In Good Company (movie) written and directed by Paul Weitz
Sometimes I like to go to a movie knowing almost nothing about it beforehand. It's
fun to take a chance and see what I get. In the case of this movie, I'd heard something good, perhaps a headline somewhere.
The poster shows a middle-aged man and a young one: looked like it might be an interesting movie about real people.
But as I settled into the theatre for the matinee showing, the prospects were worrying.
The audience was about eighty-five percent female, divided equally into two age groups: those over seventy and those under
fifteen. Groaning inwardly, I began to suspect that the young actor was probably the latest hottie from some tv show; this
would explain the demographics of the audience but it would not bode well for my enjoyment.
As soon as the movie began, I remembered seeing previews for it. A middle-aged family
man arrives at work one day and finds out that, thanks to an aggressive corporate take-over, his new boss turns out to be
a twenty-five year old male. To say that the young man is going to be interested in the family man's daughter isn't giving
away much of the plot, since it was obvious from the previews. This is not a movie I would willingly have attended if I'd
remembered the setup. Should I go and ask for my money back right away? Or should I stay and give it a chance. Maybe it would
be good for me to see what people are watching these days?
The inward groaning soon become outward. (Chances are, somebody was on the point
of calling an ambulance.) I kept wondering: is this what people are like these days? Or are these actors merely impersonating
what passes for real on tv? Who knows any family were people toss off "I love you" as a knee-jerk reaction? On the other hand,
why can't a young daughter open her mouth in the family circle without something bitchy coming out? Why does a man's wife
of seven months have to be so mean to him?
It feels as though I am watching life on another planet. Is that just because I'm
too far removed from the "scene"? They all sound so contemporary and cool – but I can't even get the lingo. They keep
talking about being "cite", it sounds like. Turns out they're saying, "psyched" which, I take it, means excited or enthusiastic.
The only thing that interests me is the men’s neckwear. They all have expensive
looking ties, tied in such a way that there's a little crimp or a pleat where the long part of the tie comes out of the knot.
Now The Globe and Mail has recently told me that you should always have this little crimp in your tie if you want
to make a good impression. How do they do it? I've tried it and I can't make it happen. Is the problem that my ties are too
cheap, the material too thin? Do I need to buy more expensive ties? Could the expense be justified? (Fact is, my wife never
takes me anyplace where I can wear a tie.)
That's how my thoughts are going for the first fifteen minutes or so. Then something
strange happens: a terrific scene. When the younger and the older man have their first awkward encounter in the older man's
office, the writing turns amazing. It's unpredictable, funny, edgy and real.
Then another thing strikes me: the acting is damn good. In the case of Topher Grace,
who plays the young man, it's so good that it knocks me over the head. I'd like to see the movie again just to watch him more
closely. It would be impossible to sum up the complicated appeal of his performance but let's say he comes off as a funny,
attractive, well-meaning young man who always says the wrong thing and puts himself in the worst possible light. Maybe this
is a character well known to his fans but it struck me as something never seen on screen before. Dennis Quaid is very good
as his foil. (Am I the only one, who keeps thinking that Mr. Quaid seems like a kinder, gentler Jack Nicholson?) I also liked
Scarlett Johansson very much. After seeming somewhat out of place in The Girl With The Pearl Earring, her slouchy,
method-style acting is just right here. I didn't understand the sexual motivation of her character, but, again, maybe I'm
too far removed from the "scene".
And some of the actors in smaller parts are riveting. There's an office worker named
Morty or Morley (the credits went by too fast for me) who drew my eyes to him in every scene because he has such an authentic,
believable presence. Similarly, one of the women in the office (not sure we ever got her name), a woman with a large, rather
striking face intrigued me. She features prominently in the group scenes; she has hardly any lines but she looks exactly like
a certain kind of middle-aged woman you'd find in an office like that. In a restaurant scene there's an actor who might be
described as a buffed up version of Prince William, if you can imagine that, but he turns in an unforgettable moment as an
So there were many pleasures to be had in this movie. But why did they have to keep
sticking in silly slapstick: pointless car accidents, dropped casseroles, sprained arms? And mixed in with some of that great
writing, there were some downright clumsy bits: a guy excuses himself to go to the bathroom just to leave the stage free for
an "accidental" encounter between two other guys. Was the ending hokey and sentimental? Yes and no. In some ways, things end
as you think they're going to and in some ways they don't.
