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Saturday, February 18, 2017

FInding Neverland (Musical)

Last night I saw the touring production of Finding Neverland, based on the 2004 film that tells the story of how J.M. Barrie came to write Peter Pan. He was inspired by the sons of Sylvia Llewelyn Davis, a free spirited widow whom he was probably in love with, in his own way.

The musical, with a book by James Graham and music and lyrics by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy, is an examination of imagination. Brought to life by Diane Paulus, one of the best directors of musicals working today, the show does hit high moments, and is especially relevant to creative types. I think especially of the closing number of Act One, when Barrie is visited by Captain Hook, representing his dark side, urging him to not give up on writing Peter Pan.

Paulus manages to do this with a score that isn't particularly memorable. I couldn't hum one of the songs upon leaving, and every time I think of a song called "Neverland"  I can't help but hear the one from the 1954 musical of Peter Pan--it's a hard (impossible, really) act to follow. What I take with me is the visuals, such as the depiction of Kensington Garden in 1903, or the backstage of a theater with a cast trying to come to grips with the parts they are going to play.

The book, by Graham, is full of exposition but also has some good one-liners, especially for the character of Charles Frohman, the American producer who reluctantly backs Peter Pan. When asked if he has a "child inside him," he says no, "I have an ulcer inside me." Dwelvan David, as a rich-voiced thespian, has some great fun when he realizes he's going to plan Nana, the dog. But he brings the house down when one of the boys asks him, "Don't you believe in fairies?"David responds, "Young man, I work in the theater" (Big laugh.) Then the kicker, "I see them every day."

In a clever bit of double-casting (which was done in the original production with Kelsey Grammer), Tom Hewitt plays both Frohman and Captain Hook in a performance that is an absolute knockout (and an actor's dream, I would imagine). Billy Harrigan Tighe, who just started playing the lead this week, makes a bland Barrie. Of course, after Johnny Depp plays a role with requisite weirdness, its another hard act to follow. Barrie's sexuality is something of a mystery (the movie implies that he and his wife had a chaste marriage) and the truth is that when Barrie met Davies she was still married. The musical has them romantically involved, sharing a single kiss, while I don't think the film suggested that.

Christine Dwyer is quite good as Sylvia, as is Karen Murphy as her mother, Mrs. Du Maurier. I think every show I've seen during the season at Smith Center (six, now) has had children performers, who are amazingly good. Since they rotate in and out of roles and are not announced, I can't single any out, but all four boys I saw last night were superb.

Friday, February 17, 2017


There is an impression that all the documentaries nominated for Oscars are depressing, and Jerry Seinfeld made a crack about that when presenting the award some years ago. That's somewhat true, as many of the films are about inhumanity--whether they be about the Holocaust or problems in the Middle East or what have you (the rest of them are documentaries about show business figures, it seems). But instead of the word depressing, I would substitute anger. If you're going to watch these films, prepare to get angry.

That's certainly the case with Virunga, nominated two years ago and directed by Orlando von Einseidel. The title refers to a National Park and World Heritage site inside the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is the last home of the mountain gorilla, as well as many other fauna, including elephants. The park has a guard service, who have done battle with poachers forever. In this film, they have to deal with something else--rebels, who believe they are hitched to the star of an oil company.

Von Einseidel uses four characters to tell the story. We meet a sector warden of the Guards, who participates in the funeral of another guard (the sacrifice of these men is very moving--they die by the score, to protect their country's natural resources), as well as a gorilla care-giver. He is in charge of four orphaned gorillas, the only mountain gorillas in captivity.

The chief warden is Emmanuel de Merode, a dashing Belgian who takes his job as seriously as one would hope. Also telling the story is a French journalist, Melanie Gouby, who surreptitiously  records her dinners with employees of SOCO, the British oil company that wants to drill inside the park, which would violate international law.

