Dilettante's Diary

Nov 19/15

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Favourite Works: 2004-2013
Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
Sabbath's Theater by PHILIP ROTH
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A Toast to 2012
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How Fiction Works
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CBC Radio -- "The New Two"
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The Jesus Sayings
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Head to Head
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Ring Psycho (Wagner on CBC Radio)
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Me In Manhattan
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About Me
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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, 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: Room (Movie); Bridge of Spies (Movie)

Room (Movie) written by Emma Donoghue, based on her novel; directed by Lenny Abrahamson; starring Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, Sean Bridgers, Joan Allen, Tom McCamus, William H. Macy, Cas Anvar, Amanda Breugel, Joe Pingue, Randal Edwards, Wendy Crewson.

Let’s try to do this without violating our principle of not revealing major plot points.

A woman and her child find themselves in a terrible situation. Very dramatic. Very good.

Hmm...that doesn’t seem quite enough, does it?

This, then, is one of those rare cases where we’re going to have to talk about many aspects of a movie. You can consider this a Spoiler Alert, if you care about that sort of thing.

My main reason for seeing this movie was curiosity. Having read the book, I wondered how they were going to make a movie of it. It’s mostly about a woman and her small child imprisoned in a shed by a man who’s keeping the woman for sex. The man doesn’t enter the picture much; it’s mostly about the mother and the child. But you can’t invent enough scintillating dialogue between a mother and her five-year-old to fill a movie. Besides, the book is told mostly from the child’s point of view. That means that one of the intriguing things about it is having to figure out what’s going on by picking your way carefully through the kid’s skewed impressions. How would that work in a movie? And then there’s the question of setting. How long can moviegoers tolerate being cooped up in a shed?

Emma Donoghue, who has adapted her own novel for the screen, solves these problems brilliantly. True, you do lose some of the effect of trying to piece together the kid’s disjointed report. Seeing things on screen with your own eyes means that you get the picture more clearly than the kid does. Still, his voice and his spirit add a lot to the feel of the movie. You get voice-over narration from him now and then. It’s fascinating to see him trying to figure out, with reference to his tv watching, what’s real and what isn’t. Also, there are times when the camera simply follows him as he plays silently by himself or daydreams while his mother is resting or preparing food. Those shots help to give you the sense that you're immersed in a child’s world.

Another issue of adaptation that Ms. Donoghue has handled very skillfully is the conveying of necessary information that was spelled out in the book in more detail. This script adroitly slips in, in the most casual ways, information and or/backstory that we need to know but that could have made for laboured expository dialogue. For instance, we learn in an off-hand remark from the mom everything we need to know about the abduction that led to her current plight. The obligatory sex scenes give us just what the kid would get from behind the louvered doors in the closet where he sleeps; we know what’s going on but we know that he doesn’t. Near the end of the movie, a quick gesture tells us that the child has been breast-feeding all this time. Throughout the book, we’re able to take in that information with equanimity but we wouldn’t have wanted to sit through a demonstration of it in a movie.

However, the greatest virtue of this movie is that it’s unlike any other movie. Almost every scene, every situation, is something you’ve never seen on screen before. And yet, it’s so simple, so straight-forward, so focused on a single plot line, that at times it almost seems a parable. A parable about what? About life, I guess. Life in microcosm: the good and the bad squeezed into one little story.

What’s especially remarkable is that the movie’s structure confounds a critic who tries to slot it into a convenient genre. First, the awful situation of the mother and the child is something like one of those bleak pieces by Beckett or Sartre. Then (and here’s where we really have to get into plot details) comes their escape, at which point we have something more like a typical adventure or thriller movie. Lastly, there’s the surprising coda: life after the escape turns out to be more difficult than we were expecting. We don’t get the "happily ever after" ending, at least not without some ambiguity.

