Brain Bits for a Frigid February

While we’re awaiting yet another storm on [insert day of the week here], some brain bits are definitely in order. Even in the face of arctic temperatures, I can still muster good cheer. So I’ll refrain from trashing the season finale of “Last Tango in Halifax” (much remedial work is needed for sure) and the Met’s new production of “Iolanta” (“meh” is the word, though the second half of the double bill, Bartok’s “Bluebeard’s Castle,” is absolutely riveting).

So let’s get on with the good stuff, shall we?

Joyce Brentano

© The New York Times

I recently had the pleasure of a spectacular evening of musicianship at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall, courtesy of Joyce DiDonato and the Brentano String Quartet. The quartet had the first half of the program, which included Charpentier’s “Concert pour quatre parties de violes,” a dance suite, and the iconic Debussy String Quartet. This was the first time I’d heard the latter in live performance, and what an experience. It’s like seeing the whole of 20th century music stretching out before you like an audio super-highway.

The Brentanos can sing, which is a talent I admire without end. My days as a school-age musician taught me the most difficult thing to learn as a string player is phrasing. If you sing or play a wind instrument, it comes naturally. However, it’s a more difficult proposition when you’re learning violin or cello, since they’re not breath- actvated. But to listen to the Brentanos you’d never know there was a difference.

Ms. DiDonato and the Quartet opened the second half with the Aaron Copland-esque “MotherSongs,” an arrangement of works from The Lullaby Project. But the highlight of the evening was Jake Heggie’s “Camille Claudel: Into the Fire,” the New York premiere of a song cycle originally composed with Ms. DiDonato in mind. I was curious how they’d set up on stage since I knew Joyce would have to be able to have eye contact with the first violinist, at a minimum. As you can see from the photograph, the solution was an easy one. Instead of a solo singer accompanied by string quartet, we saw a single entity—a quintet, in which every member interacted with each other.

Quite honestly I enjoyed the expertise of the collaboration almost as much as the music. Joyce DiDonato is not only a great singer—she’s a superlative musician as well, and honored both text and score in the performance of Heggie’s sketches of the life and works of sculptor Camille Claudel. Particularly ear-catching were “Shakuntala,” with its Middle Eastern exoticism, “La petite chatelaine,” an ode to Camille’s aborted child, and the Epilogue, in which she’s visited at the asylum by her friend Jessie Lipscomb, so many years after her confinement. Her reminiscing about their student days and the momentary glimpse of the life she might have had draw the cycle to an exceptionally poignant close.

What artistry. After that, I didn’t mind my frozen walk to the subway (almost). _______________________________________________________________________________________________________

At long last...the showdown we were waiting for

At long last…the showdown we were waiting for

An actor any less talented than Gillian Anderson wouldn’t be able to hold our attention the way she does in the second season of “The Fall.” During the glacial pace of the first episode all I could think was “Lord, this is slow.” But then Stella Gibson (Ms. Anderson) took center stage and all snapped into place.

Stella maintains her laser-like focus in pursuit of Paul Spector (Jamie Dornan), but cracks in the facade begin to appear. Her dreams turn threatening, haunted by his shadowy presence. Her guilt is overwhelming when Rose Stagg is kidnapped, and her tears as she views this woman on video Paul posts on the internet are shocking–you just don’t expect that from her. Yet old habits remain; her libido survives intact. While she admits that her pass at Dr. Reed Smith (Archie Panjabi) was “inappropriate,” she picks out and beds yet another young studly cop (Colin Morgan). One thing you can say for Stella–she’s definitely got good taste.

I was intrigued by a number of things during this season of “The Fall,” not the least of which was the detail of the police work shown. Granted, it didn’t always pan out, as witness the cop falling through the ceiling of Paul’s bedroom (I have to admit I had a good laugh over that, since I did the same thing at my house last year while checking on the heating unit in the attic). But the sheer doggedness of the detective work pays off, and along the way there are chilling moments: Paul’s grief counseling session with Annie Brawley, whose brother he had murdered before assaulting her, and that eerie sense of dislocation when one of Stella’s detectives demonstrates how Paul parroted his boss’s remarks while the latter fired him.

At the last episode we were once again left with both cliffhangers and a burning desire that the BBC commission another series of “The Fall.” Paul may or may not survive, the erstwhile babysitter, Katie Benedetto, is a virtual Charles Manson girl in her worship of Paul, and Stella’s depths are just waiting to be explored (We already know she has daddy issues. Who knows what else lurks in that psyche?).

