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.

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.

__________________________________________________

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.

_______________________________________________

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!

Posted in Books, Observations

Morality Tales

five daysSeveral years ago, before I went digital with the New York Times, I was transfixed by a Sunday magazine cover story about the fate of a New Orleans hospital, its staff and its patients during the hell wrought by Hurricane Katrina. The lengthy article, “The Deadly Choices at Memorial,” and the accompanying images were so compelling that I dropped whatever plans I had for the next couple of hours to finish it.

The author of that piece, Sheri Fink, won a Pulitzer Prize. She’s now expanded her reporting to book length, and the result, “Five Days at Memorial,” is a story of failure after failure. It ends in the deaths of 34 patients, accusations of euthanasia and a grand jury’s refusal to indict a physician for purportedly overdosing certain patients with morphine and other drugs to hasten their deaths in the face of their perceived inability to survive evacuation from the hospital. That responders were actually arriving en masse as these patients were administered their final medication is the stuff of nightmares.

Fink, a physician herself, has written a harrowing account of conditions at Memorial Medical Center which resulted not from the hurricane itself, which caused relatively minor damage to the hospital, but from a power failure induced by flooding when the levees broke. The lack of real planning, the bureaucratic snafus, the careless mindset of the suits staffing the hospital’s corporate owner, the leadership failures and most of all, the lack of communication, were overwhelming. But as Fink rightly points out, dealing with the physical problems of power outages and rescue techniques pale in comparison with the real issue of how to allocate limited medical resources in the face of such a large-scale disaster. What are the triage criteria? Do you evacuate the sickest and/or DNR (do not resuscitate) patients last, as Memorial did, a decision which evidently flew in the face of common practice? And who should make these decisions? How and when should they be made? It’s heartening to learn at the end of “Five Days at Memorial” that Memorial is the exception, not the rule: Bellevue Hospital, which in the face of Hurricane Sandy endured the same conditions as Memorial, saw all of its patients rescued, including those in even worse shape than the New Orleans patients whose lives were ended. Why? Better organization, better cooperation and most of all, better communication among staff.

“Five Days at Memorial,” despite some repetition and an occasionally bumpy narrative (not surprising, given that some of the author’s sources understandably refused to go on record), is worth your time. Food for thought, indeed.

___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Another type of morality tale was reported today in the New York Times: the business of posting mug shots online and the even scurvier business of removing them for a fee.  Aside from making me crave a shower after reading it, this article reminds me of the game “How many things are wrong with this picture?” Answer? Far too many for comfort.

Yes, mug shots are public records in many jurisdictions. But the sites which post them and may subsequently remove them upon request if the subject can prove exoneration, acquittal, or—get this—that they’ve “turned their life around” make me ill. Who appointed these site runners God? What makes them any different from Aware, Inc. or the other “commie” clearinghouses during the 1950’s who passed judgment on every actor proposed for a TV show, and for a fee yet?

While the mug shot clean-up businesses are easy to deal with (license them and cite them for violation of consumer protection laws if they fail to perform the promised service), it’s the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and its ilk that really got to me. Do they ever acknowledge that the vast majority of people whose mug shots appear online have only been arrested? That in the vast majority of cases the charges are dropped or negotiated down to mere violations? It’s telling indeed that there’s no discussion whatsoever by the spokesmen of these special interests of the impact on the lives of those whose mug shots show up online, the real extent of which is only hinted at in the article.

I once represented a woman facing domestic violence charges stemming from an overly liquid anniversary dinner she shared with her husband. Too much wine turned a trip down memory lane into a needling contest which continued after they left the restaurant and arrived home. Pushing and shoving ensued, at which point she picked up the phone and dialed 911. It happened too long ago for me to remember the details, but she was the one arrested, and while the husband was remorseful when he sobered up, she was strip searched and booked (In my state it’s the arresting police officer who’s the complainant, therefore once filed, DV charges have a life of their own). The cop, who was a 20-something macho Nazi-type, finally deigned to drop the charges at my client’s court appearance. Yet her record will live on and as the article states, so will her mug shot.

