Posted in Movie Reviews

A Quiet Hero…and a Flapper

Kent Smith, Maureen O’Hara and Charles Laughton, “This Land is Mine”

Turner Classic Movies’ annual extravaganza, the recently concluded “31 Days of Oscar” was a departure from presentations of years past. This time the films were shown in alphabetical order, not grouped by Oscar category, and I enjoyed the jumble. Two films in particular were welcome surprises—the wartime “This Land is Mine,” and 1928’s “Our Dancing Daughters.” They couldn’t be more different, but both leave an indelible impression.

“This Land is Mine” (1943) is unlike any other American World War II film I’ve ever seen. Directed by the French exile, Jean Renoir, who evidently contributed to the script by Dudley Nichols, it’s set in an unnamed country (read “France”) recently occupied by German troops. What makes this film unusual is that its main subject isn’t fighting in the streets or sabotage, but rather the nature of collaboration and the various motivations behind it.

The basic plot goes like this: Albert Lory (Charles Laughton) is a momma’s boy school teacher with a secret crush on fellow teacher Louise Martin (Maureen O’Hara). Unbeknownst to all, her brother Paul (Kent Smith) is a resistance fighter whose success at sabotage causes serious damage to materiel intended for German troops. What develops out of this situation is a comprehensive take on how the occupied town either copes or collaborates with the Nazis. The principal of Lory’s school, aghast at the directive to tear out democratic content from his student’s books, nevertheless complies, maintaining that the thoughts espoused will still live in the minds of teachers. Others are more openly collaborative. The mayor wishes to do all he can to see his town survive (and no doubt himself to remain in power), but he still enjoys accompanying the commandant of the occupying troops in what appears to be a victory procession.

But the most interesting character, presented in arguably the best performance of the film, is George Lambert (George Sanders), Louise’s fiancé and the local rail transportation supervisor. Initially he makes no bones about his politics. In conversation with the commandant, Major von Keller (Walter Slezak, playing the Hateful Nazi to the hilt), he reveals he’s just as fascist as this officer. But upon reporting his future brother-in-law Paul as a saboteur, he has second thoughts. His confrontation with Paul is the highlight of the film: his agonized “yes” when Paul asks him if he was the one who turned him in, and the terse exchange that follows: “Why did you do it, Paul?” “Why did you do it, George?” “Don’t look at me like that.” “You’re looking at yourself, George.” Although he (temporarily) helps Paul escape, George himself can’t escape Major von Keller’s pressure to continue to inform, and he shoots himself. In a case of “wrong place at the wrong time” Albert Lory is found at the scene and stands trial for murder.

It’s to Renoir’s credit that what we have already seen makes Lory’s long heroic courtroom speech in his defense a bit superfluous, at least in certain respects. Renoir has already shown us the various attitudes of those in the occupied town, and Lory simply makes express what had previously been inferred or at least more subtly conveyed. Renoir’s point of view toward these characters is something you don’t usually see in American films of that era. Although not sympathetic to collaborators for obvious reasons, he takes pains to differentiate the various “whys.” While not exactly stating that there are gray areas, he’s definitely a bit removed from the standard black and white views of most World War II films.

“This Land is Mine” won an Oscar for Best Sound, no doubt for the incredibly scary Allied bombing raid which we witness holed up in a shelter with Lory, Louise and their pupils. Two other thoughts linger after viewing the film. First, George Sanders’ performance proving he could indeed act. He was always great at playing cads, only surpassed by Zachary Scott in “Mildred Pierce,” but his George Lambert displays far more complexity. And then the indelible last shot of the film, as Lory, accompanied by his Nazi captors, jauntily strides off, presumably to meet a firing squad, hands in his pockets. A hero at last.

“This Land is Mine” will continue to be available until May 28th on the Turner Classic Movie website (subscription required).

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Light years away from “This Land is Mine” is “Our Dancing Daughters,” the 1928 film that made Joan Crawford a star. And for good reason—she plays a seemingly wild child who’s really a good girl at heart, while her rival, played by Anita Page, is coached by her mother to act the waif in order to marry rich (for shame!).

“Our Dancing Daughters” is a movie I had read about but never seen before now. At the time of its filming the studios were still converting to sound. As a result this movie is without spoken dialogue though it features a music soundtrack with occasional sound effects. Nevertheless the vo-de-o-do never stops. Can Joan Crawford ever Charleston! The clothes, decor and make-up are high Art Deco, and the men (Johnny Make Brown, Nils Asther and Edward Nugent) are incredibly handsome. It’s fun to see the attitudes and styles of the Roaring 20’s on full display, hip flasks included. Interestingly the mothers in the film wear the same short skirts and fringe as their dancing daughters, albeit a bit more modestly, and it’s somewhat startling to see just how short the girls’ hair styles really were.

Joan Crawford’s huge eyes stand her in good stead in this film, and her performance paid off with MGM. Nevertheless I think Anita Page is prettier and has the more interesting role. But MGM evidently felt Crawford was the better bet, and despite Anita Page’s starring role in 1929’s “Broadway Melody,” still a very enjoyable film, her career stalled.

“Our Dancing Daughters” was nominated for Best Writing and Best Cinematography. It will continue to be available to subscribers on the Turner Classic Movie website through May 20th.

Posted in Movie Reviews

Little Women

Amy (Florence Pugh), Jo (Saoirse Ronan) and Meg (Emma Watson)

Has there ever been a novel that could match the perennial quality of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women”? I think there have been something like seven versions committed to film, between movie and television efforts. The latest, written and directed by Greta Gerwig, is well worth your time.

While I have some issues with Gerwig’s choices, there’s no denying the film’s excellence. Let’s jump into the shallow end of the pool first. This is a visually beautiful film. Shot primarily in and near Louisa May Alcott’s home town of Concord, Massachusetts (which I call Disney World for English and History majors), Gerwig takes full advantage of the glorious New England autumn. Even better, the scenes during Laurie’s picnic at the sea shore are incredibly evocative—almost as if Winslow Homer’s “Long Branch, New Jersey” had sprung to life. Best of all, Gerwig never fails to remind us of how young these sisters and their friends are, unlike earlier filmed versions of “Little Women.” The pure magic of Jo and Laurie’s exuberant dance across a candle-lit patio at their first ball is a lovely sight indeed.

