Friday, March 23, 2018

Three in the Air

On my thirteen-hour flight I managed to watch The Shape of Water, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Mo., and The Party in a marathon movie extravaganza. Best first. Three Billboards was a much more powerful picture than I had expected. Frances McDormand is the real deal, a strong actress who commands the screen. Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell gave fine performances, too. I liked how the film showed the attitudes of the townspeople and the indomitable nature of McDormand's character, even when she is off on a crazed pursuit. As a drama, it was gripping, with one big scene after another. A true movie movie. I would've nominated Sandy Martin for Best Supporting Actress--she turns in a bravura turn as Rockwell's mom.

Shape of Water is no more than a fancier rendition of a traditional monster picture. Sally Hawkins plays an interesting version of the girl who falls for the monster and Octavia Spencer gets into her role as the friend at work who watches out for the girl. But: monster warms to girl, monster escapes, monster shows a few human touches, monster is pursued by Russian spies, chase is the last climactic segment, all predictable. Since the monster doesn't speak, Boris Karloff still is the standout in this kind of role. Best picture? They had to be kidding. Some clever lines and photography and nice use of 1950s settings.

The Party is a Brit black-and-whiter with lots of talk. Kristin Scott Thomas and Cherry Jones are always worth watching--since they remain two of our finest actresses. Jones usually is a stage standout so it's good to get a chance to see her on screen. Last time I had seen her was as a powerful Amanda in a Broadway revival of The Glass Menagerie. It was fun seeing Bruno Ganz as an older guy--I remember him as the lead in Wim Wenders's The American Friend, drawn from one of Patricia Highsmith's Ripley novels. Timothy Spall just seems to stare at the camera. Patricia Clarkson is fun in a way as a real bitchy friend. But it all is a blur and adds up to a whole lot of nothing. These people have the problems all coteries have and their's are not all that enthralling.

Usually I like to relax on long flights with some classics. This time it was the Fred Astaire-Audrey Hepburn Funny Face. It is a classic Hollywood musical, set in Paris, with a collection of Gershwin songs and directed by Stanley Donen. Yes, it's fun but it is so 1950s that I started to have trouble sticking it out. Tried to decide whether Audrey Hepburn was doing her own singing or dancing. If she was, it was very good. Astaire always holds the attention and it is deservedly so. But the silly thin plotting here gets grueling. I kept thinking of the wonderfully titled (and delightfully written) John O'Hara story, Your Fah Neefah NeeFace, in which the characters remember a couple who would do wonderful imitations of Fred and Adele. 

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Three on Broadway

Had a nice long weekend in New York and saw three shows--Admissions, Come From Away, and Farinelli and the King. All were worth seeing. 

Admissions is at the Mitzi Newhouse under the Vivian Beaumont in Lincoln Center. Drama by Joshua Harmon, who wrote the excellent and very funny Bad Jews which we saw here in DC a couple of years ago. This one has a director of admissions, the wife, at an elite New England private school where the head is her husband. She's big on diversity but then she is hit with it seeming to work against her son's applying to elite institutions.

This play raises good issues of hypocrisy and values. They are well presented by the players, although the burden here to me always rests on the playwright to make it work. I think it does, although I wasn't always sure we had been given enough about each character to make us accept everything that follows. 

Come From Away is a musical--the current style which is steady music all through but which sounds basically the same. I liked it as a show--it moved, the cast was energetic, and they made the concept of the mob of air travellers who were stuck in Gander, Newfoundland, after September 11 work. The theme is the encounters between the air passengers and the locals. Lots of laughs and enjoyable, although, as noted, the music did not strike me as especially interesting.

Farinelli and the King was a more complicated affair altogether. A famed castrato singing Handel's opera in London is recruited to come to Spain to raise the spirits and cure the ailments of the reigning king, Philippe V. The play, her first, was written by Claire van Kampen, who is married to Mark Rylance, who plays the king, and, incidentally, is probably the finest working actor in the world today. There's some good dramatic tension because Rylance and the two performers who play the singer--one delivers the lines as an actor and another, a countertenor, sings the singing parts, which are arias from Handel's operas. Two countertenors share this part, apparently each singing every other performance.

There's been some commentary saying that the play is no big deal but Rylance is always worth seeing. I thought the play was fine and that the two title characters (Rylance (the King) and the singer) play off each other well. Rylance has the biggest part and is always a delight to behold. Supporting characters are good--the institutional figures pressuring each of the lead: in the case of the King, his chief minister, and in the case of Farinelli, his producer/manager in London who wants him back there. There's also another good character, the Queen, who comes from a fine Italian family and understands all. 

Monday, February 26, 2018

Unions: You Had to Be There

There are two reasons why unions are on the run in the U.S. One, of course, is the largely successful campaign by corporate America to weaken and destroy them. This has grown in intensity even as the power of unions has diminished. It has succeeded because of the huge funds expended on it and because people who preach against inequality don't really believe in having a strong voice for the working people in this country.

