Posted in Television

Denouement

To hell with the naysayers…I thought it a fitting conclusion.

“Game of Thrones” ended where we began, in the North, with our eyes on the Starks (and Jon, for all that Targaryean heritage, is still Ned Stark’s son). Sansa has proved herself worthy to be Queen of an independent kingdom, Arya will forever roam and Jon goes back to where he started from, but with a difference. No longer confined to the Night’s Watch, we end with him leading the Free Folk back to their home.

And Dany’s fate? Deserved, and by the one individual who was best suited to kill her (We know Arya was itching to do it, but Jon had dibs). Drunk on power as she addressed her troops—I almost expected her to burst into “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina”—she appeared not so much as a mad Targaryean, but one who had lost her moral compass. It was telling that Drogon, after seeing Dany dead, didn’t incinerate her murderer, but instead melted the Iron Throne, as if to say “You were the source of her downfall.”

I very much enjoyed the conclave leading to Bran’s election as King of the Seven Six Kingdoms (Nice work there, Sansa, cutting a deal for your people to remain independent). This time Tyrion got it right. One question though—how did Edmure Tully get there and where has he been? The last we saw him he was Jaime’s prisoner, so presumably he was freed and restored as head of Riverrun, otherwise he wouldn’t have had standing to participate in the council. It was rather amusing to hear Sansa tell him to sit down as he wound himself up to deliver true gas baggery. Some things just don’t change.

A few final thoughts:

Podrick is finally a knight! Long live Ser Podrick! And, not surprisingly, Sam as Grand Maester. This tale needs a scholar.

So sweet to see Jon and Ghost reunited, complete with direwolf nuzzles.

I didn’t realize that was Robin Arryn sitting with his council elders. The Lord of the Vale looks great now that he’s out from under Lord Baelish’s thumb. He’s still a teen-ager, though—all “Yeah, sure” as he cast his vote for Bran.

I’m so glad the showrunners left us with an image of Brienne completing Jaime’s written history. I was afraid our last glimpse of her would show her being pregnant with Jamie’s child, which would have been a big problem. Armor doesn’t come in maternity sizes.

I am so going to miss this show.

Posted in Television

Penultimate

If gore, guts and burnt bodies are your thing, you must have had a ball during Episode 5 of this season’s Game of Thrones last night. However, I thought it somewhat diasappointing for a couple of reasons. Your mileage may of course vary.

Why should Cersei get such a relatively peaceful end when poor Varys, master of wine, secrets and witty repartee, gets dragon-fried for simply speaking the truth? She and brother/lover Jaime operatically ended up entombed like the leads in “Aida,” which is certainly not just desserts for all the evil she’s done. And Jaime deserved a more heroic finish, given how much he’s changed during the course of the show.

Is there any doubt that Dany has reached full Mad Queen status? Leveling King’s Landing and frying the people she presumably wants to rule is not good for business. Ruling by fear does not a long reign make, and it’s already emptied her bed.

A special tip of the hat to Peter Dinklage for playing Tyrion’s farewells to Varys and especially to Jaime so expertly. It’s amazing that he’s always seemed to find new depths in a character that he’s been playing for so long.

A few last thoughts before departure:

I’ll miss future installments of Travels With Arya and the Hound. Seeing their mutual regard on display was a high point of the episode.

The Hound’s long-promised confrontation with his brother did not disappoint. Nor did the end of that slimeball Euron Greyjoy.

I was frankly shocked that Arya survived. She’s been the Stark most likely to be killed for ages.

Finally, I hope we haven’t seen the last of the folks in Winterfell. Game of Thrones began in the North, and one way or another it should end there. Good storytelling comes full circle.

On to the end.

Posted in Television

All in The Family

A rather somber Game of Thrones episode, don’t you think?

It certainly feels like we’re seeing final curtain calls now. We seem to be saying goodbye to one character after another, whether through death or departure.