Gerwig revitalizes Alcott’s story by playing with time. Shrewdly, she opens the film with Jo’s visit, “for a friend,” to the publisher Mr. Dashwood, in hopes of seeing her short story in print. We’re then taken back seven years to the proper start of the novel on Christmas Day. The to and fro of flashforwards and flashbacks works for the most part, though at times you may have a sense of whiplash. This is particularly apparent when Gerwig alternates between Beth’s bout with scarlet fever and scenes of her on her death bed (Helpful hint: focus on the length of Jo’s hair to determine where you are in the story). Unfortunately this constant back and forth prevents some key story points from landing full force because the build-up is missing. This is particularly apparent when Jo reveals she’s sold her hair to help fund her mother’s trip to Washington to see her father. The full impact of that doesn’t quite register. Yet Gerwig’s presentation of other key elements, such as Jo’s crying over that shorn hair, couldn’t be better. I don’t think I ever really appreciated before what a mean, nasty act it was for Amy to burn Jo’s novel. Or the fright of seeing her fall through the ice, only to be rescued by Laurie’s quick thinking.

I was a bit disappointed in a couple of turns this version of “Little Women” took. I thought Gerwig didn’t quite give Jo her due with respect to her rejection of Laurie’s proposal. In the novel, Laurie is clearly the brother Jo never had, and she realizes this even before he declares his feelings for her. Further, she expresses no regret whatsoever when she learns of Amy and Laurie’s marriage (by letter, contrary to the film), though she does acknowledge to her mother that she might have changed her mind had Laurie proposed again. That business in the film of her putting this in a letter to Laurie irked me somewhat, particularly since she’s subsequently seen to be almost mourning a lost chance. I never got that sense from Louisa May’s Jo, though Gerwig, in emphasizing a rivalry between the sisters, presents it well. Finally, I wish we could have seen Laurie’s proposal to Amy as Alcott had written it, as the two of them row on the lake. Only Lord Peter Wimsey’s proposal to Harriet Vane in the novel “Gaudy Night” tops it for romance.

The casting of this film could not be better, In addition to the three actors pictured above, there’s Eliza Scanlen (Beth), Laura Dern (Marmee), Timothée Chalamet (Laurie), Chris Cooper (Mr. Laurence), Louis Garrel (a very young Friedrich Bhaer) and, most memorably, Meryl Streep as a very tart yet astute Aunt March, and Tracy Letts as Mr. Dashwood, amusingly sparring with Jo over royalties, copyright and whether a happy ending in marriage is essential to the success of her novel. Simply superb performances all around, yet Saorise Ronan as Jo will stay with you the longest. Not just because she plays Louisa May Alcott’s alter ego, but because you simply can’t take your eyes off her. This is star quality, in spades, and I look forward to where she goes next in her career.

Re-read the book, see the movie and enjoy.

Posted in Movie Reviews, Opera, Television

Brain Bits for the Shortest Day of the Year

Countess Almaviva (Susanna Phillips), Susanna (Nadine Sierra) and Figaro (Luca Pisaroni) Working on Yet Another Plot

Last weekend I had the pleasure of revisiting “Le Nozze di Figaro” at the Metropolitan Opera. As originally presented in 2014, the production, set in the late 1930’s, had major echoes of Jean Renoir’s classic film, “Rules of the Game.” This was enhanced by the casting, which featured Peter Mattei as a very suave and authoritative Count Almaviva, and the excellent performance of Marlis Peterson, the definitive Lulu of her generation, who portrayed an older and far more sophisticated Susanna than usually seen in the role. The result was a dark comedy, tempered somewhat by the sweetness of Isabel Leonard’s Cherubino. But a change of singers and a bit of tweaking has now resulted in perhaps a more traditional “Figaro”—funnier, but fortunately without the slapstick that can mar a production. In the final analysis, both views of the opera work equally well.

The current run of “Figaro” that just ended (it’s due to return with a different cast in February) had two key elements: the Figaro of Luca Pisaroni and Susanna Phillips’ Countess. After several runs as the Count, it was a pleasure to see Pisaroni in what I think is his more natural role. He’s Figaro to the life–the face, the expressions and the physicality all serve the essence of the character. Ms. Phillips, though with a lighter voice than I expected, was dramatically perfect. Her beautifully sung “Dove sono” limned the character’s emotions in all their complexity, which she describes in detail in an Aria Code podcast that may be the best in that series (What? You’re not listening? Tune in for some great insights). It seemed only Adam Plachetka’s Count fell short of the dramatic mark. There was unrelenting bluster, to the extent that I just didn’t believe him when he sang “Contessa perdono.”

In case you can’t guess, “Le Nozze di Figaro” is one of the my favorite operas, and it was a special treat to see this with such a good audience. They enjoyed themselves immensely, aided in no small measure by some wonderfully contemporary titles. A “Figaro” performance should at its end make you glad to be alive, and this one certainly did. “Corriam tutti!”

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“The Irishman,” now available on Netflix, is the summation of Martin Scorsese’s career. In short (as opposed to its length), I liked it. In its most basic sense, it’s an absorbing account of how to lose one’s soul by increments, though I doubt Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) would put it that way. In this regard, perhaps the most illuminating scene in the film is Frank’s conversation with Russell Buffalino (Joe Pesci), during which they discuss Frank’s experiences in World War II. He registers virtually no emotion as he describes how he followed (unspoken) orders to massacre captured Italian soldiers rather than take them prisoner. Although Buffalino doesn’t even flinch, it’s Frank’s lack of affect that’s the most chilling aspect of the story.

It goes without saying that the casting of this film is superb. Award nominations have been raining down on De Niro as well as Al Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa, but it’s Joe Pesci’s incredibly subtle performance that stayed with me the longest. I also enjoyed how Scorsese, a former executive producer of “Boardwalk Empire,” sprinkled “The Irishman” with actors from that show: Bobby Cannavale (Skinny Razor), Jack Huston (Bobby Kennedy), Aleksa Palladino (Mary Sheeran), among others, not to mention a spectacular turn by Stephen Graham as Tony Provenzano. Mr. Graham, who was a magnetic Al Capone in “Boardwalk Empire,” seems to have inherited the chameleon-like manner of the late Bob Hoskins.

Much as I enjoyed “The Irishman,” I do have one quibble: I wasn’t sold on the de-aging effects used on De Niro, Pacino and Pesci at the start of the film. De Niro, in particular, looked positively glacéed as the younger Frank Sheeran. As difficult as the casting might have been, younger actors playing these roles would have been more effective.

