Dilettante's Diary

Jan 26/09

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The date above is the date on which the page was started. The more recent reviews appear towards the top of the page.

Reviewed here: The Reader (Movie); Waltz With Bashir (Vals Im Bashir) (Movie); The Class (Entre Les Murs) (Movie); Orfeo Ed Euricide: Met Live HD Transmission (Opera)

The Reader (Movie) screenplay by David Hare; based on the book by Bernhard Schlink; directed by Stephen Daldry; Starring: Kate Winslet, David Kross, Ralph Fiennes; with Bruno Ganz, Lena Olin, Jeanette Hain

An apology may be in order.

My review of Revolutionary Road (Dilettante's Diary, Jan 10/09) wasn’t particularly kind to Kate Winslet. Not that there was anything wrong with my saying that I didn’t like her performance. That’s fair comment and it still stands. But my remarks may have implied that she’s not capable of playing anything but an upperclass, sophisticated Brit.

On the basis of The Reader, that’s so not true. Here, she’s anything but the cultivated English rose. It’s 1958 in Berlin and she plays Hanna, a single woman in her mid 30s, who works as a ticket taker on a tram. Far from being arch and glamorous, Hanna is blunt, brusque and, at times, downright earthy. She isn’t stupid exactly, but she has a peasant-like way of confronting reality head on. The Winslet beauty isn’t utterly eradicated – that would be implausible – but it’s much dimmed by her slog in the working world.

By a series of coincidences, Hanna connects with Michael, a fifteen year old school boy. One day, he helps carry some coal upstairs to her dingy flat. His face is dirty, so she orders him to strip and take a bath. Now, any self-respecting fifteen-year-old boy might wonder why she wouldn’t just hand him a washcloth and soap. But when Hanna bosses, you obey. Besides, there’s an affair waiting to happen and you gotta allow some plot gimmickery to kick it into action.

You’ll be glad you did. The affair plays out splendidly. It soon develops that, once the sex is done for the day, the lovers’ favourite recreation is to lie in bed while Michael reads to Hanna from the texts in his literature courses: Homer, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Mark Twain, et al.

David Kross in the role of Michael has everything the situation calls for. There’s his secret glee as he runs to his assignations with Hanna. There’s also the awkwardness vis a vis his school mates now that he’s leading a life so different from theirs. While the other guys are ogling the girls in the class, his mind is replaying the bedroom scenes with Hanna. His elusiveness makes for some difficulties with his family too.

The most touching thing about the whole business is Michael’s difficulty handling Hanna’s abrupt shifts of mood. You can see his confusion: trying to play the man without being quite sure how it’s done. On one occasion, his boyish sensitivity gets the better of him. He’s sitting by the bathtub blubbing and she’s lying in the water up to her chin, mute and stony. What transpires could be one of the most magical love scenes on screen. It's certainly the most understated.

After about an hour of the affair, however, we jump ahead eight years and a very different story begins. If you’ve heard anything about it, especially if you’ve seen the previews, you probably know the focus of this new story. But’s not our business to reveal such matters here at Dilettante’s Diary. I'll just say that there’s a trial and Michael, a law student now, attends as an observer. The issue at trial is an important historical one and Ms. Winslet makes an even more striking impression of her character’s Teutonic, matter-of-fact attitude to some bad stuff that has gone down.

But the relationship that was sustaining the first hour of the movie is gone. There’s no inter-action between Hanna and Michael now. Outside the courtroom, the movie starts leaping back and forth in time and location. Ralph Fiennes as the mature Michael, shuttles from one place to another, mulling on his memories of it all. Questions of guilt, responsibility and forgiveness get tossed around. A discussion about the tenuous relationship between the law and morality may be intriguing to anybody who has never given the matter much thought but I found it pretty routine – although Bruno Ganz did get my attention as a genuine individual in the role of an odd law professor who handles the discussion.

In contrast to the affair that opened the movie, the rest of the proceedings have a formal, stodgy feel; there’s no spontaneity. An important revelation arrives as the kind of surprise that even I could see coming. A tragic death is also predictable. After that, we get a big epilogue by way of wrapping up loose ends. Then comes yet another scene as a framing device for the whole story.

