Weekend Movie? Challengers?

Luca Guadagnino’s new film Challengers has been getting good reviews (trailer). The cast is super: Josh O’Connor, Mike Feist, and Zendaya are the leads. And, if you’re as obsessed with tennis as they are, you may enjoy it more than I did.

The film cuts back and forth from the present, with three aging tennis prodigies. Patrick Zweig (O’Connor) is scruffy and down on his luck or likes to pretend he is—sleeping in his car, cadging meals. Art Donaldson (Faist) is near the top of his game, but faltering, more due to shaky confidence than lack of a serve. Tashi Duncan (Zendaya), a former teen tennis star herself, sidelined by a career-ending injury, is Donaldson’s coach—and wife.

The men were best friends from childhood, inseparable, and “complete each other’s sentences” close. They met Duncan about a decade earlier, both starstruck by her beauty and tennis skills. Then the real competition begins. Over the next decade they play her back and forth like a, well, like a tennis ball, and even though she married Donaldson, it’s just possible Zweig still holds first place in her heart.

The movie cuts between scenes set in the current day, when the men are playing a second-rate match in New Rochelle that both are desperate to win. Zweig needs the cash; and Donaldson needs the win to qualify for the US Open. But what they’re really playing for is Duncan. I get that, but these characters aren’t so interesting as to hold my attention for two hours.

All three of them are master manipulators, but at least O’Connor can take the edge off with his sly smile. You see their practices, their various matchups over the years, and a lot of this final match. Walking out, my bottom line was “too much tennis.”

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 88%; audiences 73%.

An Unexpected Gem: A Fire Museum!

On Saturdays in Allentown, NJ, the New Jersey Fire Museum and Fallen Firefighters Memorial opens to the public. It may sound a tad remote, but if you’re on the NJ Turnpike (unlucky you) approaching exit 7A, you’re only 4.5 miles away!

It’s a volunteer-run facility, and the time investment and thoughtfulness of the volunteers are evident at every turn. The museum building has an interesting collection of esoterica. You find out how fire alarm boxes work. You find out about “fire grenades” (glass bulbs filled with water or carbon tetrachloride thrown at the base of a presumably small fire. They were outlawed in 1954 not only because of hazardous broken glass, but because burning carbon tet produces phosgene, the deadliest WWI gas). You find out why US firefighters’ helmets have such an unusual shape: the long back brim keeps water from running down inside the firefighters’ collar, and the peaked front, often featuring an animal, can be used to break glass), and much more.

The photo above shows a hand-pumper purchased in 1822 by the Crosswicks (NJ) Fire Department for $100. Damaged at a fire, it was rebuilt in 1850 and still being used in 1922—giving the community more than 100 years of service! The horse-drawn fire wagon pictured below is from 1789, the year George Washington became President. (The flowers seem an unusual touch, though early luxury automobiles sometimes offered bud vases, as did the Volkswagen Beetle, with its blumenvasen.)

A barn adjacent to the museum houses a fantastic collection of mostly vintage fire trucks, mostly restored to dramatic beauty (see more here). Lots of red paint. Clearly a labor of love. Kids (adults too, I suppose) can sit in the driver’s seat. Also there’s a gift shop in the museum. If you’re in the market for a stuffed Dalmatian, you’re at the right place. Another reason kids will enjoy this museum? A roomful of fire trucks and related toys.

The memorial component is woven into mission of the organization. The website includes a list of fallen firefighters, noting nine whose Last Alarm was in 2021, 12 in 2020, and a list of 107 whose service dates back more than 200 years. An area is set aside to honor the 343 firefighters and paramedics killed on 9/11. The memorial itself will be on the Museum grounds, when it’s complete.

From One White House to Another

Herbert Hoover is one of only two US Presidents (John F. Kennedy was the other) who declined to accept pay for that job—a rather thankless one in Hoover’s case. His personal fortune and Quaker values made that choice possible. Was he heir to a life of wealth and privilege? Not at all. He was born in 1874 in the two-room Iowa cottage pictured and lived there with his parents and two siblings.