This tripartite structure feels so odd that any sensible critic would want to say that the damn thing could never work. And yet it does, serving up emotionally gripping scenes one after another. The key to it, I think, is that the movie’s so true to its nature, to its people. A lot of that, of course, has to do with divinely inspired casting. Brie Larson, as the mom, has the kind of face that a camera reads a lot into. She is the kind of woman who could look beautiful, given the right makeup and lighting. But here she’s very ordinary, very much the young woman you might see behind the cash register at the grocery store. This sense of her down-to-earth humanness means that we’re right with her when her feelings change in a flash. One moment she’s smiling benevolently and indulgently on her kid in a way that makes us feel warm and fuzzy; a second later she’s looking away from him and the desperation in her eyes is heart-breaking.

As for Jacob Tremblay, in the role of the kid, he makes me go beyond the obvious tributes to such extraordinary talent in a child. His performance has me wanting to talk to the director, to Ms. Donoghue, to all the filmmakers. How did they do it? How did they get this kid to be so natural, so relaxed, in such a huge role? He’s on screen almost all the time and yet you never get the feeling that his acting has the slightest note of fakery or effort. One of the things that makes him so believable is that, while he’s attractive and charming in some ways, he can also lash out at his mother with a petulance that strikes an oh-too-familiar note to anybody who’s had any extensive dealings with young kids.

Even the bad guy, the abductor (Sean Bridgers), comes across as somebody not too different from some guys you know. Yes, he’s wrong-headed and what he’s doing is evil, but he is recognizably human. His stolid, sullen manner – except when he’s enraged – shows you that he’s a certain type of loser who feels that this bizarre arrangement that he’s set up is the only way that he can have a woman in his life. But he wants to pretend that it’s ok, that everybody’s fine with the situation. When he discovers that he’s missed the boy’s birthday, he makes a point of bringing him a fancy toy.

The fact that the movie carries over the same spirit of authenticity to all the other characters is probably what ultimately makes it such a huge success. Take Joan Allen, the mom’s mother. She is superb at conveying the ambivalence of a woman who is as loving and supportive as any mother could be and who can yet show in her face, without saying anything about it, that she has suffered a lot in her own way. Her long-standing patience makes it all the more piercing when the recriminations begin to fly. And then there’s her new boyfriend, as played by Tom McCamus (a veteran of Ontario’s Stratford Festival). A shaggy-haired, woolly, somewhat dishevelled guy, he has that awkward air of being the new man on the scene, a bit of a fifth wheel, but somebody who takes an opportunity to show a bit of special kindness and understanding to a troubled kid.

An actor in one of the smallest roles in the movie – that of the female cop who first deals with the boy on his escape – struck me as being one of the most amazing in terms of giving us a real individual. Amanda Brugel makes all the right moves in her attempts to befriend the child, you can see her sensitivity training coming to the fore, and yet she enables us to see her increasing frustration, even a note of panic, as his situation, thanks to his incoherent responses, becomes more and more confusing to her. You find yourself recognizing that this is exactly the way a real cop would react in similar circumstances. A cop who’s somebody’s daughter or cousin. Not a cop in a movie.


Bridge of Spies (Movie) written by Matt Charman, Ethan Coen and Joel Coen; directed by Steven Spielberg; starring Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Austin Stowell, Dakin Matthews, Will Rogers, Amy Ryan.

First impression: All that effort to recreate the 1950s! Hundreds of fedoras on the men. The dorky ties. The boxy suits. The baggy dresses on the women. The bulbous automobiles, their fins making them look like sea creatures. The dingy storefronts of Brooklyn. The retro billboards. The vintage subway cars and platforms. The historical newspaper headlines.

Is it a bad sign when you’re admiring the look of a movie rather than following the story? Not necessarily.

The story in this case is two-fold. First we have Rudolf Abel, an Englishman who was arrested in the US as a spy for Russia. Then there’s Francis Gary Powers, who was shot down while flying his U-2 on a spying mission for the CIA over the USSR. What brings these two strands of the story together is that James B. Donovan, a lawyer notable mainly for his work in insurance law, was brought in to defend the Russian spy. Donovan eventually negotiated a swap whereby Abel was returned to the Russians, while Powers and Frederic Pryor, a young American student suspected of spying in East Germany, were returned to the US. In explaining this, we’re not violating our principle of not revealing plot details, because this is well-known history. The point of the movie is to reveal Donovan’s negotiating methods in all their glory.