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Midge and Susie Toasting the Shy Baldwin Tour

The third season of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” premiered on Amazon Prime like gangbusters, complete with a USO show and a (backstage) string of dick jokes. It was especially gratifying to see Midge tour with Shy Baldwin, adapting to new types of audiences and coping with the stress of being on the road (By the way, it was no surprise that Shy turned out to be gay, since the character was so obviously modeled on Johnny Mathis). I particularly enjoyed the episode in which Midge and Lenny Bruce (Luke Kirby) spend an evening together, first on-camera for the pseudo-Playboy Mansion TV show, then dancing at a jazz club. The end of their Las Vegas encounter, when “Will they or won’t they?” infused the air, was beautifully played by Rachel Brosnahan and Mr. Kirby (I think she made the right decision to decline his unspoken invitation).

Nevertheless there were ups and downs. The best part of “Mrs. Maisel,” at least this season, was any scene with Susie Myerson (a terrific Alex Borstein), who always seems to get the best writing on the show. I had to hit my remote’s “Pause” so I could howl for two minutes straight at her line to the potential producers about their Donner Party musical; ditto for her reaction to the vocal effects via telephone of Sophie and Gavin Hawk’s coupling. Susie also had the more interesting plots—the Sophie Lennon debacle, her gambling issues and those intriguing exchanges with Reggie, Shy Baldwin’s manager (an excellent Sterling K. Brown), keeper of secrets and bad cop to his boss’ good cop. That was an exceptionally heavy anvil he dropped at the end of the last episode, when, after he fired Midge, to his own distaste, he turned to Susie with “Someday you’ll have to do this.” Given the dynamic between Midge and Susie (tits up!), you really hope not.

On the down side, much as I love Tony Shalhoub, I could have easily seen less of Midge’s parents as well as her former in-laws. Nevertheless, there were still a few rewards: Joel and his father betting on who would faint at the bris; Midge’s conversation with Moishe about buying back her apartment, in which they approach each other for the first time on equal terms as he reveals Joel was an idiot to dump her; and most of all, her confrontation with her mother over the latter’s meddling. Their shouting match revealed they may have more in common than they think, despite mama’s distaste for Midge’s comedy.

Given the time frame of the show, I would expect to see Midge on The Ed Sullivan Show next season (“Mrs. Maisel” has already been renewed). And I really hope we haven’t seen the last of Benjamin (a terrific Zachary Levi). His scene with Midge in the last episode, when they finally discuss her dumping him, was a highlight of the season. Somehow the writers have to find a way to keep him around—he’s a necessary counterbalance to the craziness.

Santa just rode by on a fire truck as I was finishing this post. May all of you enjoy whatever holiday you celebrate, and best wishes for a happy and healthy New Year.

Posted in Movie Reviews

Motherless Brooklyn

Lionel Essrog (Edward Norton) on the job

Who would have thought Robert Moses, “Master Builder of New York,” would have ended up as the villain in a classically-styled film noir?

To be sure, he now sports the name Moses Randolph, but there’s no mistaking the ambition, the lack of civic accountability and the desire to destroy blue-collar neighborhoods which he alone deems to be irremediable slums. His stature is only enhanced by the actor who plays him—a blustering and bloviating Alec Baldwin, whom I suspect will receive an Oscar nomination because it’s that kind of role and that level of performance. But I doubt he’ll be alone—Edward Norton, who directed, wrote the script based on Jonathan Lethem’s novel and plays the Tourette syndrome-afflicted hero, Lionel Essrog, is sure to join him.

Set in 1957, “Motherless Brooklyn” is an urban tale of corruption, kickbacks and murder. So many factors make watching it so enjoyable, not the least of which are the superb art direction (more about that in a moment) and the seemingly endless way all these great actors keep popping up. Who’s that under the fedora and behind those jowls? Bruce Willis as Frank Minna, head of a detective agency/car service. And his employees? In addition to Edward Norton, there’s Bobby Cannavale, as Tony Vermonte, acting tough and dallying with the boss’s wife (a very droll Leslie Mann), and Dallas Roberts, as Danny Fantl, wimping it out. And the guy behind the bushy beard? Willem Dafoe as Paul, the disillusioned dreamer. Let’s not forget Cherry Jones as municipal rabble rouser Gabby Horowitz, and—who else?—Michael Kenneth Williams as Trumpet Man playing in a Harlem jazz joint.

But the film stands squarely on the shoulders of Edward Norton as Lionel Essrog, dubbed “Motherless Brooklyn” by Frank Minna who rescued him from an orphanage in that borough (Some sly symbolism and foreshadowing at work here: The essrog or etrog, a citrus fruit, signifies “heart” in kabbalistic terms, and as used in the Jewish holiday of Sukkot represents those who know Torah and do good deeds). I love Norton’s look in this film—his face is now somewhat worn, with pouchy eyes and something loose about the chin. He wears a fedora well, and as a Tourette’s sufferer, his verbal tics are a cascade of rhymes and associations, and at times a mirror of his subconscious. When he blurts out “Kiss her face all night long” in front of an amused but sympathetic Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), you can only smile. Perhaps in compensation for his neurological problems, Lionel has been gifted with an eidetic memory which serves him particularly well as he seeks to solve his boss’s murder and take on Moses Randolph. Their ultimate showdown is one of the most satisfying in recent memory.

The urban grittiness in “Motherless Brooklyn,” seems to be a character in itself. This is classic film noir, albeit in color, and so accurate in its depiction of 1957 New York City I thought I had been transported back to my childhood (One minor quibble: There’s no mistaking the on-screen presence of at least two 1959-model cars—their tail fins are so sharp they could spear fish). In addition to neighborhood scenes, there’s a marvelous recreation of the old Penn Station, and a borough hall meeting-turned protest that’s the most realistic depiction of outraged citizenry vs. stubborn bureaucracy I’ve seen on film in a very long time. But what ultimately struck me about this movie is its high level of energy which, despite its length, never flags, a tribute to Edward Norton’s expertise again, this time as director.

Treat yourself—go see it.

Posted in Movie Reviews

Three Identical Strangers

Suppose you encountered a person who not only looked like you, down to the part of your hair, but walked like you, sounded like you and had the same likes and dislikes? Now double that—suppose there wasn’t just one doppelgänger, but two? This was the situation Robert Shafran, Eddy Galland and David Kellman faced in 1980, when these three 19 year-olds discovered by chance that they were triplets who had been separated at birth and individually adopted. Their story, and the machinations behind it, are the subject of Tim Wardle’s excellent and disturbing documentary, “Three Identical Strangers,” now available on Hulu and DVD.

