Brain Bits for a (Melting) Winter Wonderland

Only three days after a two-foot snowfall the temperature turned a balmy 45 degrees. Hallelujah! Now the melting snow is creating new waterways over roads, at curbs and in cracked sidewalks. Let’s just hope the temperature doesn’t drop below freezing tonight—we’re not ready to go ice skating without skates again any time soon.

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Regina King, André Benjamin: “American Crime”

Too many quality TV shows, too little time.

Commuting into New York is absolutely killing my ability to keep up with some great shows. Early to bed, (too) early to rise eliminates watching shows that air at 10:00 pm, so I’m scrambling to get acquainted with PBS’ “Mercy Street.” Showtime’s “Billions” is opposite “Downton Abbey” on Sunday nights, and as much as I think the “Masterpiece Theater” import will ultimately just collapse across the finish line, I’m still interested in how it’ll turn out (more about that later). I’ve only seen the first episodes each of “Mozart in the Jungle” (shame on this classical music fanatic), “The Man in the High Castle” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” though I’ve actually gotten through the first two episodes of “Jessica Jones.” But no “Sense8” or “Angie Tribeca” yet for me, sad to say.

My work schedule was also behind my losing track of one of the better shows last year, though thankfully I’m able to become engrossed in its second season courtesy of the “On Demand” button on my remote. ABC’s “American Crime” (not to be confused with the soon-to-be premiering, O.J. Simpson-centric “American Crime Story”) is repertory theater at its best. Each season covers a different crime, with the same starring actors in different roles: Felicity Huffman, Timothy Hutton, Regina King, Lili Taylor, Elvis Nolasco, with key recurring appearances this season by Hope Davis and André Benjamin. That’s some potent talent.

The current run of “American Crime” outdoes “Law & Order: SVU” in being ripped from the headlines. It’s a timely mix of high school sports, male rape and internet shaming, all of which are even more timely in light of reports of the latest hazing atrocity. This season of “American Crime” focuses on a tony private school with a championship basketball team (Headmistress: Felicity Huffman, Head Coach: Timothy Hutton). Going viral are lewd images of a male scholarship student from the other side of the tracks at a party hosted by the basketball captains. The student has no clear memory of what happened, though he senses “something was done to [me]” (Connor Jessup gives a beautifully modulated performance as the victim). His mother (the superb Lili Taylor), having been refused a meaningful investigation by the school, reports the incident as a rape and contacts a local reporter. Naturally various parents, administrators, students and basketball team members have their own interests at stake and a list of issues to hide, but it’s their reactions and interactions with respect to the crime that prove fascinating.

It’s an unusual show. There’s no razzle-dazzle; it builds incrementally. It’s as far removed from the fevered pitch of “Law & Order:SVU” as you can get; the contrast in tone is easily seen, given that “American Crime” airs in the time slot immediately following “SVU” (Just for the record, I’m still a huge fan of Olivia Benson, Fin, Rollins and Carisi). “American Crime” is an exceptionally well-observed show. The writing reflects a very adult sensibility in how the characters are drawn; the audience is encouraged to consider their strengths and inconsistencies at some length. The result affords the actors a key opportunity to be expansive without having to overplay. Regina King, as the mother of one of the basketball captains, is a sophisticated corporate executive with extensive political and law enforcement connections. She lectures her son day and night about society’s expectations of young black men and vetoes the girls who aren’t good enough for him, yet her response to news of the crime is clueless: “Boys can’t be raped.” Yet somehow the gifted Ms. King presents this as just one more layer in a very complicated character.

“American Crime” makes you look forward to seeing what will be unveiled next. I’m glad it’s back.

 

Damian Lewis, Paul Giamatti: "Billions"
Damian Lewis, Paul Giamatti: “Billions”

A few notes are in order before I hurry off to catch up on those shows I’ve missed:

Even if “Billions” featured only Damian Lewis as Bobby Axelrod, I’d be riveted. Fortunately it’s got so much more going for it: Paul Giamatti as one kink-chasing U.S. Attorney, Maggie Siff as his wife who supplies the kink in 5-inch heels and who works for billionaire Bobby, and Jeffrey DeMunn, Malin Ackerman and a slew of wonderful actors. There’s money, shady dealings, the S.E.C., zingy one-liners and secrets with a capital “S” (What’s the deal with Bobby Axelrod’s whereabouts on the morning of 9/11?). Thank you, Showtime, for one heady brew.

Before there was Discovery Channel, ID, History Channel and the 1000 other channels that grace your cable bill every month, there was PBS. And one of its best shows has always been “American Experience.” I was reminded of this last week when I managed to find an hour to watch its “Bonnie and Clyde” episode, which told as much about the Depression as it did about the two people it featured. On “American Experience” context is all, which is why its episodes linger in memory. PBS’ terrific website features “American Experience” episodes in full along with a wealth of related material. No need to pay for Hulu or Amazon Prime—PBS is all free, all the time.

