Letter from Joy
December 10, 2018
Hi, everyone. Can you believe it’s almost Christmas, and that it will soon be 2019? Where have the last almost twenty years gone? Remember when we were all obsessing about Y2K? Seems like yesterday, and yet, here we are, and time continues to shoot by. An important reminder to live in the moment and make the most of the time we have. A few New Year’s resolutions we could all benefit by: Be tolerant, listen more and talk less, give people the benefit of the doubt, don’t be so quick to take offence, and most importantly, be kind, be kind, be kind.
The past month has been a blur. Not sure exactly what I’ve been doing, since I’ve finished all the editing, etc. on my new book, ALL THE WRONG PLACES. It will be in stores on March 12, 2019, and is available for pre-order now on Amazon. Mostly, I’ve been thinking about new ideas, figuring out what I want to do next, and trying to see if I can put a few of the ideas together. At the moment, nothing is quite gelling, but after 28 books, I have faith that something will soon. To sum up ALL THE WRONG PLACES in 25 words or less, (something I always advise aspiring writers to do with regard to their own books): Four women, multiple dating sites, one serial killer. Hope you like it.
So, mostly I’ve been relaxing, shopping for Christmas gifts, catching up on my reading, and taking in a bunch of movies. For followers of my tweets - which my daughter claims are very boring - you already know much of what I’ve been reading and seeing, but here some of them are again. Movies I’ve liked: Bohemian Rhapsody, Roma, and Green Book. Frankly, I don’t get the criticism that’s been levelled against Green Book, which I’ve seen twice now, and thought was one of the year’s best movies, if not the best. I think the criticism of it comes from a total misreading of the film. It is in no way a “white saviour” movie. The true story of a black concert pianist who hires a white chauffeur/bodyguard to drive him through the Deep South during his pre-Christmas tour, and who, during the course of their trip, gradually overcome their prejudices to become lifelong friends. The fact is that they save each other. It’s funny, sad, and totally gripping, and I urge everyone to see it.
A movie that has been getting great acclaim, but one I wasn’t crazy about is a period piece called The Favourite. It’s a tale of palace intrigue and betrayal, concerning Queen Anne and the two women vying for her favour. The acting is terrific, especially Emma Stone, who I’m beginning to think can do anything and everything, but the film itself left me rather cold. I hated the self-conscious camera angles and the irritating and “look how clever I am" chapter titles. Plus all the characters are so unpleasant and the movie way too long, that I found myself liking the film less and less as it went on. By the end of it, I’d had quite enough, and was reminded of Rhett Butler’s famous retort to Scarlet O’Hara at the end of Gone With the Wind: “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”
I’ve read a few books: WHEN LIFE GIVES YOU LULULEMONS, which I quite liked, and ALL I EVER WANTED, which I wasn’t crazy about, as well as THE WEIGHT OF INK, a well-written historical novel that, while not exactly a page-turner, is definitely worth a look. I’m about halfway through it, and hope to have it finished soon. It’s by Rachel Kadish, an author I’ll be speaking with at the Polo Club in Boca Raton, Florida, on January 17th. Should be an interesting program because we’re so different. I also have a huge stack of books - including all the Giller award nominees and eventual winner - waiting to be dug into, and I hope to make a significant dent in the pile by the time I’m back from Florida.
We’re heading there after Christmas and staying till early February, then back to Toronto for three weeks, then back to Florida for the month of March, then home again, and probably one more short trip before calling it a season, and another year already half over! Would everyone and everything please slow down!
As for TV, I’m looking forward to the return of my housewives of Beverly Hills, and have been enjoying FBI, Shark Tank, Mom (though not its best season), and The Rookie, although I usually fall asleep during The Rookie’s last fifteen minutes. Don’t think I’ve ever seen the end of an episode. Same is true for Escape from Dannemora, and every episode of Dateline that’s ever aired. I never find out who did it or if the person on trial is found guilty! The problem with Dateline is that they stretch the story out way too long, basically taking two hours to tell a tale that could be generously told in half that time. (The same is true of their hour-long shows.) Too much repetition and way too many commercials. Then there’s My Brilliant Friend. Really? What’s with all the praise? I confess to never having read the books by Elena Ferrante, which were either loved or loathed by various friends, but the series, of which I’ve seen six episodes so far, is disjointed and meandering, giving every event equal weight, and regularly undercutting whatever tension it manages to achieve. I found the performances of the two main characters, which have been almost universally lauded, to be flat and amateurish. The girls seem incapable of facial expressions, although the dark-haired girl has fabulously expressive eyes that convey a fire the rest of her face does not. I absolutely hated the last episode I watched, but I’m going to give it one more try. Other shows that have proved disappointing: The Conners (after a promising start) and Murphy Brown, which seems to have forgotten it’s supposed to be a comedy, and not a lecture. One show I did enjoy was a Canadian series starring Kim Coates, called Bad Blood. It moved!
