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Apr 16/14

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The date that appears above is the date of the most recent reviews. As new reviews are added, the date will change accordingly. The new reviews 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: Thanks for Sharing, Don Jon and Spring Breakers (DVDs); Wave (Memoir); The Easter Parade (Novel)

Thanks for Sharing (DVD) written by Stuart Blumberg and Matt Winston; directed by Stuard Blumberg; starring Mark Ruffalo, Tim Robbins, Gwyneth Paltrow, Josh Gad, Joely Richardson, Patrick Fugit, Alecia "Pink" Moore, Carol Kane

The title, as you may or may not know, is one of those things that’s said at meetings of twelve-step groups that are based on the Alcoholics Anonymous model. It’s what the assembled group members offer in response when one of them has just delivered his or her tale of woe. In the case of this group, the bland phrase might seem a bit surprising, given that the speakers are talking about their sorry sex lives. But I don’t think the filmmakers intend us to hear the phrase with any irony. This is a sincere look at people who consider themselves sex addicts and who have joined a twelve-step group to try to conquer the problem that they see as a disease. As to whether or not this problem really qualifies as an addiction, there’s a passing reference to the question but I don’t think it gets enough of a hearing. Maybe all that matters, though, is that these addicts see themselves as such and are doing what they can about it.

But the many clichs and stock phrases that are the common currency of these twelve-step groups make for ghastly dialogue. You can’t help cringing at times. Another thing that may be plaguing the movie is that it can be difficult to convince viewers of the downside to sex addiction. The proceedings have a somewhat sunny Disney-ish look, compared to other famous movies about addictions – The Days of Wine and Roses or Las Vegas. The devastation of the lives of the sufferers in those movies is vivid and demonstrable. In the case of sex addition, the damage is mostly internal. We have to take the addicts’ word for it that things are as bad as they say.

Still, the movie serves up some good scenes, thanks to the excellent acting. There’s Tim Robbins as the hard-nosed old-timer who has all the answers, except when it comes to his own family problems. Following in his footsteps, there’s his sponsee, Mark Ruffalo, has been in the program for five years. There’s great rapport between him and Gwyneth Paltrow, a potential girlfriend. Given that she doesn’t know anything about the program, one of the best scenes in the movie is the one where he has to explain his problem to her. Alecia Moore, as a tough-seeming but vulnerable hairdresser, gives the strongest – and most convincing – impression of the agony of sexual compulsion. Only Josh Gad, as a young doctor with a sex problem, is miscast. You eventually come to respect this guy, but he’s a total jerk at the outset of the movie. The thought that such a guy could get through medical school adds a note of incidental horror.

 

Don Jon (DVD) written and directed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt; starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore, Tony Danza, Glenne Headly, Brie Larson

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, having taken on the roles of writer and director, has also cast himself in the starring role of Jon, an iron-pumper who considers himself quite the lady-killer. Women supposedly find him irresistible. Why, I cannot fathom. I find it somewhat more believable that he has great success getting his rocks off to porn movies. He practises that art quite a bit; he’s always trying to up his daily total. He runs to confession every week to gleefully report his score to a priest.

Although Jon prefers porn to real women, along comes Scarlett Johansson, in the role of a bimbo whose main contribution to the array of human accomplishment, apart from her physique, is her spectacular gum-chewing. The one thought she has about life is that a real man must never clean his own home. Jon’s buddies are equally enlightened. Their approach to social interaction makes Neanderthals look suave. Jon’s family members do nothing but yell at each other. I think this is all supposed to be comedic. The only remotely amusing note in all of it is Jon’s sister, who sits at the family’s dinner table with her eyes glued to her hand-held device, except when she’s rolling them in response to all the bickering. When she finally says something, it’s one of the few interesting lines in the movie. Julianne Moore enters Jon’s life as a Mrs. Robinson who may be a bit of a flake and who has a tragedy up her sleeve. She’s the only real person in the movie, i.e. the only one worth watching, but she arrives too late to save this disaster.

 

Spring Breakers (DVD) written and directed by Harmony Korine; starring Vanessa Hudgens, Selena Gomez, Ashley Benson, Rachel Korine, James Franco

It seemed to me that somebody had said there was something good about this movie – apart from the boobs (both in and out of bikinis). The favourable comment may have been about James Franco’s way-off-the-map portrayal of a really sleazy drug lord. He befriends four girls who find themselves in a bit of trouble during Spring Break in Florida. They’re from a Christian college somewhere up north but they like drugs and alcohol. To get the funds for the Florida trip, they turned to burglary. So why, you might ask, have they been attending a Christian college? Maybe there’s supposed to be some satire in that premise. The same could be said about the Franco character’s showing them some trouble far beyond the cheesy debauchery of the typical Spring Break.

Frankly, this isn’t my kind of movie. I fast-forwarded through a lot of it. In fairness, though, I have to say that there’s something remarkable in the style of the movie. It’s like a psychedelic mixture of rock video, dream, nightmare and horror movie. There isn’t much dialogue, there’s almost no narrative thrust, what plot there is evolves almost by way of implication. We keep switching between the real and the unreal, the past and the present; sometimes it’s hard to tell whether we’re seeing something that actually happened or something in the girls’ imaginations. So there is art involved in the making of the movie – a kind of art that grates on my nerves.

