NETFLIX: Unbelievable

This Friday, September 13, Netflix begins its eight-episode mini-series Unbelievable based on a fascinating true crime story (trailer). Journalists T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong won a 2016 Pulitzer Prize for their reporting on how different police departments handled the uncertainties and ambiguities that arise in rape cases. And, in the book, they go into the long, sorry history of why women are so readily disbelieved.

Created and executive produced by screenwriter Susannah Grant, with novelists Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon, the series stars Toni Collette, Merritt Wever, and Kaitlyn Dever.

Miller and Armstrong found they still had more to say about the contrasting investigative approaches—one, involving a case that takes place near Seattle where a young woman’s story was disbelieved, and others, in the Denver suburbs, where police went to extraordinary lengths to tie together their investigations with those of other local departments. The authors report what they learned in the new book Unbelievable, an excellent, real-life police procedural.

Read my full review on CrimeFictionLover.com, see the mini-series, or read the book!

The Music of the Night

Sleeping with the windows open to catch the late-summer breezes is one of life’s pure pleasures. But here lately, we’ve been catching more than cool air—the night noises.

A screech owl has made itself heard several times, and I was able to identify its strange cry from audio clips posted on the excellent website of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Apparently they make several sounds, but the one in the trees outside our house went for the whinny. When I heard that in the middle of the night, I wasn’t sure whether it was a bird or some other kind of critter. Very distinctive. We’ve not seen the screech owl. The Cornell Lab photos show the superb camouflage of these robin-sized owls.

For a story I’m writing I wanted to say something about the nighttime insects that keep up that steady late-summer buzz. Like a lot of people, I lumped those nocturnal music-makers in with the cicadas. No. Back in 2015, NPR did a nice piece on “telling crickets, cicadas, and katydids apart.” Cicadas are active in the daytime, I learned. Those night insects are tree crickets and katydids.

I was doubtful, thinking of the dark brown and black crickets that make individual chirps and like to hide in some obscure place and drive you nuts with their ventriloquism. Tree crickets are pale green and look like skinny grasshoppers. I’ve seen them, but I never realized they were serenading me nightly. When there are a lot of them, you get that constant sound. NPR has the sound clips to prove it! Or, listen to this!

And when to expect the steamroller of cicada noise? A few states will have broods of 13- or 17-year locusts next year, but for the eastern third of the country, 2021 will be amazing, when Brood X (ten) emerges. When and where.

Photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren Resized and cropped for this use, under this creative commons license.

David Crosby: Remember My Name

This A J Eaton documentary (trailer), released so close in time to Echo in the Canyon, covers some of the same ground and personalities, but in a totally different way. Echo is about the musician-heavy Laurel Canyon area in a brief period of the mid-sixties. This film, by contrast, examines one man’s career and his musical and cultural influence over a lifetime, and it shares a fair amount of that music with you.

As to cultural influences, in a poignant coincidence, the film tells how Dennis Hopper modeled the character of Billy in the film Easy Rider on Crosby. It was bittersweet seeing clips from the film so soon after its star Peter Fonda died (a young Jack Nicholson too).

In the documentary, David Crosby says he’s 76 years old, has eight stents in his heart, diabetes, a liver transplant—in short, a load of health problems. “How is it you’re still alive?” he’s asked, when so many others are not. There’s no answer to that, and he doesn’t attempt one.

Yet he’s still making music, still releasing albums as recently as last year. He’s touring. His life is music. It’s too bad he shot himself in the foot so many times with his band mates in the Byrds, and Crosby Stills Nash, with and without Young. His behavior was terrible, but it was in Echo that he said point-blank that Stills, Nash, and Young dumped him “because I was an a——.” Subsequently, acrimony has repeatedly thwarted the group’s attempts to reassemble.

He doesn’t spare himself or make excuses. What emerges from the many hours of interviews with Cameron Crowe, who’s known the musician for 45 years, is compelling viewing. Jon Bream in the Minneapolis Star Tribune says, “Rarely have we seen such an unvarnished, unflattering and revealingly real portrait of a music star.”

