Amal (Movie) written by Richie Mehta and Shaun Mehta; directed by Richie Mehta; starring Rupinder
Nagra, Naseeruddin Shah, Koel Purie, Siddhant Behl, Maya Mankotia, Seema Biswas, Vik Sahay, Roshan Seth, Tanisha Chatterjee,
Here at Dilettante’s Diary we’re not opposed in principle to movies that celebrate goodness, kindness,
humility and generosity. Our preferred fare may seem to deal more often with the underbelly of life, but I’m willing
to consider a movie that celebrates the finer aspects of being human. Such a movie will get a more appreciative reception
from me, however, if it displays some subtlety and originality in its view of people and its thinking about the human condition.
The problem with this movie – which has considerable Canadian input – isn’t the central character of
Amal, a driver of a motorized rickshaw in New Delhi. As played by Rupinder Nagra, Amal seems to be one of those rare creatures
who is naturally good. How good? Well, he spends nearly the whole movie trying to take care of a child who was hit by
a car while running away after stealing a purse from Amal’s cab. Not your everyday sort of decency. One might speak
of Amal as saintly, except that he doesn’t appear to have any particularly religious orientation. There isn’t
much explanation for the way he is, no motivation to speak of, except that he seems to have had a virtuous father. In other
words, you just have to take him as he is. Such an uncomplicated fellow doesn’t offer much potential for character development
but, in spite of the odds, Rupinder Nagra manages to make him likeable and interesting.
Most of the other characters don’t fare so well because the script uses them as symbols for the sake of proving
a moral lesson: that a poor man can be more content than a rich man. We get: the wicked loan shark, the debauched playboy,
the nagging mother, the sleazy rickshaw driver, the corruptible lawyer. They’re all dragged out of a storehouse
of stock characters merely for the sake of contrast to Amal’s goodness. Spouting dialogue from the cupboard of
set speeches, none of them has a moment where he or she begins to seem unique or shows any glimpse of a truly spontaneous
humanity. They function, rather, as puppets deployed for the filmmakers’ didactic purposes.
One of the worst characters in this respect is a cantakerous codger who staggers through the first few minutes of the movie.
There seems to be no purpose to his presence other than to annoy people. In the end, he does turn out to have an important
plot function but you can’t help wanting to get his over-acting and his egregious surliness off the screen. One of the
silliest scenes in the movie has him interrupting a singer in a bar and then performing the singer’s song in his own
way. It’s one of those hackneyed scenarios where the unsuspected performer rises up and stuns everybody with a stellar
turn. Admittedly, I’m not an expert in the kind of music in question here, but there seemed to be no reason that this
guy’s hoarse croaking would hold anybody spellbound – other than the fact that the filmmakers couldn’t resist
the tired old ploy.
Apart from some glimpses of life in New Delhi – the streets, homes and hospitals – the movie has no life-like
pulse. Everything is staged and contrived. An especially awkward jump comes with the introduction of plot elements about the
death of a millionaire. The major tension driving the narrative – the timing of the announcement of the provisions in
the guy’s will – only works as long as you don’t stop to think about the fact that there’s no plausible
reason for all the palaver about the timing, at least not one that I heard adequately explained. A love story doesn’t
make much more sense. A woman who seems supercilious and cross turns around and more or less proposes to the man she was bossing
A couple of neat plot twists near the end impressed me but, for the most part, watching this movie was an exercise in trying
to repress my impatience with the artificiality of it all. It is possible, though, that having to read subtitles for most
of the movie prevents a viewer from feeling whatever natural flow it might have. Still, I think there’s got to be something
wrong when the experience turns into a language lesson. Here are some of the tips that I picked up. The words "carburetor"
"operation" and"post office" have been incorporated into Hindi. So have the expressions, "Sorry" and "Please." The word "sister" means "nurse".
And "Fuck off" means "Go away".
