Parasite – 5.5

Bizarre. Part absurdist comedy, part horror film, part sociological commentary, none of it strikes an emotional chord or makes you think too much. The vibe is similar to Jordan Peele’s movies (Get Out and particularly Us), but there’s no one to root for and the story is full of holes: e.g., how can the son end up the hero after we saw his head bashed in, lying in a puddle of his blood? Maybe the movie would make more sense for a Korean audience, but if this is our glimpse into Korean culture I don’t feel I’m missing much.

The Sound of My Voice – 8

A total upper of a movie. Her current Parkinson’s aside, Linda Ronstadt was presented as having a charmed life: great voice, wonderful friends, happy relationships, good career moves. And with it all, she was humble. None of the preening, drugs, breakups, bad managers and falls from grace that marked every other rock bio seen lately. Her songs never sounded better and her cast of admirers was a good bunch: Jackson Browne, Cameron Crowe, Emmylou Harris, Waddy Wachtel, et al. I’m not sure how historically accurate the story was – I seem to remember her being immensely popular when the film suggested she was struggling or little-known – but when you’re smiling all the time, who cares?

Theater Thumbnails

We gambled on eight not-yet-reviewed plays/musicals as the fall 2019 season kicked off on and near-Broadway. Four were total successes and four not so much.

Linda Vista was the most traditional of the bunch, in structure and production. Totally enjoyable, lots of humor – both intelligent and bawdy – and characters you could discuss and disagree about. A well acted, slow-motion tragedy that was very funny.

The Sound Inside. A simple, spare two-hander, with Mary-Louise Parker as a Yale English professor and the similarly remarkable Will Hochman as her troubled freshman advisee. Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment  was the sinister subtext  for a compelling psychological drama.

The Inheritance, Part I. Innovative stagecraft, interesting characters and a meaty dissertation on being gay. It took a while to set its hook, but by the end the soap opera had enmeshed me. The stage was empty but the world was full and rich with young men we cared about.

Heroes of the Fourth Turning. A Big Chill of fundamentalist conservatives; very much a play of thought-provoking exposition, with four nicely unbalanced protagonists whose individual stories we pieced together as we grappled with their alien worldview. An intimate production that drew us in while holding us away.

Moulin Rouge. A lot of bombast, not much soul. With its random rifling of the rock library, it came across as a commercial reboot of Phantom of the Opera, which was pretty commercial to begin with. The sets, costumes and dancing were all sensational; I just didn’t care for or about any of the characters or their plights.

Tina. This showed promise up through “I Think It’s Gonna Work Out Fine,” although no ground was being broken. Then our star, Adrienne Warren, fell, quickly followed by the curtain; and when her understory gamely took over the role Tina’s amazing voice was gone. “River Deep, Mountain High” was a disappointment, and the show couldn’t carry less than a star.

The Great Society. A rehash of LBJ’s years as president, touching bases left and right. Brian Cox played LBJ as a one-note character, and there was nothing to be learned from a superficial reenactment of  times I lived through. This came across as more an encyclopedia entry than a play.

The Inheritance, Part II. Where Part I was fireworks shooting off in all directions, Part II was a one-dimensional downer, repetitive and maudlin (background music on Broadway, really?). All the points about gay life and the characters’ personalities had been made in the first 3-1/2 hours, and I got tired of the tawdry, the failed loves, the deaths and disappointments, notwithstanding a happy ending that didn’t fit.

Caesar and Cleopatra. Not a new play, and one we jumped on after a favorable review. Like our experience with O’Casey at the Irish Rep last spring, seeing a company devoted to Bernard Shaw was a good balance to the theater of today. This was a history lesson combined with a drama class, and a whole lot of fun.


First Love – 8

This kind of hilarious, over-the-top gangster flick is probably common in Japan (indeed, the director Takashi Miike has made almost 100 movies himself), but its sensibility is a rare treat for a New York audience (not to mention Santa Barbara). The casual violence (heads literally rolling), the tough-guy gangster attitude, the all-out gang war are direct modern descendants of the great samurai films of Kurosawa and Mifune. (They even throw in a samurai sword duel as homage.) The story, too, has been told many times before: two innocents – the “first love” of the title – find themselves pursued by three sets of bad guys who mistakenly believe they are hiding a big shipment of meth. Once you figure out who is who, the race to the end is pure joy.

Judy – 4

The last 60 seconds of “Over the Rainbow” brought tears to my eyes, but was that worth two hours of unrelieved misery, watching the pill-popping, self-destructive Judy Garland spiral in late career toward her death? Renee Zellweger’s tight face was painful to watch, her children were an embarrassment, and the attempt to make Judy sympathetic by backflashing to the pressures of her childhood stardom was a phony flop. On top of everything, the young Judy was charmless and the adult entertainer was merely ho-hum.

The Farewell – 3

So painful to watch I left after 55 minutes. The acting is labored, the pace is halting, the story is devoid of subtlety. In all, the most amateurish movie I’ve seen this year, starting with Awkwafina’s “acting.”

Ad Astra – 7

Visually stunning trip through space – and probably even better if the viewer is high, too. Once you suspend your disbelief and buckle up for the ride, there are lots of close-ups of Brad Pitt’s face and color saturations of red and blue, plus a healthy dose of soundtrack and silence to wallow in. Tommy Lee Jones and the whole Oedipal thing were a distraction; here, the journey was everything, not the destination.

Downton Abbey – 7.8

Loved every minute as all the characters we grown to love took a final spin on stage. The “plot” was preposterous – cramming an entire season’s worth of crises into a compressed few days – but it was the people, and their clothes, and their customs we came to watch. Everybody came out happy in the end, each in his or her own way. The Times reviewer who was upset that the lower classes were content with their lot has been living in her paper’s recent front pages, not as we have, in the world of “Victoria,” “The Crown,” and of course previous seasons of “Downton.”

Aquarela – 7.5

Extraordinary photography from around the world captured a dozen unrelated vignettes, except all had water, which isn’t much of a connection. The photography, augmented by the powerful, mostly dialogue-free soundtrack, forced you to think about, if not feel, The Power of Nature; The Crisis of Climate Change; and Man’s Insignificance. It was also, perhaps, the most plot-free movie I have ever experienced. Why, for example, was there a couple sailing a boat in stormy, icy waters?

Honeyland – 5.5

A rather bizarre quasi-documentary, in which we suspect nothing will ever happen, but then it does, but it isn’t much. There seemed something condescending about making a movie star of a poor Macedonian woman who kept bees and took care of an ailing mother, but maybe that is just me. Was the moral, even a simple life has setbacks and suffers from the greed of others? Or maybe there was no moral.