Dilettante's Diary

May 10/09

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Favourite Works: 2004-2013
Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
Sabbath's Theater by PHILIP ROTH
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A Toast to 2012
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How Fiction Works
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Sex for Saints
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Zen Wrapped In Karma Dipped In Chocolate
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CBC Radio -- "The New Two"
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The Jesus Sayings
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Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 08
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Head to Head
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Notables of 2007
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Ring Psycho (Wagner on CBC Radio)
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Me In Manhattan
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About Me
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OTHER STUFF: Art Exhibitions, Concerts, etc.

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: Netherland (Novel); Doubt, A Parable (Play); Two Lovers (Movie); Observe and Report (Movie); The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (Movie); The Pool (Movie); Three Monkeys (Movie)

Netherland (Novel) by Joseph O’Neill, 2008

This book has created quite a stir. My library copy – apparently from the tenth printing – comes plastered with laudatory quotes from important media. Eleanor Wachtel featured the author on CBC Radio One’s "Writers and Company" and New Yorker writer James Wood devoted a major review to the book. Perhaps the biggest boost of all came from a New York Times note in late April to the effect that Netherland was the bedside reading of none other than President Obama.

Much of the admiring commentary about this wistful, almost elegiac novel runs along the lines: "Who would have guessed that you could make such an engaging book about playing cricket in New York?"

That sport figures largely because Hans, the narrator of the book, is nuts about it. In fact, it’s mostly when he’s talking about cricket that the mild-mannered, semi-depressed Hans comes alive. His flights of fancy about certain aspects of the game soar above the quotidian troubles of his life

A Dutchman transplanted to New York, via London, England, Hans works as a financial analyst for one of the big banks in Manhattan. His British wife, a corporate lawyer, has accompanied him to New York, where their son Jake has been born. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the little family is ensconced in a few rooms in a ten-storey hotel that caters to a somewhat kooky clientele. Things in the family’s little abode are not exactly blissful.

Which is one of the reasons why Hans takes so much pleasure in his stints as a member of a Staten Island cricket team. At one game, he encounters a Trinidadian referee named Chuck Ramkissoon, an impressive fellow who makes a stirring speech that resolves a dangerous crisis at the playing field. Now Hans is hooked on Chuck. We get elaborate redactions of Chuck’s grandiose plans to build a cricket stadium in New York and to draw the world’s attention to it. Cricket, according to Chuck, is just what America needs to make it fully civilized. He also says cricket is the way to world peace, particularly vis a vis Muslims and Hindus. But we gradually learn that, of the umpteen schemes that Chuck has afoot, not all of them are so noble. In fact, some of them are of dubious legality.

Clearly, Chuck is meant to be an entrancing guy in a larger-than-life way. It’s he that fuels most of the book’s forward momentum. But that’s the major problem with the book, for me. To make someone’s personality one of the main subjects of a book, you need a truly great character. I’m thinking of those unforgettable people at the centre of works like The Great Gatsby, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Humboldt’s Gift. You can probably think of several others; after all, it’s not an uncommon trope. Chuck Ramkissoon doesn’t do it for me. After a while, his eloquence, his shady dealings, even his colourful stories begin to pall.

Could it be, then, that author Joseph O’Neill’s greatest strength is not the creation of characters? This possibility comes to mind even more emphatically with regard to the narrator’s wife Rachel. She is supposed to be very intelligent but I find her unreasonable. In arguments, she pounces on poor Hans unmercifully. She can only see things her way and she resorts to emotional rhetoric to demolish her opponent. Granted, a novelist likes to give marriage partners opposing points of view, for the sake of some drama, but I found this woman so bitchy that it was hard to see what attracted Hans to her in the first place. The way he takes the brow-beating makes him look, from my point of view, like more of a wuss than the author probably intended him to be.

Still, it’s not hard to see what so many critics have loved about this book. In many ways, it gives a kaleidoscopic picture of life in post 9/11 America, particularly in New York and its environs. There are the constantly screaming sirens, the congested expressways, tunnels and bridges. There’s a Kafkesque encounter with bureaucrats in the Department of Motor Vehicles. But the more pleasurable side of it all gets full play: Coney Island, ferry rides, Macy’s Thanksgiving parade. We get a history of Brooklyn and a tour of a cemetery. One of the residents of Hans' hotel, a man in his thirties, traipses around every day in a shabby white gown with angel wings attached. One day Hans stumbles into a festive gathering in his hotel's lobby. Turns out it's a birthday party for "Missie", one resident’s dog. Several other residents have brought their dogs and the host presses a glass of champagne on Hans with the injunction, "Missie absolutely insists."