Rating: D minus (where D = "Divided" i.e. some good, some bad)
Michael Tolliver Lives (Novel) by Armistead Maupin, 2007
Apparently, Armistead Maupin has had enormous success as a writer: not just a string of novels but three tv series based
on his "Tales of the City." With the sort of bank balance that such exposure brings, it’s not likely that Mr. Maupin
will suffer much from my saying exactly what I think about this novel: the best thing about it is that it reads quickly and
In nearly all other respects, this is practically the antithesis of a good novel. Mr. Maupin’s beat as a writer seems
to be the inner workings of the gay district of San Francisco. In that setting, we get a cast of supposedly colourful characters,
none of whom are memorable or convincing. One gets the impression that this is a sentimental round-up of personages from previous
works. Mr. Maupin seems to be indulging in a fond goodbye to them all. At least one can hope that’s this is the
last we’ll see of them. The death of one character is so predictable and so stagey that she practically goes around
with a label on her forehead proclaiming: pay attention – I am doomed.
As for the title character, I don’t know whether such a lifeless creation can be said to "live". The back story is
that he has unexpectedly survived near-death from AIDS. Maybe if you got caught up in his struggle with that disease in a
previous book, you’ll want to celebrate with him here. If you weren’t privileged to share that earlier part of
his life, his smug pleasure with himself in this book may leave you cold.
The sex might too. Apparently, one of Mr. Maupin’s goals is to proclaim to the world how healthy and wholesome gay
sex can be. But the centrepiece of the argument – a threesome in a bed and breakfast – conveys about as much erotic
charge as a visit to a bicycle repair shop.
The worst aspect of the book is the narrator’s partnership with a much younger man. "Michael Tolliver" keeps telling
us how lucky he is to have found this hunky young lover who looks up to him as a daddy figure. I kept wondering if my resistance
to this scenario was homophobic. I don’t think so. If an ageing heterosexual wanted to brag about the luscious young
woman who had glommed onto him, I would congratulate him and wish him well. But I wouldn’t expect him to write a novel
to keep telling me what a lucky dude he was. A novel needs a bit of conflict, some struggle between the main characters.
Strangely enough, the only interesting struggle in this one comes in relation to the narrator’s family of origin.
Because his mother is dying, he’s forced to confront certain issues regarding his relatives – mainly the fact
that most of them are born-again Christians who aren’t exactly thrilled with what they euphemistically refer to as his
"lifestyle".You get the impression that the narrator wants us to despise these bigots. And yet, I found their struggle to
relate to him touching and believable. To me, they became almost admirable in the way they tried to reach out to him,
constrained though their efforts were. What does that say about a book when the only interesting people are the villains?
The Divine Husband (Novel) by Francisco Goldman, 2004
If you can’t make it to the end of the 465 pages of this tome, you’re forgiven. What kept me reading was simple
curiosity – the urge to figure out what kind of a book this was. A vague memory of an interview on Eleanor Wachtel’s
CBC radio show "Writers and Company" gave me the impression that the much-lauded author was worth paying attention to. I seemed
to remember that the book was a somewhat fictionalized account of the life of some legendary 19th century Central
American poet and revolutionary.
Well, it is, sort of. Said revolutionary’s presence pervades the book almost for the duration, but more as a thought
or an obsession. His actual appearances are relatively few and we don’t come to know him as a person. Virtually everything
we do know about him comes through the viewpoint of a woman who was in love with him – mostly from a distance. The story
of her life holds the book together but it rambles off into multiple sidetracks about things like Central American history,
the early years of the rubber industry, hagiography and aboriginal issues. Chronology is hit-or-miss at best and scant attention
is paid to a reader’s expectations regarding the structure of a novel. One long tangent, for instance, details the background
of a man who appears only as a friend of one of the central character’s suitors.
All these rambling, loosely-connected tales are conveyed by a faceless, nameless narrator who sounds like a garrulous but
observant story-teller who may, or may not, have some connection to some of the people and events. With respect to this narrator,
the book flouts – almost defiantly – the Hemingway dictum that fiction should "show" rather than "tell". There’s
almost no dialogue in the book and what there is doesn’t pack much punch. What you get mostly is the narrator’s
voice telling and telling, and then some.
But that voice does have a certain compelling quality. What caught my attention – and made me feel that I shouldn't
give up too soon – was the first section of the book, which describes convent life in late 19th century
in Latin America. The perfervid religiosity of the atmosphere came through with amazing authenticity. I kept marvelling at
the fact that a contemporary male author could understand so intimately the passion that motivated those nuns living in a
world diametrically different from ours. What especially impressed me was the author’s sincerity. You never felt that
he was ridiculing the nuns, even though the ridiculousness of many aspects of their lives was obvious. He was simply reporting
on the situation, without any judgement on it, from a viewpoint that was respectful and fascinated.
