Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Can You Ever Forgive MeThe trials of women authors are laid bare this season in several movies (The Wife, Colette), never more amusingly and heart-breakingly than in director Marielle Heller’s honest comedy-drama, written by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, based on Lee Israel’s autobiography (trailer).

Melissa McCarthy is perfect as Lee Israel, a middle-ranking author of celebrity biographies in 1970s and 1980s New York, settling down into the ranks of the unpublishable. Lee can’t get her next project going—an unpromising, probably unsaleable biography of Fanny Brice. Her agent (Jane Curtin) won’t take her calls, her prickly personality has alienated any people who might have helped her, she’s behind in her rent and reduced to stealing a winter coat, and her cat is sick. Life is tough and so is she.

By chance, Lee stumbles upon a couple of original letters by Brice and sells them to the kind of antiquarian book dealers who trade in such collectibles. She soon learns bland doesn’t sell. What makes notables’ correspondence valuable is the personal touch, a bit of wit. She’s a writer; she can do this. And does.

Into her insular life arrives a comet of a man. Jack Hock, played with manic relish by Richard E. Grant, is Lee’s polar opposite. Gregarious and most probably homeless, he becomes her companion (the word “friend” would be tricky here), her drinking buddy, then her partner in crime.

The filmmakers initially saw Julianne Moore in the role of Lee, but they were so fortunate in casting McCarthy. Says Monica Castillo on RogerEbert.com, “The range in McCarthy’s performance cannot be overstated. At almost every turn, her character gives the audience plenty of reason not to like her. Yet, with Heller’s sympathetic approach and McCarthy’s acting, the movie humanizes her beyond caricature,” and Israel is presented with tremendous empathy and understanding.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 98%; audiences: 86%.

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The First Amendment Revisited

Founding_Fathers

created by Matt Shirk, creative commons license

You know how you don’t get around to reading a book or article only to have it pop up on your radar at just the right time? I feel that way about the February 2018 issue of Wired, that I found buried in a stack of magazines.

The theme of the issue, “The Golden Age of Free Speech,” is meant ironically. In college I was journalism major  and received a heavy First Amendment dose. Courses on The Law of the Press might have tapped secondary topics like slander, libel, and plagiarism (privacy didn’t come up) on the shoulder, but they really shook hands with the issue of free speech.

These days, free speech absolutism needs some rethinking. I’d rather reflexively subscribed to the Louis Brandeis notion that the cure for bad/hateful speech is more good/uplifting speech. That’s not good enough anymore, and I recall that Brandeis also said that “sunlight is the best of disinfectants.” Too many people dangerous to good public order are lurking in the dark corners of the Internet where the light never reaches. It’s like having nests of rats in the basement. One of these days, they’re going to burst into the kitchen.

In Wired, Zeynep Tufekci, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina, who is also an op-ed writer for the New York Times, provided a way to rethink my own conflicts on the First Amendment. Here’s the key passage:

The freedom of speech is an important democratic value, but it’s not the only one. In the liberal tradition, free speech is usually understood as a vehicle, a necessary condition for achieving certain other societal ideals: for creating a knowledgeable public; for engendering healthy, rational, and informed debate; for holding powerful people and institutions accountable; for keeping communities lively and vibrant. What we are seeing now is that when free speech is treated as an end and not a means, it is all too possible to thwart and distort everything it is supposed to deliver (emphasis added).

Thinking of free speech as a means, not the end, lets us look at the ends we are achieving now and judge whether free speech is helping or harming. She goes on to say that “today’s engagement algorithms . . . espouse no ideals about a healthy public sphere.” It’s become obvious that big social media platforms’ purposes do not extend very far beyond commercial self-interest and cannot be relied upon to make those judgments.

Tufekci gave examples of society’s aims, but we also can find them spelled out in the U.S. Constitution’s preamble: “to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”

It’s time to ask ourselves and our politicians whether those aims are served by unfettered speech, hate speech, propaganda masquerading as truth, and misinformation peddled by people who pretend to be other than who they are. The free speech banner isn’t big enough to hide them all.

