Stuff I Learned Lately and How I Learned It

Woodrow Wilson's Princeton Home

Woodrow Wilson’s house in Princeton cost about $35,000 to build and is now—rough-guessing here—worth about 100 times that — I learned this at a library benefit dinner at the actual house, featuring a talk by U-Mich professor Patricia O’Toole, who has a new Wilson biography: The Moralist. (Wilson promoted  the neo-Tudor architectural style, and you see it all over town)

Just because an online course is about a subject I’m deeply interested in doesn’t mean the course itself will be interesting — learned during sessions 1 & 2 of a 3-part online course about genetics in genealogy

How to tell llamas and alpacas apart – at Jersey Shore Alpacas (e.g., llamas are bigger and have perkier ears)

There was a founding father before the Founding Fathers and, though the British called him “the greatest incendiary in all America,” he’s practically forgotten – a lecture at the fantastic David Library of the American Revolution by Christian di Spigna, author of Founding Martyr: The Life and Death of Dr.Joseph Warren

Not all NYC crime writers sport sleeve tattoos – disabused of this impression at the December Noir at the Bar readathon

It took about 1300 years for medical science to reacquire the knowledge lost when the Alexandria library complex was destroyed – adult ed course on Egypt

Ron Chernow (and thus the musical Hamilton) probably got a couple of the more risqué situations in his book wrong – also at the David Library, in a talk by Tilar Mazzeo, author of the new book, Eliza Hamilton

 I may be exhibiting early manifestations of that old person’s “no filter” problem – you don’t want to know

The black stockings and tights I’ve been wearing since Thanksgiving are navy – daylight.

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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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%.

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Pages vs. the Silver Screen – 2018 Edition

BlacKkKlansman

BlacKkKlansmanThe real-life Ron Stallworth infiltrated the KKK in the late 70s, but in his movie, director Spike Lee resets the action earlier in the decade and makes some other changes for a stunning result. Every thoughtful American should see this riveting film (trailer), which ping-pongs between comedy and tragedy, passing repeatedly through high drama and providing first-rate acting from a fine cast, start to finish.

The comedy part comes from the ability of Colorado Springs’s first black police officer, Stallworth (played by John David Washington), to convince a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan and even former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace) that he’s actually a hate-filled white racist. The tragedy comes from considering that the racial issues that divided the country in the 1970s remain painfully relevant today. In a grim coincidence, I saw this film on August 12, the one-year anniversary of Charlottesville’s deadly white supremacist rally.

Stallworth built his unlikely relationships by phone, but when his physical presence was needed, his white colleague Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) stood in. Spike Lee could have made a predictable film out of this basic material, but he works it, proving nuance and impact. He intercuts footage of a KKK initiation ceremony with scenes from a black student organization’s meeting with an aging civil rights figure (Harry Belafonte). Two speeches received with wild enthusiasm by totally different audiences bookend the story: a compelling stemwinder early in the film by Corey Hawkins as Kwame Ture, the name adopted by former Black Panther leader Stokely Carmichael, and, near the end of the film, a speech by David Duke carefully designed to mask his underlying meaning and make it more palatable to mainstream.

Self-awareness, loyalty, respect, humanity—these values are all on view, as are their opposites.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 97%; audiences 77%.

Leave No Trace

Leave No Trace Based on Peter Rock’s 2009 novel My Abandonment, this film, directed by Debra Granik, raises a lot of questions it doesn’t answer (trailer). It was inspired by the true episode, which you can read about on Rock’s website, that in its conclusion is more unsettling than the film.

For four years, Vietnam Veteran Will (played by Ben Foster) has lived with his adolescent daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) in Portland’s 5200-acre Forest Park, their camouflaged encampment further hidden by waist-high vegetation. Will apparently suffers from PTSD, and selling the drugs the VA gives him is one way the pair makes money. They visit the city for groceries and other supplies, though most of their time is spent in the rain forest.

Eventually, they are discovered. Unexpectedly, the authorities make a heroic effort to find a living arrangement that Will can tolerate. Helicopters spook him. Crowds spook him. Many things. For Tom’s benefit, he struggles to adapt to a more regularized life. The love between them is palpable, but will it be enough?

