Dilettante's Diary

Dec 8/07

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

Reviewed here: I'm Not There (Movie); Romo et Juliette (Opera); Juno (Movie); Ben Heppner and Molly Johnson (CBC Radio Two); No Country for Old Men (Movie); Remembering the Bones (Novel)

I’m Not There (Movie) written by Todd Haynes and Oren Moverman; directed by Todd Haynes; starring Cate Blanchett, Ben Wishaw, Christian Bale, Richard Gere, Marcus Carl Franklin, Kris Kristofferson, Julianne Moore, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Bruce Greenwood.

You could say that my motive for seeing this movie was educational: to compensate for a void in my knowledge of popular culture. Bob Dylan has never meant much to me; I couldn’t, with any certainty, name one of his songs. Not that I’m unaware of his importance as an icon to many of my generation, just that his kind of art never reached me. When your personal pantheon is occupied with gods of the magnitude of Joan Sutherland and Luciano Pavarotti, there’s not much room for a twerpy folk singer.

But I'm Not There, "inspired by" the life of Dylan, really didn’t do much to remedy my ignorance. In this artsy, fictionalized documentary, facts are hard to come by; narrative coherence is not a priority. It would be going too far to say that the film is as kinky as a Peter Greenaway opus, but it comes close at times, thanks to liberal dollops of surrealism and weirdness. What emerges is not so much the story of a life but a meditation on a couple of key questions: who was this guy? who did he see himself to be?

For me, the casting of several different actors as Dylan works brilliantly. What better way to explore the many selves of the man whose true self seems elusive to him as well as to the public? Start with a black kid (Marcus Carl Franklin) playing Dylan as child – why not? That tells us something that we might not get otherwise.

Unexpectedly, Cate Blanchett turns in the most interesting Dylan, for my money. From her we get the mumbling introvert who can barely put two sentences together if they’re not sung. What is it that gives Ms. Blanchett the edge over the other actors? Is it because, being a woman, she is the least likely actor for the role? In other words, not being able to fall back on being like him in one of the most basic ways, i.e. sex, she has to dig for some more interesting connection with him? On the other hand, maybe it has nothing to do with her sex; maybe it’s just about her creativity as an actor.

I was going to say that Heath Ledger was the least plausible Dylan, in that Mr. Ledger is too much the ordinary, studly guy – nothing kooky about him. And yet, maybe that’s the point – there’s that side to Dylan too: the macho, sexist male.

Richard Gere captures a nice autumnal feel as the older Dylan but I was mystified by the identification of him as Billy the Kid and the setting of this part of the movie in a dream-like wild-west village called Riddle. However, that scenario includes one of the most beautiful moments in the movie: a bizarre funeral with a gorgeous song. Maybe if you know the lyrics as related to Dylan’s life, the western setting makes sense.

In fact, the movie probably has a greater impact for true fans, i.e. those who know his work and his life, than it does for me. Much as I enjoyed the movie, I’m left with somewhat of an is-that-all-there-is? feeling. People kept citing Dylan’s genius for telling the truth about what’s going on in the world. Granted, the lyrics to his songs sound provocative. But they seldom hold my attention for long. A wordy, preachy quality about them tends to bore me. Could it be that my spirit prefers songs that express emotion rather than ideas?

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

 

Romo et Juliette (Opera) by Charles Gounod; conducted by Plcido Domingo; starring Anna Netrebko and Roberto Alagna; with Charles Taylor, Robert Lloyd, Isabel Leonard and Dean Peterson; Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus

The most exciting thing about this, the first live broadcast from the Met to movie theatre’s this season, was the crowd. At my local movie theatre, one auditorium sold out, so the management had to open another one and it sold out too. People were waiting in line more than an hour to get seats. Patrons who arrived half an hour before curtain were scrambling for single seats. The excitement was palpable. It felt almost like going to the theatre or the opera in Europe: people came because they wanted to, not because of some obligation to pay homage to high art.

Which, to my mind, bodes well for the future of the art form. Mind you, the only people in the audience who didn’t have white hair were the ones who didn’t have any hair. However, we can hope that some of the enthusiasm will spread in widening circles. Some of those young people heading into the other theatres must have been wondering what was going on.

But to speak of the excitement of the turn-out is not to denigrate the performance. Anna Netrebko as Juliette was mesmerizing. You keep staring at those doll-like features, wondering how anybody can look so perfect. Which is not to say that her voice is any less beautiful. (To me, her first really high note sounded iffy, but she carried on like a pro, not daunted. And in the interview during the intermission, she did graciously admit that her voice isn’t at its best in the upper register.) Roberto Alagna’s singing as Romeo was a bit more stentorian than sweet at times but you can’t fault him for lack of intensity. And his French is beautiful. (Ms. Netrebko allowed as how learning the French was the most difficult part for her.) Signor Alagna is, of course, a bit ripe for Romeo but he carried the role off with a boyish swagger and an impish grin. If his figure is not exactly youthful, he at least has the bum to look good in blue tights. The chemistry between the two stars must have been what enabled them to get through a love scene, the like of which I never expected to see in live opera: singing their hearts out while rolling around, semi-clothed on a bed floating in mid air.