Echo was dinged for not including Joni Mitchell (she came later, the filmmakers said), but you see plenty of her here. Crosby saw her perform in Florida and brought her to Los Angeles, but as with most of his relationships with women, theirs was fraught. He blames himself. In 1969, his girlfriend Christine Hinton was killed in an auto accident, and Graham Nash (if I remember correctly) said that after Crosby identified her body, he was never the same. Since 1987, he’s been married to Jan Dance.

Asked whether he has regrets, he admitted to big ones, mainly the wasted decade as a junkie, which led to lost music and lost potential. Time, he says, is the ultimate currency. “Be careful how you spend it.”

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 91%; audiences: 92%.

A Puzzle Puzzle

Don’t ask me why these pictures are upside down. They are correct on my WordPress editing screen! ?

This jigsaw puzzle has been calling me since I received it as a gift last year. It depicts Thomas Moran’s famous painting, The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, which our family had just seen. Moran’s Yellowstone paintings were so admired, they helped lead to the declaration and preservation of Yellowstone as the first national park in the United States and, probably, the world.

And, here is the completed puzzle. Perhaps you’re struck with how different it is from the painting, how much redder and, in person, how much darker. All those murky reddish blacks on the right, those murky greenish blacks on the left (hidden by the light reflection), those murky blacks, and acres of taupe. Granted it’s weird, but I don’t consult the box when assembling a puzzle, just to make it that little bit harder; in this case, the picture on the box wouldn’t have been much help. But maybe it holds a clue to why the difference between the picture and the pieces. Oh, yes. Here it is: “Printed in China.”

Perhaps it wasn’t merely printed in China. Perhaps it was also cut with a jigsaw in China, its 1000 pieces disassembled, and 1001 of them sealed in their plastic bag. That would go a ways to solving another puzzle. See that extra blue piece? It’s a dupe. If you’re working on this puzzle and missing a bit of sky, I have it.

At the same time, you may have noticed the finished puzzle is missing three pieces. I have three pieces left over. But they don’t fit those spots. Maybe they’re dupes too. In the hundred or so puzzles I’ve assembled in my lifetime, I have never seen this before.

Where was quality control? Did the manufacturer think bagging up any old 1000 (or 1001, in this case) pieces would be good enough? After all, wasn’t that a 99.6% accuracy rate?

I realize that a jigsaw puzzle is not a fate-of-the-world consumer item, but you have to wonder about a mindset that allows the sloppy handling of something so simple, yet precise, and what happens when something critical, yet precise, isn’t quite right. Like a component for your driverless car or nuclear power plant or corporate computer system. I think we know the answer to that.

In the movie Puzzle, the character Agnes says the rewarding thing about doing a jigsaw puzzle is, when you get to the end, you know you’ve made “all the right choices.” The folks involved in the supply chain for this product did just the opposite.

The Farewell

This lovely new film written and directed by Lulu Wang starts with that staple of family dramas, assembling the clan (trailer). In this case, a woman’s sons and their wives and children are returning to Changchun, China, from Japan and America on the pretext of a family wedding, but in reality because the family matriarch, Nai Nai, is dying. Though widely dispersed, they are united in a conspiracy to keep that truth from her as long as possible.

All except Billi (Awkwafina). She immigrated to America with her parents at age four and has adopted this country’s attitudes toward personal autonomy. This secret is too big, too consequential, too awful to keep. So, when her young poleaxed-looking cousin moves up his wedding to a Japanese woman as a ploy to get the family together, Billi is discouraged from attending. She doesn’t have the poker face necessary to maintain the deception. She goes anyway.

And what do families do when they get together? They eat! Over a series of meals, including the eerily familiar wedding reception, the food serves as a distraction when discussions become too intense and personal. Grandma Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) is lively and charming, and the mutual love between her and a devastated Billi is beautifully portrayed. They tell her she isn’t sick, and that’s the attitude she adopts. And, really, she manages the family and the wedding minutiae with energy. The family keeps trying to take on various tasks, but she’ll have none of it.

I especially liked the portrayal of Billi’s parents, her stunned father (Tzi Ma) and chilly, no-nonsense mother (Diana Lin), as well as the poor Japanese bride (Aoi Mizuhara), gamely participating in everything without understanding a word.