This is where life gets tough for the critic who has to assign a rating to a movie.
Much easier just say what you think about the movie and let people draw their own conclusion. But they crave ratings. Trouble
is, some things in the movie push the rating up and some things drag it down. So what is a guy to do? Cut the difference?
Go for an average? If you do that, you end up with a sort of bland reading and that isn't true to the movie. Where is King
Solomon when we need him?
Rating: Somewhere between C and D
For the first hour, I was thinking that this wasn't holding together very well as
a movie. It's a biography of a famous man who led quite a crazy life and so there's a hell of a lot to cram in. That's the
trouble with biography: you can't shape it and structure it according to the principles of good drama, as you can with fiction.
Not to say that his life isn't dramatic, what with his obsessions: flying, movies, women and germs. And it's interesting to
pick up sociological/historical tidbits -- like details about the development of the aeronautical business in the US, and
all the fuss about somebody spending a couple million dollars on making a movie.
As we rolled into the second and then the third hour, it struck me that this movie
is meant to have a grand, epic quality, something along the line of Citizen Kane. You know the kind of thing: "a
picture of a generation at the crossroads", or "a reflection on America as it comes of age, as seen through the mirror
of one man’s life." The style of the movie heightens the epic quality. Our subject is frequently caught in the harsh
light of exploding flash bulbs. This gives the feeling of a life lived in the glare of publicity. I think the white glare
also hints at his mental instablility.
The big question for me was whether or not Leonardo DiCaprio could pull off Howard
Hughes. In the first scenes, Mr. DiCaprio, fighting manfully against his image as a fresh-faced Hollywood cutie, strives a
little to hard to convince us that he's the billionaire man of action. Eventually, his performance evolves into a portrayal
of a fascinating and complex person but I never fully believed that he was Howard Hughes. That's the trouble when you're doing
a biography: you're up against our preconceptions of the character.
Strange to say, Mr. DiCaprio seems closest to the Howard Hughes we knew and loved
when his descent into madness leaves him locked in a room alone, naked and scruffy, with long, dirty fingernails, accumulating
his urine in empty milk bottles. (Maybe that's because that's the Howard Hughes I knew and loved; I wasn't around in his salad
Kate Blanchett has a thankless task in attempting to impersonate Katharine Hepburn.
We have to keep trying to overlook the fact that Miss Blanchett's looks don't come anywhere near Miss Hepburn's beauty. Miss
Blanchett has the voice down pat – a bit too pat, I’d say. That peculiar combination of patrician aplomb and tom-boyish
bravado sounds just a trifle contrived.
Alan Alda turns in a superbly subtle performance as a smarmy, scheming senator --
so very different from the persona we know from his MASH years. But, please, tell me that the aged look is mostly makeup!
I don't want to believe that the dashing male icon of my young years has turned into such a geezer.
Coming away from the theatre, it struck me how ironic it was that a billionaire egomaniac
could be portrayed as the embattled little guy up against the US establishment. Not that there wasn’t some justice in
Howard Hughes’ fight for his rights against the hypocritical forces that were trying to screw him for their own opportunistic
ends. But I couldn't help nothing how well that theme plays in these days of widespread cynicism towards politicians. I wonder
if it went down so well with the public back in the days when it was happening.
At nearly three hours, this movie was far too long for me. Maybe some of the politics
could be cut or some of the technical detail about aviation. I enjoyed the show but am somewhat puzzled by the reaction of
the crowds who seem to think they've seen a masterpiece. I guess what they like is that it's a real movie-movie: lots of thrills,
spills, excitement, action. Strikes me that it's the perfect date movie: glamour for the girls, derring-do for the guys and
tons of money for everybody. And there's something about seeing that long parade of today's movie stars portraying the celebrities
of the past -- makes you feel you're gorging on a big fat slice of American pop culture. Like any junk food binge, it makes
you feel good for a while.
A Very Long Engagement (Movie)
This is one of those European films that are unleashed on us every once in a while
in the hope that we'll be impressed by their arch, literary tone. Apart from the fact that this one is beautifully photographed,
I can find little to recommend it. I was fully prepared to fall under the romantic spell of the story about a young Frenchwoman
who refuses to believe that her lover has been killed in the First World War. But we see very little of their love affair,
which is disappointing. When the woman, who is an orphan, and who is crippled as a result of polio, hobbles down to the sea
to sit on the rocks and play the tuba for her long lost lover, I had to ask: isn't this verging on parody?