At age 9, Herb became an orphan, and family members took the children in, eventually sending him to an Uncle in Oregon. He traveled there by train, by himself, at age 11. The uncle was a lumberman, but also ran a Quaker school, which must have been a pretty good one, because, besides learning his uncle’s business, Herb was a member of the first class at the then-new Stanford University (now home of the Hoover Institution).

He studied geology, aiming toward a career as a mining engineer, met his to-be wife Lou (the first woman student in Stanford’s geology department), and eventually worked for a British mining company. Sent to Australia, he discovered a sizeable gold mine, which was the foundation of his personal fortune. He and Lou were living in China when the Boxer rebellion broke out, and she remembered sweeping the brass cartridge cases off the front porch every morning.

Hoover made his name in public service by helping Americans stranded in Europe at the start of World War I, then managing famine relief efforts in Europe after the war (and later after World War II). He relied on his own and others’ volunteerism, and a fundamental tenet of his personal philosophy was that, if you ask people to help, they will. Alas, this worked against him after he became President, just before the start of the Great Depression. Too many people were affected. His conviction that government’s role in relieving poverty should be minimal contributed greatly to his unpopularity, and for many years, the good things he accomplished were overlooked.

Hoover had a lifelong interest in the Boys’ Clubs of America, as Lou did with the Girl Scouts’ organization. I was surprised and glad to learn that there was more than I thought to his legacy; it’s a shame that a career of serving others is obscured by the dark shadow of the early 1930s and a financial catastrophe too big for him to manage.

On our recent Midwest trip, we visited West Branch, Iowa (just east of Iowa City), his boyhood home, where his Presidential Library and Museum are located, along with his birthplace cottage, gravesite, and other late-1800s buildings. Not on the beaten path, but well worth a visit.

Cumberbatch or Brett? Brett or Cumberbatch? Or Rathbone?

This series of posts about the stories in the recent collection, Sherlock Holmes: A Year of Mystery 1885, edited by Richard T. Ryan, published by Belanger Books, began by asking the story authors—and you, our Facebook friends—which is your favorite on-screen Holmes/Watson duo? I learned two things: Holmes fans have clear favorites, and their views are strongly held!

I started recording your votes on a small notepad and was soon using both sides of the sheet.

Garnering the most fans (about a third of the total) was the classic 36-episode Granada television series (1984-1994) starring Jeremy Brett, with equal votes to the Watsons of first David Burke, then Edward Hardwicke. Of course, fans did note Brett’s deteriorating performance as the series wore on, due to a series of psychological and medical problems.

Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman also garnered quite a few votes for the BBC Sherlock series—about a quarter of the total. People said they liked the modern energy of these productions, but I was disappointed to learn (thank you, gossip trade) that the two actors actually don’t like each other. Cumberbatch is the better known, of course, but, in a complete aside, if you want to see Freeman in one of my favorite short comedic films, The Voorman Problem, I think you’ll enjoy it.

There were almost as many votes for Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as for Cumberbatch and Freeman. Still, fans couldn’t help but scoff at the poor characterization of Watson. I suspect it wasn’t Bruce’s fault; he was probably hewing to the instructions of the director, who may have feared audiences wouldn’t understand how smart Holmes was without a dim Watson for contrast.

From here, we get into small numbers, five percent of the voting or so, but what’s surprising is how many portrayals loom so memorably in our minds! Downey and Law, Miller and Liu (with lots of pushback on this one. A bridge too far for some), Caine and Kingsley (Without a Clue), Ronald Howard and Howard Marion-Crawford (first American series, 1954), Peter Cushing and André Morell (The Hound of the Baskervilles, 1959), Vasily Livanov and Vitaly Solomin (Soviet television, 1979-1986). I’ve never seen most of these—or heard of some of them!

And, finally, some respondents thought “on-screen” portrayals was altogether too limiting a construct and proposed Sir Kenneth Macmillan’s performance of both Holmes and Moriarty in the ballet The Great Detective (1953), or the Clive Merrison and Michael Williams BBC Radio versions (1989-1998), and William Gillette, who portrayed Holmes on stage and in a 1916 silent film. And the very favorite depiction for one Holmes fan was the portrayal created in his own book. No one mentioned the various musical versions, probably for good reason.