Potential employers hunt for reasons not to hire people. The mug shot posting business gives them even more fodder to exclude deserving people who may have had just one drunken night, ridden in a car with a careless friend or looked at a cop the wrong way. In this case freedom of the press can not be absolute. It will be interesting to follow this issue in the days ahead as one more instance of modern technology impacting individual rights in ways the Founding Fathers could never have dreamed.

Posted in Books, Television

Just Teasing

One more morning after
One more morning after

Are you disappointed in a TV series you’re watching? I don’t mean a show you knew was utter tripe from Day One, or something you watch behind closed doors because you’re embarrassed to be found out. I’m talking about a series with real potential that just hasn’t bloomed the way it should have. I’m talking “Rizzoli & Isles.”

I’m a huge fan of author Tess Gerritsen’s novels featuring Boston Homicide Detective Jane Rizzoli and Medical Examiner Maura Isles. I devoured the entire R&I series in sequence one summer when I was unemployed between projects. At that time there were eight books with “Ice Cold,” an excellent suspense novel, as the most recent. So when TNT announced that a series was in the offing, I couldn’t wait to see that caliber of mystery on the tube.

The reality, of course, proved to be somewhat different. TNT isn’t CBS, let alone HBO, so production values weren’t the greatest. More than that, what we saw on the screen bore little resemblance to the literary versions of Jane and Maura. When we first meet Tess Gerritsen’s Detective Rizzoli, she’s really a supporting character, though she ends up saving the life of her partner’s love interest at some cost to her own psychological and physical well-being. If memory serves, Maura Isles doesn’t show up until the third novel in the series, and at first, these two have only a work relationship. Several books later, while their mutual regard is quite high and they’re friends of a sort, they’re not exactly the type to sit down over a beer, unlike their TV counterparts. Their personal lives have diverged during the course of the series—Jane marries and has a daughter, Maura is divorced. As written by Gerritsen, Dr. Isles is by far the more interesting character due to her family history, her work (not surprisingly, since Gerritsen is a physician by trade) and the intriguing people we see in her life: that rat of an ex-husband; her lover, a Catholic priest; the teen-age boy who becomes her ward; and most of all, her mysterious millionaire friend, whose motives are still somewhat ambiguous, even after several books.

While I appreciate that the TV show and the books are two separate worlds, I’m not exactly thrilled with some of the choices made by the show runners. The leads are basically cartoon versions of the literary characters—Jane as blue-collar tomboy, Maura as brainy but socially challenged fashion plate—and their respective families soak up entirely too much air time. But what I find irritating are the usually ridiculous whodunits, generally solvable by three year-olds or beyond implausible; as a result, it’s not surprising that the suspense level frequently suffers from low blood pressure. It seems the producers are finally getting some heat about this, because the last two episodes have perked up a bit, the most recent heavily borrowing from characters originally created by Gerritsen (Hoyt and the psychiatrist).

I prefer it when an author’s intentions are better realized, which is why the British show “Wire in the Blood,” based on Val McDermid’s novels featuring psychologist Tony Hill, is among my all-time favorites.  Robson Green (be still my heart!) was the power behind that show, and he and the creative team did a wonderful job maintaining the tone established by McDermid. Not to mention the fact that Green, who played Hill, and Hermione Norris, as DCI Carol Jordan, had superlative chemistry. While “Wire in the Blood” came down a notch when Norris left the show after three seasons, the quality remained.

Speaking of chemistry, I see Angie Harmon’s knickers are yet again in a twist over fans thinking that Jane and Maura are gay and/or they should get it on already. Frankly, I think she ought to chill out. Between Jane and Maura’s sleepovers, the flirting, the clothes swapping, the constant togetherness and the fact that their dates invariably turn out to be serial killers or plain old duds, how can she be surprised? The tease between leading characters, especially in detective stories, has been around forever, and it was a smart move on the producer’s part to play it up, given the lag on the mystery score. Why complain that a Nick and Nora Charles routine has resulted in a hit show, especially since Sasha Alexander, your co-star, effortlessly makes you look so good in the part? It sure beats serving time as yet another A.D.A. on “Law & Order.”