Let’s hope for much more of TV’s best thriller. _______________________________________________________________________________________________________ lifeafterlife

Do you ever wonder about the turning points of your life? What things would have been like had you made a different decision, taken a different train, stayed home on a given night instead of going out, or vice versa?

Kate Atkinson’s engrossing “Life After Life” is a masterful exploration of this premise as we follow Ursula Todd, born in 1910 (or is she?) through the multiple versions of her life. While there are certain constants in every scenario—her odious older brother, her adored sister and younger brother—the outcomes vary tremendously.

We’re far from smooth sailing here. Ursula’s life seems to snag at particularly sticky points, generating more and more do-overs until things turn right: There’s her difficult birth. That rogue wave at the seashore. Her encounter with that awful friend of her brother. The wall that crumbles (or doesn’t) during the Blitz.

What’s particularly fun is that Atkinson primes you to look for those turning points. For example, you wonder if that man who, at the height of the Blitz, watches Ursula work her crosswords and hands her his card as a recruiter of puzzle-solving whizzes isn’t Alan Turing. You relish the fact that as a teen-ager Ursula comes to realize that her occasional feelings of dread are premonitions that what has happened in a previous version of her life may happen yet again. Atkinson’s story leaves you wanting more, especially to know what happens after certain of Ursula’s “deaths”.

Needless to say I loved “Life After Life.” I haven’t read such a sweet pay-off of an ending in a very long time. Fortunately the story isn’t over, since there’s a companion volume in the works. Publication day can’t come soon enough.

Down the Tubes?

LastTango_Kate

Kate…You Should Have Been Allowed to Stay

CAUTION–THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR SEASON 3 OF “LAST TANGO IN HALIFAX.”

It definitely made for a great episode. But is it good for the long haul?

“Last Tango in Halifax” recently saw both a glorious beginning and an intolerable conclusion. Caroline and Kate were married in a heartfelt ceremony, only to have it all end the next day when Kate was killed by a hit and run driver. Prior to her death her baby was delivered via C-section, leaving Caroline a single mother.

To be honest I was livid when I first heard of this pending turn of events. I had loved “Last Tango in Halifax” from the start, primarily for its avoidance of cliché. But elements of soap started creeping in during Season 2 with Gillian’s confession to Caroline that she had murdered her abusive husband, and things got even sudsier this season when Alan learned he had fathered a son during an extramarital fling many years ago. But Kate’s death? This one hit the TriFecta of soap: killing off the (1) black (2) lesbian, (3) but keeping her around in spirit, thus indulging in Dead Denny Syndrome (™”Grey’s Anatomy”).

Let’s take these one at a time, shall we?

It’s an unfortunate fact that the majority of persons of color (indeed, practically all minorities) on television shows in the U.S. and the U.K. play supporting characters, not leads–sidekicks, if you will, whether love interests or not. And we all learned as far back as the cheesy movies we watched as kids that if there’s a need to show off a leading character’s depth of emotion, the sidekick gets killed off. Given what a trope this is, you wonder how Tonto ever made it to the end of “The Lone Ranger Show.”

Killing Off the Lesbian has been another trope for decades in fiction, film and television, contrary to the protestations of Sally Wainwright, “Last Tango”‘s creator and writer, though I suspect she’s about to get a swift education from the LGBT community. Kate and Caroline, played superbly by Nina Sosanya and Sarah Lancashire, respectively, were a terrific couple—interesting, funny and a joy to watch. The best thing about Kate was that she called Caroline on her bullshit. Their differences provided great chemistry—Caroline used to taking charge and making quick decisions, Kate sweet but with a will of iron. It took them two full seasons and three break-ups to finally get together, and Sally Wainwright ends it the day after the wedding?

Why is it the intriguing relationships get thrown in the trash with such disheartening regularity? Stephen Bochco, creator of “Hill Street Blues” and “L.A. Law” was infamous for this. In the former he drove a stake in the heart of the Henry Goldblum/Faye Furillo pairing. Here was the type of couple that had not been seen on network television before: a blended relationship in which both were divorced and each had at least one child. Both had been around the block and now they’re trying to make it work. It may sound like nothing special now, but keep in mind this aired only a few short years after CBS demanded that Mary Tyler Moore’s iconic Mary Richards (“Oh, Mr. Grant!) be changed from a divorcee to a single woman. So Henry and Faye, as real as they became, had to go. And as for “L.A. Law”, I need only invoke the name “Rosalind Shays” to prove my point. She was the formerly villainous attorney who had an affair with senior partner Leland MacKenzie. Finally we were treated to something groundbreaking for its time—the affair of two characters in late middle age. Does Bochco pursue this? No way. For the sake of “drama” he kills her off by having her step into an open elevator shaft. A huge mistake more accurately characterized as “jumping the shark.”