As narrated by Hans, the structure of the book is far from straight-forward. He hops all over the place chronologically and geographically. Surprisingly, though, author O’Neill manages all the leaps with great agility. One marvels at the athleticism.

At times, however, I found myself wondering just what the book was about. Yes, cricket is a major concern. And the narrator’s marital problems rate almost equal time. But, quite often, I found myself wondering about a particular scene or detail: what is the point of this? how is this moving the story forward? A section on Dutch nursery rhymes left me cold. I wondered what was the point in the spotting of a near-naked man in the woods while the narrator rides by on a train. As he’s trying to enter an office building, a woman barges out, sobbing, "Get out of my way." You wonder what’s going to come of that, but nothing does. Same with an incident of a broken tooth – it doesn’t lead to anything, contrary to this reader’s expectations. (Have I been reading too many mysteries?)

What finally tipped me off to the most important theme was the narrator’s mentioning, in retrospect, near the end of the book, that he hadn’t known what he felt while "brooding in New York City". The novel then came to be seen as a kind of journal of a troubled time in the life of a certain man. In that context, then, there’s room for the recording of even the most trivial happenings and the oddest thoughts that occur to him.

It’s in that respect that author O’Neill offers the most rewards for a reader, to my way of thinking. From the very first pages, I started making notes on the stunning aperus. The book teems with them. Sometimes, they come simply as vivid figures of speech. One that stopped me in my tracks was this reference to a cricket ball bouncing across the field: "...the flame of rolling leather, caught up in long weeds, almost always, was quickly put out." Hans says that the long-term residents of his hotel "by their furtiveness and ornamental variety reminded me of the population of an aquarium I’d kept as a child." On a jet flight, he looks down at "small clouds dispersed like the droppings of Pegasus on an unseen platform of air."

The most thrilling observations, though, go beyond facile metaphors to the expression of profound matters. For instance: "...even my work, the largest of the pots and pans I’d placed under my life’s leaking ceiling, had become too small to contain my misery." Then there’s this, about the bonding of guys in a workplace: their lives can be going down the toilet but there’s considerable comfort in the fact that they extend to their colleagues the reciprocal courtesy of taking each other at face value as professionals. In a lighter vein, and yet with rueful truth, comes the observation: "Like an old door, every man past a certain age comes with historical warps and creaks of one kind or another, and a woman who wishes to put him to serious further use must expect to do a certain amount of sanding and planing."

Many of the best insights have to do with the business of marriage. When noting that, in one respect, his wife has an inflated sense of his virtue, the narrator asks: "Who has the courage to set right those misperceptions that bring us love?" I was particularly touched by the narrator’s attitude to a young man asking advice about getting married. The narrator, in spite of his own troubles in that department, feels it’s his responsibility as an adult not to say anything that might discourage the younger guy. And here’s a gem that sums up just about all that can be said on the subject: a woman tells a therapist that she stayed married to her husband, in spite of some very rough passages, because she felt a responsibility to see him through life, "and the responsibility felt like a happy one."

That’s just a brief sampling of the book’s many wonderful ideas about the tricky matter of negotiating a life in this world. You owe yourself the pleasure of discovering the rest of them for yourself – even if the book, in some respects, doesn’t satisfy as much as the hype might lead you to expect.


Doubt, A Parable (Play) by John Patrick Shanley; directed by Marti Maraden; starring Seana McKenna, David Storch, Daniela Vlaskalic, Raven Dauda. The Canadian Stage, Toronto; until may 30.

Our review of the movie based on this play (see Dilettante’s Diary, Dec 24/08) provoked lively argument about the pros and cons of the script. Now, along comes the Toronto production of the play and the debate widens to include the question of whether the play or the movie is better. Everybody’s weighing in on the subject. So, it’s going to be necessary in this review, to make a lot of comparisons between the two versions of Doubt. That means that we’re also going to have to mention more plot details than we ordinarily do. Consider yourself forewarned.

In some ways the play is better. Its superiority rests on one important factor: the question of Father Flynn’s supposed guilt is left more ambiguous. The movie inserted a lot of details that made it appear much more likely that he was guilty. The play, then, is more dramatic – appropriately, one might say. The conflicts between the priest and the school principal are more stark, more stagey. In this spirit, Marti Maraden’s direction of this production makes the most of the crucial turning points –  those moments where something shocking is revealed or someone comes to a difficult decision. Portentous silences and drawn-out gestures underline the enormity of these occasions.

