Dilettante's Diary

Dec 24/08

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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: Doubt (Movie); The Retreat (Novel); Burn After Reading (DVD); Frost/Nixon (Movie)

Doubt (Movie) written and directed by John Patrick Shanley; based on the play by John Patrick Shanley; starring Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams; with Viola Davis, Joseph Foster

Don’t blame me for giving away too much about this one. The preview practically says it all. It’s 1964 in a Catholic working class parish in the Eastern US. The nun who is the school principal (Meryl Streep) suspects the parish priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman) of an "improper" relationship with an altar boy (Joseph Foster). In the preview, it all looks pretty heavy-handed. Not exactly something I want to get into. On the other hand, here are two of our best screen actors having a go at each other. So maybe it’s worth a look after all?

Yes. It’s wonderfully-acted, preposterous nonsense.

The main problem is that we never know what motivates this gorgon of a nun She has only the slightest evidence to support her suspicions, yet she hounds the young priest relentlessly. She keeps saying that she's concerned about the child's welfare but clearly it's something else: this woman has no great love for her charges, or anybody other human beings. As villains go, this gal makes Iago look quite reasonable. I suspect that we’re expected to go along for the ride unthinkingly. The writer seems to be counting on a knee-jerk reaction: we all know about priests and altar boys, so let him have it lady! But if it wasn’t for that very contemporary sensibility, no sane person in 1964 could possibly have persecuted this priest so mercilessly on such flimsy grounds.

So maybe it’s not about the supposed "crime"; maybe it’s about the way one person can attempt to ruin another for no good reason? Maybe the fundamental dynamic underlying that theme is the clash of opposite personalities: one who enjoys life, is comfortable in his skin and the other who hates life and constantly has a burr under her saddle? Fine, then deal with that. But the movie doesn’t. We never know why the nun's hellbent on destruction. Without some such understanding, the movie has no more significance than one of the simplistic anecdotes the priest dishes out in his sermons.

To compound the problem, the piece is overloaded with corny symbolism and details that are supposed to make the carryings-on all the more momentous. Given the ferocious windstorms that keep springing up, the weather must be mighty unstable in that part of the world. On the other hand, do you think maybe all that meteorological fury represents something else? When the nun is having a set-to with somebody in her office, some mysterious power causes the overhead light to blow out – not once, but on two occasions. During one of the priest’s visits to her lair, the nun is taken aback when he asks for sugar in his tea and you can guess what that means. If you can’t, you might want to ponder the possible significance of the fact that he carries dried flowers in his breviary to remind him of spring. And just in case you haven’t fully grasped the difference between the worlds that the priest and the nun inhabit, we get a jolly dinner scene in the rectory with the priests' raucous laughter, contrasted with the austere convent table where the nuns munch silently and decorously.

And then there's the ponderous speechifying which shows up the theatrical origins of this piece. Characters often corner each other with long, stagey disquisitions about the meaning of life. As one who is partial to theatre and playwrights, I’m perfectly willing to accept such incongruities in the more life-like movie context; the playwright’s reaching a larger audience and his bank account’s growing too. But one speech was too much to swallow. The supposed victim’s mother (Viola Davis), when informed of what might be going on, starts talking about her son’s nature, making a plea for acceptance and understanding of his specialness. We’re supposed to believe that a working class mom, in fact a cleaning lady, would come up with such a line in 1964? Project forward about twenty years and she sounds like the chair person of the local chapter of PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays).

Given all these problems with the material, nothing in the movie jogged my brain in the direction of any new insight or discovery, nor did I feel for one moment that all the emoting was about anything related to the script. But those two great actors must have dug deep and found something to spur them on because the conflict is spectacular. Some of the scenes between Ms. Streep and Mr. Seymour Hoffman could be the best confrontations we’ve ever seen on screen.

