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June 6/09

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

Reviewed here: Away We Go (Movie); The Toronto Symphony (Concert); Hangover (Movie); The Limits of Control (Movie); Little Ashes (Movie)

Away We Go (Movie) written by Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida; directed by Sam Mendes; starring John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph; with Carmen Ejojo, Catherine O’Hara, Jeff Daniels, Allison Janey, Jim Gaffigan, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Josh Hamilton, Chris Messina, Melanie Lynskey.

This one is obviously aimed at sophisticated movie-goers. Labels stick out all over the thing, touting its special qualities: independent, non-Holllywood, small budget, unconventional, low-key, philosophical and existential, with non-stars in the major roles.

They happen to be John Krasinski, as Burt, and Maya Rudolph, as Verona, his pregnant partner who doesn’t want to marry him. Her parents are dead and the young couple have moved to be near his parents [Catherine O’Hara and Jeff Daniels]. But the oldsters have decided to move to Belgium. This throws the younger couple for a loss: what about extended family for their baby? So they start hopping from place to place in the US and Canada, checking on various relatives and friends to see if they can find a community where they’d like to raise their kid.

Which means that I had to struggle a bit to quell my resistance to open-ended road movies. The kind of saga where the principals keeping moving from one locale to another doesn’t please me as much as one where they stay put and resolve some issues in a more tightly-structured piece. This one is even looser than most road movies. There is really no forward-driving momentum other than the young couple’s nebulous quest to find out what it means to be good parents and, by extension, presumably, what life is all about.

Not exactly a grabber, dramatically-speaking. Which may be why movies like this don’t often get made. Still, it could work – if it weren’t for some major problems.

First among them would be the kind of people our friends encounter. Most of them are total jerks.

His parents, for instance. On the subject of birthing, his mom feels the need to regale the young couple with a salacious story about the involvement of firemen in Burt's birthing. The prospective grandpa seems like an ok guy but, for no good reason, he's made to look stupid because he has trouble coming up with the word 'indigenous'.

Then there’s the friend, a forty-ish mom [Allison Janey], who can’t open her mouth in front of her kids without emitting really inappropriate sexual stuff. Her husband [Jim Gaffigan] seems to be living on another planet, which might explain his spaced-out speeches.

On the other hand, there’s the earth-mother type [Maggie Gyllenhaal] who’s still breast-feeding her kids at an age when they should be glued, not to her boobs, but to video games. She refuses to use a stroller: "I love my kids!!! Why would I push them away from me in a stroller????" She and her airhead hubby, a latter-day hippie [Josh Hamilton], sleep en famille in a huge bed because they don’t want to hide their love-making from their children. Then there’s Verona’s sister [Carmen Ejogo] who seems sensible enough except that she keeps dissing her boyfriend.

Even a stranger encountered by accident in a hotel lobby turns out to be an obnoxious super-mom with a precocious kid who inadvertently reveals his propensity for baby-killing.

What are Dave Eggers and his co-writer, Vendela Vida up to here? We have enjoyed Mr. Eggers’ writing in the past; in fact his What Is the What? was one of the standouts of last year. (See review, Dilettante’s Diary Oct 27/08.) The script of Away We Go, however, sounds like it’s attempting to score all kinds of points about the fatuousness of society today while being too knowing and self-congratulatory by far. If this is supposed to be social satire, it’s so extreme that it backfires. The message that comes through is that Burt and Verona are the only people in the world who have their heads screwed on. That snotty attitude to the rest of humanity, on the part of the scriptwriters, the supposed inability to find one decent person other than Burt and Verona, makes you uneasy about them.

It isn’t until they reach friends in Montreal that they encounter anybody who seems to have anything like a meaningful approach to life. The family life of this young couple [Chris Messina and Melanie Lynskey] with their four adopted kids seems prefect, until you find that it’s tinged with its own brand of sadness. More of that emotion comes in a final encounter with Burt’s brother. Paul Schneider, who is interesting here as in any role, offers glimpses into the life of a man struggling with the prospect of being a single dad. But these examples of sympathetic humans come too late in the movie to compensate for the impression, given earlier, that most people are dorks.