Kate may be dead but she’s not really gone—Caroline, in WWKD (What Would Kate Do?) mode, summons her spirit on a consulting basis. What to name the baby? Should I hire a nanny? I can’t do this alone. So Kate is there to give her advice and occasionally a verbal boot in the behind. On the one hand, I’d never turn down the opportunity to see Nina Sosanya on-screen. Plus we’re getting the return of opinionated Kate from Season 1. But let’s face it, what we’re really seeing is “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir MacKenzie-Dawson.” Throw in a brain tumor and you’ve got Dead Denny Syndrome.

But on the other hand…(and it kills me to write this) Sally Wainwright produced a superb episode showing the aftermath of Kate’s death.

From the beginning, with the sleight of hand presence of Kate, discussing baby names with Caroline, who we gradually and shockingly realize is dressing for Kate’s funeral, to meeting Kate’s mother (Michelle Hurst) and little Flora Grace, to seeing Caroline so bereft, it’s heartbreaking but the tone is so right. The small talk, the reminiscences, the mild jokes—Sally got it all, as well as the best scene on the show since Caroline and Kate had their talk in the garden in Season 1. Greg, Kate’s friend from Oxford and Flora’s biological father, approaches Caroline with an offer to help with the baby’s care. He acknowledges that he and Caroline got off on the wrong foot (to put it mildly), and makes it clear that had events been different, he would have stayed out of the picture. But the man is so sincere and so concerned for both Caroline and the baby’s welfare that Caroline, displaying a type of kindness we hadn’t seen before, runs interference for him with Kate’s mother, who everyone knows considers Greg an idiot. Caroline still isn’t sold on having Greg care for the baby, but I suspect pep talks from Spirit Kate will wear her down. Besides, that nanny who waltzed in at the end of the episode sounds ditzy as hell.

We’re used to superb acting from the “Last Tango in Halifax” cast, but what transpired during this episode was above and beyond. Sarah Lancashire was just tremendous, as was Nicola Walker during the uncomfortable scene when Gillian told Caroline she was marrying Robbie. Anne Reid as Celia perfectly timed that “Do you fancy her?” when Caroline hesitated over endorsing Gillian’s upcoming wedding. I hope we see more of Marcus Garvey as Greg and especially Michelle Hurst as Ginika, Kate’s mom. That ever-expanding family tree in the show’s opening credits needs replenishment.

Sally Wainwright’s stated purpose in killing off Kate was to provide a catalyst to bring Celia and Caroline back together after the fall-out over the latter’s wedding. However, I think in the end the absence of Kate, and what she brought to her relationship with Caroline as spouse/lover/friend/sparring partner will result in a poorer show.

While the aftermath was beautifully done, it shouldn’t have had to be done at all.

In Cold Blood

in cold bloodNo book ever frightened me as much as Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood.” Merely reading the New York Times review caused me a sleepless night. I was 15 when I first read it, and the story of a family murdered in their Kansas home was an inexorable horror show. But the quality of Capote’s writing was undeniable. Many readings since have only caused my admiration to grow for his stark prose and the detail of his observations.

At the time of publication, Capote, who seemingly couldn’t live without stirring up controversy, boasted that “In Cold Blood” represented his invention of a new format: the “nonfiction novel.” He detailed how he had adapted the techniques of fiction to the reporting of true events, though in truth this format was not new. The New Yorker had prided itself on this style of reportage for years, and in fact John Hersey’s “Hiroshima” and Lillian Ross’s “Picture,” both of which had originally appeared in that publication, were frequently cited by reviewers who maintained that others had gotten there long before Capote.

It turns out that “novel” may have trumped “nonfiction” in the case of “In Cold Blood” more than first suspected. To a certain extent this is not exactly news. Various sources have revealed over the years that Capote molded the story to an unusual degree to suit his ends, going so far as to invent certain incidents such as the book’s final scene, an accidental meeting at the Clutter grave site of Nancy Clutter’s best friend and Alvin Dewey, the Kansas Bureau of Investigation detective whom Capote credits with solving the case. More recently Charles J. Shields’ biography of Harper Lee, “Mockingbird,” provided tantalizing details of what Lee learned about Holcomb, Kansas as well as the Clutters while assisting Capote in his research, specifically the extent to which Mrs. Clutter’s illness cast a shadow over her daughter’s life. As per Lee’s notes, Capote feared that such information would mar the image of the all-American family he intended to portray and refused to include it in his book.