The film starts off on an excited high—young Bobby Shafran arrives at an upstate New York college campus to begin his freshman year, only to be greeted like a long-lost brother (little did he know) by people he had never met. One student swears Bobby is “Eddy,” a friend who had dropped out the year before; this fortuitous meeting leads to a drive to Long Island, where Bobby meets Eddy Galland, his mirror image. When the encounter is reported in various newspapers, David Kellman emerges to complete the trio. As noted in the film, they became best friends immediately, and made the rounds of “The Today Show,” and “The Phil Donahue Show,” among others. Looking at the archival footage shown in the documentary, it’s obvious they were great media bait—a trio of handsome, exuberant young men who delighted in each other’s company and enjoyed the attention. There’s something rather eerily attractive about identical twins, so when two becomes three, the fascination increases tenfold.

It’s not until we’re a good way into the film that we learn that Louise Wise Services, the adoption agency which had placed the boys, had cooperated, if not worked hand in glove, with Dr. Peter B. Neubauer, a child psychiatrist, whose brainchild  was a nature vs. nurture study of twins separated at birth and raised in different homes. Needless to say, he hit the mother lode with the triplets, whose respective upbringings could not have been more different: Bobby grew up in Scarsdale, the son of a wealthy physician; Eddy’s adoptive parents were middle class schoolteachers; and David’s were blue-collar immigrants who had fled Hitler’s annexation of Austria. Dr. Neubauer and his team studied the boys and their unsuspecting families for years after the adoptions, though the true purpose of the constant visits and testing of the children was never revealed. The parents were told this was merely routine follow-up to monitor the boys’ development after adoption. This, in addition to the fact that at no time during their dealings with the adoption agency were any of the parents advised that their son was a triplet (At this point in the film my attorney brain wouldn’t stop screaming “Where was informed consent?”). It’s heartbreaking to learn that when all three sets of parents confronted Louise Wise Services after the triplet discovery, only to hear the agency’s excuse that no one would have adopted all three boys, David’s father immediately responded: “We would have gladly taken them.”

We learn that the lies and deceptions of those initially in charge of the triplets’ welfare have repercussions throughout their lives. Each boy has a difficult childhood and adolescence with psychiatric treatment (In fact David relates that he spent his 16th birthday in a psych ward). Although they ride their high of mutual recognition for several years, the stress of jointly operating a restaurant called—what else?—“Triplets” eventually leads to Bobby’s going his own way. They track down their birth mother who appears to be self-medicating her own mental health issues with alcohol. Eddy is the unfortunate legatee of this: he’s hospitalized for bi-polar disorder and shortly thereafter commits suicide at the age of 33. And eventually we learn that an outcome such as this was far from unique among the eleven sets of twins Neubauer studied. We meet Paula Bernstein and Elyse Schein, subjects of the same study, whose birth mother had been diagnosed as schizophrenic. And there were other instances of mental illness among both birth parents and study subjects. Was this the true basis of the study?

This is only one of many questions left unanswered, not to the fault of Director Tim Wardle, but due to circumstance. Neubauer’s study was never published–his papers, donated to Yale upon his death in 2005, are sealed until 2065 (However, as a result of an earlier report on the activities of Louise Wise Services by ABC’s “20/20” and “Three Identical Strangers,” personal records of the study’s subjects, albeit heavily redacted, are slowly being released to the brothers and twins). You want to know exactly what influence if any Neubauer had with respect to the placement of these children, and to what extent the adoption agency took his marching orders.

More importantly, you want to know if the parties involved ever had any reservations about the ethical ramifications of the study and their participation. This is answered to a certain degree in the film: Wardle presents interviews with Natasha Josefowicz, Neubauer’s assistant, and Lawrence Perlman, who as a 24 year-old graduate student conducted some of the home visits and psychological testing of the twins for a ten month period. Neither serves themselves well. Perlman, who still has his notes from the study, reluctantly admits that yes, he was ethically compromised by his participation. He puts greater emphasis on his own problems, namely how difficult it was not to say “Hey, I know your twin” when conducting home visits (In fairness, he’s more forthcoming in the “20/20” program, and he voluntarily made his notes available to all the study subjects who contacted him). However, Josefowicz, who did not participate in the study but who “overheard things” in Neubauer’s office, is a complete apologist (“Well, you know things were very different in the 1950’s and ’60’s…”) and expresses no remorse or reservation whatsoever with respect to her former employer, his deceptions or the study. No one who worked at Louise Wise Services is interviewed in “Three Identical Strangers,” though it did not shut its doors until 2004. Nevertheless, it’s revealed in the “20/20” story that at least one former employee had a troubled conscience about this—dying of cancer, she reached out to several adoptees to inform them that each had a twin. It’s mind-boggling that they otherwise would have lived their entire lives without knowing, and in fact, Perlman admits in the Wardle documentary that to this day there are at least two sets of twins from the study who still do not know that in fact they are twins.

The most chilling aspect of all this is the realization that Neubauer, a Jewish refugee from Hitler, and Louise Wise Services, in its time the most prominent Jewish adoption agency in New York City, were conducting and participating in a study straight out of Dr. Josef Mengele’s concentration camp twin experiments. As Bobby Shafran rightly observes, what Neubauer was doing was “some Nazi shit.” However, the insistence on the separation of twins was a concept of another psychiatrist who served as an adviser to Louise Wise Services, according to the “20/20” story. Her theory was that twins separated as babies would never miss each other, whereas it’s both emotionally evident and scientifically demonstrable that that is simply not the case. So this is what you ultimately take away from “Three Identical Strangers”: no matter their similarities, Bobby, Eddy and David, by being apart for the first nineteen years of their respective lives, could never overcome being strangers to one another. And that’s the greatest tragedy of all.

A note on viewing: While “Three Identical Strangers” is available on Hulu, I’d recommend the DVD, which includes an excellent Q & A with Director Tim Wardle, Robert Shafran, David Kellman and other participants in the film. The questions from the audience are particularly on point, and there’s a thought-provoking discussion of the Mengele aspects of the story.

Posted in Movie Reviews

The Great War

“They Shall Not Grow Old”

The faces you see in the above still belong to just a few of the many British soldiers who come alive in Peter Jackson’s unique documentary, “They Shall Not Grow Old.” Produced in conjunction with the 14-18 Project and the Imperial War Museums, which supplied the 100 hours of vintage film that Jackson has cleaned, tweaked, 3D’d and for 40 glorious minutes, colorized, the resulting experience is extraordinary. That the subject is near and dear to his heart is consistently evident—his grandfather, whose photo we seen in the end credits, was a veteran of the war who eventually succumbed at the age of 50 to the effects of the wounds he had suffered in combat.