The worst of it is that three-quarters of the movie takes place in flash-back, with
voice over narrative by people reading from various letters or giving their own versions of past events. This is a style that
I find antithetical to effective movie making. It's especially problematic here because there is so much confusion about what
happened. The lost lover was one of five men condemned to die but, instead of being executed, they were set adrift in no-man's-land,
presumably to be gunned down by the enemy. The relationships among the five men were very complicated and, by the end of the
movie, I still had not figured out who had done what to whom. Admittedly, this sort of thing might have been easier to digest
if you weren't struggling with subtitles.
And what was all that melodrama about a Mata Hari type character who assassinated
people with shards from a broken mirror and with a hidden pistol connected to her sunglasses? And that albatross, what was
it supposed to symbolize? (This just in: it is parody -- unintentionally
But there are peripheral pleasures. If you like trench warfare, you'll get your fill
here. Endless bombs exploding, shrapnel flying, guys writhing in the mud. Me, I had enough of that in the Stella Artois commercial
that was playing ad nauseam in movie theatres a while back. In this movie, I preferred the post-war scenes that were golden
and burnished, particularly at the pokey little farm where the woman lived with her aunt and uncle. The aunt, a mountain of
doughy kindness was constantly dishing up delectable looking treats: stews, breads, pies and cakes. At least the movie does
not disappoint on the culinary front, which is surely the most important aspect of any French film.
A Complicated Kindness
by Miriam Toews, 2004 (Novel)
[NOTE: Apparently, some readers did not detect the sound of tongue-planted-firmly-in-cheek in the first paragraphs of the
following item. If you read right to the final paragraph, though, you should see that this is an out-and-out rave review.]
What is going to become of Canadian literature if a novel like this can win the esteemed
Governor General's award? How can we hold this book up to our students as an example of good writing? This young author does
nothing but mock the well-meaning people who raised her according to their best lights. If you ask me, Ms. Toews should get
down on her knees every night and give thanks that she was blessed with such a rich religious heritage because, without it,
what would she use as the target of her jibes to fill up her novel?
If this can even be called a novel. I mean to say, you have to read to page 105 before
this young woman even mentions the pain that is tearing her apart from the inside. For most of the book, she seems to have
nothing better to do than wander around her home town making wisecracks about everybody; the book consists of little more
than a daily diary of her witticisms. Granted, this sounds exactly the way a certain kind of disaffected young person today
would think and feel but should it really be published in a book? (Mr. J.D. Salinger managed it without all the bad language,
thank you very much.) And, as a parent, I shudder to think that children could be so ruthlessly clear-sighted about the faults
of their elders.
And who does Ms. Toews think she is, taking it on herself to come up with her own
style of writing a novel, to ignore all the well-established conventions? Who asked her to be a completely new, unheard of
voice in Canadian fiction? She doesn't know a thing about paragraph unity; she doesn't even use quotations for her dialague.
Much of what passes for dialogue is just the way people talk -- fragments and phrases, unfinished groping, inchoate murmuring.
What's artistic about that? It's just ordinary, real people talking just the way they always do.
What really burns me is that I was reading this book one night when I should have
been in bed because of an incipient cold and this author kept me up until after 3 am. I kept laughing my head off and couldn't
stop reading, long after any sensible person should have retired. And, to make matters worse, Ms. Toews then goes and turns
the whole thing into a gut-wrenching study of the vicissitudes of family love, ending on a note of such aching sadness that
I can't even talk to my wife about it without crying.
Well, let's just hope Ms. Toews gives us a breather before she hits us with another
one of these.
The Terminal (DVD) starring Tom Hanks, directed by Steven Spielberg
A guy lands at the New York airport and finds that, during his flight, there was
a coup in his homeland (some fictional country in Eastern Europe) and the US doesn't recognize the usurpers. A man without
a state, he's forced to wait in the international section of the airport until the situation is regularized -- about six months,
as it turns out.
