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Monday, February 20, 2017

The Salesman

The first action of The Salesman is an apartment building starting to collapse. It's an apt metaphor for Asghard Farhadi's film, another in which he examines how a marriage falls apart. The building does not completely come down, but is uninhabitable, and there is a large crack in the bedroom of Edam and Rana, a young married couple.

Played by Shahab Hosseini and Taraneh Alidoosti, respectively, the couple are part of a Tehranian middle class. He teaches literature in high school, and both are taking part in a community theater production of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman (Hosseini is Willy Loman, hence the title).

One of their co-stars, made aware of their search for a new apartment, is a landlord who has a place. They like it, though the previous tenant has left a lot of of her stuff. Slowly it unfolds that she was a prostitute (that word is never used--she was "promiscuous," "had a lot of male visitors," etc.

One night, Alidoosti comes home earlier from a production, while Hosseini meets with censors (one of the several Iranian touches). The door buzzes and, thinking it's her husband, she buzzes him in and opens the door. But as we watch the door slowly swing open from inertia, we realize that it's not Hosseini coming up. As Anthony Lane pointed out in his review, it's a scene Michael Haneke would love.

Alidoosti is attacked, but she does not see her attacker. When Hosseini realizes who was the previous tenant, he thinks it is one of her clients, who mistakes Alidoosti (who was in the shower) for the whore. He goes about trying to track this person down. In another Iranian touch, and what makes it entirely different from a Western film, the couple do not consult the police. In the U.S. a woman brought into an ER with a head wound would automatically attract police presence, but in Tehran it is thought better to just keep it quiet.

Eventualy Husseini finds his man, and it's in a most ingenious fashion that Farhadi introduces him. This leads to a socko finish, an entire last act in one space--the fractured apartment, where Hosseini decides to enact revenge. Alidosti wants to forgive him, and tells Hosseini if he doesn't let him go their marriage is over. Suddenly the stakes are much higher than Hosseini can handle.

The Salesman makes for gripping drama, and Farhadi is a very clever man. Not only does he use the metaphor of the crumbling building at the beginning, but he begins and ends the film with someone being carried down stairs. Hosseini does at the beginning, rescuing a disabled man, while at the end another man is carried down the stairs, dying, while Hosseeini does nothing.

The one thing I have not been able to figure out is, why Death of a Salesman? Clearly Farhadi chose this play specifically, one of the greats of the American theater, as his background story. But the parallels between the stories and the characters don't seem to be there. Death of a Salesman is essentially about how a man wastes his life in pursuit of an ever-out-of-reach dream, and ends up failing his family. What is has to do with The Salesman I will have to ponder more.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Pearl Jam

Once again this year I'll be discussing the inductees for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and I'll start with Pearl Jam, one of only two artists to get in in their first year of eligibility.

I regularly bought Pearl Jam CDs throughout the '90s, and as I listened to their greatest hits retrospective, Rearviewmirror, this week I had to consider if they were the best rock band of the decade, and I've come to the conclusion that they were. They grew out of the "grunge" movement of the Pacific Northwest, but were more long-lasting that Nirvana (sadly) and better than and more consistent that Alice in Chains or Soundgarden.

That being said, I couldn't tell you when Pearl Jam released their latest album (a quick Google search turns up one in 2013 that went completely beneath my radar). They began with their greatest album, Ten, and seemingly with every release since then have been less noteworthy.

But that album Ten produced a few of the anthems of the decade, songs about not fitting in, a time-honored rock and roll trope, but with a kind of savage intensity. I think mostly of "Alive," in which a boy learns his parentage isn't what he thought it was (part of Eddie Vedder's biography):

"Son, she said, have I got a little story for you
What you thought was your daddy was nothin' but a...
While you were sittin' home alone at age thirteen
Your real daddy was dyin', sorry you didn't see him, but I'm glad we talked... "

And :Jeremy," about a bully victim who lashes back:

"Clearly I remember
Pickin' on the boy
Seemed a harmless little fuck
But we unleashed a lion
Gnashed his teeth
And bit the recess lady's breast"

Along with "Black," "Once," and "Even Flow" (about a homeless man) these songs lived throughout the decade, with impassioned lyrics, incomparable musicianship, and the unearthly sound of Eddie Vedder's voice, which rumbles in a bass but can be comforting as well as manic. Consider the quiet beauty of "Wishlist," one of my favorite Pearl Jam songs, or the intense screaming on "Do the Evolution."

