Posted in Baseball, Brain Bits, Observations, Television

Brain Bits for the End of July

It’s nearly 4:00 p.m. on Sunday as I write this, with aching back and Bar Keeper’s Friend Cleanser streaked over my nose. Why, you may ask? Well, three days ago I had new windows installed in my condo, and I’ve just spent several hours trying to determine what is just goop on the panes as opposed to what are cracks which would necessitate replacement sashes. Get this: out of eight new windows installed, three are damaged. And that’s just what I can see from the inside; the installer is returning next week to check the outside. Can’t anything ever be done right the first time?

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© The New Yorker
© The New Yorker

It’s been a great couple of weeks for lying and self-delusion, hasn’t it? First up was Ryan Braun, the Milwaukee Brewers star outfielder, who beat the steroid rap last year only to meekly cut a deal with Major League Baseball over the Biogenesis mess. Then there’s Eliot Spitzer, forced out as Governor of New York when his connoisseuership of call girls came to light, now running for Comptroller of New York City. And best of all, ex-Congressman Anthony Weiner, Mr. Show-Off himself, running for Mayor of New York, but once again caught displaying his assets on social media long after his resignation from office.

Let’s dissect these one by one, OK?

Braun irks me the most because I defended the guy last year when his 50-game suspension for failing a drug test was overturned on appeal. People were screaming that he got off on a technicality, but I stuck up for him. As an attorney I believe in due process, and it bothered me that so many thought Major League Baseball should get a pass for not following its own rules regarding the collection and transmission of test samples. Of course there’s a concept called “harmless error,” but Arbitrator Shyam Das rightly didn’t buy it (My guess is Braun’s sample wasn’t the first that MLB ever mishandled, and Das may have just been fed up with Big Boss arrogance).

But Braun’s behavior in the ensuing months caused more than a few eyebrows, including mine, to be raised. Verbally tarring and feathering Dino Laurenzi, the urine sample collector, for one. Playing the martyr for another. And then the inclusion of his name in Biogenesis’ records comes to light. With no way out, Braun cut himself what seems to be a sweet deal with MLB: a 65-game suspension which ends his 2013 season so that he can report to Spring Training all refreshed and ready to play ball. But of course the stain is now permanent, his credibility with his teammates, friends and fans is shot, and no matter how well he plays for the remainder of his career, he’ll never make Cooperstown. Some say he should be stripped of his 2011 Most Valuable Player Award. They may be right.

I wasn’t planning on wasting my time on Eliot Spitzer—after all, I live in New Jersey and he’s New York City’s headache—but one of his TV ads nearly caused me to blow a gasket. Get this for arrogance: after relating several examples of how he stuck up for the Little Guy, he says “Everybody should get a fair shake. I would hope that New York City voters would do the same for me.” Hello? You got your fair shake when you were elected Governor. The fact that you blew $80,000 on call girls and were forced to resign is on you, not the voters. But you know what? I bet he wins in a walk—dumbed-down electorates exist everywhere these days.

And last but not least, we have Anthony Weiner, former Congressman, who literally can not keep it in his pants. His candidacy for New York City Mayor is now a sarcastic joke. It’s hard to believe that after this week’s revelations there are still people who are saying his sex life is a private matter. You’ve got to be kidding. What privacy? This is a guy who didn’t engage in one affair that became public—he let it all hang out on social media with several women (the number of recipients he “may have” texted is increasing daily). Yet he entered the race, knowing damn well that any one of the women he solicited long after he resigned could come forward during the campaign, or worse, after his election to office. And let’s not forget the nature of his behavior, which is basically a high-tech version of the old perv in a raincoat flashing women on the street. What a great face for the City of New York. Today the news broke that his campaign manager has resigned. Let’s hope that Weiner follows his example and exits the race this week.

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The Fosters
The Fosters

Summer’s a great time to enjoy new TV shows and catch up on what you’ve missed during the previous months. So far I’ve seen two winners and one outright disappointment. Let’s dispose of the latter first: “Top of the Lake,” the Sundance Channel mini-series starring Elisabeth Moss as a police detective. Yes, she’s wonderful, the actors are great and the New Zealand scenery is breathtaking, BUT: (a) it should have been six episodes, not seven; (b) Ms. Moss’s character becomes unaccountably stupid as the series progresses (c) there’s a screamingly large plot-hole in the mystery and (d) you’d have to be unconscious not to get who the bad guy is, which I absolutely hate. It’s hard to believe this was Jane Campion’s creation. Spend your time elsewhere.

The two winners are “Orange is the New Black,” the Netflix series which is almost as good as the raves it’s getting (Taylor Schilling, as New Prisoner Piper Chapman, is superb), and surprisingly, “The Fosters,” which has its season-ender tomorrow night on the ABC Family Channel.  This one’s gotten some press because it involves a lesbian couple whose family includes adopted and foster children. Its appeal, aside from some excellent acting by adults and kids alike, lies in being so refreshingly free of cliché and After-School Special preaching. Yes, it’s got heart, but there’s a brain to go with it. Here’s hoping “The Fosters” get to stick around for another season.

