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July 16/10

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Here's our NEW SYSTEM for Dating Pages: The date above will be the date of the most recent postings. As usual, though, the newest reviews will appear towards the top of the page, the older ones moving further down. When the page is archived, the items on it will be indexed according to the final date on the page.

Reviewed here: Winter's Bone (Movie); Twelfth Night (Play); Cyrus (Movie); Mid-August Lunch (Movie); ac-'TOR (Play)

Also: ART NEWS

Winter’s Bone (Movie) written by Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini, based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell; directed by Debra Granik; starring Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Kevin Breznahan, Dale Dickey, Garret Dillahunt, Shelley Waggener, Lauren Sweetster, Ashlee Thompson, Casey MacLaren

Y’all gotta unnerstand that this here ain’t gonna be one o’ yer typical high-falutin Dilettante’s Diary reviews, ‘cause yer reviewer here’s still under the spell of that there movie.

As shucks, let’s lose the phoney hillbilly thing and revert to the real person we are here at Dilettante’s Diary. After all, we’re talking about a movie that’s superb take on real people just as they are.

From the opening shots it’s clear that the movie belongs to the genre that I call "US Pastoral Grunge." (Other examples: All the Real Girls, George Washington, The Station Agent) These movies feature rundown rural settings with nothing postcard-pretty about them. Yet the scruffy surroundings are shot through with poetic beauty. In this case, we’re in the backwoods of the Ozarks. Lots of tacky pre-fab housing, tumble down barns and sheds, piles of discarded tires, rusting cars, yards filled with junk. Yet all of it photographed in tones that evoke the work of outstanding realist painters.

Not all the artistic pleasures are visual, though. At one point a young woman pays a call on some neighbours where a house party’s going on. Some six or eight instrumentalists are strumming away at blue grass on banjos, fiddles, etc. In their midst sits an elderly woman, singing. Think Ann Murray, plus fifteen years, another hundred pounds and dentures. This woman’s plaintive, sentimental songs are mesmerizing.

That girl who has dropped in on the party is Ree. A seventeen-year-old, Ree’s looking for her dad. Seems the law’s after him for "cooking crank." (What that is, I don’t know, but I doubt you’ll find the recipe in Julia Childs.) He’s now due in court and, if he doesn’t show up, the family will lose their house, because he put it up for bail bond. So Ree has to find him.

Meanwhile she’s saddled with the responsibility of looking after her young brother (about age twelve) and her sister (about six). Their mom has long since fallen into a state of muteness something like a catatonic depression, as a result of the trouble she’s seen, thanks to Dad. Ree quizzes her young siblings on their math and spelling. But she also teaches them to shoot game (a nice touch of ominous foreshadowing? you’re wondering). When she forces little brother to help prepare a squirrel for cooking, he asks if they’re going to eat its guts. "Not yet," she replies with grim humour.

In the role of Ree, Jennifer Lawrence, with her plumpish face and blonde hair, is lovely, but not so beautiful that you can’t believe she comes from such disadvantaged circumstances. Ms. Lawrence manages the perfect combination of innocence and innate shrewdness. When somebody tries to con her with some bullshit about a recent fire destroying a cabin, she demolishes that ruse by noting that the weeds in the incinerated wreckage are a foot tall.

No surprise, then, that Ree proves herself unstoppable in her search for her dad, even though his criminal colleagues make it very clear that they don’t want her poking around. In that vein, a strong suspense element drives the narrative. But the greatness of the movie, for me, comes in the study of the people and their ways with each other. To that end, all the actors measure up to the standard of truth and believability established by Ms. Lawrence. An Internet search shows that many of them have never acted in movies before. Maybe that accounts for the authentic feel that comes through. But some particularly unforgettable impressions come from a couple of movie veterans: the scrawny John Hawkes as Ree’s uncle and the hatchet-faced Dale Dickey as the woman barring Ree’s access to one of the top crime bosses.