From "Wishlist":

"I wish I was an alien at home behind the sun
I wish I was the souvenir you kept your house key on
I wish I was the pedal brake that you depended on
I wish I was the verb 'to trust' and never let you down"

Most of Pearl Jam's discography is fairly grim--these guys didn't do novelty songs. Even the one cover they had for a hit, "Last Kiss," is about a guy getting in a car wreck that kills his girlfriend. But even if their songs aren't finger-snapping ditties, there is hopefulness to them. After all, in that very first album, Vedder proclaims, "I'm still alive."

Saturday, February 18, 2017

FInding Neverland (Musical)

Last night I saw the touring production of Finding Neverland, based on the 2004 film that tells the story of how J.M. Barrie came to write Peter Pan. He was inspired by the sons of Sylvia Llewelyn Davis, a free spirited widow whom he was probably in love with, in his own way.

The musical, with a book by James Graham and music and lyrics by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy, is an examination of imagination. Brought to life by Diane Paulus, one of the best directors of musicals working today, the show does hit high moments, and is especially relevant to creative types. I think especially of the closing number of Act One, when Barrie is visited by Captain Hook, representing his dark side, urging him to not give up on writing Peter Pan.

Paulus manages to do this with a score that isn't particularly memorable. I couldn't hum one of the songs upon leaving, and every time I think of a song called "Neverland"  I can't help but hear the one from the 1954 musical of Peter Pan--it's a hard (impossible, really) act to follow. What I take with me is the visuals, such as the depiction of Kensington Garden in 1903, or the backstage of a theater with a cast trying to come to grips with the parts they are going to play.

The book, by Graham, is full of exposition but also has some good one-liners, especially for the character of Charles Frohman, the American producer who reluctantly backs Peter Pan. When asked if he has a "child inside him," he says no, "I have an ulcer inside me." Dwelvan David, as a rich-voiced thespian, has some great fun when he realizes he's going to plan Nana, the dog. But he brings the house down when one of the boys asks him, "Don't you believe in fairies?"David responds, "Young man, I work in the theater" (Big laugh.) Then the kicker, "I see them every day."

In a clever bit of double-casting (which was done in the original production with Kelsey Grammer), Tom Hewitt plays both Frohman and Captain Hook in a performance that is an absolute knockout (and an actor's dream, I would imagine). Billy Harrigan Tighe, who just started playing the lead this week, makes a bland Barrie. Of course, after Johnny Depp plays a role with requisite weirdness, its another hard act to follow. Barrie's sexuality is something of a mystery (the movie implies that he and his wife had a chaste marriage) and the truth is that when Barrie met Davies she was still married. The musical has them romantically involved, sharing a single kiss, while I don't think the film suggested that.

Christine Dwyer is quite good as Sylvia, as is Karen Murphy as her mother, Mrs. Du Maurier. I think every show I've seen during the season at Smith Center (six, now) has had children performers, who are amazingly good. Since they rotate in and out of roles and are not announced, I can't single any out, but all four boys I saw last night were superb.

Friday, February 17, 2017


There is an impression that all the documentaries nominated for Oscars are depressing, and Jerry Seinfeld made a crack about that when presenting the award some years ago. That's somewhat true, as many of the films are about inhumanity--whether they be about the Holocaust or problems in the Middle East or what have you (the rest of them are documentaries about show business figures, it seems). But instead of the word depressing, I would substitute anger. If you're going to watch these films, prepare to get angry.

That's certainly the case with Virunga, nominated two years ago and directed by Orlando von Einseidel. The title refers to a National Park and World Heritage site inside the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is the last home of the mountain gorilla, as well as many other fauna, including elephants. The park has a guard service, who have done battle with poachers forever. In this film, they have to deal with something else--rebels, who believe they are hitched to the star of an oil company.

