my lobotomy would be an attention getter. Hence, my picking this book off the library shelf. A quick glance at some sample pages suggested the writing would be amateurish and banal – a succession of short, declarative sentences. Still, there’d have to be some interest in anything anybody had so say about undergoing that kind of an operation. A trashy good read, at least.

To my surprise, it turned out to be a very good read, nothing trashy about it at all. The direct, simple prose gradually becomes an aspect of the character of the author: no artifice, no posing, no literary pretension, altogether a "what-you-see-is-what-you-get" document. (No doubt, co-writer Charles Fleming had much to do with this effect.) Mr. Dully’s account is remarkably free of self-pity or melodrama. He simply tells the facts as clearly as he can determine them. Without down-playing the horror of what happened to him, he attempts to be fair, as far as he can, to all parties concerned. There’s no vengefulness, not even any anger. Just a certain amount of bewilderment and regret as he tries to understand what happened to him.

Howard Dully was twelve years old and living in California in 1960 when a transorbital lobotomy was performed on him. Why? That's what he's been trying to find out. The facts of his situation are that his mother had died and his step mother found him unmanageable. She insisted that something be done. (She has since died.) Howard’s father claims that she forced him to agree to the lobotomy. And you have to take into account the ambition and careerism of the doctor she consulted: Doctor Walter Freeman, the most famous lobotomist in US history. Among the thousands of patients on whom he performed lobotomies was Rosemary Kennedy, the unfortunate member of the famous clan. Dr. Freeman’s preferred method of lobotomy was the transorbital version whereby a simple instrument like an ice pick was inserted into the patient’s brain through the back of the eye socket.

Oddly enough, it’s hard to tell from Howard’s account whether the operation made any dramatic change in terms of his behaviour or brain function. Clearly, the severest damage was to his psyche or his soul. In the decades following the operation, he bounced through a series of foster homes, juvenile detention centres, jails, halfway houses and treatment centres. During those years of booze, drugs, petty crime and sexual recklessness, the fact of the lobotomy was constantly badgering him: why was that done to me? was I really that bad? He didn’t feel that he was – indeed, some adults had found him quite a normal kid – but maybe he was wrong about himself? Maybe the people who thought he was the devil incarnate were right?

Howard’s story, while gripping enough in its own right, raises two troubling questions about the way we live. First, you can’t get very far into the book without wondering what medical or technological innovations routinely practised today will be considered barbaric a few decades from now. But the more troubling question is what to do with a kid like Howard. There’s no denying that he was a handful and that his father’s second marriage had unfortunate consequences for him. Where would he have been better off? Various relatives had tried taking him in but they always gave up, given the various pressures within their own families. Howard seemed to fare best with elderly friends of his father’s who often hosted him on weekends. For some reason, though, they couldn’t take permanent responsibility for him. Should – or could – the state have intervened?

If there’s one message that comes through, it’s that you’ve got to communicate with your kids, to try to understand them. It’s no use yelling at them and beating them when things go wrong. Those were the only kinds of parental crisis intervention that Howard experienced. The closest he ever comes in this book to a complaint is this heart-breaking comment on those turbulent, childhood years: "But no one ever talked to me. No one ever asked me what was going on."

 

And When Did You Last See Your Father (Movie) written by David Nicholls and Blake Morrison; based on the book by Blake Morrison; directed by Anand Tucker; starring Jim Broadbent, Colin Firth, Juliet Stevenson, Matthew Beard, Sarah Lancashire, Gina McKee, Elaine Cassidy, Bradley Johnson

It surprised me to hear about this movie because the book on which it’s based didn’t strike me as movie material (see review Dilettante’s Diary, "Books" page, near the bottom of the navigation bar). In his published memoir, Blake Morrison told about growing up in a rural setting in the North of England, in a household where both parents were doctors. Most of the focus of the book was on the somewhat eccentric father. (A second memoir, Things My Mother Never Told Me focused on the mother. Review DD, July 18/06.) The dad’s eccentricities made for a somewhat odd childhood for young Blake but it hardly produced the Cheaper By the Dozen sort of family life that translates easily to film.

