Weekend Movie Pick: See How They Run

Reviews of this movie are mixed, but if you’re looking for something fast-paced and fun, it might just do the trick (trailer). Written by Mark Chappell and directed by Tom George, alcoholic police detective Sam Rockwell and ambitious constable Saoirse Ronan try to solve the mysterious death of an obnoxious American film producer (Adrien Brody). Ronan is completely charming here.

It isn’t a matter of their not having any suspects, it’s having too many. In 1950s London, Brody’s character, Leo Kopernick, has managed to offend pretty much everyone involved in a West End production of The Mousetrap that he’s hoping to make into a Hollywood movie. Lots of backstage shenanigans and back-stabbing theater folks.

The buzz about the movie may have struck the wrong note with audiences when it inevitably compared this story to the work of Agatha Christie. Still, it’s a light-hearted spoof with a super cast. If you remember your nursery rhymes, you’ll hear them echoing throughout, though I never saw even one blind mouse. That particular mouse was already trapped.Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 74%; audiences: 69%.

Judgment at Tokyo

Did you know?

Last week was the first lecture in a local series on “Crime and Punishment,” which includes both real-life crime (true crime, write large), and an examination of fictional crime, as in the works of Raymond Chandler and Victor Hugo. There’s a bit on crime science, with a procedural lecture (the work of crime labs) and the intersection of juvenile justice practices and advances in brain science. In other words, a very big and loosely woven net of topics.

The first lecture, given by Gary Bass, a Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton was on the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal after World War II and is based on a book he’s been researching for years, expected in 2023 (watch for it!). I don’t know about you, but I was a tabula rasa for this one. If you’d asked me if there was such a tribunal, I would have said, “Uh, probably.” Alas, I don’t know enough to go into the details.

It’s interesting (and sad, really), how popular culture has shaped much of our views of this aspect of post-WWII actions. We can probably thank Hollywood and Spencer Tracy for that—at least for periodic reminders of those dramatic events–and it’s a shame there hasn’t been an equivalently memorable treatment of the actions and personalities at the Tokyo Tribunal, which went on for twice as long (two and a half years). Though Americans may be marginally aware of it, most certainly the Asian nations that had suffered at the hands of the Japanese occupiers were acutely aware.

For example, China was consumed with memories of the bombings and privations as well as the Nanjing massacre of 1937, during which more than 200,000 civilians were slaughtered. Post-war Australia and New Zealand were fixated on the grim fates of their captured soldiers whom the Japanese worked to death. Again, popular culture fills in a few blanks, if you remember the movie The Bridge Over the River Kwai or Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, the 2014 Booker Prize winner.

One of the most interesting personalities involved was Indian jurist Radhabinod Pal, who became the only one of the judges who insisted all the defendants were not guilty, based in part on his questioning of the tribunal’s legitimacy. The interests of Empire and the U.S. use of the atomic bomb meant, to Pal at least, that no one’s hands were clean.He’s still held in high esteem in Japan today.

Europe-based World War II stories are a staple of crime and espionage thrillers. Thinking about some of the complexities the Tokyo Tribunal exposed, I thought I saw a deep well of new and compelling inspiration.

The Wolves

Photo Credit: © T Charles Erickson Photography

On stage at Princeton, NJ’s McCarter Theatre Center through Sunday, October 16, is the Sarah DeLappe play, The Wolves, directed by McCarter artistic director Sarah Rasmussen. Among its several award nominations, The Wolves was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2017.

“The Wolves” is the team nickname for a girls’ high school soccer team, and you see them in warm-ups and post-game chatter. As in any group of nine teenage girls, there’s a lot of talk, a lot of overlapping conversation, and a lot of feeling each other out and jockeying for status. The girls are identified only by their player numbers, DeLappe says, because she wants to emphasize the team as an organism, and thinks of their involvement as a kind of warfare, with “a bunch of young women who are preparing for their soccer games” instead of battle.

But of course, it’s the individual girls who stand out, and the cast does an excellent job at creating distinctive personalities—not just through the dialog, but also body language, voice, the whole package. Much as the girls want to be integral to this team, not everyone fits in. And some who think they do, don’t. If you remember high school at all, this can be painfully realistic.

