*****Beneath the Mountain

Bletterbach, mountain, the Dolomites, gorge

The Bletterbach – photo: Esther Westerveld

By Luca D’Andrea, translated by Howard Curtis – When a debut thriller appears that sold to thirty countries within a month, became a bestseller in the author’s home country of Italy and in Germany, and was greeted with breathless praise like “can be compared (with no fear of hyperbole) to Stephen King and Jo Nesbø,” you know you’re in for quite a ride.

D’Andrea delivers. Beneath the Mountain is set in the northern Italian province of South Tyrol, in the village of Siebenhoch, whose Italian residents speak German. Siebenhoch is near the end of the eight-kilometer Bletterbach gorge in the jagged Dolomite mountains. Hikers are warned they enter the steep terrain “at their own risk,” because of rockfalls, mudslides, freezing water, and flash floods. The geological characteristics and history of the gorge are essential to D’Andrea’s story, anchoring it to a reality that could not have existed anywhere else.

Thirty years before the novel begins, three experienced hikers—Kurt, Evi, and Marcus—trekked deep into the gorge and were set upon first by an unusually powerful storm, then by one or more unknown assailants who hacked their bodies into pieces. By the time a four-man rescue team arrived, any forensic evidence was washed away or lost in the mud.

The deaths of these three young people reverberated through the community, affecting, disastrously, not only the men who found them but also their families. One time or another suspicion has fallen on a disappeared paleontologist with some bizarre theories that Evi thoroughly discredited, on a wealthy developer who built a visitor center on land her analyses had shown was unstable, on various members of the insular community, even on the rescuers themselves.

Now, American screenwriter Jeremiah Salinger, his wife Annelise, and their five-year-old daughter Clara have relocated to Siebenhoch. The fresh location inspires a new television series about the work of Dolomite Mountain Rescue. As its name implies, the rescue service comes to the aid of stranded tourists, injured hikers, and others in distress among the precipitous peaks. Jeremiah is party to a disastrous helicopter crash that kills four rescuers and a tourist, but his physical injuries are nothing compared to a serious case of PTSD, compounded by guilt and fear, that impairs his judgment. The booze doesn’t help. To distract himself, he starts investigating the 1985 Bletterbach murders, a deeper, more dangerous rabbit hole than the one he’s already in.

D’Andrea frequently introduces new information through the device of a community member offering to tell Jeremiah a story, which is a powerful enticement for the reader as well. Especially engaging is Jeremiah’s relationship with daughter Clara. Their word game—she loves to spell—is a theme throughout, which becomes ironic when, despite his obvious devotion to her, he puts his off-the-books investigation before even her.

Legends of the Undead are . . . Undead

Cemetery, gravestones

photo: John W. Schulze, creative commons license

In Chicago recently, we took a nine-year-old to a theatrical version of Dracula (playing at the Mercury Theater through November 5). “Weren’t you scared?” several audience members asked him after the show, as he was the show’s youngest audience member by many decades. “No.” This was said with deadpan aplomb. And possibly an eye-roll.

Perhaps some of the edge was off Bram Stoker’s classic because of all the much more horrifying real-life shenanigans filling the daily news, or perhaps it was because this production veered occasionally—and entertainingly—close to camp. While it wasn’t terrifying, it had good acting and nice touches. Notably, the production credits include acknowledgment of the show’s “violence and blood/gore designer.” Which gives an inkling.

When the Stoker’s tale first appeared 120 years ago, The Manchester Guardian dismissed it with almost the same nonchalance as our young theater companion. “Most of the delightful old superstitions of the past have an unhappy way of appearing limp and sickly in the glare of the later day,” the reviewer said. “Man is no longer in dread of the monstrous and the unnatural, and . . . the effect is more often grotesque than terrible.” Tell that to Ann Rice and Stephenie Meyer and the legions of other authors who continue to resurrect “the ancient legends of the were-wolf and the vampire”!

Columbus

“A lot of today’s Hollywood films don’t have a lot of patience. They sort of expect the audience to get bored really quickly, so they’re like, ‘We’ve got to have an explosion every 10 minutes.’” That was said about the dystopian science-fiction sequel Blade Runner 2049. It’s hard then to imagine how a film like Columbus, the debut film of writer/director Kogonada,  got made at all or that American audiences would sit through it (trailer). I liked it.