The biggest problem with the movie, though, is the young couple at the centre of it. They live in a rundown little cabin with one window covered in cardboard. It's hard to see why, since they both appear to have decent employment. When they get to wondering whether they are screw-ups, you start to think that maybe there's supposed to be something charming about them in a kooky, counter-cultural way.

But then there’s the kaffufle about the grandparents’ move.  Why this is such a catastrophe for the young couple. Do they think the world revolves around them and their baby? Why not just wish the old folks well and get on with their own lives? Well, you try to make allowances for the narcissistic, touchy-feely culture that even expectant parents are subject to these days.

If only it weren’t for the lack of chemistry in the couple’s relationship. Not that it’s the fault of John Krasinski as Burt. He keeps trying to make the best of it. Mr. Krasinski’s a lanky, good-looking guy who’s made to seem geeky by means of shaggy hair and glasses but he has a winning, boyish smile. Burt’s the kind of guy who tries so hard to be obliging that, even when his partner complains that he never gets angry, he does his best to whip up a storm of bad temper. He’s so ingenuous that he gets away with some sexual talk that would get any other guy kicked out of the bed, the house and the movie.

What sabotages the partnership's screen appeal is the writing and acting of the woman’s role. She’s one of those congenitally ornery women for whom nothing ever seems right. In the end, we get some insight as to why this might be but, for most of the movie, we’re confronted by a woman whose negativity doesn’t make for very pleasant watching. Maybe there’s an actress who could have made the character more likeable. If casting is, as they say, the most important skill in directing movies, then the choice of Maya Rudolph was is a serious directorial error. Ms. Rudolph has one of those faces in which the camera doesn’t read much other than one constant mood – sulkiness. Occasionally, Ms Rudolph gets a chance to smile, but the intended signal of warmth doesn’t get through the mask that’s been in place for most of the movie.

With the result that, for all Burt’s frantic attempts to nurture the relationship, we can’t care very much about its future.

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

 

Toronto Symphony Orchestra: Bla Bartk and Richard Strauss; Emanuel Ax,  Yoko Nozaki David Kent and John Rudolph, soloists; Peter Oundjian, conductor. (Roy Thompson Hall, Toronto, June 18)

We don’t often attend the symphony but, when tickets came our way recently, we decided it was a good opportunity to let our readers know that we at Dilettante’s Diary leave no cultural field ungrazed.

Opening the program, Bla Bartk’s Dance Suite in six movement was interesting in a frenetic way. Apparently inspired by folk music from various cultures, the work features, as you might expect, lots of rhythmic turmoil. But something about the performance felt distant to me, not really focused. It didn’t feel as though it was being delivered right into my lap. Was it under-rehearsed? Maybe this repertoire isn’t the TSO’s specialty? I began to wonder if the problem could be the acoustics of the hall (which I haven’t visited in a long time). For whatever reason, one could say that the performance wasn’t convincing.

Bartk’s concerto for two pianos and percussion fared much better. The husband and wife team of Emanuel Ax and Yoko Nozaki handled the keyboard parts, while David Kent and John Rudolph manned the percussion section. Closing my eyes to shut out the visual distraction helped my appreciation of the music. But I couldn’t help wishing to hear the piece in its original version – for pianos and percussion only. Without the thick background of orchestration it might have been possible to follow more closely the interplay of the pianos with each other and with the percussion.

The prospect of Richard Strauss’ Burleske in D Minor for Piano and Orchestra caused me some concern. The romantic movement, of which Herr Strauss was one of the last card-carrying members, has never offered my favourite kind of music. Even more alarming, the program notes compared this piece to the composer’s "Merry Pranks of Til Eulenspiegel" – an item that is supposed to be burbling with fun and that I always find annoying. (When artists of the Teutonic bent insist on being funny, it’s usually advisable to take cover.) However, the performance of the Burleske, with Emanuel Ax at the piano again, was greatly enjoyable and impressive.

Even more so the suite from Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier, which rounded out the program. Whether because of my prejudice against Romantic music, I don’t know, but Rosenkavalier has never ranked high on my must-see list of operas. It has always struck me as a bit woolly and shapeless. But the playing of this suite was thrilling from start to end, especially the sweeping waltzes and the poignant trio. Such a gorgeous performance that it made me want to see the opera as soon as possible.