And that’s about it for now. I hope you have a wonderful holiday season and a happy and healthy New Year. I’ll write again in 2019. Love to you all.
Movie Reviews from the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF)
As promised, here is the list of the movies I saw at this year’s Toronto Film Festival, and a short review of each. I’m listing my favourites first. Before I begin, I’m happy to say that this year’s lineup was one of the very best in years. Either that, or I just chose particularly well. But from the comments I’ve heard from others, most people seem very pleased with their selections. I have a few caveats about the festival in general: ticket prices are becoming ridiculous, especially when many of the movies - way too many - are opening within weeks of the festival, and in some cases, during the festival itself. I really think that movies opening within a month of the festival should not be screened. Why pay double, even triple and more, to see a movie you can see a week later at its regular price? I did like the prior seat assignments at some of the theatres, although not the extra cost involved, especially when some of the seats I paid more for weren’t any better - and in some cases, worse - than the ones I didn’t pay extra for. (Also, when I complained that I hadn’t actually wanted to pay extra for three of the movies I selected - there were all sorts of computer glitches - I was told there were no refunds!) And speaking of computer glitches, the voting for the People’s Choice awards was especially frustrating, as after I made my selection, there was no SUBMIT button to enter it. I’ve heard many people complain about the same thing. Some people had no trouble; other people, like me, weren’t able to submit our votes. Get it together, people!
And now, the films:
- GREEN BOOK: the story of a black classical pianist and his white limo driver traveling through the Southern U.S. in 1962. This movie was satisfying on every level. It was wise, funny, touching, beautifully written and acted, and an absolute joy to watch. Viggo Mortensen deserves the Oscar. I predict this movie will be nominated for lots of awards, and was my choice for the People’s Choice Awards.
- NEVER LOOK AWAY: a truly transformative film from Germany that should win the Oscar for Best Foreign film. (I admit I didn’t see many of the other obvious contenders, such as SHOPLIFTERS.) It was directed by the man who did win the Oscar for best foreign film a number of years back for The Lives of Others. This movie starts in 1940, Nazi Germany, and continues to 1960, and follows the life of a young boy as he survives the horrors of his childhood and grows into a gifted artist. The larger themes involve the nature of art and truth, and the story itself is never less than involving, despite its three-hour running time. I loved this movie. A true masterpiece.
- IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK: Adapted from the 70’s novel by James Baldwin and directed by Oscar winner Barry Jenkins, this is a beautiful love story involving a young black couple whose lives are turned upside-down by a racist cop. It’s a story that rings only too true today, but what stops it from being unbearably sad is the love the characters all feel for each other, and which we feel as well. More than a film about hate, it is a film about love. It’s beautiful, sad, and wonderfully acted by the entire cast. Another movie I predict will be nominated for a lot of major awards.
- MONSTERS AND MEN: A small first-time effort by a supremely talented director, this movie was a revelation. Similar in theme to many of the movies at this years festival, it tells the story from three different points of view, woven seamlessly together, of the police killing of an unarmed black man. The characters are all extremely well-drawn, the acting couldn’t be better, and the suspense at times is almost unbearable. Definitely a director to watch.
- GIRLS OF THE SUN: From France, this is the story of a unit of female fighters who were former captives and sex slaves of Daesh now fighting their former oppressors in Iraqi Kurdistan. This movie is exciting and suspenseful and timely, and the lead actress, Golshifteh Farahani, is as terrific as she is gorgeous.
- WIDOWS: a super slick caper story with racial undertones from the director of Twelve Years a Slave, it stars Viola Davis and the luminous Elizabeth Debicki, as members of a group of women who turn to crime after their husbands are killed during a robbery. It’s clever - if more predictable than it thinks it is - and absorbing. More than a little improbable but a fun ride. And Daniel Kaluuya, last seen in GET OUT, is fabulously evil.