This is written as it looks like the Supreme Court, probably by a 5-4 vote, will end the fair-share rules that enable unions to collect from workers in unionized workplaces who want to be free riders. Too many people--rarely those who have ever worked in a union environment--think this is a free-speech issue. It isn't. It is part of a steady campaign by Republicans on behalf of their donors to wipe out unions.

The people who aren't working class--middle managers, academics, intellectuals--all kinds of people who think they are superior to working people, they talk about doing something about inequality but they won't defend the one institution that did the most to make this country less unequal. And it's because they, most of the Democratic Party, all of them from Hillary Clinton to Bernie Sanders, didn't find time to support unions and still haven't come forward now that the Supreme Court majority of reactionaries is about to do them in, that we are in this situation.

You haven't seen any newspaper editorials because media barons hate unions. There used to be powerful ones in the newspaper business and the barons have eventually kicked them out or weakened them. The Washington Post had a bad pressmen's strike years ago and has been anti-union ever since. The New York Times has never had a good word to say about unions nor have their "liberal" columnists.

Yes, I grew up in a family imbued with unions. I almost think you had to in order to recognize what they have done for middle America. No wonder the union members often turned to Trump: he meant none of his promises but he was the only candidate who bothered to at least affect an interest in working people. Hillary's managers figured they didn't need the unions. Great call that was. Bernie's people regarded unions as antediluvian. That's one reason why he couldn't have won.

So don't look to see great arguments for unions. The people who belonged and built them and still work for a living in this country--a small percentage still are represented by unions. The rest are mostly ignorant or suspicious. It's a shame that they are the ones who will suffer.

UPDATE (Feb. 27): Today the Times and the W. Post did publish editorials that favored the union position in the case argued yesterday at the Supreme Court. The Post's editorial supported a weaker position than the unions and their allies advanced in defense of a 40-year-old precedent.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

The Great Society

The second in this series of plays about LBJ which began with All the Way is now playing in D.C. at the arena and is titled The Great Society. Saw the first play in New York with Bryan Cranston starring. This production has Jack Willis in the lead, and he played the leading role when Arena did All the Way.

The theme of this play is more downbeat. LBJ starts enacting his domestic program but is consumed by Vietnam. Willis is good--he played the bartender in Lynn Nottage's Sweat, in which he excelled. The play, though, does not excite me the way the first one did and it wasn't just Cranston, who is a superb actor.

These plays do convey political history and there are good parts for Martin Luther King and J. Edgar Hoover, especially. But to me, the major shortcoming, and not totally fatal because it was an entertaining evening, arises from the usual rule that sequels don't match originals. The playwright's method is the same, many of the players are the same even if I didn't see the Arena production of the first play.

What of course was fascinating was to see this play in Washington. The audience was older so many likely recalled Lyndon Johnson. I wonder how many younger people have much idea of what he was about. They are unlikely to have plowed through the four volumes (a fifth is forthcoming, we hope) by Robert Caro, now in his late 70s. 

Johnson made the Senate work. Until he let himself be undone by Vietnam, he also managed to get an amazing run of progressive legislation through Congress, at a time when he had to deal with reactionary Southern Democrats still controlling the committees in both houses. In the first play you were shown how he mastered the process. No one since has come close. It is worth remembering him and remembering what he did and what no one else could do, then or now.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Songs All Weekend

It was a grand night for singing. We had figured out how to get free tickets for a performance at the Kogod Cradle theater in the Arena Stage complex of Leonard Bernstein's Theatre Songs, which was...just wonderful. The show was put on by about 15 students in Catholic University's Music Theatre program. They could sing--tough stuff like "Glitter and Be Gay" from Candide, and dance--the male chorus doing "Gee, Officer Krupke" from West Side Story.

The show moved from number to number without any wasted time spent on a book and was smoothly executed as if it had been staged by George Abbott. The kids were more than all right. They also had lots of charm and were constantly in motion, or so it seemed. Many songs were not that familiar--from On the Town and Wonderful Town

All in all, a wonderful night out. Then on Sunday we enjoyed the cabaret put on by The IN Series at the Atlas. It was a marathon of Jerome Kern songs, only it also moved with some costuming and occasional dance steps. The performers were a few years older and used their get-ups to get into some of the songs.

The high point was the six straight numbers near the end of the second act from Showboat. Jarrod Lee even produced a very respectable and moving rendition of Ol' Man River. Short of Paul Robeson magically materializing onstage, it couldn't have been better. Suzanne Lane provided a nice presentation of Bill, the one song in the show that Kern threw in from his trunk, it having been written some years before with lyrics by P. G. Wodehouse.