Set in Columbus, Indiana, home to an astonishing collection of modernist architecture, the buildings speak to a young city resident, Casey (played by Haley Lu Richardson). She’s been offered a chance to go to Boston to work and study with a prominent woman architect, but has decided to stay where she is, shelving books in the local library. She lives with her mother, recently recovered from a bad meth habit, and is afraid to leave her. They treat each other like thin-shelled eggs that require constant vigilance. She has an admirer at the library (Rory Culkin), who, like her mother, urges her to go.

This stasis changes when she meets Jin (John Cho), the New York-based son of a prominent Korean architecture scholar who suffered a stroke while visiting the town. He’s in the hospital and may never recover consciousness. He and Jin have had a distant relationship and Jin feels little connection now. He wants to get back to his life. The father is probably closer to his long-time assistant (Parker Posey), who, like Casey, has given up her individuality to play a supporting role.

Richardson and Cho bring great depth to their parts, and it’s a pleasure to watch them—indeed, the entire cast—work. There’s not a lot of yelling or acting out. And not one explosion.

The example of Casey, denying herself so much to protect her mother, weighs on Jin, just as his encouragement to follow her dream inspires her. This sounds simple, but the movie never drifts into the banal. The healing power of architecture is often referenced and the Columbus buildings, lit from inside at night or seen from odd angles, are stunningly beautiful. They loom over the characters studying them like benign watchmen. Arty, and satisfying—as Sean P. Means said in the Salt Lake Tribune, “a tender, beautiful gem that should not be overlooked.”

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 97%; audiences 84%.

*****His Bloody Project

Scottish Policeman - 1882

Original photo, c. 1882 by Peter Swanson, reproduced by Dave Conner, creative commons

By Graeme Macrae Burnet, narrated by Antony Ferguson. This remarkable faux “true-crime” thriller was shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize and an immersive, inventive fable it is. The conceit is that the author, in researching his family history, uncovers a 17-year-old relative named Roderick Macrae, who in 1869 stood trial in Inverness, Scotland, in a notorious triple murder case. In trying to get to the bottom of this episode, the author has assembled a variety of original documents. He presents this evidence, and the reader must weigh it along with the court.

After some prefatory remarks, the story picks up steam in the longest section of the book, a confession written by Roddy himself. Opinion at the time, the author notes, held it was entirely unlikely that a barely educated crofter, living in desperately reduced circumstances, could write such a literate account of himself and his life.

Roddy freely admits he committed the murders. The nub of the case is whether he was in his right mind when doing so and whether the then rather new insanity defense is appropriate. His victims were Lachlan Mackenzie, the autocratic and vindictive constable of the area, who seems, for various reasons and an inherent meanness, intent on breaking apart the Macrae family; Mackenzie’s 15-year-old daughter Flora, whom Roddy has gone walking with a few times and hopes to romance; and Mackenzie’s three-year-old son Danny.

In describing life in the tiny, poverty-struck village of Culduie, Roddy’s memoir recounts a great many petty tyrannies visited on the family by Mackenzie, which might (or might not) be sufficient motivation for murder. Since Roddy’s mother died in childbirth, the Macrae family has lurched through life, bathed in grief and laid low by privation. From Roddy’s confession as well as other testimony, readers gain a detailed picture of daily life and the knife-edge on which survival depends. Fans of strong courtroom dramas will relish the way the courtroom scenes in the book both reveal and conceal.

The audiobook was narrated by Antony Ferguson. He gives sufficient variety to the speech of the characters to make them both easily identifiable and compelling individuals, from the engaging Roddy to the condescending psychiatrist and prison doctor, whom author Burnet based on the real-life J Bruce Thomson, to the ostensibly straightforward journalistic accounts.

The format of this book makes it unusual in crime fiction. It is a more literary version of the dossier approach used by Dennis Wheatley, in such classics as Murder Off Miami and The Malinsay Massacre, which our family loved to read and solve.