Foster gives a strong performance; McKenzie has received considerable praise, though the scanty dialog doesn’t give her much to work with, and she hits just a few emotional notes. You can count the times she smiles on one hand.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 100%; audiences 86%.

The Book – Film Smackdown

Quite a few other movies this year are based on well-regarded books, as noted in this Literary Hub article. Which works better? Based on Book Marks ratings for books and Rotten Tomatoes for films, here’s the score:

  • Both darn good: Annihilation, Crazy Rich Asians, We the Animals, Lean on Pete, Sharp Objects, The Wife, The Looming Tower (I’m watching it on Hulu now)
  • Books markedly better than the movie: Red Sparrow, The Yellow Birds, Ready Player One, On Chesil Beach, Dietland
  • Movies markedly better than the book: Uh-oh.
  • Still to come in 2018: Bel Canto (read the book years ago; looking forward to the film and Ken Watanabe!)

Borg vs. McEnroe

Borg vs. McEnroeRight in the middle of Wimbledon’s 150th Championships we scored a Netflix copy of director Janus Metz’s 2017 movie about the classic 1980 matchup between Ice-Borg and the Superbrat, with a script by Ronnie Sandahl (trailer). While their rivalry makes an entertaining film, I’d still flunk a quiz on how to score the game.

Sverrir Gudnason plays Björn Borg, instantly recognizable, lean and riddled with doubt, and Shia LaBeouf does fine work as the temperamental, foul-mouthed McEnroe. Apparently, Gudnason had to put on muscle for the role, while LaBeouf had to take some off. They both looked in fine form for the on-court scenes at the 1980 Wimbledon. In what is regarded as one of the greatest tennis matches of all time, Borg blew seven match points as he attempted to win his fifth straight Wimbledon victory. McEnroe might be a bad boy, but he could play some tennis, and, in the end, he got a standing ovation from the Wimbledon fans who’d started the competition by booing him.

While the competition between them was always billed as a rivalry between opposites, fire and ice, what the movie shows is that from his youth Borg wanted to be best in the world. (The young  Borg is played by his son Leo.) As a teen, Borg (played by Markus Mossberg) was every bit as fiery as McEnroe, arguing with the refs and his coach, throwing his racket, stomping off the court. They’re also alike in how deeply they care about winning.

Finally, Borg’s coach (Stellan Skarsgård) told him he was through unless he channeled his anger and frustration into his game. He needed to become emotionless. It sounds impossibly difficult, but he did it. What he also did was develop a lot of peculiar habits and rituals that had to be followed to the letter: the way his rackets were strung, the kind of car they rented. Sports stars are legendary for having “good luck” rituals, and his were all-encompassing.

McEnroe also got his comeuppance from friend and fellow tennis-player Peter Fleming (Scott Arthur) who told him he’d never be regarded as one of the greats because nobody liked him. At Wimbledon, his volcanic persona was in check after that, at least in the film.

We see less about McEnroe as a young man (it’s a Scandi movie after all), and I would have liked to. Still, it’s an engrossing film even for someone not obsessed with tennis (me!), and it deserves more attention.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 83%; audiences: 73%.

The Catcher Was a Spy

The Catcher Was a SpyIt might almost be worth seeing the new movie Gotti with a sneering John Travolta in the lead, simply because it has received a (surprisingly) rare “0” rating from Rotten Tomatoes critics. Unanimity about a movie’s goodness or apparent awfulness is so rarely achieved that this may be a cinematic low-water-mark. A filmic Sahara. A future cult classic.

Last weekend, I went to another movie most critics have panned, because it is crammed with components I like: spies! history! Nazis! baseball! Based on a book by Nicholas Dawidoff, it recounts a bit of the true story of Red Sox catcher Moe Berg and was directed by Ben Lewin (who gets most of the blame), with a good script by Robert Rodat (trailer).