After seeing the preview (many times), I was worried that Ms. Streep’s laconic, sarcastic style wasn’t going to suit a nun of the 1960s. I knew many nuns in those days and they all had a nun-like decorum drummed into them. However, Ms. Streep’s idiosyncratic approach grew on me; it helped a bit when we found out that she had been married (her husband was killed in the war). One could see how that might make her a bit less "nunny" than a young woman who was subjected to convent training at a more impressionable age. In some ways, Ms. Streep's character is a re-take on Ann Bancroft’s crusty Mother Superior in "Agnes of God", athough that’s more a comment on the script than on Ms. Streep’s assay of it.

Her performance is an object lesson in great screen acting. It’s a marvel to see how she can wring endless subtlety and meaning out of ordinary speech. I’ll never forget her hilarious delivery of the line in which she reluctantly acquiesces to the priest’s proposal that the Christmas pageant include such secular drek as the song "It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas."

Mr. Seymour Hoffman’s work doesn’t range over nearly as wide an emotional spectrum, at least not for most of the movie. After all, his character is centred and solid; he’s not constantly twitchy and irritable like his opponent. From the moment you first see him, you feel that this is the kind of priest you wanted in your parish when you were a kid. How is it that every ounce of his plump jowls bulging out of his roman collar, his bristling eyebrows, his small, clear eyes and his little white teeth express the accessible, loveable reality of a genuine human? Is it just that he has one of those faces that the camera finds empathy in? I don’t know. But I’m glad he’s there giving it to us, whatever the magic involved. And I’m happy to say that the script does eventually give him the chance to show electrifying emotional power in his acting.

His character’s sermon’s stretched credulity a bit, though. You’d have to wonder how long in the 1960s a priest would last who got into the pulpit and delivered himself of such chatty, theologically-empty remarks. On the other hand, we all knew one or two priests like that – guys who were just a little more human, a little more worldly, a little more "with it" than the others. The oldsters might have shaken their heads at unconventional behaviours – odd sermons, for example – as long as the maverick priests didn’t depart too far from the expected path.

Up against two such formidable veterans, Amy Adams is, unfortunately, completely hopeless as the sweet young nun who inadvertently lights the spark that causes the conflagration. Admittedly, hers is a thankless role. Her only real purpose in the piece is to provide a foil for the Meryl Streep character: guileless, hopeful optimism of the young nun versus the jaded cynicism of the older one. Still, I can imagine many a young actor who could have made the character more real than the wide-eyed, timorous wimp that Ms. Adams gives us. In fact, lots of young nuns of my acquaintance would have fit the part beautifully, projecting an air of ingenuous trust without losing the sense of a believable, grounded person.

With a movie like this, inevitably, the question of the authenticity of the Catholic stuff comes up. Errors in that department can ruin a movie for me – a bit like a doctor being unable to stomach a hospital show that gets the medical stuff wrong. You may be thinking that some such phenomenon may have something to do with my less than enthusiastic reaction to this movie. On the contrary, I’m pleased to say that most of the Catholic detail in the movie was quite accurate. The vestments and liturgical rubrics seemed historically correct. The draconian regime in school and in church – a nun patrolling the aisle and swatting anybody who wasn’t sitting straight – was completely believable.

Still, a few things bugged me. The Catholic school girls in the choir are always seen with crumpled Kleenex tissues bobby-pinned to their heads. That practice was something that school girls resorted to occasionally, in an emergency, if they didn’t have the required head covering for entering church. But it was not something that would be done regularly, and certainly not when they were wearing formal choir gowns. The altar boy in this movie goes nuts ringing the bells at the Consecration of the mass but I’m willing to accept that maybe some parishes liked more bell content in their masses than others. It struck me as quite implausible, though, that the nuns were constantly bidding each other "good morning" or "good afternoon" when they encountered each other in the yard. For heaven’s sake, there were only eight of them living like a family in the convent. Even the prissiest nun would hardly bid "good afternoon" to somebody she’d just been sitting with at the lunch table.

