Dilettante's Diary

Jan 17/08

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Favourite Works: 2004-2013
Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
Sabbath's Theater by PHILIP ROTH
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La Traviata: Met's Live HD Version
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How Fiction Works
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The Jesus Sayings
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Head to Head
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About Me
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OTHER STUFF: Art Exhibitions, Concerts, etc.

The date above is the date on which the page was started; the more recent reviews appear towards the top of the page.

Reviewed here: Charlie Wilson's War (Movie); Savages (Movie); Rumi, Gazing at the Beloved: The Radical Practice of Beholding the Divine (Spirituality)


Charlie Wilson’s War (Movie) written by Aaron Sorkin; based on the book by George Crile; directed by Mike Nichols; starring Tom Hanks, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julia Roberts, Amy Adams

This movie serves up some of the best acting you're ever gonna see on screen.

We open with Tom Hanks standing on a platform, about to receive an award. It’s almost unbelievable that one person’s face could – without the help of any spoken words – convey so much to the camera. You can see: pride, embarrassment, chagrin, uneasiness, sentimentality and even a little lust (those glances at the babes in the audience). You sense that he loves being in the limelight and yet he’s ambivalent about it. In other words, he’s feeling the confusing mixture of emotions that you yourself would feel in the situation. Even in the long shot, where you see him from the back of the auditorium, there’s something about his stance there on the platform that makes you think: hmm....there’s an interesting character.

Which he certainly turns out to be. According to the movie, US Congressman Charlie Wilson almost single-handedly drummed up the funding for the covert war against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s. In Tom Hanks’ version, he’s a free-wheeling, booze-swilling divorc. While he always has a bevvy of beauties close by, his Southern charm and humour take the edge off his lechery. At one point, he's battling media flack about accusations of snorting cocaine with strippers and, in the next scene, he's deeply moved by the suffering of the Afghan refugees in a Pakistan camp that he visits.

In a much different vein, an astounding example of boffo acting, we have the obnoxious CIA agent played Philip Seymour Hoffman. Mr. Hoffman is such an innate actor that he’s completely credible in this diametric swing away from his usual film persona. No touchy-feely here, no sensitive New-Age man, no interiority; here he’s all testerone swagger and bad temper. You could hardly get further away from his oscar-winning Truman Capote and yet you’d swear that this is exactly the guy that Philip Seymour Hoffman is.

This sort of character is popping up a lot on screen these days: the blustering gorilla who shoots from the hip, who doesn’t give a damn what anybody thinks or feels. (Hugh Laurie, as "House" on the tv series, comes to mind.) You know that you gotta excuse the bad behaviour; this guy can’t give a shit about being nice because he’s so focussed on getting the job done. He may be a boor but his heart’s in the right place.

Still, these guys make me wonder if screen writers want every man in the audience feel like a wuss; I come away from an encounter with one of these movie characters feeling so inadequate as a male: how come I fuss so much about saying the right thing, making the right impression, wiping my feet at the door? Why can’t I be more devil-may-care like those guys? But then I console myself with the thought that those movie goons aren’t real. Nobody could get away with that kind of behaviour in the real world. Can you imagine what it would be like to work with one of those guys for half a day? No, the purpose of these characters – I tell myself bravely – is not to make me feel inferior but to make for fireworks on screen. And you get lots of that in this movie. The Seymour Hoffman character tosses off so many verbal explosives that you figure the fire department must be standing just off-camera.

The third big star in the movie, Julia Roberts, doesn't fare as well as the other two. Actually, if it weren’t for her status, her part wouldn’t be considered a starring role, as she doesn’t have many scenes. She plays the ultra-rich, right-wing Texas Christian who goads Charlie Wilson into taking on the Afghan cause. Her point? To crush those godless Soviets. Ms. Roberts doesn’t do a bad job of acting; one day her fans will look back on this, no doubt, as one of the unusual items in her oeuvre. But I found it hard to believe her in the role. Maybe the trouble is that Ms. Roberts doesn’t do hauteur all that well. Or is it that we’ve simply become too accustomed to her as the feisty underdog? The fact that she didn’t convince me, however, may not be her fault so much as the script’s. The character is hard to read: who is this Christian billionairess who wants to kick ass in Afghanistan for the sake of her Christian God and who, meanwhile, leads an important man by the nose to her bedroom where she has her way with him? Maybe nobody could make the character understandable.

It’s great fun watching the wheeling and dealing in the corridors of power as Charlie Wilson builds support for his cause. Mind you, a viewer well prepped on US civics might follow all the references to Congressional committees and subcommittees more easily than I could. Entertaining and eminently watchable as the movie is, though, it left me somewhat puzzled. What are we supposed to think of the US "victory" in Afghanistan? Once the Afghanis are appropriately armed, we see Soviet helicopters tumbling one after another from the sky while a sort of Te Deum resounds in the background. Are we supposed to take all the jubilation at face value? To me, there’s damn little hint that we should see it otherwise. Unless it’s in that old story the Seymour Hoffman character tells about a sage who refused ever to say whether certain developments were good news or bad. Is that enough to tip us off as to how director Nichols intends us to take the whole thing? If so, this has got to be one of the drollest, subtlest message movies ever.

Rating: C (i.e. "Certainly worth seeing")


Savages (Movie) written and directed by Tamara Jenkins; starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Laura Linney, Philip Bosco, Peter Friedman; with David Zayas, Gbeng Akainnagbe

Here’s a small movie, with two great actors and a folksy human interest story: a brother and sister in their forties have to find a nursing home for their dad who was a lousy father. This is the kind of movie that looks it has the potential for scoring big with me.