Maudie

Maudie, Sally HawkinsMaud Lewis today is one of Canada’s best-known primitive painters—quite an accomplishment for a poor, chronically ill woman from a townspeck between the Bay of Fundy and St. Mary’s Bay. This charming film, written by Sherry White and directed by Aisling Walsh (trailer), tells her story. At least in the way that biopics do, leaving you wondering, was Maud’s husband really so prickly? Did they really live in a tiny one-room house? Further research indicates the answers to those questions are probably not and yes.

Maud suffered from painful juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, which may have stunted her growth,  and an equally painful awkwardness in social interactions. In marrying Everett Lewis, she finds a man even more emotionally and socially stunted than she is. I can’t say enough about how beautifully Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke play these odd characters. Physically, it had to be a taxing role for Hawkins, because Maud walks with difficulty and, as time passes, becomes more and more bent over. But a wide smile comes readily to a woman who can look at a window and say, “The whole of life, already framed, right there”—both to Hawkins and in photos and film of  the real-life Maud.

They find each other when Everett looks for a woman to cook and clean his one-room house while he runs his fish-peddling and junk collecting businesses. Maud is looking for an escape from under the thumb of her judgmental aunt. When he advertises for help in the general store, this tiny woman appears on his doorstep. She brings order to the house, but Maud’s real desire is to paint. She starts by decorating the walls of Ev’s house, then scrap construction materials he’s brought home. From there, her career as an artist blossoms like her paintings, but since they charge about $5 per picture, it never makes them much money.

Maudie is an uplifting story about a person who made the most of her gifts and whose efforts were recognized in her lifetime, far outside their Marshalltown, Nova Scotia, home. Because she had modest goals—“I’ve got everything I want with you, Ev. Everything.”—she found tremendous satisfaction and joy in her life, despite its challenges.

(Many of Maud Lewis’s paintings are now in the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, as is the Lewises’ actual house, restored after the Gallery acquired it in 1984. In May 2017, a Maud Lewis painting sold at auction for $45,000.)

Simpatico

Simpatico, Sam Shepard

John Judd & Guy Van Swearingen, photo: Richard Termine

Sam Shepard’s death in late July was “a stunning personal loss to all of us who knew him and a devastating loss for the theater,” said Artistic Director Emily Mann. Months earlier, the McCarter Theatre Center had scheduled Shephard’s Simpatico to open its 2017-2018 season, and the production has been dedicated to him. Running through October 15, it originated with Chicago’s A Red Orchid Theatre. It’s directed by Red Orchid’s Dado and retains much of the Windy City cast.

Fifteen years before the story begins, two longtime friends from Cucamonga, California, conspired to fix horse races. A prominent racing official tumbled to their scam, and they silenced him by threatening to reveal photos proving a particularly degraded sexual liaison, details of which are left to the audience’s imagination. One friend, Vinnie, still lives in California in squalor and an alcoholic haze, supported by his friend Carter, now a successful Kentucky horseman. Though they are tied together by the past and its criminal secrets, there’s bad blood between them, too, mostly because Carter stole Vinnie’s wife Rosie.

When the play starts, down-and-outer Vinnie (played by Guy Van Swearingen) has called Carter (Michael Shannon) in a panic, and Carter flies to California to try to calm him down. It seems the trouble is a woman Vinnie met, Cecelia (Mierka Girten), who has had Vinnie arrested. It takes quite a while to get the story out of Vinnie, because it keeps changing and because Vinnie’s preoccupation with Rosie keeps bubbling up. Carter agrees to help Vinnie with Cecilia, and when he meets her, Vinnie’s lies become apparent.

Vinnie learns that the former racing official (John Judd) is living quietly in Kentucky with his equine pedigree charts—another beneficiary of Carter’s guilt-money. Vinnie flies there with his shoebox full of blackmail pictures and offers them for sale. What was scandalous pornography some years ago is pale stuff now, and the wonderfully garrulous official isn’t interested. Nor is Rosie (Jennifer Engstrom).

The lines crackle along, and many are laugh-out-loud funny, despite the lies and deceit everywhere and the intensifying power struggle between Vinnie and Carter. Van Swearingen and Shannon play their relationship in a way that you may alternately sympathize with and loathe first one then the other. Girten is sweet cluelessness itself (“Why didn’t you tell me the Kentucky Derby is in May?”), and Engstrom’s Rosie is her polar opposite. Judd is so comfortable in his role as the racing official, he might have been recruited direct from a back room at Churchill Downs.

