Sunday, June 25, 2017

MovieMonday: Modern Times



None of the movies this weekend interested me (see below), and so I went to the local art house and saw "Modern Times."  Filmed in 1936, it is Charlie Chaplin's last silent movie and it is still fun to watch.  

Chaplin wrote and directed the piece, in which he plays his traditional Little Tramp character. His physical humor is on display throughout, from his characteristic splay-footed, tottering stride to the scene above, in which he roller-skates, blindfolded and blithely, around a floor with a big drop and no railing.  It would be simple now to create such a scene with clever photography, but it was not so simple 81 years ago when film was literal and actors performed their own stunts.  

(Yes, a smart set manager might have increased the apparent distance of the drop. Even so, Chaplin's skating is impressive.)

The two themes of "Modern Times" are factory innovation and survival during the Great Depression. The movie begins begins with Chaplin working on an assembly line and occasionally getting run through the machinery in a big factory.  The boss of the place bellows at workers from a screen in the odd moments when he is not working a jigsaw puzzle or reading the funny pages.  (CEOs were not popular in those days either.)

The hapless tramp loses his job and ends up in jail, then distinguishes himself assisting law enforcement and earns a comfy sinecure.  To his chagrin, he is released from jail and must find another job or, as it turns out, several of them.  

He meets up with a barefoot orphan, played by Paulette Godard.  She too is carted off to the hoosegow, in her case after stealing a loaf of bread, a clear Chaplin homage to the Victor Hugo novel, "Les Miserables."

Chaplin and Godard watch their luck rise and fall in the uncertain world of the times.  Every scene is a set piece for multiple humorous riffs. The audience in my theater laughed often and loudly.  The movie doesn't have much in the way of a resolution, but neither did the Great Depression in the mid 1930s.  Its two characters just keep trying; they are survivors.

This was the first time I had seen "Modern Times." What struck me was how many of its moments have been seen in other entertainments, including two scenes clearly inspired by "Horse Feathers," the 1932 Marx Brothers movie. The assembly line scene that opens "Modern Times" was rejiggered to good effect in the classic 1952 television episode where Lucy Ricardo and Ethel Mertz work in the chocolate factory.  

There is even a scene in which a fellow jail inmate gets rid of "smuggled nose powder," and the Little Tramp ingests the stuff, unknowingly and with amusing results.  I hadn't known that cocaine jokes were a thing that long ago; I was surprised last year by what I considered a dated cocaine reference in a contemporary movie.

You don't have to go to a theater to see "Modern Times" these days, but if you get a chance, I say, do it.


Movies Today

The Idiosyncratist is now in Nashville, a city with a broad arts scene and more than a dozen colleges, set in a metropolitan area with a population of more than 2 million.

I believe this market would have supported a first-weekend release of  "The Big Sick" and/or "The Beguiled,"  so-called "small" films that were widely and favorably reviewed in the national media.  Neither was available on a single screen among the hundreds in the area.

Instead there were dozens of opportunities to see each of several mass-market rehashes:  the fifth Transformers movie, the fifth Pirates of the Caribbean movie, the third Cars movie and the third Despicable Me movie.  

Enough, I say.

In this era of multiple megaplexes, I wish theater operators would give moviegoers a little more credit and not so much more-of-the-same all the darn time. 


Sunday, June 18, 2017

MovieMonday: My Cousin Rachel




Here is a movie that has everything going for it.  

It is a 19th-century story about a mysterious woman whose nature is either lovely or diabolical, as told by a naive young man who is unable to make sense of her, whoever she is and whatever her story.  

It is the second film version of a popular 1951 Daphne du Maurier novel.  The first movie, in 1952, was a big hit that established Richard Burton as a major-league movie star.  

It has talented Rachel Weisz playing the title role and keeping everyone guessing about her true nature. 

Its cinematography and music are wonderful.  The secondary characters are rendered well.  The physical setting, Cornwall, is a gorgeous feast of views of land and sea and a bed of bluebells. 