The film, however, by extrapolating certain episodes and focusing on key themes, achieves something perhaps more beautiful than the book. Certain things that were implied or internalized in the book are necessarily made more explicit here and externalized. (I suspect a few new incidents have been invented.) The result is one of the most moving meditations on the relationships between fathers and sons that I’ve ever seen on screen. You get the frustration, the bewilderment, the affection, the anger – all of it wrapped up in mystery. Going back and forth in time from various stages of Blake’s childhood (Bradley Johnson) and adolescence (Matthew Beard) to adulthood (Colin Firth), the movie conveys the on-going puzzlement, the never-resolved enigma of a son’s connection with his peculiar father. In the end, we come to see that some of the deepest meanings about life and marriage can’t be summed up in words that will satisfy a snarkey teenager. The truth doesn’t hit home till adulthood.

One of my problems with the book was that it was hard to see anything loveable about the dad. So the grief at his passing seemed a bit strained. The movie overcomes that problem handily by having Jim Broadbent play the role. I had pictured the original dad as a handsome, aloof, somewhat detached guy. But Mr. Broadbent blows away any such image, with his rubbery face, his infectious laugh and his blustering manner. No matter that he can’t communicate anything more than clichs to his son, that he constantly embarrasses the son in public, that some aspects of his life trouble the son – there is an ingenuous goodness about the old man in spite of it all. In other words, Mr. Broadbent makes you accept the humanity in the guy, flawed as it is.

Because of those flaws, he may not have had the coziest relationship with his son, but the two of them have some great moments. One of the best of them comes during a driving lesson on a sandy beach in a convertible sports car. With "Casta Diva" from Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma soaring in the background, the car swirls around and around on the sand. The windswept dad and son experience a mutual high. The exhilaration in the face of teenage Matthew Beard is unforgettable. You can see why, as an adult, he might mourn the old man’s passing after all.

Rating: B (i.e. "Better than most")

 

Belonging (TV Movie) written by Alan Plater; based on the novel by Stevie Davies; directed by Christopher Menaul; starring Brenda Blethyn, Kevin Whatley, Rosemary Harris, Anna Massey, Peter Sallis (TVO, Sunday, June 22)

This movie reminded me of the old days in Vancouver when a friend in the acting community would phone and say "There’s this great BBC play on telly tonight. You must come over and watch with us." What you’d get would be a very well-acted, quiet, slow-moving domestic drama about people bravely working their way through ordinary, every-day troubles.

In Belonging, Brenda Blethyn plays a middle-aged, childless wife whose husband has abandoned her for a younger woman. To add kick to the insult, the Blethyn character is left in their rambling old home tending the husband’s crotchety mother (Rosemary Harris) and other elderly relatives of his who are pottering around. The Blethyn character stoically goes about doing what she sees as her duty, even as the complications pile up.

Apart from a few instances were the old mother came across as crass, the whole thing was exquisitely scripted and acted, and filmed with loving care. About half-way in, it looked like we were heading for a hearts-and-flowers ending. But no, the proceedings kept on a steady keel, preserving believability in the face of problems that, for the most part don’t have any resolution, and showing that most of us have to make do with small victories.

I would have thought that such tasteful films had vanished from tv forever. So it was a great pleasure to discover one on TVO – uninterrupted by commercials! Which is why everybody should send money to TVO.

 

The Bucket List (DVD) written by Justin Zackham; directed by Rob Reiner; starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman; with Sean Hayes, Beverly Todd, Rowena King, Alonso Freeman

As buddy movies go, this one has an agreeably macabre twist. Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman play two cancer patients who have just months to live. So they embark on an adventure to complete their "Bucket List", i.e. all the things they want to do before they kick the bucket. (The Nicholson character’s billions of $$ underwrite the project.) True to all well-crafted buddy movies, you get a striking contrast of characters: the decent, solid, dependable Morgan Freeman character vs Jack Nicholson’s impulsive, don’t-give-a-damn libertine.

A premise like this one could result in just an episodic road movie. However, the two guys have enough personal issues to make for some drama. Only trouble is, this leads to some sentimental stuff about family, faith and the question of life after death. The way the issues are resolved isn’t particularly convincing, especially in the case of the Freeman character.

