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Jan 28/05

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Reviewed here: Million Dollar Baby (movie); The Merchant of Venice (movie); Aida (Radio Broadcast); and The Sea Inside (movie).

Million Dollar Baby (movie) directed by and starring Clint Eastwood

The thought of attending a movie about boxing is about as inviting to me as the prospect of sitting in a dark room watching a bunch of stupid, sweaty, smelly people bashing each other's brains out. But friends were saying great things about this movie, so I held my nose and dutifully presented myself at the box office for the cause of culture.

Man, there's a lot to hate in this movie. And I'm not talking about the bashing and the blood. Since I didn’t watch most of that, I'm not in a position to comment on it. There were plenty of other things to bug me. A guy kneels down by his bed at night and says his prayers out loud. Do you know anybody who does that in real life? (The out loud part, I mean.) And when, except in movies, do a priest and a penitent sit in the front pew at church to discuss a serious problem? A subplot about a developmentally delayed boy serves no purpose other than to up the saccharine content of the movie. Speaking of which, there's that tinkly piano music (composed by Mr. Eastwood, apparently) that signals whenever we're supposed to respond pavlovian-style with tender feelings.

Moving on to the more serious problems, there's Morgan Freeman's character: the wise old man who always says the right thing, who always knows when our hero's going astray, the only one who has clear sight even though he's blind in one eye. As if this cliche weren't nauseating enough, we have his voice-over comments on the story. Usually voice-over narration fades away after the first few minutes; as such it's tolerable, just. Here, this God-like, all-knowing oracle pesters our ears through the whole movie. I suppose people who would be attracted to a movie about boxing could not be expected to know what's going on without colour commentary. 

I gather Clint Eastwood has, in previous acting stints, been rather successful as a grim-faced gunslinger. He has ill-advisedly abandoned the blank face and we get an alarming display of grimaces, scowls and various other facial mannerisms. It could be that this is an infirmity having to do with age, in which case it should be charitably overlooked, but I regret to say that Mr. Eastwood seems to think this is about creating character. His performance is a virtual catalogue of everything not to do in movie acting.

The one truly marvelous thing about this movie is Hilary Swank’s performance. Against all odds, she convinced me that she loved boxing and that she was a better person for it. The woman is astonishing. In return for all those boxing lessons that Mr. Eastwood is giving her, she should give him a few acting tips. Mainly: just be the person, Clint, and let the camera do the rest.

Thanks to her buoyant energy, I was kind of enjoying the movie as a crass, superficial and very formulaic success story. But then the movie abandons the formula and, to its detriment, goes for quality, depth and drama. Ms. Swank is left high and dry with nothing to do. The life goes out of the movie in more ways than one.

Just one question. Admittedly, I know nothing about boxing, but how would a set of choppers like Ms. Swank's last ten minutes in the ring, even with a mouth guard?

Rating: D

The Merchant of Venice (movie) by Michael Radford

At its lowest points, this movie had me asking irreverent questions. Take that falderol about the caskets. I'm wondering: how likely is it that the wrong guy is going to get the prize? Or, alternately: there are only three caskets, for heaven's sake, so what are the statistical chances that somebody wouldn't have chosen the right casket before this?

My viewing partner, a high school English teacher as it happens, informs me that the film left out some stuff about the dire penalties for choosing the wrong casket. Ok, so that would cut down on the number of tryos. But the more important point seems to be that the play is really supposed to be a comedy. For instance, that business about Portia appearing as the legal expert. I'm wondering how she pulled that off. Did she bribe Bellario, the guy who was supposed to show up? Well, turns out that the film cut some of Shakespeare’s explanation. But you're not supposed to ask those kinds of questions. You might as well ask how Oberon knew that the juice from those flowers had magic powers.

Same with that business about the women taunting their husbands about the lost rings. I’m thinking: isn't that a little mean, well more than a little really, how about extremely mean? But, you see, it's supposed to be...

Trouble is, this film has stripped the play of virtually all hint of comedy. But that's also the movie's greatest strength. A grim prologue interpolated by the filmmakers sets up the historical/sociological context. We learn that the Christians in Venice were total shits to the Jews. So Shylock's hatred becomes utterly believable. That carries right through to the courtroom scene where his stubbornness is understandable, almost reasonable-seeming. Ta-Dah: suddenly the play is no more anti-Jewish than anti-Christian!

At first, I wasn't sure if I was buying Al Pacino's Shylock. I was admiring his acting, but just as acting. His accent bothered me. When everybody else is speaking in beautifully modulated and seemingly timeless British, which we have come to accept as the Shakespearean style, what is the point of having him speaking in what sounds to me like contemporary New York Jewish? For instance, in the famous "If you prick us," speech, we get "…and it shall go hawd [hard]." By the courtroom scene, though, I was totally convinced; he had me with him all the way. That's one fabulous scene, thanks in no small part to Mr. Pacino's rock solid presence at the centre of it.