The movie delves deeply into cultural differences and, by exploring them in such vivid detail, establishes bona fide universals. Given the subject matter, you would not expect this film to have a nice dose of comedy, but it does. Families closely examined almost always do, in the midst of whatever chaos surrounds them—painful wedding toasts eliciting surefire groans.

Christy Lemire for RogerEbert.com, nails it when she says Wang has “made a film about death that’s light on its feet and never mawkish. She’s told a story about cultural clashes without ever leaning on wacky stereotypes or lazy clichés.” See it!, then go out for Chinese food. You will be in the mood.Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating 99%; audiences 88%.

Topdog/Underdog

The final production of the 2019 season at Princeton Summer Theater is Suzan-Lori Parks’s 2002 Pulitzer Prize winning Top Dog/Underdog, directed by Lori Elizabeth Parquet. The show premiered August 8 and runs through August 18 at Princeton University’s Hamilton Murray Theater.

Sibling rivalry that boils over into violence is as old as Cain and Abel, with the line between love and hate ever-shifting. African American brothers Booth (Travis Raeburn) and Lincoln (Nathaniel J. Ryan), five years older, have an uneasy relationship made more acute by their dwindling life prospects. Despite Booth’s determination to change his name to Three-Card, the brothers seem constrained by the names their father chose for them as a cruel joke.

Booth has a one-room apartment and a girlfriend whom we never see (and who may be apocryphal); Lincoln has come to live with him after his wife threw him out, and Booth would like to get rid of him too, but Lincoln has a job and income, even if paltry. In a tangle of symbolism, he works in a carnival, in whiteface and dressed up as Abraham Lincoln. People pay to come into his booth and shoot him with a gun filled with blanks. They carnival hired him because they can pay him less, but even that meager income is threatened, because management plans to replace him with a wax dummy.

In the old days, Lincoln made a good living fleecing tourists with the Three-card Monte con, but initially refuses to take up the cards again. Booth would like to develop a Three-card Monte racket of his own. In the opening scene, he’s practicing his card-handling skills and patter at the front of the stage, when his brother enters, in full Lincoln regalia. Startled by Lincoln’s entrance, Booth pulls his gun, then lies about what he was doing. Playing solitaire, he says.

Throughout the course of the play, much comes out about the brothers’ reaction to being abandoned by their parents when they were 16 and 11 and their uneasy relationship in the ensuing twenty years or so. Which of them is the top dog and which the underdog shifts back and forth many times.

Raeburn gives an energetic performance as Booth, ever the kid brother, teasing and bouncing to keep Lincoln’s attention. Much of the comedy in the production comes from his portrayal. Ryan starts out as the ghostly Lincoln, morose and beaten down not just by his bizarre job but the even more awful prospect that he may lose it. He resists Booth’s importuning to go back to his Three-card Monte days, and finally, alone in the apartment, really comes to life when he takes up the cards again.

Rakesh Potluri produced the set (the vividly floral wallcoverings were inspired by the work of artist Kehinde Wiley, who created the portrait of Barack Obama at the National Portrait Gallery). Music from the hip-hop duo Outkast’s 1998 album Aquemini, which like the play is thematically influenced by differences between the two principals.

Princeton Summer Theater productions are staged in Hamilton Murray Theater on the university campus, easily reached from New York by car or train. Take New Jersey Transit to the Princeton Junction station, then the shuttle train into Princeton. The shuttle ends a short walk from the theater, which is also walking distance from numerous restaurants.

For tickets, call the box office at 732-997-0205 or visit the ticket office online.

The Rainmaker

The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s new production of the N. Richard Nash hit The Rainmaker is an apt thematic fit for a summer this hot, where land and spirits are parched. STNJ’s artistic director Bonnie J. Monte directs the show, preserving all its comedy and charm, which opened August 3 and runs through August 18.