This month the heirs of Harold Nye, a Kansas Bureau of Investigation agent who worked the Clutter case, won the right to publish his notebooks and other material relating to the murders and their investigation. For a number of years KBI agents and their survivors have disputed Capote’s depiction of how law enforcement identified and captured the murderers, so it should be fascinating to see how Nye’s contemporaneous notes gibe with “In Cold Blood.” Capote famously declined to take notes during his interviews with the various sources for his book, relying instead on memory to reconstruct what had been related to him. Logic tells you this technique is not the best to ensure accuracy, no matter how prodigious the powers of recall, so a newly revealed account should be an interesting contrast to “In Cold Blood.”

Should we fault Capote for the manner of his presentation? He never said his work was journalism, which as we know isn’t always 100% on the money as every newspaper’s “Corrections” section can attest (too bad certain cable stations fail to air their apologies in similar fashion). Aren’t works of nonfiction, not to mention documentary film, inevitably the result of choices made by the author or director to include or exclude certain material, to interpret and to present a point of view? Capote may have erred on various facts or misrepresented whether certain events took place, such as that grave site meeting, but I’d be surprised to learn that he distorted either participant’s emotions or views. And as for attributing the breakthroughs in the case to one man, Capote evidently felt the book needed a hero: Alvin Dewey, a solid family man who knew the Clutters. By doing so Capote enables us to see events unfold through the eyes of an individual whom we come to know, so that the climactic passage of the book, Perry Smith’s confession to Dewey, carries the horror that it should.

Capote’s initial impulse in writing about these events was to show the impact of a murder upon a small town. In this he succeeds brilliantly, as we hear the stunned remarks of Holcomb residents and view the image of fearful townsfolk sitting up all night with every light burning in their homes. What people say and do in the aftermath of murder can be astonishing, as witness the wedding of one of the older Clutter daughters two days after the funeral of her parents and younger siblings. In a way it makes sense—her entire extended family was in Holcomb and the church had already been booked for the next month—but reading Capote’s account, it seems incredibly strange. On the other hand, I saw similar reactions many years later. When I was still living the corporate life, my boss of ten years was murdered; to date the case remains unsolved. How I saw people behave in the aftermath was no less odd, not to mention at times insulting and occasionally just plain weird. Let me just say that Capote’s observations in this regard ring very true.

“In Cold Blood” is more than a milestone in the true crime genre. It’s included in the Modern Library’s list of the 100 Best Nonfiction Books written in English during the 20th century, residing alongside some fast company indeed. It remains a classic.

Detecting

The-Fall

Query: Why is it U.K. television does police procedurals so much better than we do in the U.S.?

I just saw Season 1 of “The Fall” and “Broadchurch,” respectively, and I’m still marveling at how well these shows told their stories. I can only think of two series set on our side of the Atlantic that match their grit and intensity: the classic 1990’s “Homicide: Life on the Street” and more recently “The Wire,” though the latter is really a portrait of Baltimore with each season of the show focusing on a different facet of the city (in order: the police, the waterfront, the black community, the schools and finally the politicians).

“The Fall,” set in Belfast and starring Gillian Anderson as Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson, is the old story of the hunter and the hunted, but with a twist—you’re not always clear as to which is which. Gibson’s on the trail of a serial killer who stalks women, breaks into their homes and later returns to murder them, ultimately washing, grooming and posing their bodies for discovery. I won’t lie—this show is incredibly intense and the assault and murder scenes are very difficult to watch. Nevertheless the story is absorbing because the murderer is such a far cry from whom you’d expect: Paul Spector (the incredibly handsome Jamie Dornan), a grief counselor who’s married with two children. His wife is a neo-natal nurse, and because they work opposite shifts she hasn’t a clue as to how her husband spends his time while she’s at the hospital.

DS Gibson is one ambitious cop. She never hesitates and she never quits. Originally she’s imported from the Metropolitan Police Force to help solve the murder of the former daughter-in-law of a powerful politician. Through just a modicum of finagling Gibson gets herself appointed SIO (senior investigating officer) on another case involving the murder of a young female attorney. To the distress of her superior officer, she sees the connection to the earlier murder and drops the serial killer card on the table for all to see.

