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.

WINK

Wink, Joshua de Jesus

Joshua de Jesus as Wink

We braved the Amtrak/New Jersey Transit/Penn Station debacle last Sunday to go into New York to see an off-off-(perhaps a third off is needed here, I’m not sure)-Broadway play in which our nephew-in-law is appearing.

It was fun to rub elbows with intrepid theater-goers, trying a performance that might be a little risky, perhaps hoping for something a little risqué and figuring out which cast member they are related to. The play is Neil Koenigsberg’s WINK, directed amiably by Ron Beverly, and playing at the Theater for the New City, 155 First Avenue, just south of 10th Street through May 7.

Since we’d allowed so much extra time for train delays, we had ample time for a long cross-town walk and fortification with blood marys at the bar across the street from the theater, where a baby shower was in full swing.

The cast did a terrific job (nephew-in-law included), but the play itself is problematic. It takes place in Hollywood today, and its major conflict is between the desire of a teenage character, the eponymous Wink, to not declare a gender—“I’m just Wink”—and the determination of a Hollywood agent to find out. If Koenigsberg—a former Hollywood public relations luminary-turned-playwright—had set the play in 1950 or somewhere other than Hollywood, this obsession might be more believable. The gender identity wars are being fought on different ground.

A good reason to see this play, though, is to see Joshua de Jesus as Wink. He does a heartfelt job on territory that’s pretty well trodden. Joe Maruzzo is engaging as a past-his-prime actor, Jose Joaquin Perez is a homeless counselor, and Nikole Williams a public relations consultant struggling with how to describe Wink and getting no help from anyone. The awful agent is our nephew, Joe Isenberg.

As Director Beverly told me after the show, “Joe has to be willing to be not liked,” and he paraphrased a reviewer who said, “you may not like this character, but you can admire Joe’s portrayal.” We did! And we liked all the do-wop music too.

Incident at Hidden Temple

Incident at Hidden Temple, Pan Asian Rep

Dinh James Doan & Briana Sakamoto – photo: John Quincy

Pan Asian Repertory Theatre’s current production—the world premiere of Damon Chua’s Incident at Hidden Temple—is an evocative reminder of a pivotal piece of World War II history, and its title reminiscent of my favorite mystery novels—the Tang Dynasty adventures of Judge Dee. Part noir murder mystery and part political showdown, the play takes place in Southwest China in 1943. Under the direction of Kaipo Schwab, the production opened January 26 at Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row.

U.S. Flying Tigers squadrons are helping the Chinese Nationalists led by Chiang Kai-Shek (played by Dinh James Doan). In the first of the play’s many short scenes, an American pilot (Nick Jordan) is murdered by a Chinese woman (Rosanne Ma).

Nearby, a train stops at a place called Hidden Temple, and journalism student Ava Chao (Ying Ying Li) disembarks to stretch her legs. She meets Chinese-American pilot trainee Walter Hu (Tim Liu) and a mysterious blind man (also played by Dinh James Doan).

Ava’s younger sister Lucy (Briana Sakamoto) also talks to the blind man, who tells her a story. In one of the play’s most charming moments, he and she act out the story using classical Chinese gestures and body movements. When Lucy disappears, Ava seeks help in finding her from U.S. General Cliff Van Holt (Jonathan Miles), head of a Flying Tigers squadron.

Soon, several mysteries are in play. Why was the pilot killed? Why is Walter Hu pretending to be someone else? What happened to Lucy? Will any of the characters ever be pure enough in heart to see the hidden temple?

Meanwhile, on the stage of world power politics, larger issues are unresolved. Van Holt wants to cooperate with Chiang and build a forward air base in the eastern region of China from which U.S. planes can attack the Japanese islands directly. General Stillwell, through his aide (Nick Jordan), opposes this plan. The Japanese are the immediate threat, but Mao’s Communist forces in the north also must be reckoned with.

Act One does a good job in setting up the multiple conflicts and questions. While Act Two has resonant moments, it isn’t as strong, relying on some unlikely coincidences and encounters. Ultimately, though the story questions are answered (except the biggest one, which the playwright leaves to the audience), there’s almost too much to bring together smoothly.

The staging and the acting overall are excellent, with Dinh James Doan and Ying Ying Li deserving special mention. Set designer Sheryl Liu, in tandem with Pamela Kupper (lighting), creates just the right amount of moody atmospherics on a stripped-down stage.