In fact, most of the worst aspects of the movie, gather around him. When he first gets the bad news about his medical condition, we get a close-up of his fingers dropping his lighted cigarette. That stagey shot sets the mood for his persona: everything predictable and clichd. Then there’s his corny voice-over narration. The script makes him an expert on the kind of encyclopedic information that always puts him well ahead of the contestants he’s watching on Jeopardy. What’s the point? Is this a way of trying to show that he, as a humble mechanic, is especially worthy of our respect, certainly more so than the sleazy billionaire? I haven’t by any means seen all of Morgan Freeman’s roles but I’m tired of him as the mellow-voiced, dignified, wise, noble yet folsky black man. I’m aware that Mr. Freeman strikes an empathetic note for lots of people – maybe women in particular – but not for me.

What makes the movie bearable can be summed up in two words: Jack Nicholson. That wicked grin of his – you never know whether its conveying malice, mirth, lechery or a combination or all three. That’s the kind of complexity this movie needs to keep it grounded in reality. In a scene with the two characters sitting by the pyramids in Egypt, the Nicholson character is recalling some painful business from his past life. His acting here takes my breath away. This is one of the few instances on screen where you actually see an actor thinking, not sure what he is going to say, catching himself in mid-word and starting again. Every actor should have it on his or her "bucket list" to perform so well before dying.

Given Mr. Nicholson’s prowess, it would be remiss not to note the remarkable feat of Sean Hayes in the relatively small role of right-hand-man to the Nicholson character. To handle a role that requires you to stand up to that megawatt force, to give back as good as you get, to retain your dignity in the onslaught of abuse and insult – and yet to keep your job as his helper and to hint that a certain affection remains – is a formidable accomplishment for any young actor.

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

 

Being Shelley: The Poet’s Search for Himself (Biography) by Ann Wroe, 2007

This hefty tome (452 pages, including footnotes and index) has the look and feel of a classy biography: quality paper, good binding, excellent layout, with arty sketches by the poet himself interspersed through the text. A short way into the book, however, you begin to wonder what the hell’s going on. Straightforward narrative and biographical fact are not the book’s main virtues. The writing seems to circle around and around certain themes. Then you notice that the four main parts of the book are titled "Earth," "Water," "Air" and "Fire". Subdivisions have headings like "Substance," "Chains," "Masks," "Immersion," "Reflection," "Daring," "Burning," and the like. Are we dealing here with biography or metaphysics?

So you turn to the introduction, to see if that will help you understand what the writer’s up to. And here author Anne Wroe, who is a senior editor at The Economist, explains that her book isn’t meant as a typical biography. Rather, it’s an attempt to get at her subject’s life from the inside out. She writes, she explains, not about the man but about the poet. Her subject is the creative turmoil that produced his poetry. Hence the skimping on historical fact in favour of myriad impressions and sensations. As such, the book is an experiment, Ms Rowe admits. Fair enough. A worthy endeavour.

For me, though, the experiment doesn’t work. Page after page, we get passages like:

In search of each ‘shadow which was light’ he looked longingly at night water under the moon and the stars. Almost always, he described the reflection rather than the actuality of the lights of Heaven. Like his Witch of Atlas in her hollow gourd, he could play ‘quips and cranks’ with them that way, sailing on pavements of the constellations or, like a skater, ‘circling the image of a shooting star’.

An occasional paragraph like that may not be too hard to take but a book full of them clogs the mental arteries. It feels like the work of a graduate student attempting to show how intimately she knows the poet’s work and how cleverly she can string together passages of quotes from his poems. But none of it adds up to any coherent thesis. You long for the author to say something conclusive about her subject but she seems too close to him to get a clear view. It’s like being offered an ocean voyage to Europe and then finding that you’re travelling by submarine. Lots of weird and wonderful sights down there but you keep wondering: are we getting anywhere?

Not as far as I could tell. After reading about 150 pages, then skipping ahead and finding that there seemed to be nothing in store but more wandering in the labyrinth of the poet’s confusion about himself and about life, I abandoned the book. Unfortunately, the few facts that I could glean left me with an impression of a gifted poet who was a pretty pathetic specimen of a human being. Hopelessly romantic, drifting from one passion to another, he seems never to have grown emotionally beyond the age of thirteen. One of his least attractive aspects was his penchant for seducing girls, wrenching them from their families, then blaming them for committing suicide when he abandoned them for the next young person. But I managed to spot one saving grace (apart from the poetry): he campaigned for Catholic Emancipation in Ireland.

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