Among the excellent singers in the smaller roles, I was especially impressed with Charles Taylor’s rich, round baritone as Juliette’s father. Mezzo Isabel Leonard pulled off a stunning coup in her one aria as Stephano, Romeo’s page. As Father Lawrence, bass Robert Lloyd was impressive, as was bass Dean Peterson in the role of the Duke of Verona.

The cameras backstage during the breaks may provide a bit of a problem in the suspension-of-disbelief department for some people. Not me. As a stage door johnnie from of old, I love all the behind-the-scenes glimpses that these broadcasts provide. Imagine Ms. Netrebko mugging for the camera as she comes off stage after a big scene! We saw a couple of actors rehearse their fight for the next scene while stagehands shifted scenery. And Rene Fleming’s interviews with the stars as well as with the ever-genial Signor Domingo were delightful. It was fun to learn how the maestro’s progress from his dressing room through the corridors to the pit, where he walks along under the lip of the stage, before emerging into the spotlight and the audience’s applause.

The only point at which the backstage camera proved a bit problematic for me as at the curtain calls. Yes, I loved seeing what goes on behind the curtain as the stars are taking turns bowing. But, sometimes we didn’t catch that dramatic moment of the star’s entrance onstage to the audience’s roars. Maybe a time for a split-screen techinique so that we could get both points of view? These broadcasts offer so many thrills that one hates to have to chose between them.

 

Juno (Movie) written by Diablo Cody; directed by Jason Reitman; starring Ellen Page, Michael Cera, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman, Allison Janney, J.K. Simmons

Ellen Page plays Juno, a sixteen-year-old in a nameless US town (Vancouver, actually) who gets pregnant as a result of a quick boink with a school chum. The movie follows her decision about what to do about her condition and the consequences of that decision. Don’t worry, nothing too heavy going down here. Ms. Page has, I gather, been getting raves for her mastery of the role of the flippant young female with lots of in-your-face attitude. She and her friends constantly fling around the words "dude," "bitch,""totally" and "cool" to let us know what totally cool bitchin dudes they are. But that innocent, childish face of Ellen Page’s tells you that they’re really good kids at heart. So the rough talk isn’t anything to get upset about.

What I don’t get is why so many people in the audience are constantly chuckling at the over-written quips that the characters keep tossing off. The feeling I got was that the audience response was like the fond approval of the grandparents and cousins of the star of the high school play: this is our girl and we’re so proud of her. You couldn’t help wondering if everybody, having read the rave reviews, felt that we’re all really gonna get behind this charmer of a movie with so much Canadian content (stars, director).

On the other hand, maybe everybody thought they were watching a sit com without a laugh track, so it was up to them to provide it. Except that in a situation comedy, you usually have some conflict happening, some dramatic obstacles for the characters to negotiate. For much of this movie, you’re just following the situation as things evolve. No major problems; no hurdles to jump. Just tons of wisecracking to disguise the fact that what’s being served up is pretty much a dish of cloying cuteness.

Until the last twenty minutes, when some real problems arise. That leads to some interesting scenes. I was particularly impressed with Michael Cera as the vaguely nerdy, semi-articulate progenitor of the baby. And Jennifer Garner is unforgettable as a desperately hopeful mother-to-be. J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney, as Juno’s dad and step mom, have a rough-and-ready realness about them – when the script lets them stop cracking funnies.

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

 

Ben Heppner and Molly Johnson CBC Radio Two (Sunday, Dec 16)

Again this year, the CBC treated us to the all-day Christmas concert, with hourly contributions from countries all across Europe. We got glorious samples of live performances of the works of the greatest composers. And what was Canada’s contribution to this feast of musical riches? Ben Heppner and Molly Johnson singing schlocky Christmas tunes.

Molly Johnson is, according to report, a highly-regarded Canadian singer of jazz but that is not an art form that we deal with here at Dilettante’s Diary. We do, however, much admire Ben Heppner’s singing, as a rule. He may have sung something worthwhile in the first part of the program. I wouldn’t know because every time I clicked the radio on, Miss Johnson’s smokey baritone was doing its thing. Leaving the radio on for the last half of the concert, I caught Mr. Heppner’s free-wheeling solo on "Go Tell It On the Mountain". It was ok as long as you tried to forget that this was Ben Heppner; occasional hints of the heldentenor’s prowess were uncomfortable-making. The program ended with some duets in a medley of trite, commercial fare.