For tickets, call Telecharge: 212-239-6200 or telecharge.com. Special performances and discounts are detailed at the Pan Asian Rep website.

Exhibitionism: The Rolling Stones

Rolling Stones

photo: Vicki Weisfeld

Yesterday in New York City—terrible weather threatening all day, and a one-hour train trip home transformed into a six-hour wait-a-thon due to downed wires. Trains packed to bursting!

All that couldn’t dampen my enthusiastic endorsement of the Rolling Stones exhibit at Industria, a show venue in Manhattan’s West Village near the south end of the Highline (775 Washington Street, entrance on 12th), on view until March 12.

Seeing Mick, Keith, Charlie, Ronnie, and the others throughout a fantastic 50-year career tickles a lot of memories. One of the themes of the show is how they—Mick and Charlie, especially—recognized early that there was more to “show business” than their music. As a result they involve many of the arts and artists in their work. Alliances with folks like Andy Warhol and top set designers, graphic artists, and fashion designers led not only to innovative, memorable album covers and shows, but also plenty of interesting material for this exhibit!

The music gets its due, as well. You see a recreation of one of their favorite studios, lyrics as they wrote them in a notebook, and, if you’ve ever picked up a guitar, the display of many beautiful instruments they’ve used over the years and their comments about them are fascinating.

An early apartment is recreated (you wouldn’t want to live there), and the show ends with a 3-D movie. “Satisfaction,” indeed.

The Witness

apartment-building

photo: La Citta Vita, creative commons license

12/7 Update: The Witness is on the Oscar shortlist for best documentary!

On a March night in 1964, Kitty Genovese was murdered in the vestibule of her Kew Gardens, Queens, apartment building as 38 witnesses did nothing, according to an unforgettable story in the New York Times, which described how she was allegedly stalked and stabbed three times in the span of a half-hour.

While spurring needed improvements in emergency response and community watchdog efforts, the horror of her death became imprinted in the public’s minds and in sociological texts as examples of urban dwellers’ indifference to others.

The Witness, a film released this year and now showing on Netflix, is an exhaustive examination of these events, resulting from a decade-long crusade to learn the truth about Genovese’s death. First-time documentarian James Solomon follows Kitty’s brother Bill as he traces the threads of the story, a story even some family members wish he could put behind him.

As Stephanie Merry wrote in Washington Post review, everyone got the story wrong, and they got Kitty wrong: “People don’t remember the vivacious bar manager, the prankster, the beloved big sister. They remember a victim.” Bill was especially close to his sister and loved her joyful, playful spirit. That is what he wanted to honor and remember in his quest to learn the truth.

“There were a lot of things we discovered,” he said in an interview with NPR’s Scott Simon last spring. “During the course of 11 years, there were a lot of stones we overturned. But basically the most fundamental thing was that the 38 eyewitness story and three attacks was not true.”

Many of the so-called witnesses did hear something—desperate screams for help that roused people out of sound sleep—and many did do something. A neighbor who knew Kitty well ran down to the narrow lobby vestibule, now knowing whether the assailant was still in the area, and cradled Kitty as she was dying.

Even the convicted murderer, Winston Moseley (he died in prison while serving a life sentence), had his own version of what happened that night. In a letter to Bill, he claimed that he did not kill Kitty, but was the getaway driver for an underworld figure.

The nature of truth—and what we choose to believe—and the fuzziness of memory are key themes in the film that echo coverage in more recent stories about iconic victims such as Freddie Gray and Trayvon Martin.

The film shows Bill doggedly pursuing leads, reading trial transcripts, checking what people might have seen from their windows, and tracking down surviving witnesses and their families like a latter-day Lieutenant Columbo. He enlists a woman to re-enact the crime using what witnesses said they heard that night. The effect is chilling. And Bill sits weeping.

In a Merry’s review, filmmaker Solomon said, “For whatever reason I am drawn to these iconic stories we think we know.” (Previously, he wrote the screenplay for “The Conspirator,” about Mary Surratt, who aided John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of President Abraham Lincoln.)

