Letter from Joy
March 20, 2020
Well, interesting times, to say the least. Here's hoping this letter finds you all safe and healthy, practicing social distancing, staying put, and washing your hands constantly and thoroughly.
Unfortunately, as with a great many people, this Coronavirus has greatly affected our vacation plans, and we are in the process of packing up and closing down our place in Florida to return home to Toronto. Since we drove the car down here in October and left it for the season, we are planning to drive home. Our plane has been cancelled in any event, but we had decided it was probably safer to drive anyway. Here's hoping there will be hotels open en route. We're also going to try to do the trip in two days, one night, the way we used to, but we'll have to see how it goes. I'm very nervous about the whole thing and keeping my fingers crossed that everything goes smoothly and there won't be any problems at the border.
Because of the virus, our time in Palm Beach has been quieter than usual: no movies, very little socializing, few dinners out. We managed to see some of our friends before things got really bad, and have at least talked to everyone else, but my birthday - on March 18 - was a very restrained affair. Oh, well, at least I made it through another year! And my husband bought me a gorgeous new set of golf clubs. (Speaking of which, my golf this trip has been fabulous! Even when I don't score well, I'm hitting the ball beautifully!)
I've been reading a lot - Elton John's fabulous memoir "Me", Don Winslow's excellent "The Force", Fredrik Backman's disappointing "Us Against You", disappointing because "Bear Town" is one of my favorite books. This one isn't bad, just not nearly as good. A little self-conscious and taking much too long to get into the plot. I'm about to start "In Five Years", which has a wonderful premise and seems promising. Also watching a lot of television - way too much, really. It's getting so I can almost recite every episode of Law&Order word for word.
I also took some time to read over the book I'm currently working on, and I'm happy to report that I think it's very strong so far. I'm looking forward to finishing it when we get back to Toronto. Since there won't be much else to do, I should be able to get a lot done! I can't wait for you to read it. It's very different from past efforts - something I always say, but this one is really very different. Still a page turner, of course.
This virus has also affected my daughter, Annie, in terms of her work situation. She recently got a wonderful new job with a company in Detroit, and she and her family moved from Toronto to Windsor, right across the border from Detroit, so that she could commute there and back daily but continue to live in Canada. (About a 30 minute commute.) Unfortunately, because of the virus and the border closings, she will have to work from home for the foreseeable future. Not the end of the world, but difficult when your two young children are also home because schools are closed, and also you'd like to start a new job in your actual office, interacting personally with your new coworkers! Her house in Toronto goes up for sale shortly and we'll see if any potential buyers turn up. I know the realtors are taking all precautions, but....
And that's about it. I wish I had more to report, but this virus seems to have taken over everything, and it's hard to even think straight. Looking forward to getting home and to having better news to report in next month's letter. In the meantime, it's a great time to catch up on your reading, so get busy. Wash your hands, keep them away from your face, practice social distancing, and read, read, read. Please be careful and considerate of others. Stay healthy and be safe. Good luck to us all.
Movie Reviews from the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF)
- JoJo Rabbit: A-plus. A wildly original and beautifully acted story of a ten-year-old boy growing up in Nazi Germany, whose imaginary friend is none other than Adolph Hitler. While some critics have had trouble with the depiction of Nazis as a bunch of bumbling buffoons rather than the ruthlessly efficient murderers they were, I didn’t have a problem with it, as I think ridicule is a very effective weapon against hate and bigotry. White nationalists and other Nazi sympathizers are drawn to things like power and strength, but not so much when the figures they revere are portrayed as stupid and ridiculous. An absolute must-see that got a five-minute standing ovation and won The People’s Choice Award.
- It’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood: A-plus. My second favourite film of this year’s festival. It stars Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers, but is more about the journalist sent to interview him than the man himself. As the director explained at the screening I attended, you can’t have Mr. Rogers as the central character because he doesn’t change. What he does is to change everyone around him. It’s an interesting approach and it works beautifully. The acting is impeccable and the script fabulous. Funny, touching, and not at all what you’re expecting. A terrific movie.
- Ford v Ferrari: A-plus. A total surprise. This film wasn’t on my original list of films to see, but my sister convinced me, and it DOES star Christian Bale and Matt Damon, both of whom give Oscar-worthy performances. The movie is fantastic, a real old-fashioned, big-time Hollywood movie that is never less than entertaining and occasionally even thrilling, with car racing sequences that leave you gasping for air.