After four episodes into its final season, does anyone doubt how “Downton Abbey” will end? Odds are, in no particular order:

  1. Robert’s belly pain turns out to be serious but is cured by the superior medical technology afforded by the county, thus ending the interminable hospital debate.
  2. Anna carries the baby to term and gives birth to a healthy child.
  3. Edith marries Bertie Pelham, the guy who stayed up all night to get that issue of the magazine to press.
  4. Daisy marries the new footman who wants to go back to the land (and who’s been avoiding Thomas like the plague), and they move in with Mr. Mason, eventually assuming the leasehold.
  5. Isabel and Dr. Clarkson finally end up with each other.
  6. Marigold’s identity is revealed but Mary knew it all along.
  7. Mary ends up with Henry Talbot, race car driver, though I’m still hoping Charles Blake, the agriculture expert who previously joined her in pig slop, stages a last-minute intervention. He’s such a better match for her.
  8. Tom becomes an auto magnate and eventually stands for Parliament.
  9. Violet, as always, has the last word.

Remember, you saw it here first. And if you do know what happens, don’t spoil.

 

Carol

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Rooney Mara, Cate Blanchett: “Carol”

There’s a scene in Todd Haynes’ “Carol” that could serve as a master class on film acting. Cate Blanchett, as the title character, and Sarah Paulson as Abby, her best friend and former lover, are sitting in a booth at a bar. They’re talking as friends do when they catch up, in this case discussing Carol’s infatuation with the younger Therese and her problems with her estranged husband Harge, and Abby’s crush on a Rita Hayworth-type redhead. But what’s so arresting about their conversation is not what they say, it’s how they relate to each other. With minimal effort, Blanchett and Paulson manage to convey the depth and length of their friendship and not just the love but the regard each has for the other. After the movie’s exceptionally slow beginning, this scene is so welcoming it’s ridiculous. It jumps right off the screen.

Too bad the rest of “Carol” isn’t as consistently engaging or as expertly done.

Based on the Patricia Highsmith novel, “The Price of Salt,” “Carol,” with a screenplay by Phyllis Nagy, is centered on the relationship of a soon-to-be-divorced woman (Blanchett) and the younger Therese (Rooney Mara), a budding photographer working in a department store to pay the bills. Set in 1952, it’s definitely “the love that dare not speak its name” territory. The crowded room across which the ladies first lock eyes is the toy department during Christmas shopping season. Therese sells Carol an expensive train set as a present for the latter’s four year-old daughter, Carol (accidentally?) leaves her gloves on the counter, Therese mails them to her, Carol invites her to lunch and….we’re off.

But not really, because this is the slowest film I’ve seen in a very long time. As in “Far From Heaven,” his earlier foray into the 1950’s, director Todd Haynes is obsessed with details of setting, props and decor. Unfortunately they’re not substitutes for pacing and story details (Though I will say I loved Carol’s tank of a car—I knew immediately it was a Packard—and recognized its ’50’s New Jersey license plate as the type my family’s Chevy once sported).

While I don’t think the film is the masterpiece some critics claim it to be, the framing of the story is beautifully realized. The movie begins as we follow a man from a train station to the dining room of a nearby hotel; he turns out to be a friend of Therese, who’s having tea with Carol. He invites her to a party and they depart; the film flashes back to the day Carol and Therese met and the story is then told chronologically until we’re once again at the hotel. Only this time the perspective is entirely different—we’re witness to Carol and Therese’s conversation and the nature of what’s at stake between them. Your realization that we’re back to where we were at the beginning is a mild shock, but an oddly enjoyable one.

What “Carol” does have going for it is some great acting. This is Rooney Mara’s film, hands down; it would not surprise me in the least if she takes the Oscar as Best Actress. The camera just loves her, and rightly so—there’s more than a suggestion of the young Audrey Hepburn and, if you know your ’50’s movies, Maggie McNamara (“Three Coins in the Fountain” is one of my guilty pleasures). Ms. Mara shows us there’s more to this young woman than what’s visible at first glance. She has enough strength to withstand her fiancé’s constant push that they marry and sail for France; she gives us the sense that she’s beginning to know what she wants out of life. Whatever Therese lacks she certainly acquires along the way. Her growth into a woman with some steel is readily apparent by the end of the film—that meeting of Therese and Carol over tea, post-breakup, is a wonderfully nuanced scene of emotional push/pull. It’s at that point you realize that these two could really be a worthy match for each other.

