Weekend Movie Pick: The Card Counter

OK, the new movie from writer-director Paul Schrader isn’t for everyone, but you can drastically increase it’s watchability if you shut your eyes during the rather brief flashbacks to the main character’s Iraq War experience (trailer). We all know terrible things were done in that faraway war, and this movie is grounded by their longlasting and inter-generational effects on two American soldiers (one already a suicide).

Most of the film, starring a brilliantly low-key Oscar Isaac as William Tell (a pseudonym he’s adopted that has numerous connotations), a modest-stakes card sharp who stays in the game by never betting too much or past the point when his consistent wins might rouse casino security’s suspicions. He’s served time in federal prison and, he says, “that’s where I learned to count cards.”

Tell is a loner, traveling from casino to casino. (The film was mostly shot in Biloxi, Mississippi; casinos look pretty much the same inside.) He’s approached by two people—Cirk, pronounced Kirk, a young man (Tye Sheridan) who knows about Tell’s war experience and La Linda (Tiffany Haddish) who helps card players get financial backing for the big tournaments. At first, he turns them both down.

Cirk wants Tell’s help in assassinating one of the masterminds behind the torture of Iraqis. His target (Willem Dafoe) now runs a lucrative security consulting business. Tell refuses, seeing this quest as a good way for Cirk to ruin his life. He invites the young man to tag along with him in his travels, believing that if he can get enough money together to pay Cirk’s college loan debt and allow him to finish his education, he’ll be diverted from his current destructive path. A little life experience may help too. To acquire sufficient cash, he needs help from La Linda.

The other gamblers—dressed in the stars and stripes, wearing cowboy hats, and other distinctive garb—contrast with Tell’s shades-of-gray wardrobe. Likewise, the casinos’ garish rainbow of light is the opposite of the stark interiors of Tell’s motel rooms. He removes all the pictures and (in a Christo moment) wraps everything, even the legs of furniture, in a cocoon of white cloth. Is this a belated attempt to make things clean? Nights, Tell is too disciplined to party. He writes in his journal, attempting to explain or even expiate the past, knowing it is impossible. You get his words in voiceover, and while they aren’t memorable, they are essential. To him, and to you.

This is a movie about regret in different forms. Cirk’s regret that his father was so damaged and is lost to him and Tell’s that he can’t forgive himself. It’s also a movie about the fragility of hope—the hope the characters have for each other, and the hope all gamblers clutch to their hearts.Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 85% ; audiences: 46%. (Put me in that group!)

Hollywood at Play

Our latest movie theater experience was interrupted by a tornado warning coming in over patrons’ phones, but we sat tight and watched on. The theater hung onto its roof and electrical supply, and after the show, the real excitement began! Three recent films:

French Exit
This 2020 film is worth seeing to enjoy Michell Pfeiffer (trailer). Written by Patrick deWitt, based on his 2018 novel, the film was directed by Azazel Jacobs. It takes place mostly in Paris, which is fun too. There are humorous moments and quirky characters, but on the whole, it’s OK, not great.

Pfeiffer plays Frances Price, a high-living Manhattan widow, suddenly broke. Before creditors can descend, she sells all her possessions and moves with her son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) to Paris to live rent-free in the apartment of a long-time friend. One possession she takes with her is her black cat Frankie, who she believes is possessed by the spirit of her late, unlamented husband. When Frankie runs away, much as she loathed him, she wants him back.

While many of the characters who people Frances’s life are interesting, especially the irrepressible Mme. Reynard (Valerie Mahaffey), Malcolm is totally without agency. Or any demonstrated skills or intellect to bring to their increasingly precarious and complicated lives.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 63%; audiences: 43%.

The Little Things
This California crime thriller was written and directed by John Lee Hancock (trailer). Joe Deacon (Denzel Washington) was a brilliant LAPD detective who had a meltdown a couple of years back and lost his job. Now he’s an all-purpose deputy in rural Kern County. Sent to LA to retrieve a bit of evidence for a case in the rural county, he meets Jim Baxter (Remi Malek), his slick young replacement.

A woman’s body has been found, and Deacon is invited to accompany Baxter to examine the crime scene. It bears a striking resemblance to the work of a serial killer he’d been tracking before his exile. The parallels haunt him, and he cannot stop investigating the new crime, whether his help is wanted or not.

That seems far-fetched to me, but it’s the premise of the film, so you have to swallow it and go on, at which point you encounter Deacon and Baxter’s prime suspect, Albert Sparma (played masterfully by Jared Leto). You can’t fault the acting in this one. It’s the story that should be stronger.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 45%; audiences: 67%.