The end result is that “Rizzoli & Isles” is still viewable, especially as a summer show when your brain is rarely engaged anyway. But if you’d like to see what this series could have been, pick up any one of Tess Gerritsen’s novels (“The Mephisto Club” and “Ice Cold” are my favorites) and have a great read. Enjoy!

Note: I began this post the day before Lee Thompson Young, who played Detective Barry Frost on the show, committed suicide. By all accounts he was a sweet guy, and he’ll be missed. May he rest in peace.

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 Books, Movie Reviews, Music

I Hereby Dub Thee…

marni-nixon-cover-webOne of the best half-hours in radio these days is “Operavore,” which precedes the Saturday afternoon opera broadcasts on New York’s WQXR. And without fail, the most interesting feature of the show is always Marilyn Horne’s interview with a singer or conductor of note. A few weeks ago the Fascination Meter hit an all-time high when she entertained an old friend, soprano Marni Nixon, best known as the “Ghostest With the Mostest.” As the singing voice of leading ladies in a number of classic Hollywood musicals, Ms. Nixon swapped some wonderful anecdotes with her old pal (Marilyn Horne is also a veteran ghost, having enjoyed her first professional success at age 20 by dubbing Dorothy Dandridge in “Carmen Jones”). If you missed it, never fear—you can catch up via Marni Nixon’s memoir, “I Could Have Sung All Night”, which chronicles her career as the voice of Deborah Kerr, Natalie Wood and Audrey Hepburn, not to mention the source of Marilyn Monroe’s high notes in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”

Ms. Nixon reminds us that when talkies arrived, so did dubbing. The Hollywood films of the 30’s and 40’s films frequently featured at least one scene set in a nightclub, with some chanteuse (make that “shan-toosy“) burning away in a torch song. In musicals the star dancers, such as Cyd Charisse, Vera-Ellen and Rita Hayworth, were always dubbed, as were six each, respectively, of the “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.”

But it didn’t stop there. Check out Ray Hagen’s “Movie Dubbers” site for an astonishing list of dubbers and dubbees. That’s not Joan Blondell pouring her heart out in “Remember My Forgotten Man.” On the other hand, it is Lauren Bacall, not the teen-age Andy Williams, singing “How Little We Know” in “To Have and Have Not.” While some of these substitutions were publicized at the time (Larry Parks’s performing to Al Jolson’s soundtracks in two films about the singer’s life, Eileen Farrell’s singing for Eleanor Parker in “Interrupted Melody”), most were hidden behind the walls of the studio system and the confidentiality provisions that kept contract performers quiet.

The roster of dubbers includes such singers as Benny Goodman’s Martha Tilton and Anita Ellis, a fabulous jazz singer in her own right (and Larry Kert’s big sister), whose “Put the Blame on Mame” comes out of Rita Hayworth’s mouth in “Gilda.” Not surprisingly, “White Christmas” has Rosemary Clooney dubbing Vera-Ellen in “Sisters,” resulting in her singing a duet with herself. But my all-time favorite has got to be Jean Hagen dubbing Debbie Reynolds dubbing Jean Hagen in the looping session featured in “Singin’ in the Rain,” because Hagen, a former stage and radio actress, had the cultured speaking voice needed for “The Dancing Cavalier.” Lina Lamont’s revenge!

Who's dubbing whom?
Who’s dubbing whom, anyway?

Marni Nixon, who began her career as a classical musician, has an incredible list of credits. Possessing that invaluable asset, perfect pitch, she had the good fortune to perform with a number of the so-called Hollywood exiles—composers and musicians who had fled Nazi Germany and settled in California in the 1940’s. She started her dubbing work while still in her teens, but her first big assignment was working with Deborah Kerr on “The King and I.” Nixon’s description of their intense rehearsal process is fascinating, and when it came time to shoot “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?” (unfortunately cut from the film), Nixon was able to imitate her perfectly.

My favorite Marni Nixon movie moment occurs during another ghosting job she did for Deborah Kerr, this time in “An Affair to Remember.” Her rendition of “Our Love Affair” in the nightclub scene is flawless. The way she plays the subtext of the song (don’t forget, this is the night before the appointment at the Empire State Building), her phrasing, and most amusingly, the way she can sing in Deborah Kerr’s accent, all add up to a stunning performance (And speaking of stunning, Ms. Kerr never looked more glamorous on film than she does in this scene).