On the other hand, the movie does a better job of making the characters more human. We see more of them in their ordinary daily lives, in mundane interactions – eating meals, getting dressed in the morning, chatting casually, walking down the street – and these quick glimpses soften the effect of their seeming like mouthpieces or symbolic representations of certain points of view, which is how they tend to seem in the play. In that version of Doubt, none of the characters seems like a real person until almost the final scenes.

Unfortunately, though, it’s impossible to appreciate the play as a piece of theatre in its own right, once you’ve seen the movie. That prior experience robs the play of its suspense You have no curiosity about where the play’s going. Which makes it all the more obvious how threadbare and contrived the piece is. It involves a prolonged and elaborate setup to establish the characters and the situations, lots of prosaic, expository dialogue, without any truly dramatic interaction. Then suddenly, at the barest hint of misdoing, the principal pounces. She’s like a trap that has been waiting to be sprung. The phoniness of it becomes even more glaring than in the movie.

As mentioned in our review of the movie, the premise is preposterous. No nun in the early 1960s would have been as suspicious of a priest as this nun is. The playwright has imposed a 21st century sensibility on an era four decades earlier, a time when people did not have the automatic suspicion of priests vis a vis altar boys that’s endemic today. By sheer trickery, the play is meant to press our 21st century buttons, causing knee-jerk reactions among people who don’t take the time to consider whether or not the premise is reasonable in its historical context.

As evidence of that knee-jerk reaction, I cite the booing of several audience members when the priest made his curtain call. Granted, the catcalls were probably coming from some of the high school students on hand. (One might even applaud their vociferous reaction. It could be seen as a sign that theatre is alive and well if it can stir such response among the younger audience members.) But you have to wonder why there should be booing, given that the play is called "Doubt" and that the author apparently intended us to remain uncertain about the priest’s status. The reaction from the teenagers seems to me to suggest that the play, at its most visceral level, comes off as something of a melodrama, rather than a complex study of an issue.

Which is not to blame the actor playing the priest. David Storch is a very accomplished actor, whose work has been brilliant in many productions, and he does good work here. It’s impossible, though, not to compare his performance with Philip Seymour Hoffman’s in the movie. Mr. Hoffman brought kindness and warmth, even humour to the role. It needs that. You need to like Father Flynn in order to feel conflicted about the charges against him. Mr. Storch’s stern, rather aloof Father Flynn seems a pathetic, lonely man. You feel sorry for him but you can’t like him and that robs the play of much of its impact.

If we can speak of a few details of the performance without being accused of nit-picking – The blonde swatches in Mr. Storch’s black hair struck me as inappropriate to the historical setting of the play. That may seem a minor detail but it constituted a considerable distraction for me. And it seemed, at times, that Mr. Storch was concentrating so much on producing a perfect Bronx accent – which he does very well – that he was forgetting to inject personality into the character. It was only in the final confrontation with the school principal that he shed his prim self-consciousness and sparks truly began to fly.

Comparisons with the movie are also inescapable in the case of Seana McKenna’s performance as the principal. Undoubtedly, this has much to do with the great similarity in the looks of the two women involved, but Ms. McKenna doesn’t manage to bring anything new or different to the role that wasn’t already there in Meryl Streep’s performance. If anything, Ms. McKenna misses the irony, the laconic wit that made Ms. Streep’s essay on the role more fully-rounded and more interesting. None of which is to say, however, that Ms. McKenna doesn’t do a skilfull job of acting.

Sad to say, Daniela Vlaskalic in the role of the younger nun seems completely adrift. According to the program notes, Ms. Vlaskalic is unquestionably an accomplished actor and she does demonstrate a certain technical proficiency in matters of timing and movement. But she appears to have no idea how to make a believable person of this character. Her idea of a naive nun comes off as something like a gormless twit. The long, slow delivery of some speeches, with momentous pauses between the words, makes it sound as though the poor nun is not only innocent but brain-damaged. Or maybe the actor is doing great work and I’m just not getting it? For me, though, this performance of the character makes the movie version by Amy Adams (with which we were not at all impressed) look great.

One of the production’s bright spots (among very few) is the appearance of Raven Dauda as the mother of Father Flynn’s supposed victim. Although Ms. Dauda is a bit restless physically (I wish she’d sit still more), she seemed absolutely authentic, totally real and believable. Unexpectedly, I found myself deeply moved by her struggling, somewhat disadvantaged mother up against the haughty authority of the school principal. The writing of this scene makes their encounter dizzying – the playwright throws ideas around so wildly that it’s harder to follow the changes of direction than to keep your eye on the puck in an NHL playoff game – but Ms. Dauda's projection of resolute strength of character kept me watching.

