Dilettante's Diary

Dec 17/09

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Favourite Works: 2004-2013
Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
Sabbath's Theater by PHILIP ROTH
July 18/13
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The Artist Project 2013
Feb 25/13
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A Toast to 2012
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Art Toronto 2012
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Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 2012
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La Traviata: Met's Live HD Version
Apr 21/12
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Mar 9/12
The Artist Project 2012
Academy Awards Show 2012
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TOAE 2011
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Toronto Art Expo 2011
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The Artist Project 2011
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The Shack
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The Artist Project 2010
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Notables of '09
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How Fiction Works
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Sex for Saints
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Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 2009
Toronto Fringe 2009
Zen Wrapped In Karma Dipped In Chocolate
June 28/09
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Myriad Mysteries 2009
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CBC Radio -- "The New Two"
April 14/09
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Toronto Art Expo '09
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The Jesus Sayings
Feb 8/09
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Stand-outs of 2008
Dec 24/08
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Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 08
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Head to Head
Feb 26/08
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Notables of 2007
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Summer Mysteries '07
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Toronto Art Expo 2007
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Notables of 2006
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Ring Psycho (Wagner on CBC Radio)
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Me In Manhattan
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Me and the Jays
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About Me
Dec 20/04
Dec 5/04
OTHER STUFF: Art Exhibitions, Concerts, etc.

The date above is the date on which the page was started. As new reviews are added, they will appear towards the top of the page; the older reviews will move further down.

Reviewed here: A Single Man (Movie); Julie and Julia (DVD); Ontario Society of Artists New Members' Show (Art); Shift with Tom Allen (Radio)

A Single Man (Movie) written by Tom Ford and David Scearce; based on the novel by Christopher Isherwood; directed by Tom Ford; starring Colin Firth, with Nicholas Hoult, Matthew Goode, Jon Kortajarena.

At the outset, this movie looks great. In the starring role, we have Colin Firth. You can usually count on the fact that he only gets involved in quality material. Here, he plays George, a forty-ish gay professor in Los Angeles in 1962. In a flashback near the opening of the movie, we see George receiving the bad news by phone that his lover has died in a car accident. A cousin of his lover has called. See, the funeral is going to be a private family affairs and George isn’t invited. That’s the way things were in the 60s. We can feel George’s pain.

Looks like a sensitive, touching drama shaping up. Then what goes wrong?

Could it be the hokey emphasis on the 1960s setting? Surely there’s a way to present the styles of an era without making it look ludicrous. When I revisit family snapshots from those days, everybody doesn’t look as though they’re stuck in a Mad Magazine version of the times. One has to wonder whether the unreal look to this movie has anything to do with the fact that it's the directorial debut of a well-known designer. And the frequent references to bomb shelters and the Cuban Missile Crisis sound forced, given that they don’t have much to do with the main theme of the movie.

Or is it the arty touches? Those flashes of a naked male body swirling in deep water, for instance. Apparently, they’re supposed to indicate something about George’s unconscious. But what? It never comes clear. And why the frequent close-ups on people’s eyes? Is that supposed to say something about the way George sees people? The Philip-Glass-type music hammering at us all the time raises suspicions that the film-makers felt the script needed a hell of a lot of help to catch our attention. (Like the preacher who pounded the pulpit hardest when his argument was weakest.)

Or could it be the blandness of the young men embodying George's sex interests? Matthew Goode was fascinating in the new Brideshead Revisited  but here, as George's lover appearing in flashbacks, he seems shallow and stilted. So does Nicholas Hoult as a student apparently coming on to George. Is it the directing that makes these guys look so inept? The dialogue? The only one among this crowd who doesn’t appear superficial and uninteresting is a Spanish hustler (Jon Kortajarena) who eyes George as a potential client.

Is it the miscalculated tone of some scenes? Like the one where you have a guy trying to shoot himself: he keeps bungling the job in a way that begins to look farcical. If that were the intent, however, why would you have "Ebben? Ne andr lontana" from Catalani’s La Wally wailing to heart-rending effect in the background?