This kind of material works better in a novel than on screen, I think. In a novel, you can follow the main character’s thoughts and that provides continuity. In the movie, there isn’t much for Michael to do for the second half; he’s pretty much a bystander. In fact, it wasn’t until the last scene that it struck me that the whole thing was meant as a study of how Michael became the enigmatic man he turned out to be. A worthwhile investigation, but the movie version of it will probably be more satisfying to people who don’t read.

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

 

Waltz With Bashir (Vals Im Bashir) (Movie) written and directed by Ari Folman; art direction by David Polonskey; direction of animantion by Yoni Goodman; score by Max Richter; with Ron Beno-Yishai, Ronny Dayag, Ari Folman, Dror Harazi, Yehezkel Lazarov, Mickey Leon, Ori Sivan, Zahava Solomon.

Popular culture offers us so many choices these days. A person can go mad trying to decide what to see. You gotta simplify the process somehow. So I make it a policy to avoid animated movies. There are so many good movies with real actors that I haven’t time to catch all of them. To my mind they’re far more worthwhile than animated ones because one of the things about movies that interests me most is the art of acting. I love to see how actors can convince me (or not as the case may be) that the lines they’re saying, the parts they’re playing, are authentic. Without the art of acting, what does a movie give you? A story with pictures. If I want that, I’ll get a kids’ picture book out of the library – for free.

But everybody insisted that this animated movie was special – a serious, adult take on an important subject, rendered in a unique way. Plus, it’s nominated for an Academy Award. That wouldn’t normally carry much weight in my decision whether or not to see a movie but, all things considered, it looked as though this one warranted a suspension of my anti-animation policy.

Ari Folman, the narrator, director and writer of the movie, was involved, as a young Israeli soldier, in the Lebanon war in the early 1980s. A certain atrocity looms large over that event but the narrator, a middle-aged man now, can’t remember much of it. So he interviews various people who were also involved to see if their accounts of the operation will help to answer the question about his own loss of memory.

The question that was occupying my mind through most of the viewing was: why do people like this film? I concede that it may be of great interest to people for whom the (seemingly) intractable problems in the Middle East are a constant concern. We have to allow that with any book, play or movie: if it touches on a subject that’s vital to a group of people, they’ll probably get more out of it than the rest of us will.

And what does this movie offer the rest of us? It does give a sense of how confusing and disorganized a military campaign can be for the individual participants. Apart from that, the overall message appears to be that bad stuff happens in war. Some psychiatrists consulted by the narrator discuss the phenomenon of repressed memories. Perhaps this is supposed to be intriguing but the business of resorting to shrinks for simplistic explanations of things lost its appeal for me long ago.

But the worst thing about the movie is the style of story-telling. We get someone describing what happened and then we see it happening. A witness will say: "I decided to wait until night....". So we see night falling. "Then I decided to crawl down to the sea...." The guy is seen crawling down to the sea. "I started to swim...." He swims. "Then I saw lights on shore...." Guess what we see? There’s no natural-sounding dialogue, no lively exchange between any two people, just that constant narrative drone. Somebody needs to tell these filmmakers that the neat thing about a film is that you can tell a story without the need of a voice-over narration. Before long, I was wishing I could have simply read the accounts of what happened and saved myself a lot of time and money.

Did the visual aspects of the movie, then, not add anything? To be fair, the animation does lend a certain eerie look to the events that may make them more striking than if we saw them simply as photographed in real life. A lot of arty effects are created by contrasts between light and dark. Much of it looks surrealistic or dream-like, which puts me on edge, but some sequences are beautiful. For instance, the scene that gives the movie its title: a soldier circles round and round in the street, trying to avoid bullets while firing his own automatic weapon. Some of these gruesome sequences are accompanied by incongruously delicate Chopin waltzes or Bach keyboard pieces.

The animation of the human figures is two dimensional but very realistic. In the interview sections, the figures make spontaneous gestures like rollings of the eyes, raisings of the eyebrows. My guess is that these animations were based on video interviews because the pictures are well synchronized with the subtle inflections of the voices, which are, in most cases, the actual voices of the soldiers interviewed.