The faux pas that bothered me most occurred during one of the fierce arguments between the priest and the nun. At one point, he made reference to their respective "vows." Ordinary diocesan priests -- such as this one appeared to  be -- do not take vows. For such priests, celibacy is merely a regulation imposed on them by the Church. (For priests who belong to religious orders, such as the Franciscans or the Jesuits, however, celibacy stems from their vow of chastity.) You may judge the distinction trivial. For me, it suggests that the writer may be throwing around clichs about matters that he doesn’t fully understand. You could say that such flaws begin to sow the seeds of doubt in my mind about the whole project.

Or you could say that they make me wonder who the heck the film makers were paying as religious advisor on this film and why the hell they didn’t hire me.

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

 

The Retreat (Novel) by David Bergen, 2008

This is one of those books that I kept reading, not because of great enjoyment in the early stages, but because I was trying to figure out what kind of a book it was. The quest eventually turned out to be worthwhile.

But not without considerable confusion. The first thirty pages concern a young aboriginal man’s unfortunate encounter with a racist cop. Then we embark on what seems to be a totally unrelated story about a young family – parents and four kids. The aboriginal man does reappear about twenty pages later, although it took me much longer to realize it was the same guy. In the meantime, it transpired that The Retreat is mostly about the young family’s summer in a strange camp/commune near Kenora, in Northern Ontario in the early 1970s. There’s marital trouble among the adults in the camp and another important aspect of the story is the interface between the residents of the commune and some young aboriginal men living nearby. The main theme, though, seems to be the coming of age of the seventeen year old daughter in the aforementioned family.

My initial bewilderment about all this could have been cleared up considerably by a quick check of the publisher’s blurb on the cover jacket. However, I refuse to look at such material before reading a book. I want to get my own impressions without being bludgeoned by what the vendor, i.e. the publisher, wants me to think about the product. In any case, those blurbs usually tell far too much about the story, ruining much of the effect of the author’s skill.

In this case, one of the things that helped to keep me reading in spite of my doubts was the fact that it looked like there was some sexual initiation in the offing. Call me a boor but that always gets my attention. Apart from that, there wasn’t a whole lot of narrative verve to pull me in. The style of writing is flat, detached, uninflected and matter-of-fact. In the quotes on the cover, I now notice, author David Bergen’s writing is compared to Raymond Carver’s. Granted, there’s some similarity in the spare, clean prose of the two authors but a world of difference in the impact. Raymond Carver’s stories surge forward on tremendous undercurrents of drama whereas Mr. Bergen’s writing, in this book at least, feels like the sleepy musings of some mildly depressed note-taker.

Whatever Mr. Bergen’s authorial gifts, they don't include the portrayal of character. The mother of the young family is so flakey as to be hardly tolerable. For her own purposes, she persuaded the family to come to this godforsaken place where none of them are happy. And yet, when she decides to run off, she’s so narcissistic as to tell the dad, "This isn’t about you." Not to say that the dad is all that on-the-ball. About three-quarters of the way through the novel, he "suddenly" notices that his daughter is in deep shit – when she’s been up to her neck in it for ages. And what’s with that seventeen-year-old daughter? She sometimes bosses her fourteen-year-old brother as if she’s in charge of him and yet she’s stupid enough to let an off-duty cop take her to an empty house he has just bought.

While most of the central characters may be identifiable by their thoughts, feelings and behaviours, they create no impression verbally. No one’s speech comes off the page with any life-like quality. The "doctor" who runs the camp delivers preachy, idea-laden talks. Some real people do spout the kind of wonky nonsense he’s prone to, but his homilies don’t sound like natural speech. Similarly, the dad in the family is inclined to emit clunky, wooden paragraphs of talk. The speech of the aboriginal men doesn’t sound any different from that of the white characters. One Indian man’s speech, in particular, sounded unbelievably arch – but that anomaly was partly explained when it was learned that he had been largely raised by Menonites.