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Posted in Books, Movie Reviews, Television

Enjoy Yourself (It’s Later Than You Think)

Given the stresses of our times, are we surprised that “end of the world” scenarios exercise such a strong pull on the imagination? No matter the method—mass death by unleashed viruses, unstoppable zombies or murderous invaders from space—the story always forces us to think “What would I do?” Because my movie-going started with Saturday matinees during the 1950’s—an era dominated by The Bomb—I cultivated an early appreciation of the threatened mass wipe-out. I’m not talking about morality tales like “On the Beach” or “The World, the Flesh and the Devil,” as absorbing as they may be. I’m talking “It’s our last chance to save the Earth!” My not-so-guilty pleasure.

deep-impact-1998-05-g
“Deep Impact”: Heroes All

Premium cable is currently showing a better than average example of the genre, 1998’s “Deep Impact,” featuring a massive comet on a collision course with Earth. Now, I should warn you: this is a slightly cheesy movie. High quality cheese to be sure, what with Morgan Freeman, Vanessa Redgrave, Robert Duvall and Maximilian Schell gracing the cast. Unfortunately, though, there’s also an incredibly wooden Téa Leoni as the MSNBC reporter who uncovers the true threat the comet poses to the world. Her facial expressions change not one whit during the entire course of the film, though her drunken scene with her father and his new young bride after learning that humanity is pretty much doomed is a nice bit of black humor. Fortunately the supporting cast makes up the difference.

Reviewing all the plots in “Deep Impact” is basically a waste of time, since you’ve seen nearly all of them in other sci-fi movies anyway. Let’s just say the highlights are Morgan Freeman as one terrific U.S. President, Charles Martin Smith in a quintessential Charles Martin Smith role as the astronomer who confirms the existence of the deadly comet, Vanessa Redgrave just for being Vanessa Redgrave, and best of all, the crew of the spaceship Messiah launched to plant nukes within the comet to blow it off course. There’s a great subplot involving Robert Duvall as the veteran astronaut, at least 25 years older than his crewmates, who’s treated as virtual surplusage by the team. That is, until disaster strikes and his savvy makes all the difference to their mission. Prepare to blubber as you watch the crew’s good-byes to their loved ones, and hear the brief, gallant exchange between Co-Pilot Mary McCormack and Commander Duvall: “May I say it was a pleasure serving with you, Captain?” “The pleasure was all mine, Andy, the pleasure was all mine.” Sob.

There’s another collision course in Ben H. Winters’ “The Last Policeman,” the first volume of a projected trilogy. Though nominally a mystery, the book’s backdrop is the impending strike of a massive asteroid which may wipe out the planet. Our hero, a cop in southern New Hampshire, is coping with the disappearances of people headed off to fulfill their Bucket List fantasies and the suicides of those who see no point in waiting for the end.  Winters is an excellent writer, and while the central mystery of the novel is somewhat of a no-brainer, the characterizations and dialogue are spot-on. Best of all, that looming asteroid and the human reaction to its doomsday effect keep you turning the pages. The second volume of the trilogy, “Countdown City,” has just been published, and the disaster clock is still ticking.

UnderTheDomeI’m also enjoying “Under the Dome,” the CBS mini-series based on the Stephen King novel. While the author doesn’t threaten total doomsday, the citizens of Chester’s Mill, Maine, cut off from the world, are now coping with shortages that may see their end. The town is populated by folk totally familiar to anyone who’s read more than one King novel—the psycho kid, the slut, the upstanding cop, the crooked politician, the studly guy with a mysterious past (Throw in a goodly dose of vintage rock ‘n’ roll and you’re all set).

But this one’s got some interesting wrinkles. The upstanding police chief is dead, and the law in town is a young Hispanic female officer who unfortunately has just deputized the village psycho. The hippest kid under the dome is teen-aged Norrie, who was caught in town along with her two moms when disaster struck. She and young Joe McAllister are prone to some type of contagious seizure caused by the dome. When afflicted, these two chant something about pink stars falling. In a recent experiment they deliberately induced this state while a smart phone recorded their seizures. And the playback showed one of the creepiest things I’ve seen in a very long time—Joe sitting up, while still in an altered state, to look squarely into the camera and gesture “shhhh.” Hoo-boy. Good times ahead.

NOTE: The title of this post comes from that Guy Lombardo evergreen, which is still played by bands everywhere on New Year’s Eve. Take heed.

Posted in Broadway Musicals, Observations

Parade

leo-frank-portrait-clear222If you view the images that result from an internet search of the name “Leo Frank,” the majority of hits will fall into two categories. One group will consist of various old photographs, seemingly from the turn of the last century, of a sad-faced, bespectacled young man wearing a high celluloid collar and in some pictures, an ornate stick-pin. The other group of photos, similarly dated, will show the aftermath of a lynching, the blindfolded victim hanging from a tree, his neck unnaturally elongated. Various country folk pose with and/or point at the body in triumph. The date is August 17, 1915; the victim is Leo Frank, 31 years of age at the time of his murder.