I wasn’t totally sold on Conductor Oundjian’s reason for celebrating Strauss and Bartk on the same program: simply that they were contemporaries. Other than to note the oddity of that fact, given the disparity of their styles, there wasn’t much to take from the juxtaposition. During the Bartk, Maestro Oundjian’s conducting seemed over-wrought to me but maybe all the kinetic energy was necessary to wring the tortured effects from the players. The conducting of the Strauss came off much more serenely. And the maestro’s friendly, casual chat – during the lull while the stage was being set for the concerto with the two pianos – had the agreeable effect of making us feel that we were, not a bunch of artsy high-brows, but a gathering of people who had come together simply for the sake of hearing some good music well played.

 

Hangover (Movie) written by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore; directed by Todd Phillips; starring Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Zach Galifianakis, Justin Bartha, Heather Graham, Sasha Barrese, Mike Tyson, Rachael Harris

[See follow-up, Dec 31/09]

Before reading any further, you should know that I didn’t see the last half hour of this movie. Not because of any great dissatisfaction with the viewing experience. That’s often my reason for skipping the ending of a movie. This time, though, my early departure was caused by a screw-up in the scheduling of my hectic (but oh-so-glamorous!) life.

A guy who’s getting married in two days heads off to Las Vegas with three buddies for a bachelor blowout. Three of them wake up next morning totally trashed. But not as badly as their posh hotel suite. A chicken’s wandering through the debris, there’s a tiger in the bathroom and an abandoned baby in the closet. None of them can remember anything about the night before. Worst of all, the groom is missing. The rest of the movie (as much of it as I saw) involves their quest for him and their attempt to find out what happened the previous night.

The humour in this movie aims low – gratuitous nudity, car chases, lunatic cops, masturbation jokes – and hits its mark. You don’t often get a team of four guys in a comedy (which could be one of the reasons that one of them is shuffled off stage pretty early) but this foursome makes an effective combination. There’s the groom (Justin Bartha): a relatively nice, clean-cut guy; then the sexy playboy (Bradley Cooper); next, the nerdy dentist (Ed Helms); and finally, the doofus brother-in-law-to-be (Zach Galifianakis).

Even so, the goings-on are not as hilarious as the previews would lead you to expect. Surprising lulls cause you to note that the pace is decidedly slow-moving at times. It’s as if the script writers are standing there wondering: what next? And the explanations of some of the more bizarre details – the tiger, the baby – turn out not to be so amazing.

The most that can be said for the movie is that my having to leave early caused a slight twinge of regret. I’m still somewhat curious about the mystery of the groom’s disappearance. But not all that much. I can wait to see the ending on a DVD someday. No rush.

Rating: C- (Where C = "Certainly worth seeing")

 

The Limits of Control (Movie) written and directed by Jim Jarmusch; starring Isaach De Bankol; with Tilda Swinton, Gael Garca Bernal, John Hurt, Bill Murray, Paz de la Huerta.

Re the plot of this movie, we either gotta tell you the whole thing or nothing. But it won’t take much time to tell all, because what happens in the first ten minutes keeps happening.

So here’s the deal: The Man meets some other guys at an airport. They give him a matchbox with a piece of white paper in it. On the paper is a cryptic message in some sort of code. The Man flies to Madrid, finds his way to a designated apartment and waits – till another contact shows up with another matchbox and more cryptic instructions. And on and on and on, for almost two hours.

Isaach De Bankol, a statuesque black actor, plays the Man. Celebrity actors keep popping up in cameos as his contacts: Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Gael Garca Bernal, et al. They always open the meeting with, "You don’t speak Spanish, right?" The rituals may vary a little but there’s always the white paper in the matchbox. The other actors spout enigmatic, philosophical-sounding monologues but the Man says little in response.

You keep wondering if you’re ever going to find out what’s going on. Meanwhile, you’re getting a beautifully photographed travelogue of Spain: twisty, narrow streets; glossy art museums; outdoor cafs; apartments of various types; gleaming train stations; and snazzy trains that make a North American traveller drool with envy. For further drool effect, a voluptuous naked woman keeps turning up.