Charley’s Aunt

Charley's Aunt

Seamus Mulcahy as “Charley’s Aunt” in an unguarded moment; photo, Jerry Dalia

Charley’s Aunt, the 1892 farce that ran almost 1,500 performances in London’s West End is remounted by The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey in a sparkling, fast-paced production directed by Joseph Discher that opened October 27 and runs through November 18.

As the play opens, St. Olde’s College student Jack Chesney (played by Aaron McDaniel) is in his campus rooms, fretting over the draft of a letter to a young lady. He can’t get the news of his attachment quite right, and her family is decamping to Scotland on the morrow. He’s soon joined by his pal Charles Wykeham (Isaac Hickox-Young), suffering similar writer’s block over his letter to another young lady in the soon-to-depart group.

Charley, an orphan, is further flustered by information that his wealthy aunt, Donna Lucia D’Alvadorez will be arriving mid-day to meet him. Though she’s paid for his education from her home in far-off Brazil (“where the nuts come from”), they’ve never met. Jack soon concocts a plan to invite their lady-loves to luncheon in his rooms to meet Charley’s aunt, who can provide a suitable chaperonage. But how to get rid of her when they want privacy? Jack hits on the stratagem of adding their amusing friend Lord Fancourt Babberly—“Babbs” (Seamus Mulcahy) to the party. He can entertain the old lady, surely.

Babbs arrives and mentions he’s taken up amateur theatricals and is about to play an elderly lady in some production. (At this point, the direction of the plot is clear, which doesn’t subtract a bit from the enjoyment!) The costume is produced, Babbs dons it, and almost simultaneous with the arrival of the young ladies is a note saying Donna Lucia’s plans have changed and she cannot arrive for several days.

Poor Babbs is finagled into pretending to be the aunt and the fun is in full sway. More people join the luncheon party—Jack’s father, Colonel Sir Frances Chesney (David Andrew MacDonald) and the father and guardian of the young ladies, Stephen Spettigue (John Ahlin), both of whom have an eye on the fetching (and wealthy) Donna Lucia.

Although the story starts a bit slowly, once the plot gets rolling, there’s no stopping it. When Charley’s aunt—the real Donna Lucia (Erika Rolfsrud)—arrives after all, sizes up the situation, and keeps her true identity secret in order to torment poor Babbs, the catastrophes multiply.

The cast has a great deal of fun with the physical comedy and sight gags, including the three delightful ingenues: Emiley Kiser, Erica Knight, and Sally Kingsford. By maintaining his dignity regardless of the outrages he witnesses, Peter Simon Hilton’s Butler is a perfect comic foil.

Ultimately, the real success of the production rests on the shoulders of Seamus Mulcahy. His Babbs—mugging, fleeing, angry, amorous—is a treat from beginning to end and well earned the enthusiastic standing ovation he and the cast received.

Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey productions are hosted at Drew University in Madison, N.J. (easily reachable from NYC by train). For tickets, call the box office at 973-408-5600 or visit the Box Office online. Note that STNJ offers special ticket pricing of $30 for theatergoers under age 30!

On the Big Screen

Looking for a weekend movie? If I had it to do over, out of these three, I’d pick First Man.

The Wife

Beautifully acted by Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce, and directed by Björn Runge, the movie is based on the book by Meg Wolitzer, who wrote the screenplay with Jane Anderson (trailer). For me, there was an unreality to the story’s central conceit that (in this day and age) a woman uses her writing talent to prop up her Nobel prize-winning and serially unfaithful husband for forty years. I ended up mad at her.

What I liked best? The smarmy performance of Christian Slater, determined to get a tell-all biography out of it.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 85%; audiences: 80%.

Colette is another movie in theaters now about a woman writer whose husband takes credit for her work and about a lot else too, judging by the previews. I’m not a Keira Knightley fan. But Dominic West as her husband . . . that’s tempting!

First Man

The biopic of Neil Armstrong was directed by Damien Chazelle (trailer), with a screenplay by Josh Singer and James R. Hansen, who wrote Armstrong’s biography. Ryan Gosling does a fine job as the buttoned-up Armstrong, who can keep it together even when he’s on the verge of bouncing off the atmosphere into the void of space in the hair-raising opening sequence. And it’s fun to see Claire Foy as an American housewife rather than The Queen.