I can understand (although I do not share it) CBC Radio’s sense of the urgent need to attract younger and more diverse Canadian listeners, in other words, people other than those of us who love good music. But do the powers-that-be at the corporation really feel that they must drag Europeans into this dummed-down version of Radio Two? Perhaps we can hope that the listeners overseas will interpret this as some strange Canadian way of conflating Christmas and April Fools.

 

No Country for Old Men (Movie) written and directed by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen; based on the book by Cormac McCarthy; starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Kelly Macdonald, Woody Harrelson, Garret Dillahunt

The best way to approach a Coen brothers movie is to expect that you’re going to get what you’re not expecting. Which you do in this adaptation of a Cormac McCarthy novel set in Texas in 1980.

On one level, it’s a latter-day wild west adventure with, admittedly, some kooky Coen twists. Josh Brolin plays Llewelyn, a rugged young guy who may not be the sharpest knife in the drawer but who makes up for any deficiencies with his wily, self-sufficiency. While wandering in the desert one day, he stumbles on the aftermath of a drug deal gone bad. That leads to some very bad decisions on his part and that leads to conflict with some really, really bad people. The cat-and-mouse game gets extremely tense at times. Some of the plot twists are incomprehensible to me and sometimes it’s not clear who people are but maybe that’s more my problem than the movie’s. The violence and gore make for some difficult watching, especially when these guys get into self-medicating.

And yet, it isn’t the thriller quality that makes this movie special. Things aren’t even resolved in the way you might expect from a typical thriller. What’s more important than the excitement is the musing about people and crime – mostly from the point of view of Tommy Lee Jones as the sheriff who’s getting that over-the-hill feeling. He and his wet-behind-the-ears sidekick (Garrett Dillahunt) have some great scenes mulling things over and getting off some pithy remarks – if you can get decode the Texas accents. (Why don’t them people speak English good like me?) Contrary to what you might think, these scenes never intrude on the action; they seem the necessary counter-point to the mayhem. Only at one point did I feel that the philosophizing was beginning to lag. I was saying, "Ok, Coen brothers, let’s get to the point." So you know what they did? They ended the movie right then and there.

So many details about this movie are striking. When the sheriff turns on the bathroom light in a rundown motel, you hear the creaky exhaust fan labouring into action. One of the most chilling moments comes when you see a really bad guy exiting a house and the only way you know somebody has been killed is that he stops on the porch to check his boots (earlier we learned that he hates getting blood on them). Kelly Macdonald, as the wife of the Brolin character, struck me as especially believable – an innocent and inexperienced girl who turns out to have unexpected strength of character. Most importantly, she’s attractive in an ordinary way, not at all a movie star. Virtually all the minor parts are marvels of casting whether they be store clerks, motel receptionists, waitresses or border guards – all genuinely real characters, note-perfect in every detail

Which makes it all the more bewildering that the casting of one character could be so off-key. Javier Bardem as the psychopathic killer isn’t believable at any point. Granted, it’s very hard to play a character so evil that he hardly seems human. Not many actors can turn make a real person of such a role. But it may not be Senor Bardem’s fault entirely. He’s saddled with a stiff 1970s-style shoulder-length wig that never looks anything but phony and his pallid makeup gives his skin a ghoulish, green shine. I cannot understand how movie-makers who nail everything else perfectly could have missed the mark so badly on this character. But it’s saying a great deal to the credit of the movie to admit that even this serious casting flaw didn’t spoil my enjoyment of all the badness.

Rating: B- (where "B" = "Better than most")

 

Remembering The Bones (Novel) by Frances Itani, 2007

An elderly lady sets out on a big adventure but has an accident and ends up lying on her back in a ravine, thinking over her past life. That’s it. Period.

Author Frances Itani is, apparently, a much-celebrated and esteemed Canadian writer. My guess is that her forte is sensitive writing about women’s lives. There’s lots of that on offer here but the book doesn’t show any sense of the structure or the drama that one usually expects in a novel. Seldom have I read a novel so utterly lacking in any forward momentum. You’d think the lady’s drastic situation would provide some plot, but no. Her current plight rates only brief mention now and then. She occasionally inches a bit closer to her crashed car but there’s no sense of urgency, you can’t tell how much time is passing and her distress – if that’s the word – never strikes any note of immediacy.

All this might work if the thoughts and memories she dredges up were gripping. A few instances of remembered tragedies caught my attention but other than that, the material is bland. Does Canadian fiction really need fond recollections of another stern but loving grandmother who has a tendency, in any crisis, to dish out corny bible quotes? Towards the end of the book, the woman lying in the ravine comes up with some interesting details about her relationship with her dead husband and I did admire the skill with which the writer weaves the memories into a tapestry – if only the result had been more noteworthy. If you’re not tired of sagas about plucky women who carry on in a world where the men are mostly dead, maimed or irrelevant, then maybe this is the book for you – and your book club.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com