Contemporary writers, who, in the case of the anthology mentioned, do adhere closely to the canonical conventions, have enthusiastically created adventures to fill in the time gap in which almost none of Conan Doyle’s stories are set and the hundreds of film, television, radio, stage, and other portrayals of these enduring characters show there are many stories still to be had. Or, as Holmes himself said, “One’s ideas must be as broad as Nature if they are to interpret Nature.” And contemporary writers continue to explore those limits. Enjoy!

Quad Cities Attractions

Everyone knows what the big US cities are all about. But the country’s mid-sized towns also offer possibilities for tourists and aren’t so overwhelming. And there’s parking. We recently visited the Quad Cities—Davenport and Bettendorf ,Iowa, and Rock Island and the Molines in northwest Illinois—population 468,000. Whoever thought of going there? My husband.

We stayed two nights at the restored Hotel Blackhawk in Davenport—a 1915 gem (lobby ceiling pictured), beautifully restored and now one of Marriott’s autograph collection hotels. The restaurants were fine, not fabulous, the martini bar was fun, and the guest rooms had many little touches to make a guest’s stay more enjoyable. They were the epitome of “it’s the little things that count.”

Because of the cities’ size, they’re easy to get around in, but you have to cross the Mississippi River to travel from one state to the other. We wanted to see the Rock Island Arsenal and associated attractions which are entered from the Illinois side (GPS saved us) via the Moline Gate, and you have to get a military ID card at the Visitors Control Center—they check your criminal record, BTW. I guess we were “OK.” It’s the largest government-owned weapons manufacturing arsenal in the country and a National Historic Landmark. Both a National Cemetery and Confederate cemetery are there.

We knew the Rock Island Arsenal had been a major manufacturer of US arms and armaments in both World Wars up until today, but we hadn’t realized it’s also the home base of the First Army, so lots of barracks and military housing, as well as beautiful old stone buildings.

A Mississippi River visitor center is on the island, and that was our first stop. It’s smallish, with enthusiastic staff. It’s also well positioned, overlooking two locks (Locks and Dam #15) that help boat traffic navigate the changing depths of the river. There are 29 lock and dam structures along the upper Mississippi that maintain a 9-foot navigation channel, allowing boats of all kinds to travel from St. Paul, Minn., to St. Louis, Mo.—around a 400-foot drop. Below St. Louis the incoming water from the Missouri, Ohio, Illinois, and Arkansas rivers widen and deepen the Mississippi, and the lock are no longer necessary.

Nearby is a still-used, historical railway swing bridge, one section of which can pivot out of the way to allow taller boat traffic to pass beneath. (If the accompanying animation will work, you’ll see the bridge in action, as well as Mississippi barge traffic entering and leaving the locks.) The locks and dam structures are the province of the Army Corps of Engineers, which has a headquarters building on Rock Island. The building has a clock tower, built in 1867, and the clock isn’t working. Hmmmm. They should fix that. And, of course, you’re thinking of the Rock Island Line and Johnny Cash. The Rock Island Railway was so famous in its day it was Jesse James’s choice for his first robbery.

The museum, with the history of armaments (focusing on their manufacture) was well done and impressively large. You may be glad to know that the military is up-to-date with 3D printing, and at Rock Island it’s tested for use in creating spare parts no longer available or quickly needed tools and parts in the field, as well as lighter-weight gear. In the military, 3D printing is termed “additive manufacturing.” The museum takes pains to acknowledge the contributions to its history from Black Americans, who guarded its camp for Confederate prisoners, and women, who took on the manufacturing jobs when the men went overseas.

A great way to spend half a day! We skipped the botanical gardens (rain) and went to the art museum instead.

Take a Bow, Broadway!

We’ve seen two stage musicals in the last month to take note of: The Outsiders and Days of Wine and Roses—both with fine pedigrees as movies, and, in the case of The Outsiders, the popular young adult book by SE Hinton.

