Posted in Books

Doctor Sleep

Doctor_SleepStephen King’s “The Shining” is the scariest novel I’ve read to date. I can remember enjoying it one bright Saturday afternoon, feet up on the coffee table—that is, until young Danny Torrence disobeyed Dick Hallorann’s instructions to avoid Room 217 in the Overlook Hotel. After I put my eyeballs back in their sockets, I slowly put the book down, shakily got to my feet, put on my coat and left my apartment for the rest of the day. I needed a brain-wipe, pronto.

After fielding so many reader inquiries over the years as to young Danny’s fate (a question which also popped into his own head periodically), King has responded with “Doctor Sleep.” But if you’ve picked up a copy with the thought that it’s going to be “The Shining, Part Two,” you’ll be incredibly disappointed. It’s not really of that genre, nor I suspect did the author intend it to be. What we have here is a continuation, not a sequel, that spans about 20 years in the life of Danny (now Dan) Torrence, post-Overlook Hotel.

In “Doctor Sleep” the real horror is not supernatural but earthbound. The adult Dan is an alcoholic, and I’m sure King drew on his own experiences as a former substance abuser to produce the kind of hell he depicts for his hero. Nevertheless Dan still shines—his ability to read thoughts near and far has if anything increased over the years. He becomes a health care worker with the welcome talent of mentally soothing terminal hospice patients into eternal sleep. But he still drinks and because of it leads a somewhat rootless existence. After finally hitting rock bottom, he lands in a small New Hampshire town where some very astute individuals steer him to AA. When another person who shines—the infant girl Abra Stone—reaches out for him telepathically, the focus of his life changes drastically.

There’s a sense of other-worldliness in “Doctor Sleep” which makes it quite different from the white-knuckled ride of “The Shining.” Yes, there are some very bad creatures here—a clan called the True Knot, the members of which live on “steam,” the tortured breaths of children with a talent to shine whom they torment and kill (King displays his characteristic sneaky wit by disguising the Knot as redneck retirees who travel the country in an armada of RVs). However, the grue is kept to a minimum—we only see one such crime, most of which takes place off-stage, so to speak (and believe me, the little King tells us is quite enough). Abra, with her extraordinary abilities, is the object of their desire since her steam could provide them with eternal energy. When she and Dan join forces to combat Rose, leader of the True Knot, the tension becomes unbearable.

But what makes “Doctor Sleep” so memorable is Abra’s awe-inspiring power which she begins to display as a toddler. As Dan says at one point, she’s a veritable light-house—he’s only a flashlight by comparison. King’s gift for characterization makes her incredibly winning; she fairly leaps off the page. Her relationship with Dan is the engine that drives the novel, and their unorthodox method of communication evokes a sense of wonderment.

In its depiction of the eternal battle between the forces of good and evil, “Doctor Sleep” is ultimately a fairy tale of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen variety. And it’s definitely worth the read to see Stephen King flex this type of muscle.

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Posted in Opera

Falstaff

The Man Himself
The Man Himself

Have the holidays got you down? Too much hustle and bustle? For the best attitude adjustment ever, try heading over to the Met for Robert Carsen’s production of Verdi’s “Falstaff.” You’ll find yourself walking on air.

The crowning glory of Verdi’s career, “Falstaff” distills his years of creativity to their essence. There’s not one wasted note or one errant phrase. It’s so fitting that Verdi’s final gift to the world should be a comedy whose musical pleasures never stop: the letter scene, with the Merry Wives of Windsor laughing in four-part harmony; the orchestral burst of pent-up anger that ends Ford’s “E sogno,” only to modulate to the silken strings that accompany Falstaff’s reappearance in his courting garb; that moment when we finally hear in full what the lovelorn Fenton has to say to Nanetta, only to be followed by her exquisite aria as Queen of the Fairies. As if there weren’t riches enough, the work ends with “Tutto nel mondo รจ burla,” a ten-part fugue that may be the most rewarding operatic conclusion ever written. Not to mention the fact that the orchestra itself never seems to stop laughing.