Which it might have, if it had evinced some intelligence rather than woolly thinking and hysteria. Instead of some interesting new take on the subject of ageing (as in Sarah Polley’s Away From Her) what we get here is a lot of hand-wringing about the awful responsibility of looking after parents who are unable to look after themselves. Hello? Is this news? At one point, the brother blows a hairy about nursing homes: the decor and the landscaping are nothing but cosmetic attempts to assuage the guilt of family members and to cover up the smelly, repulsive business of dying – an outburst that is not only over-the-top but simply untrue.

You get the feeling that the people involved in making this film haven’t had much experience with the elderly and the dying. The up-front encounter with mortality freaks them out. Same for the siblings portrayed in the movie. When they try to question their dad, as requested by one nursing home, about his wishes regarding funeral arrangements, neither of them can broach the awful subject. Instead, we get a lot of squirming and throat clearing and evasion. There may be forty-year-olds out there who are so inept as adults but are they worth watching on screen?

So maybe the stuff about the dad and the nursing homes isn’t the main point; maybe it’s about how these two siblings relate to each other in the situation? Except that we don’t get any hint of their having been raised in the same family. It’s impossible to tell whether they ever liked each other or what kind of relationship they might ever have had, if any. Maybe their emotional unavailability to each other is supposed to be the result of lousy parenting. Ok, then deal with it – that might make for an interesting movie. But the looming darkness of their past sits there like an elephant that they circle around. Some problems in their private lives are tossed into the mix without succeeding in making us care about these two.

But the thing that sinks this movie irredeemably is the character of the sister, as played by Laura Linney. You’d have to plough through an awful lot of bad movies to find such an unsympathetic character on screen. This woman first set alarm bells ringing in my mind with her lie to her lover about a gynecological problem that didn’t exist. She’s the kind of lady who’s always burdened by too many shoulder bags, with the result that she can’t make her way down the aisle of an airplane without annoying everybody. When she’s not popping pills for various imagined ailments, she’s hopping into bed with a married man whom she seems to despise except for his sexual utility. Finding herself in a motel with him, she sits up in bed and complains that it’s all so sleazy, because "I have an MFA." That line could be extremely funny coming from a character who was at least a little bit likeable but, from this bundle of self-involved neuroses, it’s pathetic. Then she chews up a fair bit of scenery with her lament that placing their dad in a nursing home proves that she and bro are "horrible, horrible people!" I'm thinking: a horrible person maybe, but not because you did what had to be done for your dad.

I’m beginning to wonder about Laura Linney. She seems like an intelligent, attractive actor but why does she so often end up in problematic roles? In The Squid and the Whale she was a thoroughly repellent mother. Even the first time I saw her – in You Can Count on Me, which earned her an Oscar nomination – there were troubling signs. When her brother (played by Mark Ruffalo, who was cheated in not being nominated) admitted that he’d been in jail, she flipped out. I wanted to say: Get a life lady! People go to jail, they come out, it’s not the end of the world. This latest performance has fulfilled the ominous potential of that scene, taking flakiness to the point of unbearable. By comparison, her nasty bitch in The Nanny Diaries was delightful.  Can a person sustain a career playing characters that you’d rather not see on screen?

Up against the dog’s breakfast of irritating quirks that the Linney character dishes up in Savages, Philip Seymour Hoffman, in the role of the brother, proves stalwart and reliable. It’s not one of his more interesting roles but he’s credible. He’s seems to be cornering the market on the being-wakened-in-a-stupor-by-a-phone-call-in-the-middle-of-the-night scenes.

Although this movie was almost a complete write-off for me, a couple of good things have to be mentioned. Some of the photography – shots from a train window, shots of bleak houses on a drab street – has a way of effectively evoking a mood. But, more importantly, all the bit parts are excellently played whether they’re manicurists, bureaucrats or flight attendants. The health care workers are all exactly as in real life: harrassed and over-worked, but professional, kind and trying to do their best. Gbengo Akinnagbe in the slightly more developed role of a male nurse from Nigeria makes a particularly good impression.

In case you’re wondering what the title has to do with anything, it comes from the name of this family. They’re the Savages. Get it? And here you thought the title might have some intriguing artistic connotation. Silly you.

Rating: E (as in the Canadian "Eh?" i.e. "Iffy")


Rumi, Gazing At the Beloved: The Radical Practice of Beholding the Divine (Spirituality) by Will Johnson, 2003

A few months ago, CBC Radio’s "Tapestry", the program that deals with spirituality and religion, introduced me to Rumi, a 13th century Sufi poet and mystic. He sounded like somebody worth checking out. This little volume was one of the books about him that was available at the library.

There was a time in Rumi’s life when he fell madly in love with another Sufi known as Shams. Although Rumi was married, he and his buddy spent hours, days and months together, cut off from the rest of the world. Was the love sexually consummated? Author Will Johnson thinks not. So what was going on? Mr. Johnson thinks Rumi and Shams were involved in the practice of gazing at the beloved. This is what his book encourages readers to do.

The idea is that you sit down with a really good friend and start gazing into each other’s eyes. (I’m simplifying here, but bear with me.) You hold this gaze for as long as you can. Eventually, I gather, you’ll be able to gaze at each other for hours on end. What happens is that you begin to lose the illusion of your separateness and you come to feel the oneness of the whole world. The gaze of the beloved becomes the path through which you experience contact with God. It all sounds very beautiful – and quite goofy.

And yet, I can’t help thinking it would be fun to try. But where on earth would you find somebody willing to do this with you? Mr. Johnson addresses that question near the end of the book. When it comes to finding the right partner for the practice, he says, you should prepare by learning to stare at a candle for hours, and then at yourself in the mirror for hours. When you are ready the friend will arrive. And, by the way, you should pay attention to your breathing and you should eat lightly. In fact, fasting is expressly encouraged. I can’t see any of that happening around here any time in the near future.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com