Sounds like not a bad idea for a comedy, right? Then how come this movie doesn't
Maybe because that question is the result of many smaller questions. They start right
off the top: how is it that this man, who doesn't know any English, can understand enough of what he catches on the airport
tv screens to know about the coup in his homeland? Why do supposedly intelligent airport officials talk at great length to
a man they know can't understand them? Why would a man be allowed to build himself a bedroom in an unused section of the airport
without anybody interfering? Why is there so much silliness here: people falling on wet floors, people banging into glass
Is nothing but one big "dumb foreigner" joke? His funny misuse of prepositions, for
example. Mispronunciations of common words that makes them sound dirty. He sits at a pay phone all day waiting for a call
from a store twenty yards away. His most precious possession is a Planters peanuts can (talk about product placement!) which
he cradles on his chest when bedding down at night. When we find out what's in it and why he has traveled to New York, the
motivation for the whole escapade turns out to be about as compelling as something in a skit on boy scouts' talent night.
And what's wrong with that airport manager guy played by Stanley Tucci? He seems
to have something up his ass (possibly the Eiffel Tower). He frets about getting the Tom Hanks character out of the airport.
But why? Our burly visitor isn't hurting anybody. In fact, everybody loves him. He solves lots of little problems and gets
the whole airport "community" feeling good about itself. He doesn't even ask any questions about what's happening to him.
For me, though, the questions wouldn't stop coming. Like: could it be that Mr. Spielberg
doesn't do cozy, silly, folksy very well? (E.T. was cute but on an inter-galactic scale.)
By now your DVD viewing partner is probably telling you that it's just a story, that
you're not supposed to ask questions. Ok, fine. No more questions. Let's be positive. This is the holiday season, after all.
We’ll try to see it as a pleasant allegory or fable or fantasy or something.
Come to think of it, this is a movie that really wants to be a musical. Sort of Brigadoon
meets Moulin Rouge. In typical musical fashion, you've got the older romantic pair and the younger pair. (Only one
of them ends happily; nice touch, that.) Think of the fantastic production numbers you could have in the airport kitchen with
all those white-coated workers on their assembly lines. You could have plaintive little arias by the foreigner as be beds
down for the night, thinking of his home. More splashy production numbers with the cleaning staff and their equipment, not
to mention the construction crews.
Just one thing; does Tom Hanks sing? (Oops, sorry.)
Simon Boccanegra by Giuseppe Verdi (DVD)
The word has gone out that I'm open to gifts of opera productions on DVD. My plan
is to watch each of them a few times with the subtitles, and then without. I figure this should be a pretty good way of learning
some of the libretto. When I hear good singing these days, I really want to know the words as much as possible.
Knowing nothing whatever about Simon Boccanegra, I was surprised to receive
this DVD of the 1995 Met production (conducted by James Levine and directed by Giancarlo Del Monaco) as my starting point.
But I guess my benefactor (my son) figured that you can't go far wrong with Verdi. How true. This one very quickly won me
over. The plot seems a trifle rococo when you try to explain it in prose but it all whips by seamlessly with barely an awkward
moment in this production.
The main thing is that it's so operatic. The prologue ends with Boccanegra
being acclaimed the first Doge of Genoa, just seconds after he has learned about the death of the great love of his life,
the woman who bore his illegitimate daughter. Act One ends with a guy being forced by Boccanegra to curse the villain who
anonymously tried to abduct the Doge's daughter -- which means that the guy has to curse himself since he was the secret abductor.
We all know what a curse can do to spoil an Italian's day.
And Verdi does that father-daughter stuff so well. I think he squeezes his best juice
out of such scenarios. Is that a Mediterranean thing? You can't imagine Benjamin Britten tearing his heart out over family
relationships. Come to think of it, don't pretty nearly all Verdi's operas come down to fathers and daughters (sometimes sons)
with some politics thrown in?
As for the performances in this DVD, let's come right out and say this: it would
be great to have a really buff young couple playing the lovers -- IF they could sing like Placido Domingo and Kiri
Te Kanawa. But you can't have everything. Anyway, Ms. Kanawa was still a very beautiful woman when this DVD was made. At first,
I thought maybe maturity had introduced a bit too much wobble into her voice but she soon made me forget about that with the
sustained pianissimo of her high notes and her exquisite trills. Mr. Domingo is in as bright and ringing voice as I've ever
Robert Lloyd, who sings Fiesco, has a magnificent bass voice but he is one of those
singers who occasionally does the gulping goldfish thing, an effect which can be off-putting on screen.