None of the rest of the book quite matched that section for attention-grabbing intensity, but Mr. Goldman does demonstrate
over and over that his greatest gift as a writer is to convey, as if from inside, the deepest yearnings and longings of his
characters. The sections where he describes the central character’s experience of falling in love have tremendous impact.
Just one example of the way he conveys the reality of the experience: he notes the tendency of the lover to attribute cosmic
significance to a coincidental meeting with the beloved. Equally convincing is his description of the ache in the heart
of the man rebuffed by the woman he loves.
Much though I enjoyed many sections of the book, it ultimately felt like wading through far too much complicated story-telling
without enough pay-off. Mr. Goldman tries to round things off with a kind of classic symmetry by telling us how various characters
ended up and how they’re connected to people living today. By that time, it was hard for me to remember or care about
all the children, grandchildren, step-children, cousins and their complicated relationships to one another. If you’re
smarter than me and can keep it all clear in your mind, the book may be more satisfying for you.
Falling Towards England (1985) and May Week Was In June (1990), Volumes Two and Three in the
series Unreliable Memoirs by Clive James.
The Australian cultural critic and novelist Clive James came to my attention through an interview on Eleanor Wachtel’s
program "Writers and Company" on CBC radio. No doubt some of his books are considered more important than these memoirs, but
it seemed that they might make a pleasant introduction to his oeuvre. These two books comprise volumes two and three of his
series "Unreliable Memoirs." Falling Towards England tells about his arrival in England, in the early 1960s, as a naive
young Ossie. May Week Was In June tells about his life at Cambridge and his gradual entry into the world of arts and
The only thing Mr. James has going against him as a comic writer is that these amusing books came out some twenty
years ago. Our tastes (at least mine) in comic writing have changed a lot since then, thanks to writers like David Sedaris.
Mr. Sedaris’ spare, clean prose has a freshness and immediacy that make Mr. James look fusty and prolix. In fact, one
of the main features of his humour seems to be the way he can spin out words. You’ve got to accept that this is the
way a certain kind of cultured Brit makes funny. So you get sentences like this description of Earls Court: "In those days
it was still nicknamed Kangaroo Valley but there were no obvious signs of Australia except for the foyer of the OVC, crowded
with young men whose jug ears stuck out unmistakably from their short haircuts on either side of a freckled area of skin,
which could be distinguished as a face, rather than a neck, only by the presence of a nose and a mouth." The dated style adds
a sad note to the humour.
Still, there are laughs to be had. The first book is much funnier, given its recital of the way young Clive botched
every job that landed in his lap. His luck with women who landed there wasn’t much better. As for landladies, he was
blessed with a bevvy of horrors that amount to a bonanza for any comic writer. In the second volume, the level of hilarity
isn’t as sustained because the author’s situation has changed. No longer the bungling schlepp, he is now on his
ultimately successful career path; we can’t feel so much empathy for him, as he’s no longer the pathetic clown.
He does his best at self-deprecation, emphasizing his slacker approach to his studies but you sense that it’s almost
awkward for him to deal with his undeniable successes. And the mention of future notables among his associates – Eric
Idle, John Cleese, et al – inevitably changes the tone. Fortunately, he has enough weird characters among his Cambridge
pals to add a little more comedy.
Given that these books are aimed mainly at the funny bone, intriguing insights provide an unexpected pleasure. This
one, for instance: "But whereas it is simply good manners to make a story about one’s ordinary human failings as entertaining
as possible, one’s extraordinary human failings require less self-indulgent treatment." By sprinkling these bonbons
through the text, Mr. James manages to convey some hint of his philosophy of life. It comes as no, surprise, then when declares
near the end of the book that the aphorism is his favourite form of writing.
Master of the Moor (Mystery) by Ruth Rendell, 1983
In 1983, the year of this book’s publication, Ruth Rendell’s career as a master of mystery was well established.