Marni Nixon’s Hollywood career also included “West Side Story” in which she sang for Natalie Wood in addition to dubbing a few of Rita Moreno’s phrases in the “Quintet” (“We’re gonna mix it tonight”). Of course, the job that brought her the most notoriety was dubbing Audrey Hepburn in the film version of “My Fair Lady,” in a role that every one in the world with the exception of Jack Warner thought should have gone to the woman who originated it on stage, Julie Andrews. Nixon relates all this with a refreshingly objective eye, and it’s wonderful to learn that she later “came out” by playing Eliza Doolittle, as well as Anna Leonowens and “The Most Happy Fella”‘s Rosabella, among other roles, on stage.

As a change of pace, here’s a chance to experience Marni Nixon’s artistry as a classical musician. Her appearance with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic at a time when his “Young People’s  Concerts” was teaching a generation (namely mine!) about music is wonderfully exuberant and a pure pleasure. Enjoy!

Posted in Books, Movie Reviews

Rosemary’s Baby

Rosemarys Baby

He has His Father’s eyes.

—Roman Castevet

Has there ever been a better plotted thriller than Ira Levin’s “Rosemary’s Baby”? Or a better adaptation than Roman Polanski’s 1968 film? Everybody’s favorite satanic offspring recently received the Criterion Collection treatment, and the result proves this movie still retains its punch, 45 years later.

I remember reading the novel in practically one sitting. Levin’s pacing is phenomenal—he knows exactly when, where and how to drop just enough information to enable you to keep pace with Rosemary as the plot unfolds, yet never for one instant let you get ahead of her. Only when she becomes suspicious do you become suspicious, but not before. It’s a delight to re-read it the moment you finish just to enjoy how easily you were fooled. Although the novel falls into the horror genre, it’s not the idea of Satan’s spawn that really puts it there. Levin is more subtle—it’s poor Rosemary’s painful pregnancy and her husband’s trading her well-being for fame that create the nightmare. The suspense is marvelous, yet the book is also incredibly funny and sly, and of course irreverent. Just a terrific read.

Levin’s image of Rosemary–Piper Laurie

Roman Polanski’s screenplay is as close to a word for word adaptation as possible (According to the extras in the Criterion package, Levin thought the director was under the impression he was barred from making any changes. How fortunate for us). In its movie form, “Rosemary’s Baby” not only brings the printed word to life, it enhances the experience in ways that only film can. Sometimes it’s the little things, such as the coven’s flat chant, almost a group moan, with its accompanying whistle that Rosemary and Guy hear through their bedroom wall. I don’t know about you, but it makes my skin crawl every time I see the movie. And though this is a key scene in the book, it’s Polanski who creates the hair-on-end atmosphere of Rosemary’s attempt to solve the riddle of Hutch’s anagram reference. When she finally forms the name “Roman Castevet” out of “Steven Marcato” with those Scrabble tiles, it’s impossible not to gasp.

I wouldn’t have thought to cast Mia Farrow as Rosemary, given that another character in the novel says she looks like Piper Laurie, but she makes it work. Yes, Farrow was the eternal waif at that stage of her career, but her newly-created Vidal Sassoon hair cut beautifully sets off those hollow cheeks during Rosemary’s first trimester from (literal) hell. And I love that enigmatic smile at the end of the film. The ambiguity is perfect.

Where I think the film disappoints somewhat is in the casting and depiction of Guy Woodhouse. The Criterion materials state that both Robert Redford and Jack Nicholson tested for the part, and either would have been so much better than John Cassavetes. He’s too ethnic, he’s too old and he’s too saturnine.  He’s as obvious as Jack Nicholson would be in “The Shining” a few years later. In fairness, though, Cassavetes is not really helped by either the script or the direction. In the book it’s clear Guy is shocked when the coven’s spell blinds his rival actor, Donald Baumgart. But you don’t feel that watching the movie. And Levin makes it obvious that Guy is initially troubled by the proposition that he in essence trade his wife for success. There’s no such scene in the film, let alone a hint that Guy ever has a second thought—he’s all in from the get-go.