Once again, the show moved well and they packed a whole lot of songs in. Kern was a half-generation older than the great generation of songwriters--the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen, for starters. So soon after the turn of the century, he was doing "How'd You Like to Spoon With Me" and lots of marvelous tunes like "They Didn't Believe Me" and then clever stuff like "She Didn't Say Yes" from The Cat and the Fiddle.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Back to the stars

Over the weekend we took in the latest film in the Star Wars saga: The Last Jedi. I'm not a Star Wars fanatic--I did see the first three, missed the next three, and went to the last full movie a year or so ago, The Force Returns. I don't think any of the sequels, prequels, whatever, matched the original. For one thing, Alec Guinness only appeared in the first and Harrison Ford was a new face, at least to me, in that one.

This time, we get to say good-bye to Carrie Fisher, who eventually became the strongest performer in the troupe; when she started, it struck me that she was lucky to get the part. To me, the new leading players are fine but they could be in any adventure picture. And there's not enough cleverness in the writing to make this picture stand out. Lots of plot, lots of action, and what appeared to be a search for deeper meaning that remained unresolved.

Later, I watched the first few episodes of the second season of The Crown, on Netflix. There's some good acting here--last year's series was definitely high-quality. But I realized what the problem will be: the royals are not inherently interesting. Especially the Queen and Philip. Princess Margaret was an attention-getter because of her much more lively--and in many ways, sad--life. 

And I see that later in this series, they will bring back the Duke of Windsor, who commands interest because his abdication turned out to be one of the best things that happened to the Brits. He barely escaped being officially labelled a collaborator in World War II. He managed to outlive his dutiful brother, George VI, who earnestly took on the responsibility he never expected to have, and performed mightily.

There's also a drop-off on the political side. The series did confirm my view that Winston Churchill deserves great respect for the five-plus years of his wartime leadership, which was magnificent. But the series shows him in his last years as Prime Minister in the early 50s, when he was losing it and didn't have a war to fight nor an empire to defend. The finest decision by the British electorate was in 1945 when they decided that Winston was not the man to lead them in peacetime.

The speedy demise of the great Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, when he finally became Prime Minister, was well presented, but I'm already wondering about the portrayal of Harold (Supermac) MacMillan, who turned out to be shrewd enough to stay in power for more than seven years. Claire Foy does a fine job as the young Elizabeth II--even in these early years as queen, she already demonstrates that she may be the only one of the royals with any common sense.

Monday, December 25, 2017

'Darkest Hour" and 'The Post'

These are two excellent pictures. Darkest Hour shows Churchill at his best: 1940-45 was his time, a rather brief but totally overwhelming part of a long life. Before he had been an itinerant journalist, writer, politician, strategist of the disastrous Gallipoli invasion, and generally unappreciated Member of Parliament; in May 1945, when Britain finally held an election following V-E Day, he and the Tories were voted out as the populace preferred Labour in peacetime.

But during those first days in office, and for the next years, Churchill was the man they needed and he delivered. This movie is especially good at pointing out the crew of losers and appeasers who had dominated and still dominated the Conservative Party despite their yielding to his designation by King George VI. Neville Chamberlain had been ousted but was by no means finished--that came with his death within six months--and Viscount Halifax was a dangerous rival who wanted peace at any price and is seen in the film as going to any length to undermine Churchill and give in to Germany.

Gary Oldman is marvelous as Churchill as is Kristin Scott Thomas, as his wife, Clementine, the one person who could speak bluntly and effectively to him. Ronald Pickup, whom I saw on stage in a visiting Royal Shakespeare Company troupe in Brooklyn ages ago as both Richard II and Bolingbroke--he exchanged roles in alternate performances--was fine as Chamberlain and Stephen Dillane is appropriately slimy as Halifax.

We've had two fine performances as Churchill, with John Lithgow's in the first year of The Crown on Netflix. Darkest Hour, though, is set at the high point of Churchill's career--the low point for Britain--and the pressures he was under unyielding. He was really beginning to fade when he returned as prime minister in 1951 when Lithgow's role starts. And it was far more satisfying on screen than Dunkirk, which seemed to take the view that pictures can tell the whole story, as there was precious little dialogue.

The Post is well-done as well. Hanks and Streep shine as Ben Bradlee and Kay Graham. Their personalities alone justify the moviemakers deciding to focus on The Washington Post rather than The New York Times, which ran the first story on the Pentagon Papers, and when enjoined, saw the Post pick up and run with the story which Daniel Ellsberg had then provided, after the Post had tracked him down.

Today's Times had a column by Jim Ruttenberg that tried to make the case that the movie should have been about the Times. It's not just that the Post provided a better story: Ben Bradlee and Kay Graham were both more sympathetic and more interesting than Abe Rosenthal. Graham knew she was unprepared in many ways to make the biggest decision of her career and Bradlee was a natural showman. Even people who respected Rosenthal's ability regarded him as an obnoxious individual.

The movie, however, is excellent in its depiction of the whole scene and story, including its presentation of the Supreme Court scene, a pet peeve of mine, which was almost completely accurate. For some reason, Hollywood is unable to re-create the Supreme Courtroom accurately, although far more challenging sets have been built. Both movies tell important stories that cry out to be seen and remembered.