Still, the question raised by the movie remains: is this a good piece of writing or not? Admittedly, not everybody reacted as simplistically as some of the high school kids did. The older members of the audience seemed very worked up as they filed out of the theatre. The lobby was packed for the post-matinee discussion of the play. No doubt the argument will go on and on: was Father Flynn guilty or not?

The fact that the playwright has got people so riled up is probably cited as proof that he has created a good piece of theatre. I gladly congratulate him on the commercial success of the piece but I’m not sure that leaving people in a state of  bewilderment is evidence of theatrical mastery. When you come out of a performance of Macbeth or King Lear or Julius Caesar, are you in any doubt as to what went down and who did – or didn’t – do wrong?

But let’s suppose that that’s not the main point of the play. The playwright has sub-titled it "A Parable", after all. If that’s not just a pretentious pose, it may be meant to indicate that the play’s about things other than the question of Father Flynn’s guilt. Maybe the play’s meant to get us thinking about things like faith and certainty versus ambiguity. I’d be fine with that. There certainly are hints of such themes.

But then we get fatuous twaddle like the older nun’s statement that when a person tries to address wrong, it’s necessary to take a few steps away from God. I don’t see how that line can have any purpose other than to strike a theatrical-sounding but essentially empty note. Then we have the nun admitting that she lied in order to trap the priest. So the end justifies the means now? And just in case we’re in danger of heading home in anything less than a state of complete befuddlement, she tosses off the curtain line that reveals that, in spite of her utter conviction which formed the backbone of the play, she’s in just as much doubt as everybody.

Thanks very much, Mr. Shanley.

It’s one thing to raise questions and get us talking about issues but it doesn’t strike me as being so very helpful to throw a lot of gobbledy-gook at us that does nothing in the way of enhancing our understanding of human nature but only produces a lot of confusion. It may make for good box office but I think it’s more gimmickry than great playwriting.


Two Lovers (Movie) written by James Gray and Ric Menello; directed by James Gray; starring Joaquin Phoenix, Gwyneth Paltrow, Vinessa Shaw, Moni Moshonov, Isabella Rossellini, Bob Ari, Julie Budd, Elias Koteas

In our reviews here at Dilettante’s Diary, we try to avoid gossip about performers and artists. But it’s gonna be impossible to talk about the effect of Joaquin Phoenix’s work in this movie without reference to his personal situation.

For me, the highlight of this year’s Oscar celebration was Ben Stiller’s wicked re-enactment of Mr. Phoenix’s infamous flame-out on David Letterman’s show, wherein the actor claimed that Two Lovers marked the end of his acting career. Whether that gum-chewing, messy-haired, mumbling appearance on Letterman had to do with a nervous breakdown or just a bad mood in a spoiled brat, nobody seems to know. On the basis of Mr. Phoenix’s performance in Two Lovers, however, it seems that maybe the tv fiasco was a demonstration of the phenomenon whereby very talented artists sometimes go weird. Vincent Van Gogh cut off his ear, didn’t he? Eric Satie refused to open his rolled umbrella on rainy days lest it get wet.

In Two Lovers, Mr. Phoenix proves that he belongs in such elite company. With astounding artistry and skill, he conveys the subtle, shifting moods of an intriguing character. His presence on screen is fascinating in every scene.

The role is Leonard, the thirty-something Jewish son of a dry cleaner who’s in the process of selling his business. Leonard lives with his parents in their cluttered, old-fashioned apartment in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. He’s on some sort of medication, he may have a bi-polar disorder and he may be suicidal. About a year ago, his engagement ended tragically. His parents so want him to get involved with the nice daughter of the guy who’s buying their business but Leonard’s infatuated with a wild and crazy woman who lives upstairs. She, however, thinks of him mainly as a "brother".

It’s beautiful– and at the same time painful – to watch Mr. Phoenix negotiate the tricky steps of this man’s difficult life. You can see him trying to be the polite, congenial person that everybody wants him to be, going through the motions of being civilized and "normal". Yet, there’s always something deep and dark lurking under his black eyebrows. Now and then, a comical streak comes to the surface, which makes you see how loveable he could be and why people hope so much for him. But the moments when he comes most alive, when he seems most to be his true self, are when, not always accidentally, he bumps into that woman who lives upstairs. The fact that this looks like a hopeless quest on his part makes the sight of his high spirits discomfiting.