And Yet  

Despite all this, the movie doesn't quite work.  It feels strangely flat.

I'm no cineaste, but I offer three possible reasons why "My Cousin Rachel" is a disappointment. 

1) The young actor, Sam Claflin, playing Philip Ashley, doesn't convince the film audience that he really means what his character is saying.

 2) The script is so focused on the Rachel character that it doesn't give actor Claflin enough room to assert himself.  

 3) The story is too limited.  Great tales of the 1800s were of broader scale.  Think Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen, Leo Tolstoy, Charles Dickens, Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo. 
        We may have conditioned ourselves to expect more context from 19th-century authors and more intimate drama from the 20th century onward.  
        Certainly, the popularity of self-referential millennial memoir in recent years would support this hypothesis.


Daphne du Maurier

This novelist's most enduring work "Rebecca," has been the subject of at least two movies, a stage drama and multiple radio plays.

"Rebecca" is the semi-autobiographical story of a young, unnamed woman who marries an older man, a widower whose home is maintained by a harsh family servant who remains devoted to the dead mistress, Rebecca.

Like "My Cousin Rachel," "Rebecca" has been filmed twice, with two different ending details, generally to suit the tastes of the times.

Interestingly to me, a du Maurier short story, "The Birds," was the source material for one of Alfred Hitchcock's most successful movies.  

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Grandma's Celebrity Gossip

Our popular California columnist discusses the often tangled course of love and reveals her secret crush.



Grandma
Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman are getting divorced again. Every three years they do this, but the “get,” they never seem to get. Such a bother it must be to split $140 million. We should all have such problems. 

Adele Luskin’s niece Shelley worked at the Palisades High School where the DeVito kids went. The two daughters? Naches! But the son? A mazik of epic proportions. Every week, they were calling his parents for a sizung

Shelley said that one afternoon, like a horror movie, terrified kids ran into her office screaming that a big SUV was rolling through the parking lot without a driver. A couple of boychiklech chased it down, only to find that Danny DeVito was behind the wheel. His head barely reached the dashboard. Probably he forgot his booster seat. Oy vey iz mir!

Jennifer Lopez is a singer and dancer on TV and has a cop show where her hair is always perfect. And she’s in movies nobody in their right mind would pay to see. Well, now she’s cavorting with a famous ballplayer -- not the one who hanged himself in jail (Aaron Hernandez), but the other one, who was with the Yankees (Alex Rodriguez). 

Those two I get mixed up. The A-Rod has a fancy shmancy apartment on Central Park West, with a parade of women going in and out, including  Cameron Diaz, Kate Hudson and  Madonna, as well as floozies and nafkas.  

“Poor JLo!” say the tabloids, like she’s an innocent nayfish. Feh! Married three times, she’s had her way with busboys, chicken pluckers and the likes of Ben Affleck, Bradley Cooper, Puff Ditty, and that sweaty Cossack (?) from the Dancing Stars Show.


And one last thing: Sean Connery, don’t listen to them. You’ve still got it, my besodik gelibter. You can leave your shoes under my bed anytime, Mister Bond. Grrr!





Note

Grandma's most recent post is particularly rich in Yiddish expressions, including several that were new to the Idiosyncratist.  After consulting several dictionaries, the Id offers non-definitive exegeses. (Please share corrections as necessary.)  Here goes:

besodik  --  secret

boychiklech -- darling young boys

feh!  --  yuck! pooh!

get  --  a divorce document


mazik -- a rascal or imp

mygelibter  --  from the German, mein gelibter, sweetheart, my loved one, 
                   my cherished one

naches  --  proud pleasure, special joy--particularly from the achievements of a child 

nafka  --  a somewhat promiscuous woman, particularly one seeking physical or 
                 emotional gratification

nayfish  --  a doormat, someone who lets others step all over him or her but does 
                  not complain

oy vey is mir!  --  woe is me!

sizung  --   a conference or meeting


Sunday, June 11, 2017

MovieMonday: Captain Underpants




Okay, this is a silly movie.  Early on we learn that Principal Krupp's alter ego, Captain Underpants, is "more powerful than boxer shorts!" and "able to leap tall buildings without getting a wedgie!"  Later, Captain Underpants battles a foe by lobbing tighty-whities, slingshot style, at his opponent.  