And yet, the first part of this book reads like a cliché of a mystery. In an oh-so-British
vein, you have this fanatic who boasts an intimate knowledge of every nook and cranny in the neighbouring moor. For the local
newspaper, our hero writes a column about the life of the moor with such drippy banality that even a small town newspaper
in Britain would surely refuse to print it. There’s some reading pleasure to be had in the murdered bodies turning up
on the moor but our hero’s surrounded with a repellent cast of family members who carry on in the most awful parody
of chit-chat. So help me, one of these idiots even screams and jumps on a chair at the sight of a mouse.
About a hundred pages in, though, a key character takes a very unexpected decision. Suddenly, we’re in psychological
territory, one of Ruth Rendell’s specialties. Alas, it soon becomes apparent that this character is a madman, with the
result that our interest wanes considerably. The book provides some satisfaction in terms of the working out of the puzzle
about the murders but it’s far from being one of Ms. Rendell’s thrilling thrillers.
Step-Brothers (Movie) story by Adam McKay, Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly; script by Adam McKay and Will
Ferrell; directed by Adam McKay; starring Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly, Mary Steenburgen, Richard Jenkins and Adam Scott.
You can imagine how a movie like this might work. This older man and woman, mid 60's say, meet, fall in love, get
married and move in together. But what about their sons, age 39 and 40? The two guys are under-achievers who haven’t
yet moved out of home. So they’re forced to move in with their newlywed parents. The scenario isn’t terribly implausible,
because we all know parents with sons like these. In this case, one son refuses to give up his drum studio in the spare bedroom,
so both guys have to share a room. Toss in some witty dialogue and you might have something like yet another spin on The
But that’s not what you get here. In fact, I don’t know if there’s ever been a movie like this. You have
two mature actors behaving like ten-year-olds. I found it a little hard to get my head around the concept of their characters.
Were they supposed to be developmentally-delayed or what? And how are we supposed to believe that their parents would discipline
them with "consequences" like denial of tv privileges, groundings and spankings?
Maybe it all comes under the category of clowning. I certainly did laugh a lot. But that may have had something to do with
the infectious laughter of a ten-year-old boy who was sitting with his dad near me. The kid was in ecstasy most of the time.
The scene that really got him going was the first night in the shared bedroom. The two dorks lie in the dark uttering threats
at each other, along the lines of "I’m gonna fill a pillow case with soap bars and bash out your brains." You can see
the appeal for a kid: it must be like a fantasy come true to hear adults saying the stupid things kids say.
As for the comic impact of the two actors, John C. Reilly has a slight edge, in my opinion. Maybe that’s because
we think of him more as a straight actor, but he never seems to be trying to be funny. We accept him as given. Will Farrell,
on the other hand, falls back on a too-familiar shtick of innocent wide-eyes and indignant protest that says: I’m
being a doofus here. Still he has great moments. His embarrassment about demonstrating his supposed singing skills hits
a note of genuine terror. His sexual comments to a gorgeous therapist also have a totally candid feel.
The movie doesn’t always live up to the high spirits of the two actors, though. There are some longeurs where clunky
plot elements lumber into action. Still, you come away with a feeling that maybe you’ve seen something more than
what would appear on the surface to be a slapstick farce. There’s a lingering sense of some nice satirical points scored
about things like job interviews, consumerism, careerism and, of course, the whole tricky business of parents negotiating
their relationships with difficult children. One of the slyest nudges at contemporary mores comes in a brief exchange when
the two jerks, attempting to act mature, exchange the mind-numbing banalities that pass for conversation in polite society.
A lot of the credit for the more interesting aspect of the movie goes to the supporting cast. Richard Jenkins, as the frantic
dad, is at least more animated than in The Visitor. Mary Steenburgen gives a nicely nuanced portrait of an older
woman struggling to maintain a balance between her roles as sexy wife and stressed mother. Adam Scott, as her obnoxious younger
son and super-achiever, comes across better than you’d expect in the movie’s most thankless role. Some neat
script-writing helps. As in this line, when he’s trying to reconcile with someone: "I’m not very good at this
Hallmark stuff but when I see you now, I don’t want to kick your face in...as much."
