Dilettante's Diary

June 9/06

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MOVIES
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Reviewed here: The King (Movie); Susan Platts sings "Frauenliebe und Leben"; Wonderland (Mystery/Crime); The Family Stone (DVD); James Loney on "The Current" (CBC Radio One); The Importance of Being Earnest (Soulpepper Theatre)

The King (Movie) directed by James Marsh, written by Milo Addica and James Marsh, starring Gael Garca Bernal and William Hurt

This Latino named Elvis (Gael Garca Bernal) has just got out of the US navy and he’s looking for a good time. You might wonder, then, why he goes to pay a call on an evangelical pastor (William Hurt) in Corpus Christi, Texas. In keeping with this website’s promise not to reveal any more plot than necessary, let’s just say Elvis gets involved with the pastor’s family – really involved. At first you think you’re in for a domestic drama around conflicting values – fundamentalist vs libertine. Soon, things start to get more intense than you’re expecting, then violent, then really weird. As one ironic twist follows another, it feels more like we’re in classical Greek theatre than Hollywood. You’ve got to hand it to the scriptwriters: this movie comes up with some of the darndest situations ever seen on screen.

And it does so with great cinematic style. (This said to prove that we’re really sophisticated critics here.) Many scenes are well underway before you can figure out what’s happening. Often, you see someone speaking but you don’t know who they’re speaking to until the camera pulls back. Or the camera will pan around a garden, across an empty patio, stopping at an open door – very effective curiosity stimulation. And then there’s that haunting image, oft-repeated, of a tethered horse on a lonely road at night.

Through it all the pastor’s family provides a closely-observed slice of Americana. The solemn wife (Laura Harring), the pasty-faced son (Paul Dano) and the sweet daughter (Pell James) all portray that creepy combination of sincere and smarmy that people in religious straitjackets often display. Must admit, though, that it took me a while to buy into William Hurt as a fundamentalist pastor. At first I’m thinking: this must be a SNL sketch. But he eventually won me over by down-playing it. He’s a preacher as William Hurt would be: laid-back, under-stated, cool and charming, only showing the steel inside the fanatic when goaded.

Would that the character of Elvis were as credible. I don’t know whether it’s the fault of the actor (who is actually very watchable) or the script, but there’s something missing at the core of this character. You wonder: is he incredibly stupid or is it just that he never thinks about what he’s doing? You’re amazed by the situations he gets into but the movie’s sudden ending leaves you feeling robbed because you’ve never really come to understand him as a human being.

Sometimes an abrupt ending can be one of the distinguishing marks of a really good movie. (Check our review of L’Enfant on the page "April 12/06".) In such cases, you aren’t expecting the end to come so quickly but, in retrospect, you realize that you know all you need to know. In this case, it feels like the scriptwriters just couldn’t figure out what to do next with this wild and crazy guy.

Rating: B (i.e. "Better than most" – but recommended only if you like uncomfortable viewing)

 

Susan Platts Sings "Frauenliebe und Leben" (Accompanied by Andr LaPlante, "On Stage" CBC Radio Two, June 18)

Poor Robert Schumann. Not just because he went mad and died so young. The worst of it is the fact that he wasted so much time writing  symphonies. The world really could do without them (lots of his piano music too). But not his song cycles. They're among the crown jewels of music.

Years ago, I heard a CBC radio discussion about his cycle Frauenliebe und Leben. A panel of experts was trying to pick the best among four or five recordings. As I recall, Maureen Forrester was the only Canadian contender. The experts’ unanimous decision went to the British soprano Janet Baker. I, being an eager young culture vulture, ran out and bought the album (with Martin Isepp at the piano) and studied it assiduously for hours. To me, Ms. Baker has always been the gold standard for the performance of that work.

These days, radio hosts can’t mention Frauenliebe without apologizing for the storyline: a woman rhapsodizes about her love for a good man, she extols his beauty, she shows off his ring, she revels in the beautiful child he gives her, the man dies and a veil of darkness descends on her life. In this recent broadcast, host Shelly Solmes defended Schumann’s use of Adalbert von Chamisso’s text by pointing out that the music transcends the words. I remember one time when Bill Richardson was guest-hosting the request program on CBC radio and he had to introduce this cycle. The genial Mr. Richardson could hardly keep the disgust out of his voice when he summed up the theme as "Stand by your man."

But Canadian mezzo Susan Platts demolishes all misgivings about the material. Her voice is bright, clear and rich, with just enough vibrato to make the songs come alive with female excitement. Her German is also marvelously precise – so much so that many phrases of long-forgotten text came back to me with perfect clarity. And you know what? I’m fine with the idea of the little woman who adores her man and so who sings about it so beautifully.

 

Wonderland (Mystery/Crime) by John Brady, 2002

I used to love mysteries and crime novels but it’s getting hard to find good ones. This writer came highly recommended by the Globe and Mail. Apparently, John Brady has had great success with his Matt Minogue mysteries set in Dublin but this is the first one I’ve read. It can be counted in the book’s favour that I did finish it. Mr. Brady has a wonderful way with Irish-flavoured talk and I like the way he gets into characters' minds with something like a stream-of-consciousness technique. Thoughts keep popping up that seem like complete non-sequiturs but are perfectly true to the pattern of the normal busy mind as goes through its daily rounds.

But it’s hard to tell what’s going on much of the time. The first chapter – a planning meeting of a bunch of thugs in Northern Ireland – is virtually incomprehensible the first time through. Much of Minogue’s kibitzing with his colleagues leaves you out in the cold. They communicate in a kind of short-hand that’s true enough to life but hard for a reader to decipher. In some swatches of dialogue, it’s impossible to tell who’s speaking. Undoubtedly, the going wouldn’t be so rough if you’d read previous installments in the series. But I think the real problem is that Mr. Brady sees it all in his mind without taking the trouble to bring the reader into the picture. It’s as if the author has his eye on the adaptation for film or tv. I find it depressing to think that so many writers these days seem to care more about Hollywood than about their readers.