This movie aims to entertain boys, and a few girls, between the ages of six and 10.  Virtually all of them are familiar with the popular Captain Underpants chapter books for young readers.

In fact, the film's plot seems to have been derived from two of the books:  "Captain Underpants and the Perilous Plot of Professor Poopypants," CU# 4; and "Captain Underpants and the Retaliation of Turbo Toilet 2000," CU#11.

The story wrote itself.  Evil Principal Krupp has driven all the joy out of life at Jerome Horowitz Elementary.  "Hope Dies Here," says a sign on his desk.  George and Harold, fourth-grade pranksters, write and illustrate comic books that caricature the principal and entertain their despondent schoolmates. 

The two are surprised to find that a plastic ring found in a cereal box will hynotize the principal, turning him into a happy-go-lucky superhero.  They are further surprised when, back in principal mode, Mr. Krupps hires a science professor named "Professor P."

When the professor's last name is revealed (yes, it's Poopypants), much mirth ensues among the students.  This in turn reveals the professor's goal in life, which is to stamp out all laughter in children, and you can almost see why.

At this point, the movie starts going into ever-wackier spirals of unreality that are punctuated by scatological references, flying rolls of toilet paper and a really, really big scary toilet.  George and Harold succeed beyond their wildest dreams and then realize that maybe their subversive success is not an entirely unmixed blessing.  

As is the rule in children's movies, Lessons Are Learned, here by George and Harold and their superhero/principal.  The credits roll with a song whose syncopation is this refrain:


Poopy Poopy Poopypants!
Poopy Poopy Poopypants!

I'm as susceptible to puns and poop jokes as the next person, and I laughed out loud several times during the movie.  If you want to do something nice for a boy of eight or nine, take him to see it.  He'll thank you. 


Note

The Captain Underpants books have been criticized for their vulgarity and failure of moral uplift.  Author Dav Pilkey made his case for letting children read what they enjoy several years ago, albeit in an undistinguished forum.  He's right.

And therein lies the rub.  We keep making movies out of the best children's literature, a theme whose downside I discussed last year.  

Maybe a Captain Underpants movie and many sequels were inevitable, given the tens of millions of CU books that have been sold. Maybe the movie will cause more young people to seek out the books, which certainly would be good.

But current American films move very fast, piling action on action and racing to big explosions and climaxes.  In short, movies cater to, and possibly cultivate, short attention spans.

Going to a movie compares to reading a book as eating a full bag of Tostitos compares to having a nice dinner with family and friends.  An occasional Tostitos binge won't hurt a person, but a steady diet of the stuff will. 

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Broadway and The Fantasticks

The annual Tony Awards ceremony is tomorrow evening.  The Tonys are the prizes for the year's best Broadway plays.  

Early odds favor "Dear Evan Hanson" as the best musical; "Oslo," a play about the 1990s Israel-PLO peace negotiations, as the best drama; and Bette Midler as the best actress for playing Bette Midler Dolly Levi in "Hello, Dolly!"

Meanwhile in New York, "The Fantasticks" is closing.  After a 42-year run starting in 1960, the play closed in 2002 because its Greenwich Village theater space was being redeveloped.  Then, in 2005, it was revived in another theater on West 50th Street, where it has run for another 12 years.   

With "Our Town," it is one of the most durable plays of the last century, economical to produce and with an evergreen story of young love and a memorable song with a circle-of-life theme. Outside New York, it has been performed by small theater companies and school drama departments worldwide. 