For all that, though, there’s a creepy look about it all. Apparently, the animators had trouble rendering the motions of fingers naturally. The characters look especially stiff and inhuman when they’re walking. With the result that I could never quite escape the sense that I was watching some sort of zombies. Admittedly this is an entirely personal reaction – but I was beginning to get a queasy feeling that used to be brought on by a certain kind of science-fiction-cum-horror comic that I loathed.

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

 

The Class (Entre Les Murs) (Movie) written by Franois Bgaudeau and Laurent Cantet; based on the book by Franois Bgaudeau; starring Franois Bgaudeau, Nassim Amrabt, Laura Baquela, Cherif Boundja Rachedi, Juliette Demaille, Dalla Doucoure, Arthur Fogel, Damien Gomes.

Not every movie that wins the Palme d’Or at Cannes causes so much buzz hereabouts. All the hype about this one makes you wonder how you could possibly not see it if you give a damn about education, kids, the future of civilization or the art of film.

On the latter point, it appears to belong in a unique genre. Or, at least, a rare one. The credits indicate that the film’s based on the book of the same name, written by Franois Bgaudeau, the guy who plays the starring role. So what gives? Would this be like asking Phillip Roth to star in a film of Portnoy’s Complaint? You can see why I had to look up some background, something that I rarely do before commiting my impressions to a review.

Turns out that the film is based on Monsieur Bgaudeau’s prize-winning Entre Les Murs (2006), a semi-autobiographical novel about his experiences teaching French grammar in a Paris inner-city school. Besides being a novelist, Monsieur Bgaudeau is also a journalist and tv host. Not to mention his gig as film critic for the French version of Playboy.

But it’s very clear that he knows the education scene like a scientist knows molecules. The Class makes other films about schools and teachers look phony. Take the opening scene. The teachers are greeting each other on the first day of the term. You can see that these are real teachers, the effects of the daily grind showing in their faces like initials carved in desks. A battle-weary irony prevails. But there’s goodwill too, if not an overabundance of optimism. One of the school’s veteran teachers is taking a new staff member through the list of students in a class: "nice....not nice...nice...not at all nice...."

As for Franois, he’s no genius, no super-teacher who is going to spur his students on to the heights and solve their many problems. No, he’s an ordinary guy but he’s intelligent, quick at thinking on his feet, well-meaning and, lucky for him and his students, blessed with lots of energy. He has his faults, though; he makes mistakes and suffers for them. But you get the impression that he actually likes teaching, difficult as it is. Is there something about Monsieur Bgaudeau’s face that lets the camera see all this? I don’t know. But when you’re watching this guy, you feel that you’re seeing a person revealed more fully than usual on screen.

Same with the kids. This class is surely the most boisterous, smelly, hormone-harried classroom that has ever come bursting off the screen. Very mixed racially, the group belongs in the category that we would call junior high – around age thirteen to fifteen: the time of life when adolescents are most impossible. (Word is that the kids are non-professional actors.)You can tell (rightly) that a lot of the inter-action is improvised. The babble feels spontaneous in a way that is both idiosyncratic and yet typical of youth everywhere and in every time. Laugh-out-loud stuff emerges now and then. When the teacher tries to convince the kids that the conditional tense of verbs is commonly used, they protest: when have you ever heard it used? He replies that he heard it used just yesterday by some friends. Their response: but is it ever used by normal people?

The movie takes us through one year in the class but that chronological structure doesn’t have much significance. In fact, you barely notice the progression of the seasons. It’s almost entirely interior to the point of being claustrophobic. (Entre les murs – indeed.) No scenes of anybody’s home life, nothing about anybody’s social life. It’s all about the classroom, where Franois is typically caught in the middle of a windstorm; you can barely hear his voice above the din. These kids challenge him on everything. One day it’s a girl who refuses to read a passage when he asks her to. Quickly, it becomes a stand-off, with her defending her rights and claiming that he’s picking on her. Another day, it’s insidious snooping by some boys into the teacher’s sexuality. He handles that one with deft psychological fencing, as he does the issue of one student’s Goth apparel. But he doesn’t always manage a clever exit from the disputes.