So many farewells in this last episode. What a lovely gesture by Sansa to slide a Stark direwolf pin onto Theon’s armor as his corpse lay on the funeral pyre. Jon’s goodbyes as he left Winterfell were even more heart- wrenching: to Tormund, to Sam and Gilly, and–sob!–to Ghost. We’ve got two more long episodes to go, so I’m hoping we see some of these characters at least once more.

There was a contrasting type of farewell by Arya and the Hound. Due to unfinished business neither will see Winterfell again. The Hound looks to repay his brother, currently Cersei’s giant in armor, for tossing him into the fire as a child and giving him that scarred face. Arya’s mission, of course, is to complete her Hit Parade, which has always been topped by Cersei. If anyone has known her destiny, it’s Arya, who probably first proclaimed herself “Not a lady” at the age of three. He doesn’t think so, but with her self-knowledge she did Gendry a kindness by turning him down.

Speaking of which, now that Gendry is no longer a bastard but Lord Baratheon, doesn’t that put him on a par with Jon and Daenarys with respect to claiming the throne? Dany may have thought it was clever to ennoble him, but I think that move is going to bite her in the behind in the long run.

On a lighter note, I thought the Stark conclave was hysterical, what with Jon insisting “We’re family.” I was waiting for him to say “We’re family, but not the family you think, since I’m really your cousin, not your brother.” And so much for secrets—I was surprised Jon’s true identity hadn’t appeared on a billboard by episode’s end, given how much these characters blab. Speaking of which, too bad “loose lips” didn’t figure into Tyrion’s war strategy—knowing about those catapults in advance sure would have come in handy.

So now Brienne gets her second heart’s desire—Jamie. Aren’t they the oddest couple, though? Sansa and Tyrion, whom I’m still rooting for, make more sense, even though Brienne’s been pining for Jamie since Season 2. More than the romance, their last conversation, in which Jamie recounted his evil deeds, was shocking in its honesty. His final assessment of Cersei and himself— “She’s hateful, but so am I”—was another gut-wrench. Watching the evolution of Jamie Lannister from Cersei’s amoral pawn to the man he is now has been one of the highlights of GoT. I still expect Brienne and Jamie to die side by side in battle, with her telling him “Jamie Lannister, you’re a good man” before she goes.

Ah, Cersei—playing the baby daddy game for all she’s worth. She reached new heights–or depths, depending on your point of view–of cruelty in this latest episode. I don’t think we’ve actually seen a head lopped off on this show before, not even Ned Stark’s. Poor Missandei. At least she rallied the troops with that last “Dracarys,” though her execution may have sent Dany round the bend. What a strange expression on the queen’s face after she turned away from the death scene.

Three quickies until next week:

Paralleling Jamie’s evolution has been the growth of Sansa. I really disliked her at the start of GoT—her boy-craziness over Geoffrey helped set one tragedy after another in motion. Yet over time she’s become one of the most clear-headed characters on the show. This is why I’m hoping she ends up with Tyrion—they’ve grown into a great match for each other.

I am so going to enjoy Euron Greyjoy’s getting his.

If Lena Headey were to be paid by the sneer, she’d be the richest woman on TV.

To be continued.

Posted in Television

Battle in the Night

It would have been better had we been able to see all that was going on.

Yes, it was fitting that the climactic battle between the forces at Winterfell and those of the Night King take place—well, at night—but seeing who lived and died was difficult at times. And while the technical stuff was a wow! the fighting was pretty repetitious (My favorite in the GoT Combat Division is the Battle of the Bastards. Interesting fighting, an almost save of Rickon Stark, and most of all, it took place in daylight!). But it was worth sitting through 85 minutes of this just to see Arya outwit the wights to finally kill the Night King, thus destroying his empire. In Stark We Trust.

By the way, does Winterfell have a Department of Public Works? Who gets to clean up all that wight mess left behind?