The girls do more than gossip. They also engage in halting discussions of the news of the day. The trial of leaders in Pol Pot’s regime, for example. Oops, now the whistle blows and they’re off. Trying to connect with the realities of other lives and places is a lifelong challenge. The whistle of quotidian demands blows for each of us.

On the whole, I enjoyed it, and the scenic design by Junghyun Georgia Lee and lighting design by Jackie Fox put you right in harsh glare of an indoor stadium.

For tickets, contact the box office online.

Out and About in my (Almost) Back Yard

A walking tour of the architecture and sculptures on the Princeton University campus is an enticing event. I’ve taken this kind of tour many times, but this one promised something new. Typically, it began at easy-to-find Nassau Hall, the largest building in the American colonies at the time of the Revolution and briefly, even, the nation’s capital. Some walls on the inside still bear pockmarks from British cannonballs fired during the pivotal Battle of Princeton.

Our guide, Jeanne Johnson, a docent at the Princeton Art Museum (closed temporarily for a construction project that will double its gallery space), is a dedicated gardener. So she was eager to point out the Beatrix Farrand quadrangle, recently renamed in honor the university’s long-time landscape gardener (her preferred term).

While we were there, Jeanne pointed out that two of the dormitory buildings framing the quadrangle are named for alumni who died during The Great War, Howard Houston Henry and Walter L. Foulke. Those buildings and the triple archway that connects them (shown) are considered the apogee of collegiate gothic architecture, a style popularized in the late 1800s and early 1900s when American universities went to great lengths to look as permanent and substantial as their English counterparts. The architect of these dormitories personally oversaw the cutting and placement of every piece of stone, alternating red, grey, buff, and other colors. A completely pleasing effect.

These popular sites dispensed with, Jeanne trotted us to an area of south campus where two new colleges (as Princeton terms sets of dormitories) have sprung up, seemingly overnight—Yeh College and New College West. The 15 or so members of our group all said exactly the same thing, “We’ve never seen this before!” This new area includes several whimsical outdoor sculptures, including the enormous coral-pink concrete sofa.

Finally, we looked at the construction site for the new museum, which will two new floors, doubling the space for exhibitions and study but retaining the same footprint as the original. It’s due to be occupied in March 2024 and open to the public that fall. Fingers crossed. The architect is David Adjaye, whose firm designed the Smithsonian’s museum of African American history and culture and many notable buildings around the world.

All this new construction is being done in the midst of a huge project to make the university environmentally sustainable, with respect to energy consumption, landscape practices, stormwater management, waste reduction, and reduced water use. It’s hard to walk anywhere on campus without encountering the construction of these new environmental systems.

The University may date to 1746 (and one of my ancestors was in its first graduating class), but there’s always something new!

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The Brooklyn Book Festival: A Washout

Following the book promotion dictum to “say ‘yes!’ to everything,” I volunteered to help out for an hour at the Brooklyn Book Festival yesterday. What fun (it should have been)!  Alas, the windy weather put people and tents and books at risk, so as much as possible was moved indoors, and the Mystery Writers of America and other booths in the Marketplace were cancelled. I’m looking forward to next year now.

Sunday was day seven of the eight-day festival—a free event, being held on the street and in the parks and plazas surrounding the Brooklyn Korean Veterans Park (at the entrance to the pedestrian access to the Brooklyn Bridge), all the way down to Brooklyn’s Borough Hall. It advertises “more than 100 literary events over 9 days.” And that’s not even counting my planning to be there to sign copies of Architect of Courage, a major missed opportunity (yes, I’m kidding).

With the goal of celebrating published literature and connecting readers with authors and booksellers, the festival began in 2006 as a one-day event involving some 300 authors. Except for today, it also hosts a Marketplace with 250 book publishers and literary organizations, including Mystery Writers of America. My would-have-been co-hosts at the MWA booth were Tim O’Mara (Crooked Numbers, Sacrifice Fly) and Phillip Cioffari (novels, story collections, a movie, and plays). Sorry to have missed becoming acquainted with them.

Sunday was Festival Day, a highlight of the event. Included were US and international authors, including such well-known names as Jonathan Lethem (Motherless Brooklyn, The Feral Detective), Gary Shteyngart (Our Country Friends, Lake Success), Jennifer Egan, (The Candy House, A Visit from the Goon Squad), Geraldine Brooks (March, Horse), and many, many others.  