Mr. Phoenix’s portrayal of all this is authentic in every detail, except, perhaps, for a dorky walk and a few stilted physical moves that sometimes crop up. Mr. Phoenix seems to be in danger of falling into the Daniel Daw Lewis style of artificial acting in those moments but they pass quickly. The essence of the art is in the voice and the face, in which departments the performance is complete perfection.

You can't help wondering, then, whether Mr. Phoenix's personal problems had anything to do with the power of his acting here. Was he managing to channel some of his inner turmoil into the role of Leonard? Or was he giving his all because he knew this would be his swan song? I don't know what was going on; I'm just glad a camera was on hand to capture it.

Amazingly – is it the direction? – all the people in Leonard’s life support Joaquin Phoenix with a level of acting to match his. Even Bob Ari, in what could have been a relatively insignificant role as a prospective father-in-law, has some very telling moments. Julie Budd, as his wife, in a virtually mute role, just by her smiling presence makes the impression of a very real, familiar character. Elias Koteas (a Canadian well known from his appearances in Atom Egoyan’s early films) catches just the right combination of dignity, good manners, sex appeal and sleaze in a middle-aged philanderer.

I was particularly moved by Leonard’s parents [Isabella Rosellini and Moni Moshonov]. Their hearts are clearly breaking with love for him as they keep watching him out of the corner of their eyes, even spying on him in his bedroom when necessary, yet trying to give him space and freedom, trying not to show their worry about him. One breath-taking moment comes when Isabella Rosellini watches him getting dolled up for a night out. "You’re so handsome," she coos, glowingly. One shot of her face sums up everything about a mother’s love, pride, worry and fear for her troubled progeny.

As for the two younger women in Leonard’s life, you might almost wonder which of them is intended as the one coupled with Leonard in the Two Lovers title. The situation is more of a threesome, really, than a twosome. It’s obvious where Leonard’s stronger feelings are headed but, given the development of that relationship, the use of the term "lovers" to describe the two people involved is almost a joke. I found the character of the woman upstairs a little hard to get a handle on; she’s by no means as transparent as Leonard, but Gwyneth Paltrow does a very good job of catching the woman’s flighty, shifting moods: the carefree, reckless, go-for-it bravado that tries to mask her desperation. Vinessa Shaw is particularly fine as the other girl, the one who’s conventionally nice, but not so much so that she can’t joke about the way she and Leonard are thrown together. In fact, the role of the less sexy woman seems to suit Ms. Shaw so well that one fears for her career lest she be stuck in such roles.

Even the writing stands out as remarkably strong. Some scenes create tremendous tension in situations where you’re not expecting it: an encounter between Leonard and the prospective father-in-law, for instance; and a meeting with his mother on the stairs outside their apartment at a crucial turning point. My only quibble with the script is that, towards the end, some of the plot elements seem contrived, too neat. Things happen too quickly. The changes that occur in Leonard’s world would be more believable if they took longer to happen. But I suppose you could argue that the concision and succinctness of the movie (it seems that way, even though it’s nearly two hours long) add much to its impact.

In any case, it doesn’t matter whether you buy every detail of the plot. At the most important level, the movie’s a compassionate look at the business of trying to cope with the complex stuff that life throws at a person –  not just Leonard. On that score, the movie does full justice to the girlfriends, the parents, the prospective in-laws, even the philanderer.

Rating: B+ (where B = "Better than most")

Footnote (much later): We now know that Mr. Phoenix's apparent flame-out on the Letterman show was part of his shtick for a mockumentary which was eventually released as I'm Still Here.


Observe and Report (Movie) written and directed by Jody Hill; starring Seth Rogen; with Ray Liotta, Celia Weston, Michael Pea, Anna Faris, Jesse Plemons, John Yuan, Matt Yuan

Without actually reading the reviews in full, I got the impression that NOW magazine loved this movie and the New Yorker found it despicable. In which case, a guy simply had to check it out for himself.

Since you probably won’t be seeing this movie, it may be permissible to discuss plot a little more here than we usually do. Seth Rogen plays Ronnie, the chief security guard for a shopping mall. He takes himself and his responsibilities very seriously. When there’s trouble at the mall – first a flasher, then a robber – he’s determined to solve the crimes. But when a police detective (Ray Liotta) takes over the investigations, Ronnie’s nose gets seriously out of joint. It eventually dawns on him that, since the cops have the upper hand, he should join them. Hence his starting on the steps to become a cop: the physical work-outs, the psychological tests, etc.