So the end score was Night King: 2, House Mormont: 0. Jorah’s been in the GoT death pool for several seasons now, and it was good to see him have a fitting departure, battling to the death to save his Khaleesi. Ah, unrequited love. And little Lady Mormont likewise did herself proud with that bullseye to the eye of that ice giant. I’ll miss her.

No surprises with respect to the rest of the dearly departed. Theon Greyjoy’s been a dead man walking ever since he opted to rejoin House Stark. At least he received that final purifying “You’re a good man, Theon” from Bran. Other non-surprises were Edd and Beric Dondarian who, per that witch Melisandre, had “served his purpose,” living one more life just to save Arya. And speaking of departures, I knew Melisandre could only die by turning into dust. Someone better rescue that ruby fast!

Two quickies to end this discussion:

It was great to see two formerly non-combatants swing swords, namely Dany and Sam Tarly. Good work!

I still think Tyrion and Sansa will end up back together, despite her opinion that their marriage never would have worked out. His reaction to her “You were the best of them” was one for the books. By the way, did anyone else think Sansa was going to pull a murder/suicide with Tyrion in order to avoid Death by Wight? Her mother’s daughter for sure.

Now all these people get to kill each other in the fight for the Iron Throne. See you next week.

Posted in Television

Home Stretch

I’d been studiously sitting out the 24/7 “Game of Thrones” party that seems to have been everywhere during the last several months. This is one show for which I’ve always avoided spoilers like the plague, because there’s nothing like a GoT “OMG! Did they actually do that?!?” gasper. Since I went HBO-less for several months after I received my cable company’s latest rate hike, I didn’t even rewatch any of the episodes except for some bits and pieces in the week leading up to this season’s premiere. However, you can be certain I was sure to catch one of the most satisfying scenes in GoT, namely Littlefinger’s demise at the hands (and dagger) of Arya—good times. In Stark we trust.

So here we are again, in snowy Winterfell, this time preparing for battle against the White Walkers.

Does finally getting your heart’s desire automatically move you up in the GoT death pool? Brienne gets dubbed a knight, Arya has sex for the first time (and knowing GoT, it may be her last), and Jamie gets a pass from Bran for shoving him out that window so many years ago. Several seasons ago I predicted Jamie and Brienne would die side by side in battle, and it seems to be coming more and more into focus now.

That having been said, is there any doubt that Theon Greyjoy is Numero Uno in the death pool? I’d throw Euron Greyjoy into the pool, too, because I doubt Cersei will be putting up with him as soon as she gets her elephants. A little poison in the mead goes a long way.

I’m so enjoying the Danaerys/Sansa stand-off. Oh, Sansa—in-law trouble already and they’re not even hitched. I loved the initial meeting between these two ladies. You could actually smell the rancor. Things became far more interesting in last night’s episode, which clearly demonstrated their differences. Sansa is internally guided—she’s learned the hard way from her experiences with Geoffrey, Cersei, Littlefinger and the Boltons. She’s absorbed all this and has no need for outside counsel. Thus her pardoning of Jamie, not to mention her unyielding demand that the North remain its own kingdom, even with Dany on the Iron Throne. In contrast, Dany is constantly guided by voices not her own, most recently that of Jorah Mormont who astutely reined her in. Now that she knows Jon’s claim to the throne is greater than hers (not to mention that she’s slept with her nephew), I’m not certain any advisor will be able to help.

Just a couple of quickies before next week’s Big Battle:

Tormund still has it for Brienne. Will anything ever come of this?

I hope Sam Tarly avoids the death pool. Even though they treated him badly, it was heart-rending to see him learn the fate of his father and brother from Danaerys, whose dragons melted them. Sam needs to stick around–it will take a scholar to tell this tale to future generations.

How many Iron Throne claimants are there in the picture? There’s Jon, Dany, conceivably Jamie as a Cersei-usurper, and don’t forget Gendry, Robert Baratheon’s bastard. Assuming the Night King is defeated, who will prevail? It seems the real battle lies further ahead.

