The Front Runner – 7.5

A fascinating look at recent political history, turning on the question whether a candidate’s “zipper problem” should outweigh the substantive benefits he could provide the country. Of course, the question seems a bit quaint and dated, given the personal foibles of our current president, but it was certainly alive a decade later when Ken Starr and the Republicans were going after Bill Clinton. Hugh Jackman and Vera Farmiga were both excellent as Gary and Lee Hart, although JK Simmons came across as the Farmers Insurance spokesman. Most interesting was the personality of the candidate, who could stubbornly believe that the people didn’t care about his personal life. Since Hart is still with us, you have to assume Jason Reitman didn’t take too many liberties. As for depictions of the press, I thought their mob action was overdrawn until I saw actual footage of much, much worse in Maria by Callas.

Maria by Callas – 4

If you’re an opera fan – or, better, a Maria Callas devotee – there’s plenty here to savor: biography, interviews, soaring music and endless views of La Diva. If you’re not, there’s a lot of scratchy recordings, pictures of Maria getting into limousines and out of airplanes, old newsreel-style clips and not much insight into why she was considered such a phenomenon or so controversial. Not finding her particularly attractive in personality or looks, I was more taken by the sideplot and glamor of Aristotle Onassis.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs – 7.9

There’s only one Coen Brothers – well, actually, there are two of them, but their vision is singular and unique. They are also masters of the craft of filmmaking; you feel they can do whatever they want, and you luxuriate in the experience. For the Coens, violence is an art, genres are meant to be played with, and laughter and terror are constant and uneasy bedfellows. If No Country for Old Men was a Dostoevsky novel, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a collection of Chekhov short stories, with allusions to Shakespeare, Chagall, Twain, Tarantino, Huston, and hundreds of Westerns before Indians became Native-Americans. Uniting the disparate stories was precise dialogue, erudite and literary, taken from a volume that looked like my Dodd, Mead Classics. My favorite was “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” for its sheer beauty, the complexity of its story and the acting of Zoe Kazan, although “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” set the table perfectly, was laugh-out-loud funny and merited its eponimity. Least favorite: “Meal Ticket.” Definitely on the plus side of the Coen Bros. ledger.

A Private War – 3

The dramatized story of a foreign correspondent who is neurotic, alcoholic, charmless and a chain-smoker, who injects herself into stories and cares more about the people whose “stories” she tells than the people in her life. And to what end? For her own fame? For the glory of her newspaper? Surely not to alleviate suffering in the world and end wars, because her stories have the impact of a mosquito bite on the political leaders and military-industrial complex that are responsible for the killing. However noble her intentions, it’s hard to sympathize as she continually exposes to danger the people she works with and disobeys the people she works for. I thought I was a Rosamund Pike fan, but this role turned me off – even with a totally gratuitous nude scene. This was more an advertisement for cigarettes than journalism. If not for my responsibilities as a blog reviewer I would have left about when she lit up for the 16th time.

Bohemian Rhapsody – 8

I give this a zero for originality and a 100 for hitting all the right chords, and when the chords in question are booming ’80s arena-rock anthems by Queen, you’ve got a head start on a really fun movie. It’s also a feel-good movie, despite the difficult private life and AIDS-related death of the lead character, Freddie Mercury, largely because all the people around him are wholesome, loyal and talented. The other three band members don’t change, don’t do drugs, don’t backbite, and they all contribute musically and write hit songs. Freddie’s wife is selfless and sweet in an impossible situation, and his eventual male lover is centered and mature. (Compare all this with the Temptations’ story, Ain’t Too Proud to Beg.) I was never a Queen fan, but here their music is winning and powerful – maybe partly because we never have to listen to a song in full. Ironically, their first label head, played in full disguise by Mike Meyers, refuses to release “Bohemian Rhapsody” because it’s too long, while the movie of the same name can’t manage to fit it all in, either. My only cavil was the attention wasted on Mercury’s bite. Whenever he wasn’t singing, it looked like Rami Malek was fiddling with his retainer.

The Happy Prince – 6.5

Rupert Everett’s paean to Oscar Wilde’s final, desperate days is mainly interesting for its connection to Oscar Wilde. “The Importance of Being Ernest” was in the back of my mind the whole time I watched Wilde’s dissolution in turn-of-the-century Paris and Naples. Coming on top of Collette, I’m getting familiar with the period, not to mention the disadvantages dealt to women and gays. An unrelated thought: how nice it must be to be able to cast Colin Firth, Emma Watson and Tom Wilkinson in secondary roles in your project.