Editor’s note: The mischaracterization of Kitty Genovese’s death was possible, in part, because relatively few Americans have witnessed murder. We think we know how we would respond, but . . .? Today, social media makes many more of us “witnesses” to violence and provides a whole new range of responses (see this riveting WIRED account of social media around last summer’s police-involved shootings). The availability of real-time “evidence” on screens in front of us, even acknowledging that distortions may occur, should mean it won’t take 52 years for the true circumstances of these deaths to be understood.

This guest post is by Tucson-based Jodi Goalstone, author of the entertaining blog Going Yard, Offbeat Baseball Musings, celebrating her 20th year living in the Old Pueblo.

***Blonde Ice

spy, espionage, reading

(photo: David Lytle, creative commons license)

By RG Belsky — This is the third crime mystery in the series featuring New York Daily News reporter Gil Malloy, dogged practitioner of a fading profession. Written in the first person, it holds you close to the genial Malloy and his ups and downs—reportorial, romantic, and bureaucratic.

On the up side, Gil Malloy has fallen into what may be the scoop of the year: a beautiful blonde serial killer is targeting married men cheating on their wives. Malloy’s print editor Marilyn Staley and his internet/social media editor Stacy Albright want to milk the sexy story for all it’s worth. Keeping these two antagonists happy could be a second career. Another plus, Malloy’s adored ex-wife Susan shows promising signs that all is not well with hubby #2. Is there a chance? Capstone to his good luck, Malloy has a juicy job offer from the man likely to be New York’s next mayor.

On the down side, Malloy discovers the scoop through Victoria Issacs, who tells him her husband’s gone missing. In a former life, Issacs was the infamous prostitute Houston. When Malloy wrote a Pulitzer-nominated feature article about her several years back, neglecting to disclose his quotes were all second-hand and he’d never actually met the elusive Houston, criticism of him and the paper was withering. He nearly lost his job, and the stress cost him his marriage. Saying too much about Issacs now will reveal that Malloy actually knows her real identity and, probably worse, has concealed it from his editors.

But Houston’s secret isn’t keepable when a hotel maid finds Walter Issacs dead. The knockout blonde who went up to the room with him has disappeared. As the murders keep coming, the chase is on: NYPD after the killer, and Malloy after the story.

Malloy is a regular-guy kind of narrator with a wisecracking exterior that makes for some lively banter in the newsroom and in his efforts to get back between the sheets with Susan. His colleagues keep telling him his constant jokes can wear thin. He knows that, but can’t seem to stop himself. It is, in fact, his armor.

Frustratingly, Staley, Albright, and NYPD detective Wohlers repeatedly jump to conclusions about the case, based on their assumptions and a remarkable lack of definitive evidence. The narrative glosses over various routine questions that arise in murder investigations. How is it possible there was no forensic evidence at any of these violent crime scenes? No long blonde hair, for instance? How did a woman overpower these much larger, fit men? Drugs are an obvious possibility, but there’s no mention of toxicology tests of the victims until Chapter 49. Although this book is not a police procedural, Malloy’s proximity to the investigation and his evident skills as a reporter suggest he should be asking questions exactly like these.

Despite these quibbles, it’s fun to spend time with Gil Malloy on another wild ride. Author Belsky is an experienced New York journalist who perceptively describes the woes and conflicts in today’s news business and conjures a realistic, energetic New York City, too.

Delicious Mayhem in 3 Crime Thrillers

reading, book

photo: Kamil Porembiński, creative commons license

Recent vacations gave me the chance to delve into my scary pile of “to-read” books, where I discovered these gems. I hope you’ll enjoy them too.

*****The Poison Artist

By Jonathan Moore – About this psychological thriller Stephen King said, “I haven’t read anything so terrifying since Red Dragon.” Based in San Francisco, it’s the story of a UCSF professor of toxicology asked to help look for the presence of poisons in a set of torture-murder victims. Something very grim haunts the scientist’s past, his wife has left him, and he becomes obsessed with a beautiful, absinthe-drinking woman named Emmeline, whom he meets in an exclusive late-night bar. As the number of victims increases and he comes to know Emmeline better, he suspects she may be linked to the murders, but could he give her up? Is he the next victim? Smartly written and thoroughly immersive.