Posted in Television

Bingeing “The Good Wife”

 

I passed on CBS’ “The Good Wife” when it initially aired in 2009. To be accurate I watched the first episode, but the second, in which Denis O’Hare as an eccentric judge did something legally outrageous, buried the show for me. However, time, a subscription to Amazon Prime, the recommendations of friends and finally a desire to see “The Good Fight,” its sequel on CBS All Access, made me look again. So I binged, watching all seven seasons in about six weeks (being between jobs helped).

As a result this was my longest sustained TV series binge. It didn’t top my record of nine episodes in a day—that’s held by my New Year’s Day binge a number of years ago of Season 4 of “The Wire”—but “The Good Wife” is so addictive I was tuning in almost every night. I tried to stay away from spoilers, reviews and other online material, but due to news coverage when the show originally aired it was unavoidable that I knew of three key “Good Wife” events: Will Gardner’s murder, Kalinda Sharma’s departure in Season 6 and Diane Lockhart’s slapping Alicia Florrick’s face in the series finale. I usually hate being spoiled about anything, but this didn’t lessen my enjoyment in the slightest.

The verdict? For Seasons 1 through 5: Tremendous. For Seasons 6 and 7: A grade of C-minus and a long, loud raspberry.

For those who never watched the show, “The Good Wife” begins with the media-event resignation of Peter Florrick (Chris Noth) from the office of State’s Attorney for Cook County (Chicago) in light of charges that he used public funds to pay for prostitutes. Standing stoically by his side is his wife, Alicia (Julianna Margulies), enduring the type of humiliation with which we’ve unfortunately become so familiar (See Silda Spitzer, who was the inspiration for the show’s creators; Hillary Clinton; Dina Matos McGreevey; Huma Abedin, etc. etc.). After his conviction and imprisonment, Alicia needs to return to the practice of law to support herself and her two teen-aged children. Fortunately her old Georgetown Law School flame, Will Gardner (Josh Charles) offers her a first year associate’s position at his Big Law firm, Stern, Lockhart and Gardner, where she’ll be competing for a more permanent berth with another first year associate, Cary Agos (Matt Czuchry) who’s a good 15 years her junior. The game is on.

At this point I suppose I should get the elephant out of the room. As an attorney I’m sometimes irked at the inaccurate way TV portrays the legal system, but sometimes not—I was a huge fan of “L.A. Law” back in the day, and their shenanigans were legendary. Insofar as “The Good Wife” is concerned, its track record in this regard is somewhat erratic. It seems for every six things they get wrong, they do get at least one thing right. There are good scenes involving trial preparation and discovery, and it was refreshing to see Alicia handle gritty bond court work after dwelling in the rarefied air of Big Law. But I had to throw in the towel on legal accuracy after seeing a deposition conducted in an early episode. Among other things: (1) Opposing counsel sat right next to Cary Agos’ client; (2) Cary did not demand that opposing counsel move to the other side of the conference table, as is standard (3) Opposing counsel didn’t question Cary’s client, but laid out a scenario in a long conversational discourse (4) Without an “Objection as to form” from Cary. At this point it was either nitpick the show or enjoy it, so I opted for the latter. Disbelief wasn’t just suspended–it was thrown out the window.

So enough of the law–we’re here for a TV show, and for my money, the first five seasons of “The Good Wife” featured the best writing on a network series I’ve seen in a very long time. It was immediately apparent that the show’s creators, Robert and Michelle King, were playing to the urban and the urbane, and by knowing their audience so well, they produced a particularly engrossing series. The storytelling was taut, with little braking for explanation, whether as to a legal point or otherwise. It amused me to hear Will Gardner refer to ex-senior partner Stern’s cronies as “alter kockers” with no translation (per Leo Rosten’s excellent book, “The Joys of Yiddish,” the cleaned-up English equivalent would be “old farts”). Similarly when Will and his partner Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski) are discussing funeral arrangements for Stern, the latter asks where the family will be “sitting shiva,” i.e., observing the Jewish period of mourning. Again, no explanation because refreshingly the audience is expected to know. Another source of enjoyment: how entertainingly “The Good Wife” serves as an astute tutorial on politics, both public and private. Peter Florrick’s world and especially the maneuverings of Eli Gold (Alan Cumming), his political advisor, are neatly mirrored in the power struggles at Lockhart Gardner where name and equity partners play tug of war over the firm’s future.