The bare facts are these: Leo Frank, a product of Brooklyn and Cornell University, was the superintendent of the National Pencil Company in Atlanta, Georgia. The body of Mary Phagan, a 13 year-old factory worker, was found in the basement of the premises on April 27, 1913, a day after she came to collect her pay. Her head had been battered, she had been strangled and possibly raped. Her purse and wages were missing. Frank was indicted and stood trial for first degree murder. His conviction on the testimony of Jim Conley, a factory janitor who had changed his story to the police on at least three separate occasions, was deemed unusual for that time and place given that Conley was African-American and Frank was white, albeit a Jew. Appeals ensued and were denied, but ironically it was Governor John Slaton’s commutation of Frank’s sentence to life imprisonment, while well-intentioned, that became a death warrant. The Knights of Mary Phagan, comprised of various judges, a former governor, at least one minister, and other pillars of the community, took the law into their own hands, broke into the jail, kidnapped Frank, drove him to Marietta, Mary’s home town, and lynched him.

In later years both Conley’s own attorney and a former office boy at the National Pencil Company revealed that Jim Conley’s trial testimony was shot through with outright lies; the attorney maintained on his deathbed that Frank was innocent and his former client the real murderer of Mary Phagan. Ultimately the State of Georgia issued a posthumous pardon to Leo Frank, but refused to exonerate him.

Given the grim subject matter, it may come as a surprise that Leo Frank’s story is the basis of a musical. The result, “Parade,” which premiered in 1998 with music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, book by Alfred Uhry and direction by Hal Prince, has one of the finest Broadway scores ever written. The material is rich indeed: Northern exploitation of Southerners via the pittance paid to child labor, virulent anti-Semitism and resentment of “outside influence,” the occurrence of Mary Phagan’s murder on Confederate Memorial Day, the indefatigable efforts of Lucille Frank to free her husband. While “Parade” ran only two months on Broadway, it’s had quite an afterlife as presented by colleges and amateur groups, with recent professional revivals in Los Angeles and London in a revised version prepared by the show’s creators.

paradeFortunately “Parade” also survives because of its original cast album, recorded the day after the show closed. Jason Robert Brown’s score is a marvelous work, rife with dance rhythms of the era, but laced with two devices that serve to emphasize the dramatic conflicts in the story: the threatening ostinato that accompanies the anthem “The Old Red Hills of Home,” and the Charles Ives-like cacophony of colliding musical styles, most prominently in the aftermath of Leo Frank’s conviction when a tolling bell, “The Old Red Hills of Home” and a sarcastic cakewalk bring the curtain down on Act One. Brown also uses leitmotifs: Mary’s “oh, yeah”-like “Go on, go on” to Frankie Epps, becomes the mob’s “tell me more” cue to spread more scurrilous rumors about Frank. And chillingly, the melody of “The Old Red Hills of Home” becomes the setting of Leo’s final prayer before the chair is kicked out from under his feet and the rope goes taut.

The characterizations of Leo and Lucille Frank are unforgettable. We come to know Leo so well as the somewhat persnickety head of the pencil factory that when several of Mary’s young co-workers testify against him in “Come Up to My Office,” their depiction of the man as a malevolent lecher strikes us as cruel caricature (And Brown does a wonderful job here, dropping Leo’s lewd insinuations down into the bass clef, in contrast to the tenor range he maintains throughout the rest of the show). When Brent Carver as Leo finally sings his response during the trial (“It’s Hard to Speak My Heart”), he utterly breaks ours at the line “I stand before you now/incredibly afraid…”.

And Carolee Carmello. As Lucille she’s introduced in a lovely waltz in one in “What Am I Waiting For?,” a quintessential Broadway heroine’s “wanting song.” In an unusual move, Jason Robert Brown scored the accompaniment himself, giving her a string quartet and piano setting. It’s an arresting moment, given the brass bands of Confederate Memorial Day that precede the number. But it’s Ms. Carmello’s searing performance of “You Don’t Know This Man,” Lucille’s rebuke to the press and its sensationalism, that will stay in your memory. Composer and performer seemingly outdo each other to produce an incredible result.

As a theatrical work, “Parade” in its original form is overwhelming. It’s a BIG show—it requires a large cast and chorus, all of whom have to be able to really sing. No fakery will do. I took a pass on “Parade” during its Broadway run for the simple reason that I just didn’t believe a musical could be fashioned out of Leo Frank’s story. But when I finally saw the production four years ago, courtesy of the Theater on Film and Tape Archive at the New York Public Library at Lincoln Center, it was an incredible experience. I can’t recommend the original cast album more highly.

Note: A number of books, both fiction and non-fiction, not to mention movies, documentaries and TV mini-series, have examined the Leo Frank story. The most comprehensive account by far and the most recent is Steve Oney’s “And the Dead Shall Rise”; I’d also recommend Leonard Dinnerstein’s classic “The Leo Frank Case”.