One could easily take Virunga and turn it into a feature narrative film. Gouby is young and attractive, and watching her doll herself up for dates with the SOCO guy made me think of Blood Diamond. She also tapes a so-called mercenary who says, "Who gives a fuck about a monkey?" If I were Gouby, I would have a hard time resisting cracking a bottle open over his head.

That Virunga Park even exists seems a miracle. This is a very war-torn part of the world, and as the events of the film unfold, a rebel group calling itself M23 try to take the park. They are under the impression that they will receive part of SOCO's profits, even though the company distances themselves from any violence. It once again proves that oil companies are among the worst of humanity.

There are bright spots. The care given to the baby gorillas (one of them dies--hanky warning) is wonderful to see. Then again, the guards come across an elephant that has been murdered and beheaded. It's hard to understand.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

The only Shirley Jackson I had ever read, which most people have read--"The Lottery"--has me interested in reading more of her work. I started with her last novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which again features the tyranny of the mob, and also is a case for agoraphobia.

The Blackwood sisters, Constance, who never leaves the house past the garden, and narrator Mary Katherine (called Merricat) live with their infirm Uncle Julian in large house that is well off the road (the town, as is most of Jackson's works, is supposed to be North Barrington, Vermont). The family is shunned and ridiculed by the townspeople, as we learn in one of Merricat's visits to buy groceries. Only later do we learn of a tragedy when four members of the family were killed when arsenic was put into the sugar bowl. Constance was tried and acquitted.

The sisters are very happy in their odd world, though, and Uncle Julian, who was not killed but hurt badly by the poisoning, is just as dotty. It's when Cousin Charles comes to town, looking for the family fortune, that things start to go wrong. He charms Constance and is at odds with Merricat, who practices a kind of magic that involves totems: "On Sunday mornings I examined my safeguards, the box of silver dollars I had buried by the creek, and the doll buried in the long field, and the book nailed to the tree in the pine woods; so long as they were where I had put them nothing could get in to harm us."

A fire is the climax of the book, when Charles is driven away, unable to carry the safe, and the towspeople join in on a riot, destroying the sisters' things. But they respond with a kind of resilient forebearance, spending the night in Merricat's hiding place but returning and rolling up their sleeves and "neatening" the house. The upper half is gone: "Our house was a castle, turreted and open to the sky."

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a book that mixes whimsy and dread. Though they are not supernatural, there is something unearthly about the Blackwood sisters and their house. Merricat explains: "Blackwoods had always lived in our house, and kept their things in order; as soon as a new Blackwood wife moved in, a place was found for her belongings, and so our house was built up with layers of Blackwood property weighting it, and keeping it steady against the world." The sisters are the kind of people who can't deal with reality, and the attempts by Charles to deal with them are both funny and sad--we like that he can't win, but we're sad that the sisters don't understand basic truths.

Unlike "The Lottery," certainly, We Have Always Lived in the Castle ends with a wave of humanity, a kind of "everything's going to be all right" that is always welcomed. Later this year, when my fall supernatural theme will be ghosts, I hope to read The Haunting of Hill House.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The 89th Academy Awards, Best Actress

In the Best Actress category, there is yet another lead-pipe cinch. Emma Stone, even before La La Land's release, was the favorite to win, and survived some other women mentioned. When the dust has settled, though, she is still the overwhelming favorite.

Why? The actress is extremely likable, and though young (28) that is not a problem in this category--she's older than last year's winner, Brie Larson. She has also been nominated before, and she does something that most performers are deadly afraid of putting on film--singing and dancing.

During the last few months there was noise about Natalie Portman winning again for Jackie. It is a wonderful performance, but she has won before and the film didn't get the traction that some thought it might--it's only other nomination is in costumes. That Portman didn't win the Golden Globe is telling.

That award went to Isabelle Huppert, who might be Stone's main competition. There have been only two wins by a Best Actress in a foreign language film, but Huppert certainly has the goods as a woman with revenge on her mind in Elle. There might be something of a career-award sentiment, although most Americans don't know who she is (she's made over sixty films).