 

The Family Stone (DVD) written and directed by Thomas Bezucha, with Sarah Jessica Parker, Diane Keaton, Dermot Mulroney, Claire Danes, Luke Wilson, Rachel McAdams, et al.

A large adult family gathers for Christmas at the parents’ home. One of the sons brings the woman he wants to marry but the rest of the family doesn’t like her. That’s not a bad premise – a family’s difficulty accepting one member’s chosen partner. But the way the scenario plays out here, not one moment is believable. The family members are egregiously rude and the young woman’s behaviour is incredibly stupid. I’ve never known any people who would act this way. The trouble is, once the movie-makers assembled this large cast of famous faces, nobody involved in the project could remember anything about life in a normal, non-movie family.

Rating: E (as in, "Eh?", i.e. "iffy")

 

James Loney (CBC Radio One "The Current", June 6/06)

I never hear "The Current" because it comes during my work time. Talk radio and writing don't mix well around here. Luckily, a phone call alerted me to the interview. I was only able to catch the last half but, I’m glad to say that the whole thing was available that evening on the Internet.

This was the best hour of radio all year. Not just because of the subject and the guest. Anna Maria Tremonti’s hosting was thoughtful and unobtrusive. She let Jim Loney’s story roll, intervening only when necessary to steer his attention to another aspect of his ordeal or to pose the difficult questions that were on all our minds.

The abduction and subsequent release of the CPT members in Iraq affected me very profoundly. I was particularly concerned about Jim Loney, having acquired a feeling of being personally connected to him through his writing in Catholic New Times. (The paper has published several movie reviews from this website.) So I had been longing to hear some account of the ordeal from him. It was beginning to look like he was going underground to recover (post traumatic stress disorder?) and that maybe we were never going to hear from him. But this interview covered most of the things I wanted to know.

This isn’t the place to re-tell the hostages’ story or to analyze the political and religious aspects of their situation. I will just say that Jim Loney is an excellent spokesperson for the peace-making team. He is balanced and considerate; he is honest about his conflict over the fact that the members of the war machine rescued him. It brought tears to my eyes when he talked about the "beautiful people" he discovered among the soldiers. It amazed him that they were so happy and thrilled to have released him – at risk of their own lives. He had thought they would be contemptuous of the meddlesome peace-making team.

Jim Loney's commitment to his understanding of Christianity -- whether or not you share it -- is impressive. He gets my vote for the Catholic Chuch’s first openly gay saint. If Big Ben (the one in Rome, not in London) wants to do something useful, he could invite Jim Loney for a visit and make a big fuss over him. That might slow the Vatican's slide into irrelevance in today's world.

 

The Importance of Being Earnest (Soulpepper Theatre, Toronto, directed by Ben Barnes.)

You always go to see Earnest because it’s the best comedy in the English language and you’re hoping that maybe this time you’ll see the production that will present the sparkling masterpiece in all its perfection. Kind of like The Messiah or Hamlet that way. You never get everything you want in any one production but you keep trying. For this one, I attended the last of the previews before opening night. Strictly speaking, you’re not supposed to review a preview performance but since when was Dilettante’s Diary strict about anything?

This show gives you crisp, clean professional work (as always with Soulpepper). The casting is perfect and the acting style spot-on. Kevin Bundy’s priggish Jack and Damien Atkins’ frivolous Algernon make great foils for each other. Nancy Palk provides a statuesquely formidable Lady Bracknell and, given the early 20th century setting of this production, Patricia Fagan makes Gwendolyn a stunningly self-satisfied flapper girl – so stunning, in fact, that I didn’t recognize Ms. Fagan although I know her well from previous performances.

For most of the first act, though, I had a feeling that something wasn’t quite right. Could it be that this exquisite piece is losing its shine? Surely not. Gradually, it came to me that the problem had something to do with the delivery of the lines. Instead of letting the marvelous rhythms of the writing carry the speeches, the actors were punching words, as though they thought we ignorant Canucks might not get the jokes without a little nudging. The growling and bellowing from Lady Bracknell particularly sounded off-key. Vocal pyro-techniques should never be necessary for Lady B and they’re especially ill-advised when the actor's voice doesn’t do justice to them.

But the second act ticked along like a charm. I think a lot of that had to do with the presence of Samantha Espie as Cecily. When she first came on, I was somewhat taken aback because she doesn’t have quite the theatrical gleam expected. But her ingenuous quality, her naturalness, seems to be the source of her power on stage. Her performance made me see for the first time that the second act revolves around Cecily’s lightning-quick switches from innocent and girlish to calculating and womanly.

And so the production rolls on to a successful conclusion. I found Brenda Robins’ Miss Prism broad to the point of clownishness, but the audience loved it. Oliver Dennis gave Dr. Chasuble a very human combination of sanctimonious and sensitive. Ben Barnes adds some notable directorial touches, particularly a bit of shtick involving the droll David Storch as both butlers. Most of the directorial interventions worked well; some – like the business on the curtain line – not so well.

So what would it take for a production like this to come closer to perfection? A different space, for one thing. The Michael Young Theatre is relatively intimate, with a stage about twice as wide as it is deep, and not much headroom. You feel that you’re practically on top of the actors. A work like this needs to be set back like a gem in its velvet box if you want to see it properly. It also deserves a more attractive set than this dingy affair which doesn’t adapt very well to a garden in the second act. And please, we know that Algernon is a twit, but he needs more beautiful china for afternoon tea.

You can respond to patrick@dilettantesdiary.com