Maybe it’s the roles she’s been playing lately, but Cate Blanchett seems to be on the verge of becoming a Grand Lady, and I don’t mean that as a compliment. She’s more than a bit predatory at the beginning of “Carol,” and she’s not flattered by the ’50’s makeup which tended to make a woman look older than her years back in the day. While the character has a great many issues, there seems to be an awful lot of heavy lifting on Ms. Blanchett’s part, especially involving Carol’s relationship with her soon-to-be ex, Harge (Kyle Chandler is a wonderful actor, but he can’t seem to escape the stereotype of WASP-who-drinks here). Despite her love for Therese (and yes, the bedroom scene is hot), I really didn’t like the character all that much until she grew a backbone in the confrontation at the lawyer’s office. When she dictates her own custody terms as a “take it or leave it,” that’s when “Carol” finally blooms.

The ending is a wonderful pay-off. It reminds me a great deal of the scene in “Howards End” when Emma Thompson, after asking Anthony Hopkins for some time to consider his surprise marriage proposal, runs back up the stairs to kiss him. When I saw it at the local multiplex, the woman sitting behind me semi-whined “But we don’t know what she’ll answer.” To which her husband drily replied “She already did.”

At the end of “Carol,” Therese certainly does.

Too True

Spotlight
“Spotlight”: Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, Brian D’Arcy James, Michael Keaton and John Slattery

Two new films based on true events are figuring prominently this holiday season though both are far removed from Christmas cheer. One is something of a disappointment; the other, however, may well win the Oscar.

Let’s start with the good news first. “Spotlight,” a wonderfully double-edged title referring to the name of the Boston Globe Sunday magazine that threw a harsh light on the Catholic Church’s handling of its pedophile priests, is a taut story of investigative reporting. Given the subject matter, it’s a surprisingly quiet film–only Mark Ruffalo as reporter Mike Rezendes yells and bangs the table (in contrast, Stanley Tucci, as victims’ attorney Mitchell Garabedian, who should be among the noisiest, remains ruefully contained). While the acting ensemble is superb, what makes “Spotlight” so compelling is the manner in which the story is told (Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy wrote the screenplay; Mr. McCarthy also directed).

Without being didactic the film carefully limns the how of the abuse and the Church’s cover-up. The film is rich in the details of corruption, from the priests who groomed their child victims, to their superiors who pressured the parents to keep things quiet “for the good of the church,” to the attorneys on both sides who profited from the tragedy, to the higher-ups in the diocese who moved child molester priests like chess pieces from parish to parish or put them on “sick leave.” We see the reporters interviewing several victims, now adults, and learn how the predatory priests used classic techniques of victim selection–targeting boys from broken homes, those with alcoholic or abusive parents and boys with effeminate traits scorned by their peers. In essence these priests traded attention and acceptance for sex. As one victim explains to a “Spotlight” reporter, it starts with a priest telling a dirty joke to a boy, then showing him a porno magazine; it’s only then, with rapport established, that the touching begins, culminating in sexual contact. Although “Spotlight” refers to the fact that girls were victims, too, we don’t see them. But we do see the resulting wreckage in the adult survivors—Patrick, now a heroin addict; Joe, a recovering alcoholic; Phil Saviano, now a victim’s advocate but at first glance a seemingly unhinged nut job.

Yet, as new Boston Globe Editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) correctly insists, the real story is not just priestly pedophilia or Cardinal Law’s knowledge of it, but the Church as an institution that chose protection of these priests over the well-being of children and their families. In a city of such Catholic prominence, the Church almost callously played on the ties that bind community and family to ensure silence despite the enormity of this tragedy (The Globe’s “Spotlight” confirmed the Church’s reassignment of 78 abusive priests within the diocese). The film pulls no punches when it comes to how easily the status of clergy gave these men the authority to do what they did. As Attorney Garabedian notes, “You don’t question God.” So the excuses pile up: in Editor Baron’s introductory meeting with Cardinal Law and his attendance at a Catholic charities dinner, he’s continually reminded that the good the Church does should not be thrown away because of “a few bad apples” (“Spotlight” makes it clear that the Church’s apologists raised those damn apples so many times they practically had an orchard). But “Spotlight” also acknowledges that the Globe itself was at best a tarnished hero. It seems that at least five years before the magazine’s investigation got underway, two separate sources had approached Globe personnel who had either failed to grasp the extent of the abuse and the corruption that institutionalized its continuance, or perhaps lacked the courage to pursue the story.

The performances in “Spotlight” are first-rate; you never catch anyone acting. Michael Keaton as the magazine’s editor is astonishing; if you thought he was great in “Birdman,” wait until you see this. Liev Schreiber is memorably quiet in his character’s insistence; Rachel McAdams as the reporter who serves as conduit to the victims comes to mirror their pain as she begins to question her own faith. Stand-outs among the fine supporting cast include Paul Guilfoyle, the Church’s attorney who leans on Keaton to kill the story; Neal Huff as victims’ advocate Phil Saviano, Jamey Sheridan as another “It was my job!” Church attorney, and especially Billy Crudup as the smarmy victims’ attorney who in essence sold his clients out in favor of going along to get along.