It wasn’t perfect, and maybe it’s slow for action film devotees, but the acting was superior. Paul Rudd played Berg, a man who loved baseball and had a great smile, but was hard to know. Through his Princeton connections, he was recruited to the fledgling OSS by its head Wild Bill Donovan (Jeff Daniels), mostly because of his facility with languages and despite his somewhat ambiguous sexuality. He has a girlfriend in Boston (Sienna Miller) for much of the film, but that’s an on-again, off-again thing, first with his baseball travel schedule, then his work in Washington and overseas.

Finally he gets the kind of assignment he craves: the U.S. has the Manhattan Project to develop a nuclear weapon, and the Allies believe the Germans are attempting this too, led by Werner Heisenberg (Mark Strong). But they can’t be certain (sorry). Berg is teamed up with a military man (Guy Pearce) and a physicist (excellent work by Paul Giamatti) to find out. If these suspicions are correct, Berg is to assassinate him. Unlike so many celluloid spies, Rudd’s Berg seems actually to weigh the significance of this assignment.

In a key scene early in the film, Berg signals the pitcher, but the pitcher waves him off. The opponent on first tries to steal second, but Berg manages to get the ball there in time to throw him out, ending the inning. Walking back to the dugout, he says to the pitcher, “Never ignore my signal when a man’s going to try to steal second.” Pitcher: “How’d you know he’d try?” “I just knew.” Berg’s skill in sizing up people was perfect for the OSS.

Rex Reed in the New York Observer said, it’s “a juicy story told blandly,” but still a movie worth seeing, and I agree. Maybe Gotti should get a second look.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 32%; audiences 67%.

See These Inspiring Documentary Biopics: RBG and Mr. Rogers

Ruth Bader GinsburgOverwhelmed by the tsunami of pettiness and downright meanness in the news this summer? These biopics make a refreshing change. RBG and Won’t You Be My Neighbor? properly celebrate two talented individuals who single-mindedly dedicated themselves to making better the lives of others.

RBG

The story of how Ruth Bader Ginsburg became an icon for women’s rights began when, as a newly minted law school graduate (Harvard and Columbia), she had trouble getting a job (trailer). Filmmakers Julie Cohen and Betsy Ward are obvious admirers, but then, there’s lots to admire. The film includes plenty of archival footage of Ginsburg as a quite beautiful young woman, as well as audio of her earliest arguments before the Supreme Court supporting “gender blindness.”

This historical footage is supplemented by present-day interviews with legal scholars, journalists, politicians, Ginsburg’s children, and RBG herself. Although she fought fiercely for women’s rights, as a person, she’s shy and unassuming. Her parents taught her that angry displays were “self-defeating,” and she kept her calm demeanor in her court battles, even though she says she felt like a kindergarten teacher, helping judges and even members of earlier Supreme Courts to an understanding of the systematic discrimination women faced and its costs. Of course, the battle isn’t over yet and has opened on a new front with #metoo.

If she never shows anger, she shows plenty of love for her husband Marty, who died in 2010. His support enabled her to achieve much of what she has, which every woman in America benefits from today, whether she knows it or not.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 93%; audiences: 80%.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Fred Rogers 2When I saw previews of this Morgan Neville documentary about children’s television personality Fred Rogers, I was afraid it might be overly saccharine (trailer). But Rogers himself puts that issue to rest by his absolute sincerity and persuasiveness. Himself a child development expert, convinced by research showing the value of young children knowing they are loved for who they are, he used television to carry that message.

Over the years his slow delivery and habits (putting on his sweater, changing his shoes) have been mocked by numerous comedians—clips of these skits are included. OK, but the relevance of those critiques is completely undermined when the film juxtaposes scenes from his program with the usual pie-in-the-face comedy, the frantic action, the fights and violence more typical of children’s programming. There can be no question which is healthier for small children. Yet his show didn’t duck difficult issues. It took on divorce, death, 9/11, assassination—issues kids hear about, but may not get much help in understanding and processing.

Under Rogers’s gentle exterior beat the heart of a “true radical,” said Odie Henderson for RogerEbert.com. The opening song with which he greeted his audience every day said, “I have always wanted to have a neighbor just like you,” and that “you” included children of all races, abilities, and religions, wherever they lived, recent immigrants or the scions of old Boston families. He loved them, each and every one, just as they were. And they knew it.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 99%; audiences: 98%.