I liked the evocation of the 1960s throughout and those times, which, in retrospect seem simpler, but of course weren’t. The early days of the space program were a time of heroes, even though Chazelle doesn’t overdo it. Ignore the complaints that he doesn’t show the flag-raising ceremony on the moon. Chazelle wisely opted for a scene that would be meaningful to the very private Armstrong, not a rah-rah “we’re number one” ego-stroke for the country.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 88%; audiences: 64%.

The Old Man & the Gun

An aging Robert Redford portrays Forrest Tucker, a “gentleman bank robber,” who capped his career of prison escapes with an audacious escape from San Quentin at age 70. Written and directed by David Lowery (trailer), the screenplay also had help from David Grann, author of a 2003 New Yorker article about Tucker.

Sissy Spacek is a cautious but interested late-in-life romantic partner, and Casey Affleck plays a dogged police detective who follows Tucker’s career of robberies and won’t give up the case to overbearing FBI agents. I also liked his robbery team, Danny Glover and Tom Waits. It’s a pleasantly diverting entertainment, and you can safely wait for Blu-Ray.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 90%; audiences: 62%.

Read the Book?
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The Trial of Donna Caine

The Trial of Donna Caine

Margarita Levieva and Flor De Liz Perez

George Street Playhouse’s 2018-19 season opens with a military courtroom drama directed by the theater’s long-time artistic director, David Saint. Opening night for this world premiere production was October 19, and it runs through Veterans Day, November 11. That date is appropriate, as the play deals with many issues of military hierarchy and justice.

Inspired by actual events from 1956, playwright and former Parade magazine editor Walter Anderson has adapted a story of the tragic incident in which several Marine recruits died in a nighttime exercise gone wrong. He’s brought the action up to the modern day and interwoven it with themes related to the place of women in the Marines, where male and female recruits are thrown together in the crucible of basic training.

In the play two people are determined that co-ed basic training will work: Lt. Colonel Sandra Eden (played by Julia Brothers) and the former Secretary of the Navy who authorized the program, Roy Gill (John Bolger). But when Staff Sergeant Donna Caine (Flor De Liz Perez) leads her platoon into the South Carolina swamp and a rising tide drowns five of them, their reactions differ greatly. Eden works to befriend Caine, who, by all accounts, is a fine Marine and an exemplary drill sergeant; Gill wants to prove the episode is solely the fault of Caine, not a reflection of the training protocol he promulgated. He feels so strongly that he gets himself appointed the prosecutor in Caine’s civilian trial. (I don’t recommend seeing this with any lawyers; they are likely to be squirming in their seats with objections to various problems that strike at the story’s believability.)

Caine is a difficult defendant, prickly and rigid. She takes all responsibility for the tragedy and is almost paralyzed with grief and self-recrimination. Her lawyer, Emily Zola Ginsberg (Margarita Levieva), tells her there is a big difference between “feeling guilty and being guilty.” While it appears the story is going to tackle the co-ed training head on, it never arrives at any conclusion. In fact, the plot is resolved with a kind of investigatory deus ex machina.

This obviates the need for a final “summation for the jury” that establishes a kind of moral order and has made classics out of courtroom dramas like Judgment at Nuremberg, Inherit the Wind, or To Kill a Mockingbird. I missed that, and the play misses it, because while we are told throughout what brilliant lawyer Ginsberg is, we never get to see it.

Melissa Maxwell, who plays the presiding judge in the case, is terrific. Of all the players, she inhabits her role most completely and comfortably. Others in the cast are Ginsberg’s law partner, Vincent Stone (Peter Frechette), defense counsel sounding-board Sergeant Major Clayton Williams (Michael Cullen), private first class Ellen Colessio (Kally Duling), and Ryan George as Gunnery Sergeant Jacob Jasper Walker. He plays an awkward role as Caine’s immediate supervisor (and we find out, fiancé), called to testify against her. Wouldn’t the Uniform Code of Military Justice’s prohibitions against fraternization make such a relationship problematic? No such difficulties are acknowledged.