This is one film I can’t wait to buy the DVD of.

Opposite Sides: Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) and Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston)
Opposite Sides: Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) and Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston)

As someone who’s long been interested in the Blacklist Era, I’d been waiting for the release of “Trumbo,” the story of a prominent member of the Hollywood Ten summoned before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) in 1948. Ultimately I found the film somewhat disappointing; perhaps its biggest fault is that given the ground it covers, it should have been a short dramatic series on HBO or Showtime instead of a movie.

“Trumbo” spans about 16 years in the life of Dalton Trumbo, the highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood during the 1940’s and an unapologetic Communist. Along with many others, he had found the appeal of the Party to his liking during the Great Depression of the Thirties; while his political beliefs remained unchanged, the national climate didn’t. In post-War America, with Eastern Europe coming under Communist sway, membership in the Communist Party, aka being a “Red,” though legal, was thought to be the hallmark of a Soviet agent. So HUAC, ostensibly investigating “Communist influence in Hollywood,” in essence conducted show trials over several years, ruining lives and careers. The Committee’s techniques and goals were of course later used by Senator Joseph McCarthy and various organizations that cleared politically “clean” talent to work on television. For a fee of course.

As you can see, this is a weighty subject spanning Trumbo’s long journey from success to jail (for contempt of Congress) to working under assumed names to reclaiming the fame and career that were rightfully his. Unfortunately “Trumbo” doesn’t rise to the occasion. While I realize this is a dramatic film and not a documentary, the filmmakers made some very strange choices. John Wayne and Hedda Hopper are singled out as Hollywood’s anti-Communist movers and shakers, though in reality most of the damage was done by the studio executives who joined together to fire and blacklist suspected Communists and fellow travelers, and numerous actors and other talent, including Ronald Reagan, Adolphe Menjou and Robert Taylor became friendly witnesses for HUAC. It’s one big clinker for the film to suggest that Trumbo’s career came to a halt because Hedda Hopper threatened Louis B. Mayer with the public unmasking of his Russian-Jewish roots (not a secret anyway), though I’m glad we see the anti-Semitism that underscored the Red-baiting years. And though the film suggests otherwise, Trumbo wasn’t the entire Hollywood Ten. I have to confess I miss Ring Lardner, Jr.’s famous response to HUAC’s demand that he name names: “I would, but I’d hate myself in the morning.”

“Trumbo” does much better after the screenwriter gets out of jail. The scenes with his family, and especially his fanatically working seven days a week under a host of pseudonyms for the cut-rate King Brothers while writing two Oscar-winning screenplays (one fronted by another writer who was himself later blacklisted; the other under a pseudonym), are among the best in the film.

While “Trumbo” has its failings, the performances do not. Helen Mirren gives nastiness much style as the Woman You Love to Hate—Hedda Hopper, failed actress turned gossip columnist and arch conservative (By the way, Hedda’s Navy son who’s so frequently referred to was Bill Hopper, later famous as Paul Drake in the “Perry Mason” TV series). David James Elliott and Dean O’Gorman are amusingly accurate as John Wayne and Kirk Douglas, respectively. Louis C.K. is quite sympathetic as screenwriter Arlen Hird (an invented character), who despite lung cancer seems to hang in there for an incredible length of time, and as you would expect, John Goodman is refreshingly pure id as schlock producer Frank King. Bryan Cranston manages to use the constant exposure to his advantage as Dalton Trumbo, and Diane Lane miraculously avoids cliché as his wife.

But the best performance in the film belongs to Michael Stuhlbarg as Edward G. Robinson, liberal Democrat and supporter of the Hollywood Ten. This is where we get some nuance after all the posturing. His sense of self-disgust after disowning his political position and naming names in front of HUAC is palpable as he sits awaiting clearance from John Wayne to be able to work again. I wish “Trumbo” had included more of this, for as the man himself acknowledged much later in life, to the fury of some members of the Hollywood Ten:

The blacklist was a time of evil…no one on either side who survived it came through untouched by evil…[Looking] back on this time…it will do no good to search for villains or heroes or saints or devils because there were none; there were only victims.

Women of Character

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Nicola Walker, Stellan Skarsgård: “River”

As a fan of “Last Tango in Halifax,” I’ve often thought Nicola Walker, who plays messed-up Gillian, was stuck with the short end of the stick. She plays a totally non-glamorous farmer who’s been through one life disaster after another. It’s no wonder Gillian’s perpetual expression seems to be “When and where will I be kicked next?”

While the character’s problems seem never-ending, the actor is certainly enjoying a break from all that—two, in fact. Nicola Walker stars in “River” and “Unforgotten,” two new and absorbing British television series. She plays a detective in both, but these shows couldn’t be more dissimilar. One is a solid police procedural; the other a psychological drama (to put it mildly) with elements of fantasy. Both are well worth your time.