 

Wave (Memoir) by Sonali Deraniyagala, 2013

It was one of the most spectacular natural disasters in recent history. It caused a woman to suffer terrible personal loss. She survived and wrote a book about it. Is there any way that I’m not going to read that book? Hardly.

Sonali Deraniyagala was staying at a beach resort in Sri Lanka with her husband, their two little boys and her parents in December, 2004, when the infamous tsunami struck. Ms. Deraniyagala’s impression of what happened is, understandably, somewhat fragmented. First, she just noticed, from her hotel room, that the water was rising on the beach rather quickly. When it kept rising, she realized something was very wrong. She yelled to her husband, they grabbed their kids and ran outside. Someone was sitting in the driver’s seat of a jeep in the hotel’s driveway. The family members climbed into the jeep and it started. But then it was floating in water. Then it flipped. Ms. Deraniyagala was swept along in torrents of water, feeling a tremendous pressure in her chest, until she was able to grab an overhanging tree branch and find a footing on a muddy patch of ground. As the water receded, passerbys picked her up in a vehicle. The next few hours and days – a nightmare of medical ministrations and confused relief efforts – passed in a daze. The bodies of her husband, her sons and her parents were eventually found. Meanwhile, Ms. Deraniyagala was determined to kill herself as soon as she had a chance.

Apart from those bare facts, the book is not strong on reportage. It’s mostly about Ms. Deraniyagala’s feelings, how they kept vacillating and mutating through the following months and years. One doesn’t want to criticize a person’s grief – especially in a case where the loss is almost unthinkable – but it can be rather difficult to follow Ms. Deraniyagala through the morass of emotion. In part, that’s because aspects of Ms. Deraniyagala’s personality, as revealed here, can be off-putting. Maybe it’s that she comes from a culture where a woman is expected to express her grief in more demonstrative ways than those that some of us would consider appropriate or acceptable. (She’s from Sri Lanka and she now teaches economics at the University of London.) When new people moved into her deceased parents’ home in Colombo, she tormented them by anonymous phone calls in the middle of the night, by parking outside the house and honking her horn, by ringing the doorbell and driving quickly away. It’s to her credit that Ms. Deraniyagala confesses such behaviour to us readers but it can make it hard for us to identify with her.

The parts of the book that are more resonant for me are the ones where she re-creates the life she had with her family. Her husband and their sons come to life vividly. You get the joy of the life they had together – which, of course, makes you feel her loss all the more. The fact that she herself eventually comes to look on it with a resigned, accepting sorrow is reason enough for the writing – and the reading.

 

The Easter Parade (Novel) by Richard Yates, 1976

Apparently, the books editor of The Globe and Mail doesn’t have much of a budget for reviews these days. To help fill up the small amount of space that he’s allotted, Jared Bland runs a column in which he interviews successful writers, asking them key questions about their writing habits and about the influences on them. A while back, David Sedaris cited Richard Yates as one of the writers he likes best. He said that he re-reads Mr. Yates’ The Easter Parade every year. A recommendation like that put Mr. Yates at the top of my must-read list. After all, David Sedaris produces some of the freshest, finest and most polished writing of our times. Anybody that he admires so much is certainly worth my attention.

And the attention of lots of others, it appears. Mr. Yates, I find, was a very accomplished American novelist. (He died in 1992). My library copy of The Easter Parade is from the eighth printing of the book. The movie Revolutionary Road (reviewed on DD page dated Jan 10/09) is based on Mr. Yates' 1961 novel of the same title.

After a few pages of The Easter Parade, it’s not hard to see one of the reasons that it appeals so much to Mr. Sedaris. Mr. Yates' writing has a similarly smooth polish; there are no roadblocks or hurdles. The story unrolls with nary a glitch. But I’m somewhat puzzled about what to make of the story. It starts with two young sisters living with their mother in Manhattan in the 1930s. The girls' parents are divorced. Their ineffectual dad dies young, disappointed and unfulfilled. Their mother is a shallow status-seeker with a fondness for "flair." Because her ambitions never amount to anything, the girls are constantly bouncing from one dwelling to another. As Sarah, the older sister, falls in love with a handsome Englishman, marries and settles down, our attention focusses on Emily, the younger sister. She drifts through life without much aim or purpose. She never seems to know very clearly what she wants. She makes terrible choices in men; they come into her life and leave without much effect. You never get the impression that she feels very much for any of them.

The book seems somewhat lacking in heart. Many of the characters are shallow and sketchy. What are we supposed to care about? Is this meant to be an ironic study of the contrast between the state of the free woman like Emily and that of the entramelled wife like Sarah (whose domesticity turns out to be far from blissful)? In the final pages, we do come to feel Emily’s anguish over the desperate emptiness of her existence. Is the book, then, intended as a kind of rebuttal of the great claims for women’s freedom that were beginning to be heard in the 1960s and 70s? Is it, in effect, a slap in the face of the women’s movement?

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com