Posted in Baseball, Movie Reviews, Television

Brain Fragments, Post-Thanksgiving Edition

One of my all-time favorite lines? Law & Order: SVU‘s Olivia Benson snarling at a perv: “Is this how you like it, you little freak?”

Bobby (Not) Fooling the Umps

I can’t believe the Red Sox named Bobby Valentine as their manager. Are they looking to displace 25 egos with a single massive one? Would you hire a guy who gets thrown out of a baseball game, only to return to the dugout “disguised” in mustache and shades? On the other hand, this move seems destined to fall on one extreme end of the spectrum or the other–it’ll turn out to be either the genius choice of the decade or a complete disaster. Good luck, Boston–you’re going to need it.

I have absolute no idea why, but not long ago I thought of Rick Moranis in  Ghostbusters the second I opened my eyes one morning. It’s hard to pick my favorite scene–is it his description of the giant Slor, or the moment when the Gatekeeper and the Key Master meet? Or when Sigourney Weaver greets Bill Murray at her door, post-possession, and he deadpans “That’s a good look for you”? Or better still, when she moans “I want you inside me” and he replies “Sounds like there’s too many people in there already”? Having given this my careful consideration, it has to be:

It drives me up a wall to read critics who don’t just slant their coverage of a particular TV show, movie, opera or whatever–they outright distort the work they’re reporting on. We’re all entitled to our respective opinions, but sometimes I just have to shake my head. Can you imagine an article on Angela Darmody, literally late of Boardwalk Empire, that ignores not only what she represents to Richard Harrow, but astonishingly, that incredible scene when he posed for her? Not including Angela’s budding relationship with Richard in a discussion of this season’s version of Boardwalk Empire is like describing the Empire State Building without mentioning that it’s located in New York City. And I read it with my own eyes online. True, anything goes online, but that’s downright ridiculous.

Posted in Television

Boardwalk Empire: Angela R.I.P.

In what may be this year’s biggest TV shocker, Boardwalk Empire’s Angela Darmody was slaughtered as she begged for her life from her husband’s nemesis. Manny Horvitz, Philadelphia butcher by day and criminal mastermind by night, came gunning for Jimmy Darmody only to murder Louise, Angela’s new lover, by mistake. And as Angela pleaded, “I have a child,” Manny wavered, replying “Your husband did this to you,” and pulled the trigger, leaving her corpse draped over Louise’s body.

Angela Darmody

Great drama? Yes, in the sense that no one saw it coming. But what a horror show, and I don’t mean the blood. Boardwalk Empire has now lost an important emotional center and a civilian foil to the rampant criminal chess game played by the other characters.

There’s a huge sense of unfulfilled potential in Angela’s death. While I realize Boardwalk Empire is not a documentary, I’ll miss Angela’s role as the emerging New Woman of the 1920’s as she was last season. As an artist she brought a point of view to the show that was otherwise lacking, and with her clarity of mind she had the ability to ask the tough questions whose answers could define the other characters. Her artistic aspirations and her bisexuality marked her as an outsider, but a necessary one, and it came as no surprise that she shared a bond with that quintessential outsider, Richard Harrow.

While I enjoy Boardwalk Empire tremendously, I have to register a gripe–the female characters are so isolated. They have no friends, and if they do, they run off to Paris with manipulative husbands (hello there, Mary Dittrick!) or they’re the mother-in-law from hell (yes, Gillian, you’ll now get to raise that grandson you coveted, speaking of horror shows). The men are always interacting, whether forming or breaking alliances or throwing someone off the balcony at Babette’s or cutting off a bad guy’s finger or two. It’s a shame Angela and Margaret never had a chance to enjoy afternoon tea and compare notes–it would have made for a great scene.

This season’s Boardwalk Empire looks not to the outside world, but instead is becoming darker and more insular with every episode, more often than not literally so. It came as a shock during last night’s installment that we actually saw a man on the beach enjoying the sunlight, with Jimmy and Angela romancing each other at home as the breeze ruffled the curtains in a lovely scene. Angela’s murder robs the show of an opportunity for relief, and there have been precious few of those this season. The Powers That Be behind Boardwalk Empire have really piled on the grue and brutality this year–scalping, cleaver through the head, third degree burns, you name it. If the acting weren’t as stellar as it is, the show would be on the verge of becoming a cartoon of violence.

Aleksa Palladino did a wonderful job portraying Angela, and I think the show will be poorer for her absence as well as the character’s. At least we got that marvelous scene when Richard posed for her and removed his mask (which will no doubt make BE’s Top Ten Moments no matter how long the show runs), and the “Why did you marry me?” confrontation with Jimmy, not to mention her affair with Mary and her intense connection with Jimmy from the first season. I’m really sorry to see her go.