Gibson is something of an enigma. Warm she’s not, yet she handles peers and subordinates well—the scene in which she talks a fellow detective down from hysteria after he witnesses a suicide is extraordinary, as is the manner in which she assuages the guilt of an officer who along with her partner might have prevented the attorney’s murder. For the most part, though, she’s extremely guarded; the only character with whom she appears to be at ease is the medical examiner, Dr. Reed Smith (Archie Panjabi). Although we see her pick up a cop in record time (her technique resembles how you and I would choose a steak from the meat case of our local supermarket), it doesn’t appear that she enjoys the sex beyond the merely physical. A very cool customer indeed.

It’s evident that Gibson is leading her quarry on. But she and Paul Spector seem to be distorted mirror images of each other, since he’s obviously doing the same with her. I’m looking forward to the second season of this show, which has already aired in the U.K., for a resolution of this very high-wire tension. The suspense, as they say, is killing me.

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Broadchurch

“Broadchurch,” though focused on a murder investigation, centrally poses the following question: “How well do you really know your neighbors?” For the residents of a seaside town in Dorset, the answer is not a welcome one.

DS Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman) returns to work after a three-week vacation only to learn that the job she wanted has been filled by the imported DI Alec Hardy (David Tennant), a cop with a huge blot on his record due to a botched murder investigation. To say Ellie’s not happy is an understatement, but she and her new boss are immediately confronted with the murder of an 11 year-old boy who happens to be her son’s best friend. And Broadchurch, being the small town that it is, is a hotbed of everyone being in each other’s business. Stoking the flames of distrust even higher are the ladies and gentlemen of the press, one of whom is Ellie’s nephew. No one is above suspicion, whether obvious or not: the local vicar, a telephone repairman who receives psychic messages from the dead, the murdered boy’s father, Ellie’s son. DS Miller is forced to learn more about her neighbors than she ever wanted, and in the middle of it all, we see a bereaved family attempt to come to terms with their grief.

The pace of Season 1 of “Broadchurch” keeps the story at just the right simmer over its eight-episode length. I was totally absorbed by the relationships of the town’s residents and especially by the interaction of Hardy and Miller. What would a detective be unless he had a Past (capital “P”), and Hardy certainly does, as we come to learn. He’s rude, he’s brusque, but he’s so much fun to watch. He’s got a laser-like focus when he questions witnesses and suspects, something we only see develop in Miller (as Hardy insists on calling her) over time. This in turn makes you realize that their superior was right all along in filling the lead slot with a detective who was up to the job from the start.

If there’s a fault in “Broadchurch” it’s only in an exceptionally heavy anvil dropped in the seventh episode, though even this serves the purpose of coalescing your thoughts as to whodunit. The ultimate resolution is crushing, if not entirely unexpected, but there’s resilience: “Broadchurch” will be back for a second season, though BBC America won’t be airing it until March (in the meantime I’ll be checking YouTube religiously for uploads). The show’s American version, “Gracepoint,” also starring David Tennant, didn’t fare as well, having been cancelled after ten episodes. I saw the first (long before I watched “Broadchurch”) and didn’t care for it. The California coastal town seemed unreal and the pace threatened to be excruciating. Having stuck with the interminable “The Killing” for its first season, I wasn’t eager to go through that experience again.

Why anyone felt the need to transplant “Broadchurch” is beyond me. If ever there’s a poster child for “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” it’s this show. I hope it continues for quite some time.

Movies That Stick With You

"We rob banks"

“We rob banks”

If you’re on Facebook, you’re no doubt familiar with (and probably incredibly annoyed by) those quizzes that always seem to be in circulation. However, there’s one that recently crossed my path again after four years, and I’ve been intrigued by how my views have changed or in some instances remained the same. I’m referring to the quiz that begins with the instruction: “List the first fifteen films you’ve seen that will always stick with you. Fifteen you can recall in no more than fifteen minutes.”