“River,” now streaming on Netflix, has an intriguing opening that introduces us to DI John River (Stellan Skarsgård) and DS “Stevie” Stevenson (Nicola Walker). While on duty they bicker over her addiction to fast food and she sings along to Tina Charles’ disco anthem “I Love to Love” as it plays on the radio (Warning: That song will end up stuck in your head for days). They spot a car they’ve evidently been looking for, and it’s not until River has chased the driver on foot to his death that you see that Stevie’s equally dead. River’s been talking to a ghost, or, as he prefers to say, a “manifest.” It seems he’s had experiences like this since he was a boy; his manifests appear to be the victims in his unsolved cases. There’s one outlier, however—Thomas Cream, a 19th century mass murderer, whose spirit dogs him, goads him and simply won’t leave him alone.

“River” is the type of show that people are sure to either love or hate. The tone of the first episode is very uncertain—it’s like “Topper” meets “Law and Order.” The pace is slow and there’s a lot of Scandinavian brooding by the Swedish-born River, whose future as a police detective hinges on clearance by the department’s psychologist. Fortunately things start to pick up noticeably by the second episode when River solves an open case and begins to spend most of his time on Stevie’s murder to the irritation of D.C.I. Chrissie Reid (the excellent Lesley Manville), his superior officer. He’s joined by a new partner, D.I. Ira King (a very winning Adeel Akhtar), who, in response to River’s noting the Hebrew derivation of his name, states “My father’s Muslim, my mother’s Jewish. I’m the original Gaza Strip.” King turns out to be as sharp as River who, despite (or because of?) his manifests, excels at his job.

But Stevie is there at every turn. We meet her twisted family, including the brother newly released from prison whom she had sent up for murder years before. Some potentially incriminating evidence comes to light: Stevie’s hefty withdrawal of funds on the day of her murder; her possession and use of a second, non-official mobile; her affectionately greeting an unknown man as revealed in some CCTV footage. You begin to wonder how accurate River’s manifest of her really is. Was she the morally upright cop with the fortitude to send her own brother to jail, or was she a crooked officer on the take?

The ambiguity is only intensified by the CCTV footage that we repeatedly view of River and Stevie leaving the Chinese restaurant on the night of her murder. They appear to be arguing, she hands him something and begins to walk across the street. She stops in the middle, turns and says something to him, only to be shot in the head by someone in a passing car. The ultimate reveal of what happened during that last encounter is heartbreaking; Skarsgård’s and Walker’s performances in that scene will stay with you for quite some time.

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Nicola Walker, Sanjeev Bhaskar: “Unforgotten”

Unlike “River,” Ms. Walker’s other police drama, “Unforgotten,” is thoroughly grounded in reality. We begin with the discovery of a skeleton buried in the basement of a house undergoing demolition. It’s quickly established that this was a male murder victim, and the questions of who he was, whom he knew, why and when he was murdered and by whom are up to DCI Cassie Stuart (Nicola Walker), her partner DS Sunny Khan (Sanjeev Bhaskar) and her squad to solve.

There’s a lot of forensic razzle-dazzle to keep us entertained, as well as the introduction of several characters who seem to be miles removed from the discovery in the basement. These include a business mogul on the verge of an appointment to an important government post, a vicar, a woman married to a soccer coach, and a disabled man whose wife is evidently suffering from dementia. Out of such elements is a mystery made, and this one is spun out like vintage Agatha Christie. The reveals, especially in the first episode, are particularly enjoyable, and when you see DCI Stuart smile in awe at what the forensics team eventually uncovers, you’ll find yourself grinning in appreciation.

In addition to unraveling the whodunit, “Unforgotten” treats us to a display of some good old-fashioned dogged police work. DCI Stuart and DS Khan are terrific cops, but better still, she’s an excellent boss. Some of the best scenes in “Unforgotten” involve her skull sessions with her squad, and the praise and encouragement she gives out are heartwarming (Frankly I would like to work for her). She knows how to bring out the best in people, and this is no more evident than in her relationship with her partner. She considers his opinions at length—he’s not just her sounding board or a sidekick. Both are totally unflappable. When they interview business mogul Sir Philip Cross, whose angry condescension is designed to cow them into silence, Stuart and Khan nevertheless keep at him until he has no alternative but to show them the door.

While I enjoyed both shows, I preferred “River.” It’s certainly different from your standard cop show, and the chemistry of the two leads overcame the slow pacing and various plot twists that even I, who rarely figures out a whodunit, guessed correctly long before the reveals. In contrast “Unforgotten” spends perhaps too much time on those apparently unrelated characters I referred to, but to me the bigger issue is that I don’t buy the identity of the murderer. Your mileage may vary, however–opinion on various discussion boards seems to be split on this topic.