The term "crime" being relative, here. Society’s laws function as a minor nuisance to these people who have their own code of behaviour and their own ways of enforcing it. The question of kinship – does blood really matter? – looms large. Niceties aren’t observed at the Emily Post level. When a guy wants Ree to see something down the road, it’s not: "Would you like to go for a drive, Ree?" Instead, it’s: "Get yer ass in that there truck, girl!" A man tells his wife: "I told you ‘No’ once with my mouth." Two guesses how he’ll tell her next time.

Which is not to suggest that the men dish out all the violence. The cruelty from both sexes takes your breath away. But the kindness even more so. Especially when it comes from the most unexpected sources. An army recruiter – of all people! – turns out to be one of the most compassionate adults Ree has dealings with. In the middle of one of her most harrowing ordeals, one of the people we hate most suddenly offers Ree a coat to keep off the chill. The person who turns out to be the biggest help to her is the one from whom we had come to expect nothing. All this may sound far-fetched in the telling, but the movie makes it utterly convincing: when life’s reduced to a certain basic level this is the way humans behave.

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

 

Art News:

Royal Recognition -- You may remember that we've often admired Jon Jarro's paintings of plants and flowers. (See reviews of The Artist Project 2010 on a page of its own, and the 2009 TAP on the page "March 1/09.) Well, it seems people in high places agree with us. Mr. Jarro's painting "Majestic Morning" of a Queen Elizabeth Rose was chosen to hang in the Royal Suite at the Royal York Hotel during the recent visit of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth and HRH Prince Philip and the painting was presented to Her Majesty. To see the painting and a photo of Her Majesty entering the hotel: www.jonjarro.com/queen/queen.html

 

Awesome Award -- David Brown, whose encaustic paintings are favourites at Dilettante's Diary (See reviews of The Artist Project, the Toronto Art Exhibition and the Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition), has just returned from the celebrated Montreal International Art Fair with the jury's award for Abstract Painting. See Mr. Brown's work at: www.encausticcollage.com

 

Twelfth Night (Play) by William Shakespeare; directed by Jeremy Smith; starring Karl Ang, Madeleine Donohue, Patrick Foran, Sophia Kolinas, Tim Machin, Peter Nichol, Meaghen Quinn, Andrew Scanlon, Peter Van Gestel; Driftwood Theatre’s Ontario Tour, Various Venues, until August 15

Thanks to excellent acting, Driftwood Theatre’s July 11th opening night performance of Twelfth Night, triumphed over considerable odds. In some ways, the leafy glade at Todmorden Mills seemed the idyllic spot for a summer encounter with the Bard – except for the airplanes and helicopters overhead, the voices and music coming from the recreational facility across the road, and the traffic whizzing by on the Don Valley Parkway, especially the sirens and motorcycles. And then there were the occasional microphone glitches, due to the storm that had passed through earlier, preventing a last-minute sound check. Oh, and did I mention the setting sun that strafed actors’ eyes?*

Given all these obstacles to overcome, it was difficult for the actors to establish some of the finer points of the relationships among the characters. Necessarily, the acting tended to be broad; nuance was elusive. But strong physical comedy helps to keep the show afloat. The production’s verve has much to do with director Jeremy Smith’s skilfull use of in-the-round style – the actors on a low platform, surrounded on all sides by audience members. By the second half, when the lights create a certain theatrical allure in the midst of the surrounding darkness, things work especially well.