Or the sound of crickets outside on New Year’s Eve in LA? (I know the weather's better there but I strongly suspect the local crickets’ life cycle hasn’t evolved to be so drastically different from that of their more northerly cousins.)

Or the fact that the actors in the crowd scenes have been so poorly directed that they end up looking like extras standing around on a movie set?

No, it’s not really any of these things that scuttles the movie. What does is the fact that our friend George, even with masses doses of viewer sympathy directed towards him, turns out to be more than a tad boring. Let’s face it, to watch a guy moping for an hour or so doesn’t make for gripping drama. Even as gifted an actor as Mr. Firth needs something more than that to work with. (I’m reminded of Love Liza in which Philip Seymour Hoffman was left high and dry by the script. Come to think of it, that movie too was all about grieving.) When Mr. Firth does eventually have an opportunity to do his patented grin, it looks more like a reflex action than a revelation of character.

The one exception to the general ennui comes in the person of Julianne Moore as an old girlfriend of George’s who lives nearby and who still obviously has a thing for him. Ms. Moore strikes the note of a genuine person from the moment we first see her in a brief phone call. This is the kind of rich divorce who spends most of the day lying around, who drinks too much, takes hours to get herself dressed for dinner and complains about her lot in life but who has more vitality and personality than anybody else in the movie. We’ve all known women like her, or at least, met them or heard about them. For me, her raucous laugh and her smutty sense of humour go a long way to making her endearing. It’s only when he’s with her that George becomes interesting.

Are those fifteen minutes of viewing worth the price of admission?

Rating: E (as in the Canadian "Eh?" i.e. iffy)


Julie and Julia (DVD) written and directed by Nora Ephron; based on the book by Julie Powell; starring Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, Stanley Tucci, Chris Messina; with Linda Emond and Helen Carey

This is one of the rare cases where I heard a lot – and even read a bit – about a movie before seeing it (because I wasn’t planning to). Given all the buzz, everybody knows the premise now: Julie Powell, a real-life office worker, created a popular blog about working her way through Julia Childs’ Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The consensus about the film, which inter-weaves the two women’s stories, was that the Meryl Streep part of the movie was good and the Amy Adams part wasn’t.

That's about it. But since you expect something more in the way of erudite comment from Dilettante’s Diary, here goes...

With Meryl Streep as the Childs character, we learn how, as the wife of an American diplomat, she found herself in Paris with time on her hands in the late 1940s. Millinery classes didn’t quite cut it for her, so she enrolled in a Cordon Bleu school. The experience brought to the fore her innate feel for cuisine. Hence the classic text. Along the way, we learn about the vicissitudes of the publishing business. The relationship between Julia and her very supportive husband Paul (Stanley Tucci) is touching and, by way of an extra frisson, the threat of McCarthyism impinges on the couple’s contentment.

If Ms. Streep’s performance were not based on a real person, you’d have to say that it’s too broad, almost a caricature: a strange mixture of patrician and goofy – Princess Margaret meets Lucille Ball. Not to mention that weird, flutey voice. Not knowing much about Mrs. Childs, I'll assume this is what she was like. Any admirer of Ms. Streep's oevre (incling me)  has to marvel at her impersonation of a character so different from any of the other’s she has played. And yes, she, as a relatively small person, does a great job of making herself seem to be a large woman.

If Ms. Streep comes off as larger than life, Ms. Adams seems smaller than life in the role of Julie Powell. When her blog about the cooking project leads to a tiff with her husband (Chris Messina), the idea is floated that Ms. Powell is bitchy. If only! On the contrary, Ms. Adams gives us nothing but winsome vulnerability.

What’s with this actress? In Junebug (see Dilettante's Diary Nov 4/05), she gave us a startlingly fresh and authentic character. Is she stuck now in the stereotype of innocence? By way of an improvement on her  clich of a young nun in Doubt (D's D Dec 24/08), her character in Julie and Julia at least seems like a real person, but not one who offers any interest in dramatic terms.