Here's a little rundown from 2016.




"The Fantasticks" was designed to be small; it is performed on a spartan stage by a cast of eight actors and employs a piano and harp for musical accompaniment.  It is a little play that has gone the distance.

I used to say that I was the only person born in the 20th century who had not seen "The Fantasticks."  When I heard the play was closing, I decided it was time to buy a ticket. 

It was great fun to watch, if perhaps dated in a couple ways.  I can imagine parents taking their children to see it, at least in the years before 1994, when Disney launched "Beauty and the Beast," the first of its lavish Broadway spectacles.  The children in my Fantasticks audience loved the slapstick and jokes while their parents got the references to Shakespearean plays.  

For a light play, "The Fantasticks" has deep roots:  These trace to a doomed-lovers' story in Ovid's Metamorphoses, proceed through Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and continue to French playwright Edmond Rostand's lighter treatment in "Les Romanesques" at the end of the 19th century.  Fantasticks combines the comedic theme of the Rostand play with a later plot twist, and it includes much of the silliness of Shakespeare's play-within-a-play in Midsummer Night's Dream.  


Theater as Investment

The first investors in "The Fantasticks" were either smarter than Warren Buffett or very lucky.  Their good fortune was described in a  2010 New York Times article.


Theater is a tough game for investors.  The traditional procedure is to open in a small venue or a regional theater,  and then, if a play proves out, to move to Broadway for the big, money-making run, as "Hamilton" did. 

Another, theoretically safer way to go is to Broadway-ize an already popular property.  This perhaps started with "The Producers," the 2001 musical remake of a 1968 movie; the play won 12 Tonys and ran for six years in New York and in theaters nationwide.  It also has worked for the many Disney stories.

Two seasons ago, "Fun Home," a musical based on a first-person graphic novel was big hit. Last year, "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time," a novel about an autistic boy, was turned into a successful play.  

This year's Broadway adaptation is a theatrical version of "Groundhog Day," the popular 1993 movie.  

This doesn't always work, of course. Investors socked $75 million into a flawed Broadway Spiderman musical that failed to earn out and probably assured that no other superhero plays will be tried in New York anytime soon.


Back to the Tonys

Here's a fun question:  What Broadway musical won the Tony best musical award for the year "The Fantasticks" was released?  

Answer:  "Bye Bye Birdie," which ran for about 600 performances and was made into a movie.

My guess is you would have a difficult time finding anyone under the age of 50 who has heard of that play or film.

"The Fantasticks," an off-Broadway (small theater) production, was not eligible, but it has resonated with audiences in well over 20,000 New York performances, among others.

There's something to be said for staying power.


The Song

Here is a nice rendition of the play's most remembered song.





Sunday, June 4, 2017

MovieMonday: Wonder Woman




I approached this latest superhero(ine) movie with trepidation.  The concern was its provenance -- the same Warner Bros. studio that gave us gave us last year's tedious "Batman V Superman" and this year's kid-friendly but undistinguished "The Lego Batman Movie."

My worries were in vain. "Wonder Woman" is a fine bit of filmmaking.

In the superhero genre, this is called an origin story, a relaunch of a new actor, here Gal Gadot, in the role of a popular comic book character.  The movie begins and ends with a current-day Wonder Woman studying a century-old photograph.  The plot tells us how she got from there to here. 

We meet Wonder Woman as a child named Diana, daughter of Amazon Queen Hippolyta, on the beautiful all-woman island of Themyscira.  Diana grows up understanding that her mission, bequeathed by Zeus, is to fight and kill Ares, the god of war.

In 1917, an American spy washes up on the island's shores and is pursued by German soldiers trying to kill him.  The Amazons fight back, and Diana's aunt, a general, is killed.  As she dies, she tells Diana, "You must go," to join the battle and end the First World War.