The Outsiders

Playing at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, The Outsiders’ director, Danya Taymor, and her team brought together a terrific cast of young actors to play the teenage antagonists—the socs (pronounced sohsh, an abbreviation for “social,” denoting the teens from wealthier families) and the greasers (their opposites). Actor Brody Grant received a Tony nomination for his portrayal of Ponyboy Curtis, as did Joshua Boone and Sky Lakota-Lynch for their performances. It’s a coming-of-age crime story involving the perennial friction between those on the inside of a group and those not. The book and music were strong (both nominated for Tonys), and the high-energy choreography and fight choreography were spectacular.

I’d never read the book nor seen the 1983 Francis Ford Coppola movie (maybe you remember the amazing cast–Matt Dillon, Patrick Swayze, Rob Lowe, Tom Cruise, Emilio Estevez, et al.), so it was all new to me. It received a too-tepid review in the Washington Post, in which the reviewer seemed troubled by the musical’s occasional divergence from the story’s previous two incarnations. No problem for me, of course. Nor for those who selected it as a nominee for a Tony Award for best musical, best direction, best book, best original score, and, no surprise—best choreography—this year! Among other nominations. Well worth seeing.

Days of Wine and Roses

Studio 54 has mounted a nicely staged production of The Days of Wine and Roses, based on the 1962 movie classic (Jack Lemmon, Lee Remick, et al., directed by Blake Edwards). Directed by Michael Greif, the musical version stars Kelli O’Hara and Brian D’Arcy James, both of whom received Tony nominations for their roles. This is O’Hara’s twelfth Broadway show, and she’s been nominated for seven Tony Awards (winning for The King and I), an Emmy, an Olivier, and two Grammys. Jones is a four-time Tony-nominated, Grammy-winning actor, also with more than a dozen Broadway appearances on his resume. Needless to say, they’re up to the musical demands.

You may recall the story. Farm-girl Kirsten Arnesen (O’Hara) is working in San Francisco and meets city slicker Joe Clay (James). He talks her into taking her first drink, and it’s all downhill from there. Since the pivotal role of brandy alexanders in the story is the main thing I remember about the movie, I can’t say how closely the musical tracks the film.

The sets are cleverly done for a smallish stage, and the book by Craig Lucas and music/lyrics by Adam Guettel are pretty good. In 90 minutes, no intermission, the cast has to take you through some dramatic and heart-wrenching falls. Byron Jennings does a memorable turn as Kirsten’s father too. It won’t leave you laughing, but it’s a fine show.

Weekend Movie Strategy

Two movies we’ve seen lately fit nicely on the “not for everybody” shelf. My husband, not being a fan of science fiction, was lukewarm about Dune: Part Two. He might have been less iffy if it weren’t two and three-quarters hours long. I was not bored. Though we generally like movies about World War II and had expected great things of The Zone of Interest, which is an hour shorter than Dune, it seemed kind of endless to me. Here are the deets.

Dune: Part Two
You can’t fault the casting of this film, based on the award-winning Frank Herbert novels of the 1960s, which I remember fondly. Directed by Denis Villeneuve, the movie’s cast is impeccable (trailer). Timothèe Chalamet is hero Paul Atreides, Zandaya is his main squeeze. Along with them are Javier Barden, Austin Butler, Josh Brolin, Christopher Walken, Charlotte Rampling, and Stellan Skarsgård, among many others probably well known to hipper audiences. The makeup of the shaved-head, waxen-skinned bad guys, the Harkonnen clan, were truly creepy. Skarsgård as the chief Harkonnen needed three hours of makeup every day he was on set. He was bulked out to the point he was almost unrecognizable, unless he was posing as the “hookah-smoking caterpillar” from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, a comparison that occurred to me (consciously, at least) before I realized he also smoked a hookah.

The special effects were transporting, especially the worm-surfing, and I wasn’t surprised that the non-desert filming took place in Hungary. There was a sleek Central European brutalist vibe about the Harkonnen’s dwellings.

And it definitely sets you up for Dune: Part Three.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 93%; audiences: 95%.