While “Unforgotten” has already been renewed, there’s no news yet concerning “River.” While I’d love to see more of River and Stevie, there would have to be significant changes in the premise of the show if it were to continue. At one point River tells his psychologist that a manifest disappears when he solves the case. Keeping Stevie around as Marion Kirby to River’s Cosmo Topper would undermine the excellence of what we’ve seen, plus some important characters would be missing, given their fate in what has transpired so far.

Sometimes it’s better not to tamper with success.

‘Til Next Year…

Mr_Met1960s

What is there left to say?

Enough of the blaming, the hash and re-hash of dead bats, fielding bloopers, a feeble bull pen and questionable managerial decisions.

Thank you, my Mets, for a glorious August and September, an astonishing march to the World Series and the promise of many good things to come.

So let’s fire up that hot stove, debate who should stay, who should go and who we need to make it back to October baseball.

Let’s Go Mets!

Brain Bits for October’s End

Mets postseason

November looms and here we are, playing the summer game into mid-autumn. There’s something very wrong with this picture.

Don’t get me wrong—I so dearly love my Mets, and I’m thrilled they made it to the World Series. It’s “pinch me” time. Whoever would have believed back in early July that The Team That Couldn’t Score Runs would beat the Dodgers in the Division Series and go on to take four straight from the Cubs for the pennant?

But certain thoughts still nag. By the time the World Series rolled around, I was exhausted. And it wasn’t just because I had tuned into almost every regular season Mets game and was somewhat worn out emotionally by the postseason. Ever since Major League Baseball added the second wild card, thus creating three rounds of postseason playoffs, the World Series has become almost anti-climactic. With inter-league play throughout the regular season, we’ve lost some of that “Wow!” factor in seeing an American League team face off against the National League champ. I suppose you could argue that differences in team composition—traditionally, bat-heavy American League vs. the pitching and speed of the National League teams—always make for interesting match-ups, but by the time the leaves begin to fall, the novelty is gone.

The hype also bothers me. Baseball is a day-in, day-out game over a six-month regular season. It’s not an Event like Sunday (now Monday and Thursday, too) pro football, though Fox Sports dearly want it to be so. Every time I hear what I’ve come to identify as “football music” during World Series telecasts, I want to scream (And for the record, I’m a New York Giants fan as well as a Mets fan—Go Big Blue!). The graphics, the tenor of the coverage (though the extra slo-mo cameras are superb), special guest appearances by two ace cheaters masquerading as commentators—Pete Rose on the pre-game show and Alex Rodriguez, during—and worst of all, Joe Buck, Mr. Vapid, who seems to be paid by the uttered word.

The World Series is now aimed less at the die-hard fan than at newbies hopping on the bandwagon. It’s somewhat like the current state of New York’s Broadway theater district—a pricey haven for tourists. But the true beauty of the game lies in watching a team grind it out during an entire 162-game season, seeing unheralded players become heroes while others end up in the doghouse and in general, witnessing what seems to be a lifetime of successes and failures, all between April and October.

The current postseason set-up undermines the nature of what has made baseball the game it is. It seems to serve one purpose only, and that’s to line the pockets of the select few. Major League Baseball and Fox Sports, certainly, but also the manufacturers and retailers of sports attire and memorabilia. Each stage of the Mets’ trip to the World Series has been marked by the Modell’s sporting goods chain’s promotion of new team t-shirts, hoodies, caps and what-have-you in men’s, women’s and kids’ sizes, all bearing legends such as:

“We Take the East”

“New York Wants It More”

“The Pennant Rises”

“World Series!”

Enough already. As the late George Carlin observed, “Baseball is pastoral. It’s a 19th century game.”

[But I can assure you I’ll be first in line at “Gotta Go To Mo’s!” to buy my 21st century “World Series Champs” sweatshirt when the Mets win!]

Homeland Carrie and Quinn
Brunette Carrie and Quinn on the Run

“Homeland” is back in a big way.

Season 5 may prove to be its best yet. The showrunners have wisely opted for a change of locale, departing the Middle East for intrigue in Berlin, two years post-Season 4. Having left the CIA, Carrie Mathison is surprisingly settled down with her German attorney boyfriend and her daughter Franny and working as head of security for Otto Düring, industrialist, philanthropist and, I suspect, something a bit more sinister. Because it’s Carrie, events go off the rails rather early on. An assassination attempt is made, seemingly on Düring, when he visits a refugee camp in Beirut on a humanitarian mission; in short order the true target is revealed to have been Carrie, who earlier had warned her boss against making the trip. She’s frighteningly on her own; Saul Berenson, her mentor, has disowned her for leaving the CIA.