On the other hand, Polanski seems to delight in the turning points of the plot–those stages in the narrative where things could have gone so differently had the characters chosen another path. Rosemary’s quiet insistence that she and Guy have dinner with the Castevets, though he clearly doesn’t want to go. Her concern over Dr. Hill’s request for an additional blood draw, which ultimately steers her straight to Dr. Sapirstein. Her forgetting to show Sapirstein’s pills (no doubt 100% tannis root) to Hill when she tells him about the coven, only to have Sapirstein immediately pocket the vial before Hill has a chance to notice. Of such small moments are absorbing stories made.

While Ira Levin sustained his success with “The Stepford Wives” and the play “Deathtrap” in the years after “Rosemary,” his sequel “Son of Rosemary,” published in 1997, was a huge mistake. After the first chapter, it’s all downhill, and the ending is absurd. Do yourself a favor and avoid it at all cost. Instead, why don’t you just take “Rosemary’s Baby” off the shelf or pop in the Blu-ray? Nothing but nothing can beat the original.

Posted in Books, Movie Reviews

Watch the Skies!

The-Thing-from-Another-World-logoHas a decade of film provided as much fodder for doctoral theses as the 1950’s? So much covert and overt political activity, what with Red-baiting, McCarthyism, the House Committee on Un-American Activities and blacklisted screenwriters sidelined. And all of this spilled over into science fiction films, those black-and-white classics that remain so much fun to watch even now.

Enter my all-time favorite in the genre, 1951’s “The Thing (From Another World).”

There are so many urban legends about this movie, from who really directed it (Howard Hawks or Christian Nyby?) to whether the film was cut to remove a scene showing exactly what the Thing did to those scientists in the greenhouse (depends on who you talk to). But let’s start with the basics. The source material of “The Thing” is the classic 1938 sci-fi novella, “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell, Jr., under the pen name Don A. Stuart. However, the movie version is a major departure from the original, which like “Alien” many years later, is really an elegant horror story (1982’s “The Thing” directed by John Carpenter and starring Kurt Russell, is far closer to the novella’s plot).

The 1951 version is one-half classic 50’s paranoia and one-half “Wisecrackers at the North Pole.” The action takes place at an Arctic outpost manned by a group of scientists, headed by Dr. Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite) who marches to his own drummer and who sports what would in a few years be labelled a beatnik’s goatee. Naturally he butts heads with Air Force Captain Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) and his men, who’ve been dispatched to help investigate a UFO that crashed into nearby ice. Along for the ride is Scotty (Douglas Spencer), a journalist apparently embedded with the military (he follows the Air Force guys everywhere), and, in true Howard Hawks fashion, a sophisticated brunette (Margaret Sheridan) serving as Carrington’s secretary who has a thing for Hendry (and vice versa).

The fun really starts when the alien creature (James Arness—yes, Marshall Dillon himself), frozen in a block of ice, is brought into the scientists’ compound. It’s impossible to watch any of the 50’s sci-fi films and not believe “alien” is code for Communist. In movie after movie they infiltrate, they change shape, they take over your mind! They can be anybody! And as Peter Biskind, in his excellent critique of 50’s film, “Seeing is Believing,”  states, audiences of that era were equally taught to beware the fellow traveller, i.e., a person like Dr. Carrington who wants to make nice with the invader. Biskind hilariously calls Carrington a “Thing-symp[athizer]” and points out his Russian-style fur hat and coat (In appearance he does bear a startling resemblance to the way Rod Steiger would look and dress a decade later in “Dr. Zhivago.”)

Enemies Within
Enemies Within

The Thing, though a mass of vegetable matter, thrives on blood, both canine and human. So after sucking a couple of sled dogs dry, he goes after the scientists, two of whom are later found in the greenhouse “hanging upside down, like in a slaughterhouse,” per Captain Hendry.  But Dr. Carrington, not to be deterred, starts cultivating Baby Things from the monster’s seed pods and nourishes them with plasma. His actions creep out even his fellow scientists, but before they can do anything about it the Thing returns, ultimately to be electrocuted by the intrepid (conservative) men of the Air Force. But you can never rest easy—as Scotty warns in the radio broadcast that ends the film, we have to “keep watching the skies!”