Is this some shaggy dog story? Is it a parody of a James Bond movie – lots of glamour and intrigue but no explanation? Is it an experiment to see whether you can make a movie that tells you almost nothing about the central character? (All we learn about the Man is that he does Tai Chi when alone.) Is it one of those dreams that comes to a director one troubled night, subsequently finding its way onto film? Is it a sort of Sartre-type thing about the meaningless of life?

That might be the drift of a message on the back of a pickup truck: "Life isn’t worth anything"? If that doesn’t do it for you, there’s a maxim that people keep mouthing: "The man who thinks he’s bigger than everybody should go to the cemetery. There he will see that life’s nothing more than a handful of dust."

Or you could try analyzing the portentous references and symbols littering the landscape. The mention of Hitchcock’s movies, for one thing. Then, there's the bunch of crushed carnations on the cobblestones that clearly alludes to the director’s Broken Flowers. And how about the way our man always swallows the white paper with the cryptic message – communion anyone?

Even someone as resistant to pseudo-intellectuality as I am couldn’t help picking up a sort of message eventually. We won’t say here exactly what it was, because just about the only interest in the movie is figuring out for yourself whether or not it means anything.

Trouble is, you have to sit through so much tedium to get to a possible scrap of significance. Isaach De Bankol may be a superb actor, in the right context, but his face is extremely impassive: flaring nostrils, full lips and beady eyes – like a mask and almost as rigid in expression. But he does have great posture as he struts majestically through the various locations in his spiffy suits. He also has a very cool way of wielding his long fingers to button and unbutton his suit jacket again and again. In my books, though, that’s not quite enough entertainment for two hours and $11.95.

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

 

Little Ashes (Movie) written by Philippa Goslett; directed by Paul Morrison; starring Javier Beltrn, Robert Pattinson, Matthew McNulty, Marina Gatell.

This movie about the friendship between Salvador Dal and the poet Federico Garca Lorca starts like one of those Brit movies about school days. It’s the beginning of term and all the lads are showing up, finding their rooms. One thinks of If and Brideshead Revisited, to name a couple of the most obvious examples. But these guys are tossing off dialogue littered with Britishisms like "bloody" in Spanish accents that mostly sound phony.

It could be a good idea to hang in, though. How often do you get to see a movie about pre-revolution Spain in the 1920s? The country’s seething under the grip of Catholic domination and the repressive regime of a right-wing government. The young artists are expressing their rebellion by dancing the jitterbug. Some of the more daring young women have even– gasp!– got their hair bobbed.

But the revolutionary motif pales in comparison to the story of the relationship between the artist and the writer. According to a note in the final credits, Dal did not reveal the details of this friendship until near the end of his life. That would be, no doubt, because theirs was, as the old saying would have it, the love that dared not speak its name. More to the point, as far as this portrayal goes, it was the love that dared notperiod. Garca Lorca’s keen enough but Dal seems conflicted. Part of that could be because their pal Luis Bruel (Matthew McNulty), the future film maker, comes across, literally, as a gay basher.

Still, the movie does a beautiful job of showing what’s going on under the just-plain-pals act. One scene that has the two friends jumping out of a rowboat on a moonlit lake offers up a gorgeous underwater ballet. When the guys’ heads finally come to the surface, though, the prolonged carry-on made me think of God’s query to Noah in the Bill Cosby sketch: "How long can you tread water?"

As Garca Lorca, Javier Beltrn has the requisite charisma and sex appeal. But it’s hard to see what attracted him to Dal. Robert Pattinson’s version of the painter comes off as pretty much of a drip. I guess the intangible spark of genius in his friend did it for Garca Lorca. The rest of us can only see a sort of fey weirdness in this Dal, without any convincing evidence of the passion that supposedly intends to set the world on fire. The performance is especially ineffective in the later parts where Dal has become a celebrity. What we get is a high school eccentric putting on airs.

That could be one reason why the ending of the movie doesn’t pack the dramatic effect intended. The other reason would be that, because the revolutionary theme gets short shrift, the political drama near the end feels perfunctory. We’re not engaged enough in that aspect of the story to care very much about its tragic implications.

Rating: D (for "Divided" i.e. some good, some bad)

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com