Nor is plot Mr. Bergen’s strong point. The novel meanders along, events that look significant flare up (a lost kid, a park sit-in by aboriginals), then peter out with no real consequences. At times, you get the feeling that this is just a bunch of stuff that happened to the author once upon a time and he’s trying to see if he can string it together to make a novel. It may have lots of resonance for him but it doesn’t say much to readers. Still, you have to give him credit for taking on the challenge of conveying the strange experience of this family in this bleak spot. I’m actually somewhat grateful to Mr. Bergen, in a grudging way, for bringing this dreary place in Northern Ontario into the literary world. The book certainly has a claim to uniqueness in this respect. Who else could have given us a romantic ride in a Cat tractor up and down the hills at a rural dump?

However, the quality of the prose – inspite of its being neat and concise – isn’t always what one would expect from a writer whose The Time in Between (2005) won the Scotiabank Giller Prize and several other awards. In The Retreat, three different characters tell a young woman, in almost identical words, that a boyfriend is "not good enough" for her (pages 126, 132 and 270). Within not more than about fifty pages, it is mentioned, of two different characters, that they didn’t notice they were crying until they felt tears on their cheeks. Twice, near the end of the book, the author uses the same image to describe the feeling of different characters that they were on the edge of a cliff and could suddenly tumble over.

Much of the time, though, the author frustrates us by not giving any image or description when a scenario cries out for them. In some cases of teenage sex, we get almost no sense of what it felt like for the participants, either physically or emotionally. In the first section of the book, a young aboriginal is abandoned on an island for nine days but we get only a perfunctory telling of how he endured the experience.

And yet, the book does have its strengths. There is a hypnotic effect to the slow, steady pulse of the writing. I found myself caring about these people and wanting to know what was going to happen to them. The atmosphere of the camp is well conveyed: the heat, the rain, the mosquitoes. You feel the day-to-day tedium for the teenagers, the aimless wandering from the cabins to the pond and into the bush. I was also impressed by the way the author shifts point of view so often and so skilfully. Usually, when an author hops among different characters’ thoughts and points of view, the effect is jarring, but Mr. Bergen pulls it off without a misstep. The result is that you eventually come to trust his authorial command over the material.

And, when he feels so inclined, Mr. Bergen gives us excellent detail. (Maybe the game is to make it all the more striking when offered by holding back most of the time?) A fugitive’s experience of hiding in a freezer in a dump is conveyed very realistically. A beach scene where an older sister cuddles her two youngest brothers while the other brother digs idly in the sand has the feel of truth – which becomes all the more striking when we see the same scene from another character’s distant viewpoint. An incident of transvestitism involving a drunk teenage boy comes across with gripping realism. The dad abandons his stilted vocal style briefly and delivers a surprisingly sensible and humane speech to his daughter’s problematic boyfriend. Some childhood memories of the aboriginal characters come through with great effect.

Probably the aspect of Mr. Bergen’s writing that garners the most acclaim is his tendency to break into the dry, factual narrative with bits of "fine writing" by way of striking metaphors and insights. For instance: "She lifted her head and listened to the sweeping of the leaves in the warm wind, which sounded to her like the distant cry of an animal, slack-jawed, hunting at the edge of the clearing." Or: "The long summer day rose and fell and the light seeped from the sky and darkness came, and to keep back the darkness they built a fire, their shadows indistinct against the wall of night that looked down on them."

In spite of the fact that their speech patterns aren’t distinctive to their personalities, the characters do sometimes get off interesting thoughts. It pulls you up short when a teenage boy blurts out his recognition of the fact that his mother doesn’t love her kids. His older sister, at one point, says "I don’t want to think. I want to feel and then act. Or maybe act and then feel. Thinking makes everything far too complicated." A man dying from a gunshot experiences fleeting images that seem trivial and irrelevant and are yet somehow poignant: a white boat, some deer and birds.