George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick is being rebuilt. In the meantime, its productions are mounted at its interim home, 103 College Farm Road in New Brunswick. Tickets available from the online box office, or call 732-246-7717.

Don’t Miss! Detroit ’67

Detroit '67

photo: T. Charles Erickson

Just a few more performances of McCarter Theatre’s stunning production of Detroit ’67, directed by Jade King Carroll and on stage through October 28. The summer of 1967 is unforgettable for native Detroiters such as myself, and I’ve looked forward to seeing what light playwright Dominique Morisseau would shine on that bleak page in history. Morisseau is a 2018 MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” recipient and the third most-produced playwright in the country at the moment, so my expectations were high.
They were certainly met, with this powerful story and strong cast. In her story, sister and brother Chelle (played by Myxolydia Tyler) and Lank (Johnny Ramey) have inherited the family home in Detroit, and Chelle is using her portion of their parents’ savings to send her son to the Tuskegee Institute. Lank and his best friend Sylvester (Will Cobbs) have other plans. They want to buy a bar. This would be a big step up from the low-budget blind pig (unlicensed drinking establishment) Lank and Chelle operate in their basement, which is the set for the play.
The Detroit Police Department is going through a repressive period, in which tactical squads of four police officers terrorize, intimidate, and assault residents. If the police discover the blind pig, Chelle and Lank are in deep trouble. Contraction in the auto industry and a significant population decline have decreased economic opportunities for the city’s residents, another reason Lank and Sly want to strike out on their own.
The unexpected presence of the white woman in the household gives the characters a chance to talk about the difference in choices available to them. Chelle is deeply, angrily disappointed that her brother has, in her view, “squandered” the family inheritance—an opinion manifesting in events when the city begins to burn.
Although these are heavy subjects, Morisseau lightens the mood with the humorous efforts of Sly to romance Chelle, and the observations of her best friend Bunny (Nyahale Allie).
It’s also a story about the power of dreams and the importance of having them, and although these insights are not new, the precarious situation of the protagonists makes them all the more pointed. The fact that half a century later the play’s issues regularly resurface in the daily news underscores their continuing importance and well worth seeing.
The theater has put together a rich set of background resources that includes—of course!—a Spotify playlist that leads off with The Temptations’ “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg.” Find it here!
McCarter Theatre is easily reached from New York by car or train (New Jersey Transit to the Princeton Junction station, then the shuttle train into Princeton. The shuttle ends a short walk from the theater and the university’s new arts district, as well as two innovative new restaurants.
For tickets, call the box office at 609-258-2787 or visit the ticket office online.

Sicily: Beyond (and Before) the Corleones – Travel Tips

Agrigento - Temple of Concordia

Agrigento – Temple of Concordia, public domain

Our two-week trip to Sicily ended recently, and what an interesting and beautiful region it was. The food was pretty spectacular too. We traveled with a British tour company called Esplora, and if you’re looking for a recommendation, this is one. Esplora and its founder Damian Croft, specialize in small-group tours of several Mediterranean countries, as well as Armenia, Georgia, and, soon, Iran.

There were a dozen of us on the tour, six Brits, an Australian couple, and four Americans. We had two charming guides (Chiara and Simona) and our irreplaceable driver/major domo, Carmelo. Our guides were language and art history specialists. How nice, I thought, in advance. How essential, I’d say now. Here’s why (and before I go on, I’ll tip you that we saw the impressive architectural remnants of all these civilizations.)

The earliest tribes in Sicily, the Sicani, documented to around 8000 BC, were followed by the Sicels and some minor groups. They lived in caves, and some of their caves are still in use for storage, as shelters for goats and chickens, and in extremis, habitation.

Sicily was a crossroads of the ancient world, and for at least some period, Siracusa was the most important city in Europe. This importance began with the arrival of the Greeks, who set up independent colonies in Siracusa, Agrigento, and elsewhere. Domination of the island was passed back and forth in practically nonstop wars between the Greeks, Romans (who established colonies under Roman authority), and barbarians, namely, the Germanic Vandals and Ostrogoths.