In the early 1950s, somewhere Out West, the Curry family ranch is in trouble. A severe drought imperils the cattle herd, and tempers are frayed. Father H.C. Curry (Mark Elliot Wilson), older son Noah (Benjamin Eakeley), and younger son Jim (Isaac Hickox-Young) are preoccupied not only with the lack of rain but with their clumsy attempts to interest someone—anyone?—in marrying their sister Lizzie (Monette Magrath). A visit to the office of Sheriff Thomas (Nick Plakias) to inveigle his deputy, File (Corey Sorenson), to come to dinner—a fix-up ploy File sees through immediately—fails miserably. Noah counsels Lizzie to act more like the mincing, flattering kind of woman who, though vapid and undignified in Lizzie’s view, gets her man nonetheless. His and her imitation of how she should behave provides a number of hearty audience laughs.

Just when the family’s situation seems bleakest, with their prospects as empty as the sky is empty of clouds, flamboyant Billy Starbuck (Anthony Marble) appears at their door, claiming to be a rainmaker. All he needs is $100. As ranch manager, Noah wants to run him off the property; Lizzie calls him a con man and a liar. Only Jim, naïve enough to see the world through the lens of hope and H.C., desperate enough to try anything and astute enough to see something in Starbuck that might broaden Lizzie’s horizons, want him to stay. What can be the outcome of such a reckless and costly venture?

All the Currys are well portrayed, with Magrath especially poignant and frustrated as Lizzie, facing what Noah claims is certain spinsterhood. Hickox-Young is delightful as the credulous, mercurial Jim, quick to take offense and as quick to forgive. Eakeley plays the over-practical Noah with a hard edge, while secretly yearning for relief from the burdens of the ranch and the family. And Wilson as H.C. manages to be simultaneously indulgent and strong.

In a sense it is Marble’s show when he is on stage, because his showman character is so unpredictably over-the-top, yet the actor conveys heart-warming tenderness when dealing with Lizzie, and Magrath is equally engaging in their scenes together.

The script holds up some 65 years after being written and retains its comedic as well as romantic luster. It’s easy to see why this strong and moving story has been revived on stage, made into a movie, and repackaged as a musical (110 in the Shade).

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!

Maiden

Twelve times since 1973, an international set of racing yachts has taken to the ocean for a Round the World Yacht Race (first sponsored by Whitbread brewery and now called the Volvo Ocean Race, under its new sponsor). It’s dangerous work, with crews pitted against each other, the weather, and the implacable seas. Until 1989, ocean racing was a man’s game, with women unwelcome even in the galley. Only five of the 200 crew members on boats in the race before 1989 were women.

But in that year, everything changed, as shown in the riveting new documentary written and directed by Alex Holmes detailing the voyage of the Maiden (trailer). Using 30-year-old footage it includes film of the trip, comments by other captains, and excepts from upbeat interviews with the Maiden’s captain, Tracy Edwards. Interviews with her today reveal how frightened she was. For a very long time, she couldn’t get a sponsor for the expensive venture; even running the race was costly, with a land crew to meet and help them at every stop. A lot was riding on her boat’s success.

No one expected them to do well against the 22 other boats in the race. Everyone knew “girls” couldn’t sail such a demanding course. The local Portsmouth punters took bets on how far they’d get—out of the harbor, then back? the Canary Islands? No one expected them to finish the race’s first leg, across the Atlantic to Uruguay, much less the entire race. The dismissive yachting journalists and rival captains reinterviewed today have vivid memories of how Edwards scuttled their assumptions.

The Maiden won the most grueling leg of the race, across the far south latitudes, icebergs and all, to reach Australia, then the shortest, around to a stop in New Zealand, which required precision boat-handling. It wasn’t just the physical challenge of controlling a 58-foot boat in heavy seas. It was a mental and endurance challenge as well, especially for Edwards, who served as skipper and navigator.

For every member of the crew then and now, this experience was the adventure of a lifetime. An uplifting journey for viewers too. Says Adam Graham in the Detroit News, Maiden “ tells a story whose tidal waves were felt far beyond the deck of her ship.” And you stay dry.

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

Revolution in the News

The American Revolution. The first one. Last week Joseph Adelman gave a talk at the wonderful (and, alas, soon to be moving out of our area) David Library of the American Revolution about his new book, Revolutionary Networks.