Getting into Brooklyn from where I live in Central New Jersey takes some time—an hour plus on New Jersey Transit, then connecting to the subway to Borough Hall in Brooklyn. Just enough enforced sitting to work up a good appetite. For excursions like this, my friend Joanne is often my companion and chaperone, and we’d worked out a good schedule and picked an enticing place for lunch. Next year!

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On Stage: The Caretaker

Fans of Harold Pinter should make a point of seeing The Caretaker at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. The production, directed by STNJ artistic director Bonnie J. Monte, opened September 23 and runs through October 9. Monte deserves considerable credit for bringing such a challenging play to the stage—and so successfully.

Like many absurdist plays, The Caretaker has its moments of commingled comedy and tragedy and a slapstick scene reminiscent of Godot or the Marx Brothers. Mick (played by Jon Barker) has set up his older brother Aston (Isaac Hickox-Young) in a derelict apartment, which Aston is supposed to be renovating, but clearly isn’t. One night Aston brings home the garrulous tramp, Davies (Paul Mullins), whom he rescued from a fight. Davies is full of complaints and always searching for an angle, trying desperately and unsuccessfully to get on the same wavelength with first one brother then the other.

Each brother, separately, suggests to Davies that he become the caretaker for the building, though, he admits, he “has no experience in caretaking.” The brothers each have a job description in mind, and both include tasks Davies is unable and unwilling to perform. His sole preoccupation is getting a roof over his head and doing as little work as possible.

The three actors’ performances are impeccable. Barker is always a master at physical movement and repartee, and Mullins—whining, wheedling, looking out for number one—is simultaneously endearing and repellant. Hickox-Young doesn’t come to the fore until the second act, when Aston describes his mental hospital experience in an affecting monologue.

All three characters spin their wheels in ways both familiar and outrageous, and their flashes of humor and insight illuminate a great many truths. As Pinter himself said, “These truths challenge each other, recoil from each other, reflect each other, ignore each other, tease each other, are blind to each other.” The Caretaker lets audience members pursue their own truths, amidst the clutter of Aston’s apartment.

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.

“Just One More”

Michael Venutolo-Mantovani has written a riveting piece for the October 2022 issue of Wired, “Just One More.” Late on the night of August 15, 2021, Worth Parker’s North Carolina cell phone received a Facebook message about the chaos in Afghanistan. It read: “Sir. I hope you are well. By any chance do you know any Marines who are on the ground right now?” Having retired from the US Marines as a Lt. Colonel six weeks before, Parker thought he’d cut those ties.

The message described the plight of the sender’s brother and father who had both worked for the US military in Afghanistan. With the American pullout scheduled for the end of the month, their lives were in increasing peril. The sender, Jason Essazay, had also worked for the US, but had obtained a Special Immigrant Visa for his service and was living in Houston. “Parker was Essazay’s last resort,” Venutolo-Mantovani writes. At the time the pullout was announced, 81,000 Afghans had pending applications for a SIV. US intelligence reports predicted it would take several months for the Taliban to take Kabul, but as we now know, the fall of Kabul occurred only days later.

When Parker read that the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit was helping with the evacuation, he called an old friend in the unit who said he’d try to help. Working in the eye of a fast-moving hurricane of fragmentary information, changing requirements, and coordination difficulties involving violent extremists and desperate families, Parker’s initiative succeeded.

Three days before Essazay’s contact with Parker, Joe Saboe, who’d left the Army 20 years earlier received a call from his younger brother, wanting help to get a friend and his family out of Afghanistan. Saboe didn’t know how he could help, but “tried the closest thing to a Noncombatant Evacuation Operations tool he had: Facebook. His post asking for help generated a message from a friend of twenty years before also trying to rescue someone. The two men strategized. Soon he heard from more veterans, each worried about a single contact. By August 17, Saboe had a group of volunteers working on the cases of 128 potential evacuees. A story in the Military Times generated more than a thousand contacts from Afghans looking for help and Americans wanting to provide it.