What really makes this show for me is Vladimir Chernov in the title role. He got
my vote for Doge practically from his first note. Not only does he sing beautifully but he is so regal and noble looking --
such broad shoulders and such a fine profile. Mind you, he's better looking with his flowing locks combed back from his forehead
Jesus-style than with them trapped under that dorkey headgear that passed for a crown in Genoa in the 1300s.
My only disappointment in this DVD was that there aren't any special features apart
from a few historic photos from Met productions. I was hoping for some interviews with the stars, some backstage carry-on,
at least some notes on the making of the DVD. But I guess the Met doesn't want to stoop to breaking the illusion that way.
Still, I'm really sold on this opera DVD thing. To coin a cliche that I think may
have been coined before, it's like having the best seat in the house. Everything is beautifully clear. The sound is great.
The subtitles work splendidly. It's such fun to get close-ups, for instance, of Placido Domingo waiting for the storm of applause
to subside after his aria; or when, at the curtain call, Mr. Chernov allows just a glimpse of a sexy smile that we don't otherwise
get to see in his character.
(Mystery) by Mark Billingham, 2001
When it came out, this book was hailed in some circles as the crime novel debut of
the year. Presumably that's because of the unusual premise: a bad guy is trying -- by the perverse use of his medical knowledge
-- is to reduce young women to a "locked in" state where they are conscious but paralyzed and unable to communicate. In the
attempt, some young women have been killed more or less accidentally. The attempt to stop him makes for compelling reading
in a creepy sort of way.
One aspect of the book that works surprisingly well is that the author includes the
thoughts of one young victim who lies in hospital in the "locked in" state. We read her on-going internal monologue while
she learns gradually and laboriously to convey her thoughts to others by blinking in response to alphabetical prompts. The
flippant bitchiness of her internal state sounds just right.
The author also lets us in on the thoughts of the villain. He is never identified
other than by the third-person singular pronoun but we think we know early on who he is. This is another aspect of the book
that works well.
That said, there are a lot of cliches here. We have the rugged detective, an independent-minded
guy, divorced and at odds with some of his colleagues. The attempt to work up the antagonism back at the station is too obvious,
I think, and his tendency to lash out with his fists seems a little over the top. He is, of course, haunted by something that
went wrong in his past career. The frequent and enigmatic references to this are annoying because we keep wondering if we're
supposed to know about it from a previous book in the series. But that can't be, because this is a debut novel.
The writing is not what I would call top drawer. Infelicitous phrases abound. Often,
the attempts to convey the thoughts of characters are somewhat prosaic and uninspired (with the exceptions noted above). What
I think I'm trying to say here is that Mr. Billingham has not found a convincing narrative voice; he doesn't quite manage
to create a world where you can feel totally confident with him as your guide into it.
The ending was satisfying and clever, with a good surprise, if a little forced. Not
sure I ever did understand the villain's motives. Is this really one of the best books of its kind by a new writer in recent
years? The future, in terms of fiction, doesn't look very good for crime.
Land of the Living
by Nicci French, 2003 (Mystery)
This is the first mystery I've read by the much-acclaimed husband and wife team who
write under the pseudonym "Nicci French". On the basis of this book, I don't see what all the fuss is about.
Without wanting to give away any of the plot, let's just say the book begins with
an account of someone's undergoing a horrible ordeal. The writing is, at first, impressively vivid and has quite an impact.
But the account of the nightmare gets so intense and obsessive that I began skipping passages after a while.
The skipping continued through the rest of the book, but the intensity didn't. Once
the initial trial is over, the first-person narration is not particularly engaging. Much along the lines of: "I did this...and
then I did that..." Sue Grafton uses that style a lot in her alphabetically based mystery series but at least her narrator
is a feisty character. The narrator in this book treats us to a detailed description of a haircut and styling. Not to say
that a really good writer couldn't add something of interest to what we already know about that process but, in this case,
the account merely takes up time and space.
You'd think that having two writers working on a book would make for more ideas and
more complexity. Here, the story is ploddingly linear, very much limited by one person's point of view. None of the supporting
characters really comes to life. Some business about amnesia and the struggle to regain lost memories ends up only confusing
matters. To give the writers credit, I did keep reading to the end to see what happened but I wasn't very satisfied.