While much has been written about the importance of colonial-era newspapers and broadsides in spreading the word about the ideas and events of the American Revolution, no one before has paid as much attention to the printers actually responsible for producing them. Only a few were as well known or wealthy as Benjamin Franklin. Yet, though they were engaged in hard physical labor and not necessarily well educated, they straddled a unique place in society—one foot in the working class and the other in contact with the elite of their communities.

Much of what appeared in the newspapers of the day was recycled from other larger papers (a slow-motion form of “broadcasting”), some came from oral reports of townspeople, visitors, or sea captains, and some from written reports to the newspaper or obtained by it. Only the largest newspapers would employ journalists to go out and find stories. Oddly, in most towns, local news got short shrift. The number of local movers and shakers was so small, the local news was not news to them. The job of the printer was to decide which material from these sources to reprint and how much of it, and in that curatorial role, they played a significant part in spreading the arguments for independence and popularizing those ideas.

The Stamp Act, a significant British miscalculation, hit printers especially hard by taxing the paper they printed on. In case you wonder what the printers thought of it, the skull and crossbones version pictured gives a fair idea! A boss of mine would often repeat the maxim, “never alienate the man who buys ink by the barrel.” That is exactly what the British did, and the “the killing stamp” was circumvented every way possible.

Prior to the Boston Tea Party, the Sons of Liberty worked with local printers to encourage stories emphasizing how calm and orderly they were, a prescient public relations effort. Paul Revere rushed to Philadelphia with the story of the Tea Party, which prevented a similar occurrence in that city. The ship’s captain was given a choice: sail back to England with his tea or suffer the same fate as the East India Company’s ships in Boston. He sailed.

A final anecdote: you may recall that Benjamin Franklin advocated for creation of the U.S. Post Office. His goal wasn’t to facilitate personal correspondence, but to improve the circulation of newspapers, which he of course printed. So all those newsprint sales flyers that arrive in your mail? Annoying as they are? Going right into recycling? They are carrying out the original purpose of our postal service!

Adelman is an assistant professor of history at Framingham State University, among other posts.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

If ever a play lent itself to creative interpretation, Shakespeare’s lighthearted classic, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is that play. The Princeton Summer Theater production, which opened July 25 and plays Thursday to Sunday through August 4, takes full advantage of that opportunity to innovate.

The plot of confused lovers, a night in the forest, and mischievous fairies is so familiar director Maeli Goren safely pared it down to run in 75 minutes without intermission. She’s added seats to the sides and rear of the stage so that every member of the 200-person audience feels they have ringside seats. This compresses the time and space available to the cast and magnifies the production’s intensity. You aren’t watching the performance; you are in it.

Most of the action takes place within the skeleton of what might be a greenhouse. I especially liked Oberon and Titania’s crowns made of twigs, the feather capelets, and a jacket made of hundreds of translucent white vinyl gloves that mimicked feathers. Small lanterns filled with, naturally, fairy lights looked like they held captured fireflies. There’s a little cast-created music, a bit of singing—and this may be a theatrical first—Puck occasionally plays an accordion. There are even puppets, which refract the shifting relationships among the lovers in new ways. In other words, there is no shortage of things to watch and delight in.

The cast comprises current Princeton students and recent graduates, and their lack of experience with Shakespeare and his rhythms is apparent, with the result that some of the speeches are hard to follow. But every actor enters the fray with enthusiasm, and the familiarity of the story backstops them. Standouts in the eight-member cast include Michael Rosas as Theseus and Oberon, Maeve Brady as Hyppolyta and Titania, Justin Ramos as Lysander, and Allison Spann as Puck. Rosas is notable for his range of gestures and Brady for her ability to convey a sense of wonder. Ramos and Spann display remarkably entertaining athleticism.

It’s a tribute to the dedication of the participants that so much effort and attention to detail goes into a show that will run for so few performances. Though “The course of true love never did run smooth,” this production gets great joy out of the lovers’ journey!

Princeton Summer Theater productions are staged in Hamilton Murray Theater on the university campus, easily reached from New York by car or train. Take New Jersey Transit to the Princeton Junction station, then the shuttle train into Princeton. The shuttle ends a short walk from the theater, which is also walking distance from numerous restaurants. For tickets, call the box office at 732-997-0205 or visit the ticket office online.