The Byzantines annexed Sicily in 535 AD, and were harassed by invading Arabs from Carthage (now Tunisia) in north Africa. Next came the Normans—yes, those same Normans who invaded England in 1066. This was a surprise! They established liberal government, tolerant of the many ethnicities and religions who lived on the island. That couldn’t last, of course.

Swabian Germans took over, followed by an insurrection to remove the French (Normans) and the people turned to the Spanish for aid. The Spanish Inquisition in 1492 resulted in expulsion of all the Jews from Sicily and other depredations. In the next two hundred years, the island also suffered devastating earthquakes, and the plague.

The Bourbons were next, with Sicily fighting on France’s side in the Napoleonic Wars. Guiseppe Garibaldi had a strong presence in Sicily in his successful effort to unite the separate regions of Italy into a united Kingdom of Italy (1861).

In the 20th century, assaulted first by waves of crime from the Mafia then invaded by the Allies in 1943, this little island of less than 10,000 square miles—not much larger than the state of New Jersey—was once again at the crossroads of history.

Historians will shudder at the elisions and probable errors in the above. Whole books have been written about this, of course, and here’s a really good one:

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Juliet, Naked

Juliet, Naked Predictably, I overheard a moviegoer say to the ticket-seller, “I’d like to see Juliet, Naked.” You should see it too (trailer)! Nick Hornby’s novel has been turned into a highly entertaining romantic comedy directed by Jesse Peretz. The strong script is by Evgenia Peretz, Jim Taylor, and Tamara Jenkins.

The story starts with an awkward website video, in which Duncan (played to hilarious effect by Chris O’Dowd) rattles on about obscure American rocker Tucker Crowe, who has not been seen in decades, much less produced any new music. Duncan lives with Annie (the delectable Rose Byrne), who runs a small museum in a seaside British town. The museum’s biggest attraction is a shark’s eyeball, bobbing in formaldehyde.

To the dismay of  megafan Duncan, Annie doesn’t especially appreciate Tucker Crowe, nor how his music has taken over their listening and the mystery of his disappearance their conversation. Like anyone obsessed with in a very small slice of life’s enormous pizza, Duncan is tedious in the extreme. (Juliet, Naked is an album title, I think.)

When Annie posts a few of her less flattering thoughts about Tucker Crowe on Duncan’s website, Crowe himself (Ethan Hawke) responds. To her surprise, he agrees with her, and they begin a secret trans-Atlantic email correspondence. The two have great charm together, playing off each other and admitting their shortcomings. They’re neither one perfect and able to admit it.

Crowe is living in the center of the United States, somewhere, in a garage lent him by his ex-wife, and taking part-time care of their young son Jackson (Azhy Robertson). We soon learn another woman is the mother of his grown daughter, who’s now pregnant, and he has twin boys by yet another. He’s barely in touch with these children and totally out of touch with the daughter of his first love, Juliet.

Perhaps it’s the pseudo-anonymity of email that encourages him to speak to Annie. When he has a trip to London, the face-to-face is awkward. It might be the beginning of a relationship, but there are a lot of kids and partners in the way.

What I loved about this movie, in addition to the fine acting, is that the situation avoids the typical Hollywood relationship clichés (which the movie Puzzle fell prey to, disappointingly), and strives for honesty.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 80%; audiences: 90%.

P.S. I love the crazy job titles that turn up in movie credits. In this one: “Petty cash buyer.”

When Words Have a Long Tail

Independence Hall

Dan Smith, creative commons license

At a time when the U.S. Senate is considering a new member of the Supreme Court, the wisdom of viewing today’s problems and challenges through a 250-year-old lens is once again under scrutiny. No words put on paper today are likely to have as long and as consequential a tail for Americans as the Constitution of the United States.

In this month’s Language Lounge for Visual Thesaurus, linguistic provocateur Orin Hargraves returns to Independence Hall to consider the Founding Fathers’ accomplishment. In contrast to the typically fleeting nature of oral pronouncements (perhaps of the kind delivered in Senate hearings), Hargraves says, written language can have a “practically unlimited” afterlife. At the same time, it has weaknesses. It is missing context (quill pens versus the Internet) and, in the case of something written in the 1700s, people of today—our Senators, for example—cannot query the Founding Fathers for clarification and relevance.