For the first while, I was on the point of going to the box office and asking for my money back. Minute, by minute, the movie was turning out to be worse and worse. The only thing that kept me watching was a slight curiosity: could it possibly get any worse? Then, after I’d invested a certain amount of time in the watching, it became a case of wanting to figure out why the movie was so bad. How could the film makers have thought this kind of thing could work, that it could be entertaining, that it would be the kind of thing people would want to see? Even more insistent was the question: how could a rising young star like Seth Rogen have committed himself to such a disaster?

In his movies so far, at least to the extent that I’ve seen them, Mr. Rogen usually plays a non-retentive slob, a bit of a jerk, but there is usually some sign of latent intelligence, a kind of basic decency that makes him likeable. In the case of Ronnie, though, the character lacks any discernible intelligence, charm or empathy. He accuses a suspect on the basis of nothing more than skin colour. He throws his weight around mercilessly. His attempts at flirtation and sexual innuendo are elephantine in their clumsiness. Worst of all, he’s pompous and arrogant.

You know that old saying about a ‘sinking feeling’? In this case, it was literally true, as I sank lower and lower (cringing, you might say) in my seat. One of the things that was making me uncomfortable was the fact that, in real life, the issue of the authority of people in positions like Ronnie’s can often be problematic. For the most part, they don’t have very much real authority – certainly not in comparison to cops. The title of this movie, with its contrast to the police motto "To Serve and Protect" is apparently meant to drive home just how toothless security guards are. But the job can and does sometimes attract people who want to lord it over other people. This can make for unnecessary conflict and unpleasantness. Scary situations can arise.

What we were seeing in Ronnie, then, was the manifestation of a very real societal problem but, instead of its being handled with some caution and thoughtfulness, it was thrown at us in a heavy-handed way, as if there were nothing serious at stake. It was beginning to seem that the movie makers could only have been aiming at ten-year-old boys who would love the violence, the slapstick, the vulgarity and the swearing. Of the latter, there was more than in any other script recently encountered. Not that any of it was creative in the David Mamet way. Mostly, it was a tiresome reliance on the "F" word. I must admit, though, that one long shouting match which consisted of nothing but "F-You" back and forth between two characters ended in a unique way: starting at full volume, the characters got quieter and quieter until they were finally just mouthing the phrase silently. A clever idea, although it didn’t work to any particular effect in this movie.

Apart from that one odd touch, the movie was turning out to be nothing but irredeemable trash, when suddenly flecks of gold started peeking through the debris. It turned out that Ronnie had been a "special needs" kid, abandoned at an early age by a dad who couldn’t cope. Now Ronnie was living with his mom [Celia Weston], a hopeless middle-aged alcoholic but a demonstratively affectionate mom who had no reservations about expressing her pride in Ronnie. Then we learned that he had a bi-polar disorder. And that he had, on his own volition, gone off his medication. That made for a fraught interview with the psychiatrist who was vetting him in the police recruitment program.

So what the hell was going on? We started out with this movie that looked liked it was aiming to be nothing but cheap laughs and now we had a complicated main character whose problems turned out to be quite affecting. Which resulted in some amazing scenes. An outstanding one that deserves to go down as a classic for acting and script writing is the one where his drunken mom announces that she loves Ronnie so much that she’s willing to make changes in her life for his sake – she’s gonna switch to beer!

For me, then, this movie was one the most conflicted ever in the way it combined so much crap with some really good stuff. You have to wonder how the movie makers can have thought that the incompatible elements could be combined. Maybe it was impossible to tell what the effect would be without seeing the finished product. It’s like the scene where one of the cops had been watching while Ronnie was informed that he had been rejected for police academy. "I thought this was gonna be funny," the cop said, "but it turned out kinda sad."

Rating: For most of the movie, I thought it was going to merit our lowest ever rating – G for "Godawful" – but it gradually worked its way up to E, as in the Canadian "Eh?", i.e. iffy.


The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (Movie) written by Rawson Marshall Thurber; based on the book by Michael Chabon; directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber; starring Jon Foster, Peter Sarsgaard, Sienna Miller, Nick Nolte

My main reason for seeing this movie was that I’d read the book on which it’s based. Author Michael Chabon was touted as one of America’s most promising young writers at the time. That was before the days of Dilettante’s Diary, so there’s no record of my thoughts about the novel. As I could remember very little of it, the movie was pretty much a discovery for me.