But there’s so much more going on with “Homeland” this season: hackers inadvertently breaching the CIA database and downloading key documents; one altruistic hacker looking to play Edward Snowden by giving the documents gratis to a journalist, the other wanting to get rich by offering to sell the information to the Russians; Allison Carr, the CIA’s Bureau Chief in Berlin, on the hot seat for the data breach; Saul Berenson, now head of CIA operations in Europe, directing a one-man assassination bureau on behalf of the agency with Peter Quinn as the dedicated hit man; Dar Adal, now in Saul’s old slot at the CIA, pulling strings all the way from Washington to persuade a Syrian general to overthrow President Assad; and—surprise, surprise—Carrie going off her meds once more, this time to try to figure out who’s gunning for her.

It’s quite a stew.

All of this makes for a very tasty dish indeed. It’s wonderful to have Peter Quinn (Rupert Friend) back. Oh, Quinn—how do I love thee? Having been blackmailed pressed back into service by Dar Adal only to endure two years in Syria, he’s a hollow shell of himself during the first few episodes of this season, as he robotically goes about his business eliminating enemies designated by the CIA. It’s not until he draws Carrie’s name as his next target that he returns to being the Peter Quinn we knew. Severely damaged? Yes, but still devastating—in a good way.

“Homeland” has a major genius for casting, and this season is no different. Miranda Otto, a stellar Elizabeth Bishop in “Reaching for the Moon,” expertly plays Allison Carr as one part ambitious CIA lifer, one part seductress (Oh, Saul, you dog!) and one part very shady lady. Each supporting actor is better than the next: Igal Naor as General Youssef, Allan Corduner as the Israeli ambassador, Atheer Adel as Numan, the idealistic hacker, Sarah Sokolovic as the reporter, Laura Sutton (it’s a measure of how effective her performance is that you want to throttle her) and Nina Hoss as Astrid, the sarcastic German security agent, whom I hope returns.

The storytelling is as taut as it can get. The wheels never stop turning. How “Homeland” was it to reveal two major plot twists in the last 30 seconds of the most recent episode? If you didn’t fall over when Allison Carr answered Quinn’s call on the dead assassin’s cell phone (and in Russian yet), the explosion of the plane carrying the CIA’s candidate to replace Assad should have made you do so.

I can’t wait to see where we go from here.

Whose Opinion?

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Groucho on “Il Trovatore”: “Boogie, Boogie, Boogie”

Ever feel out of step, critic-wise? How frequently have you seen an acclaimed movie or play that makes you regret the time lost as you suffered through it? And what about that film the critics universally slammed which has you talking about for days?

Yeah, me too. The most recent works at issue? “Il Trovatore,” the first Metropolitan Opera “Live in HD” telecast of the season, and the movie “Freeheld,” starring Julianne Moore and Ellen Page. The New York Times loved the first and hated the second; I, on the other hand, was disappointed at a certain level by the former but found a great deal to admire in the latter despite its flaws.

“Il Trovatore” starred Anna Netrebko, Yonghoon Lee, Dolora Zajick and, in his triumphal return in the midst of treatment for a brain tumor, Dmitri Hvorostovsky. Vocal riches galore to be sure, and especially amazing since Mr. Hvorostovsky never sounded better as Count di Luna, or in any other role for that matter. But here’s the thing: I’ll sometimes take fewer vocal fireworks if a singer can really act the role. I don’t wish to sound ungrateful, but there’s more to “Il Trovatore” than its voices, despite Enrico Caruso’s oft-quoted view that all you need for a successful performance is the four greatest singers in the world. Actually that should be five anyway, because without a dynamic bass as Ferrando, the opera stalls getting off the blocks (Štefan Kocán, who also plays the amusingly sinister Sparafucile in the company’s production of “Rigoletto,” filled the bill quite nicely).

The Marx Brothers’ shenanigans in “A Night at the Opera” notwithstanding (and for years after seeing it I couldn’t hear any phrase from “Il Trovatore” without bursting into uncontrollable laughter), there’s a lot of great drama to be mined here. Yes, the plot is famously absurd and there’s more action taking place off-stage than on, but performers committed to acting the roles as well singing them will make all the difference. The last time I saw “Il Trovatore” at the Met, Patricia Racette was an incredibly nuanced, vulnerable Leonora. Although the role was not a great fit for her in vocal terms, I couldn’t have asked for a better dramatic performance. In the HD telecast only Yonghoon Lee’s “Ah, sì ben mio” rose to that level of sensitivity. This was a rare event indeed—usually you can see the wheels turning in the tenor’s head while he sings this aria because he’s already gearing up for “Di quella pira.” But Mr. Lee delivered both his best singing and acting of the afternoon in that moment.