- Lyrebird: A. I keep going back and forth between and A and A-plus on this one. It’s a terrific movie, based on a true story of an art forger (Vermeer is his speciality) accused of collaborating with the Nazis, and the man who brings him to justice. It stars the magnificent Guy Pearce in another Oscar-worthy performance and the gorgeous Claes Bang (strange name), who also stars in The Burnt Orange Heresy (see review below) and this season of Showtime's The Affair. This is a smart, well-written, well-acted drama. I loved it.
- The Two Popes: A. Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce are both magnificent in this well-crafted, intelligent and highly entertaining story of two very different Cardinals with two distinctive views of Catholicism. It reminded me of The Journey, a film of a few years back, that imagined a meeting between the warring leaders of opposing parties in Ireland at the time of “the troubles.” The Two Popes, however, is based on fact, and is a wonderful portrait of two well-meaning, intelligent men. It manages to be thoughtful without ever being preachy, and gives one hope that people with opposing views can still find a way to communicate, compromise, and change.
- Military Wives: A. A real crowd-pleaser. This British film is based on the true story - so many of the festival’s movies were based on true stories - of army wives who form a choir to help keep them occupied when their spouses are sent off to war to Afghanistan. It stars the magnificent Kristin Scott Thomas who manages to give an initially unsympathetic character a real humanity. The movie has a real air of authenticity, and makes you want to run out and join a choir.
- Hearts and Bones: A-minus. An Australian film about a war zone photographer who is asked by a Sudanese immigrant not to include any photos he took of the atrocities in the Sudan in an upcoming exhibit. This is a surprisingly powerful and even profound film about grief and friendship, guilt and acceptance. Big themes, to be sure, but never self-important.
- A Sweetness in the Belly: B-plus. Based on Canadian author Camilla Gibbs’s novel, this is the story of a white girl abandoned by her parents in Morocco and raised as a Muslim who finds love and acceptance in Ethiopia but ultimately must flee to London, England after Ethiopians rebel against their Emperor. This is a sensitive, well-written story about love, prejudice and acceptance, and Dakota Fanning is excellent.
- Greed: B-plus. An English film starring Steve Coogan and directed by Michael Winterbottom. The title pretty much says it all in this very funny, clever, and occasionally shocking satire about a ruthless businessman not above exploiting everything and everyone with whom he come into contact in his quest of the almighty dollar. I’d read a middling review of this one, so wasn’t expecting much and ended up loving it. Great performances all around and some hilarious cameos.
- Just Mercy: B-plus. An American movie about the inequities of the prison system and the people trying to help the wrongfully convicted, starring Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx that got great advance buzz and Oscar hype, but didn’t quite live up to expectations. While a friend of mine thought it was the best film of the festival, my response was more muted. Not that it isn’t a good film. It is. But I found it half an hour too long, a bit too earnest, a little too preachy, and it spends too much time on the predictable story of one of the prisoners facing the electric chair. And Brie Larson is totally wasted. Still, it’s an important story and well worth a look.
- The Laundromat: B-plus. Produced by Netflix and starring Meryl Streep, I enjoyed this movie, set in the world of high finance and corruption. It’s based on the Panama Papers, which revealed how businesses shield their profits and shirk their responsibilities by hiding and laundering money in non-existent, off-shore corporations. A real eye-opener in the vein of The Big Short. Also, very entertaining.
- Bad Education: B-plus. Starring a letter-perfect Hugh Jackman and Allison Janney, this is the true story of how a school superintendent and his assistant in Roslyn, New York, stole millions of dollars from taxpayers on bogus expenses over a period of years. It’s billed as a comedy, but it’s really not. The people portrayed are truly awful - as were so many of the people on screen at this year’s festival - and one can only marvel at how they got away with their criminal behaviour for so long, and the tenacity of the student reporter who uncovered their criminal acts. Hugh Jackman is particularly wonderful in his fearless portrayal. The movie leaves you shaking your head in amazement.
- Lucy in the Sky: B. I remember this true story when it was first reported more than a decade ago. Natalie Portman is excellent as an astronaut who has difficulty coping when she returns from a mission in space to find the real world just not that interesting anymore. Although married to a very supportive man, she begins an affair with another astronaut, the always terrific Jon Hamm, and becomes quite unhinged when she learns that he’s carrying on with someone else. To reveal more would be unfair to those of you not familiar with the actual chain of events, but some people are very upset - I’m NOT one of them - that there is no mention of diapers in the movie.
