Dilettante's Diary

Aug 8/12

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Favourite Works: 2004-2013
Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
Sabbath's Theater by PHILIP ROTH
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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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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: People Like Us (Movie); Downton Abbey (TV); A Midsummer Night's Dream (Play); The Cheater's Guide to Love, Another Life and Means of Suppressing Demonstrations (Short Fiction)

People Like Us (Movie) written by Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci and Jody Lambert; directed by Alex Kurtzman; starring Chris Pine, Elizabeth Banks, Michael Hall D’Addario, Michelle Pfeiffer, Olivia Wilde; with Mark Duplass, Sarah Mornell, Philip Baker Hall, Barbara Eve Harris

A small movie with a good script about human relations, just a handful of characters, no superheroes, no CGI – is that too much to ask for when blockbusters seem to be the order of the day?

Apparently not, on the evidence of this one.

But we run into some difficulty here in terms of our promise not to reveal plot details. The best thing about this movie is the situation. You can’t really talk about the movie without revealing that. So there’s no point being coy about it here, even though it takes a while to unfold.

Sam is a young New Yorker in whose business life the emphasis is on busy. He’s constantly wheeling and dealing in transactions of a somewhat iffy legal status. When he finds out that his dad has died, Sam and his girlfriend jet off to California for the funeral. Not very willingly, on Sam’s part. Seems the old man, a record producer of middling achievements, wasn’t any poster boy for fatherly virtues. Sam now finds out that he has a stepsister, Frankie, the offspring of an extramarital affair of his dad’s. Frankie now has a boy, Josh, eleven years old, and Sam’s dad has secretly left with his lawyer a stash of cash, with a note for Sam that he should give the $$$ to Josh.

Sam finds Frankie but he can’t bring himself to reveal his relationship to her – or to hand over the cash, since he badly needs it himself. Problem is, he’s becoming very friendly with Frankie and Josh, embedded in their lives you might say, while continuing to keep the truth – and the $$$ – from them.

What a great premise these script writers have come up with! Congratulations guys! Lots of opportunities here for great scenes. As far as I know, no movie has done this story before.(I kept expecting to find that it was based on a novel but there was never any such acknowledgment. The opening credits did say something to the effect that it’s based on "true events." Maybe one of the writers experienced something like this...?)

Apart from story, one of the movie’s best assets is Elizabeth Banks as Frankie. A single mom and a recovering alcoholic who tends bar, she’s exactly what you think a woman like her would be: attractive without being too pretty, smart, feisty, a clever stick-handler through life’s trickiest passages, a bit tough, with a wry way of fending off guys coming on to her. Ms. Banks makes her a woman you keep bumping into these days but one you’ve never seen on screen.

If none of the other actors are as remarkable, they’re all good. Nothing wrong with Chris Pine’s acting in the role of Sam, but the movie might work better if he weren’t so cute. Given his looks and his charm, the relationship between him and the stepsister becomes a little to starry. If he looked more ordinary, i.e a bit more "like us" as the title would have it, the story would seem more real. As his widowed mom, Michelle Pfeiffer, has a blown rose kind of beauty (no Botox or plastic surgery for this gal, it seems). Maybe the haggard look has something to do with the fact that she’s scowling most of the time; we do get a touch of the old razzle-dazzle when she finally smiles. It’s hard to figure out what’s going on with her enigmatic character until we learn, near the end, something that makes more sense of her situation. Michael Hall D’Addario’s Josh is one of the more repellent kids on screen these days but you wouldn’t be wrong if you suspected that the movie would eventually give us a chance to warm up to him.

Granting that the movie’s sentimental, with feel-good aspirations, my only complaint is with the music. The obtrusive score carries emotional manipulation to nearly intolerable levels. Should we be willing to accept that on the basis of the fact that the spirit of a recently-deceased record producer hovers over the proceedings? Not I. For me, the music was constantly threatening to tip things over into the arena of hokey cornball. I was grateful for a line near the end when somebody said: "I’m not worried about you anymore – not as worried." That helped to bring things back to the ordinary, compromised world that people like us live in.

Capsule Comment (in lieu of a rating): A good story even if some of the people are not very much like us.


Downton Abbey: First Season (TV series, as seen on DVD) created by Julian Fellowes; starring Maggie Smith, Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern, Jim Carter, Phyllis Logan, Michelle Dockery, Dan Stevens.

If you can’t pride yourself on being one of the first to comment on a popular cultural phenomenon, then you can be one of the last. And that’s what you’re going to be if you have to wait for the DVD because of the fact that you don’t watch tv. (It’s about the commercials.)

So what about Downton Abbey after all this time?

In short, what everybody’s saying about it’s true. The acting is superb, the sets, costumes and landscapes are gorgeous, the script is clever, the pace is brisk. Most important of all, it’s great story-telling. This is as good as tv gets, I gather.

Then why is it that I come away from the series slightly dissatisfied? It’s not that I’m trying to be the artsy curmudgeon who necessarily scoffs at something that everybody else enjoys. There’s a genuine feeling of a surfeit of sweets when I finish watching the series. A feeling that I’ve enjoyed myself very much but haven’t gained anything of lasting value.