Jeremy Irons is perfect as Antonio. This is the best thing I've ever seen him do. I couldn't get over how noble his closely-cropped head looked on his long neck. Accuse me of "look-ism" if you like, but let's face it, looks are what movies are about. If you have the right look for a movie, you're 50 percent of the way home. Anyway, this isn't just about his looks. His body language, his tone of voice, his sighs, his smiles -- everything is perfectly in accord with the character expressed in the lines. It never occurs to you that he's acting: this man is Antonio.

Looks also enter into it where Joseph Fiennes (Bassanio) is concerned, but somewhat less to his advantage. He is so peculiar looking with his very strong jaw, his full lips and his eyes so close together, that I can never get past those looks to a real person; it always seems to me that I'm staring at a rather inexpressive mask. Granted, I may have been influenced by The New Yorker's jibe about him in Shakespeare In Love, something along the lines of: "He isn't all that good looking but he seems to think he is and maybe that's all that matters." It could be that this is the kind of actor I could much more easily accept on stage where there's a little more space between us, but the relentless closeness of the camera freezes his face.

Lynn Collins as Portia is quite a find. If you want to carp, you might say that she's pretty much a Gwyenth Paltrow clone but I wouldn't say that, at least not here. She has a loveliness all her own. Mind you, her "Quality of Mercy" speech was disappointing. She started off in a conversational tone directed right at Shylock, which was exciting, but then she started speechifying to the heavens with rolled eyes and up-lifted hands.

Perhaps it should be mentioned that the "film-ization" of the play works well. I don't make a big deal of it because we've become accustomed to high-quality Shakespearean adaptations on film. But the fact is that this production of the play feels just right as a movie: lots of reaction shots, moody scene-setting shots, and various ways in which the camera tells the story without the need of words. The time taken for all this explains why some of the text had to be cut, with the resultant problems in terms of the overall tone. 

My internal rating monitor was gyrating wildly during this movie: B at first, then C, then D (casket business), then A (coutroom scene), and B (final scene).

Rating: C

Aida by Guiseppe Verdi (Metropolitan Opera Radio Broadcast, Saturday January 22/05)

Since the Met was re-broadcasting this 1967 performance of Aida with Leontyne Price, and since her Aida was one of the high points of the cultural life of the 20th century (well, of my cultural life), there was nothing to do but unplug the phones, pull up the drawbridge, turn on all the radios in the house, and listen. The fact that a blizzard was making it impossible to visit the sick, hang out the laundry, cut the grass, or any of the other nice things I might have done, made it obvious that giving my complete attention to the opera was what God wanted me to do.

Although it was an archival performance, the new host Margaret Juntwait, gave the introduction. I am begining to like Ms. Juntwait very much. Only the third host in the 70-year history of these celebrated broadcasts, she sounded a trifle nervous (understandably) in the first couple of weeks. Now her voice is relaxed, warm and assurred. We feel we're in good hands. I'm so glad they let us hear a few sentences from Milton Cross, the original announcer, since his sonorous "And so the golden curtain falls..." is etched evocatively in my memory.

Once the actual performance began, it surprised me that the recorded orchestral sound from 1967 sounded tinny, almost a throwback to a much earlier era of recording. You'd have thought the Met's brand new home at Lincoln Centre would have offered better sound recroding capacity than that.

But the recorded quality of the singers' voices was very good. Having no memory of the sound of Carlo Bergonzi's voice, I was expecting something with more heft and weight, somewhat in the John Vickers line. Maybe that's because Signor Bergonzi's name suggests a truck driver. Turns out his voice is very bright and lyrical. For my money, though, he's is no model of finesse and perfect sculpting of phrases. He attacks the music in a very Italianate style, with lots of swoops and gulps, and a little tremolo in places to add excitement. Unfortunatley, he had some serious difficulty with the final high note of "Celeste Aida". Probably that's why Ms. Juntwait pointed out later on that the performance was being broadcast exactly as it had taken place, with no additions or editing.

It was lovely to hear Robert Merrill (Amonasro), who died this past fall, although we got to hear only a small sample of his breath-takingly beautiful singing. Grace Bumbry sang very well as Amneris but it amazed me to find that the role is much higher than I remembered it. Ms. Bumbry's voice is also higher, brighter and not as dark as what you'd expecte from a mezzo.

But Leontyne Price was the main event. While listening, I kept thinking that if Signor Verdi could hear her, he would think he had died and gone to heaven. (He has, you say?) It's hard to tell, given the primitive quality of old recordings, but it seems to me that they didn't have voices like this in the old days. Why? Something to do with vitamins, I suspect. Young women didn't have as good a chance to build up a really strong vocal chords. Their voices, while undeniably pretty and musical, ended up tinkly and bird-like.

Ms. Price is something else altogether. Her voice is so perfectly placed in the centre of her head that there's ring and resonance to every note, a sense of unending power. A comparison might be in order. After last Saturday's broadcast of Tales of Hoffman, CBC Radio Two played a tribute to Renata Tebaldi, also recently deceased, who had been the reigning Aida until Ms. Price's arrival on the scene. Ms. Tebaldi's recording of "Ritorna Vicitor" from Aida demonstrated clearly the difference between  two kinds of singing. While Ms. Tebaldi was hailed as a great artist in her time (I don't have much personal history with her singing), her performance of the aria was less controlled, less disciplined. The fact that Ms. Price's voice is better focussed means that it serves the music all the better. There is less feeling of a diva lettting it rip, more of a sense of the emotion flowing through the music just as the composer intended.