I love Anna Netrebko. Her dark sound is amazing and though this isn’t apparent in an HD telecast which tends to homogenize singers’ volume, her voice is enormous. She’s a terrific actor—a tremendous Lady MacBeth and a helplessly vulnerable Antonia in “Les Contes d’Hoffman,” among other roles— but in “Il Trovatore” she gave a diva performance. Vocally she was thrilling. Dramatically she was so “take charge” you wondered why she needed Manrico—she could have disposed of di Luna with one hand tied behind her back. Much has been made of her desperately climbing the jail gate during the “Miserere.” To me this seemed a stunt on par with her ripping open des Grieux’s cassock during the seduction scene in “Manon” several seasons ago (the audience tittered at this maneuver during the performance I saw). While I would have liked more dramatic awareness from her Leonora, her singing was extraordinary—it made me long to hear her as Tosca. She’d burn the house down.

There are still some issues with the Met HD telecasts in general. The (lack of) sound quality really grated on me this time, no doubt because the level of vocal quality in this performance was so high. And there’s still too much emphasis on close-ups, to the extent I felt very claustrophobic while watching. The set for this opera is no disaster, so why rely so heavily on the “nostril shot” camera that rides the lip of the stage?

“Il Trovatore” in HD? It left me wanting something a bit more. Maybe it’s too much to ask for perfection?

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Julianne Moore and Ellen Page: “Freeheld”

As a New Jersey resident I clearly remember following the real events behind the film “Freeheld.” To summarize: Laurel Hester, a 23-year veteran police officer in the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office, was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. As legally required in 2005, she formally requested the county’s governing body, the Board of Freeholders, to grant her registered domestic partner, Stacee Andree, survivor benefits via a transfer of her pension, as her heterosexual married colleagues were entitled to without question. The Board, which by law had the discretion to grant her application, said no. And subsequently said it several times. It wasn’t until a boatload of bad publicity, centered on the freeholders’ sheer mean-spiritedness, especially in view of the quality and length of Ms. Hester’s service, was brought to bear that they finally reversed their position and granted her request. She died soon after, but her pension financially enabled her partner to remain in the house they had bought together and shared for several years, thus fulfilling the ultimate purpose of her fight.

Manohla Dargis, chief movie critic of the New York Times, called “Freeheld” a “television movie of the week gone uninterestingly wrong” and went on to slam it six ways to Sunday. Surprise, surprise—I liked it. While it certainly has its faults, they’re more than compensated for.

“Freeheld,” based on the Oscar-winning documentary of the same title, features excellent performances all around, though dramatically speaking it’s really Ellen Page’s movie. As the much younger partner of the dying Laurel Hester (a very moving Julianne Moore), she’s likely to get an Oscar nomination out of this—she’s beautifully subtle in how she conveys Stacee’s emotions. Fortunately the supporting actors are on a par with the two leading ladies. Michael Shannon is simply terrific as Dane Wells, Laurel’s police partner; one of the best scenes in the film is his unexpected drop-in on the closeted Laurel, finally learning after many years of working together that she’s a lesbian. He does a tremendous job depicting Wells’ anger and disappointment—not that she’s gay, but because she didn’t trust him enough to tell him about her life. As he did on “Boardwalk Empire,” he gets maximum mileage out of that unusual face of his. Steve Carell as Steven Goldstein, head of Garden State Equality, who becomes Laurel’s chief advocate, is a welcome presence–he’s like the dash of paprika that makes a dish interesting. And Josh Charles is excellent as the freeholder who questions the resounding “no” of his fellows on the board.

Are there problems with this film? Of course. In chronological order, I found the first few minutes covering Laurel’s involvement in a drug bust and subsequent cracking of a murder case somewhat confusing—I couldn’t tell the perps from the snitch, which had some bearing on a later scene when the filmmakers want to convey Laurel’s expertise at her job. More importantly, I wish scriptwriter Ron Nyswaner, who also authored the film “Philadelphia,” had given more context to how the state, in contrast to the intransigence of Ocean County, was beginning to recognize inequality in the treatment of its gay citizens. In 2005, as shown in the film, New Jersey had legally recognized domestic partnerships, but more than that, had seen the introduction of legislation that would afford more benefits via civil unions; the bill would be enacted a few months after Laurel Hester’s death. Same-sex marriage finally became law in New Jersey via court decision in 2013, following several years of failed legislation and a veto (you expected something different?) by Governor Christie..

Ultimately I was surprised that the film placed so much emphasis on the seeming secrecy that several freeholders were collecting two and perhaps three government pensions each while denying Laurel Hester’s request. Every newspaper in New Jersey has constantly been on the issue of double-dipping for as long as I can remember; a liberal paper like the Asbury Park Press, Ocean County’s home paper, would have featured this hypocrisy front and center. And if they didn’t, the film should have said so.

Unlike Ms. Dargis, I would have preferred more “didactic” context rather than less, particularly since people to tend to forget the early stages of social change. But “Freeheld” is definitely worth anyone’s time on the strength of its acting and the light it shines on what constitutes true equality. In this case “good intentions” do indeed carry the day.