Dilettante's Diary

Aug 8/14

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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: Last Meal at Whole Foods (Short Fiction); Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? (Graphic Fiction); Sixty-Nine Days (Article); Backstage With Ben Heppner (Radio); The Tempest (Play), 22 Jump Street (Movie), Her, Joe, Unhung Hero and The Kings of Summer (DVDs).

A few highlights from recent New Yorker readings:

Last Meal at Whole Fields (Short Fiction) by Said Sayrafiezadeh, July 28/14

If you’ve read Said Sayrafiezadeh’s memoir When Skateboards Will Be Free (reviewed on DD page dated May 20/12), this piece of short fiction is going to strike you as a follow-up. The narrator is spending time with his mother in what appear to be the last months of her life. The main impact of the story – on me, at least – is that, while this time is almost unbearably poignant, there’s also a lot that’s routine, mundane, even banal about it: making the arrangements for on-going care, having meals, playing Scrabble. One can’t help feeling that this amounts to a sad farewell to a woman we came to know so well in the memoir. It comes as a great relief, then, to read Mr. Sayrafiezadeh’s comments about the story on the magazine’s website. There he explains that, although the story was prompted by his mother’s being diagnosed with lymphoma, she beat the odds and didn’t die.

 

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? (Graphic Fiction) by Roz Chast, March 10, 2014

When reading fiction, I want to use my imagination to picture the characters and settings. I don’t want an illustrator to usurp my right to do so. Graphic novels, then, do not rate a high priority on my reading list. Being a fan of Roz Chast’s cartoons, however, when this piece appeared in the magazine, I decided to give it a try. The effort was well rewarded. Ms. Chast serves up some droll observations about a middle-aged person’s attempts to deal with the problems presented by elderly parents who are facing – or not facing up to – death. The piece, imbued with exasperated tenderness and touches of satire, almost convinces me, thanks to Ms. Chast’s inimitable style, that perhaps graphic fiction can say some things better than words alone can. (I understand the piece -- presumably an extended version -- is available in book form now.)

 

Sixty-Nine Days (Article) by Hctor Tobar, July 7, 2014

Don’t know about you, but I’ve been eagerly waiting to hear the story from the thirty-three miners in Chile who were trapped underground for over two months in the summer of 2010. Here it is – the full deal. You have wonder what could be left for Mr. Tobar’s book on the subject that’s scheduled to come out soon. Questions along that line often come up in cases where the New Yorker skims off the best of authors’ books, leaving the rest for people who are willing to pay for the less interesting stuff. On the other hand, maybe it’s a boost to sales to be able to say that a book was excerpted in such an esteemed magazine. As for this excerpt, I found it slightly more decorous, a little less gritty than anticipated. Somehow, I expected to hear more about – or to feel more of – the conflict that was rumoured to have taken place underground. Could it be that the slightly restrained quality of this account is the result of constraints placed on Mr. Tobar by the miners themselves? I remember hearing, after they’d been rescued, that it was proving very difficult to reach agreement among them on how their story would be told.

*****

BACKSTAGE WITH BEN HEPPNER (CBC, Radio Two)

Most of us have given up bewailing the devastation of CBC’s Radio Two. There’s nothing to do but try to enjoy the few good things left – taking care to tune in a few minutes late for every program in order to avoid the nauseating commercials.

For a few years now, various musical luminaries – mostly Canadian – have been offering some of their favourite pieces  on "This Is My Music." In the early days of the program, tenor Ben Heppner, proved to be the best host. Not only does he sound like a cultured and articulate person, but his speaking voice is warm and friendly. Given his status in the opera world, he has a fund of marvellous stories to tell. So it was a pleasant surprise when it was announced that he was to be taking over the hosting of "Saturday Afternoon at the Opera" as well as a new program, "Backstage with Ben Heppner." The idea of the new program appeared to be that he would intersperse pieces from opera and classical music with personal observations from his career. It was a bit puzzling, mind you, that a performer in demand on the opera stages of the world would take up a regular gig as a radio host. Surely he didn’t need the pocket money that the CBC could provide? A partial explanation came when, within about a year, Mr. Heppner announced his retirement from the stage.