After bingeing so many episodes, I’m a bit blurry as to what happened when. Nevertheless, some stories are particularly memorable. The superb episode “Doubt” from the first season, featuring rapid cross-cutting between jury deliberations on the fate of a college student accused of murder and flashbacks to the trial testimony. We see the jury vote by written ballot, but after much angst, the defendant is persuaded by her mother to take a 10 year plea deal rather than gamble on a verdict, though the defense made a strong case that there was no crime—it was a victim-induced accident. The heartbreaking reveal? The jury voted “not guilty,” but not in time to prevent that young woman from throwing away a significant portion of her life. Talk about cutting to the bone. Similarly a pair of key discussions, one between Alicia and Will, the other involving Diane, are true eye-openers for Alicia as well as the audience. When Will turns at the last minute and votes against Alicia’s choice for a new associate in order to support the hiring of equity partner David Lee’s (Zach Grenier) niece, Alicia is all “Why???” Will calmly replies: “Because I owed him one. How do you think you were hired?” When Alicia is made an equity partner for political reasons to the exclusion of other fourth-year associates, Diane’s confession to Alicia that the only reason Stern made her (Diane) a partner was out of tokenism, namely to fend off accusations of sexual harassment and discrimination made against the firm. And the episodes involving the courthouse massacre in which Will dies and its aftermath are just flawless.

Unfortunately, “The Good Wife” began to lose steam for me beginning in Season 6. Plots and machinations became repetitious; while watching Will, Diane, David and Julius Cain (Michael Boatman) plot to vote out a disagreeable partner was delicious in Season 2, it became tedious several seasons later as paranoia among partners set in and the gamesmanship took precedence over the lawyering (no wonder Cary leaves the firm). Even more, Kalinda Sharma’s departure was a major disappointment for several reasons. Archie Panjabi played that role with panache—it was a kick to watch Kalinda in action, either sleuthing or seducing. I also thought the plot which led to her exit was both awkward and awkwardly handled—a drug kingpin like Lemond Bishop would have made it his business to kill her. And while Cary Agos’ standing trial on drug charges was a nail-biter, his subsequent ascension to name partner undid our interest in him. He was far more engaging as a snarky first year associate and Deputy State’s Attorney, even more so as Alicia’s partner as they bolted from Lockhart Gardner. Many fans point to Will Gardner’s murder as the breaking point for the show, but oddly, I didn’t miss Will all that much at first. However, as the quality diminished over Seasons 6 and especially 7, I really felt his absence. Without him the backbiting at the law firm became very irritating, and I very much missed the rapport he had with Diane.

It’s impossible to praise the acting on this show enough. The casting was spot-on; it was a major asset for the series to be shot in New York, thus enabling it to draw from the pool of Broadway talent. It was also a shrewd move to have so many actors in recurring roles, which certainly kept things lively. Particularly memorable were Patti Nyholm (Martha Plimpton), attorney extraordinaire, Neil Gross (John Benjamin Hickey), internet billionaire with his amusingly named “Chumhum” search engine, and especially the louche Colin Sweeney (Dylan Baker, creatively cast against type) with his equally kinky fiancees and wives, wonderfully played by Morena Baccarin and Laura Benanti. Whenever he appeared, it was a party. On the other hand, I thought the show had too much of Michael J. Fox as Louis Canning, and not enough of Gary Cole as Kurt McVeigh (Be still my heart!) or Michael Boatman as Julius Cain (His “Because I don’t like you” to voted-out partner Derrick Bond was one of the show’s funniest moments). I also wish we had had more of Matthew Goode as Finn Polmar—he brought a refreshing Jimmy Stewart touch to a world of some slick characters. But “The Good Wife” stands on its regulars, and while all were excellent, special honors must go to Christine Baranski as Diane Lockhart—she is simply superb in that role.