Parker, the former Lt. Colonel, enlisted his high-powered connections in the military establishment to form a group calling itself “the Graybeards.” Learning about Saboe’s operation, Parker hoped to convince Saboe’s volunteers to support the Graybeards’ efforts. “But almost immediately, Parker realized (the younger generation) was comically more tech savvy” than the retired military and civilian leaders. “It was time to reject the chain of command that had been drilled into him from the minute he joined the Marines.” He put the Graybeards’ Project Dunkirk in direct support of Saboe, giving him “some of the best-connected people in the US military and intelligence worlds.”

Heroic efforts were made in a fluid and increasingly dangerous Kabul. They achieved the rescue of more than 1,500 Afghans and, even today, more people continue to be evacuated in ones and twos. Each is a victory, but, collectively, they represent only five percent of Saboe’s database. Volunteers continue to chip away at that list, trying to save, as Project Dunkirk’s motto has it, “Just one more.” This whole inspiring and infuriating article is well worth a read.

Travel Tips: The Poe Museum, Richmond, Virginia

Contributing stories to Quoth the Raven (contemporary works inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s writings) and Sherlock Holmes: Adventures in the Realms of Edgar Allan Poe rekindled my interest in the much-misunderstood poet, literary critic, and inventor of the detective fiction genre. A recent Virginia trip (history, Busch Gardens, genealogy) offered an occasion to visit the Poe Museum, a tiny jewel of a museum located in several small Richmond houses connected by gardens.

The house where you enter and buy tickets has a nice selection of Poe souvenirs and books. When you leave that, you cross a small lawn whose paths lead to a memorial (pictured). The granite benches along the paths came from a rooming house where Poe once lived, and the ivy lining the paths originated with cuttings from Poe’s mother’s grave—a fittingly macabre touch. Two black cats laze about, darkly.

Possibly you remember that Poe was the middle child of three born to actors David Poe and English-born Elizabeth Hopkins. Their father abandoned him when he was about a year old, and his mother died of consumption when he was three. He was taken in, but never adopted, by the family of John Allan, a successful Richmond merchant, who paid for his education in Scotland and London before the family returned to Virginia. At 15, Poe served in a youth honor guard during a visit to Richmond by the Marquis de Lafayette. Poe was admitted to the fledgling University of Virginia, but his gambling debts cost him place at the university, as well as his relationship with his foster-father. He lasted only a year there.

The main building of the Museum is the “Old Stone House,” built around 1740 and the oldest original residence in the city (several major fires destroyed much). It contains some furnishings—bed, desk, fireplace mantel—from Poe’s boyhood home, as well as his sister’s piano. The memorial building contains original copies of his writing and editing, including editions of the Southern Literary Messenger, which he edited for several years. A bound collection of that magazine was open to one of Poe’s own short stories—“Berenice”—which coincidentally was the inspiration for my two Poe-adjacent stories.

The museum displays some pages in Poe’s own hand (tiny writing) that are hard to read, as they can’t be subjected to bright light, pictures of some of the women he allied with, including his cousin and much-loved wife Virginia who, too, fell to the ravages of consumption. Thirteen years his junior, she died at age 24, after an eleven-year marriage. (Yes, married at 13.) Her death was a considerable blow to Poe, who believed nothing was more romantic than the death of a beautiful woman, and clearly was a partial inspiration for some of his melancholic poems and stories, including “Berenice.”

Upstairs in this house is a “reading room” with books by and about Poe and artists’ interpretations. Lots of ravens. In another building you can find items from closer to the time of Poe’s death (in Baltimore, age 40), including a portrait of Rufus Wilmot Griswold, Poe’s literary executor, who took advantage of the death of his rival to sully Poe’s reputation. Not for many years were Griswold’s scurrilous accusations of madness and depravity seen for what they were—the product of an intense jealousy. The recent Julian Symons biography, The Tell-Tale Heart (reviewed here) is a well-researched, highly readable summary of a complicated and sad life.

More Information:

The Poe Museum 1914 East Main Street, Richmond. Open Tuesdays-Saturdays, 10-5; Sundays, 11-5; free parking. Tours, educational programs, shop.

For Quoth the Raven (contemporary stories and poems inspired by EAP), click here.

For Sherlock Holmes: Adventures in the Realms of Edgar Allan Poe (Holmes and Watson on the case), click here.