So free-associating I went. It wasn’t until I completed my list and went to the “Notes” section of my Facebook page that I realized I had taken the quiz before. Here are the results:

2014                                                                              2010
Bonnie and Clyde                                                      Bonnie and Clyde
Up in the Air                                                               Smiles of a Summer Night
Some Like It Hot                                                        L.A. Confidential
Days of Wine and Roses                                           The Talented Mr. Ripley
Vertigo                                                                        Music Box
The Godfather                                                           The Seventh Seal
The Last Picture Show                                              The Magnificent Ambersons
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?                              Sherlock, Jr.
Yankee Doodle Dandy                                              Meet Me in St. Louis
L.A. Confidential                                                       The Letter
Now, Voyager                                                            Laura
A Letter to Three Wives                                            A Letter to Three Wives
Elmer Gantry                                                             They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
Smiles of a Summer Night                                       Public Enemy
Persona                                                                      Howard’s End

A couple of observations: While some of the films have changed, two of the key players did not: Bette Davis (“The Letter” vs. “Now, Voyager”) and James Cagney (“Public Enemy” vs. “Yankee Doodle Dandy”), which didn’t surprise me at all—they’re among my favorite actors. Several of the movies fell off the list during the intervening years due to sheer fatigue on my part—much as I love “Laura” and “The Magnificent Ambersons,” I’ve recently had to give these two a rest as I did with “The Talented Mr. Ripley” (one can only take so much Jude Law at his most gorgeous). I can’t say I included any stinkers, though I was surprised to find I had picked “Meet Me in St. Louis” in 2010. And the only movie I regret omitting from either list is “The Best Years of Our Lives,” one of the most satisfying films I’ve ever seen.

That “Bonnie and Clyde” tops both lists is proof that what you experience in adolescence stays with you forever. I saw this during its first release when I was a junior in high school; no other movie I’ve seen since looks quite like it. Today’s first-time viewers might yawn, but I can’t emphasize enough how shocking the violence and the blood were in 1967, yet how refreshingly hip it all seemed before the shooting started. The ending is both famous and infamous, but the earlier scene in the field, as Buck lies dying of a head wound and the gang is surrounded by law enforcement, is an incredible ballet of death. While all the actors are excellent, Gene Hackman as Buck is the true standout.

“Up in the Air” is my favorite recent film. It definitely rates its own blog post, so stay tuned. Three of the repeaters, namely “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?,” “L.A. Confidential” and “Smiles of a Summer Night,” remain among my most watchable films. The first of these has amazing grit and spectacular performances from Jane Fonda and Gig Young. “L.A. Confidential” is one of the most perfectly cast movies I’ve ever seen. I’m aware that a number of viewers complain that the plot is too complicated, but when I saw it during its first run, I could really feel the story unfold, like a flower opening. If you want to see what a terrific job screenwriter Brian Helgeland did, try the James Ellroy novel on which the film is based—it’s a great read but you’ll spend a lot of time backtracking just to keep things straight. In an entirely different mode, “Smiles of a Summer Night” is unquestionably Ingmar Bergman’s loveliest film. It may be hard to believe coming from the director that gave us “Winter Light” and “Through a Glass Darkly,” but each time I watch it I feel much better about the world in general.

I hadn’t seen “Days of Wine and Roses” in quite a while until Turner Classic Movies ran it one recent Sunday morning, which was odd scheduling indeed. While the film’s set pieces are well-known—Joe’s tearing up his father-in-law’s greenhouse in search of that hidden bottle, Kirsten’s enticing Joe into drinking with her in that cheap motel room—the freshness of the couple’s early relationship makes their descent into alcoholism that much more painful. Interestingly, in the original version of this story, which aired on television’s “Playhouse 90,” Joe and Kirsten are both heavy drinkers when we first see them; there’s no suggestion that he coerced her to drink as there is in the film. Piper Laurie is as wonderful a Kirsten in the televised version as Lee Remick is in the movie version, though Cliff Robertson can’t hold a candle to Jack Lemmon’s later performance as Joe Clay (If you’d like to compare teleplay to film, the former is included in “The Golden Age of Television” anthology)

Addie Ross' parting shot to three wives

Addie Ross’ parting shot to three wives

I was tickled to see that even with a four-year lapse in time, I had “A Letter to Three Wives” in the same position on both lists. This is one of my all-time favorite movies and more universal, perhaps, than Joseph Mankiewicz’s next film, “All About Eve.” You couldn’t ask for a better cast: Ann Sothern, Linda Darnell and Paul Douglas are the stand-outs among the husbands and wives, Celeste Holm supplies Addie Ross’ arch narration, and Connie Gilchrist as Ms. Darnell’s mother and especially Thelma Ritter as Sadie the maid (“Soup’s on!”) are wonders to behold. It’s not just an incredibly funny movie—there’s a tragic thread in the relationship of Lora Mae and Porter Hollingsway, two people who are afraid to say “I love you” to each other. I should warn you, however, that there’s one minor fault in the film: the ending is a bit rushed, to the extent that you may not be sure that Porter is telling the truth (nearly everyone I’ve known who’s seen it says the same thing). Reverse and replay it—you’ll see that he is.