One of the best opera performances I ever saw was the 1992 Met revival, fortunately captured on DVD, featuring Paul Plishka as Falstaff with the incomparable quartet of Mirella Freni, Marilyn Horne, Susan Graham and Barbara Bonney. In a later season I suffered through a dead-on-arrival revival with Bryn Terfel as Falstaff, who sucked the air out of the auditorium. Even with a literally larger than life title character, this is above all an ensemble opera. Each of the ten soloists plays an important part, though it’s true some are more prominent than others, i.e., Dame Quickly. And it’s essential to have an Alice Ford who relishes the joke (which is why that Terfel revival, with Marina Mescheriakova as Alice, withered on the vine).

Robert Carsen’s version, a co-production with Covent Garden and several other companies, moves the setting to England in the 1950’s. Unlike some directors who update just for the sake of updating, Carsen honors Verdi’s (and Boito’s) intentions. And it’s been quite a while since I’ve seen costuming that so illuminates character: Quickly’s “Reverenza” ensemble, a black coat with a silk lining that matches her dress; Nanetta’s capris, Ford’s sober double-breasted gray suit, later outdone by his “Signor Fontana” outfit—pure Texas oilman, complete with fringed jacket, Stetson and bolo tie. The costumes are complemented by some marvelous sets, most prominently that fully equipped kitchen chez Ford, replete with checkered tiles, a center island and working stove.

“Falstaff” seems to have brought out Carsen’s best. The sight of Alice sailing through her kitchen atop that all-important laundry basket, rose clenched in her teeth, brought down the house. What a perfect idea to have the ladies compare Falstaff’s love letters over lunch at a swanky restaurant. And to see Fenton as a waiter at that same establishment, which once and for all explains why Ford opposes the match with his daughter. Perhaps best of all, Carsen actually stages the fugue by having the characters toast each other in an extended round robin; unlike the Met’s Zefirelli production, this is not just a stand and sing moment. And while we’re on the subject, I prefer Carsen’s version of the work. The Zeffirelli production, which premiered in 1964, was wonderful in its day, but it was time to see what other artists could bring to the table.

Merry Wives Cooking up More Plot
Merry Wives Cooking up More Plot

The cast is tremendous. Stephanie Blythe, with her impeccable timing, owns Dame Quickly. Last Saturday’s HD telecast was the first time I saw Angela Meade in an operatic role; it was a delightful surprise to see how well she plays comedy. With that skill and that voice, it’s about time the Met gave her a new production instead of casting her at the tail end of revivals. Jennifer Robinson Cano as Meg Page complemented her well, both visually and vocally. The Fenton, Paolo Finale, is quite a find–a lovely tenor di grazia (and incredibly cute to boot). And to cap the performance, Lisette Oropesa, who floated the final ascending phrase of Nanetta’s aria in one breath. Just stunning. When I returned home from the telecast, I popped my Falstaff DVD in to see if Barbara Bonney had managed that feat, but she, exemplary musician that she is, snatched a quick breath before the final four bars (but then again, Bonney had to cope with singing the first part of the aria on the back of an extremely restless horse).

Ambrogio Maestri has now sung the role of Falstaff over 200 times. His size, both horizontally and vertically (he’s 6’5″), and his voice amply (no pun intended) serve to create the character, though I missed that spark of self-awareness and cerebral wit that Paul Plishka and before him, Donald Gramm, brought to the role. Ford has got to be the most ungrateful role in the history of opera, aria or no, but Franco Vassallo turned in a thoughtful performance. However, his appearance did present a problem: Vassallo is probably around 5’10,” and against such a tall Falstaff, he was somewhat lost in the proceedings. A more physically imposing Ford would have been better.

This was the first new production James Levine has conducted since his return to the Met, and the reviews made me a bit apprehensive. However, it seemed things had settled down by the time of the HD telecast, which was certainly vintage Levine. And it goes without saying that the Met orchestra, one of the best in the world, responded marvelously.

If you missed the HD telecast and can’t make it to the Met, don’t despair—“Falstaff” will no doubt show up on PBS’s schedule in the months to come, and I suspect there’s a DVD release that’s forthcoming. It’s a definite keeper.

Posted in Books, Brain Bits, Movie Reviews, Television

Brain Bits for a December Storm

After all the predictions, the first season’s snow has finally started. The weatherman says this afternoon’s effort won’t stick—the bigger show will be tonight when it turns to sleet and then rain. All in time for tomorrow morning’s commute. Winter in the tri-state area; you’ve gotta love it.

