Dilettante's Diary

Oct 4/12

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MOVIES
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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: Solo Shows (Art) by David Brown and Leah Rainey; Pitch Perfect (Movie); Gone Girl (Mystery) My Man (Humour)

David Brown and Leah Rainey (Art) Atti Gallery, 2152 Yonge St., Toronto; until Oct 22. www.attigallery.com

North Toronto residents don’t get a lot of opportunity to see really good art in our neighbourhood. It’s a pleasant surprise, then, to discover this classy little gallery on Yonge Street, a couple of blocks south of Eglinton.

An artist currently featured in a solo show there is David Brown, whose exuberant encaustic paintings have often been praised on this website. His current show "Blossoms Blooms & Other Delights" shows that he’s taking his artistic expression to new heights of riotous, exhilarated explosions of colour, shape and line. Each of these works is like a detonation of energy. Colours swirl, lines swoop, shapes dance. Of course, in order for such frenetic compositions to work, there must be stabilizing elements, focal points where the eye can rest. These Mr. Brown provides in the way of collage elements, cut-outs of what look sometimes like clouds and flowers.

In looking at these works, you have to wonder what’s going on in the mind of a grown man who can produce such expressions of wild, carefree abandonment. He helps to answer that question by making no secret (in his bio) of the fact that he uses the drawings of children to help him to get into the freedom mode. That feeling is further conveyed in some of the wonderful titles of the works, such as: "Frolic," "Vivacity," "Ricochet," "Effloresence," "Aura" and "Fire Fly." Overall, the message that seems to come through is: yes, life can be hellishly complicated in many ways but it can be mighty joyous too.

To some viewers, Mr. Brown's more subdued works might provide a welcome respite from the turbulence of the others. Certain of his works have a less tumultuous effect, a more studied impression in cool grays, light blues, blacks, whites and yellows, with just a few touches of electric red. These works, if not as exciting as the others, are intriguing in their own way. www.encausticcollage.com

Upstairs in the gallery, the abstracts in "Templates," a solo show by Leah Rainey, have an entirely different effect. Composed mostly of just a few large shapes of rough geometrical approximations, often in earth tones, they make bold and dramatic statements with the simplest of means. Some look like they might be inspired by rock formations; others could be fragments of something glimpsed in domestic situations: the edge of a piece of furniture, say.

All of these works have the effect of stopping the viewer and making you ponder what the artist may be saying. Some of the ones that I like best, though, are small works that appear to be studies for the larger works, in that they display the same arrangements of shapes. In a much quieter vein, in very subtle colours, each makes its own statement, somewhat inchoate and vague, though it may be. www.leahrainey.com

Opening Reception for both shows: Saturday, Oct 6th, 1-3 pm.

 

Pitch Perfect (Movie) written by Kay Cannon; based on the book by Mickey Rapkin; directed by Jason Moore; starring Anna Kendrick, Skylar Astin, Brittany Snow, Anna Camp, Rebel Wilson, Hana Mae Lee, Ben Platt, Adam DeVine, Elizabeth Banks, John Michael Higgins

A few minutes into this one, you may begin to wonder if you’re ready for another Hollywood version of campus life. You know the kind of thing: lots of flawless skin and teeth, dewy eyes and glossy lips – even on the girls. But I stayed in the hopes of getting some good singing.

The deal is that campus a capella groups are vying for a national title. The crucial rivalry is between an all-boys group and an all-girls group from the same college. The guys are out to defend their championship; the girls are determined to beat them. Trouble is, the guys are cool and hip; the girls are a bit stodgy, thanks to the anal-retentive leader of their group (Anna Camp). Man, do these people take their singing seriously. Initiation into the groups is like formal induction into secret cults. The hostility between the two groups is intense; the insults aimed at opponents are obnoxious and egregious.

You’d almost think you were watching a parody of the kind of athletic rivalry on campuses back in the day. Is this singing thing really happening out there? I know that there’s a tv program called Glee and I presume it’s had some effect in terms of boosting the popularity of singing in high schools across North America. But could singing in colleges and universities be such a big deal?

Maybe any such question is irrelevant. We’re not dealing with reality here anyway. The plot has only a minimal connection to life as we know it. The movie’s more like a slew of tropes that have been thrown into one of those music mixers and spit out randomly without much regard for logic or motivation:

  • A big brawl, instigated on the flimsiest of pretexts, leads to a night in jail.
  • A student’s alienation from her divorced dad (a prof at her college) has virtually nothing to do with anything.
  • A sullen roommate refuses to talk for no reason other than that the shtick seems funny to teen audiences.
  • When nodes are discovered on somebody’s vocal chords, the news is treated as solemnly as if it were a diagnosis of terminal cancer.
  • A romance is trying to bloom between a girl and a guy, and, by way of a contrived hindrance, there’s a campus big shot who looks and sounds like Prince William, but with washboard abs.

