Brooklyn – 8.4

We’re living in Colm Toibin’s world at the moment – having finished Nora Roberts, reading The Master, now seeing Brooklyn – and what a sensitive and down-to-earth world it is! Characters are minutely observed, and the plot points are all everyday events. Here, all the everyday events happen to Saoirse Ronan’s Eilis, and the beauty of the film is watching her, almost imperceptibly, grow from a simple Irish lass – younger sister, good-looking girl’s best friend – into a confident young woman who makes her way in the New World. The secondary characters are all wonderful – none more than the reliable Jim Broadbent as Father Flood (and how nice, after Spotlight, to see the good side of the Catholic Church). I was puzzled that Eilis went so far with her Irish suitor, but maybe we just are meant to understand everybody all the time. In the end, we left the theater with a warm feeling, hoping that Eilis and Tony live happily ever after and that Ronan gets an Oscar nomination.

Spotlight – 8.5

An almost flawless movie that, more significantly, was important. It offered sympathy for victims of abuse and condemnation for the Catholic Church hierarchy, but most resonant for me was the plug for journalism. The Boston Globe reporters knocked on doors, used their contacts, pored through clips and records, went to court and trusted their instincts, sacrificing their private lives for the story – a herculean effort not likely to be duplicated by the internet bloggers that are taking their place. Indeed, the fragility of the investigative Spotlight department was telegraphed at the film’s outset, when the new editor is rumored to be a cost-cutter and we hear Michael Keaton describe his team’s mandate: four people working six months or a year on a closely held story that may or may not pan out. Near the film’s climax when we see the newspapers coming off the press, bundled and sent out in delivery trucks, our sense of nostalgia tempers our excitement: is this film a swan song for the printed paper?

If so, it is a worthy send-off, on a par with All the President’s Men, which famously heralded a golden age of investigative journalism – and the presence of Ben Bradlee Jr. as Spotlight editor further cements the link. The film is careful not to demonize, and by making the “bad guys” human the story, and the tragedy, are made more real. Cardinal Law is given a moment in the sun, and the one molesting priest we see is more confused than evil. The bad lawyers have their good side, and the good lawyer has his bad. Even the press is less than perfect: much is made of the fact that the Globe, and Michael Keaton, sat on this story for many years before the new editor brought it up.

I said “almost” flawless only because I was troubled by a couple otherwise worthy performances. Mark Rufalo, who got lead billing, was wonderful for an hour, but then his performance got too histrionic for me and his yelling too loud (maybe I was just sitting too close to the screen). Liev Schreiber was similarly impressive at the outset, but by the end I found him too diffident for his role as managing editor. Maybe he perfectly channeled Marty Baron, whom I’ve never seen, but he didn’t act like the many editors I have seen – in person and on screen. Conversely, Rachel McAdams was perfect.

(Smoking: The obligatory cigarette was seen about five minutes into the movie, then never again – despite all the “stress” the characters were under. Makes me wonder.)

Theeb – 8

“A minor classic,” said one review, and this small film was perfect in its way. It captured a time and place – the Arabia of Lawrence – and above all, a culture. The plot unfolded slowly, through the eyes of a young boy (“Theeb”) who never left camera range. He had to figure out how to survive on his own while simultaneously learning whom to trust, and how far. The underlying fact that pretty much everyone he came in contact with was out to kill someone else both complicated matters and made the story seem relevant today. This movie had SBIFF written all over it, but it was excellent, but underappreciated, in a commercial setting, as well.

Room – 7

This one is all about acting and psychology: how do you feel about what each of the characters lives through, and how well do they portray it? Brie Larson is amazingly equable in a seemingly insupportable situation; when she cracks you’re only surprised it didn’t happen sooner. The kid plays a kid – he’s the remarkable one. William H. Macy makes one wonder what he’s doing in this movie; and for some reason, Joan Allen’s face was unwatchable for me. I cringed every time she appeared onscreen. Other than the usual knocks on the media, the film seemed refreshingly agenda-free. It was, in the end, a study of people coping.

Broadway 2015


Yesterday we finished the musicals portion of our fall Broadway season, seeing in one week A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, Something Rotten and Beautiful, a month after we saw Hamilton. Although criticism is something more than assigning grades, that is where I will start, with the above receiving, respectively, B-, A-, B and B+. While nothing merited the A+ of My Fair Lady, West Side Story or Phantom of the Opera, or the A of a musical with great music, the overall standard was pretty high and we felt fully entertained.

Perhaps gone are the days when one exited the theater humming the tunes and when I would buy my father a record of a show as a Christmas present. While I can still sing numerous numbers from The Pajama Game, Paint Your Wagon, The Most Happy Fella, Guys and Dolls and everything by Rodgers and Hammerstein, what we have now are clever ditties, not memorable melodies – except for jukebox musicals like Beautiful, which is a horse of a different color.