In the don't bother writing a speech category there is Meryl Streep, with her twentieth nomination for Florence Foster Jenkins. The role is one of great skill, playing a woman is the world's worst singer and feeling intense sympathy for her, but Streep is not likely to win a fourth Oscar for this.

It is notable this year that all four acting categories feature a person of color; in the Best Actress category it's Ruth Negga playing a woman taking anti-miscegenation laws to the Supreme Court in Loving. It's a performance that often isn't nominated, because Negga plays her very quietly, and has no big moment "Oscar-clip" scenes. That probably will ensure that she doesn't win. It's very well possible that three actors of color will win on Oscar night, but not all four.

Will Win: Stone
Could Win: Huppert
Should Win: Stone
Should have been nominated: Amy Adams, Arrival

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The Ring

Today in my after-school horror film class, I showed the kids The Ring, and some of the kids got so scared they ran out of the room. It's interesting to watch children who don't extensive knowledge of film structure think a movie is over when the scariest scene is coming up (that was true with Poltergeist, too).

The Ring is a 2002 film, directed by Gore Verbinski, that was adapted from what has become a fertile ground for remakes--the Japanese horror film. This time it is set in Seattle, where two girls begin the thing (reminiscent of the Scream films) discussing a video tape that kills you if you watch it, but not for seven days.

One of the girls is dead of a stopped heart, the other is confined to a mental institution. The girl's mother turns to reporter Naomi Watts to try to get to the bottom of things. In some rather easy steps she finds the tape, watches it, and then gets that warning phone call that says "Seven days" (if only I could have arranged to have my phone ring after the video is shown--the kids would have jumped out of their skins). Her son's father, Martin Henderson, is a photographer and tries to get to the bottom of where the video came from, but it's a clue in the video, a lighthouse, that leads Watts to an island where there has been a lot of tragedy.

The Ring is one of the more effective horror films of this century, and it does it without much gore, sex or profanity, which is how I could show it to my students. Verbinski and his team are successful in creating such a sense of dread that anything can set one off. I particularly liked the use of a lone tree set against the sky, and the almost constant presence of rain (probably why it was set in Seattle). The video in question is also quite creepy, especially when the woman Anna Morgan looks at the camera while facing a mirror.

Watts, who is one of my favorite actresses, finds the right balance of incredulity and dogged persistence, and then amps it up after her son watches the tape. Brian Cox has two scenes, one of them quite shocking, and is his usual reliable self.

When everything seems to be over, and the mystery is solved, there is another scene, a masterpiece of fright, when the little girl climbs out of the well and comes right through the TV set. It has such resonance in today's pop culture that a sequel of sort was released a few weeks ago and a prank was pulled in an electronics store, with a girl dressed like "Samara" seemed to pop out of a TV set.

Of course, given the quick obsolescence of video, nobody is going to die these days. There are no VCRs to play the damn thing.

Monday, February 13, 2017

The Batman Lego Movie

Perhaps the most interesting credit for The Batman Lego Movie is that the Executive Producer is Steve Mnuchin, our brand new Secretary of Treasury in the Trump administration. That makes some sense, because this iteration of Batman makes the caped crusader seem just like a certain orange-hued billionaire president.

As I guessed last March, The Batman Lego Movie is far better than Batman v. Superman, but it isn't as charming as The Lego Movie. I mean, you can't go wrong when one of the first gags in the movie is that a plane belongs to McGuffin Airways (a McGuffin being a term Alfred Hitchcock used), but at times it is so busy that I felt a bit overwhelmed (I misread the times for my theater and ended up watching the 3-D version, which might not have helped).

Batman was an amusing supporting player in The Lego Movie, and Will Arnett is back in his own adventure. He is solipsistic, narcissistic, thin-skinned, and a bit power mad, and doesn't learn from his own mistakes, just like a certain president. He also has trouble saying he's sorry. In short, he's a basket case.