The biggest, most obvious clich is the one that provides the momentum for so many movies: the build up to the big COMPETITION, be it boxing, acting, music, modelling, dancing, running, skating or whatever. Still, it’s a gimmick that works for lots of movies, and this one’s no exception. With something as trite as this, though, you’re always teetering on the edge: will the charm win out over the shlock? It does, in this case, but just barely.

It succeeds largely because you get the feeling that everybody’s having a good time with all the silliness. The intensity is all tongue-in-cheek. Leading the pack, there’s Anna Kendrick, showing that she has clearly mastered the role of the slightly disconcerted but independent-minded new girl on campus. Skylar Astin is appealing as the ordinary, only mildly-studly potential boyfriend. At a campus mixer early in the proceedings, the Kendrick character tells him that he seems to be very drunk. He says, "No, it’s just that you’re very fuzzy." Rebel Wilson plays a very beautiful blonde Australian who just happens to be about 100 pounds overweight. While she’s meant to be there for comic interest, not all her lines are great. But she has a laconic air that does the job. When the conceited leader of the boys’ group (Adam DeVine) tells her that he thinks maybe they should kiss, she responds with something like: "Sometimes I think I should do crystal meth but then....naw, not a good idea." An Asian singer (Hana Mae Lee) who always mouths her lines in a timid whisper that nobody can hear makes the audience laugh the most – for no reason that I can see.

Whether or not it all makes any sense, however, is hardly the point. It’s just an excuse for a lot of what brought me to the movie in the first place – great singing. I gather that, for the most part, the groups were doing covers of well-known songs. None of them were familiar to me. In the credits, I watched closely to see if I could recognize the names of any of the authors/composers of the songs. One vaguely familiar name, but only one, jumped out at me: somebody named Michael Jackson. Even though none of it was my type of music, I loved all of it. Matter of fact, the soundtrack CD would make a nice gift in case any reader out there wanted to express their appreciation to the hard-working writer of Dilettante’s Diary.

Capsule Comment (in lieu of a rating): the charm and the singing outweigh the shlock – just barely.

 

Gone Girl (Mystery) by Gillian Flynn, 2012

The trouble with reviewing this book is that you can’t tell people what’s so great about it. To give away any of the truly amazing aspects of the book would be a crime.

But maybe we can say this much about the plot. Nick and Amy, a married couple in their thirties, have moved back to his hometown in Missouri, after they’ve lost their glitzy jobs in Manhattan. Nick’s now running a bar that he owns with his twin sister Margo. They bought it with money from the trust fund that Amy’s parents, famous authors, established for her. Nick and Amy seem to be settling down to small town life reasonably well. But he arrives home from the bar one day and finds Amy gone. There are signs of a scuffle in the living room and the iron has been left on. A massive search for the missing Amy begins.

About the plot, we dare not reveal any more details. In general terms, though, I can say that it’s one of the most entertaining, most enjoyable mysteries I’ve read in many years. Almost every page offers scintillating details that keep you intrigued. The book’s almost fiendishly clever, and yet, very "reader friendly." You never have any trouble following what’s happening, surprised as you might be. About half way through, the book takes a startling 180 degree turn, almost becoming another book, another story. You wonder how author Gillian Flynn can carry on with such a dazzling display. But she does, magnificently.

On top of all that, what makes the book so exceptional is that it manages to be a fascinating novel as well as a mystery. The chapters alternate in terms of narrator voice. On the one hand, there are Nick’s first-person accounts of what’s happening with the search. Interspersed with his reports are chapters giving us excerpts from a journal that Amy left behind. From these two voices we learn that their marriage was troubled. The different ways they each saw and interpreted things that happened between them make for a rivetting study of what marriage may or may not mean to a young couple these days. When do people play roles for the sake of a partnership? When do they try to be what their partner wants? Is the real person the one the partner wants that person to be?

As an example of the kind of difference that troubled them, there’s the business of their anniversaries. Nick remembers that, on their first anniversary, Amy gave him a set of fancy stationery that he never wanted; Amy, however, tells us that, on their first anniversary, she gave him some beautiful stationery that she knew he always wanted. Every anniversary since, she has set up a treasure hunt, in which written clues relating to their romantic past will lead him to his gift from her. But he always has trouble deciphering the clues; he usually can’t remember the romantic incidents the way she does. Does it mean, then, that he hasn’t loved her if his memories don't jibe perfectly with hers?