The book ends with this extremely evocative reflection on the tumultuous summer experienced by the teenage woman at the centre of the story: "About all of this, she did not know. Just as she did not know that in the autumn to follow, she would despair the heartlessness of the world and her inability to consume her own sadness. That, with the passing of time, what was precise and unbearable would eventually dim and gather a layer of longing, and as she would grow older and try to recall the details of the events of this summer, she would fail, and she would always lament that failure."

 

Burn After Reading (DVD) written and directed by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen; starring John Malkovich, George Clooney, Frances McDormand, Brad Pitt, Richard Jenkins, Tilda Swinton, Elizabeth Marvel.

The word on this one when it was showing in theatres was that the movie as a whole wasn’t much good but Brad Pitt was. That’s about it. If I could say exactly what went wrong and how to fix it, I’d be out there making a fortune in the movie biz rather than sitting here writing this review for free. However, what we do here at Dilettante’s Diary is try to figure out why some things work and some don’t, so here goes.

In the discussion features on the DVD, the Coen brothers say this project started with their thinking about roles they wanted to create for some of their favourite actors. Sounds like a worthwhile approach but, on the evidence of this example, you run the risk of stranding your actors in a story that isn’t good enough. The premise here is that John Malkovich, an analyst with the CIA in Washington, has quit his job and decided to write a memoir. A disk with some of his secret info is found in a health club. This leads to complications that are supposed to amount to something of a madcap farce: the intersecting of outrageous stories of various people from different walks of life; blackmail attempts; killings (some intentional, some not); spying and lots of sleeping around. Since many of the plot elements are too far-fetched, improbable and inexplicable – even for a farce – the story doesn’t engage.

But the more serious problem may be those characters the Coens created: nearly all of them are hugely unlikeable. John Malkovich’s repellent CIA functionary seems incapable of responding to anything in any way other than, "What the fuck!!!". George Clooney’s philanderer has a fruit fly’s morals and fewer brains (although Mr. Clooney does, admittedly, have a few good moments when his character freaks out). Tilda Swinton’s British bitch evinces no interest in anything but her own advantage. Frances McDormand plays a ridiculously obtuse health club employee whose believability, if there was any chance of it, is scuttled by outlandish over-acting.

Only two characters show anything like recognizable humanity. Richard Jenkins maintains his dignity as an ordinary guy quietly suffering from unrequited love. But most amazing of all is the performance of Brad Pitt as a doofus trainer in the health club. Somehow or other, Mr. Pitt has managed to make this loser fascinating, funny and loveable. Is part of the fun our history with Brad Pitt, i.e. our appreciating the fact that he’s playing off his status as the celebrated sex symbol? Maybe. It’s also possible that the character just happens to tap into Mr. Pitt’s authentic inner knucklehead, a secret self that he has great glee in showing to the world.

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

 

Frost/Nixon (Movie) written by Peter Morgan (play and screenplay); directed by Ron Howard; starring Frank Langella, Martin Sheen, Sam Rockwell, Kevin Bacon, Matthew Macfayden, Oliver Platt, Rebecca Hall.

We know what Richard Nixon did to cause his downfall. We also know about his interviews on the subject with David Frost. So what’s the story for a movie? Granted, it’s fun to get an inside look at one of the most important events in US media history, especially when it’s one that pertains to one of the bigest moments in US history, period. You can throw in lots of scuttlebutt about showbiz and the media – some backstage intrigue – to beef up the package. But where’s the central conflict to create a drama?

In this case, it’s not about luring the prey into the trap. Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) acquiesces quickly when half a million dollars plus are waved in his face. So the only problem in the first hour of the movie is for David Frost (Martin Sheen) to drum up the backing for the interviews. The major networks pass; why would they want a lightweight Brit taking on America’s number one boogey man? Most of the US print media, falling in line, deride the project. Frost decides to produce the interviews with his own team but even the advertisers they’ve lined up start withdrawing.