Towards the end, the movie offers one flicker of an interesting idea: the futility of modelling yourself on someone you naively imagine to be perfect. That theme barely gets any attention, though. To focus on it too much would point up just how foolish Julie’s infatuation with Julia Childs is.

Instead, we’re supposed to get hooked on this simpery person’s urge to become famous through her blog. When it comes to the ambitions of movie characters that are likely to strike a sympathetic chord, Julie’s quest doesn’t quite rank up there with Billy Elliot’s trying to make it to the Royal Ballet or even Elizabeth Taylor’s gearing up for the big race in National Velvet. Besides, movies shouldn’t be encouraging people to write up their mundane thoughts in the hopes of attracting readers to their blogs. We at Dilettante’s Diary don’t need the competition.

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


The Ontario Society of Artists New Members Exhibit 2009 (Art) John B. Aird Gallery, Toronto; until January 8, 2010

This show puzzles me.

The Ontario Society of Artists, founded in 1872, is Canada’s longest continuing art society. With membership strictly controlled by jury, it’s reputed to be very hard to break into the ranks. So you would think that this show of works by new members would be dazzling.

However, I found much of it commonplace and banal. Not to say that there isn’t a certain competence demonstrated by most of the artists, but much of the work looks as though it could have been created at the turn of the 20th century rather than of the 21st. As for the more contemporary-looking work, some of it struck me as being of the whee-look-how-I-can-throw-paint-around school of mucky canvases and lurid colours, without much sense of composition.

In the more traditional vein, there are some pleasant landscapes by Sam Paonessa, Doug Purdon, Mary Ng and Cai Kui. Lynda Cunningham and Paul Magowan offer some well-executed takes on horses. A somewhat more modern feel comes through in Cathy Groulx’s crisp, sharp forest scene at the edge of water.

Reaching for an almost abstract approach to landscape, Sheila Macdonald Roberts captures the chilly effect of a jagged patch of open black water lurching through an expanse of white ice, with greyish shapes looming on the horizon. Another painting, not quite abstract, but drawing on some of the effects of that genre, is Valerie Ashton’s large painting, with dramatic lighting, of a coffee mug.

Of the complete abstracts, the one I liked most is Songryan Moon’s painting of greyish shapes, with some blue blobs, on a red background. This one, unlike some others, seemed to me to have a composition that held it together. There was even, somehow, an evocation of rain as suggested by the work’s title.

Iftikhar Uddin Ahmed’s abstract, featuring some circles and angular shapes, suggests some vaguely industrial theme. At first, it struck me as being of the unappealing school of mucky painting. Gradually, though, a thread of yellow, against the more earthy colours, drew me into the painting and made me appreciate the whole.

I have admired Peter Barelkowski’s odd little humanoids in previous shows. Here, he shows one large figure with its torso opened to reveal a chair, a ladder and such workings inside. On the exterior, pipes connected to the body, as if by way of plumbing, add to the thought-provoking effect.

Happily, the two watercolours in the show pleased me. Clarence Titcombe’s simple depiction of straw-coloured reeds in a snowbank, although hardly revolutionary in theme or technique, conveys a tranquil, contemplative appeal. Joanne Lucas Warren’s more innovative mountain scene captures a unique effect with her daring use of free-flowing watercolour.

[Disclosure: I know some of the artists involved in this show.]


Shift with Tom Allen – CBC Radio Two

It’s good to have Tom Allen back talking about classical music, as he does in the first part of this early afternoon program on CBC’s Radio Two. The man has an amazing amount to say about music in a friendly, relaxed, spontaneous way. Surely, he should stand as a model of the ideal radio host – in a certain vein.

Too bad we don’t have him any longer in the early morning when we really needed him to help us into the day. Nothing against Bob Mackowycz, his replacement, but the time slot is pretty much a wasteland now in terms of the music – as is the second half of "Shift", in spite of Mr. Allen’s company. Why do the decision-makers at CBC think any listener could possibly want this "shift" from the sublime to drek?

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