Posted in Baseball, Brain Bits, Television

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.

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Posted in Movie Reviews, Opera

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 newspaper, 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.