NY Fall Entertainment

Our fall entertainment schedule in New York began and ended with audience singalongs. At “Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin” the elderly crowd at the 59E59 Theater heartily joined in on “God Bless America” and many other Berlin classics. They weren’t as put off by Hershey Felder’s unpleasant looks and persona as I was. A much younger crowd at sold-out Madison Square Garden on our last weekend danced and sang along with the much more charming Billy Joel, as he ran through his catalogue from the ’70s. His voice was more mature but still strong, his hits all brought back memories to me, and they seemed to resonate with many around us who hadn’t been born when they first came out. As for my musical taste, it’s still rock’n’roll to me.
Another musical we saw fit somewhere in between Irving Berlin and Billy Joel: “Oklahoma!” Rodgers and Hammerstein’s songs were at the same high level as the other two, and it was fun to hear them again. Unfortunately, Daniel Fish’s attempt at a new look at the story can only be described as a misdirection. Departing from the original, Curly shoots Jud in cold blood, then is promptly acquitted so he can go on his honeymoon in an obvious miscarriage of justice. This leaves a sour taste in the viewer’s stomach, one that was foreshadowed by a feral dream dance sequence to start the second act. You don’t feel any better about the peddler Ali, who is stuck with a cackling hen for a wife, or even Ado Annie, who is fated with a husband dumber than a cornstalk. To play “Oklahoma!” as such a total downer takes the fun out of all the bright, cheery music that has gone before – music that dramatically does not support the second act’s depressing turn.
“Girl from the North Country” also featured some good music – this time by Bob Dylan – and was also depressing, but intentionally so, as it took place in Duluth mid-winter during the Depression. There wasn’t much of a story, just a collection of characters who interacted in a boarding house before it went bankrupt. The vibe was reminiscent of last spring’s “Carousel,” although unlike that show and “Oklahoma!” the African-American lead was actually portraying an African-American. Half the Dylan songs were unfamiliar, some were shoehorned into the plot, and many weren’t played in full; the result was I left wondering if I would have preferred a Dylan concert.
We saw five straight plays – all of which I was glad to have seen, none of which was a Michelin three-star worth the trip. The one getting the most attention was “Waverly Gallery, partly because of its author, Kenneth Lonergan, but largely because of its superb cast, led by 86-year-old Elaine May, playing an 85-year-old heading into dementia. As much as I didn’t like cheap jokes at the expense of the aged in Albee’s “Three Tall Women,” I somehow never minded May’s doddering, and the more reviews I read the more I admire her performance. Joan Allen, Lucas Hedges and Michael Cera were treats in their own right. The autobiographical play was more a meditation on a family situation than a dramatic engine, but it prompted one’s own meditations – and it was easy to hear as the characters all had to speak up to accommodate Grandma’s fading hearing.
“Lifespan of a Fact” benefited from equally strong performances by Daniel Radcliffe and Bobby Cannavale, a wonderfully mismatched pair. (Cherry Jones, as referee, wasn’t given as strong a role.) The plot was more a conceit than a story you could actually believe, but after a career of working with fact-checkers at TIME I enjoyed the ring the actors sparred in: should the article/essay be bound by literal facts when it was telling a bigger truth? Or, for example, how would you handle a piece by Hunter Thompson?
“Emma and Max” was another three-character drama, written and directed by the movie director Todd Solondz. The New Yorker called it “ham-handed,” which means it wasn’t subtle, which means I could understand it. It had the most inventive set of the plays we saw; the characters were cliches, but ones I appreciated; and the plot was linear and, in its way, hard-hitting. The whole thing could be described as small-scale, but given the size of the Flea Theater and the $15 ticket price, “Emma Max” represented the best value of our trip.
“Uncle Vanya” at Hunter College didn’t cost much more and, played informally in the round, was a memorable introduction, for me, to a theater classic. The Vanya character was a powerhouse, quite the opposite of Wallace Shawn in “Vanya on 42nd Street,” which we started to watch via Netflix. Chekhov, of course, doesn’t need my review.
The only disappointing play was “Bernhardt/Hamlet,” a star vehicle for the estimable Janet McTeer. I spent most of the evening quibbling over nits that didn’t make sense or didn’t seem right. The whole thing had an air of artificiality, exemplified by the character of Alphonse Mucha, whom I subsequently studied in the Metropolitan Museum bookstore. In sum, I didn’t get a sense of Sarah Bernhardt or enough Hamlet.