On the Big Screen: From the Ridiculous to the Sublime

The Death of Stalin

Death of Stalin

Steve Buscemi & Jeffrey Tambor

The Death of Stalin, from director Armando Iannucci (trailer) satirizes the cynical, self-absorbed group of leaders surrounding the Communist dictator and their desperate jockeying for position both before and after his death in 1953.

Banned in Russia, the film is based on a graphic novel by French writers Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin (Amazon link), full of one-liners and sight gags. Undoubtedly, some of the humor arises out of a characters’ sense of release—having lived under such extreme repression, day in and day out, guarding every word and eyebrow twitch, a giddy humanity bubbles up once the leader dies.

Late one evening, Stalin decides he wants to hear an orchestra concert that was broadcast on the radio. No one thought to record it, and the anxious scramble to recreate the concert illustrates the high-pitched fear of displeasing him. (Bringing in baffled street people to pad the audience was a nice touch.) Stalin murdered the pianist’s family, and she slips a vitriolic message into the recording jacket that causes the dictator have a stroke. His comrades can’t find a doctor for him because, they readily acknowledge, all the “good doctors” have been purged.

Stalin’s potential heirs include Nikita Kruschev (played brilliantly by Steve Buscemi), who is put in charge of a lavish state funeral where things, inevitably, go awry. Due to his position on the Central Committee, Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) is “in charge,” with terror and venality at war behind his eyes. Vyacheslov Molotov (Michael Palin) is the only inner circle member unaware that Stalin’s unexpected death has spared him a grim fate in Lubyanka prison. The head of state security, Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale) oils his way into nearly every scene, always plotting and loathed by everyone.

As Anthony Lane says in The New Yorker, it’s a comedy, “grossly neglectful of the basic decencies, cavalier toward historical facts, and toxically tasteless” and “ten times funnier . . . than it has any right to be.”

Rotten Tomatoes Critics Rating: 95%; audiences: 79%.

Cezanne: Portraits of a Life

Cezanne

Paul Cézanne, “Self Portrait in a Bowler Hat,” (1885-86)

This beautiful documentary, directed by Phil Grabsky (trailer), was created to accompany a joint exhibition of some 60 of Paul Cézanne’s portraits being mounted by London’s National Portrait Gallery, The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., and the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.

Better known for his still lifes and landscapes, the portraits, which New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl says were “the genre most resistant to Cézanne’s struggle” are nevertheless worthy of careful attention. Certainly the museum staff who provide commentary for the film have been captivated by them. Yet the artist’s struggle is evident in his letters to his friends, read in voice-over.

What I found most thrilling were the extreme closeups of the painted surface that seeing the works on a big screen provided. In a postcard (!) or print in a book, or even glanced at in a gallery, the paintings may look rather flat, but the huge enlargement allows you to see the many layers of color used to create that surface and to appreciate these works in a completely new way. Some of the landscapes and a few still lifes also receive this close-in treatment.

Although Cézanne masterfully depicted the faces and the hands of his subjects, he said that these were not what constituted the “portrait” of a person, but indeed the whole canvas—the clothing, the chair, the background, all together, were the true portrait. See it if you can.

The exhibit has had its Paris and London runs and will be in Washington March 25-July 1, 2018.

Trying: A Play by Joanna Glass

The story of 20th century figure Judge Francis Biddle comes alive in Trying, an engaging play by Joanna McClelland Glass, who was Biddle’s assistant during his last year of life. On stage at the George Street Playhouse through April 8, the play is directed by Jim Jack.

It has an apt title, because the irascible judge was very trying during this period, plagued by illnesses, painful arthritis, and growing infirmities. But he also wanted to finish his memoirs, and Glass (in the play, her character’s name is Sarah) must cajole and persuade and badger him to “try.” She learns to work with the prickly, demanding Biddle, and they develop a strong mutual affection and a relationship that contains a healthy dose of humor.