“They Shall Not Grow Old” shows us what it was like to be a soldier in the Great War, from training camp through combat to either death or recovery. Jackson lets the troops speak for themselves—there is neither narration nor talking heads, but instead an overlay of voices of a multitude of veterans whose experiences were captured on video in the 1960’s and ’70’s. Their stories give testimony to the attitudes of the times, including the initial popularity of the war which led so many teen-aged boys to lie about their ages in order to enlist. And astonishingly, there was pressure to do so. One of the veterans recalls being confronted on the street by a woman who demanded to know his age. Though he insisted he was only 17 (minimum enlistment age was 19), the woman, a total stranger, thought he was lying and threw a white feather in his face to signify his supposed cowardice.

While the film’s restored black and white footage is marvelous, the shift to color when the troops arrive in France is incredible. The vividness of the image makes you want to jump into the frame, to meet these men, to talk with them, to hear their thoughts. At times, though, there’s a bit of a creep factor—the facial expressions and gestures of the soldiers, brimming with life, are so like ours, but then you remember they’re long dead. Nevertheless, their images will stay with you for days.

As screened in theaters, “They Shall Not Grow Old” is followed by a 30-minute documentary narrated by Peter Jackson in which he shows how the vintage film was prepared, tweaked and assembled into final form. This is almost as fascinating as the feature film itself, and provides wonderful insight, not only into the creative process but into the “why” of the movie. It includes scenes of Jackson’s visit to France, where we see the actual location, virtually unchanged after 100 years, where we earlier viewed soldiers assembling immediately prior to charging the German trenches. It’s a searing moment when Jackson, rerunning this segment that so captures the full range of the soldiers’ expressions, from fear to anticipation to sarcasm, remarks that the majority of men pictured would be dead within the next 30 minutes.

Fortunately there are lighter moments in the documentary: Foley artists tramping in mud to capture that sound, forensic lip readers checking what the troops were saying so that their accents could be properly dubbed, and colorization experts viewing vintage uniforms to ensure the accuracy of the final footage. Best of all is the sight of the eight British representatives that Jackson, who wanted authentic accents instead of his native New Zealand twang, recruited to record a song to accompany the end credits of “They Shall Not Grow Old.” There they are, amateurs all, in the recording studio in their shirtsleeves belting out chorus after chorus of “Mademoiselle From Armentières,” parlay-vooing to the hilt.

“They Shall Not Grow Old” will next be shown in theaters in the United States on December 27th. Don’t miss it, and by all means, stay for the documentary that follows—it’s quite an addition to the main event.

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Maggie Smith, “Oh! What a Lovely War”

The music heard in “They Shall Not Grow Old” prompted me to re-watch “Oh! What a Lovely War,” Richard Attenborough’s first film as a director (In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit this one has a special place in my heart—I first saw it as a college freshman and it made me change my major from psychology to history). While both movies focus on World War I, “Lovely War” doesn’t show the blood and gore of the documentary. Instead, when a character is about to die, he either plucks a poppy or is handed one. To further the fantasy element, the war is at times viewed in microcosm, as taking place on Brighton’s West Pier (The film was shot in 1968, long before that pier deteriorated, burned and ultimately vanished). These scenes are juxtaposed with the muck of the trenches and the bone-chilling cold of No-Man’s Land.

But “Oh! What a Lovely War” is essentially a musical, featuring the evocative songs of the First World War, both from the home front and of course more profanely, from the soldiers themselves (Wait until you hear “When This Lousy War is Over,” sung to the tune of “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”). Holding all this together is the saga of the Smith family, whose five young men all don khaki; their sister will serve as a field nurse. They’re roused from their seaside holiday in Brighton by a marching military band which leads them onto the pier and the commencement of the war.

“Oh! What a Lovely War” features a good portion of the English acting hierarchy of the time: three Redgraves (Michael, Vanessa and Corin), Sirs John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson and Laurence Olivier (a particularly harrumphing general) and some actors who would later become much more prominent, such as Ian Holm. But what stands out are the musical numbers: Jean-Pierre Cassel doing a soft-shoe to “Belgium Put the Kaibosh on the Kaiser”while French cavalrymen ride a shiny-white carousel; Corin Redgrave, the very essence of a young British lieutenant, singing “Goodbye” as he circles the pier on a kiddie train; John Mills as Sir Douglas Haig, gracefully dipping his partner in the “Oh, It’s a Lovely War” production number; and most memorably, a young Maggie Smith as a theatrical star compelling enlistments with her unique rendition of “I’ll Make a Man of You.” Her sequence is startling—we see her virtually seduce young Harry Smith into joining her on stage, but as he reaches his destination he sees her up close, her make-up frighteningly garish. No longer an enticing woman, she looks like the oldest whore in the world. War ain’t so grand after all.

The DVD of “Oh! What a Lovely War” appears to be out of print but the film can be rented on Amazon. It’s well worth your time.

Posted in Movie Reviews

Paranoia in Red, White and Blue

Parallax_View_movie_posterWe go through periods of time when American movies excel in looking nervously over their shoulder. The film noir era is a definite example, but is it any wonder that 1970’s films seemed to feature so many shades of paranoia? With the assassinations of the previous decade, and especially the byzantine twists of Watergate, it wasn’t surprising. What an overwhelming sense of ideals betrayed, with the Nixon administration as the prime agent of cover-up when not itself acting as the perpetrator of misdeeds.

“The Parallax View” (1974), based on the 1970 novel of the same title by Loren Singer, was clearly inspired by the coincidental deaths (or deliberate if you have a conspiracy bent) of witnesses to the JFK assassination and its surrounding events. However, while maintaining the book’s device of a shadowy organization masterminding these incidents, the film omits the novel’s hints as to the “why.” The audience is left with an overwhelming sense of isolation. Threats seem to be in the very air we breathe.

This is quite a turn from an earlier film which also culminates in an assassination at a political rally, 1962’s “The Manchurian Candidate.” There the threat was specific, not diffuse, and the Cold War message was loud and clear: “The Commies are everywhere.” Nevertheless you knew the villains would be thwarted and the government of the United States would be preserved. However, “The Parallax View,” far from offering such reassurance, says there are forces far larger than you and me and they’ll always, but always, win—it’s foolish to even try to do battle.