A few final, random thoughts:

  • The antics of the NSA eavesdroppers were great comic relief. I cracked up at every one of their goat videos.
  • I really enjoyed the guest cameos of the judges and arbitrators: Jane Alexander, Jane Curtin, Ana Gasteyer (“In my opnion…”), Jeffrey Tambor, Richard Masur, Dominic Chianese (Uncle Junior!), Vincent Curatola (Johnny Sack!), Jay O. Sanders. And Christopher McDonald as the crooked bond court judge made a great “Man You Love to Hate.”
  • Speaking of villains, I thought Michael Cerveris as State’s Attorney James Castro was the best, what with that shaved head and soft-grained voice. It was hard to believe this was the same actor I saw as the closeted father in the Broadway musical “Fun Home.”
  • I’m sure you’ve noticed I’ve omitted discussion of Alicia and Peter’s family. For the record, I liked Zach until he decided to drop out of college and run off to France with his older girlfriend. I disliked Grace until she pitched in to secure clients for her mother’s new law firm. And both mothers—Alicia’s and Peter’s—were annoying, ditto Alicia’s brother.
  • As excellent as it was, “The Good Wife” left several threads dangling: Kalinda and Peter’s one night together was never really explained, though I picked up a hint this was compensation for his assistance in disguising her identity and erasing her tracks as “Leela”. We never learned whether Kalinda’s husband really left town, and whether he did so via her Plan A or Plan B. And what happened with Special Agent Lana Delaney after discovery of the information leak to her girlfriend Kalinda?
  • Sorry to all Jason Crouse (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) fans, but Alicia’s best squeeze was Will Gardner. Second place goes to Finn Polmar.
  • And what of Alicia’s future? In the final analysis she’s a survivor, though in my mind not an admirable one. Her “standing by her man” may have wowed voters, but there’s a doormat element to that kind of pose. Staying in that marriage came to seem masochistic, though it was obvious she and Peter continually and mutually used each other. I thought she was at her most likeable when she was most independent—bolting from Lockhart Gardner with Cary, and later starting her own firm. Having lost just about everything else, running for office seems to be all she has left by the end of the series.
  • And in case you’re wondering, I think she deserved that slap from Diane Lockhart for trashing Kurt McVeigh.

Onward to “The Good Fight”!

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 Books, Television

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch

Stefan (Fionn Whitehead), Colin (Will Poulter) and Mr. Thakur (Asim Chadhry) Checking Out Nohzdyve

Charlie Brooker has done it again.

“Bandersnatch,” the latest “Black Mirror” entry which dropped on Netflix last week, is an infernal maze of “Choose Your Own Adventure,” that’s maddeningly intriguing. This is the first Netflix presentation that requires viewer interactivity—you have to watch with remote in hand in order to select from among the potential plot options along the way. Fans have already produced maps, flow charts and critical path drawings of the various outcomes, and while they’re helpful, it’s so much more fun to go into this world on your own. I guarantee you’ll visit multiple times.

We begin in 1984 with young Stefan Butler’s attempt to create a game called “Bandersnatch” based on a multiple outcome novel of the same title. Its author, a mad genius named Jerome F. Davis who believed in multiple existences and parallel universes, later became notorious for beheading his wife. Stefan takes his concept to a company named Tuckersoft (nice nod to “San Junipero”) headed by a Mr. Thakur who immediately enthuses over Stefan’s work in progress. He offers him a spot working on premises with a development team, and this is where the viewer makes the first key choice: Does Stefan work collaboratively or on his own? The later options increasingly raise the stakes—does Stefan see his psychiatrist when he becomes blocked in his work, or does he seek counsel from Colin Ritter, Tuckersoft’s resident genius game creator? Does he take his meds or not?