From there the film turns into a sepia-tinted semi-reality piece that takes Diana, now dressed in vintage attire and called Diana Prince, to London and then to Belgium, where she uses her superpowers and magic weapons to leap from an English infantry trench and overpower German enemy fortifications, freeing a grateful village.  

The tension builds as a tag team of spirited but quirky men help Diana prepare for her ultimate challenge, a rousing American-style superhero battle that ends the story.  Diana triumphs but learns that defending humans, flawed as they are, is not the work of a single campaign.  

This of course leaves room to extend the Wonder Woman franchise, which means that audiences can look forward to sequels.  An all-round win.

My understanding of superhero conventions is not keen, but my impression is that "Wonder Woman" has more in the way of plot than other such films.  In addition, the title character's mission is more complex and maybe a bit more feminine than the traditional warrior quests that animate traditional male superhero efforts. 

In fact, "Wonder Woman," directed by Patty Jenkins, is the latest entrant in the broadening genre of popular and lucrative superhero movies.  Next year Marvel is replacing Robert Downey Jr.  with a teen-aged African American female as the new Iron Man.  A sequel is scheduled for last year's raunchy and cynical "Deadpool," which sold well despite its R rating, or perhaps because of it. For younger audiences, there are now superhero movies featuring Lego characters.  



Reviews

Critics generally are very positive in their reactions to "Wonder Woman," but there are a few who are not satisfied.  

A couple writers said the bad guy characters were a bit too two-dimensional, which kept the film from reaching its full potential.  Off the top, I can't recall  many carefully drawn bad guys in superhero movies, but it's possible I have been distracted by lavish CGI spectacles.  Usually the bad guys are just bad, really really bad. 

And several women reviewers have faulted "Wonder Woman" for insufficiently feminist themes.  Two examples:

“Wonder Woman” is like nothing that has come before it in how it joyously displays the camaraderie among women, many of whom are women of color and over 40. It's electrifying watching the Amazons train and talk with each other. These women are fierce and kind, loyal and brave. If anything, I wished the film dwelt in Themyscira a bit longer, since their culture is so poignantly rendered. 


In short, the world must be, yes, mansplained to the superhero by a character played by an actor who exudes all the charm of a hedge-fund analyst at last call. . . . During this scene and many others, especially the final one, when the warrior princess formulates her cuddly bellicose philosophy (“Only love can save the world”), I wished only for Diana to return to the literal no man’s land where she was reared.

The problem with all these critiques, to me, is that they want "Wonder Woman" to be something other than what it is, which is a superhero movie.  

Might as well tell a dog that it would be a better dog if it were a cat.

That's just my take.



Note:

Here are my discussions of Batman V Superman and The Lego Batman Movie.  Make of them what you will.


Saturday, June 3, 2017

Wonderful Billionaires

This is a repost of something I wrote in 2014.  I stand by it still.


There are almost 500 Americans today who have fortunes of more than one billion dollars.  One estimate of their aggregate net worth, in January, put the total at $6.4 trillion.  A lot of money.

There are many people  -- and I am not one -- who would like to tax away all the billionaires' fortunes and drop each rich person off at a homeless shelter to find his or her way from there. Unfortunately, the federal debt is now $87 trillion if you count Medicare, Social Security and other unfunded commitments.  It's a fun fantasy, but bankrupting the billionaires would do almost nothing to bail us out of the hole we have dug for ourselves.


Billionaire Life

I am not a billionaire myself, but I have met several wealthy people over the years.  It is my impression that once your net worth reaches a certain high point, your life changes.  Here are some of the ways:

     -- You are surrounded by people who suck up to you.  They tell you that you are really smart, actually the smartest person ever.  Nobody ever tells you "no."  Nobody ever criticizes anything you say, even if it is patently ridiculous. Over time, you come to believe this blather.

     -- You have to worry about your security.  You, your spouse and your children are potential targets for kidnappers seeking huge ransoms.  Your more distant relatives are irresistibly attractive to people who would like to marry them for your money.  Just about everybody wants to be your friend, and you realize that this is mostly because these people hope some of your wealth will rub off on them.  Worst, you become suspicious of the people you meet and their motives.