The Green Knight
I expected to really like this epic fantasy, based on the Arthurian legend, after the great reviews it received, plus the captivating Dev Patel starring as Sir Gawain. Written and directed by David Lowery (trailer). Alas, I found it slow and kinda dull. What did I miss? If Gawain goes up against the Green Knight, he’ll pass the tests of chivalry, and prove his worthiness to be a knight, but, on the downside, he’ll be dead. No? Apparently, the ending is purposefully ambiguous, as were my feelings about the film. Scenery was great and some nice cinematic effects. I did like the Punch-and-Judys and the fox who adopted Gawain until it started to talk (not so much that it talked, but what it said).

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 88%; audiences: 49%.

Weekend Movie Pick: The Courier

The Cold War spy film The Courier, which came out last year (I missed it totally), is available on Netflix. A “based on true events” tale that took place around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, it describes how a British businessman was persuaded by MI6 and the CIA to make contact with a Soviet scientist who appeared eager to share information about his country’s nuclear program with the West. As we now know, that cascade of events in 1962 came much closer to disaster than our leaders and the American public believed.

The film, directed by Dominic Cooke and written by Tom O’Connor (trailer), stars Benedict Cumberbatch as real-life businessman Grenville Wynne. The Soviet contact, Oleg Penkovsky, is played by a sad-eyed Merab Ninidze. The cast is great and the story gripping, even though it follows a well-trodden path. The stakes couldn’t have been higher. For both Wynne and Penkovsky, it was either take the risk or total annihilation.

The film was originally titled Ironbark, the Brits’ code name for Penkovsky, but the star turn belongs to Cumberbatch, the courier. The touches of Soviet perfidy seem right out of John le Carré. When the MI6 crowd starts talking about exfiltrating Penkovsky, it seemed like an impossible long-shot. (I wish they’d make a film about Oleg Gordievsky, another real-life Soviet spy, whose story was told in Ben Macintyre’s The Spy and the Traitor, which gives a hair-raising account of how difficult saving Soviet spies really was.

The Courier is a cautionary tale and a solid bit of filmmaking about a period people under 60 weren’t alive to experience.Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 87%; audiences 95%

Singing ‘The Color Purple’

No, not people with synesthesia, but the eponymous song from the musical The Color Purple, was the subject of my second Zoom class on interpreting songs. Led by noted song interpreter Felicia Curry, this class is sponsored by Theatre J in Washington DC. Felicia appeared in The Color Purple in 2014 and is scheduled to do the show again next summer.

When the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Alice Walker came out in 1982, I read it, and I saw the film three years later with Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey in their first movie roles. Still, reading the synopsis helped me appreciate the lyrics of the musical adaptation. We also read a profile of the trio who wrote the music and lyrics (Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray), and unlike the creator of the song we studied last week—Stephen Sondheim—these three had never written for a musical before. Willis had no musical training and, a pop musician, she wasn’t familiar with the musical genre. Russell was an R&B artist and songwriter with a jazzy bent, and Bray had written hits for Madonna. Yet, this unlikely threesome created artistic magic. Well, they and 17 networked Macs. The result was a rich mix of music with blues, pop, funk and gospel influences.

According to a New York Times interview with Willis by Susan Dominus, the team had to learn to accommodate the plot-driven and visual demands of musical theater. Lyrics needed to connect to action, and usually involved some behavior. The story connection is critical to Curry. She said she always asks herself, “Why is this a song?” a question I pondered too.

Probably you can readily think of many circumstances in which a song is a strong substitute for dialog. One is when enthusiasm just bursts out of a character (“O, what a beautiful morning” from Oklahoma or “On the street where you live” from My Fair Lady). Another is when a powerful emotion washes over the character (“Love look away” from Flower Drum Song, “This nearly was mine” from South Pacific, “Me and the sky” from Come From Away). Sometimes the thrumming of the music and lyrics sets the audience up for what’s to come (“Tonight” in West Side Story or “1956: Budapest is rising” from Chess). There are many reasons to have a song, but each one should have a story purpose, not merely a tuneful filler.

Originally, the composers of The Color Purple hadn’t planned a song built around the show title, but one day, when they were struggling with a musical response to Celie’s profound admission that she was losing sight of God, Willis came up with the lyric that’s now “Like a plate of corn, like a honeybee, like a waterfall, all a part of me. Like the color purple, where do it come from? Open up your eyes, look what God has done.” It worked so well, a version is used to close the show too, memorably performed here by Cynthia Erivo and Jennifer Hudson.