Each fork in the road leads to a significantly different outcome involving the characters’ various fates, and more amusingly, the rating eventually given to the “Bandersnatch” game by a quintessentially nerdy TV reviewer. There’s method in Charlie Brooker’s and Netflix’s madness: If you’re not happy at any point with the story you’ve essentially created, you can’t rewind or fast forward—you can only erase your choices by starting over again from the beginning. However, when certain options lead to premature or dead ends, you are presented with the ability to redo a critical selection. This is occasionally irritating, but the more time you spend with “Bandersnatch” the more intriguing it becomes.

At its core, “Bandersnatch” is a world of mirrors reflecting mirrors. The references and homages enhance rather than detract from the experience. In addition to that reappearance of Tucker, we see that Colin’s current best-selling game is called “Metl Hedd,” reflecting the “Black Mirror” episode of the same title from Season 4. More audaciously, one of the “Bandersnatch” outcomes uses a plot device straight from a classic “Twilight Zone” episode entitled “A World of Difference,” where determining what exactly is reality is impossible. And let’s not forget the origin of the word “bandersnatch” either….through the Looking Glass (punny, isn’t it?) indeed.

The acting is uniformly excellent, though special honors go to Will Poulter as Colin Ritman, who fills the role of Stefan’s guru. With that white hair and the character’s various obsessions, you can’t take your eyes off him (And speaking of which, I’d love to know how his buggy eyes were achieved during a key sequence).

So when you have the time, key in Netflix, keep your remote in hand, and start your “Bandersnatch” adventure. Good luck!

● ● ● ●

There’s no better way to wait for the rest of “Black Mirror,” Season 5 than to read “Inside Black Mirror,” a thorough history of the show and a compendium of commentary by the creative team for each episode. It’s fascinating to see where and how the concept for each story originated and how it grew, was modified and ultimately realized on-screen. Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones, his producing partner, are wonderfully readable, but the best chapters are those in which the actors contribute to the discussion, including among others, Jon Hamm on “White Christmas,” Bryce Dallas Howard on “Nosedive” and Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Mackenzie Davis on “San Junipero.” With all the razzle dazzle of “Black Mirror” and its storytelling, the show’s consistently astute casting shouldn’t be overlooked.

“Inside Black Mirror” makes for compulsive reading and of course the need to revisit all those episodes, if only to pick up on details you may have missed the first time around. It’s a keeper.

 Happy New Year to all!

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.

* * * * * * *

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 Books, Music, Opera

Marnie

Marnie (Isabel Leonard) and her Shadows (Copyright Metropolitan Opera)

Luckily Alfred Hitchcock did not have the last word. In its new, operatic form, “Marnie” is an interesting work, not necessarily in spite of its flaws but perhaps because of them. Composed by Nico Muhly with a libretto by Nicholas Wright, the opera ended its run at the Metropolitan Opera last Saturday with a live HD transmission. Prior to that I was fortunate to see it in the house.

For better or worse, what consistently drives “Marnie” is the drama. The problem? What works best on the page doesn’t necessarily work all that well on the stage. The basis of both the opera and the Alfred Hitchcock film of the same title is a 1961 novel by Winston Graham, author of the “Poldark” series. Narrated by the title character, “Marnie” is the story of a thief who steals from her employers and continually changes her identity to conceal her crimes. She’s caught in the act by Mark Rutland, head of his family’s publishing firm who’s obsessed with her. He essentially blackmails her into marriage though she has an absolute horror of sex. Her refusal to sleep with him culminates in what is now legally known as marital rape. Despite this (or perhaps because of it), Mark continually protects Marnie as her past begins to catch up with her.

To say this is not your usual operatic subject is an understatement.