As sometimes happens, though, a person who shines brilliantly as an occasional host turns out to be not quite so dazzling on a regular basis. One of the first and biggest disappointments with "Backstage" had to do with the choice of music. (I realize that this may not be entirely Mr. Heppner’s responsibility but he probably has something to do with the selecting.) Towards the end of one program, he was giving a big build-up for "O mio bobbino caro" from Gianni Schicchi. He was whetting my appetite, I was eagerly waiting to hear who was going to sing it. And what came on? A version of the aria by a jazz trio! It looked like this was opera for people who didn’t like opera. Ok, Mr. Heppner hadn’t actually promised that the program would include only opera and classical music. In time, I was able to accept a bit of schlock in the package.

Still, there was the question of Mr. Heppner’s personality. He appeared to be running out of really good stories. The ones he was telling now sounded too perfectly scripted. A slightly prissy, almost punctilious sound was creeping in. Especially when it came to any slightly "off-colour" or sexy material. We know, of course, that the opera world provides lots of that – horses dumping on stage, people losing their pants, that sort of thing. Whenever Mr. Heppner approaches such material, he sounds like a chap who’s taking great care to step carefully around the horse poop, so to speak, so that he won’t offend his grandmother. Is that how he thinks of us? I wish that he’d shed the persona of the oh-so-nice gentleman at times and give us a few off-the-cuff remarks that sound like they’re coming from an ordinary guy.

And then there’s his judgement on singers. Very often, I don’t find myself agreeing with his estimation of certain voices. He’ll tout somebody that I think is well below top rank. Or he’ll play a selection that doesn’t show a superstar at his or her best. It gets to the point where I’m sometimes asking myself: Does this guy know anything about singing? (Sorry for the lame joke, Ben.)

However, he does still sometimes offer music that’s sublime. A case in point – his playing, a couple of weeks ago, of Cecilia Bartoli’s recording of "Voi che sapete" from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro.

This little gem is, perhaps, my favourite aria of all time. I’m not sure why. It would be hard to explain its appeal to anyone else. It’s short and concise. It’s not high-flying in a passionate or dramatic way. It’s simple, really. And maybe that’s why one performance lodged it in my mind so memorably. This was in a production at the Stratford Ontario Festival, back in the glory days when the festival used to do operas in the ideal setting of the Avon Theatre. Alas, I do not know the name of the woman who was singing the part of Cherubino. She was short of stature, thin, with a strong jaw and well-sculpted features. In other words, not hard to accept in the role of a boy in his early teens. But it was the singing that mattered. She simply stood still and sang. It was one of those rare moments where the performer became the music. She was not drawing attention to herself. You weren’t even conscious of her as a performer. She and the song were one.

Since then, I’ve almost never heard the aria sung so well. Lots of mezzos (or sopranos) do a reasonably good job of it but you seldom get perfection. Maybe the difficulty is that it’s so hard for a singer not to let her ego get in the way of the music. One of the worst performances of it – for me – came in a production at the Vienna State Opera, of all places! As a hitch-hiking student vagabond, I was leaning on the railing in the standing room section at the back of that glorious and gilded shrine to culture. The Cherubino was stamping her foot and hamming it up so mercilessly that I nearly turned on my heel and departed, almost yelling out to these Viennese sophisticates that they should come to Stratford Ontario if they wanted to hear Mozart sung properly.

But Ms. Bartoli’s recording of the aria, as played on "Backstage," showed me that you can get perfection elsewhere. Again, it was one of those rare moments when a performance speaks so directly to you that you’re not conscious of anything else. I think it was the fact that Ms. Bartoli, without seeming to resort to any artifice, made the teenage boy so real. That slightly breathy quality that she sometimes brings to her singing was perfect for the situation: a teenage boy who has been flirting with a couple of beautiful women is now being teased by them, as they ask him to sing the love song he has composed. Naturally, he’s a little nervous and hesitant at first. His voice is restrained; it almost sounds as if it could break at any point. As he gets into the song, though, he gets carried away by his enthusiasm; he forgets about being self-conscious and simply pours out his feelings as though he were singing to himself in the shower, with nobody listening. The result was ravishing.

If Mr. Heppner can keep providing things like that – even on an occasional basis – I won’t quite give up on "Backstage"– or CBC’s Radio Two.