Here are a few of the problems that bothered me during the watching:

All the people whom we’re meant to like, i.e. just about everybody except Thomas the footman and O’Brien the maid, end up doing the right thing in the end, no matter how strongly they were tempted to do otherwise. Daisy tells the truth. The Dowager Countess comes around to supporting the marriage she has been opposing all along.

Characters "turn on a dime," i.e they suddenly change their minds and that saves the day. Take the Dowager Countess’ decision to award the prize at the flower show to the little old man when we had every reason to believe that she would give it to herself as usual. Was there any believable motivation for her change of heart? Same questions re the replacement cook’s suddenly praising Daisy’s "loyalty" to the regular cook – which loyalty Daisy had demonstrated by trying to sabotage the replacement cook’s work.

Some of the antagonisms posited in the script are exaggerated. It’s hard to see why the three sisters, who have perfectly nice parents, should be so bitchy with each other – except that the script writers need them to be, just to pump up the drama. Was there any reason for the Dowager Countess to be so hostile to Mrs. Crawley? Granted, they weren’t fated to be best of friends, but it seemed to me that the spite was far too demonstrative.

And wasn’t it a bit implausible that the Dowager Countess trumped Mrs Crawley when it came to the diagnosis of the rash on the gardener’s hands? What reason was there to think that the Countess, who had no medical training, would know better than Mrs Crawley who had lots of training?

In some ways, the style of the humour, although amusing, was much too derivative. For example, the Dowager Countess' saying something to the effect that an Englishman would never be so presumptuous as to die in your house the way the foreigner did. That’s so Lady Bracknell that the writers should be paying royalties to the estate of Oscar Wilde.

The kaleidoscopic style means that hardly any scene lasts more than a minute or so. I gather this is the way of most tv programs these days, especially soap operas. Maybe it’s what viewers expect, then. But it doesn’t give you much chance to go into anything in depth.

Melodrama’s one thing but when it’s contrived it’s harder to take. For instance, somebody dies prematurely when there has been no reason to expect any such event, no hint that it might happen. A miscarriage occurs in a way that hardly ever happens except in outdated fiction. Mrs. Hughes’ dalliance with her old flame is too obvious an attempt for an unexpected romantic interlude.

The mingling of the important and the trivial isn’t quite convincing. While the questions of marriage, inheritance and so on are worthy of our attention, the butler’s "disgrace" in the second episode is silly. The valet’s foolish attempt to correct his limp is far beneath the man’s dignity. In Chekhov, by comparison, you can get somebody worrying about his squeaky boots and, far from striking you as an interruption in the great matters, it tugs at your heartstrings. I think that’s because it has the feel of something that sincerely emerges from the character, not some frill imposed on him to make him more interesting.

Some of the setups are phoney and stagey – as in bringing the whole household, including all the servants, to the board meeting at the hospital, just so that they could all witness the Countess’ humiliation vis a vis Mrs. Crawley. Surely there would be no reason for the pooh-bahs to invite the servants to such an event other than the scriptwriters’ yen for a big scene.

Not that any of these quibbles made me want to stop watching the series. What they did was to prevent my taking it seriously. And that, I think, shows the difference between entertainment and great art. The viewing was good, no question about that, but there was never a moment when it jogged your brain: Gee, I never thought about that or That’s an unusual way of looking at things. Nary an insight into anything. Unless you count the dynamics between the toffs and the serving class. But surely, we know enough about that by now. Whereas, in works by Shakespeare, Shaw, Pinter, Stoppard, Albee, Williams, you always come away with provocative ideas to mull over.


A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Play) by William Shakespeare; musical adaptation by Kevin Fox, Tom Lillington and D. Jeremy Smith; directed by D. Jeremy Smith; starring: Steven Burley, Nathan Carroll, Madeleine Donohue, Paul Dunn, Christian Feliciano, Alexis Gordon, Helen King, Andrew Scanlon, Stephanie Seaton; Driftwood Theatre; Wychwood Park, Toronto, July 28. (Performances in other Ontario venues until August 19)

As you might expect of any show by Driftwood Theatre, this outdoor production teems with energy and creativity. At the curtain call, you’re surprised to find that only eight actors were involved. The script must have undergone some severe trimming in order to make room for the a capella singing in the show (it lasts just two hours, including intermission) but the cuts are barely noticeable, even to a committed Shakespeare buff. One interpolated scene, required to allow for costume changes, features a very clever and humorous rant from Egeus regarding Hippolyta’s pretensions.

The musical aspect of the production takes a while to get rolling (why not an opening duet between Theseus and Hippolyta?) but, when it does click in, it works very well. One of the places where it shows to best advantage, thanks in part to the great choreography, is the brawl involving the four young "lovers" just before the intermission. Even better, in musical terms, is the playlet that ends the evening.That Pyramus and Thisbe shtick is such a rinky-dinky thing, why not turn it into a mini-opera? That suits the characters’ tendencies to self-aggrandizement.