And what 15 films always stick with you?

Brain Bits for a Cool November

Less than two months left in 2014, but the entertainment couldn’t be better.

Late to the party again, but I’ve been meaning to say a word or two about the season-ending episode of “Masters of Sex” which aired several weeks ago. That double twist was totally delicious. First, learning that Ethan Haas, Bill’s former rival, was the man behind Dr. Kaufman, Bill’s current competitor in the race to publish, only to be capped by the appearance of former Provost Barton as the man who caused the squelch at Bill’s request. Each plot turn was an unexpected pleasure.

These developments, plus Ginny’s losing custody of her kids (it’ll never last—her ex is a flake), should get “Masters of Sex” started on a dramatic Season Three when it returns. I can’t wait.

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World Series - San Francisco Giants v Kansas City Royals - Game SevenWhat a delightful end to October.

As a result of concentrated lobbying by her many fans, Joyce Di Donato, Kansas City’s own, was invited to sing the National Anthem prior to start of Game 7 of the World Series. She did it a cappella, tossing in a couple of blue notes and at least one simplified Handel progression. Her rendition was very much reflective of her personality—no muss, no fuss, but straightforward and straight from the heart. Brava. Too bad the Royals, this year’s Cinderella team, didn’t complete the dream by winning.

This is definitely Joyce’s New York year. She’s one of the artists featured in Carnegie Hall’s Perspectives Series, and thus far we’ve had her “Alcina” in concert version (I took a pass—after last season’s “Theodora,” I wasn’t ready for another four-hour baroque extravaganza sans stage action) and a lovely recital that was streamed live and which will remain on the Medici website until the beginning of February. The unifying subject is Venice; I found the second half of the program, featuring songs by Michael Hand and Reynaldo Hahn, to be more engaging than the first.

Joyce returns for two more Carnegie Hall performances in the Perspectives Series and of course (finally!), “La Donna del Lago” at the Met. Good times ahead.

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klinghoffer_2151670b

Yes, I saw it.

I attended the second performance of “The Death of Klinghoffer” at the Met, and to say it was quite an experience doesn’t exactly do it justice.

Security was even tighter than in the weeks post-9/11. Police cars lined the curb in front of Lincoln Center; parade barricades restricted foot traffic onto the plaza. Although the number of protesters across the street seemed minimal, several stood at the barricades speaking to the police while holding their signs that labelled Peter Gelb a Nazi, among other pleasantries. Uniformed police and Lincoln Center security seemed to be everywhere. In the opera house patrons were required to check all briefcases, totes and back packs; pocketbooks were thoroughly searched and detector wands were in use. A number of men in suits wearing security badges patrolled the lobbies as well as the auditorium during the performance.

Despite all this, the atmosphere was more subdued than tense. Once the performance started and the first of John Adams’ extraordinary choruses began, the focus became the music. The opera played somewhat differently than I had anticipated. That Bach’s Passions served as a model for Adams was quite evident; I was also reminded of Berlioz’s “secular oratorio,” “The Damnation of Faust,” in which the artists spend more time singing at each other rather than to each other. “Klinghoffer” is very contemplative; most of what you hear takes place in the characters’ heads. Only when Leon Klinghoffer confronts one of the terrorists who responds in diatribe, and at the very end, when the Captain tells Marilyn Klinghoffer that her husband has been murdered, do characters truly interact. Actually the chorus is the true leading character in “The Death of Klinghoffer.” By turns portraying Palestinians, Israelis and passengers on the Achille Lauro, it has the most extraordinary music in the opera, and the Metropolitan Opera Chorus was perfection.

It speaks volumes about the state of the world that a mob of willfully ignorant morons, the majority of whom know nothing of the art form and in fact needed a map to find the opera house in front of which they protested, could halt an HD telecast intended for people who have loved opera for decades. I’m one of them, and my biggest regret over this entire controversy is that the national and indeed, the international, opera audience was deprived of the ability to experience this production of “The Death of Klinghoffer.” I can only hope that the Met management has learned that caving to bullies is not how an arts organization should be run.