Hitchcock: Howdunit

If you’re like me, it was years after seeing Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho before you could take a shower without thinking of That Scene. I have a walk-in shower now, and I can always see who’s coming!

Film historian Max Alvarez in conjunction with New Plaza Cinema presented a Zoom program on Hitchcock last week that toured his audience through memorable moments from many of the director’s 57 feature films. We knew whodunit—Hitchcock—this was a howdunit.

In our celebrity-obsessed culture, Americans tend to pick films based on the actors. Hitchcock was one of the rare directors in Hollywood history who was himself a draw, like the Coen Brothers or Spike Lee or Quentin Tarantino today.

Hitch’s fame did constrain the types of movies he could make without violating public expectation, however. His films tended toward the charismatic villain, the woman in peril, and a big conspiracy. The scripts came from his (sometimes brief) collaborations with some of the leading writers of the day: Thornton Wilder, John Steinbeck, Dorothy Parker, Anthony Shaffer (Sleuth), and many others.

Even though he made so many memorable movies, what catapulted him into prominence in the 1950s was the popularity of his television programs. And he was shameless about using them to promote his films.

Hitchcock’s steps in making the memorable movie Vertigo started with the “treatment,” eight to ten typed pages, resembling a short story, which described what happens in detail, beginning to end. After showing us the initial page, Alvarez showed the beginning of the shooting script. Hitchcock liked to have every camera angle and shot planned out in advance—close-up, medium shot, panorama, whatever. Next Alvarez showed the storyboards that a graphic artist created from the shooting script. They were a sort of (wordless) comic book version, showing the action in every shot. Finally, he showed the way the same scene looked in the final film, which in the theater looked so natural (of course he’d hang onto the gutter that way), but replicated the previous, meticulously planned steps almost exactly.

But even the best laid plans can fall prey to reality, and Hitch would change scenes and shots that didn’t turn out well or as expected. Occasionally, he’d fly by the seat of his pants—like the crop-duster scene in North by Northwest. Also, he loved in-camera special effect. An example is the famous “purple dress” scene from Topaz, in which unseen stage hands pulled strings so that the character’s dress fanned out around her as she fell.

Alvarez attributes Hitch’s visual mastery to the large body of work he did in the silent film industry, taking on all kinds of jobs, up to the point when, in his 20s, he was allowed to direct. For him, the visuals told the story, and he always made sure there was a story to tell.

By the way, Hitch’s own favorite film was 1943’s Shadow of a Doubt.

Watch Shadow of a Doubt.

Read one great director interviewing another in the classic Hitchcock/Truffaut from Amazon.

Read Richard Brody’s “The Greatness of ‘Psycho’” in The New Yorker, covering the films about Hitchcock.

Summer of Soul

You may have seen previews for the music documentary Summer of Soul (Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) and think it looks worth seeing. Well, you’re right! There’s a lot packed in there, reclaimed from footage recorded during a series of outdoor concerts held in 1969 in Harlem’s Mt. Morris Park, now called Marcus Garvey Park (trailer).

Officially titled the Harlem Cultural Festival, the concerts took place the same summer as Woodstock. But while that event has a movie, soundtrack albums, and innumerable cultural references, the Summer of Soul was at risk of being forgotten altogether. For years, the filmmakers who captured the music and sound tried vainly to acquire funding for a finished film.

Finally, they sold the rights to producers David Dinerstein and Robert Fyvolent. They approached Questlove, co-founder of the hip-hop band The Roots, house band for Jimmy Fallon’s “Tonight Show.” He was amazed at the footage of the Festival. Not only was it mesmerizing, he couldn’t believe he’d never heard of these concerts.

What’s to like? The music is terrific. Each week, the concert featured a different type of music—blues, soul, pop—and the performers ranged from gospel choirs and Mahalia Jackson to Motown’s Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, and David Ruffin, to the Fifth Dimension, to the Staple Singers to Sly and the Family Stone and on and on. The concerts were organized and mc’d by singer Tony Lawrence, whom you may know as “The Continental Dreamboat” (pictured) and you can justify the price of admission just to see his outfits. 

While the music makes this a must-see, for those who lived through that era, the cultural touchstones are breathtaking. Especially interesting are the reminiscences of people—performers and audience-members—who were there and talk about what the festival meant to them.

The documentary cannot avoid the era’s significant social context, which so strongly reminded of how I felt at the time and my hopes for my country. Yes, it made me feel a little old.

Spectacular! And coming soon, the Aretha Franklin biopic, Respect.