If these two sound like typically disgruntled, self-involved young marrieds, you need to know that each of them appears fully capable of seeing their own faults. Their apparent candour and honesty in this regard go a long way to winning us over. As Nick casts his mind back over the way he has treated Amy, he tells us:

I should add, in Amy’s defense, that she’d asked me twice if I wanted to talk, if I was sure I wanted to do this. I sometimes leave out details like that. It’s more convenient for me. In truth, I wanted her to read my mind so I didn’t have to stoop to the womanly art of articulation. I was sometimes as guilty of playing the figure-me-out game as Amy was.

And here’s Amy admitting, in her journal, her inability to be "wifely", the way Nick’s mother, Maureen, is:

I think of how consistently lovely Maureen is, and I worry that Nick and I were not meant to be matched. That he would be happier with a woman who thrills at husband care and homemaking, and I’m not disparaging these skills: I wish I had them. I wish I cared more that Nick always has his favorite toothpaste, that I know his collar size off the top of my head, that I am an unconditionally loving woman whose greatest happiness is making my man happy.

As a novel, more than just a mystery, Gone Girl appears to have another theme besides the topic of marriage. That would be certain features of life in America today. In Amy’s notes, we get her take, as a transplanted Manhattanite, on the bland mid-western consumer culture. People’s homes, she notes, are decorated only with objects from the Pottery Barn; there are nothing but coffee table books on the shelves. In what might be called a great example of damning with faint praise, Amy comments that these people are "nice enough," on the whole.

The aspect of social commentary that I found most disturbing has to do with the influence of the media on public attitudes. Americans are lazy, we’re told, which means that they like to have clear-cut opinions handed to them by the media. It's appalling to see the way the media – particularly cable tv shows – can manipulate public opinion in the America that’s pictured here. Commentators can spout irresponsible opinions that make the public respond in a Pavlovian way. (Could one hope that Canada's any better?) The situation is so bad, as one prominent defense attorney in the book says, that there’s no such thing as an impartial jury any more. People are so influenced by the all-pervasive media that a case is decided largely out of court; the argument that takes place in front of the jury accounts for only a small percentage of the outcome.

As intense and absorbing as these novelistic qualities of the book are, clues are scattered here and there in the way of a typical mystery. We never go far without a tug at our curiosity that makes us think maybe there’s something new on the end of the line, such as a  suspect or a possible explanation of some odd circumstance surrounding Amy’s departure. Now and then, for instance, Nick will mention, just in passing, that he’s been lying about something. Or he’ll tell us that he needs to ignore a certain phone call that’s coming in.

Also, regarding the mystery aspect of the story, the two local cops assigned to the case are notably believable – mainly because they’re not spectacular, "starry" detectives, just ordinary cops doing their job. The male detective is a bit seedy and not particularly sympathetic, but his female partner has a warm, very human presence, in spite of the fact – or maybe because of the fact – that she’s not attractive physically. I kept thinking of a down-to-earth person like Frances McDormand’s memorable character in the movie Fargo. The woman detective in Gone Girl is a person who’s doing her job as well as she can, who may not be a genius, who may in fact seem a bit dumb to people who want quicker results, but who has a dogged intelligence that takes her wherever the facts inevitably lead.

Another character who stands out in Gone Girl, thanks to her frank, matter-of-fact manner, is Nick’s twin, Margo. Nick tells us that she’s the only person that he can ever tell the complete truth to, the only person with whom he can be his real, unadorned self. Margo’s unselfish and unflinching support for him has a lot to do with shaping the way the story unfolds.

If you’ve formed the impression by now that this is a rave review of Gone Girl, you would be right. But I should offer one cautionary note. This may not be the book for every lover of whodunnits. It won’t please people who prefer a Miss-Marple-style of mystery with clearly defined good guys and bad guys, and an ending that resolves everything tidily. The book enters some rather dark psychological territory in its investigation of a marriage. The ending might almost be called bizarre. But I found it deliciously appropriate within the context of what went before.

 

My Man (Humour) by Paul Rudnick; The New Yorker, October 8/12

After my disappointment with Paul Rudnick's "Test Your Fashion I.Q." (see DD page dated Sept 28/12), it's a huge pleasure to say he's back in the top of his form. This piece is based on news reports of the discovery of an ancient text in which Jesus is reported to have referred to his "wife."  This, then, is Mr. Rudnick's version of the wife's story. It could be considered a companion piece to his "I Was Gandhi's Boyfriend." (Noted on DD page dated Jully 19/11.) My Man is so exquisitely worded that to quote any one line would spoil it. Let's just say that the piece amply proves the point of my previous commentary on New Yorker humour pieces: tone  is everything! Mr. Rudnick has here captured the voice of a certain kind of young woman in a way that makes his treatment of the subject irresistible -- even, I should think, to the most devout believer. 

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com