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Jan 5/05

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Here's the "How I Spent The Holidays" version of Dilettante's Diary.

Reviewed here: In Good Company, The Aviator and  A Very Long Engagement (movies); A Complicated Kindness (novel); The Terminal and Simon Boccanegra (DVDs); Sleepyhead and Land of the Living (mysteries).

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 embarrassed waiter.

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

 

The Aviator (Movie)

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 days.)

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.

Rating: C

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 so.)

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.

Rating: E

 

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 work?

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 doors?

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.)

Rating: D

 

 

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 heard him.

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.

 

Sleepyhead (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.

You're welcome to respond by email: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com