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

Singing in the Theater

A new class under way at Washington DC’s Theatre J is on what to listen for in the songs of musical theater. It’s being taught by Felicia Curry, who in August will appear in Nina Simone: Four Women for The Berkshire Theatre Group (Stockbridge, Massachusetts). Curry is a Helen Hayes Award winner (and nine-time nominee). Each week she’s guiding my zoommates and me through the deconstruction of a single song—reading the lyrics and hearing the music both without vocals and with.

A number of years ago, I saw the Tony-award winning Yasmina Reza play Art at Papermill Playhouse. Bear in mind that Art ran for 600 performances on Broadway and for eight years in London. So, a significant work, but maybe a stretch for Papermill’s bill, which at that time, anyway, tended toward lighter fare. At intermission, I overheard the woman sitting behind me say, “I like it when they sing.” While my first reaction was a bit of an eye-roll, I thought, “Wait a minute. I like it when they sing too.” We all do.

So how are we to think about the choices that make musical theater such a delight? There are choices about the lyrics, of course, the mood they establish and the literal (and figurative) meaning of the words. Are the songs integrated with the story’s action or just pasted in? You may wonder like I do how a song written for one musical can be lifted out and plopped into another story altogether. Then, the music. Is it in sync with the words—not rhythmically, but in tone? Add to that the choices the singer/actor makes, with the director’s oversight. Is the performer owning the meaning or just getting the tune right?

For our first class, Curry picked a truly meaty song—Stephen Sondheim’s “Children Will Listen” from Into the Woods (lyrics here). You may recall the hit Barbra Streisand had with this. Streisand really belted it out in a couple of places, but to me, the song is so full of actual and potential regret, it suggests a more wistful touch.

A couple of my favorite lines were “Wishes come true not free.” If you get your wish, there’s a cost. And “How can you say to a child who’s in flight, ‘don’t slip away and I won’t hold so tight?’” As parents, haven’t most of us felt the almost irresistible desire to hold on? It was a brilliant song to put in a play about fairy tales, because reading fairy tales aloud to children is (was?) such a universal of childhood. And they carry some pretty grim (Grimm) messages. The context is ideal.

Oddly, the song stumbled into its placement in the show’s Finale. Initially, it was a section of a long song near the end of Act I, which ultimately was cut, but the “Children Will Listen” portion was salvaged and molded into its familiar form. Theatre J continues to offer interesting and intimate classes for theater lovers. Hope to see you there!

The Truffle Hunters

Some quirky films came out this past year, despite the pandemic, and we’ve enjoyed watching them at home or, finally—nirvana!—in an actual movie house.

The Truffle Hunters offers a little slice of life about people who live totally different lives than you do (guaranteed). In the beautifully scenic Piedmont area of Italy, the documentary-makers, Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw, found a group of aging men who take their dogs into the woods every day searching for truffles (trailer). Apparently, even though truffles are rare, it’s a living, especially if you know the good spots.

People who spend so much time alone are liable to get a little quirky, and, yes, they are. Their dogs are their children, spouses, best friends. One of the best moments is when the filmmakers attached a camera to a dog’s head, and you get to see the world in caninevision. The bouncing along, the snuffling leaves, the distractions left and right. Best of all is when the dog stops to chase his tail and the trees overhead whip around dizzingly. The whole audience laughed.

Roger Ebert’s review was too snarky by half for such an inoffensive movie. Nevertheless, the film left me a little worried. Most of these men can’t do this for many more years, even though the active outdoor life has helped get them into their 80s and even 90s. So where will future truffles come from? It will be sad if the truffle poachers who are trying to move in (they’ve even poisoned some dogs) inherit this livelihood. And, the middlemen who buy as cheaply as possible and sell for exorbitant profits currently keep it a marginalized business.

If you need a big shot of adrenaline, this is not your film. After all the disruptions of the last year, it’s calming to spend some time in the woods—no ticks!

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating 97%; audiences 77%–probably because of that adrenaline factor.

Managing the Message, 16th Century Style

You think world leaders are using considerable creativity (at times through outrageous lying) to shape public opinion? Imagine the problems of emperors and kings before the 24/7 news cycle, before the Internet, before broadcast, before . . . before . . . before.

No, there weren’t websites and news analysts, and tell-all best-sellers. But that didn’t matter—hardly anyone could read anyway. That’s one reason Shakespeare was such a hit. He told it like it was in a form any rowdy theater-goer could relate to.