 

The Tempest (Theatre) by William Shakespeare; directed by D. Jeremy Smith; starring Kaleb Alexander, Steven Burley, Richard Alan Campbell, Christopher Darroch, Madeleine Donohue, Miriam Fernandes, Christina Gordon, Farah Merani, Peter Van Gestel; Driftwood Theatre, Withrow Park, Toronto

You gotta hand it to Jeremy Smith. Starting in 1995, when he was still in his teens, he mounted his first Driftwood production of Shakespeare. Now, nearly twenty years later, the not-for-profit, professional company has produced over 500 shows for nearly 100,000 people at venues across Ontario.

Although I didn’t see that first show, it’s safe to assume that the productions have gained considerably since then in terms of polish and professionalism. This one, the company’s first Tempest, is certainly one of the best Driftwood shows that we’ve seen. The central motif, as suggested by costume designer Melanie McNeill, is that of a circus in the 1930s. All of the characters have the colourful but slightly faded aspect of carnies of that era. This suits the fantasy, make-believe aspect of the play very well. To my way of thinking, the outdoor setting of Withrow park also enhances the whimsical element of the play.

Given the 1930s theme, Mr. Smith has, of course, made certain adaptations to the text. Instead of a shipwreck as the opening scene of the play, we get a plane crash. You might think that would be hard to accomplish on an outdoor stage with few props, but the effect is deftly created, thanks to the swaying and tumbling of the hysterical passengers and the efforts of the captain (Peter Van Gestel) to keep the shuddering aircraft on course. Moving further into the play, the use of puppetry in some instances has excellent results. What could be more appropriate than the sprite Ariel’s appearing as a feathery nymph swooping over the proceedings at the end of a long rod? The role is beautifully voiced – in speech and in song – by Madeleine Donohue, who also does a highly comic turn as Trinculo. (You thought you were going to get completely unbiased assessments of these shows?) Another inventive use of puppetry has Caliban emerging from his underground digs as something like a monster from the Transformer series.

Of course, the success of any Tempest depends to a great extent on the charisma of the character playing Prospero. Richard Alan Campbell is everything you could ask for in that role: dignified but troubled, majestic but crotchety, playful yet angry, loving but stern. Miriam Fernandes, as his daughter, and Kaleb Alexander, as the swain who catches her eye, strike up a charming rapport that elicits appreciative response from the audience, as do the shenanigans and machinations of all the other members of the very talented cast.

For further performances of the play at other venues throughout Ontario, go to www.driftwoodtheatre.com

 

22 Jump Street (Movie) written by Michael Bacall, Oren Uziel, Rodney Rothman, Jonah Hill; directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller; starring Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Ice Cube, Jillian Bell, Wyatt Russell, Amber Stevens, Keith and Kenny Yang.

Granted, the first pairing of these two actors (Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum) as a couple of bungling undercover cops, proved to be more entertaining than I expected.. (See review of 21 Jump Street on DD page dated Apr 6/12.) And, granted further, a sequel would likely have the requisite quotient of slapstick and vulgarity to please teen audiences. But could there be any chance that the second attempt would be as good as the first and, furthermore, that it could offer anything of interest to a somewhat more mature audience member?

Well, yes, on both counts.

In fact, it strikes me that this one is probably better than the first one. In case you’re wondering about the title, the headquarters for the cops’ undercover operation has simply moved across the street. The premise is pretty much the same: our guys have to infiltrate a group of students who are freaking out on a dangerous new recreational drug. This time, though, the miscreants are in college, not high school. That gives the movie lots of opportunities to satirize certain aspects of college life: fraternities, coffee houses, slam poetry sessions, for example. It also presents occasions for great lines, as when the two cops are gazing in wonderment at the college campus where they’re about to launch their "studies." The Tatum character seems choked up. When the Hill character asks why, he answers: "I’m the first one in my family to pretend to go to college."

The movie teems with all the tomfoolery that could be expected and some of the plot twists are wondrously clever. But it was quality of the dialogue and the acting that appealed most to me. One of the best instances of both comes in a scene where the two cops are trying to deal with the fact that the Tatum character is being courted by the fraternities and the footballers, while the Hill character isn’t having such success in the popularity department. It seems that a rupture in the relationship between the two guys may be pending. They talk about whether their undercover investigation could become an "open investigation," i.e. one in which they would still work together but they would not have to live so close to each other. It’s a hilarious metaphor for the way some couples try to negotiate their relationships. What makes the scene especially delicious is the superb acting of Jonah Hill, who’s trying to hide the fact that he’s so deeply hurt. I see this as an example of one of the greatest skills of an actor: letting you see what the character is trying not to show.