The Bard’s words are delivered expertly – something that doesn’t always happen with young-ish casts – by everyone, including Karl Ang (Orsino), Patrick Foran (Sir Andrew Aguecheek), Sophia Kolinas (Olivia), Meaghen Quinn (Maria) and Peter Van Gestel (Sebastian). To give some flavour of the production, however, we’ll single out some others. Tim Machin sings beautifully as Feste. (In fact, the lovely music throughout, mostly by composer Tom Lillington, with one song by Gillian Stecyk, is one of the most attractive aspects of this production.) Peter Nicol, although young for the role of Sir Toby Belch, creates a very believable up-and-coming Falstaff type. Madeleine Donohue’s Viola makes much of a blank-faced style of comedy that well sums up the confusion of a young woman pretending to be a boy. At first, Andrew Scanlon seems more normal and manly than the usual Malvolio but, being a very strong actor, he soon convinces us of his neurotic side. And yes he does (with the help of costume designer Michelle Bailey) make the cross-gartered scene the outrageous high point that it’s supposed to be – indeed, a veritable coup de theatre.

*[As you may have guessed, we have a family connection with this show. I’m told most of the problems with the setting had to do with the fact that, after the company had chosen the venue, several trees were chopped down in the process of a construction project at Todmorden Mills.]

The production returns to Todmorden Mills on August 14 and 15. Other Toronto performances take place in Trinity Bellwoods Park on July 27, 28 and 29. All performances are at 7:30 pm. Pay-what-you-can. For other venues in Ontario, from Peterborough to St. Catherines, check: www.driftwoodtheatre.com Click on "The Bard’s Bus Tour", then "Dates and Locations". Or phone 905-576-2396.

 

Cyrus (Movie) written and directed by Jay Duplass and Mark Duplass; starring John C. Reilly, Jonah Hill, Marissa Tomei and Catherine Keener, with Matt Walsh.

You could consider it something of a film-making miracle that this movie eventually triumphs over a beginning that’s don’t-know-where-to-look bad.

Jamie (Catherine Keener) drops in on her ex-husband, John (John C. Reilly) and finds him masturbating to loud rock music. That’s because he’s a stay-at-home-loser-nerd. So she insists that he accompany her and her new man (Matt Walsh) to a party. There, John drinks too much and makes a fool of himself. Molly (Marissa Tomei) notices him peeing in the bushes, compliments him on his penis and starts coming on to him. This gorgeous woman’s affair with this doofus gets off to a faster start than the Kentucky Derby.

If you’ve seen the previews, though, you know there’s a complication – in the rather substantial presence of Molly’s son Cyrus, as played by Jonah Hill. And this is where the movie becomes watchable – very.

Until now, I’ve never seen the point of Jonah Hill in movies but I’ve always tried to allow that he might have something to offer. In this role, he proves himself an actor of immense skill and subtlety. His Cyrus is a fascinating enigma. You never quite know what’s going on with this guy. He’s obviously a major momma’s boy, another stay-at-home-loser, in fact. And yet, he’s intelligent and mature in uncanny ways. When John apologizes for sneaking up on Molly’s house from the back, saying he should have rung the doorbell, Cyrus says; "Yes, that would be the conventional way." There’s a preternatural calm about the guy. Molly, hoping to avert any problems with Cyrus, gives a fussy, complicated speech about an upcoming visit from John. Cyrus responds: "You could have just said ‘John’s coming over’." At a moment of crisis, Cyrus tells Molly and John, "Let’s take some time and let the dust settle and then we’ll all get together for dinner some time."

But there’s no escaping a certain weirdness about Cyrus. What is that eery serenity hiding? He’ll toss off some cringe-making remark to John, like "It’s nice to have a new dad," then follow-up with the sophisticated explanation that that’s just an example of his kooky humour. But what’s with his stealing John’s shoes on John’s first night at Molly’s? Is Cyrus simply trying to subvert John’s relationship with Molly, lest he, Cyrus, be sidelined in her affections? On one level, that seems obvious. If that were the whole story, though, you could be getting either a Neil-Simon type comedy (as the previews would suggest) or a Strindbergian tussle to the death, both with oedipal undertones.

What’s going on here is more intriguing. At its most basic, it’s a study of the way two male opponents negotiate their communication across the generations. In a kind of dance, like the ones certain wild creatures put on when they’re sizing each other up, you see the compromises, the good manners, the attempts to keep the peace and to be sociable, but also the simmering resentments and the antipathies, not to mention the full frontal assaults.