Military Know-How
Military Know-How

While you can knock yourself out with the symbolism and the Red-baiting angle, there’s so much more to enjoy in “The Thing.” First, the script by Charles Lederer, screenwriter of “His Girl Friday,” with its overlapping dialogue, never stops. Whether the banter is between Captain Hendry and would-be squeeze Nikki, or Scotty and just about everybody, it’s classic Hollywood. The score, by Dimitri Tiomkin, is one of the best of its era, and makes you wonder what he and his contemporaries would have done if the theremin had never been invented.  And the actors really look like the characters they play—no glamor. If you’re a Groucho Marx fan, you’ll recognize George Fenneman, his “You Bet Your Life” announcer, as the varsity sweater-wearing scientist, and if you’ve got a good ear, you’ll realize that Paul Frees, another scientist, was later the voice of Boris Badenov and Inspector Fenwick of “Rocky and Bullwinkle” fame, among many other cartoon characters, including Ludwig von Drake. Both Eduard Franz and Robert Cornthwaite would go on to long careers as character actors, and Kenneth Tobey, who appeared in so many black-and-white films, would startle audiences with his red hair when he finally showed up in color.

“The Thing” is on DVD , though in a somewhat bare-bones version, with no commentary or extras beyond the theatrical trailer. I’d love to see a reissue with all the bells and whistles that can be mustered, including the final word on who directed it (the majority of those in the know say Hawks, the titular producer) and that missing scene (two people who saw “The Thing” in its first release insisted to me it was included). In the meantime, we’ll just have to “watch the skies!”

Posted in Books

Of Time, Stephen King and Jack Finney

I once counted myself a Stephen King fan—not a major one, though I thought “The Shining,” “The Stand” and “Dolores Claiborne” were excellent reads. But over the years I began to lose patience as his novels grew longer. My last attempt was “Duma Key,” which I tossed aside after the first hundred pages. Yet when the New York Times included “11/22/63” on its Notable Books list last December, I went “hmmmmm.” I’ve always loved time travel fiction, and was intrigued that King had written a novel in that genre. Although it took me another ten months, I finally picked it up, gobbling the last quarter of the book as quickly as I did my Thanksgiving dinner. It’s a spellbinder.

“11/22/63” is not without flaw. Its premise, a travel back in time to prevent the Kennedy assassination, is, ironically, the least interesting part of the novel. Lee Harvey Oswald, his Russian wife, his overbearing mother and the people around him pale in comparison to the fictional characters who populate time traveller Jake Epping’s world during his journey from 1958 through 1963. Most memorably these include the folks our hero meets in Jodie, Texas, where he settles as a high school teacher two years before the assassination and falls in love with the unforgettable Sadie Dunhill, the school librarian.

There are some problems in the narrative. I would have liked a more detailed (and earlier) explanation of the mysterious Yellow Card Man who seemingly ushers Jake into and out of the past. I don’t buy the altered universe King spins as the aftermath of changed history, though I have to say it’s eerie to see how accurately he captures the rhythm of JFK’s speech in a telephone conversation between Jake and the President. Ultimately what makes “11/22/63” such a great read is the detailed journey King takes us on through the landscape of the late 50’s to the early 60’s. The author has created a remarkable world that should have been the subject of its own novel, instead of taking a back seat to the Kennedy assassination. The end of the story is the most poignant conclusion I’ve read in years.

King long ago revealed his admiration for Jack Finney, a writer whom he again praises in the “Afterword” of “11/22/63.” Best known as the author of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” Finney is the generally acknowledged master of the time travel story (And before anyone sends me a nasty email, yes, I’ve read Richard Matheson’s “Bid Time Return” aka “Somewhere in Time.” A great book, but Finney did more with the genre). His best short fiction—“Second Chance,” “Where the Cluetts Are” and “The Love Letter”—is unsurpassed and unforgettable. Finney’s preoccupation with escaping into the past culminated in “Time and Again,” his 1971 “illustrated novel” about Simon Morley’s visit to 1880’s New York. The book is a gem. In addition to the excellent mystery that serves as its core, the novel features a host of wonderful photographs from that era, along with Si’s drawings—he’s a commercial artist—vintage advertisements and other ephemera.