The Zone of Interest
Based incredibly loosely on a novel by Martin Amis, this is the story of a real-life person, commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Hōss, and his wife Hedwig, directed by Jonathan Glazer (trailer). On the surface, if you can ignore the constant rumbling (well-earned Academy Award for sound design) of who-knows-what horrible machinery on the other side of the wall, the couple, with their four children and servants lead a perfectly normal middle-class life.

But of course the situation is not even a bit normal, and they can only lead that life (her, in particular), by absolutely denying the reality of what is going on around them. Their older son is playing with teeth—oh, sure. A fabulous fur coat arrives in a pillowcase—par for the course. Her beautiful garden—“I had help, of course.” Yes, and we know who that help was. Just as we know who their skittish servant is. And the woman Rudolf rapes.

Hōss is played by Christian Friedel and Hedwig by Sandra Hüller (who also played in the Oscar-nominated Anatomy of a Fall). She is amazing, conveying so much, so seemingly effortlessly.Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 93%; audiences: 78%.

The Heat Is On

Fire Weather is a remarkable nonfiction book by award-winning author John Vaillant—part frightening description, part homage to those who fight wildfires, and part expression of frustration at lost opportunities. He centers the book around a wildfire that started near Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada, in May 2016. The town is populated by people who work in the oil extraction industry, which is a hellish kind of existence itself. He takes time to describe this environment, so that when the fire arrives, you understand what’s at stake. He calls Fire Weather “a true story from a hotter world.”

The middle section of the book details the battle against the wildfire relentlessly approaching Fort McMurray. Abetted by long-term drought, the fire has plenty of fuel. High temperatures prevent night-time cooling, which would aid the firefighters. The fire develops enough energy to start creating its own weather, propelled forward via hurricane-force winds . Vaillant’s descriptions of fire tornadoes is especially vivid. Using the one road out of town, families must evacuate through fire and smoke, and ordering evacuation is almost unthinkable. But, contrary to expectation and sooner than authorities believe, it has to be done.

Vaillant points out the vast qualitative differences between a structural fire, which we are accustomed to reading about (“Firefighters had the building fire under control in two hours” kind of thing) and a wildfire. Emphasis is on the wild. As people build their houses farther and farther into wooded suburban areas, wildfires engulf them easily. Firefighters on the front lines in Fort McMurray watched the fire move up a residential street, destroying one home after another. From the time the fire first reached a house until it was reduced to nothing but a pile of ash took three minutes. Three minutes in which the house was gone, aluminum framing melted, window glass reduced to puddles, and no plumbing fixtures. They were simply vaporized.

As I write this, the largest wildfire in Texas history rages in the Panhandle and into Oklahoma. Memories are fresh of the smoke from last year’s Canadian wildfires that traveled thousands of miles and created lingering eerie light in the middle and eastern United States. The conditions that enable the spread of these devastating fires continue. We have created the conditions for, as Vaillant puts it, “fire weather.”

The third part of the book details the failed politics of regulating the industries that contribute to the danger. It is, as you would expect, frustrating reading.

You’ll never be able to read about a wildfire in Europe, in Australia, in Chile—anywhere—in the same way. By the way, the Fort McMurray wildfire was not declared extinguished until August 2017—15 months after it began.

Photos: Fort McMurray evacuation by DarrenRD, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license; NYC blanketed in smoke by Anthony Quintano, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Oscar Shorts are Back: Documentaries

Here are the five short documentary nominees for Oscars this year. Altogether they are a nice mix, all different, yet interesting on their own considerable merits. A jumbo bowl of popcorn is needed here.

Nǎi Nai and Wài Pó (US) – These two irrepressible Chinese women are the grandmothers of filmmaker Sean Wang. There’s not a lot of story here, but seeing these two women in action, staying active, minds sharp, sense of humor intact, is a treat. Wài Pó is in her mid-eighties and says she feels like she’s twenty; Nǎi Nai is in her mid-nineties and says she feels like she’s a hundred. They are not related by blood, but by the marriage of their children and live together, keeping each other very much on their toes (trailer).