The movie (the book too, I presume) fits into many categories. There’s the getting-out-from-under-the-controlling-parent genre. Then there are all those books and movies about "that summer" – you know the kind: the young protagonist has unforgettable adventures. Which type often merges into the "coming of age" category. But the one I was thinking of most was the one where the main character – usually an innocent young male – makes friends with some free-wheeling characters who force him out of his cocoon. In this regard, aspects of Cabaret and Brideshead Revisited kept coming to mind during the watching of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh.

Here we have Art Bechstein [Jon Foster], a recent college grad, who’s working at a boring job in a Book Barn outlet. At a party, he meets Jane [Sienna Miller], who seems to have a lech for him. Just as things are looking promising, she tells him about her boyfriend Cleveland [Peter Sarsgaard]. A somewhat older man, Cleveland scares the shit out of Art on their first encounter but Cleveland turns out to be a cool buddy to Art. The three of them – Art, Jane and Cleveland – embark on a romp that opens Art up to a side of life he never suspected.

Watching their antics was entertaining but some aspects of the dynamics among them were skipped over too lightly. At times, I wanted to know more about how they felt about what was going on. Trouble was, that Cleveland character was so elusive. He came and went, did what he wanted to do, and didn’t do what he didn’t want to do, with virtually no explanation. That may be the way with certain characters in real life. In a novel or a movie, you hope for a little more insight into it all.

The chemistry among the three actors works well. Jon Foster seems a little dull but I guess he’s supposed to be. (Still, it might be fair to say that he’s a lot less interesting than Jesse Eisenberg in a somewhat similar role in Adventureland.) Sienna Miller has just the right combination of ripe perfection and a hint of something edgy. But a movie like this depends on the charisma of the Cleveland character to provide the impetus and sustain the forward momentum. Peter Sarsgaard does the job admirably, conveying the necessary mix of recklessness, humour, experience, sensitivity and sexual intrigue, with a hint of something dangerous.

It’s in that department, though, that the movie fails, in my opinion. Even though the title of the piece may be intended to be ironic, we have to grant that there is undoubtedly a threatening side to life in Pittsburgh. As we get in touch with it, though, this criminal side of life conflicts with the feel of the rest of the movie. In spite of Nick Nolte’s excellent portrayal of Art’s father, a Vito Corleone type, the stuff about mobsters seems rather fake. I suspect that such far-fetched riffs are easier to pull off in a novel, which leaves more to the imagination. In a movie, where everything is inevitably perceived in the context of greater realism, implausibilities are seen clearly for what they are.

Rating: D ( for "Divided" i.e. some good, some bad)


The Pool (Movie) written by Chris Smith and Randy Russell; directed by Chris Smith; starring Venkatesh Chavan, Jhangir Badshah, Ayesha Mohan, Nana Paketar

An eighteen-year-old guy named Venkatesh climbs a tree to stare at a  swimming pool in somebody’s garden. The pool seems to represent a vision of ultimate beauty and fulfillment. He wonders if he could ever feel its cool water on his skin.

Not exactly blockbuster material. The pleasures of this movie, then, are subtle and under-stated. But they are many.

First there’s the fascination of watching the daily life of Venkatesh, as he goes about his duties as a "room boy" at a modest hotel in Panjim, Goa: cleaning rooms, making beds, scrubbing floors and providing room service. At night, he lowers the protective metal screen over the front entrance and beds down on the floor of the lobby. As a sideline, he and his young pal Jhangir sell plastic bags on the crowded streets of Panjim.

Which brings us to the life of the city. Almost every scene offers a fascinating conglomeration of shapes and colours as the people go about their business in these teeming streets. But the gentle, peaceful nature of the goings-on contrasts markedly with the ambiance of Slumdog Millionaire, the recent hit set in another part of India (see review, Dilettante's Diary, Dec 4/08). Unlike the frantic, malevolent spirit pervading the Bombay of Slumdog, here all seems calm; an almost benevolent atmosphere pervades everything.

That seems to radiate outwards from the personality of Venkatesh. Not exactly a typical movie star, he’s almost goofy looking, with enormous almond-shaped eyes and a nose that dips down a bit too far over his wide grin. But there’s something irresistibly sincere and ingenuous about him. Not to say that he’s a saint – in the mode, say, of the eponymous hero of Amal (see review, Dilettante’s Diary, Sept 5/08). Venkatesh is capable, in an off-hand way, of doing wrong. For the most part, though, he’s unassuming and self-deprecating. Near the very end of the movie, he astounds us with one very generous act that seems to express his nature in an entirely un-self-conscious way.

