Dilettante's Diary

June 2/11

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Favourite Works: 2004-2013
Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
Sabbath's Theater by PHILIP ROTH
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La Traviata: Met's Live HD Version
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How Fiction Works
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The Jesus Sayings
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Head to Head
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Me In Manhattan
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OTHER STUFF: Art Exhibitions, Concerts, etc.

The date that appears above is the date of the most recent reviews. As new reviews are added, they will appear towards the top of the page and the older ones will move further down. When the page is closed, the items will be archived according to the final date on the page.

Reviewed here: Hangover II (Movie); The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog and of his friend Marilyn Monroe (Novel); Zadie's Shoes (Play); Bridesmaids (Movie); The Bang Bang Club (Movie)

Hangover II (Movie) written by Craig Mazin, Scot Armstrong, Todd Phillips, Jon Lucas, Scott Moore; directed by Todd Phillips; starring Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Zach Galifianakis, Justin Bartha, Ken Jong, Paul Giamatti, Mason Lee, Jamie Chung

It hardly seems fair to criticize a sequel for not measuring up to the original. What sequel ever does? In a case like this especially, you’ve lost the novelty appeal. You know what sorts of things happen to these guys and you know how they deal with them (or don’t). There isn’t that element of: what-the-hell-is-going-on-here? So let’s just admit up front that this one isn’t as good as the original Hangover and proceed to see what Hangover II does have going for it.

This time, our four friends find themselves at a fancy resort in Thailand for Stu’s wedding to a Thai beauty. (You’ll remember Stu as the dentist with the missing tooth in the first Hangover.) As per formula, they wake up in a sleazy hotel one morning in the seedy inner city of Bangkok and none of them can remember what happened the night before or how they got here. The catch this time is that they’ve lost Teddy (Mason Lee), the innocent and precocious brother of the bride. At sixteen-years-old, Teddy’s already a brilliant pre-med student and an accomplished cellist, the apple of his rich daddy’s eye. Which is not quite the way daddy views Stu: rotten apple, more like. So you can imagine the panic now that Stu and his pals have lost Teddy.

The movie moves fast and looks good. All those exotic Thailand locales, both heavenly and hellish, are used to best advantage. This time we don’t have a baby or a prancing tiger on the loose. But we do have a fiendishly clever little monkey who causes a lot of trouble for such a small character. A Buddhist monk could solve the problem of what went down last night except that he has taken a lifetime vow of silence. Turns out his fellow monks know how to lay a vicious beating on disrespectful visitors. Be warned though: the movie's not all about monasteries.  Hangover II takes you into some really gross territory. (Think of some of the things Bangkok’s famous for.) Hard to say whether I was more surpised by seeing some of this stuff in a mainstream movie or by the blas, worldy-wise act the twelve-and-thirteen-year-olds packing the theatre were putting on.

The best news about Hangover II is that the four buddies, having by now established themselves as a brand in the loser department, work well together as a team. Except when Zach Galifianakis nearly ruins everything. He was fine as one of the team in the first Hangover but the attempt to expand his character to a major role in Due Date was a serious mistake. That movie showed just how threadbare his comic gift can be. Here too, he very nearly becomes intolerable. Not that I don’t get the humorous potential in the character. Yes, it’s funny to see a complete doofus who takes himself too seriously, who seems to suffer from some sort of social disability (Aspergers syndrome, anyone?). But comedy has to be rooted somewhere in recognizable humanity. This guy does things that are inexplicable by any human standards. Like snatching the bride’s drink out of her hands and downing it. Or throwing away a new purchase that somebody shows him. This sort of shtick looks like somebody's trying to hard to be a clown. However, those sorts of bloopers are kept to a minimum and Mr. Galifianakis actually has a few good quiet moments.

As for the rest of the gang, Justin Bartha (the groom who got lost in the first Hangover) plays the straight-laced one. It’s probably just as well that he remains back at the resort worrying about his missing pals because he looks kinda prissy. Bradley Cooper, once again, does his cool, sexy thing very capably. The big bonus in this movie, as compared to Hangover, is the new look at Stu, the dentist, as played by Ed Helms About half way through the movie, I found myself thinking: this guy may be bland but there’s something real about him, something that you can connect with on a gut level. And sure, enough, the denouement of the movie involves a really neat – and unexpected – development of his character.