Posted in Opera

Whose Opinion, Indeed?

As I suffered through two-thirds of Philip Glass’s Satyagraha at the Metropolitan Opera last week I started honing a mental axe to use on music critics who go WOW over works that make me go HUH? This subject seems to have some currency, because Olivia Giovetti, in her excellent Operavore blog on the WQXR website, asks whether public opinion, as opposed to that expressed by music critics, should carry greater weight.

I could be really cynical about this and say my paying for a subscription series to the Met alone entitles me to a say, but I think it requires more than that. I’ve been a regular concert- and opera-goer since childhood, and I played several instruments during my school years. I can read a full orchestral score, and my musical interests have broadened in time, rather than narrowed. To put it briefly, Alban Berg’s Lulu holds no terrors for me, and in fact, I loved it from start to finish when I saw it at the Met a couple of seasons ago.

The New York critics have a tendency to promote works with great snob appeal. Let’s take Satyagraha, which depicts Gandhi’s years in South Africa, as an example. It’s sung in Sanskrit without subtitles; the audience is forced to rely on a Playbill synopsis and a curious insert printed to resemble a turn of the century newspaper. This last has “articles” with headers bearing the names of the opera’s acts and scenes; although I thought this was supplemental material, it wasn’t until the next day that I found out this was the actual libretto. On top of this, there’s Philip Glass’s music—pure ostinato. It was like watching a non-silent silent movie. While the physical production, with puppets and projections, was interesting, I wasn’t going to stay just for the scenery.

Critical raves over two other Met productions that come to mind also had me scratching my head. Janacek’s From the House of the Dead won nothing but superlatives, but as a Janacek fan, I really didn’t think it was all that. Yes, the performances were wonderful, but I didn’t find it to be in the same league as The Cunning Little Vixen or The Makropulos Case. I’m glad I saw it, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to see it again.

I could say the same for Britten’s Death in Venice  (“You’ve read the book and seen the movie! Now hear the opera!”). I enjoyed the Met broadcast when this premiered in New York, but when I saw the revival several years later, it was a hard afternoon’s work. In fairness the performance began with one major strike against it—Philip Langridge, one of the finest singing actors I’ve ever seen, had to cancel the run of the opera and was replaced by Anthony Rolfe Johnson as von Aschenbach. In the opera von Aschenbach hardly ever leaves the stage; he’s spelled only by a baritone who sings seven small roles. Tadzio and his mother are played by dancers, and there are no female singers until the chorus appears well into the opera (Oddly enough you never miss the sound of a female voice in Britten’s Billy Budd, and it’s not just because it takes place on a man o’ war. The drama is so riveting that you’re locked into what’s before you–you never think of what may be absent.) Whoever sings von Aschenbach has to have charisma plus to hold the audience’s attention throughout the piece. Mr. Rolfe Johnson, while a good singer, didn’t fit the bill, which exposed the fact that in comparison to Peter Grimes and Billy Budd, this work really isn’t among Britten’s best, though to read the critics, you would have thought this was a towering opus.

On the other hand, I loved Tobias Picker’s An American Tragedy (critical pan), found a great deal to like in Tan Dun’s The First Emperor, especially the Chinese theatrical techniques and instruments (another critical pan) and enjoyed Bartlett Sher’s 19th century stage-managed production of Le Comte Ory (you guessed it). And on yet another hand, with all their erudition, no critic that I read got that the miniature castle and knight appearing on stage during Act Three of the Met’s Tristan und Isolde look just like the itsy-bitsy Stonehenge from This Is Spinal Tap. PS—I giggled like a fool. So there.

The end result? Audience opinion should matter more than critical opinion. After all, there’s more of us than of them.

Posted in Television

Boardwalk Empire: Two Boats and a Lifeguard

Last night’s “Boardwalk Empire” demonstrated yet again why this is the best show on TV. We saw deeper shades in several characters: Jimmy got nastier, Nucky became a dad, Rothstein got deadlier and Angela went back to girls. However, I have several bones to pick with the Powers That Be.

There’s no more pretending for Angela—she overheard Jimmy on the telephone confirming that he had OK’d the hit on Nucky. Because of this they at long last had the discussion I’ve been waiting for, beginning with “Why did you marry me?/Why did you marry me?” He really doesn’t know, she acknowledges that she did it because they had a child together and it was what society expected of her. He shuts her out of his life because he doesn’t want to expose her to the bootlegging and murders he’s involved in; she’s obviously suspected what he’s up to and doesn’t protest. There’s a quiet acknowledgment by both that they don’t love each other, and what follows demonstrates that they’ll go their separate ways even if they stay married.