But first comes a brainwashing on American ideals. A lot of talk about the sacredness of The Constitution. The importance of The Law. You see, Donovan realizes that he has been appointed merely for the sake of appearing to give the Russian spy a fair trial. America must be seen to be doing the right thing. The outcome of the trial – that Abel will be convicted and executed – is taken for granted by everybody. Except Donovan. He’s one of those sterling lawyers who insists on absolute fairness and impartiality in the court process. (Is this movie, in its own way, an attempt to buff up the tarnished image of lawyers in our day?) We have another Atticus Finch on our hands. He makes every attempt to ensure that Abel gets a genuine trial, even in the face of the judge’s obvious bias against him.

Ok. It’s a good story. A genuine historical crisis worth re-visiting. But I wish we didn’t have to be subjected to so many sententious speeches. The script is so ponderous in that respect that even Tom Hanks has trouble making the lines seem spontaneous. It’s hard to see how the Coen brothers, Ethan and Joel, had anything to do with the scriptwriting. For the first half hour, the dialogue is so portentous that the only actor on screen who seems anything like a real person is the inscrutable Abel, in the person of the marvellous British actor Mark Rylance. There’s something about the way this man registers on camera – such a naturalness, such an unforced humanity – that you feel you’ve never seen anybody quite so real on screen. It makes you hope that there will be lots more of him in the movie.

There isn’t as much as I’d hoped for. Which is not to say that it’s a bad movie. Steven Spielberg does, after all, know a thing or two about movies. Some of the lovely touches include the moment when Francis Gary Powers and his fellow pilots are playing cards in a motel room. They don’t yet know anything about the secret mission awaiting them. A superior officer comes through the door and it takes several seconds before the confused young guys figure out that they should probably stand. And then there’s Donovan’s exit from the courtroom when a judge has passed sentence on Abel. The frantic gaggle of press photographers in the lobby reminds us of the days when cameras weren’t allowed in US courtrooms. But the best period touch in that scene is the closeup of spent flashbulbs littering the lobby floor.

As the plot gets rolling, there’s less of the grandiloquent speech-making. The international complications do get a bit tricky to follow, though. It’s a matter of juggling three-fold dynamics involving the US, the USSR and East Germany. The problem of releasing Frederic Pryor, the American student, has something to do with the refusal of the US to recognize East Germany. Donovan therefore has to walk quite the tightrope in order to find a solution that satisfies both the USSR and the German Democratic Republic.

All of which amounts to an engaging movie. To my mind, though, the Spielberg treatment makes too much of the affair. Mainly, it’s the music that’s to blame. A constant uproar of stirring symphonic rallies and swelling, soulful choruses. It’s as if we’re supposed to see Mr. Donovan as Moses at the brink of the Red Sea, or Horatio at the Bridge. Wouldn’t a smaller movie, one with less grandiosity, less hoop-la, have served the story better? I suppose that wouldn’t have been a Steven Spielberg movie.

And one final quibble about the script. Why so many expressions that weren’t used in the 1950s? In this script we get the following linguistic anachronisms: 1) the saying "We’re done here;" 2) the use of the word ‘conversation’ in the cloying way that has become so popular now, as in "We have to have the conversation about such and such....;" 3) the very contemporary use of the verb ‘to work,’ as in "This doesn’t work for me." (Not exact quotes; I’m just trying to illustrate the sense in which the words were used.) I was beginning to brace myself for the dreaded "going forward" clich. When the designers of the movie have taken so much trouble to make audiences believe in this recreation of the 1950s, the writers might have returned the favour by not throwing in expressions that reek so strongly of the 21st century.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com