Hargraves says the Constitution’s drafters of significant documents, like the U.S. Constitution, are aware “that the force of their words will long outlive them.” As a result, they choose those words with extreme care and provide a way to alter and update it, not easily though. Our Constitution now has 27 Amendments.

Despite the founders’ care, debate over the context and meaning of some of the Constitution’s provisions, especially the Second Amendment, is virulent. Even within such a presumably sedate setting as the Language Lounge, Hargraves says, past posts on this topic have inspired reader rants requiring “editorial intervention” by the Language Lounge masters. The prospects for consensus on a range of divisive topics seems remote, and The Washington Post says the first day of Kavanaugh’s hearings provided “a world-class display of bickering across party lines.”

Alice in Wonderland, words, Humpty DumptyOne helpful resource ought to be the Corpus of Founding Era American English, based on some 100 million words of text from 1760 to 1799 from various sources. (See how one source suggests this body of work should inform the Supreme Court nomination hearings of Judge Kavanaugh.) Yet, a historical perspective on the meaning of language in the late 1700s may not satisfy partisans “deeply invested in one view or the other,” Hargraves says. I suspect he’s correct. However much the advocates claim their interpretations are based on long-ago principles, in fact they serve current interests.

While no one would insist on using an owner’s manual for a Model T Ford to repair their Fusion Hybrid, the Constitution is not given room to breathe and grow to serve society today. That was then. This is the uncomfortable now. Attempting to return to some earlier meaning (if we even were clear what that was) may be just another way to avoid doing the hard work of making our systems and even our brilliant Constitution work in the 21st century.

Puzzle

Puzzle, Kelly McDonald, Irrfan KhanWhile you can’t fault the acting in this new Marc Turtletaub rom-com, written by Oren Moverman, it contains few surprises (trailer). All the typical Hollywood assumptions about relations between men and women are on display, along with filmmakers’ strange notions about how ordinary people in relationships or financial turmoil actually behave.

Agnes (played by Kelly Macdonald), has been married a couple of decades to Louie (David Denman), who owns an auto repair shop, and they have two sons, the unhappy Ziggy (Bubba Weiler) and his younger brother Gabe (Austin Abrams), who’s planning to go to college and is in love. Agnes isn’t happy and she isn’t unhappy; she’s in a disappointed stasis.

They live in one of the Connecticut suburbs of New York—Bridgeport, I think. They don’t travel, not even into the city. (It’s a cinch she doesn’t have a passport, the significance of which I won’t explain.) If they have a vacation, they go to their cottage on the lake. The adults’ attitudes about sex-roles predate the Eisenhower Administration—as does Agnes’s wardrobe—though they are only in their forties now. In short, the premise seems dated. Not that there aren’t still people with old-fashioned ideas and lives, but we’ve seen that movie.

Agnes is aware that, while she engages in an endless round of housekeeping, meal preparation, and church lady functions, life is passing her by. A poignant moment occurs early when she decorates the house for a birthday party, serves the food and cleans up, and brings out the huge chocolate-frosted cake she’s made so people can sing happy birthday—to her. The only pastime she truly enjoys is working jigsaw puzzles, and she’s a whiz at it.

One day she sees an ad from a person seeking a puzzle partner. She contacts him and, in a move that surprises even herself, takes the commuter train into New York to meet him. Robert (Irrfan Khan) tries her out and is amazed, and they practice two days a week, aiming for the forthcoming national championships.

Louie would object to her spending a day in the city (“Where’s my dinner?”) so she lies about it. That seems out of character, as do a number of her subsequent actions. Meanwhile, her puzzle partner Robert is the only man who takes an interest in her interior life or even supposes she has one. She is like someone dying of thirst offered a glass of water. You’ve guessed the rest.

Denman’s portrayal of Louie, who may have been conceived as a cardboard anti-feminist, is so sympathetic that he actually doesn’t come off as a bad guy.

I was sorry I didn’t like this movie as much as the critics do because I love jigsaw puzzles myself, and what the movie says about the mental process of working on them seemed to me exactly right. They make order out of chaos, when what Agnes is doing is, at least for a time, the exact opposite.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 82%; audiences: 78%.