To be honest, I was somewhat taken aback by the recording of Ms. Price singing an aria from Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutti which was included in an intermission feature. Maybe it's just that I'm used to a different style of coloratura singing but it struck me that there was too much voice trying to negotiate the narrow twists and turns, rather like trying to get a limousine down a crooked, cobbled street in a European village.

The 1967 performance broadcast had taken place just a few years after I saw Ms. Price's Aida during the Met's spring visit to the Masonic Temple auditorium in Detroit. I don't remember much about the production -- not even the tenor's or baritone's names -- except that the Nile scene was very pretty with lots of bluish moonlight. On an earlier visit to the auditorium, my brother and I had accidentally stumbled backstage, so now we were quite comfortable prowling around. In a cavernous basement room we watched the drilling of the extras who would be the captives in the triumphal chorus, a bunch of bare-chested university students likely brought in for a couple of dollars a head.

After the performance, we hung around the door of Ms. Price's dressing room long after getting her autograph. Two nerdy teenagers in jackets and ties, we gawked at the frenzied mob of admirers beating a path to her door. Finally the hubbub died down and nearly everybody had left. Rita Gorr, the excellent Amneris, had long ago departed for her taxi in a tailored, tweedy suit. The hallway outside the dressing rooms was empty except for the two of us. Ms. Price, in a filmy post-performance peignoir, shone her big eyes on us, said, "G'night, y'all," and closed the dressing room door. The place was so deserted that you could almost imagine the janitor saying, as he passed her door, "Turn out the lights when you leave, will ya, Leontyne?"

This past Saturday, I kept wondering if Ms. Price in retirement was listening to the re-broadcast of her performance nearly 40 years ago. She must be in her late 70s now. Would it be satisfying for a great artist to hear a re-creation of her performance when she was at her prime? I can't help thinking the overall feeling would be one of sadness. Me, I think it would be better to be left with your memories of your glory days and not to be confronted with concrete evidence of how much your powers have diminished.

Which brings me to some questions that I've been meaning to put to the authorities. Why do a person's abilities have to decline? Why do people have to get old? Why do they have to depart the scene anyway?

Well, I guess the answers will be a long time coming. In the meantime, "G'night, Leontyne -- and thank you."

 

The Sea Inside (movie)

Javier Bardem does a great job morphing from a Hollywood hunk to a middle-aged quadriplegic who wants to end his life after years of suffering. And the cast surrounding him create a very believable community of family and neighbours in the Galicia area of Spain. An older brother's bitterness is palpable. A nephew turns out to be a typical teenager, Galician style. A woman lawyer manages somehow to be very beautiful, yet ordinary.

Best of all is a sister-in-law who does most of the hands-on nursing. (All I could catch from the credits was the fact that the actor's first name is Mabel.) It’s not a starring role, but she struck me from the outset as a formidable actor, creating a true person that we have all known: the woman down the street with pinched features, whose hands always look red from scrubbing, her face too, a woman who looks like she was born dutiful. It thrilled me that she got the best speech in the movie, the only really great speech actually, but it's a beaut.

Not one but two women fall in love with the bed-ridden man. There didn't seem to be much motivation for either of them -- unless they both knew the real Javier Bardem was hiding under all that greyish flesh. However, I'm discovering that with Spanish movies there is an exaggerated, melodramatic quality that you can't question; you just have to let yourself be swept along with the passionate flow. Certain things that might seem illogical and improbable to those of us with colder, more calculating natures, seem to sit comfortably in the Spanish culture. They still have bullfights, don't they?

If the movie had confined itself to the domestic response to the patient's dilemma, it might have been very good. That was the secret to the success of Vera Drake: Mike Leigh's movie soared because, rather than arguing about the morality of what Mrs. Drake had done, it focused on her family's reaction to her disgrace.

The Sea Inside, unfortunately, gets pretty polemical about the right to "die with dignity". We've had lots of this kind of thing lately, including Canada's own Oscar-winning Barbarian Invasions. At risk of coming off sounding like the erstwhile philosophy student, or worse still a former seminarian, I'm tired of the superficiality of the discussion. We're expected to respond with knee-jerk approval of the liberal line about people taking responsibility for their own lives/deaths. Any opposing point of view gets short shrift. Here, a priest who tries to suggest that life may be about more than moving your arms and legs is made to look ridiculous, perhaps justly so, perhaps not.

Not that I'm advocating a fundamentalist approach. Far from it. What about the evolutionary point of view? Surely, an abhorrence of suicide is programmed ("hard-wired", as they like to say) into our genes. Otherwise, we wouldn't have survived as a species to this point. The slightest little hassle and we'd have off-ed ourselves long ago, and there'd be nobody here to talk about the question today. I'm not judging people who feel the need to end their lives or even those who succeed in doing it. I'm simply saying that you're not necessarily a religious nut if the concept bums you out -- totally.

Rating: D

Feel free to email me: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com