In other places, you might feel that the singing of certain passages interferes with the nuanced interpretation that you could get in a spoken rendition of the text – Bottom’s dream, for instance – but you could argue that the music heightens the emotional impact of the passage as a whole.

Given the craze for puppets in today’s theatre, it seems to make perfect sense to have sprites and fairy creatures presented as kewpie-dolls dangling from the end of long poles. But some other aspects of the design left me a little underwhelmed. While the costumes for the forest dwellers, headed by Oberon and Titania, have a certain picturesque appeal, the non-descript, contemporary outfits for the Athenians say nothing.

I don’t know whether it has something to do with the rough-and-ready, in-your-face quality of the production, but, for some reason, Shakespeare’s writing here strikes me as being amazingly contemporary. Take the mechanicals wanting to pad their parts in the Pyramus and Thisbe thing. Aren't theatrical people still doing that all over the world? And, then, their telling each other not to eat too much garlic or onion for fear of putting anybody off. That’s a concern that the media impress on us every day of our lives. I'm like: you mean, they were already fussing about that sort of thing back in Shakespeare’s time??? And the business of people using the wrong words when they’re reaching for effect. Writers still use that one for comic effect. We tend to associate it with Sheridan’s Mrs. Malaprop and yet here it is nearly two hundred years before her.

This musical production of Dream is a new and improved version of one that Driftwood did in 2004. Since that was before the inception of Dilettante’s Diary, however, we don’t have any review of it on record. Some of the cast members from that show are also in this one. Astute readers of this website will readily surmise that we have a close personal connection to one of them. It’s understood, then, that we can’t make specific comments on anyone’s performance. But take my word for it: much could be said in praise of each of them.

For info in the company’s performances in other venues throughout Ontario, check their website: www.driftwoodtheatre.com


New Yorker Notables

You may think we drool over everything The New Yorker deems fit to print. Maybe we do; maybe we don't. But the pieces mentioned on this website are the ones that we find notable in special ways.

The Cheater’s Guide to Love (Short Fiction) by Junot Daz; July 23, 2012

I’ll never forget my first encounter with Junot Daz’s writing in The New Yorker, roughly twelve years ago. Here was a voice entirely new to that magazine and to my reading experience: the sassy, crude, vulgar, street-smart talk of a young Latino born in the Dominican Republic and raised in the US. This first-person narrator was taking us to gritty places no writer had taken us to before. I haven’t kept track of all Mr. Daz’s writing since then (during which time he has won the Pulitzer Prize), but here he is again with that unmistakable voice. Yet with a big difference. Now our narrator is a university English prof. That could be why, sprinkled among the profanities and the bad grammar, we get some usage that sounds slightly anomalous – "in fact," "of course," "so that," "at the time." Wording like that keeps reminding me that this guy is educated and sophisticated. So what’s with the lingering gutter flavour of his speech?

Oh well, such quibbles about diction don’t interfere with the compelling drive of the narrative. Mr. Daz gives an extremely vivid accounting of the marital, romantic and sexual misadventures of him and his friend Elvis. Through all the dis-edifying turmoil, what comes through most impressively is the way that someone who might reasonably be called a scumbag can never truly let go of his one experience of love.   www.junotdiaz.com


Another Life (Short Fiction) by Paul La Farge; July 2, 2012

This strikes me as a new way of telling a story. It doesn’t follow the conventional  structuring of dialogue, description and narrative. All in the present tense, it’s like someone talking to you in a steady, relentless stream along the lines of: this-happens-then-this-happens-then-this-happens. There aren’t even any quotation marks around the dialogue. But the narrative wave carries you along so convincingly that you don’t notice until the end that the story, spread over five pages, has only one paragraph break. (Go tell that to your high school English teacher!) It’s a story about a forty-ish married man’s encounter with a younger woman who’s tending bar. The casual, conversational, off-hand quality of it all makes the ending – and your assumption about what probably happened – all the more chilling. www.paullafarge.com


Means of Suppressing Demonstrations (Short Fiction) by Shani Boianjiu; June 25, 2012

I approached this one with trepidation. It’s about Israeli soldiers guarding a remote and isolated roadblock in the West Bank. But, instead of the dreaded conflict and violence, what I got was the humdrum banality of military life. Almost a parody of what I was expecting. Our narrator, a woman in her early twenties, is the commanding officer in charge of four male soldiers who take shifts at the post. Routinely, she has sex every night with one of them, an eager nineteen-year-old. The days are taken up mostly with dealing with two Palestinian men and a boy who come to the post to stage ineffectual protests. They keep pleading with the soldiers to take more vigorous deterrent measures so that their "protest" will be reported in the papers. The author tells all of this matter-of-factly, with a straight face, never trying to make it funny.

But the prose is sprinkled with evocative, almost poetic lines, that make you realize so much more is at stake in the lives of the narrator and her characters than what appears on the surface of the story. As in this, about her remembering the time she felt some spit from the young Arab boy on her hand: "She felt it at dark parties and on walks and in rooms where she was never alone, where she was always with someone, and it was when those people called her name that she felt it."

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com