There are some special treats in smaller roles, too. The producers knew that if they wanted somebody to pack a wallop in just a couple of scenes, the guy to get was Paul Giamatti. In a matter of a few minutes on screen, Mr. Giamatti shows about three different personalities all wrapped up in one man. I also found myself unexpectedly liking Ken Jong in the role of Mr. Chow, the Asian who introduces our guys to Bangkok’s Inferno. This character is outrageously – almost repulsively – giddy and flippant. Although he speaks of having a wife, he seems to embody the worst stereotype of faggotry. And yet, there’s an uncanny shrewdness and toughness about him. Maybe it would be good to see more of him in another movie – as long as the producers don’t make the mistake of over-exposing him as happened with Mr. Galifianakis.

CC: Entertaining but not amazing.


The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog and of his friend Marilyn Monroe (Novel) by Andrew O’Hagan, 2010

A rave review of Andrew O’Hagan’s previous novel, Be Near Me, had this to say to the author: You are a writer, that rare and gifted being who has important things to say about being human, go into your room and keep writing and we will supply you with everything you need.

Well, perhaps, you’ll forgive the hubris, but that review appeared in Dilettante’s Diary (on the page titled "Summer Reading 2010"). Now that a new product has emerged from Mr. O’Hagan’s room, how do I feel about that earlier statement? Hmm......Let’s say that I’m not quite willing to renege on my suggestion that the world should support a writer like Mr. O’Hagan. I will, however, admit to the hope that he has run through the satirical impulse that drives large sections of this book and that he will return quickly to the more reliable sources of his inspiration.

Not to say that the central idea of this book is a bad one. It’s ingenious, in fact: a little canine companion of Marilyn Monroe’s reports on the last two years of her life. The dog’s background is that he’s brought from England by Natalie Wood’s mother, then acquired by Frank Sinatra who gives him to Marilyn. (We’re assuming this biography is historically accurate.) The name "Maf", by which Marilyn usually addresses the dog, is short for "Mafia, honey." Most of their life together takes place in New York when she’s trying to find some equilibrium after her separation from Arthur Miller. Mr. O’Hagan’s way of conveying the relationship between owner and dog is beautiful. We feel exactly the dog’s wistful feelings as he watches his gorgeous, famous and lonely owner going about the attempt to re-establish her persona. You feel you’re right there in the room while the dog watches her primping for a night out. You share his appreciation of the way she enjoys her femininity and her beauty.

The portrait of Marilyn that emerges is, not surprisingly, very sympathetic. This is hardly a new take on her, given the libraries of biographies in a similar vein, but Mr. O’Hagan gives it a particularly affectionate spin. His Marilyn is sweet, kind, thoughtful and not at all vain or conceited. One remarkable quality of hers that keeps coming through is her gift for listening. Time and again, we see artists and intellectuals basking in the way she appears to drink in their words. Without Mr. O’Hagan’s saying so explicitly, you get the impression that she was so attentive to these people because she was never very confident of her own intellect and her opinions – although she kept trying to develop her mind through reading (Dostoevsky, for instance). Vocally, the woman’s personality comes through mostly in short exclamations along the lines of: Gee, that sounds swell! But Mr. O’Hagan does allow her to get off some witticisms. When somebody says, regarding an upcoming film, that it’s hard to see the potential for any political message in a bedroom comedy, Marilyn responds: "What other kind of politics is there?"

Despite such light moments, a faintly elegiac tone permeates Maf’s reminiscences about his owner, given that he knows as we all do how the story ended. What makes his relationship to her especially rich is the fact that Maf can read Marilyn’s mind. This produces big rewards, as for example, in a session at Lee Strasberg’s Actors Studio, when Marilyn’s acting a scene from Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie. As she delivers the lines, Maf’s able to tell us how she’s drawing on her distant past and on recent experiences in order to respond as O’Neill’s character. Some of the truths that emerge regarding the art of acting would gladden the heart of every actor alive today.

After that class, the actors gather in a bar to congratulate Marilyn on her stunning portrayal. Another participant in the class, one Shelly Winters, makes some poignant remarks to Marilyn about her unique talent. Another actor, identified only as Paul (Newman?), seems a bit more solemn than most of the group members. Some of them are outraged that a tv network cancelled a skit satirizing President John F. Kennedy, but our Paul opines that such things should be regarded as sacred. Those kinds of references help very much to set the era of the story. By this time, you’re beginning to realize that Mr. O’Hagan’s novel isn’t just a whimsical story about Marilyn. It’s meant as a portrait of the US at the time. Maf (a mightily perceptive dog) notes that the young actors in the class express something about the new spirit of America.