****Forgiving Mariela Camacho

By A.J. Sidransky – NYPD detectives Pete Gonzalvez and Tolya Kurchenko discover the body of a young woman inside what’s meant to look like an elaborate suicide device, but they see what really happened: murder. And Gonzalvez knows the victim, a Dominican beauty named Mariela Camacho whom he once loved. Maybe still does. As this police procedural unwinds, you learn more about Gonzalvez’s early life in the Dominican Republic, and the code the people he grew up with lived by. Kurchenko also has reasons to look into his past and his family’s enemies in Russia. Past and present move toward a deadly collision in this fast-moving ride through the city streets. It’s also a powerful testament to friendship. The detectives’ banter—spiced with Dominican Spanish—is entertaining and genuine. The book won the 2016 David Award at the annual Deadly Ink conference.

****The Good Cop

By Brad Parks – Reporter Carter Ross is based in Newark, New Jersey, quietly rebelling against the commodification of the news for internet and social media tastes. This is the fourth book featuring Ross and his wicked sense of humor. He needs it, because his work takes him to some pretty dark places. Ross is looking into the suicide death of Newark policeman Darius Kipps and before long decides the death wasn’t a suicide at all. Clues are hard to come by, though, and he can recognize stonewalling when he encounters it. The paper accepts the official story, so he’s pretty much on his own, depending for help on a lively and engaging set of secondary characters. Absinthe is drunk (apparently I missed a trend here). You’re reminded of the importance of deep reporting and a commitment to uncovering the truth somehow lost in the era of “non-stop news” soundbites.

Florence Foster Jenkins

Florence Foster Jenkins

Simon Helberg, Meryl Streep, & Hugh Grant in Florence Foster Jenkins

Based on the true story of socialite, arts patron, and would-be coloratura soprano Florence Foster Jenkins, this Stephen Frears movie (trailer, with a nice feature afterward) is a perfect summer entertainment. Even though practically everyone other than her doting, doddering age-peers recognizes how truly awful her singing is and how bizarre are her costumes, the movie nevertheless is persistently upbeat and goodhearted.

Florence is generous and kind and, while it’s clear she’ll never be the singer she thinks she is, in Meryl Streep’s wonderful characterization, you don’t hold her delusions against her. Streep is supported by Hugh Grant, in a wholly sympathetic portrayal of Florence’s unfailingly supportive husband, St. Clair Bayfield, a handsome actor seven years younger than Florence in real life.

I fell in love with her pianist, Cosmé McMoon, as played by Simon Helberg. McMoon starts his new gig as her accompanist with great enthusiasm and the promise of a much fatter wallet, and when he hears her sing, his growing shock and bewilderment is priceless.

The only mean-spirited skunk in the whole film is New York Post gossip columnist Earl Wilson. His headline after Florence’s 1944 Carnegie Hall appearance called her the world’s worst singer. Nice opening credits, great classic cars, love her beads!

As The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw says, “there are no wrong notes in this film,” and the audience loved her “so-bad-it’s-good” performances, and you will too!

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 86%; audiences 77%.

Café Society

Cafe_Society, Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Woody Allen

Eisenberg & Stewart with the director

In the new film written, directed, and narrated by Woody Allen (trailer), actor Jesse Eisenberg gets the Allen role and at times, early in the film, appears to be channeling his klutz persona. But the part requires something more, and Eisenberg delivers that as well.

In the 1930s, Bronx-raised Bobby Dorfman (Eisenberg) travels to Hollywood to look for work with his big cheese uncle (Steve Carell). He keeps semi-busy, but mostly falls in love with his uncle’s assistant Vonnie (Kristen Stewart). Alas, she says her heart is spoken for, though Bobby gives romancing her an energetic, hopeful shot.

Missing New York, Bobby returns to Manhattan to work for his sleazy older brother’s new nightclub, which he helps turn into The Place To Be. Bobby becomes a smooth and sophisticated operator in that world. You know he’ll meet Vonnie again, though what will happen . . . Eisenberg and Stewart add real substance to these characters, and her performance has been widely, rightly praised.

If you like Woody Allen’s humor, the scenes with Bobby’s parents (Jeannie Berlin and Ken Stott) are classic and hilarious. There’s not much story to hold the whole schmear together, but perfect moments of Hollywood hype and Manhattan glitz make it fun to watch. Fantastic score of 1930s jazz, beautiful and atmospheric cinematography, and big dose of nostalgia for a pre-digital age.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 72%; audiences: 68%.