In resetting the work to 1958, the opera’s creative team made some alterations to the story, both major and minor. I think it was a mistake to make Mark’s mother something of a villain—I missed the cordial relationship Marnie has with her in the book, as well as her friendship with several of Mark’s tenants, all of which serve to present a warmer side of the character. Further, the original Terry is Mark’s cousin, not his brother as he is in the opera, and the corporate in-fighting between them plays a far larger and more bitter role in the novel. It’s Mark, not his mother, who’s behind a buy-out and later a sale of the company, thus triggering Terry, who knows full well of Mark’s obsession with Marnie, to retaliate by reporting her to the police. Most importantly, though, in a nod to more enlightened sensibilities, the creative team has turned Mark’s rape of Marnie into an attempt rather than a completed act, which is immediately followed by a stunning visual (in silhouette) of her suicide attempt. While this change was certainly welcome, I thought the operatic team should have picked up on Graham’s strong hint that Marnie had been sexually abused as a child by at least one of her mother’s “customers” during the latter’s time as a prostitute.

“Marnie” proves that Nico Muhly has grown enormously as an opera composer since “Two Boys.” He’s writing more closely to character now, and the music becomes more lyrical as the opera unfolds, especially in the second act. Muhly is celebrated for his choral writing, but perhaps we have too much of a good thing here. The first act chorus of office workers commenting on the storm and stress of Marnie’s life is somewhat excessive, and goes beyond just covering one of her fifteen (!) costume changes. On the other hand, his writing for the chorus at the country club dinner, and particularly at the hunt and at Marnie’s mother’s graveside, is spot on. Best of all are the Shadow Marnies, the four singers who frequently accompany her and illustrate her state of mind. Muhly directs them to sing in vibrato-less fashion, which results in an eerie sound perfectly suited to a psychological thriller. It’s an updated version of the theremin soundtrack used so often in 1940’s movies to underscore disturbed characters (See “Spellbound” and “The Lost Weekend”). The Shadow Marnies’ list of her many aliases in the opera’s final scene is particularly chilling, and they provide a great visual, especially during Marnie’s sessions with a psychiatrist, as they literally take turns on the couch.

Even the critics who panned the opera have applauded the production, and rightly so. Designed by Julian Crouch and directed by Michael Meyer, creator of the Met’s Las Vegas “Rigoletto,” this is the best I’ve seen at the Met since Robert Carsen’s “Der Rosenkavalier” of two seasons ago. Some choices seemed odd at first, especially the appearance of several male dancers in gray suits and fedoras during Marnie’s first theft—I thought they were plainclothes detectives. However, they’re put to excellent use during the hunt scene as they embody the tumult that ends in Marnie’s destroying her injured horse, Forio. Speaking of gray suits, the 1950’s costumes, designed by Arianne Phillips, were classic, and stylishly worn by both principals and choristers. What a welcome sight to see such a unified vision on stage.

The cast couldn’t have been better. Muhly wrote the opera with Isabel Leonard in mind, and the role suits her to a T, both vocally and dramatically—plus she looked fantastic in her ’50’s wardrobe (all fifteen outfits). Christopher Maltman brought some gravitas to the obsessed Mark; his besotted gaze at Ms. Leonard when she tied his black tie but continually turned his head away from her, spoke volumes. His diction was superb, to the extent that I didn’t need the titles when he sang. Iestyn Davies was perfect casting for the slippery Terry; Muhly rightly illustrated the character’s observation to Marnie in the novel that “We’re two of a kind” by scoring Terry for countertenor, thus having him share a good portion of her mezzo-soprano vocal range. The supporting cast was likewise excellent, including Janis Kelly as Mark’s mother, and Anthony Dean Griffey (Mr. Strutt) and Denyce Graves, still in terrific voice as Marnie’s mother, both back at the Met after many years.

While I think “Marnie” is a good work, as opposed to a great one, it makes me want to hear more from Nico Muhly. He’s only 37. I’m eager to see what he does next.