I became a Finney fan in high school after reading several collections of his short stories. When “Time and Again” appeared, I grabbed it from my college library and read it through every class I had until I finished it. After many years it’s again being developed as a film, but this is one book I had always hoped would never reach the screen. Its magic lies in those lovely black and white photographs of old New York, the wonderful details of life in that era that Finney so lovingly shares and Si’s “think it and you’ll be there” method of time transport. Occasionally you come across something that simply can not be improved upon, and “Time and Again” is a perfect example.

So if you need a quick vacation (albeit to the 1880’s), just settle in with Jack Finney. The journey should not be missed.

Posted in Baseball, Books

The Art of Baseball

It was a beautiful day for baseball.

Several months ago, after Johan Santana pitched his no-hitter, when David Wright was still hitting .365 and the Mets—the Mets!!!—looked like they had an honest-to-God shot at the wildcard, I bought tickets to the last home game of the season. I figured even if they didn’t make the playoffs, it would still be fun to be at Citi Field just to be a fan on a September day.

Then there was the All-Star Game. And then they tanked. At this point there’s no use revisiting the second half of the Mets’ season. Despite their yearly “Eureka! We’ve solved it!,” management still has so many needs to address in the team roster that even the most devoted fans do not expect miracles.

But what never failed to cheer us this season was the performance of R.A. Dickey, he of the wizard knuckleball. I saw his two back-to-back one-hitters, with one batter after another flailing at his pitches as the strike-outs piled up. All the sports writers and announcers seemingly agree—Dickey has basically re-invented the pitch. He’s got a soft knuckleball, a fast knuckleball and one that seems to drop like a stone. The man is 37 years old,  he’s leading the National League in strike-outs as I write this, and if he doesn’t win the Cy Young Award, there’s something seriously wrong with the universe.

Yesterday I was at Citi Field when he went for his 20th win of the season. Though the weatherman predicted rain, the sun was shining when R.A. threw the first pitch. The fans were totally into it—he got an ovation when he walked in from the bullpen, and every time he took the mound, the chant began: “R.A. Dickey [clap, clap, clapclapclap].” It was by no means a masterpiece—the knuckleball didn’t always knuckle in the second, third and fourth innings, and he was let down a couple of times by players out of position (I’m looking at you, Josh Thole and Andres Torres). But Dickey got stronger as the game went on, and by the time he left in the top of the eighth inning, he had 13 strike-outs and a 6-3 lead. The game, which included a phenomenal catch by Pirates right-fielder Travis Snider and a three-run homer by David Wright, ended with Dickey getting that 20th win, the first Met pitcher to do so since Frank Viola in 1990.

What a way to end the season at home.

______________________________________________________________________________________________

What’s the measure of a good book? I’ve always thought it was how long it took you to get into another. If after finishing a novel you find yourself with a discard pile of five or more rejects and you’re still scrounging, I’d say the author of the work you’ve just finished has done his or her job. Such was my experience with Chad Harbach’s “The Art of Fielding.”

Let’s get something out of the way first: yes, it’s about baseball, namely college shortstop Henry Skrimshander. But it’s also about that college’s president, Guert Affenlight, who at the age of 61, finds himself falling in love with a man (a student, no less) for the first time in his life. It’s also about that college president’s daughter, Pella—former prep school drop-out and teen bride—who leaves her four-year marriage and moves in with the father she barely knows. Not to mention two other students—Mike Schwartz, the team’s catcher, talent scout and fierce motivator, and Owen Dunne, the object of the college president’s yearnings, a scholar and third place hitter whom his teammates call “Buddha.”

Most of all, “The Art of Fielding” (which is also the title of a work penned by Henry’s major league idol) is about gifts—talent, love, life and the game of baseball—and how these characters deal with them.  It’s by no means a sunshiny book—there’s an incident that sets many things in motion, not the least of which is Henry’s developing a monumental case of the yips and how it affects those around him. It’s been a while since I’ve read a novel with a set of such engaging characters, and even though there are times you might want to bang their heads together, they stay with you. I highly recommend it.