Biddle was the quintessential “Philadelphia lawyer,” accomplished, educated at elite U.S. institutions and related to or acquainted with a significant number of the country’s patrician leaders. He served numerous posts in the administration of Franklin Roosevelt, including as U.S. Solicitor General and U.S. Attorney General.

When the internment of Japanese-Americans was proposed, he initially opposed it, and regretted his later support. (In the play, he expresses this regret and said that episode is where he learned to mistrust the phrase “military necessity.”) He took actions to support African-American civil rights. Perhaps his most notable achievements were as America’s chief judge at the post-World War II Nuremberg trials of leading Nazis. The lobby displays posters with a number of his strong human rights quotations.

Ironically, Glass says in her notes accompanying the play, at the end of his life the two events that preoccupied him were the deaths that robbed him of a young son and his own father when he was six. The lost opportunities to know those two people haunted him.

Even though there are only two actors in the cast, the story clicks right along. Biddle—“81 years old, elegant, sharply cantankerous, and trying to put his life in order”—is played by Philip Goodwin, with increasing frailty of body, but not of spirit, and Cary Zien plays off him well as a sympathetic and energetic young Sarah. The set design conveys the passage of time, with the changing weather and flora outside the window, and though spring arrives and the days grow longer, they are a constant reminder that Biddle’s days are coming to an end.

This is a lovely play, and gives audiences a lot to think about, with respect to the contributions a single person can make—Biddle in his legal career and Glass with her acute perceptions about what constitutes a well-lived life.

ICYMThem: The Good and the Bad of Recent Biopics

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool

Annette BeningThis beneath-the-radar film directed by Paul McGuigan (script by Matt Greenhalgh) shows  the last days of Academy-Award-winning actress Gloria Grahame (trailer). In her final illness, she turns to a former lover, the much younger actor, Peter Turner, and the flashbacks about their relationship in its heyday are sparkling and fun. They knew how to enjoy life and each other.

Annette Bening makes a charming, sexy Grahame, riddled with vanities, and Jamie Bell is Turner—sincere and doing the right thing. One heart-rending moment of unselfish love and compassion from each of them. Julie Walters is excellent as Turner’s mother, unaccustomed to consorting with Hollywood stars, but able to establish a strong human connection.

Rotten Tomatoes Critics Rating 80%; audiences 71%.

Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House

Mark Felt, Liam Neeson, phone boothWhile Watergate revelations piled up daily in the early 1970s, in all the excruciating details of high-level misdeeds, one mystery remained: Who was the high-ranking source, “Deep Throat”? Washington Post reporters gave this name to one of history’s most important whistle-blowers.

Thirty years later Americans learned the source had been Mark Felt, J. Edgar Hoover’s #2, the man expected to next head the FBI. Felt was aced out of the position by the White House when Hoover died unexpectedly. Were his actions revenge? Or more noble? I saw the film and cannot answer that.

This is great material about a consequential period. Too bad the filmmakers couldn’t make better use of it. Liam Neeson (Felt) looks cadaverous, and writer/director Peter Landesman gives the actors some really wooden dialog, offering little depth (trailer).

Rotten Tomatoes Critics Rating 35%; audiences 43%.

Marshall

Marshall - Chadwick BosemanAnother biopic that doesn’t live up to its source material is Reginald Hudlin’s Marshall, written by Jacob and Michael Koskoff (trailer). Chadwick Boseman nicely plays Thurgood Marshall in his early days, fighting for equal treatment under the law for black Americans. He finds a litigation partner in a reluctant Sam Friedman (played by Josh Gad. The acting is fine, but the scenes and dialog are clichéd, and the rest of the characters two-dimensional.

End-titles mention the 33 cases Marshall argued before the Supreme Court—surely there were numerous episodes embedded in those cases that would bring new issues to light, more illuminating than the courtroom drama presented here: a black man accused of raping and trying to kill a white woman. It would have been interesting to see how the nation’s top court responded to civil rights issues, rather than the predictable provincial racism of a local justice system. We’ve seen that scenario before. Says critic Indra Arriaga in the Anchorage Press, “Marshall misses opportunity after opportunity to be truthful and relevant in the world today.”

Rotten Tomatoes Critics Rating: 83%; audiences 85%.

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