     -- You lose all connection with people of lesser means.  You never fly commercial.  You never shop for groceries or worry about the size of your medical insurance deductible.  You never have to save up money to meet a goal.  You live in a gated estate, or possibly several of them, each with a property manager. If you buy a condo in a New York City building, there will be separate entrances -- one for you and the other rich people and another for the affordable-housing tenants.


The Giving Pledge

In 2010, Bill and Melinda Gates and another billionaire, Warren Buffet, started a special club for billionaires.  It is called the Giving Pledge.   They solicit promises from billionaires to give at least half their net worth to charities during their lifetimes or when they die. 

The founders say they started the Giving Pledge to promote philanthropy.  They have a website where you can find pictures of the Giving Pledge signers and letters they have written explaining their reasons for joining.

Last May, the Giving Pledgers held a convention in Seattle to discuss among themselves what to do to improve the world.  I'm sure it was a fun to rub shoulders with other really nice rich people, but something about the whole business struck me as a bit creepy.

Warren Buffet, who is supposed to be a pretty down-to-earth guy in real life, said in a pre-convention press release that the gathering's "diverse group of business leaders and philanthropists" would "bring a wealth of experiences to the group.  We will learn a lot from their experiences as we collectively aim to inspire one another to earlier and better giving."

 Here were a bunch of rich people -- with virtually no experience of poverty or bad schools or basic science or the arts -- discussing among themselves how best they could use their money to fix the world's problems.  Hilarious if you can get past the pomposity of it.

Two personal qualities were much admired back in my formative years during the Paleolithic period.  One was modesty, not holding yourself out as important.  The other was humility, not taking yourself too seriously, and empathizing with others and their life situations. 

You don't hear these terms much anymore, but I like them and I plan to examine them from time to time.

Back to the billionaires and their pledges.  Here's my thought:  If you die with a billion dollars and you give away only $500 million of it, you aren't doing nearly enough.



Friday, June 2, 2017

Umbrellas and Rain



The other day, the Significant Other went into Manhattan for a business meeting.

Before he left, he consulted the weather forecast, which said rain was likely.  He looked out the window and saw dark gray skies.

"Better take an umbrella," I said.

He agreed and stuffed a small fold-up umbrella in his briefcase.

There was no rain.  Later that afternoon, when I picked him up at the train station, the sky was cloudless and blue, and the temperature had risen to 80 degrees.

We have observed this result again and again over many years and in many locations:  Carrying an umbrella is the single most effective way to ward off rain.




Further Evidence

Friends will recall that I was raised in Portland, Oregon, a city famed for regular rainfall in the months from September through May, and, not infrequently, in the summer as well.
   
The typical Oregon rainfall is not heavy but is steady, continuing all day long, and typically is accompanied by a thin, bone-chilling wind.

Interestingly, Portlanders never have taken to umbrellas, preferring to wear waterproof hooded jackets from REI or Patagonia.  This preference is examined in the local media on a regular basis, most recently here.  

Three hours north of Portland, Seattleites have a similar climate, and they subscribe to the same anti-umbrella religion.  It seems to be a point of pride in the region.

To be fair, if the citizens of Portland and Seattle were to adopt umbrellas, the resulting climate change consequences -- less moss, less algae, less oozy green stuff overall -- would be seen as catastrophic.  So Northwesterners probably should continue wearing their hooded jackets.


Umbrella Math

I understand that my view of umbrellas as rain suppressants is unorthodox and smacks of magical thinking, which is unusual for me.

When I looked online for scientific backing for my point of view, all I could find was a mathematicians' examination that did not resolve the matter.

Still, I know what I know:  
       1.  If you carry an umbrella, you will not need to use it.  
       2.  If you don't carry an umbrella, you'll most likely get wet.