Throughout all this palaver about the relationship between the two guys, there’s a lot of playful skirting around the themes of bromance and homosexuality. This helps to give the movie very much the feel of being about this exact moment in our culture's evolution. In one scene, the two cops are trapped in the office of a campus shrink who thinks he’s counselling them as a gay couple. In another situation, the two cops, in order to allay the suspicions of some bad guys they’ve been spying on, have to pretend that they’re having sex in the library stacks. When one of the bad guys calls them "faggots," the Tatum character launches into a self-righteous, very up-to-the-minute lecture on the subject of politically correct terms. You can’t call a person a "faggot," he tells the bad guys, because this is 2014; the correct term is "gay," he points out, or, if necessary, "homosexual." He allows that if you know a guy really well and you’re sure that he has a sense of humour, you can call him "queer."

Among the other characters, Jillian Bell stands out as the formidable and unforgettable roommate of a student (Amber Stevens) who takes the Hill character into her bed. Although Ms. Bell has a pudgy, babyish blonde look, she turns out to be dynamite. As the cops’ boss, the actor who calls himself Ice Cube is consistently over the top but his extreme reactivity plays well around one of the movie’s most amusing plot twists.

The credits purport to show excerpts from future adventures of this pair as their investigations plunge them into such settings as: beauty school, acting school, divinity school. It almost looks as though the partnership could carry on for another decade of movies at least. This is one of those rare comic pairings where that looks like good news.

 

Her (DVD) written and directed by Spike Jonze; starring Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara,

As you can see, it has taken me a while to get around taking a look at this much-talked about starring vehicle for Joaquin Phoenix. Is it worth all the fuss? Not quite. It’s interesting, but it certainly didn’t thrill me.

The setting is a sleek metropolis in the near future. It’s a world where you can deal with your emails just by issuing vocal commands: "Delete...Respond...Skip...Next."  (Maybe this process is available now for all I know....?) A person’s home electronic entertainment includes video games that seem to function as holograms, surrounding you with magical worlds and confronting you with uppity characters who can insult you. You can also purchase an Operating System, a computerized voice that gets to know you and talks to you as your personal and most intimate friend. You can discuss your problems with your O.S., you can air your feelings, you can ask for advice – and, most importantly, you can rely on your O.S. for empathy.

The crux of the movie is that Joaquin Phoenix’s character, Theodore, falls in love with the female voice of his O.S. If it seems a bit preposterous that this guy, presumably an intelligent and successful professional, would have such a response to a disembodied voice, it helps to learn that other characters are developing close relationships with their Operating Systems. The distinctive thing about Theodore is that he, currently caught in the throes of a divorce, doesn’t have much luck establishing relationships with real women. (I suppose it’s intended as a significant irony that he makes his living writing love letters for other people.) The movie is also much enhanced by the fact that the producers had the good luck to get Scarlett Johansson to voice the role of Samantha, Theodore’s O.S. Her sound is warm and seductive but with that husky quality that has a playful, almost boyish note and that, charmingly, seems like it’s going to crack every now and then.

Occasional flashbacks are well handled by way of giving us insights into Theodore’s past and his fantasies. The movie is at its best when it acts as a study of romantic longing in the human male. You can feel his ache when Theodore is telling Samantha how much he would like to touch her, to lie next to her, to feel her cheek against his. Of course, this relationship, like any romance, runs into trouble – sometimes in predictable human ways and sometimes in ways that have more to do with the technological issues. Ultimately, the movie seems to be trying to suggest something about the ways we humans will bond with each other in the technology-dominant future. Will we still be able to connect with people in the old-fashioned hand-to-hand way? (This theme is further explored in the accompanying doc.)

You must admit that it’s an intriguing question but movies based on ideas don’t especially grab me. As with anything that has a sci-fi premise, even a slight one, there’s an ambiance of sterility and coldness. (Apparently, a lot of the futuristic architectural stuff was shot in Shanghai.) One thing that contributes to the somewhat empty feeling of this world is that you never see a car; presumably the movie’s designers did not want to risk taking a guess at what the car of the future would look like.