In terms of the individuals who famously headlined the cast list of America at the time, one who comes to life most vividly is the donor of Maf, Old Blue Eyes himself. He’s here in full, vivid colour – the charm, the swagger, the bullying, the bad temper. As for the most famous American of the day – apart from Marilyn herself – Mr. O’Hagan handles the inevitable encounter between her and JFK in an under-stated way. The meeting of these two people is sensitive, considerate and generous on the part of the writer, an attitude that contrasts markedly, as Maf notes, with the hyperbole and exaggeration that people spew regarding those two celebs.

Mr. O’Hagan’s attempt to resuscitate many other notables takes place at a party hosted by Alfred Kazin. Several big names are brought on stage to gossip and bitchily share literary scuttlebutt: Edmund Wilson, Lillian Hellman, Carson McCullers, Allen Ginsberg, Lionel Trilling and Norman Podhoretz. Ms McCullers’ accent, in Mr. O’Hagan’s re-creation, is impenetrable. Worse than that is the fatuous theorizing and arty posturing by everybody. Mr. O’Hagan seems to think he is being witty and clever about these cultural icons. In fact, he has one of the literati comment on the dearth of comic novels. Apparently, that’s meant to plant the idea in our heads that Mr. O’Hagan is reviving the genre. The main idea it planted in my head was that perhaps this Scottish author (now living in England) should stop trying to do America and go back to his own stomping grounds.

But the sections of the book that are utterly unreadable – as far as I’m concerned – are the ones where Maf kibitzes with canine pals and insects (bedbugs as Russians, for instance, and ants as experts on art theory). These creatures spout philosophy and toss off words of wisdom that add nothing to the novel other than long, dreary sections of attempted humour. In order to enjoy these passages, you’d have to be completely addled about dogs and absolutely sold on the cutesy appeal of non-human wise guys. Not me.


Zadie’s Shoes (Play) by Adam Pettle; co-directed by Adam Pettle and Jordan Pettle; starring Joe Cobden, Patricia Fagan, William MacDonald, Harry Nelken, Shannon Perreault, Geoffrey Pounsett, Lisa Ryder; Factor Theatre, Toronto; until June 5

It has taken us a while to catch up with this play. In fact, we might not have seen this production if it weren’t for a personal connection with a cast member. Since the play’s original production at Factory ten years ago, it has gone on to become something of a Canadian classic, receiving rapturous acclaim across the country and beyond. It may be, however, that you’ll have trouble catching our voices in the general chorus of praise.

Which is not to say that the play doesn’t have its good points. It moves at a brisk pace and there’s lots of drama. Too much, if you ask me. The central story features Ruth and Ben. Ruth (Patricia Fagan) is battling cancer and looking forward to special treatment in Mexico. But Ben (Joe Cobden) keeps betting on horses and losing the money intended for their trip. Then there are Ruth’s sisters. The ditzy one (Shannon Perreault) can’t wait to announce a secret (which we won’t reveal here). The other sister (Lisa Ryder) happens to be involved in a national curling championship and, thanks to some kooky theory about the workings of luck, she refuses to have sex with her long-suffering partner (Geoffrey Pounsett).

That theme fits into the play about as well as a strike by the kitchen staff at Elsinore would fit into William Shakespeare’s well-known play in that setting. The curling competition in Zadie’s Shoes looks like nothing but a clumsy attempt to work yet one more plot complication into the play. God forbid that one of the sisters should be relatively normal, without any neuroses to bring on rants. You wouldn’t be able to have the restaurant scene involving the three sisters where somebody’s jumping up and threatening to leave in a snit about every sixty seconds.

The one character in the play who seems not to have any boils to lance is Eli (Harry Nelkin) , a garrulous old guy whom Ben meets on a rare visit to schul. Eli’s, with his folksy wisdom and his moralistic parables, not to mention his horse racing tips, is a veritable deus ex synagogue. How corny is that?

But the thing about the play that bugs me more than all the above is the constant carping. No two characters can exchange lines without trying to undermine each other. They’re always at each other’s throats. What does this say about those of us who can engage in a few minutes of civilized conversation without attacking everybody within firing range? Are we repressing everything? Since I’m inclined not to think so, I’m wondering if this play’s version of humanity is based more on what the author sees on tv rather than in reality. Or is it thought that this kind of constant bickering is the essence of theatre? Anton Chekhov didn’t seem to think so. On the other hand, we have to allow that perhaps his version of humanity wasn't influenced by lots of tv-watching.