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yannick

I recently attended an incredible performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 by the Phildaelphia Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. Yannick Nézut-Seguin was a man with a plan, shaping the work as few conductors do. I don’t always agree with his vision of a work, but I always respect his choices—the man is frequently amazing.

In this case I was glad we were promised a resurrection, because the first movement was fierce, unrelenting, and in fact quite scary to hear on Halloween night. There was total commitment from the orchestra throughout the performance; the brass, especially the trombone section, was extraordinary. Nézut-Seguin has the pulse of this work—I especially enjoyed his reading of the “Knaben Wunderhorn” movements. The soloists were Angela Meade, whose soprano really did fill the auditorium, and Sarah Connolly, who performed a lovely “Urlicht.” The bravos and curtain calls were well-earned indeed.

Next up: Shostakovich’s “Lady Macbeth of Mtstensk” at the Met. Looking forward to seeing that bad girl do her stuff.

Boardwalk Empire: The Finale

BE Eldorado

So in the end he had nowhere to go. Boxed in on the boardwalk by Joe Harper, aka Tommy Darmody, and two I.R.S. agents, Nucky Thompson is murdered by the grandson of the girl he betrayed so long ago.

“Boardwalk Empire” ended its five-year run on Sunday. While the denouement was just, it left a few questions behind.

On the one hand, having Nucky dispatched by Tommy Darmody was an exciting twist, though long-time viewers of the show undoubtedly got it when Tommy referred to “Mee-maw” in his final confrontation with the family enemy. However, in the clear light of day, there appeared to be a serious case of SORAS (Soap Opera Rapid Aging Syndrome) going on. If my math is correct, Tommy couldn’t have been more than 14 at the time this episode is taking place. We’re still in 1931—the last season of “Boardwalk Empire” was set entirely in 1924, and Mickey Doyle recently mentioned that he had run the former Onyx Club “for the last seven years.” As for Tommy’s birthdate, this seems to have been firmly established back in Season 2 when his father ran off to war in 1917, leaving the pregnant Angela behind.

When the big reveal came, I first thought “Here’s Tommy being his father’s son.” Well, yes and no. Jimmy was something of a scholar at Princeton; I tend to think his life’s path would have been very different had he not gone to war, which of course was precipitated by Gillian’s seducing him. Tommy was removed from his grandmother’s influence at an early age; his appearance as Nucky’s killer begs the question of how he came to know the entirety of the Darmody Family history. Since Richard Harrow held no grudge against Nucky, he wouldn’t have identified Nucky as Jimmy’s killer, and Julia, Tommy’s adoptive mother, wouldn’t have known about this in any event. But Terrence Winter, the brains behind “Boardwalk Empire,” no doubt thought the excitement of the final twist would be sufficient to wallpaper over any inconsistencies. For most viewers, I’d say he was right.

Nevertheless, there was much to enjoy in this final episode. The autumnal strains of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 threading through the soundtrack. The performance of actor Marc Pickering as young Nucky, having to cope not only with a mouthful of prosthetic teeth and accurately mirroring Steve Buscemi’s every gesture and facial expression, but also speaking with the older actor’s accent (Pickering is English). Nucky’s seeing the future in the form of television (a neat joke), only he’s not in it. Watching Margaret in action as a stockbroker making a different type of killing than her husband, though I sincerely doubt Joseph Kennedy would have needed coaching on how to get ahead by selling short (He would soon become the first chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission). Her lovely, regret-filled scene with Nucky, and his equally poignant farewell to Eli. The one bit I didn’t like was Charlie Luciano’s convening that first meeting of the heads of the crime families, taken wholesale from “The Godfather.” There’s homage and there’s rip-off. This scene was strictly the latter.

From the start of this final episode, Nucky knew his end was approaching. He had methodically shed himself of possessions and money, and said farewell to both his loved ones and the person over whom he felt the most guilt, Gillian Darmody. That Nucky had procured Gillian for the Commodore was old news—we learned this in Season 1. But we never knew the extent of his betrayal, that he’d manipulate and sacrifice this 13 year-old girl, an orphan whom he had pledged to help. And to a man who though admittedly powerful, so thoroughly despised him. Depressingly, just as his own father did.

A sad ending to an ultimately sad life. RIP “Boardwalk Empire,” and Nucky, Chalky, Narcisse, Mickey, Van Alden, Richard, Gyp, Angela, Jimmy and the dozens of others that met their ends over the years. I’m going to miss this show.