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Courtesy of a free weekend of Epix, I finally caught the film “Flight,” starring Denzel Washington who, truth be told, was blown off the screen by a shrewdly underplaying Don Cheadle. While the accident and the events leading up to it made for great suspense and the amusement factor was enormous, given that the co-pilot was played by Brian Geraghty, late (and how) of “Boardwalk Empire,” this movie was a mess.

What really got to me was the threat throughout the film that Whip, the alcoholic pilot, would go to jail for manslaughter when we knew the cause of the crash was mechanical malfunction. Yes, he reported to work drunk, and yes, he snuck several mini-bottles of vodka into his orange juice in flight, but he was not guilty of manslaughter—this crime does not occur unless the behavior in question causes the victim’s death. What Whip was guilty of was operating a common carrier under the influence of both alcohol and a controlled substance, which under federal law would buy him up to 15 years in the pen. Hopefully that’s why we see him in jail at the end of the film, although the filmmakers evidently didn’t think it important enough to tell us why he was there.

Getting it right:
The movie court room gold standard: “Anatomy of a Murder”

In its legal inaccuracies “Flight” scores high on my attorney irritation scale. It’s only a notch below “The Verdict” with Paul Newman, which almost drove me out of the theater screaming when I first saw it. If you’ll recall, the testimony of Lindsey Crouse, as the nurse hounded from her profession, is stricken from the record because the medical records she claims were altered are ruled as “best evidence” of the patient’s physical state. While there is indeed a “best evidence” rule, it has nothing to do with the fact that the veracity of every document sought to be admitted is subject to challenge.

This, along with so many other film boo-boos, is explained in fascinating detail in Paul Bergman and Michael Asimow’s “Reel Justice: The Courtroom Goes to the Movies,” a book which belongs on every film buff’s shelf. Some of their rankings may surprise you, some may not (the classic “Anatomy of a Murder” is awarded a well-deserved four gavels, the authors’ highest grade; the Al Pacino film “…And Justice for All,” tanks with only one).

I confess I have a soft spot for films that get both the drama and the law right. My favorites? In addition to the aforementioned “Anatomy of a Murder,” I think “Breaker Morant” may be my Number 1 court room drama. The performances couldn’t be better, and Jack Thompson, as an estate attorney pressed into service as defense counsel for the three soldiers accused of war crimes, is every lawyer who’s ever found himself in over his head. And an old made-for-TV movie, “The Law,” starring a pre-“Taxi” Judd Hirsch, had a tremendous cast as well as some accurate criminal procedure, not to mention a creepy, Charles Manson-like celebrity murder. Great stuff.

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boardwalkempire111013margaretrothstein-578x200

Two weeks after the season finale of “Boardwalk Empire,” I’m still mulling over where we go from here. It’s unusual to see a series rebound the way this one did after the Gyp Rosetti madness, but it did so in style, leaving us wanting a great deal more for next year.

It’s a shame Warren Knox was dispatched by Eli Thompson in what had to be the most brutal bare handed fight in TV history. He was a wonderful villain—that bland baby face hid a truly sadistic side. I bet he tortured kittens in his spare time. I assume we’ll still have Narcisse around next season if only to be under the thumb of J. Edgar Hoover and perhaps be a revenge target for Chalky.

Speaking of Chalky, our last view of him was as a man totally bereft. His favorite child has been murdered, the rest of his family is gone, the Onyx Club is lost and he’s got a price on his head. Presumably he has Daughter, but is this enough?

What of the other characters? Nucky and Sally in Cuba might be fun, but where does he stand with Narcisse and his other (fr)enemies? I suspect we haven’t seen the last of Gillian, prison or not, and the thought of Eli and Van Alden both working for Al Capone should be a trip (have you ever seen such a look of mutual disgust exchanged as when Van Alden picked up the on-the-lam Eli at the train station?).

But what I find most intriguing is the prospect of Margaret and Rothstein working the stock market. Will she become his mistress? Don’t be too sure that ritzy apartment is truly rent-free, Margaret, no matter how many tips you pass. If they do become a twosome, I’d be curious as to Rothstein’s behavior, especially after his chiding Nucky about so openly chasing after Billie. In any event, it wouldn’t surprise me if “Boardwalk Empire” jumps ahead to events leading up to Rothstein’s murder in 1928 and the over-heating of the stock market prior to the Crash.

Speculation is fun, but it’s a long way until “Boardwalk Empire”‘s return. Let’s hope it’s a good one. And bring back Eddie Cantor, please!