The first hour of this is thrilling to watch. As the novelty begins to wear off, though, a slight monotony sets in. Maybe it’s just that the endless struggle begins to take its toll – as in life. A few plot elements do emerge, various problems produce consequences – but none of them provides a thread that, in itself, continues throughout. In this, the movie reminds me of the great documentaries by Canadian filmmaker Allan King. He seems to have the knack of planting his cameras in some fraught context where, by good luck, little episodes keep springing up and providing something like a sense of an on-going story.

Like any good documentary, this one provides changes of pace. By way of relief from the turmoil in class, a strikingly quiet scene shows the cafeteria at the end of the day. The place is virtually empty except for a cleaning lady and Franois who is sitting with his back to us, smoking. The cleaner points out to him that smoking isn’t allowed. "Yes," he says, "but I thought that since I was the only one here...." In the staff room, a young teacher blows a hairy about his students, and his colleagues react with silent commiseration that says more than any speechifying could.

Other "behind the scenes" glimpses help to round out the picture. In staff meetings, teachers debate opposing views about possible disciplinary actions; obviously, nobody has the perfect answer. Interviews on parents’ night offer another slant on the whole business. Immigrants bask in the teacher’s praise for their studious child. Then there are the parents who haven’t a clue what’s going on, the ones who have to bring a child to translate for them. One of the most telling parental reactions comes from the woman who slyly insinuates that her son is too good for the school and the teachers aren’t pushing him enough.

Given that educators from across Metro Toronto are flocking to the movie like Evangelicals to the Second Coming, I was, of course, keen to hear the reaction of the high school teacher sitting next to me. Did she feel that this was a fair and accurate representation of the situation in schools today? After the movie, we agreed that it was difficult to make a precise assessment on that score because of some big differences between the Canadian and the French systems.

Firstly, some aspects of the running of the French school are difficult for us to get a handle on. For instance, elected student representatives sit in on meetings where the staff members discuss the students’ marks. That’s pretty much unthinkable to us. And yet, it produces some of the major problems Franois encounters. In fact, his school – I don’t know whether this is typical of all French schools – seems to put a big emphasis on democracy in the running of the school: parent representatives at staff meetings, for example.

But the more significant difference is that the French are still operating within a cultural system that stresses respect for authority more than ours does. For all their rowdy, lippy attitude, these kids are constrained by what we would consider a relatively strict behaviour code. The teacher never gets an argument from the boys when he asks them to remove their caps or hoods. The students must stand when the principal enters the room. (For us, that’s a throwback to the 1960s). The problem that leads to the climax of the movie is about a kid’s dissing the teacher. While there’s more involved than niceties of grammar, essentially, it comes down to the crime of "tutoyer", i.e. the kid’s addressing the teacher by the informal "tu" rather than the proper "vous". Compare that to what most of our teachers get called every day!

Still, there are many commonalities. The movie probably says more than any government-sponsored report ever could about the daunting business of public education. You come away with a new awareness of how difficult it is to get through to kids, to help them navigate their way through the complex world they live in. The frustrations are many and the victories are small. But teachers are doing everything they can. They manage to connect with most kids on some level and you can only assume that there will be benefits somewhere down the line.

The final shot of the movie shows the classroom standing empty after the last class of the school year, the desks in rows, a chair askew here and there, one or two toppled over. It’s almost as though you can hear the echo of the laughter, the quarrels and the taunts. There’s just the faintest hope in the clear, bright air.

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

 

Orfeo ed Euridice (Opera) by Christoph Willibald Gluck; conducted by James Levine; production and choreography by Mark Morris; costumes by Isaac Mizrahi; starring Stephanie Blythe, Danielle de Niese, Heidi Grant Murphy. Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus (HD Live Broadcast to theatres, Jan 24/09)

Orpheo boasts one of the great songs of all time. "Che far senza Euridice" ranks in the top ten, for sure. Which is not to say that you endure the rest of the opera while waiting for the hit tune. Far from it. The whole work makes a seamless example of early classical music in its perfection. I’ve listened to it on the radio, while frantically trying to follow the libretto, but this was my first time seeing a production.

So, what about the visual concept of this version? The dancers – who take up much of the ninety minutes of stage time – aren’t flitting about in tutus. Instead, they’re wearing contemporary street clothes (sweats, windbreakers, jeans, suits). And why not? We’re talking about the underworld, so who knows what dress code prevails? Contemporary does as well for me as traditional. Same for the choreography which looked not so much like classical ballet as like a fitness class that goes off the rails from time to time.