For me, though, the most problematic aspect of the movie is the burden it places on the actor, even such a good one as Mr. Phoenix. In any movie, we know that the actors are pretending, that they don’t mean what they’re saying and that they aren’t actually feeling the emotions that they try to portray. But we quickly suspend that disbelief for most movies because the interaction between the actors manages to make us want to believe that something real is happening. In this case, though, there’s a further layer of disbelief for the actor to get through. He’s got to try to convince us that he’s responding to a person who, as both he and we know, doesn’t even exist. There’s nobody present for him to react to. All the more risk, then, that his reactions will seem a bit phony. This is what bothered me about Mr. Phoenix’s performance. Who could ever believe that a bonafide Joaquin Phoenix character would have such a huge smile on him?

 

Joe (DVD) written by Larry Brown, based on the novel by Gary Hawkins; directed by David Gordon Green; starring Nicholas Cage, Tye Sheridan, Gary Poulter, Ronnie Gene Blevins, Aj Wilson McPhaul, Adriene Mishler.

Joe (Nicholas Cage) runs an illegal, backwoods operation. He hires day workers and trucks them to land where they hack notches in trees and spray poison on them. The point is that landowners aren’t allowed to cut down living trees to make way for other projects, so Joe and his guys are forcing the trees to die. We know that Joe has a history of skirmishes with the law and we can see his struggles to control his temper.

Along comes Gary, a fifteen-year-old, looking for a job. Gary is from a troubled family – they might be called "White Trash," if that term were permissible. But Gary seems willing to work hard, so Joe hires him. Joe begins to function as a sort of mentor to him. It’s as if Joe sees something of his younger self in Gary. Joe seems to be wanting to steer Gary away from some of the harm that Joe sees lying in his way, the kind of harm that Joe knows first-hand.

This movie falls into what I call the genre of "rural grunge." (Some other examples would be: Winter’s Bone, George Washington, The Station Agent and All The Real Girls.) The settings are tumble-down, the landscape is dreary but there’s a kind of bleak beauty about it all. As such, this is a well-made movie, but the dark side of life looms large here. This is the kind of place where, if you don’t like the dog that snarls at you when you visit the local brothel, you bring your own dog to kill the brothel dog while you’re upstairs taking care of business. Gary’s father (Gary Poulter) is a hopeless, incurable and vicious alcoholic; his mother and sister are spooky, ghost-like presences lurking almost mutely in the background. I guess this is what you could call Southern Gothic. A grotesquely sinister character (Ronnie Gene Blevins) who has a huge grudge against Joe launches the evil that brings the story to its tragic conclusion.

The thick accents of many of the characters (it’s taking place in Mississippi, I think) means that subtitles would have been welcome in many cases. This might, then, be the kind of movie that could be appreciated better in a theatre with "surround sound." And yet, the advantage of seeing it on a DVD is that you can keep going back to replay the dialogue that you’ve missed. As with many "making of" documentaries on DVDs, this one gives an interesting perspective on the proceedings, with particular emphasis on the work of Gary Hawkins, on whose novel the movie is based. A somewhat less attractive aspect of these docs, though, is that it can get a bit tiring listening to the actors and the moviemakers slapping themselves on the back about the wonderful work they’ve done. In this case, you get a sense of some men who think they’re being tough and realistic in creating a picture of a world that’s seething with cruelty and meanness. I think their vision is extreme. Maybe you have to reach a certain age to recoil from this sort of thing, to appreciate that such a view of humanity is too pessimistic.

Not that there aren’t a few redeeming features. Adriene Mishler plays Connie, a girlfriend who moves in with Joe in order to escape a man who’s threatening her. There’s something strikingly authentic in her response to Joe, as an honest, sympathetic, unsophisticated woman. And Aj Wilson McPhaul gives us a remarkable portrait of a black sheriff who has a patient, almost paternal, attitude to Joe’s scrapes with the law. In terms of the casting, though, one thing that might have helped make the movie a bit more true to life, in my view, would be if a different actor had been given the role of Gary. Not that there’s anything wrong with Tye Sheridan’s acting. The trouble is that he has such an ingenuous, fresh-faced look. It doesn’t seem that such a nice kid could have come from such a horrible home. If Gary had appeared a bit more grubby, a bit more toughened up, we might have believed that he had actually come from such ghastly origins and it would be more likely that Joe would see something of himself in Gary. We’d also have been able to believe that Gary might have the grit in him to overcome the odds against him.