Not surprisingly, Venkatesh finds ways to insinuate himself into the life of the people in the house with the swimming pool. Some very interesting thoughts are conveyed in terse exchanges with the home’s owner. But the best bits come in scenes involving Venkatesh, the home owner’s daughter and Jhangir, Venkatesh’s sidekick. (Re that Jhangir, where do they get these Indian kids who possess a preternatural ability to seem spontaneous and genuine in front of a camera?) The three of them have discussions like you’ve never heard before as they get to know each other and explore each other’s pasts and hopes for the future.

The style of the movie adds much to its appeal. Quick cuts make it feel like you’re leafing through a photo album, getting just enough information to put the story together. Scenes are short, often very little is said. Sudden blackouts – some of them lasting a few seconds – are used very effectively in a way that’s not common in movies nowadays. Surprises are dropped in almost as asides.

Even though this movie refuses to grab you by the throat, the story is doled out with such skill that you keep wondering what’s coming next. Is Venkatesh ever going to get a chance to immerse his body in that pool? The really big question hovering over the movie, though, is whether a person can make big changes in his or her life. Some can, it seems, and some can’t.

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


Three Monkeys (Movie) written by Nuri Bilge Ceylan and Ebru Ceylan; directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan; starring Yavuz Bingol, Hatice Aslan, Rifat Sungar, Ercan Kesal, Cafer Kse, Grkan Aydin.

A country road on a rainy night, somewhere in Turkey. A guy dozes at the wheel of his car. He hits somebody, leaves the body on the road and drives off. Turns out the offender’s a politician campaigning for election. So he persuades his official driver – who was home in bed – to take the rap for the hit-and-run. In return for his time in jail, the boss will pay him a handsome sum.

That may sound like more plot than you need to hear at this point but it all takes place in the first five minutes. The rest of the two-hour movie shows first, what goes down with the driver’s wife and son while he’s in jail. Then the mess he has to deal with when he gets out.

You know right off the bat that this ain’t no movie-movie. Clearly, you’re in "film" territory. With its brooding, moody atmosphere, this one borrows a lot from the Noir genre. But it would more properly fit in the "Brun" category, if there were such a thing: every scene has a brownish hue, with hints of yellow and green. Not until near the end do any strong reds appear. (Significant, maybe, in light of what happens?)

It’s also a film that shows its debt to Bergman. When a woman notices drops of blood on the floor, she gets some on the end of her finger and examines it with such solemnity that you’d think you were dealing with the Holy Grail. At a moment of high tension, we get a lingering shot of a lethal-looking knife teetering in the wind on a kitchen counter. A dead child makes ghostly appearances now and then.

But most of all, we get screenfulls of lustrous, dark eyes gazing soulfully into the camera. Apparently, these looks are supposed to speak volumes. So little is said in terms of actual dialogue, though, that we don’t learn enough about the character’s thoughts and feelings. While the situations are interesting, too much is left to inference. The behaviour of the father (Yavuz Bingol) in particular, seems not to have much basis in reality at times. What’s up with him? Something about men’s domination of women? Is it a cultural thing?

But the movie’s taciturn style suits the development of the son’s character well. In the role, Rifat Sungar shows that a son, even in a society quite different from ours, can be much like disaffected sons everywhere: sullen, monosyllabic and withdrawn. In one long, silent scene, he’s standing by the car at the side of the road, facing into a strong wind, while his dad takes a dump in a nearby field. The kid seems to be feeling the fulness of life brimming in him, the desire to break lose from the parental bonds, to discover his self. In some mysterious way, the shot says a lot about a young guy’s taking ownership of his manhood.

For lack of intelligible meaning in many of the other scenes, there is a certain voyeuristic pleasure in observing the lifestyle of these people. First there’s their shabby apartment, with its cracked plaster, peeling paint, chintzy couches and paintings. The edge of the kitchen counter is exposed, with no trim, but a flat screen tv dominates the living room. The table where the family eats offers a million-dollar view of the harbour but their apartment building looks like something left over after a bomb strike – tall and narrow, about the width of one room. It overlooks a train track on which the son walks into town, after climbing the fence meant to keep people out. We see the inevitable caf where the men gather and the primitive spigot where you get water in the train station. The mom’s (Hatice Aslan) cellphone figures promintently plot-wise and the dorky pop song that functions as the ‘ring’ makes a piquant comment on the proceedings with its cynical lyrics about love.

Rating: D ( for "Divided" i.e. some good, some bad)

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