“The Parallax View” begins with a Fourth of July parade which leads to perhaps the most evocative assassination scene on film, as Senator Charles Carroll, an independent evidently exploring a Presidential run, works a fundraiser held at the top of Seattle’s Space Needle. Maybe it’s because I have a problem with heights that I found this particularly unsettling, but seeing the attendees trapped when the shooting starts is a nightmare—if you lived through the ’60’s, this may bring it all back for you. Key players are rendered powerless, including Lee Carter (Paula Prentiss), a TV news reporter, and Austin Tucker (William Daniels), the senator’s political advisor, as they’re separated from the scene by a wall of blood-splattered glass. We see the senator’s fixed stare as he lies dying, so reminiscent of the famous photo of Bobby Kennedy sprawled on the hotel kitchen floor while a busboy leans over him to offer comfort.

Although a faceless investigation committee declares this the act of a lone disturbed man who sought recognition, we’ve been shown otherwise (Take that, Warren Commission). But when Lee Carter later shows up on the doorstep of reporter Joe Frady (Warren Beatty) with “They’re going to kill me, six other witnesses have already died,” we’re off and running.

You may feel as I did that every plot hole in “The Parallax View” feels wide enough to drive a Mack truck through. At first I thought it was simply a bad editing job, but the novel shares the same problem of too much left unexplained. Perhaps it’s director Alan J. Pakula’s effort to make the audience work by forcing them to fill in the blanks themselves. It’s not always successful: Joe Frady remains an unlikely and unlikeable investigator. In Warren Beatty’s absent-minded performance, he seems rather dim and incompetent (Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, respectively, in “All the Presidents’ Men,” would have solved the mystery in less than half the time). When he survives the bombing that kills another assassination witness, you just don’t believe he had the capability to do so.

Beatty could have taken lessons from several actors who make the most out of minimal screen time. In fact Paula Prentiss’s big scene, Lee Carter’s insistence to Frady that the people present at the Space Needle are being murdered one by one, is something of a cult favorite. William Daniels as Austin Tucker does a wonderful job, initially as a dapper, in-control political operative, and later as a haunted and hunted man who trusts no one. The performances of several others are equally vivid: Kelly Thordsen as that staple of films of this genre, a corrupt local sheriff, Walter McGinn as the shadowy Parallax operative, and Hume Cronyn, not chewing the scenery this time, as Frady’s editor. But the climactic scene does what movies are best at—telling a story visually, as we watch Candidate George Hammond ride a golf cart through the large arena in which a campaign fundraiser is to take place. Shots ring out, he slumps in his seat, and the runaway cart crashes into banquet table after banquet table, all variously covered by red, white and blue tablecloths.

To a certain extent you wonder why it’s worth taking out Hammond when he orates only the same nondescript all-purpose political blather lampooned a year later in Robert Altman’s “Nashville.” A portrait of America on the eve of the bicentennial, “Nashville” culminates in an assassination not of that film’s Presidential candidate, the invisible Hal Philip Walker, but of a celebrity—the film’s most fragile character, the singer Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakly). Interestingly enough, this was not in Joan Tewksbury’s original script; Altman, clearly of the view that assassination had by this time been woven into the fabric of America, insisted on its inclusion.

nashville-gunshot
Nashville: Assassination by Loner

There’s no inkling during the film that we’re headed in this direction. But the running thread of Hal Philip Walker’s campaign and particularly, Lady Pearl’s (Barbara Baxley) teary speech about working for JFK and Bobby Kennedy, ring a faint alarm. At the rally at Nashville’s Centennial Park in front of the Parthenon, we follow the moves of both a Barbara Jean-obsessed soldier (Scott Glenn) and Kenny (David Hayward), a seemingly sympathetic young man who’s been toting a guitar case (it’s Nashville after all). Following a series of images—Barbara Jean performing in a long white dress, not coincidentally resembling Lady Liberty, with a huge billowing American flag on display behind the stage—we see to our shock that it’s the “nice boy,” Kenny, who whips out a gun from that guitar case and fires away. The phoenix-like emergence of the wannabee Albuqueque (the late great Barbara Harris) who rises from the chaos to calm the crowd with chorus after chorus of “It Don’t Worry Me” reassures us that we’re survivors, though it doesn’t erase the fear of what came before.

All the President's Men:
All the President’s Men: “In my day we called it a double-cross”

When “All the President’s Men” (1976) finally rolls around, the government has betrayed us all. What with CIA operatives, slush funds, hush money, campaign dirty tricks—all perpetrated by CREEP, that marvelous acronym for the Committee to Re-elect the President—you can never be sure of anything. By the time Bob Woodward has his last late night meeting with Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook) in his favorite underground parking garage, you too may want to pull up your collar and scurry away.

Enjoy the fear.

Posted in Movie Reviews

Second Time Around

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Timothy Bottoms and Cloris Leachman: “The Last Picture Show”

Do the films we love in our youth still resonate for us years later?

I clearly remember how “The Last Picture Show” bowled me over when I first saw it as a college student. Based upon the novel by Larry McMurtry, the film covers one year in the life of small town Anarene, Texas, during the early 1950’s. The windblown locale (Archer City, McMurtry’s real-life home town) is itself a character in the narrative and serves as one of the film’s strongest assets. It’s hard to shake the sense of desolation produced by that short strip of worn storefronts lining Main Street across from an equally dilapidated Texaco station. This stark image is accentuated by director Peter Bogdanovich’s choice to film the story in black and white—unusual at the time of its 1971 release, but absolutely fitting.

Viewing the movie so many years later, I was struck by how well Bogdanovich captures the claustrophobia and sheer boredom of small town life. The only entertainment spots in Anarene are the town movie theater, a tattered pool hall and Friday night high school football games in which the local boys always seem to be trounced. Everybody knows everybody else’s business—there really are no secrets.

Enter Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) and Duane (Jeff Bridges), two contrasting high school seniors, the latter a not-necessarily-very-nice guy, the former, a far deeper individual who sometimes doesn’t understand his own emotions. The casting of this film couldn’t be better, and it’s even more of a treat now to watch these young men at the outset of their careers to see how they were able to grow into mature actors. Jeff Bridges is terrific, and Timothy Bottoms is so heartfelt as Sonny that I was shocked to learn John Ritter was almost cast in the part (Nobody does suffering better than Timothy Bottoms). Ben Johnson’s performance as Sam the Lion, Anarene’s anchor and resident role model, has lost little over the years—that Best Supporting Actor Oscar he won for this role was well-deserved, though his long monologue at the reservoir may seem a bit stagey today (fault of the script, not the actor). And Clu Gulager, playing Abilene, the local heel, may have the fewest lines in the movie but nevertheless leaves a strong impression.