Something Rotten, it turns out, is not so much a spoof on Shakespeare – “The Renaissance,” the opening chorus goes – as on Broadway musicals themselves. In the course of a rollicking two hours, scores of famous shows are alluded to (pun intended), and every expected number – from lovers duet to big production piece – is represented. Will Shakespeare himself is depicted as Conrad Birdie played by Tim Curry, and every member of the cast is delightful. Both Siri and I found ourselves enraptured by one of the chorus girls, she seemed to be having so much fun. The first act was tears-rolling-down-my-face funny; and if the second was slightly less so, it was mainly because the story had to move along to a resolution.

Hamilton is the most touted show of the season, and it is admirable in every way. Making a musical out of Alexander Hamilton’s life is an audacious concept and the biggest boost to American history since who knows when. There are some wonderful characterizations, notably a fey Thomas Jefferson and a comically self-satisfied King George III. Unfortunately, the central character, Secretary Hamilton, is rather nondescript; and while he is at the center of the action he fails to arouse our empathy. Maybe because I was simultaneously reading the Chernow biography on which the play is based, I found myself checking off events as they occurred, rather than feeling them flow. In sum, the play, however clever, felt a bit too dutiful. The production and choreography were exemplary.

Carole King, on the other hand, was an ultra-sympathetic and engaging focal point for a musical biography. Growing up in Brooklyn, missing a father, not particularly attractive, a woman in a man’s world, she succeeded beyond wildest dreams by her determination and talent. And what a legacy of music she gave us! Matching Goffin-King with Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil provided variety and dramatic contrast and allowed the producers to include a few more hits. My two reservations were the sophomoric book and the fact that none of the songs sounded as good as the originals. There was also the anachronistic use of Be-Bop-A-Lula, which made me wonder how much factual credibility I should accord this rock’n’roll history.

A Gentleman’s Guide was the first show of our second fall stint in New York, which is good because it would have paled had we seen any of the others first. It was endlessly clever, and Jefferson Mays was hilarious playing the seven D’Ysquith heirs whom Bryce Pinkham’s character had to remove in succession from succession. The music seemed to derive equally from Gilbert & Sullivan, My Fair Lady and British music halls; but for some reason the equally silly Something Rotten felt authentic, while Gentleman’s Guide felt artificial.

King Charles III is the best Shakespeare play of this century – and maybe I can claim of the last two or three centuries. It recalls Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear – and maybe one or two others I didn’t recognize – in the best way: a recall that adds tragic depth to the action at hand but is never apery for the sake of cleverness. A “future history play,” as it is subtitled, it hews closely to the world as we think we know it (through press mediation, of course) but moves to a conclusion that we can’t even guess at, although given its obvious forebears we know it won’t be good.

Belgian director Ivo Van Hove’s London-based revival of A View from the Bridge (officially opening tonight) replaces the gritty realism of Arthur Miller’s Red Hook, Brooklyn setting with the spare minimalism of a classic Greek production. Instead of the claustrophobia of a New York tenement, we are shown a furniture-less, soul-less, open square where the characters glide by one another. To further deracinate the play, van Hove has some kind of requiem playing non-stop in the background, occasionally punctuated by Kabuki clonks.

As misguided as the production is, the acting is a bigger problem. Just when I was about to say the acting in King Charles iii was perfect because the actors were all British, I came across the inadequacy of this British cast, and it was not because their off-and-on Brooklyn accents were less than impressive. Phoebe Fox as Catherine was a cipher compared to Scarlett Johansson, who performed on Broadway in 2010. She had none of the latent, burgeoning sexuality that drives both her uncle Eddie and the immigrant boarder Rodolpho. Worse, she swallowed her lines. Nicola Walker as her aunt Beatrice is shapeless; we see her pain but feel nothing. Her predecessor in the 2010 production – although I don’t remember her – was highly praised, and I’d love to think what Alison Janney, who played Bea in 1998, would have done with it. Her voice, too, was hard to hear; having to play to the audiences up on the stage didn’t help. Nor did the two Sicilian brothers, straight off the boat, exude the animal magnetism the play requires. Or even seem Italian.

While it’s common to update a Greek tragedy or Shakespeare play to modern times, it is less usual to take a modern play, as here, and strip it of topicality in an apparent effort to show its timelessness. In his effort to be cool, van Hove left me cold.

A Fool For Love was our theater finale, and it returned us to the theater of the ’60s or ’70s, a very American look at love-hate on the blue-collar level, a roundelay for actors that called to mind Sam Shepard and Jessica Lange, although Sam Rockwell and Nina Arianda were quite good. The performance would have seemed exceptional had we seen it in Santa Barbara or a regional theater. At $140 a pop, 75 minutes on Broadway left us feeling a little short.