And, fear not, John C. Reilly’s makes his part in the struggle every bit as engaging as Jonah Hill’s. I’ve always found Mr. Reilly to be a very interesting actor but here his superb work goes beyond anything seen so far. His "John" quickly leaves the dork image behind and gives us rare truths about a man’s vulnerabilities as well as his strengths. He even surprises us with his wittiness at times. "Thrilling" is the only word for Mr. Reilly’s acting in the scene where he tries to have a heart-to-heart talk with Molly about her son. It’s one of those cases where a camera parks itself under a guy’s nose and just watches as he spills out some complicated human stuff you’ve probably never seen on screen.

Given such satisfying interaction between the two men, it’s sad – almost – to find Marissa Tomei disappointing in the role of Molly. With all the make-up, the dewy eyes and the ultra-thick eyelashes, Ms. Tomei is too movie-starish. Granted, it’s a tricky role. She’s a woman who’s completely addled about her son, a bit ditzy, then, but she’s somehow got to be interesting enough for us to take her seriously. A touch of the kind of ordinariness that Catherine Keener conveys so well as John’s ex would have been welcome.

Still, Ms. Tomei’s performance works well enough that it didn’t stop me from coming away from the movie with that rare feeling that I’d seen something that made me feel a bit better about us humans and our fraught efforts at life in this world.

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

 

Mid-August Lunch (Pranzo di Ferragosto) (Movie) written by Gianni Di Gregorio and Simone Riccardini; directed by Gianni Di Gregorio; starring Gianni Di Gregorio, Valeria de Franciscis, Marina Cacciotti, Maria Cali, Grazia Cesarini Sforza, Alfonso Santagata, Luigi Marchetti, Marcello Ottolenghi.

Not another "Italy Movie"???? (See our review of Letters to Juliet, June 27/10.)

Well, yes.

But with important differences.

No romance.

No gleaming vineyards. Or mountains. Or lakes. Barely a picture-postcard view (except for a quick glimpse of some of Rome’s grand avenues).

Instead, most of the movie takes place in a dingy old apartment building in Rome’s back streets.

Still, there’s a lot of perky music that you have to work hard to ignore.

But you you can’t ignore the emphasis on food and wine. That’s because the main theme is hospitality, or rather, enforced hospitality.

Gianni (Gianni Di Gregorio), a middle-aged bachelor with a hang-dog look, takes care of his elderly mother (Valeria De Franciscis). In all other respects, apparently, Gianni has trouble getting his act together: he and mama lag years behind on their condo fees. But the condo manager (Alfonso Santagata) agrees to let Gianni off the hook if he’ll look after the manager’s mother while he, the manager, takes a holiday. Gianni has no choice but to agree. When the manager’s mother (Marina Cacciotti) shows up, though, an aunt (Maria Cali) comes with her. An offer of some much-needed cash persuades Gianni to take the second visitor.

Then Gianni’s doctor (Marcello Ottolenghi), who is also his close personal friend, asks Gianni to look after his, the doctor’s, mother (Grazia Cesarini Sforza), while he, too, leaves town. So Gianni, not exactly a trained caregiver, ends up having to juggle the dietary and medical needs of four elderly women, not to mention resolving disputes about tv-watching.

What a wonderful premise. Why didn’t anybody think of it before?

Loads of droll humour. As when Gianni is reading The Three Musketeers to his mama. She asks him to re-read the descriptive details about d’Artagnan. She nods approvingly until they come to the hooked nose. "Oh no!" she complains, "I don’t like a man with a hooked nose." When Gianni is complaining to the condo manager that he can’t pay his fees because he’s drowning in problems, the condo manager replies: "Everybody has problems. I have dermatitis."