So far, the fare seems rather thin to me. We know that Frost managed eventually to get the show produced, so why should we care about his struggles to do it? To try to get us more involved, the script drums up a lot of noise about forcing Richard Nixon to face the trial he never had because of his absolute pardon from President Ford. It seems to me that there’s some sanctimonious posturing here about exposing a criminal when, really, it’s all just showbiz. Besides, who needs David Frost to bring Richard Nixon to heel? The drumming gets even louder when the theme emerges that this is a mighty battle against great adversaries – Frost and Nixon – and only one of them can emerge the victor. To me it seems a trumped up war cry.

But I did enjoy the portraits of the two men. It’s touching the way the plucky David Frost tries to keep his head above water as the ship is sinking under him. The rest of his team are in despair but he never lets them see the terror he’s feeling. He faces all bad news with a dazzling smile and determined good cheer. It’s only in his hotel room at night with his girlfriend (Rebecca Hall) that he lets his desperation show. On the other hand, there’s Richard Nixon, the weathered politico, brazening it out, refusing to admit defeat, trying to manipulate Frost with unstoppable gab, not to mention the occasional sly trick. The two men constantly jostle for steady footing, trading compliments and little jokes off camera to try to maintain an air of cordiality that’s actually under great strain.

Ultimately, the final session of the interviews is gripping, as Frost unexpectedly turns the tables and forces Nixon to admit something like culpability and to utter a sort of apology. Nixon’s loneliness, his regret, his sadness come through briefly. James Reston Jr, (Sam Rockwell), one of Frost’s team members, observes that that moment showed the incredible power of the television close-up. You have to wonder, though: does the power of this scene in the movie come from the skills of Peter Morgan, who wrote both the screenplay and the play on which it’s based? Or is the impact due to what happened in the historical interviews?

Still, a fascinating study of a character emerges in the person of Richard Nixon. Not someone you'd like or even admire, but certainly a human being fully realized in all his complexity: the conceit, the shame, the intelligence, the longing for recognition, the hypocrisy, the vulgarity, the sense of humour, even the fine touch at the piano when playing his own composition. At the end of the movie, you might even be surprised to feel a tiny twinge of compassion for the defeated man who still wants to be seen as some kind of decent guy even though he knows he's not an attractive "people person".

At first, I had a hard time accepting Frank Langella in the role. He has mastered many of the Nixon mannerisms – like the forced smile for any gathering of people and the arms raised in a big V, with the fingers of both hands also making V’s for victory. But I felt there was too much effort going into the acting. I don’t remember the exact timbre of Richard Nixon’s voice but Mr. Langella’s sounds too low and sonorous. There’s a heaviness to it, in fact a ponderousness about the whole persona, that doesn’t match my memories of Nixon. Mr. Langella’s acting is good enough, though, that you eventually stop fussing about the fact that he’s not Richard Nixon and you accept him as given in his role in the story.

No problem of credibility with Martin Sheen, since I don’t remember much about David Frost except for a vague impression of his looks. Mr. Sheen’s performance works perfectly, for me. Among the other actors, Kevin Bacon particularly impressed me; there’s something generous about such a distinguished actor taking on a relatively minor role as Jack Brennan, Richard Nixon’s personal assistant and advisor. Mr. Bacon adds a formidable element to the movie: the sense of a steely personality who totally believed in his boss and wanted above all to protect him from unfavourable exposure. In this small role, Mr. Bacon, I suspect, represents a large sector of the US population of the time. Another actor in a small role provides one of the best bits in the movie. Oliver Platt plays Bob Zelnick, one of Frost’s advisors. When the team is practising for the interviews, Mr. Platt gives a very funny imitation of Nixon fulminating against his old foe John Fitzgerald Kennedy, "who screwed anything that moved, you know!"

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

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