The ABCs of Book Banning (US) – There’s no question about where director Sheil Nevins stands on this issue, but her team taken the interesting tack of asking kids themselves (an astonishingly articulate group of Florida readers, mostly ages 9-11) what they think. Quotes are included from some of the more than 2000 books removed from school shelves and, while they may not represent the content the banners were objecting to, they certainly suggest the book’s message. It’s obvious the children don’t understand these efforts to deny them knowledge. In the words of one of the children. “Why?” Oh, and their biggest champion? A 101-year-old woman! (trailer).

Island in Between (Taiwan) – Director S. Leo Chiang has created a troubled poem about Taiwan, its future, and, in particular, the Taiwanese islands of Kin Men (Quemoy), perilously close to the Chinese mainland, which of course claims Taiwan is one of its provinces. His three passports—US, Taiwanese, and special permit for Kinmen—symbolize how torn he is about where he actually fits (stream).

The Barber of Little Rock (US) – John Hoffman and Christine Turner follow Arlo Washington on his rounds in the Arkansas capitol. He is a barber, he runs a barber school (which has trained more than a thousand mostly young men, mostly Black for what can become a solid career. Troubled by the wealth gap between Little Rock’s Black and white communities and the difficulties Blacks have obtaining loans to start businesses, and so on, he started a nonprofit community bank. Note that 95 percent of the recipients of his loans have repaid them (stream).

The Last Repair Shop (US) – This is the real “feel-good” documentary of the bunch. The Los Angeles Unified School District still maintains its program of giving musical instruments to students who want to participate in band or orchestra programs. These old instruments have been through many hands and keys stick, wood cracks, welds break. Four people (one each for stringed instruments, brass instruments, woodwinds, and pianos) repair and tune the instruments so that no child is denied the joy of making music. These four people themselves have fascinating and difficult histories so that, at a very personal level, they recognize how important these instruments are, a pathway to fitting in (stream).

Oscar Shorts Are Back: Live Action

Academy Award, Oscar

Oscar Shorts are Back!

This year’s nominees for best live action shorts are playing in theaters. This year’s nominees seemed to trend a little longer than usual overall Only one was under 20 minutes, and the longest was 37 minutes (total, 2.5 hours). I’ll write about the Oscar-nominated short documentaries tomorrow. 

Invincible (US) – directed by Vincent Rene-Lortie. Based on a true story of a 14-year-old boy whose behavior problems have separated him from a loving family. The staff of the facility where he lives is trying to work with him, but neither they nor his family influences the choices he makes (trailer).

Knight of Fortune (Denmark) – directed by Lasse Lyskjaer Noer, Knight of Fortune tells how, Karl (played by Leif Andrée), in a visit to the morgue to view the body of his long-time wife, finds he cannot bring himself to open her coffin. An unlikely alliance between Karl and another widower, Torben (Jens Jørn Spottag), helps him face her death. Though the overall tone is bittersweet, there are darkly humorous moments and a strong sense of shared humanity (trailer).

Red, White and Blue (US) – directed by Nazrin Choudhury. A positive pregnancy test forces a single mother of two (played by Brittany Snow), working as a waitress and living paycheck-to-paycheck to make difficult decisions, as she and her ten-year-old daughter go on a road trip across several states in search of an abortion (trailer).

The After (UK) – Misan Harriman directed. Acclaimed British actor David Oyelowo plays a London man who must try to rebuild his life after a devastating street assault. Taking a job as a taxi driver, he meets all sorts, but cannot outrun his trauma (trailer).

The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar (UK/US) – Wes Anderson’s version of the Roald Dahl short story about a wealthy Englishman (Benedict Cumberbatch) who learns a Guru’s way “to see without his eyes,” so that he can cheat at blackjack. Also in the cast: Ralph Fiennes, Dev Patel, Ben Kingsley, and Richard Ayoade. With its big-budget production values and stellar cast, it’s quite an oddball (as is anything Wes Anderson produces) in this collection, which is more typically where up-and-coming filmmakers with limited budgets cut their teeth (trailer).

Our local moviehouse shows the shorts on three nights (live action, animated, documentary). See the schedule for your area, and get tickets from Shorts TV here. Some may be available on YouTube too.