Jimmy’s victory party celebrating Nucky’s defeat shows him in the company of several young ladies of the evening. Angela heads for the beach, where she promptly picks up a free-thinking young writer who’s in the process of being busted by the Atlantic City Modesty Police for a too-short bathing suit (Yes, this is historically correct). The two wind up at some Bohemian bash at a beach-side cottage where New Found Friend allays Angela’s hesitancy with “We’re invisible here” and kisses are exchanged. I call Rats on Bad Writing. Everything we’ve seen about Angela shows she acts out of passion—what we saw last night spells nothing more than Cheap Revenge Sex. She and Richard Harrow belong together, and that brief exchange between Richard and Jimmy about getting Richard everything he wants was one big Ominous Moment. I think he wants Angela, and it’s obvious that she feels a connection with him. But if she doesn’t want him, I would have expected the writers to bring back her last season’s love, Mary, rather than have her pick up some airhead. Note to Angela—if Jimmy finds out about your new lady friend, don’t expect him to be as sympathetic as he was about Mary. He’s turned a really bad corner.

On a different topic, has anyone noticed that Michael Stuhlbarg as Arnold Rothstein may be giving the best performance on the show, and with the caliber of “Boardwalk Empire”‘s actors, that’s saying a lot? He epitomizes deadly quiet–the sit-down he pulled together several episodes ago between Joe Masseria, Charlie Luciano and Meyer Lansky was one of the best scenes in the series. The tension was unbelievable as Rothstein’s voice got softer and softer as he imposed his will on his two underlings. His method of doing business is featured in this great video:

Apropos of absolutely nothing, I think it’s great that Julianne Nicholson has joined the cast as Assistant US Attorney Esther Randolph. I really liked her on “Law & Order: CI”—she gives great law enforcement. And if Margaret’s daughter, Emily doesn’t die of polio next week, I’ll turn in my tea leaves. Mags slept with the chauffeur, so cosmic retribution and guilt must ensue, at least in the land of sloppy writing. C’mon Powers That Be—you can do better.

Posted in Observations

Doing the Right Thing

This post may well be obsolete in a matter of hours given the speed with which the Jerry Sandusky/Penn State scandal is unfolding, but it’s worth taking a moment to think about what is at stake here. Let’s consider the roster of those whose actions or inactions have gotten us to this point: the president of a major state university, the head of that university’s athletic department, its fabled football coach, a graduate student assistant coach and the university’s senior vice president of business affairs. All of these men, in addition to various police detectives who investigated Jerry Sandusky’s conduct as far back as 1996, the district attorney who refused to prosecute (and who mysteriously disappeared one year later) and the officers of Sandusky’s non-profit Second Mile who were made aware of his behavior. Some were labeled as perjurers and violators of the state’s Child Protective Services Law by the grand jury that recently reported on the case; the rest can’t be described as anything other than enablers who gave a pedophile carte blanche to prey on young boys for a period of at least 15 years.

I shed no tears for Joe Paterno. He’s 85 years old, he’s made a good living as a college football coach and his record in molding winning football teams is beyond question. But he stayed too long at the fair, and even if you accept his explanation that his graduate assistant coach, Mike McQueary, described Sandusky’s behavior in the shower as simply “horsing around”  with a 10-year-old boy, you have to wonder where Joe’s brains were. Since when is it proper for an adult male to shower with a boy, let alone “horse around”? As an educator, he had a responsibility to know and comprehend that this was deviant conduct, but even by his own account, he just didn’t get it.

As for Mike McQueary, I have mixed emotions. At the time he witnessed Sandusky raping a 10-year-old boy, McQueary was a 28-year-old graduate assistant. Twenty-eight year olds in this country are still adolescent in many respects; the fact that he was cocooned at Penn State only made him more so. I can understand his fleeing the scene in shock, but what I don’t understand is why upon reflection he did not notify the police and more than that, why the two men he turned to for advice, namely his father and Joe Paterno, did not urge him to do so. The moral failure that these three share is enormous. And as for McQueary’s remaining an assistant coach at Penn State, he should at a minimum be suspended until the State Attorney General concludes her investigation. McQueary himself has become an issue, and as such, he can not and should not function as a representative of the university.

This will only get uglier in the days ahead, since I have no doubt whatsoever that more boys and men will come forward as Sandusky’s victims. Perhaps at some point those who think Paterno was made a fall guy will understand that doing the right thing, whether you have a legal obligation or not, is worth more than your job or college football.