Shepard intended this play in part to be an homage to film noir. Characters reference classics like Double Indemnity and The Maltese Falcon, and Vinnie often poses as a private eye. In perhaps the most illuminating line regarding his character, Vinnie tells Carter he enjoys his fake stake-outs so much because you can see everything about people’s lives, like “someone cutting someone else’s throat.” One way or another.

For tickets, call the box office at 609-258-2787 or visit the ticket office online.

Dunkirk

Dunkirk, Christopher NolanIt would have been a shame if this film about one of the most inspiring episodes of World War II had fallen prey to Hollywood cheesiness, a far-fetched romance, or a surfeit of special effects. This movie, written and directed by Christopher Nolan (trailer) is really not about the fate of individuals. (In the lack of dismembered and disemboweled bodies, it’s the antithesis of, say, Hacksaw Ridge.) It’s about the fate and movements of the group, much like the Dunkirk rescue itself, and it strikes the right balance between emotion and action, with just enough special effects (well, quite a lot, really) to convey the extreme peril and disarray in which the rescue was carried out.

The backstory is familiar, and Nolan shows us no strutting Nazi officers or steely-eyed German soldiers. Nor do we need to see them. By late May 1940, the German advance had stranded some 400,000 mostly British personnel on the French coast. Especially at low tide, the water was too shallow and the docking facilities too damaged for the British Navy ships to get in to pick them up. Not to mention that those big ships were sitting ducks for bombs from land and air. Meanwhile, the soldiers lined up on the mole (the sea wall) and the sand to board ships that weren’t coming, couldn’t come. Exposed on the beaches, they were being bombed and strafed too. When a rare hospital ship became available, there was every effort to board the wounded—a compassionate but consequential choice, one stretcher case taking the place of several standing men.

England was less than 40 nautical miles away by the shortest, though not the safest, route across the Channel. As the operation commander says, “You can almost see it.” “What?” asks the Army man. “Home.”

In the words of the film’s promotion, “When 400,000 men couldn’t get home, home came for them.” The story is so well known, I’ll risk a spoiler here and remind you that an armada of almost a thousand vessels of the British Navy, augmented by private citizens’ fishing boats, pleasure craft, lifeboats, motor launches, and car ferries made repeated crossings, over several days, loaded with as many men as they could carry. Overhead, British Spitfires battled German bombers and their fighter plane escorts.

Despite the lack of in-depth personal stories, Nolan uses a number of techniques to bring this complex action to life. He never lets you forget the daunting scope of what must be accomplished. He minimizes the dialog and concentrates on an accumulation of physical details, snippets of chance and courage, moments of terror and random death. He simultaneously compresses and stretches time: the aerial battle shown took place over an hour and is intercut with actions on the beach that took place over a week. And, he provides some of the most exciting air footage I’ve seen in ages. These accumulating details symbolize the whole.

With his approach, individual stories become “less interesting for their biographical details than for the roles they play in the drama of history, however large or small they may be,” said Matt Zoller Seitz for RogerEbert.com. However, some critics have complained about these very features: the lack of backstory about the war and German decision-making, only three Spitfires, the paucity of character detail. They wanted a different movie.

In choosing the actors who do play identifiable roles, Nolan selected fine ones. Kenneth Branagh, as the operation commander, marches up and down the mole in a handsome greatcoat, while the ever-appealing James D’Arcy is the Army colonel with whom he’s coordinating. Fionn Whitehead and Aneurin Barnard are two ordinary soldiers caught up in multiple attempts to devise their own escape. Tom Hardy is lead pilot of the Spitfire squadron. And one of the small rescue boats is captained by Mark Rylance, who can do more by doing less than any actor going. Tough decisions have to be made. You sense these men could make them.

Hans Zimmer’s score, which conjures the racing heartbeats of the men in peril, was effective up until the end, when he tried for a more exalted mood.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 93%;  Audiences: 83%.

On Stage: The Merchant of Venice

Merchant of Venice

Rachel Towne as Nerissa (left) & Melissa Miller as Portia; photo: Jerry Dalia.