The message of the film is that everyone has to work together to make things happen, with the new Gotham City Police Commissioner, Barbara Gordon (voiced by Rosario Dawson) emphasizing cooperation with Batman instead of just calling for his help. Meanwhile Batman's arch villain, The Joker (Zach Galifinakis) is upset when Batman tells him he doesn't need him. Batman zaps him to something called the Phantom Zone, where the worst villains are kept, crossing genres with King Kong, Sauron, and Voldemort. The Joker frees them all, creating mayhem in Gotham City.

Other DC characters are on board, most specifically Robin (Michael Cera) and loyal butler Alfred (Ralph Fiennes, who does not voice Voldemort, even though he played him in the films. Weird). There are also brief appearances by the Flash, Green Lantern, and other DC characters such as Condiment King, who really is a DC villain. The Joker tells us to Google him.

With Arnett's growling voice, there is much humor mined from Batman's loneliness. He eats re-heated lobster thermidore, then retires to a private screeing room to watch Jerry Maguire, at which he howls with laughter. Everything about this Batman is so silly and childish, but it is in line with the Batman mythos, as there is a meta sensibility, going back to the '60s TV show and even the serials of the '40s.

I would have liked it more if it had dialed down the sappy message, made the action scenes a little less seizure-inducing, and concentrated on the comedy.

Sunday, February 12, 2017


The Grammys are taking place right now, but I don't watch. In the music business, what tends to rise to the top is not cream, but mediocrity. I am heartened that David Bowie has won four posthumous awards so far (he only won one while he was alive) which just makes me ask, "What were you waiting for, him to die?" I guess the answer is yes.

I've been looking at Grammy Award winners from the categories that are usually not awarded during the televised portion, but I'm going to end that with the winner from last year, 1989 by Taylor Swift (I will begin with tonight's winners in the coming weeks). Swift, who began as a virginal country singer, is now a megastar, and 1989 was the biggest selling album of 2014. She is one of the most famous people in the world, and seems to be friends with every model that walks a runway. But is her music any good?

1989 is named after the year she was born, and supposedly her lyrics are very personal (it is said that to break up with her is to get a song written about you). Her switch over to pop was probably a smart move, as country has its limits, and I'm guessing most of her listeners are girls or young women. Upon the first listen, I found her to be quite mediocre, but after a few more go-rounds I started liking a couple of the songs, but there is no circumstance that this could ever be considered to be the best album, out of thousands, produced in a year's time frame.

First of all, I personally don't like this style of dance-pop. Swift mentions Madonna and Annie Lennox in the liner notes, but it's more like Madonna (Lennox is much more interesting and subtle). There are many producers, but the sound is canned, and though drummers are credited it sounds like a drum machine--there are no solos of any merit, it kind of sounds like a karaoke machine.

Swift co-wrote all of the songs, and it's clear that at least a few are about her. The most obvious is "Shake It Off," which is also one of the best on the record.

"I stay up too late
Got nothing in my brain
That's what people say
That's what people say
I go on too many dates
But I can't make them stay
At least that's what people say
That's what people say
But I keep cruising
Can't stop, won't stop moving
It's like I got this music
In my mind, saying it's gonna be alright
Cause the players gonna play, play, play
And the haters gonna hate, hate, hate
Baby I'm just gonna shake, shake, shake
Shake it off"

This is nice way of responding to critics, without animosity and just positivity. I also like certain little touches, like the way she adds, "Mmm hmm" after "That's what people say" and a barely perceptible giggle after "I go on too many dates."

Another song that has a terrific hook is "Bad Blood," though the lyrics are more simple minded.

"Now we've got problems
And I don't think we can solve 'em
You made a really deep cut
And baby, now we've got bad blood, hey!"

There's not much of an attempt to rhyme here. Poems don't have to rhyme, songs should.

1989 is, as Larry David might say, "Pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty good." But it's not very ambitious, appeals to a low (but not the lowest) common denominator, and her winning a Grammy for it is more a thank you from music executives that someone can still sell records.