- Dolemite Is My Name: B. Another true story, although I had no idea until the end of the movie that this character is an actual person, and that this is his story.Eddie Murphy does a terrific job as Dolemite, a comic persona he adapts in his quest for stardom. The movie is very clear in its depiction of the cultural differences between blacks and whites, and specifically in what each finds funny. Now recognized as the founder of rap music, Dolemite was one of the first comedians to specifically target a black audience in both his comedy and his movies. The movie’s main problem is that, surprisingly, there’s no real conflict. Dolemite decides to adopt a foul-mouthes persona to become successful and he becomes successful; he decides to produce a movie even though he has no idea how, and he succeeds, and the movie is a huge hit, and so on. Even the white people are nice to him. (Which was a pleasant change from most of the movies, where very few people were nice to anyone.)
- The Burnt Orange Heresy: B. Starring the gorgeous Claes Bang and the equally gorgeous Elizabeth Debicki, this is a thriller set in the art world, where no one is quite who they claim to be, and nothing is quite what it seems. Gorgeously photographed in the gorgeous Lake Como district of Italy, this movie is full of unexpected (and occasionally unexplained) twists and turns. With great performances by Donald Sutherland and a fabulously arch Mick Jagger.
- Hustlers: C. Although it’s received pretty good press, I was disappointed in this one. It’s beautiful to look at, and JLo gives a terrific performance - she’s definitely the best thing about the movie - but the characters are all unlikeable and the story, although based in fact, just doesn’t add up. The plot concerns a bunch of strippers who decide to steal from their clients (the decidedly creepy men of Wall Street) after the market goes belly-up and business at the club where they work goes way down. The film purports to be about female empowerment, but that’s just nonsense. These women are nothing but a bunch of crooks who steal from a bunch of unsuspecting, not terribly bright, men for their own personal gain. There’s nothing empowering about that, especially since the men they steal from never did anything to deserve what happens to them. It’s not like the women are seeking revenge, just easy money they don’t deserve. Although my daughter liked it, I was unimpressed.
- Cunningham: C. The only documentary I saw. About the dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham, it was in 3D, which made it, ahem, stand out from the rest. It’s an interesting documentary and I learned a lot about the man and his craft, but it suffers from a lot of sameness in both style and execution.
- The Personal History of David Copperfield: C. This is Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, not the magician my daughter (and most people I talked to) thought it was about! I found it entertaining, although very episodic and lacking any kind of narrative thrust. My sister, on the other hand, hated it. But while it’s too long and just drifts from one episode to the next without really going anywhere, I still found it interesting, and the performances - especially Hugh Laurie and Tilda Swinton - were a pleasure to watch. However, I found the “colour-blind casting”, while admirable, to be confusing and distracting. While it’s nice to think that it doesn’t matter what colour anyone is - and it shouldn’t - the fact is that in this case, you’re not being true to the times in which the characters lived or to the novel Dickens wrote. It was confusing to see Dev Patel in the title role, especially when the actress playing his mother is so white, just as it was distracting to see a family consisting of an Asian father and his black daughter, and a very white young man with a very black mother, supposedly a pilar of British society at a time when this simply would not have been permitted. I’m all for casting whoever is best for a role, regardless of colour or place of origin, but such casting should always make sense and serve the story.
- Jungleland and Dirt Music: C. Somewhat entertaining and instantly forgettable. I’m hard-pressed to remember much about either.
- The Audition and Pelican Blood: D. Two German movies starring the normally terrific Nina Hoss. She certainly pours her heart into both performances but the movies are both terrible, which is a shame because both start with a good idea and then go nowhere with it. Pelican Blood, in particular, has a promising first hour, then goes steadily downhill until it crashes and burns.
- The Climb, Human Capital, and True History of the Kelly Gang: D. Horrible. While the plots are totally different, the characters in each of these three movies are just awful people, none of whom is even vaguely likeable. And if a character isn’t likeable, then he or she better be awfully interesting, which unfortunately, these are not. I should have walked out long before the final credits rolled. Can’t imagine these films will do well, or even see the light of day.