As for the acting in Zadie’s Shoes, I liked Joe Cobden’s edgy, evasiveness as Ben, when he first encounters blatherskite Eli. But Ben’s such a loser it’s hard to care much about him. It might have helped if Mr. Cobden had shown just the slightest feeling for Ruth when they were together. Like maybe a gleam in his eye, a little bit of charisma. Then we might have felt more engaged in his struggle to be loyal to her while being pulled in the opposite direction by his addiction.

If one of the fine performances needs special mention, it would be William MacDonald’s in the role of Bear, a coarse loudmouth who’s recovering from multiple addictions and who’s a friend of Ben’s. Mr. MacDonald barrels through the part with the energy and dynamism of an eighteen-wheeler. From the program notes, it would appear that most of his acting so far has been on the west coast of Canada. He arrives on the Toronto theatre scene like a blast of fresh mountain air.


Bridesmaids (Movie) written by Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo; directed by Paul Feig; starring Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Rose Byrne, Melissa McCarthy, Chris O’Dowd, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Elie Kemper, Rebel Wilson, Jill Clayburgh, Greg Tuculescu, Ben Falcone, Franklyn Ajaye

You may be wondering how any red-blooded Canadian male – or anybody who can make a reasonable claim to being one – can present himself at a theatre and ask for a ticket to a movie called Bridesmaids. Matter of fact, I find myself asking the same question. The answer, in this case at any rate, happens to be that, even without reading the reviews, said male was picking up a certain buzz about the movie. Word was that it might be good for a laugh, in spite of the title. So he steeled himself, played deaf to the voices taunting him for being a wuss, bought his ticket and settled down in the theatre.

Which move began to look like a mistake. The first scene puts us in a bedroom where a woman is being subjected to a hyper-kinetic sexual session – presumably for the purpose of demonstrating that the man involved is a jerk. I so didn’t want to have this encounter with those two people at that point in their lives. However, the teenage females in the audience were hysterical with pleasure. As with the ensuring barrage of gross-out slapstick and sexual talk. Let’s face it, some of us viewers are well beyond the stage of being titillated by the explicit mention of sexual parts and functions. But any movie with Judd Apatow’s name attached (as producer here) must meet the needs of the teens. So I sat uncomplaining through scenes like the one that took bathroom humour (literally) to the extreme: disgusting shlock about every kind and variety of human excretion. It made me laugh a lot.

Not that the movie’s all about such low-aiming comedy. The main story follows two Milwaukee women in their thirties who are best friends. When one gets engaged, she asks the other to be her maid of honour. Trouble is, a new friend of the bride’s – her boss’s wife, in fact – starts to usurp the role of best friend. And this new friend happens to be loaded with cash and able to make the bride’s fantasies come true. Hence the major conflict: who’s the bride’s real best friend? That sort of rivalry probably has more resonance for female viewers – if I can say so without seeming sexist – but even I must admit that the friendship competition leads to an unexpected insight into human behaviour.

For me, what really makes this movie isn’t so much that issue as the originality, the inventiveness and the freshness in terms of characters and situations. Granted, there are some flaws. A few of the slapstick routines don’t work very well. And coincidence plays too big a role. Milwaukee may not be the centre of the earth, but it’s probably big enough that two people wouldn’t accidentally bump into each other as often as happens here. However, you ought to be able to forgive that kind of indulgence in a comedy if it’s good enough.

And this one is. How about two women who can’t afford to pay for exercises classes in the park, so they follow the classes while hiding behind a tree? I bet that’s a scenario you never thought of. Same with this one: a woman dancing on the white line on the road, in her high heels, to prove to a cop that she’s not drunk. Or this one: a salesclerk in a jewelry store who warns lovebirds shopping for a ring that their love won’t last.

The movie teems with the kind of wacky humour that emerges if you let characters run with their impulses. One of my favourite lines: "Why don’t you be happy for me and then go home and talk behind my back like a normal person?" A cop, explaining proper procedures to a klutz, says: "Haven’t you ever seen CSI?" A woman asks why her mother keeps going to AA meetings, even though she’s not an alcoholic. The mother (Jill Clayburgh) answers: "That’s only because I’ve never taken a drink."

