Letter from Joy
October 18, 2019
Well, it’s been a busy month, although as usual I’m hard-pressed to remember what I’ve done prior to this morning’s breakfast. After a glorious, warm fall, it looks as if winter is preparing to come sooner as opposed to later. The past few days have been very cold and it’s definitely time to change my closets around, much as I hate to do so. But I’m going to start that onerous chore right after I complete this letter. Hopefully it won’t take too long to complete, and luckily, since wear condo is on one floor, I don’t have to move things too far. Also, we’re leaving for Florida shortly for a few weeks and this way I can also organize my packing. I’m going to try not to take too much, as I find that I rarely end up wearing any of the things I cart back and forth, but you know what they say about the road to good intentions. And speaking of roads, we’ll be driving down and leaving the car there all season, flying back and forth till spring. This year my husband has agreed to let me do some of the driving. In past years, he has always preferred to do it all, claiming he’s more relaxed when he drives and that he actually likes long-distance driving. Not sure how I feel about this, having gotten used to just sitting back, and the fact is that he’s a terrible backseat driver. We shall see…
Speaking of traveling, I just returned from a very fast trip to St. Albert, Alberta. St. Albert is a suburb of Edmonton, and it’s a four-hour flight from Toronto, plus another 45 minute drive. So, a long way to go only to return the next day. But I had agreed to appear at Starfest, an annual literary festival held by the St. Albert Public Library, and it was well worth the trip. The audience was lovely and most welcoming, and the weather was pleasant, if chilly. (At least it didn’t snow.) I was interviewed on stage by novelist Janice MacDonald, and she was terrific. Kudos to Peter Midgley, in charge of the festival, for doing such a great job.
While I’m (sort of) on the subject of my writing, I’m happy to announce that I’m almost halfway through the novel I’m currently working on, and should have it completed by the summer. (I hope!) It’s quite a complicated book, involving a large cast of characters, but I’m quite excited about it. Hopefully, I haven’t gone off on the wrong track because it’s very hard to know what’s working and what isn't while you’re actually writing. So I’m taking a few weeks off, and toward the end of our stay in Florida, I hope to read through what I’ve written so far and get a better sense of the novel and how I should proceed.
I’ve also been doing a bit of reading: Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, which I found disappointing, since I loved The Handmaid’s Tail. Loved the first fifty or so pages, but after that, not so much. And Demi Moore’s memoir, Inside Out, which was quite juicy and informative, if not particularly well-written. I’m also about 70 pages into Ann Patchett’s latest, The Dutch House, which I’m loving so far. I have a huge stack of books waiting to be read, so hopefully, I’ll have a chance to get into some of them during our time in Florida. As many of you know, I find difficult to read other fiction when I’m writing. I’m not sure if this is because I fear the intrusion of another writer’s voice, or I’m just too tired, both of staring at the computer all day or of concentrating, so all I want to do after I’m done is watch TV. I don’t seem to have a problem with non-fiction, however, as I find it easier to read. It’s much less demanding of the reader, requiring less concentration and suspension of disbelief. You can pick it up and put it down whenever convenient, and it doesn’t demand as much of you as fiction does.
And speaking of TV, I’m absolutely loving “Stumptown." It’s well-written, well-plotted, and well-acted. Cobie Smoulders is a terrific actress, not to mention drop-dead gorgeous, and the entire cast is very appealing. A show to look forward to every week, as opposed to many of the new shows, which have been a disappointment. One show that definitely did not disappoint this year was “Succession." After giving up on it after about three episodes last season because I couldn’t stand any of the characters, I decided to give it another chance this year, and was very glad I did. While I still didn’t like most of the people, I found their stories interesting enough to stick with it, and the season finale was one of the best season finales I’ve seen in years! Absolutely terrific. Everything a finale should be. But what’s with the proliferation of all these stupid game shows? I don’t get it. And The Masked Singer? Really? A bunch of D-list celebrities in ridiculous costumes and a bunch of hyper-caffeinated judges, screaming and trying to convince us these people are stars? I’ve never heard of most of them. I gave it a look, but once was more than enough for me. And what’s happened to “Mom?” I have always loved this show and watch it almost every afternoon in reruns. Even after so many viewings that I can literally recite the lines along with the characters, I still laugh. But I started to get worried last year and my worries continue this season, although the last few shows have shown signs of promise of getting back on track. I don’t know whether there are new producers or writers, but the show just isn’t as funny as it once was. I don’t like the character of Tammy - she’s way too broad. And I’m starting to find both Bonnie and (especially) Christy, very annoying, and downright unlikeable. Please fix this. It’s important that we like these people, despite their self-absorption. And please bring back Baxter and Violet, who were wonderful.
As for movies, I haven’t been to many since the festival. Just not that many I’m interested in. I did see “Judy” with the fabulous Renee Zellwegger. She was sensational, but the movie was such a downer! Can’t remember the last time I saw such a depressing film. I also went to see “Once Upon A Time in Hollywood” for the second time, and thought it was fabulous. I actually liked it better the second time because I knew more what to expect. While I still found it a touch too long, and could have used a little less Leo and a little more Brad, it was definitely worth a second look. There’s really so much in it, and so much to appreciate.
But last month was definitely a month for the theatre. We went to Niagara-on-the-Lake to see “Cyrano”, and it was terrific. A total surprise, as I wasn’t really expecting a lot after the disappointing productions we saw there last summer. But “Cyrano” was excellent - the acting, the staging, the entire production. Then we had dinner at The Two Sisters Winery, our favourite restaurant in the area. As usual, the food was fabulous. In Toronto, we also saw Piaf/Dietrich, a musical about the surprising friendship between, you-guessed it, Edith Piaf and Marlene Dietrich. Again, the acting was wonderful - Louise Pitrie is absolutely outstanding as Piaf and her voice is glorious - and the the production is very clever and inventive. Then there’s “Girl From the North Country”, a musical that uses Bob Dylan’s songs to tell the story of a group of people dealing with the Great Depression. It is, in a word, fabulous, and definitely should not be missed. The songs, most of which I was not familiar with, are interpreted in an outstanding and totally unexpected fashion, and the voices of the 20-member cast are uniformly sensational. I’m actually running out of superlatives. All I can say is that if you’re in Toronto before the show ends its run on November 24th, you should make a point of getting tickets. It's that good.
And that’s about it for now. Remember that it’s flu season and everyone should go out now and get their flu shots. I’m getting mine this afternoon.
I’ll write again when we return from Florida. In the meantime, stay healthy - get that flu shot - and be kind. Like the song goes, “What the world needs now is love, sweet love…
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.