Memories of a Queen

Maybe it’s having been named Victoria, but the history and doings of the British royal family have always fascinated me—not the scandals so much as, in the present day, the Queen herself. Like her predecessor, Elizabeth I, she took on a tremendous responsibility at the age of 25 and bore it with grace during good times and bad (Victoria was 18).

I have never seen any of the royals up close—except once. In May 1985, we were visiting the town of Reims, with its famous cathedral, in the heart of France’s champagne region—reason enough to stop over there. Reims is also the town where Colonel General Alfred Jodl signed Germany’s unconditional surrender at the end of World War II. Coincidentally, we were there the day before the fortieth anniversary of the signing, a bit proud that General Eisenhower declined to attend the signing. Not only did he outrank Jodl, but he’d seen the camps. He knew what had been done.

As we wandered the cathedral aisles, practically the only visitors, one aisle to our right I saw a smiling elderly woman wearing a pale blue suit and matching hat. A few well-dressed men orbited in her vicinity. “Look! It’s the Queen Mum!” I whispered. My husband, knowing how poor I am at recognizing people, took a closer look. “Oh, my god, it IS!” I discreetly took a couple of pictures, now rather faded, and the headline from the newspaper the next day confirms the presence of the “reine-mère.”

In 2012, we again stumbled into royal doings, when we visited London to take in the special exhibits for the 200th birthday of favorite author Charles Dickens. They were quite fun. The photo is of the writing retreat he used, probably to escape the clamor of his many children. Coincidentally, again, we arrived right at the time of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee—her 60th year on the throne. We saw a great deal of Jubilee-related pageantry, a Royal Air Force flyover, and thousands of cheering Britons. I saw a dress I liked too.

Dickens
Dickens’s writing retreat in Rochester, England (photo: vweisfeld)

The Metromaniacs

In case you thought “catfishing” was a phenomenon enabled by the anonymity of the Internet, the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey is here to disabuse (and amuse) you. The theater’s second main-stage production this season is David Ives’s wildly charming play, The Metromaniacs, adapted from Alexis Piron’s 18th century French farce, La Métromanie, directed by Brian B. Crowe. “Metromaniac” means a person addicted to poetry—think meter, as in metronome, not metropolitan—and the plot is based on a real-life scandal.

The action takes place in the yard of Francalou (Brent Harris), a wealthy playwright and poet. He’s seriously annoyed at the critical reception his work has been receiving from some young upstarts and begins writing poems for Parnassus, the local literary taste-setter, under the assumed name, Malcrais de La Vigne. His fictional Breton poetess becomes the toast of Parisian literary circles, though no one has actually met her, and Francalou’s biggest critic—would-be poet Damis (Christian Frost)—falls in love with La Vigne, sight unseen.

Meanwhile, Damis and his long-time friend Dorante (Ty Lane), who knows nothing about poetry, are incognito for various reasons. Dorante wants to woo Francalou’s romantically-inclined and poetry-loving daughter, Lucille (Billie Wyatt). He haltingly pretends to be poetic, only to see Lucille briefly wooed away by Damis’s servant, Mondor (Austin Kirk). Lucille’s maid Lisette (Deshawn White) has mischief up her sleeve too, and convinces Mondor that she is actually Lucille.

I could go on, but it may be sufficient to quote David Ives’s 2015 introduction to the play: “The Metromaniacs is a comedy with five plots, none of them important.” While the details of the plots are frothy as meringue, the skills of the actors (also including John Ahlin, who plays a judge intending to straighten out his nephew Damis) are such that you keep everyone straight.

Ives’s work is a witty, nonstop display of literary fireworks. The dialog is written in rhyming couplets, and before you think that might become tedious, it doesn’t. The rhymes are so inventive and the wordplay so apt that you can almost forget the degree of artifice. The entire cast enters into the antic spirit and embellishes the worldplay with entertaining physical comedy.

The seven characters are themselves rehearsing one of Francalou’s plays, involving suspiciously similar characters, akin to a hall-of-mirrors effect. And it gives Mondor several opportunities to claim “I’m not a servant, but I play one.” And play he does.

Francalou’s backyard, transformed into a stage set representing a woodland, is complete with painted cutout trees—perfect for lurking behind or stashing prop pistols. And the costumes are beautiful, perfectly reflecting the characters who wear them.

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.