As for the chorus, it was Mark Morris’ inspiration to dress them as famous personages of the past. They represent, as he explained in a pre-show interview, everybody who has ever died. So we get Abraham Lincoln, Queen Elizabeth I, Cleopatra, Mae West, Charlie Chaplin and the rest of the gang. All eighty or so of them are arranged in horizontal rows on three levels in a mesh cage towering over the stage. They may sit or stand but, apart from a few ritualized gestures, they remain pretty much statuesque figures observing the proceedings like jurors.

At first this representation of the individual dead characters seemed like a neat idea but, after a while, I found it distracting. Instead of paying attention to what was going on at the front of the stage, I found myself wondering: who’s that Indian with the massive physique? Who’s that nun sitting next to Henry VIII? Is that white-haired guy Mark Twain or Einstein? Then I started to think: why would these people wear their crowns and tiaras and furs and feathers in the afterlife? If we’re supposed to think of them as disembodied spirits, wouldn’t it be better to see them in nondescript outfits like the ones the chorus was wearing?

Which brings me to the concept of the piece. I don’t know whether it was because the cleverness of the execution was constantly advertising itself but something made me feel somewhat detached from the proceedings. I never really got pulled into this story, never felt that I was involved in something that was happening to real people. Granted, I’m not much of a Greek-myth kind of guy but I’ll try to go along with any story for the sake of whatever emotions or insights it might serve up. But there wasn’t much to jog the heart or the brain in this one. Unless for these possible messages: guys should be careful what they promise and they should keep their promises? and women shouldn’t nag their guys?

Which is not to say that it wasn’t magnificently performed by orchestra, singers and dancers. The sound of the orchestra was stunning – perhaps too much so. I kept thinking that the blast of sound from stereo speakers wasn’t exactly what Gluck was hearing. I was longing for a leaner, more delicate sound that would enable you to hear the individual instruments and the different lines of the music more clearly.

Stephanie Blythe (Orfeo) has a gorgeously rich, full and strong voice and her stolid presence dispells any hint of femininity from the characterization. Having heard counter-tenor David Daniels sing the role in a radio broadcast (Dilettante's Diary, May 2/07), I seem to recall his singing as a bit more elegant and refined but it couldn’t possibly have been as powerful as Ms. Blythe’s. Her singing of the show-stopper "Che far" was a little less controlled and restrained than I wanted, a little rushed, compared to the performances of the piece by many singers in recital or on recording. But I guess those singers haven’t just endured a ninety-minute marathon where they’re practically carrying an entire opera on their own shoulders.

In the role of Euricide, Danielle de Niese sang very well – at least I think she did. It's hard to keep your mind on the singing when you’re confronted with somebody who's wearing a low-cut white gown and whose looks combine the best features of Julia Roberts, Raquel Welch and Sophia Loren in their prime. Very pleasant, for a change, to have an operatic ingenue who really looks like she could drive her guy wild.

Having expected a cupid type in the role of Amor, the god of love, I was somewhat taken aback by the, shall we say, mature sound of Heidi Grant Murphy's voice. Does that observation convict me of age-ism? Maybe not, because I came to like her perky take on the character; she reminded me of those cuddly, godmother types, like Angela Lansbury in the film of The Pirates of Penzance. And I totally bought her costume – dockers and a spangly pink jersey. Still, a younger voice would have brought a brighter, more sparkly sound, which is what I think the music calls for.

For me, the dancing really took flight in the triumphant finale. (Oops. I’m not supposed to reveal that much plot here at Dilettante’s Diary. But seeing that this one’s been around for a few thousand years, perhaps you’ll forgive me.) The dancers now wore more colourful costumes and they whooped it up in a way that vaguely suggested square dancing, to my eye. From what we saw of Mark Morris in the pre-curtain interview, he’s a really out there guy (a fuscia shawl over his shoulders, no less). So it wasn’t surprising to see some gay celebrating among two of the male dancers: one in a cream-coloured suit with a bright green tie, the other in a satiny purple jacket. They looked like they were having a ball.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com