Last week, I took a zoom class with art expert and teacher Gene Wisniewski on how Elizabeth I used her portraits to get her political messages across. Today, we’d call them propaganda. She used the portraits to solidify her role as the head of state and the Church of England (after the rather tumultuous succession after Henry VIII) and as a leader on the world stage. Admittedly, she wasn’t in the breaking news business. It takes a while to produce a portrait, especially one where the subject is so elaborately garbed in gems and pearls.

A good example is the portrait above. Gene says to look at it left-to-right, like a cartoon panel. There in the left background is the Spanish Armada, sailing in splendor. Then there’s Elizabeth, dominating the middle, then the Armada on the right, blackened and sinking in defeat. Even subjects unable to read can get the message. Oh, and the hand on the globe. Not just anywhere, either, the Americas. There’s a message.

Gene took us through a succession of the paintings of the queen and what they were meant to convey. Below is was one of my favorites. Do you think Elizabeth wanted her subjects to know she had her eyes and ears on them?

Survival Signals

woman with groceries
photo: Charles Nadeau, creative commons license

The situation described by the writer of a recent letter to Carolyn Hax, Washington Post advice columnist, sounded to Hax like “abuse.” I would never have guessed that, which is why she writes a successful newspaper column, and I don’t. One of the sources she suggested her correspondent consult was Gavin de Becker’s book, The Gift of Fear. At least I’d read the book! And grateful to be reminded of it. Perhaps it’s timely to repeat my review. The cover says, “This book can save your life,” and, whether that’s true, it sure can save the lives of the characters you’re writing about and suggest ways to put them in peril.

The Gift of Fear is a 1997 classic on recognizing the subtle signs of personal danger in many situations. So often in news stories about the capture of a murderer, people say, “We had no idea. She didn’t seem the type . . .” This book, like a 2018 FBI report, says baloney to that. There are signs. You just have to recognize them and accept their validity.

As a crime fiction writer, I hope those signs might be usefully incorporated in my stories, whether my bad-guy characters were aware of sending them and whether my good-guy characters perceived them. Or not. Especially or not.

The book’s author is Gavin de Becker, who has worked with government agencies and law enforcement and as a private consultant on personal threat assessment for media figures, victims of stalking, and others. Much of the book is written in the annoying “you can do it!” style of a self-help book, but his examples are excellent.

Especially useful was the chapter on “survival signals.” In it, he deconstructs the experience of a young woman he calls Kelly who encountered a helpful stranger in the lobby of her apartment building. When one of Kelly’s grocery bags spilled, he insisted on carrying the bags for her. He followed her into her apartment, then held her captive for three hours and raped her. She barely escaped with her life. Other women had not.

From the outset, Kelly received numerous signals that something about the man was “off,” which made her uneasy, though she couldn’t say why. De Becker says, “the capable face-to-face criminal is an expert at keeping his victim from seeing survival signals, but the very methods he uses to conceal them can reveal them.” The signals in Kelly’s case are easily adaptable to fiction.

Seven Key Survival Signals

  • Forced teaming—Kelly’s attacker tried to establish rapport with her, with statements like, “We’ve got to get these groceries upstairs.” A fictional criminal could plausibly say many similar things, like, “Luckily, we’re on the same side here.” David Mamet’s characters use this strategy superbly in his fascinating movie, House of Games.
  • Charm and niceness—Charm is a strategy, de Becker maintains, “a verb, not a trait.” The person trying to charm is a person who wants something. In two words: Ted Bundy.
  • Too many details—People trying to deceive pile on information, in the hope of being more persuasive. Details distract a potential victim from the bigger picture, which is that the encounter was (possibly) unsought and potentially problematic.
  • Typecasting—It’s human nature to want to be thought well of. Women, especially, are likely to demur or try to disprove a mild criticism, such as, “Someone like you probably wouldn’t give me the time of day.”
  • Loan sharking—A person may offer—indeed, may insist on—helping a potential victim, as Kelly’s assailant did. Putting her even slightly in his debt made it harder for her to rebuff him.
  • Unsolicited promises—“I’ll just put these groceries down, then leave. I promise.” De Becker says any unsolicited promise shows merely “the speaker’s desire to convince you of something.”
  • Discounting the word ‘no’—people with ill intent ignore a ‘no’ or try to negotiate it away. Either they are seeking control, or refusing to give it up.

Though even a benign character might display one or two of these behavioral traits, start piling them on, and readers will recognize the danger, even subliminally. They give characters real menace and ratchet up the tension long before the weapons come out!

Order it here on Amazon or from your local indie bookstore.