Unhung Hero (DVD) directed by Brian Spitz; starring Patrick Moote

I’d never heard of this documentary. It was the cheeky title that caught my attention on the shelf in the video store. When I realized what the movie was about, my reaction was: how could a guy make a movie about such a private problem?

A few years ago, Patrick Moote proposed to his girlfriend at an NBA game. He’d arranged to have the proposal shown on the videotron. But he didn’t get the results he wanted. His girlfriend, after staring at the proffered ring for a few moments, got up and walked away. Within days, the U-Tube clip of Mr. Moote’s misfortune had 10 million views.

But that wasn’t enough public humiliation for Mr. Moote. He decided to expose himself to even more of it. The thing is, his girlfriend had later given him the reason for her refusal: his penis was too small. So what does Mr. Moote do? Does he bury that secret deep in his soul? No, he decides to tell the world about it. Taking himself as a case in point, he travels the world to see what people think about the issue of penis size. He asks old friends whether this information has any effect on their impressions of him. He explores a wide range of treatments and procedures – some of them freaky and some more reasonable – that promise to make his penis larger.

You have to ask yourself: is this guy some sort of perverse exhibitionist? Is he the kind of guy who will do anything – no matter how embarrassing – to get attention? Well, maybe. We find out, through the documentary, that Mr. Moote is a standup comic and actor. (He has had small parts in tv shows.) Maybe he’s something of an opportunist: he decided to grab his chance – with the help of his director pal, Brian Spitz – to make a documentary about a subject that no other man had explored in such a public way.

Not surprisingly, the film serves up lots of jokey items. Thankfully, though, the tone never quite verges into that arched-eyebrow silliness of the Brits whenever they decide that they’re going to get a bit risqu. For the most part, the film is marked by a thoughtful curiosity, touched by a slight tone of bewilderment. Although the piece obviously didn’t have the advantages of a huge budget and a massive crew, the end product is professional and competent; the editing of some 300 hours of film into a one-hour package is skilfull. Mr. Moote is an attractive, personable man and we’re comfortable in joining him on his quest.

What emerges from it is something more than the off-the-wall romp that you might expect. Over and above Mr. Moote’s personal stake in the subject – or perhaps because of it – we get what amounts to a sociological and/or anthropological look at a question that probably preoccupies many members of the human race, although they wouldn’t admit it.

  • Mr. Moote talks to an anthropologist who has worked with aboriginal peoples (in Papua New Guinea, if I remember correctly). The erect penis has always been an important aspect of their culture, the expert says, but the people never expressed much concern about its size until recently. Why now? Because of the presence of hand-held cellphones which can deliver pornography.
  • Well-known sex columnist Dan Savage points out to Mr. Moote that, while women’s bodies have always been objectified, it’s only recently, thanks to the prevalence of porn, that men’s bodies are getting the same treatment. And not so much by women – more by men themselves.
  • Mr. Moote visits Jonah Falcon, the man reputed to have the biggest penis in the world. (A claim based on an HBO documentary in which he appeared.) Mr. Falcon readily admits that his spectacular equipment has made it easy for him to have sex with lots of people but it doesn’t make it any easier for him to establish relationships. Guys often say they wish they were as well endowed as he is. He warns them that they’d still be the same guy; they’d have the same problems they’ve always had in dealing with life and with relationships.

In some of the supplementary material on the DVD – especially in a Q-and-A session at the Traverse City film festival, it becomes clear that Mr. Moote is hoping that his film will open up a subject that has been taboo for most men. Why should a small penis be a shameful secret? Why couldn’t it be taken as just another fact of a guy’s life? Why, you might find yourself asking, should it be treated as any more significant than small feet or big ears? Well, certain cultural attitudes about sexual matters are deeply imbedded, and not likely to be changed overnight. Still, in offering himself as a starting point for the conversation, I think Mr. Moote has gone a long way towards opening up the subject. His film may actually launch a change in attitudes that could lead to the clearing up of some self-doubts that can be quite harmful.

If that were not an exaggerated claim to make for this documentary, you would think it would have attracted more attention than it has. The only reason that the film may not have been hailed far and wide, as far as I can see, is that it’s conclusion is rather predictable. The station stops on Mr. Moote’s journey are interesting but there isn’t a heck of a lot of doubt about where they’re leading. We end up pretty much in the comfortable, familiar territory of motherhood and apple pie.