Amazingly, all six women in the bridal party have interesting characters and good lines. And it’s satisfying to see women in starring roles who are over thirty and not necessarily gorgeous. Maya Rudolph, as the bride, and Kristen Wiig, as the friend who gets elbowed aside, work splendidly as a team. Ms. Rudolph gives us a woman who knows better but can’t help getting caught up in all the silly stuff about being a bride, while Ms. Wiig (co-writer of the script) makes you love her courageous attempt to be cheerful and fun while hiding her inner desperation.

The member of the bridal party who stands out, though, is the groom's sister, as played by Melissa McCarthy. A very hefty person, this character has a tough manner that, were you given to stereotypical assessments of personalities (which we’re not hereabouts, of course) would make you wonder about her sexual orientation. The important thing about her is that there’s something unalterably twenty-first century USA about this woman with her forthright, candid, in-your-face, no-bullshit style. It’s impossible to imagine her as French, British, Scandinavian, Italian or German – any nationality other than American. And I’m happy to report that an important turn of the plot depends on this woman’s intervention. It won’t be any surprise when Ms. McCarthy gets a supporting actress nomination. She could support an entire cast on that sturdy frame of hers.

Another character who needs to be mentioned because he’s such a gem is the Irish policeman played by Chris O’Dowd. This is the most likeable cop to come along since John C. Reilly in Magnolia. I don’t want to run the risk of giving away too much here but, let’s just say, that the cop’s presence in Bridesmaids introduces an element of romance that – if slightly sentimental and unbelievable, like all romances in movies – manages to keep at least one foot rooted in reality, thanks to the actor’s down-to-earth charm.

[As noted on previous pages, we're now offering a "Capsule Comment" rather than a score at the end of each review.]

CC: Lots of fresh, original fun inspite of the dung.


The Bang Bang Club (Movie) written and directed by Steven Silver; starring Ryan Phillippe, Taylor Kitsch, Frank Rautenbach, Neels Van Jaarsveld, Malin Akerman, Russel Savadier

In the early 1990s, four white press photographers working in South Africa became known as "The Bang Bang Club". This movie, based on their experience, deals mostly with their coverage of violent clashes between the African National Party (Nelson Mandela’s group) and the Inkatha Freedom Party. No doubt, it was their panache and daring that made these photographers famous. As the photos at the end credits of the movie show, however, they weren’t by any means movie stars.

Lucky for us movie-viewers, the team making this film somehow managed – Surprise! – to round up four good-looking actors to play the parts. Ryan Phillippe has the best profile of any of them and that’s a good thing because he plays Greg Marinovich, the guy the movie follows most closely. All four of the actors have pronounced South African accents (either acquired or natural) with the result that you can understand hardly any of what they say. That doesn’t matter, because much of the dialogue amounts to lame stuff along the lines of: who are you?...what’s going on?....have a beer...whadda ya want?....what happened?....how did you get here....?

If such scintillating repartee doesn’t make for drama along the Shavian lines, the movie is at least watchable. It’s paced nicely: spurts of mayhem are broken up by idyllic scenes of our guys lolling with their women friends in swimming holes. Music helps to set the mood, whether stirring or soulful. You learn a fair bit about what went down in those awful days before the big vote that ended Apartheid. Some deeply-felt scenes are very moving, most notably one where a bereaved man describes the slaughter of his family.

In spite of such emotional moments, you don’t feel much engaged by the movie as a whole. It’s all rather episodic. Our guys run out to cover this uprising, then another one, then another. There’s no dramatic thread running through it all – unless it’s the question of whether or not they’ll all survive, but even that concern comes up only spasmodically. Occasionally, a theme comes to light. As for example, the question of whether or not these white photographers are capitalizing on the misery of black people. But that idea sputters out before much comes of it. Another idea that has a bit more staying power is the old one confronting anybody practising such a profession: is the photographer justified simply in taking photos or is some greater effort required to help people who are being injured, even killed, right before the photographer’s eyes? We get the movie’s answer to that question (I think) but the issue doesn’t have the momentum to carry the movie forward.

Maybe it’s all more impressive to a viewer who can get caught up in the glamour of a photographer’s life. I can’t. All that obsessing about having the perfect camera, the jockeying for the best shot, the squatting and jumping, the focussing and re-focussing, the constant "click....click....click....click" doesn’t do it for me. When it comes to having an impact on world events, these guys don’t impress me anywhere near as much as a team like, say, Woodward and Bernstein. Is that a simple case of a reviewer prejudiced in favour of the word over the picture?

CC: Interesting and informative but not emotionally engaging as a whole.

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