Rating: C minus (where C = "Certainly worth seeing")
Footnote: I had thought maybe there was an echo to the ten-year-old boy’s giggling but when the lights came up, it
turned out that he and his dad were accompanied by a little girl whose head had been hidden by the back of the seat. This
bothers me. Not so much because of the constant references to penises, testicles and vaginas. I suppose we have to expect
that young kids know about those things. But there was also sexual talk about stuff that some of us learned about pretty recently. Also
some acrobatic (although fully clothed) love-making. Nothing illegal going on, given that the movie rating simply required
anyone under age fourteen to be accompanied by an adult. But it seems to me we’re doing a disservice to our kids if
we don’t keep some dirty secrets for them to discover later on.
Boy A (Movie) written by Mark O’Rourke; based on the novel by Jonathan Trigell; directed by John Crowley;
starring Andrew Garfield, Peter Mullan
The first scene encapsulates the best aspects this movie. A young man (Andrew Garfield) sits at one end of a table in a
bleak, spare room. An older man at the other end of the table shoves a package at him. The younger guy opens it slowly. Andrew
Garfield spins out the moment longer than you’d think any actor could. It’s an object lesson in how a superb actor
makes an object special by his reaction to it. Of the many emotions that play across his face, every one feels authentically
and intriguingly human. His fascination with the gift tells you everything you need to know about this ingenuous, sweet guy.
Turns out the package contains a pair of running shoes -- appropriately enough, because the recipient has just been released
from prison. As a child, he and a friend committed a horrible crime. (For the trial, they were known as "Boy A" and "Boy B".)
Now he’s starting a new life in Manchester, England, with a new identity. The donor of the running shoes is the parole
officer (Peter Mullan) who’s carefully monitoring the transition.
And that takes a lot of doing. Our young ex-con, who has decided that his new name will be Jack, obviously wasn’t
hardened much by his years on the inside. In this sense, Jack’s character is the opposite of Kevin Bacon’s in
The Woodsman, although both men are confronted with a similar problem of re-integration into society. Jack, with his shy
grin and his luminous, trusting eyes, clearly isn’t a leader. As he gets a job, then a girlfriend, things seem to be
going ok on the surface but he’s still tortured by nightmarish memories and doubts about what happened to his co-convicted
So you feel a terrible apprehension for Jack and it never lets up through the whole movie. Scenes are photographed
in quiet, slow takes that keep you on edge. A cool, bluish light gives the whole film a stark look that suits Jack’s
situation. One lovers’ dialogue takes place with the participants in silhouette against a blank wall. Mind you, at times
I had to wonder if the minimalist decor was a question of artistic taste or economy. You could see why Jack’s boarding
house room would be pretty empty: that would say something about his status in the world. But what about the girlfriend’s
house? Or the social worker’s? Don’t people in Manchester produce any clutter?
That little quibble, however, isn’t the reason that I found the movie less satisfying than the opening promised to
be. What bothered me more were plot elements dumped awkwardly into what would otherwise be an entirely realistic study of
a character. A so-called rescue involving some supposed heroics seems contrived. A subplot involving the social worker’s
layabout son ultimately has a connection to the main plot but, most of the scenes between the dad and son seem superfluous.
Not to mention the fact that their Scottish burr makes it almost impossible to understand anything they say.
But the melodrama that cheapens the movie most is the fanatical reaction of the ignorant masses – fanned by the media
– to someone in Jack’s situation. The film seems to accept this nonsense as inevitable. I think such repulsive
behaviour by the public should be criticized. Possibly a criticism is implied in this case, given that Jack obviously doesn’t
deserve the contumely. But I wish the film had come right out and condemned the assholes who pour it on.
Rating: B minus (where B = "Better than most")
The Last Mistress – La Vieille Maitresse (Movie) based on the novel by Jules-Amédée Barbey d’Aurevilly; written and directed by Catherine Breillat;
starring Asia Argento and Fu’ad Ait Aattou.
Usually Catherine Breillat serves up grotty sex. In several of her previous movies, she seems to be trying to see how far
she can push the explicit sex in mainstream movies. In this one, though, the sex is all very decorous. We get some bizarre
sexual poses but they’re static and painterly. Presumably this suits the opulent, high society settings.