The characters come across so truthfully that you can’t believe they’re actually actors. An internet search would seem to indicate that most of them aren’t. Several of them are playing characters who have the same names as the actors playing them. Even Gianni, the writer, director and star. His mama will remain in my mind a long time as one of the most distinctive onscreen presences ever. A scrawny woman with a face as lined as a turtle’s, she doesn’t seem to think she’s lost any of her youthful beauty. Donning a flamboyant Marilyn-Monroe-style wig, she lathers her lips with bright lipstick and dolls herself up in vividly-coloured frocks to greet her guests. Behind the scenes, she complains to Gianni about the inconveniences of the situation, but she welcomes the visitors with charm and graciousness that would out-do Britain’s late Queen Mother.

The movie evolves in a very natural, linear style; it’s all so naturalistic that you almost feel as if everything just happened, unscripted. And yet some of the photographic effects show that there’s an artistic brain at the helm. Some scenes are so dark that you can hardly tell what’s going on. A scene lighted only by the light that seeps under a door shows us nothing but a pair of slippered feet and the hem of a fancy gown crossing a floor. The effect is to suggest that there’s something more going on than meets the eye, some hidden drama brewing.

And yet, it’s on the point of drama that the movie disappoints somewhat. Not that I’m completely corrupted by Judd Apatow comedies, but I kept wanting this one to build to an amazing climax rather than just evaporating on a note of whimsy. Maybe this is simply a case of my not being able to accept a gelato when my gut was craving a beefy hamburger. But the feeling that something was lacking means that I can’t, honestly, give the movie as high a rating as it would otherwise deserve.

Rating: C (where C = "Certainly worth seeing")

 

ac-‘TOR (Play) written by David Straus; directed by Karie Richards; starring David Straus and Regan Thiel; Toronto Fringe Festival, Tarragon Extra Space, July 11.

A crowded agenda precluded attendance at any Toronto Fringe shows this year, except for one that some friends of mine are involved in. (You can take that statement as full disclosure.) Luckily, it turns out to be a winner.

An "Actor" (David Straus) is auditioning for an infomercial for a set of DIY books about wood-working. A bossy and domineering "Director" (Regan Thiel) keeps interrupting him and demanding that he take another approach to the inane script. It’s got to be done with more feeling, then more sincerity, then faster, then slower. In an attempt at authenticity, she even calls up an audience member and makes the Actor speak the lines to this other guy, one-on-one.

As Mr. Straus cycles through these various experiments with the assigned text, it begins to look as though he, as author of the play, has written a piece to showcase his considerable acting chops. Even more so, when we veer off into a science fiction mode. Then, with Ms. Thiel partnering in whatever role suits, we get bits of soap opera, thrillers, even ersatz Shakespeare. References to pop culture abound. And bathetic lines like: "We could build something beautiful together," and "That’s because I’ve never found a place that I could call home."

All very well done, but what does this have to do with the infomercial that occasionally reappears?

Other audience members seemed to catch on quickly (maybe they read the publicity blurbs?) but even I eventually hit on an interpretation that worked for me: this is all about the actor-ish business of probing the text, going deeper with the motivation, what you might call subtext work. The Actor is exploring different ways to make the script about wood-working more meaningful for him. (Sly references to wood-related matters begin to become noticeable in the diverse scenarios.) Thus, we get a hilarious and brilliantly zany send-up of some fads in the acting profession.

Mr. Straus pulls all this off in expert, deadpan comic style. I found Ms. Thiel very effective in the sensitive bits – talking to a comatose husband who’s on life support, for instance – but not as strong in the ballsy department. Her singing is glorious, though. Director Karie Richards has evidently instilled a discipline that keeps the two performers at the peak of their game. I’m not sure, though, that the schmaltzy song at the end is an earned indulgence. After all, there’s been no singing so far. On the other hand, we’ve flipped through so many theatrical genres, why not end with a musical? In any case, it makes for a fabulous finale.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com