- WHERE HANDS TOUCH: An engrossing and intriguing movie about a little explored subject: what it was like to be a black person in Nazi Germany. This is the story of a young, bi-racial woman in the Third Reich. The product of an Aryan mother and a deceased black father, she is initially spared because she isn’t Jewish, and is able to obtain phone papers claiming she’s been sterilized and therefore can't reproduce. She attracts the attention of a young Nazi soldier and their relationship soon blooms into love, a love that obviously will not be tolerated.
- A MILLION LITTLE PIECES: I read the book by James Frey years ago, and this is an excellent and faithful recreation. You may remember the scandal that resulted after Oprah discovered that the so-called memoir she’d chosen for her book club was actually a work of fiction. Frey admitted that while some of the book was true, other parts had been embellished or hadn’t actually happened. It was still a good read, and it makes an excellent film.
- DESTROYER: With Nicole Kidman in a terrific performance. This is the story of a burnt-out cop (Kidman) on the hunt for a killer/bank robber, whose gang she infiltrated as an undercover officer many years earlier. The movie was always watchable, and was surprising on a number of levels. I didn’t see the resolution coming, which is something I always appreciate.
- THE MOST BEAUTIFUL COUPLE: Another movie from Germany, this one is about a married couple whose lives are upended when a trio of young men beat up and rob the couple while they are on holiday. The most repulsive of the young men also rapes the wife. But this isn’t just another story of revenge. It’s partly that, and excitingly so, but it’s much deeper than that, exploring the aftereffects of the trauma. Very well observed and acted.
- HOMECOMING: Starring the always watchable Julia Roberts, this was the first four episodes go a series made for Amazon Prime. Even though it started as an episodic podcast, not everything deserves to be strung out for hours on end. While it was engrossing and well-done, I think it would have made a great two-hour thriller instead of a prolonged series.
- THE WEDDING GUEST: Starring Dev Patel as a man who is hired to kidnap a reluctant bride and spirit her out of Pakistan before she can be married, this was an interesting failure. I enjoyed it, especially seeing India, but the plot never really hung together. It never seemed to make up its mind what it wanted to be, and the motivation - why the kidnapping when the bride was more than eager to flee? - and the ending was less than satisfying. Still, it was enjoyable.
- RED JOAN: the mostly true story of an old woman, played by Judi Dench, who is arrested for selling nuclear secrets to the Russians during the second world war. I wasn’t bored, but neither was I thrilled. A solid effort, and never boring. Just not as interesting as it should have been.
- SKIN: A difficult film to watch about a group of Neo-Nazis and the young, multi-tattooed skinhead who wants to break free of their grip. Jamie Bell is terrific, as always, and Vera Farmiga is fantastic and incredibly seductive in her role as Nazi den mother. But we’ve seen this film before, and this doesn’t say too much new.
- DRIVEN: the true story of John Delorean and his (arguably) criminal attempts to finance the making of the Delorean automobile, and in particular, his association with the con man who is his neighbour. I found Jason Sudeikas, as the con man, very irritating, but Lee Bice as Delorean was both gorgeous and terrific.
- THE FRONT RUNNER: another true story, this one about Gary Hart’s run for the presidency, which was derailed by his affair with Donna Rice. This is engrossing and earnest, but not terribly exciting, and I wondered how those too young to have been around then would find it. It feels a little dated, especially in light of the current situation in the U.S. Still, I was never bored, and it’s well-done.
- DOGMAN: From Italy. Horrible. The story of a moronic dog groomer who gets involved with gangsters, this was a total dud. When you can’t make a man who risks his life to save a small dog sympathetic, there’s something wrong. This movie even manages to make Italy looks ugly.
- THE OLD MAN AND THE GUN: Robert Redford’s last movie as an actor, and it’s a shame he picked this turkey. Supposedly based on fact, it’s just stupid, not nearly as engaging as it thinks it is. Redford is his charming self and Sissy Spacek is terrific, but the movie is a real disappointment.
- ASH IS PUREST WHITE: From China. A mess that makes no real sense and only comes alive for about twenty minutes of its more than two hour running time when we concentrate on the heroine, and leave all the men out of it. Not remotely believable.
- THE LAND OF STEADY HABITS: A Netflix film that is a bore from start to finish. Totally unlikeable and unsympathetic characters. Couldn’t stand any of them. A waste of time.
The top four:
The excellent: (in no particular order)
The good but not great: (again, in no particular order)