The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey opens its 2017 season with Shakespeare’s dark comedy, The Merchant of Venice, about, as the theater describes it “A money-obsessed, patriarchal, dysfunctional society where wealth bestows power; one in which women cannot determine their own fate, and one marked by religious and racial prejudice.” Hmm. This production, which opened Saturday night, May 20, runs through June 4, and is directed by award-winning actor Robert Cuccioli.

Perhaps this play is not often performed because modern playgoers (and producers) are uncomfortable with its blatant anti-Semitism. Such views persisted in England, of course, through the eras of Dickens, Disraeli, Holocaust denial, and may even be again on the rise. It’s talking about them that’s so uncomfortable. Cuccioli, the cast, and the theater deserve praise for not soft-pedaling the ugliness of racial hatred. Shylock (Andrew Weems) is as intransigent in his demands as his foes expect him to be.

The gist of the story, you may recall, is that prominent Venetian merchant Antonio (Brent Harris), loans his friend Bassanio (John Keabler) money so he can woo the estimable Portia (Melissa Miller). Convinced several of his ships will soon arrive and refill his coffers, Antonio borrows the needed sum from his old adversary, Shylock, and agrees to the whimsical idea that, if he cannot repay the debt, he’ll let the Jew take a pound of his flesh.

When Antonio’s ships are lost, Shylock invokes that clause. Portia, disguised as a learned young judge, argues the case to save Antonio (“The quality of mercy is not strain’d, it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath”) , aided by her maidservant Nerissa (Rachel Towne), her pretended law clerk.

That part of the story has all the makings of tragedy, certainly high drama. The comedy comes from the suitors for Portia’s hand, made to choose among caskets of gold, silver, and lead, only one of which holds her portrait and her promise to marry. With great shows of manly confidence, they uniformly guess wrong, until Bassanio . . . you can guess the rest. Portia and Nerissa tease their men mercilessly, but not so frivolously as to form too great a contrast with the blacker heart of the play, the downfall of Shylock.

Weems, Harris, and Miller give especially strong and moving performances. However, the entire cast does an admirable job keeping the action going and creating interesting, compelling characters. They’re believably outraged at Shylock and charmed by Portia and Nerissa. In addition to those named, the cast includes Ademide Akintilo, Amaia Arana, Jeffrey M. Bender (his Prince of Arragon is priceless), Byron Clohessy, Ian Gould, Robert S. Gregory, Jay Leibowitz, Anthony Michael Martinez, Joe Penczak,  and Tug Rice.

Production credits to Brian Ruggaber (excellent set design); Käri B. Bentson (sound), Michael Giannitti (lighting); Candida Nichols (lovely 1900-ish costumes); and Alison Cote (production stage manager).

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 http://www.shakespearenj.org. Note that STNJ offers special ticket pricing of $30 for theatergoers under age 30!

Richard Gere: Two Ways Cinematically

Norman

Richard GereFull title of this Joseph Cedar movie is Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer (trailer). Norman the person is not very likeable. He stands too close when he talks to you, he’s relentless in searching for an angle, he’s quick with the half-to-full-lie. But in Richard Gere’s nuanced portrayal, initial discomfort turns to something more like sympathy. How he’s treated by the people who see him for what he is becomes simultaneously justified and painful.

The sympathy is possible because Norman isn’t angling to benefit himself, at least not financially. He only wants to feel important, that he matters in the world, yet he remains “always just a few capillaries removed from the beating heart of power,” says A.O. Scott in the New York Times. When he has a setback, and he has plenty of them, you see the gears turning until he hits a way to make the best of it.

When Norman “bumps into” an Israeli diplomat and does him a favor, right there you know the seeds of calamity are planted. I won’t say more about the plot, which is complicated in the delicious way that only someone like Norman could complicate it.

Israeli actor Lior Ashkenazi plays the diplomat; Michael Sheen plays Norman’s put-upon nephew; Steve Buscemi as the rabbi of a financially distressed congregation is “a marvel of wit and off-kilter humanity,” Scott says; and Manhattan plays itself, beautifully.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 87%; audiences 70%.