Sadly, there’s one aspect of “The Last Picture Show” that’s become more grating over the years. This was model Cybill Shepherd’s first acting job, and unfortunately it shows. Chosen by Peter Bogdanovich to play Jacy, the prettiest girl in town, she fills the bill visually but it’s a shame that so many of her line readings go clank (One is reminded of Pauline Kael’s appraisal of an acting performance of Cyd Charisse: “She reads her lines as if she learned them phonetically.”) Of course she improved tremendously after this film, but there’s a difference between acting insincerely as Jacy does and insincerely acting which Ms. Shepherd does. However, she plays the comedy well—Jacy’s reaction to Duane’s non-performance in the motel room and later, her snappishness at Duane’s preening following his success, is classic. Nevertheless, it would have made for a more interesting dynamic had a more skilled actress with a greater understanding of Jacy’s duplicity played the role (In a parallel universe equipped with time travel, Alexis Bledel would have been ideal).

But what’s particularly striking when watching “The Last Picture Show” now is that it provided such strong roles for three mature actresses: Ellen Burstyn as Jacy’s mother, Lois; Cloris Leachman as Ruth Popper, the football coach’s wife; and Eileen Brennan as Genevieve, who runs the town’s cafe owned by Sam the Lion. While few actors could play comedy as well as Ms. Brennan (check out “Private Benjamin”), it’s great to see her thrive in a more dramatic role. Both Ms. Leachman and Ms. Burstyn were nominated for Best Supporting Actress Oscars, and while Ms. Leachman won, Ms. Burstyn is a lot more fun to watch. Although she’s bored to death by her husband, Lois still enjoys life. She’s accumulated more than her share of mileage, while Ruth has seemingly stayed in her shell. Nevertheless, both of these characters connect with the recessive Sonny in two of the best scenes in the film. Ellen Burstyn’s roguish, “Should I or shouldn’t I?” look at Sonny after she rescues him from his runaway marriage to Jacy, and Cloris Leachman’s explosion at the unfaithful young man when he seeks her out after Billy’s death, the scene which cinched her the Oscar, retain their power after all this time.

It’s a gift that “The Last Picture Show,” is the type of quiet movie that nevertheless still speaks to those who return to it after so many years. Seeing it again is certainly time well spent.

Posted in Movie Reviews, Opera

The Opera House

There’s a special pleasure in seeing a film or taped footage of an event my younger self may have experienced several decades ago. “The Opera House,” director Susan Froemke’s new documentary of the conception, construction and finally the opening of the new Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center in 1966 fits that bill to a T. It’s a fascinating saga of artistic, financial and civic cooperation, and definitely one of the most enjoyable films I’ve seen recently. A particularly refreshing aspect is its lack of villains; instead we see a cast of heroes, among whom are Met General Manager Rudolph Bing, Philanthropist John D. Rockefeller III, Lincoln Center Architect Wallace Harrison, Civic Planner Robert Moses, and, most memorably, Soprano Leontyne Price.

As the film rightly points out, the construction of New York’s Lincoln Center, and especially a new home for the Metropolitan Opera, was a national and indeed, an international event. It came at a time when opera claimed a more significant place in the American cultural consciousness than it does today. The exposure of the art form to the general public was then considerable: opera singers had frequently appeared in Hollywood films in the 1930’s and 40’s, and many had had their own radio programs. Later, when television entered the scene, opera singers were a staple on the numerous variety shows that aired; they regularly appeared on “The Tonight Show,” and Beverly Sills even filled in for host Johnny Carson when he was on vacation. The Saturday afternoon broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera, sponsored by Texaco for many years, were an institution. So even if you weren’t a fan, you were at least familiar with the name “Verdi,” and could probably hum the “Toreador Song” from “Carmen.”

I never attended a performance at the old Met at Broadway and 39th Street, but the footage of its auditorium, as Ms. Froemke shows, is breathtaking in its ornate red and gold. However, the house’s shortcomings as a theater were enormous: no room for modern stage equipment, the forced storage of scenery outdoors on Seventh Avenue due to lack of indoor space, few if any rehearsal areas (To further illustrate the point I would have liked Ms. Froemke to have contrasted the physical plant of the old Met by showing the state of the art facilities of a European opera house). As a result plans to build a new opera house were in the wind as early as 1908. A series of problems and crises, not to mention the Depression, intervened in the following decades, so it wasn’t until Robert Moses’ proposal of the cultural enclave that became Lincoln Center that a new opera house began to morph from dream to reality. However, Ms. Froemke doesn’t sugarcoat the human cost of this urban renewal; several former residents of the West Side neighborhood that was condemned and cleared for Lincoln Center express their opinions of their forced move.

A major highlight of “The Opera House” is footage of the groundbreaking ceremony at Lincoln Center in May, 1959, where a very dapper Leonard Bernstein opens the proceedings by leading the New York Philharmonic in Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.” The event was deemed of such import that President Eisenhower attended; as he does the honors by sinking that first shovel in the earth, we hear the Julliard Choir sing out with the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s “Messiah.” Leading Met singers Risë Stevens and Leonard Warren also performed, and it’s shocking to remember that the latter would be gone in less than a year, dying of a massive heart attack on stage in the midst of a performance of “La Forza del Destino” at the old house.

Met General Manager Rudolph Bing is of course a major presence in “The Opera House.” At first he appears as almost impossibly imperious and formal, and stubbornly opposed to accommodating the “Save the Met” sentimentalists (Ms. Froemke should have provided some context for this controversy by referencing the public outcry at the significant loss of historic structures in New York City, especially Pennsylvania Station, during the late 50’s and early 60’s, and the fact that only a few years before, a public campaign had indeed saved Carnegie Hall from demolition). But in preparing to open the new house while still saying goodbye to the old, Bing emerges as a hero. What a difficult job this man had–mounting a new opera to inaugurate the Met’s new home (Samuel Barber’s “Antony and Cleopatra”), apprehensively eyeing Director Franco Zeffirelli’s creation of a massive extravaganza of a production that eventually broke the stage turntable and famously trapped Leontyne Price inside Cleopatra’s pyramid, overseeing nine new productions scheduled for that first season (four in the first week alone), and dealing with a looming strike by the orchestra musicians (though not mentioned in the film, Bing announced from the stage on Opening Night that a settlement had been reached). The tension as we see Bing deal with all of this is palpable, yet somehow he manages. Few could have handled all these crises as well.