 

The Kings of Summer (DVD) written by Chris Galletta; directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts; starring Nick Robinson, Gabriel Basso, Moises Arias, Nick Offerman, Erin Moriarty, Megan Mullally, Marc Even Jackson, Alison Brie, Eugene Cordero

As I recall, the New Yorker’s Anthony Lane, one of the best critics in the business, praised this one when it came out last summer. I can’t think why.*

It tells about three American boys, aged fifteen, who decide to escape from their family homes one summer and build themselves a house in a hidden location in the woods. There they’ll find their manhood and prove that they can live in harmony with nature. Two of the guys have parent problems. In one boy’s case (Nick Robinson), the dad, a widower (Nick Offerman), can’t open his mouth without saying something derogatory towards his son. In the other kid’s case (Gabriel Basso), his parents are just plain annoying, with their cutesy, hovering routines. As for the third kid (Moises Arias), we don’t know much about him; he doesn’t appear to have parent problems and he isn’t really a close friend of the other two guys. He more or less insinuates himself into their adventure.

Although it’s a charming premise – what fifteen year old boy hasn’t dreamed of living in the wild, free from family supervision? – I found that there were too many improbable, unrealistic aspects to the movie. Never mind the fact that the three guys manage to build a two storey house for themselves mighty quickly. I’m willing to allow that that could – perhaps – happen. In any case, it’s a pretty ramshackle structure that they’ve erected. (Most of the materials were apparently stolen from building sites and backyards.) What I find harder to grant is that the authorities couldn’t have found the escapees pronto. The guys had tried to create the impression that they’d been abducted, but that hypothesis was exploded when it turned out that they’d raided their parents’ kitchen cupboards and fridges for supplies. Why couldn’t the adults have conducted a search from the air? Surely the boys’ hideaway in a clearing in the woods, not far from their homes, would have been spotted. The situation becomes even more incredible when the boys start inviting other teens to visit for parties. How are we supposed to believe that one or two of those teens wouldn’t have blabbed to their parents that they knew the answer to the mystery that was being aired constantly in the local media?

Eventually, of course, the boys’ escapade founders for much the same reasons that these halcyon interludes always do. In that sense, the movie is a reminder of some of the fundamental and inescapable dynamics of human interaction. But the crisis that brings the movie to a climax is melodramatic and everybody learns the lessons that conventional wisdom would expect them to. For me, the message would be more telling if I were able to believe in the boys and to buy into their project. Too many kooky, inexplicable aspects to the situation stood in the way of that. That kid who horned in on the other two kids’ plan, for instance. He’s a strange kid, one of those kids who’s slight of stature – squirrelly, even – but has an almost elderly way about him. In fact, he’s the only interesting kid among the three of them but there are aspects of his character that are impossible to get. He speaks to his dad in Italian but the dad replies in perfectly fluent English. In a confidential moment with one of his two companions, the kid says he thinks he’s gay. Why? Because, he says, his lungs tend to fill with fluid. That doesn’t mean you’re gay, the friend points out, it means you have cystic fibrosis. Oh, the other kid says, apparently enlightened.

Among other clumsy notes: One of the three escaped teens lumbers around with his foot in a cast. Why? The condition has nothing to do with the plot. The dads of two of the escaped boys are shown in a boat, fishing, airing their feelings about their sons’ disappearances and getting antagonistic towards each other. It’s as simplistic and corny as a scene from a comic book. The guy with the abusive dad has a sister (Alison Brie), whose flakey boyfriend (Eugene Cordero) insists, at one point, on singing a sappy song to the grouchy dad. To what purpose? A similarly inane scene is the one where this dad gets into a pointless argument with a guy who’s delivering Chinese take-out. It’s almost as if somebody like Wes Anderson is adding odd flavours to the stew. Lately, I’ve had trouble digesting his movies, even if some aspects of them are appetizing.

The commentary on the DVD is useless, in that you have several voices of young males amusing themselves with fond memories of their experience of making the movie and unrelated matters. It’s impossible to tell most of the time who’s talking or what they’re talking about. I gave up after ten minutes.

* On re-visiting Mr. Layne's review of the movie, I find that he didn't like it much.

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