The Dinner

Richard Gere - The DinnerI have a friend who doesn’t like intense family dramas—too many bad associations. He’ll have to avoid The Dinner (trailer), written and directed by Oren Moverman. The movie is based on Dutch author Herman Koch’s excellent novel (2013), which I greatly admired (best book cover ever!). It’s told in the first person, and I wondered how the narrator’s snide and witty commentary would translate to the screen. That aspect of it worked differently in the book and survived less successfully in the film, with biting humor replaced by mental chaos.

Steve Coogan plays Paul Lohman, an erstwhile high school history teacher who loathes (actually, is desperately jealous of) his politically successful older brother Stan (Richard Gere), now embarking on a gubernatorial campaign. The brothers and their wives (Laura Linney and Rebecca Hall) are to have dinner at an exclusive restaurant, but Paul at least is not looking forward to it. Nor should he be. Stan has an agenda. He wants to discuss something truly awful—criminal, in fact—their teenage sons have done, which could explode all their lives.

Comparisons with Roman Polanski’s Carnage are perhaps inevitable, but the fireworks and the damage here are all in the family. The kids who caused the whole debacle are weakly portrayed, and the movie, unlike the novel, ends ambiguously. If your focus is on strong performances, this is a worthy effort. If you want a convincing story, read the book.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 51%; audiences, 18%.

Intimate Apparel

Intimate Apparel

Quincy Tyler Bernstine & Tasso Feldman; photo: T. Charles Erickson

As Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Sweat continues on Broadway, you can see her much-produced earlier work, Intimate Apparel, at McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton.  It opened May 12 and continues through June 4. Directed by the award-winning Jade King Carroll, Intimate Apparel takes place in 1905 on New York’s Lower East Side.

In Nottage’s story, reportedly based in part on the experience of her own great-grandmother, a lonely 36-year-old African American corset-maker reaches out, by post, to a distant male correspondent she has never met. As she cannot read or write, Esther, the corset-maker (played by Quincy Tyler Bernstine), relies first on a wealthy white client (Kate MacCluggage), then her more amorous-minded friend, the prostitute Mayme (Jessica Frances Dukes), to compose her letters.

Her correspondent is George (Galen Kane), a young Barbadian engaged in the grueling work of building the Panama Canal. Typical of people in epistolary relationships, Esther and George read between the lines of these exchanged letters, creating an image of the other that doesn’t line up with who they actually are. Inevitably, their meeting will be a challenge in reconciling dream and reality.

The two strangers finally do meet, on their wedding day. Esther wears a beautiful dress made from yardage of white lace, a gift from a man who does know, understand, and appreciate her, the gentle Jewish cloth merchant, Mr. Marks (Tasso Feldman). He and Esther visibly yearn for connection, while all-too-aware of the cultural and religious barriers that separate them.

George, by contrast, turns out to be rough-edged, sexually demanding, and costly in every way. Esther can’t say she wasn’t warned. Her cautious landlady (Brenda Pressler), gossiping and busying herself around the boarding house, is into everyone’s business. However, she is genuinely fond of Esther, her boarder for almost two decades.

The cast of the McCarter production is excellent, especially Bernstine, who appears in every scene, and the ragtime-playing Dukes. Although her piano-playing is a theatrical illusion, she pantomimes playing the jazzy tunes with gusto. Thanks to Nicole Pearce’s lighting, the set design from Alexis Distler enables a half-dozen different “rooms” within a single scaffolded backdrop and minimal furnishings, and it echoes the “New York under construction” meme of Hamilton.

Those strengths aside, the play itself is disappointing. The story is sadly predictable, and Nottage has chosen to tell it almost entirely in two-person scenes. Interspersed is an occasional monologue (George reading “his” letters to Esther—a bit of a puzzler there, since it turns out he didn’t write them). It’s like going to a concert of nothing but duets. You long for a trio or a chorus number to break up the pattern and provide an energy boost. There’s too little of the vitality of the time and none of the cacophony of the locale, which may be a feature of this production rather than the play itself. But see it for the fine performances.

Additional production credits to Dede M. Ayite (lovely costumes); Karin Graybash (sound design); and Thom Jones(dialect coach).

For tickets, call the box office at 609-258-2787 or visit the ticket office online.