But it’s Soprano Leontyne Price, whose career straddled the old and the new houses, who walks away with the film. At the age of 91 she’s sharply informative as well as a total hoot. I particularly enjoyed her account of what it was like to sing with Tenor Franco Corelli, with whom she made a joint debut at the Met (“We sang insane!!!,” as attested to by the recording of the “Il Trovatore” broadcast from that season), and her stories of the trials, tribulations and triumph of opening the new house as Cleopatra are terrific. As she proudly—and rightly—states, “Sometimes you sing so well you just want to kiss yourself, and I did that night.” When she breaks into the opening phrases of Samuel Barber’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” (“It has become the time of evening/When people sit on their porches/Rocking gently and talking gently…”) while reminiscing about their friendship, don’t be surprised if you find yourself tearing up as I did. As the possessor of the most beautiful soprano voice of my time, she remains a treasure.

“The Opera House’ will be screened once more as a Fathom event on January 17. Here’s hoping for a quick release of the DVD and a showing on PBS. It’s a marvelous film.

Posted in Movie Reviews

July 4th Roundup

“Yankee Doodle do or die!”

Has any biopic had a more visible reason for being than 1942’s “Yankee Doodle Dandy”? This terrific movie, featuring the once-in-a-lifetime performance of James Cagney, may be one of the best World War II propaganda films Hollywood would produce.

Ostensibly the life story of George M. Cohan, Broadway songsmith, playwright, producer and actor, whose career peaked before World War I, the movie is shot through with anachronistic exhortation to “get behind the man behind the gun,” as the film’s additional lyrics to “Grand Old Flag” urge. In similar fashion, so do the additional verses of Rodgers and Hart’s “Off the Record,” from 1937’s “I’d Rather Be Right,” tweaking Hitler and Japan. Was it any wonder? “Yankee Doodle Dandy” premiered only seven months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, at a time when war production and home front restrictions were gearing up. While a Cohan biopic had been a possibility for a number of years before then, the fortuitous match of current events and flag-waving subject resulted in one of the most memorable Hollywood films of that era. Watching it today, you can easily imagine audiences in 1942 responding when Cagney, during the World War I “Over There”scene, turns to the camera and proclaims “Everybody sing!”

In true biopic fashion, there’s a lot of editing and sanitizing with respect to Cohan. While depictions of real figures in his life—Sam Harris, Fay Templeton, the other members of the Four Cohans—appear in the film, both his marital history and his anti-union bias are scrubbed (His siding with Broadway producers rather than actors in the 1919 strike that lead to the creation of Actors Equity was the real reason for his split from producing partner Sam Harris). Yet “Yankee Doodle Dandy” features that wonderful Cohan song catalog, and best of all, James Cagney.

I can think of few other stars of that era for whom the description “There’s no one else like him” is more apt. Whether as Cohan or Tom Powers in the iconic “Public Enemy,” or the psychopathic Momma’s boy Cody Jarrett in “White Heat,” there’s not a moment you can—or even want—to take your eyes off him. His boundless energy, that cocky strut, the feeling that only he and the audience are in on the joke, all stand him in excellent stead in “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” More than that, you sense he enjoyed every minute shooting the film, which makes for the happiest of viewing experiences. Yet he’s not just a sunny song and dance man: the scene he plays with the memorable Walter Huston as his dying father is one of the most poignant he ever shot. Rarely has a Best Actor Oscar been more deserved than the one awarded Mr. Cagney for his performance in “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”

Long before Turner Classic Movies I grew up with “Million Dollar Movie,” featured on one of the local New York City stations. The program would run the same film every night for an entire week, and “Yankee Doodle Dandy” would show up regularly. Even though I can probably recite all the film’s dialogue by heart, I never tire of watching it. It’s so Warner Brothers—S.Z. Sakall as Schwab, the roped-in producer of Cohan’s first hit (“I pwomise, I pwomise”); George Tobias as tin-ear producer Dietz, spending his wife’s money; Irene Manning as Fay Templeton, actually playing the piano for “Forty-Five Minutes From Broadway;” the raucous, jalopy-riding teenagers who show up on Cohan’s front lawn (“Stix Nix Hix Pix”). And there’s Cagney, tapping down those White House stairs.

Long may it wave!

P.S.: In case you’re wondering, Cagney copied his “Yankee Doodle Dandy” dancing style directly from George M. himself, as is evident in a YouTube video from the 1932 film “The Phantom President” (Warning: Cohan appears in blackface for a good portion of the clip). While Cagney’s normal style did feature some “on his toes” tap work, his dancing more closely resembled that of a typical hoofer of that era. Check out the “Shanghai Lil” number from “Footlight Parade.”

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Detecting Again: Olivia Coleman (DS Ellie Miller) and David Tennant (DI Alec Hardy), “Broadchurch”

Holidays are always the best time for binge-watching, and this July 4th is no exception. Somehow I missed that Season 3 of “Janet King” just dropped on Acorn TV, I’ve barely started the latest run of “Orange is the New Black” and I haven’t even touched “Glow” yet. Best of all, though, the latest, and unfortunately last, season of “Broadchurch” recently premiered on BBC America.

I was terrifically let down when I learned that “Broadchurch” will shortly end. However, after watching the first episode of the new season, I think I know where the show is headed. “Broadchurch” at its best is about the impact of crime—on the family and friends of the victim, on the community and on the police who investigate. This was starkly portrayed in the first season of the show which focused on the murder of 11 year-old Danny Latimer. The second season, while rich in character portrayal, meandered in plot. However, “Broadchurch” seems to be back at full throttle in its current episodes. Even after three years the repercussions of young Danny’s murder are still being felt, and a new crime threatens the community. Stunning in its detail, this episode walks us through the police and hospital response to a rape—the compassion and support offered to the victim and the painstaking efforts to obtain, catalog and preserve evidence of the crime. The tone of this sequence couldn’t be more fitting. Needless to say, we’re far beyond what “Law and Order: SVU” can depict.

On a happier note, I’m delighted to see the return of my favorite bickering (un)married couple, the detective partners Ellie Miller and Alec Hardy. The lapse of three years hasn’t spoiled their style or their differences. There’s added value this time around—it’s eye-opening to see Ellie having to instantly change gears from ace detective to exasperated single mother called to a meeting at school to discuss her 15 year-old son’s suspension for dealing porn. And it’s odd to see loner Alec Hardy parenting his teenage daughter. But unlike other shows, “Broadchurch” has a way of using issues outside crime and police work to illuminate rather than distract.

Looking forward to the next seven episodes.