It’s 1835 and the Don Juan de tout Paris (Fu’ad Ait Aattou) is about to marry an innocent – and
very rich – virgin. But before the knot is tied, her devoted grandmother insists on hearing his side of the scandalous
story of his ten-year liaison with a certain notorious lady (Asia Argento). His telling of that tale in voice-over takes up
the first half of the two-hour movie. The rest enacts the aftermath of the fateful wedding.
It’s all very studied and slow-moving and gorgeously photographed. People speak in prosaic, sculpted speeches. We
even have a chorus of gossips commenting on the action in pithy phrases. Apparently, this is supposed to be a study of a terrible
love/hate relationship, one that plunges the participants into a hell of their own making. To help convey that idea, our hero
passes on a tidbit about thoroughbred horses: when they’re slightly hurt in battle, a thirst for pain pushes them on
to the point of getting themselves impaled.
The movie might have worked for me, despite the melodrama, if I’d been able to believe in the torrid affair. Unfortunately,
I’m sick to death of the cliché of the irresistible femme fatale with the fiery
temperament. Just in case you don’t get the message that this one’s really wild, the film has her smoking cigars.
But it’s not as if the fault is all on her side of the bed. Fu’ad Ait Aattou, as the lover, is far too pretty
in his bee-stung-lips, androgynous way. It’s so easy to see why she repulses his first advances. It’s
impossible to see why she changes her mind.
Rating: E (as in the Canadian, "Eh", i.e. "iffy")
Falling Man (Novel) by Don DeLillo, 2007
This was my first encounter with the work of the highly-acclaimed US writer Don DeLillo. On the basis of this book, it’s
not hard to see why his writing is so much revered. In this account of the lives of some New Yorkers in the immediate aftermath
of 9/11, every sentence seems freshly carved, with thought and careful attention.
The main focus is on a man and his estranged wife. On escaping from the doomed towers, he showed up at her apartment, presumably
because the devastation made him want to connect with their child. In the subsequent account of their lives, nothing is cliched
or predictable. On virtually every page, you get sentences which startle you with the acuity of their observation. For example,
this detail about fleeing the towers: "The noise lay everywhere they ran, stratified sound collecting around them, and he
walked away from it and into it at the same time."
So the novel provides great satisfaction to a connoisseur of fine writing. It’s somewhat less rewarding, though,
in terms of story or narrative momentum. People wander around in a sort of daze. Maybe that’s the point: the calamity
has shaken them so profoundly that they can’t get their bearings. They seem to have come adrift. Fair enough. You keep
wondering how they’re going to end up but Mr. DeLillo’s account of their lives doesn’t exactly grab you
and pull you forward.
One of the oddest things about the book is the dialogue. Sometimes, you get fragments of conversation, smidgens of talk
that seem almost inchoate. It can be hard to tell who is talking. Or, the two partners in a conversation can seem to be talking
about different things. Granted, this may be what much conversation is like in real life. But it can make the going a little
slow in reading. If you sit with it for a while, though, the effect gradually takes hold and you find yourself appreciating
the writing all the more.
Cut to Black (Mystery) by Graham Hurley, 2004
Detective Joe Faraday of the Portsmouth police is called upon to replace a brutally injured colleague who was working on
a top secret investigation. The project’s goal is to topple the local crime boss who has so expertly covered his tracks
that it’s virtually impossible now to find any direct connection between him and the drug dealing that everybody knows
he’s master-minding. But Faraday and his team gotta find something.
The book works well enough as a police procedural, if you don’t mind struggling with many levels of police hierarchy
and trying to sort out the endless strings of acronyms for law enforcement groups. For me, one of the best aspects of the
book is that the crime boss is a slippery character and the law’s dealings with him don’t go quite the way you’d
expect. In this respect, the book has something more of the appeal of a mainstream novel than a mystery.
In it’s other "novelistic" traits, however, the book disappoints. Faraday’s character for instance. In spite
of the author’s attempts to endow this widower with quirks, I find him dull. His birdwatching habit feels
perfunctory. His deaf-mute son comes off as a believable character but I've had my fill of detectives burdened with family
problems. Let's go back to the decent, level-headed dick who keeps his mind on his job and then goes home to a loving, supportive
spouse. Ngaio Marsh, anyone?