Von Einseidel uses four characters to tell the story. We meet a sector warden of the Guards, who participates in the funeral of another guard (the sacrifice of these men is very moving--they die by the score, to protect their country's natural resources), as well as a gorilla care-giver. He is in charge of four orphaned gorillas, the only mountain gorillas in captivity.

The chief warden is Emmanuel de Merode, a dashing Belgian who takes his job as seriously as one would hope. Also telling the story is a French journalist, Melanie Gouby, who surreptitiously  records her dinners with employees of SOCO, the British oil company that wants to drill inside the park, which would violate international law.

One could easily take Virunga and turn it into a feature narrative film. Gouby is young and attractive, and watching her doll herself up for dates with the SOCO guy made me think of Blood Diamond. She also tapes a so-called mercenary who says, "Who gives a fuck about a monkey?" If I were Gouby, I would have a hard time resisting cracking a bottle open over his head.

That Virunga Park even exists seems a miracle. This is a very war-torn part of the world, and as the events of the film unfold, a rebel group calling itself M23 try to take the park. They are under the impression that they will receive part of SOCO's profits, even though the company distances themselves from any violence. It once again proves that oil companies are among the worst of humanity.

There are bright spots. The care given to the baby gorillas (one of them dies--hanky warning) is wonderful to see. Then again, the guards come across an elephant that has been murdered and beheaded. It's hard to understand.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

The only Shirley Jackson I had ever read, which most people have read--"The Lottery"--has me interested in reading more of her work. I started with her last novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which again features the tyranny of the mob, and also is a case for agoraphobia.

The Blackwood sisters, Constance, who never leaves the house past the garden, and narrator Mary Katherine (called Merricat) live with their infirm Uncle Julian in large house that is well off the road (the town, as is most of Jackson's works, is supposed to be North Barrington, Vermont). The family is shunned and ridiculed by the townspeople, as we learn in one of Merricat's visits to buy groceries. Only later do we learn of a tragedy when four members of the family were killed when arsenic was put into the sugar bowl. Constance was tried and acquitted.

The sisters are very happy in their odd world, though, and Uncle Julian, who was not killed but hurt badly by the poisoning, is just as dotty. It's when Cousin Charles comes to town, looking for the family fortune, that things start to go wrong. He charms Constance and is at odds with Merricat, who practices a kind of magic that involves totems: "On Sunday mornings I examined my safeguards, the box of silver dollars I had buried by the creek, and the doll buried in the long field, and the book nailed to the tree in the pine woods; so long as they were where I had put them nothing could get in to harm us."

A fire is the climax of the book, when Charles is driven away, unable to carry the safe, and the towspeople join in on a riot, destroying the sisters' things. But they respond with a kind of resilient forebearance, spending the night in Merricat's hiding place but returning and rolling up their sleeves and "neatening" the house. The upper half is gone: "Our house was a castle, turreted and open to the sky."

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a book that mixes whimsy and dread. Though they are not supernatural, there is something unearthly about the Blackwood sisters and their house. Merricat explains: "Blackwoods had always lived in our house, and kept their things in order; as soon as a new Blackwood wife moved in, a place was found for her belongings, and so our house was built up with layers of Blackwood property weighting it, and keeping it steady against the world." The sisters are the kind of people who can't deal with reality, and the attempts by Charles to deal with them are both funny and sad--we like that he can't win, but we're sad that the sisters don't understand basic truths.

Unlike "The Lottery," certainly, We Have Always Lived in the Castle ends with a wave of humanity, a kind of "everything's going to be all right" that is always welcomed. Later this year, when my fall supernatural theme will be ghosts, I hope to read The Haunting of Hill House.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The 89th Academy Awards, Best Actress

In the Best Actress category, there is yet another lead-pipe cinch. Emma Stone, even before La La Land's release, was the favorite to win, and survived some other women mentioned. When the dust has settled, though, she is still the overwhelming favorite.

Why? The actress is extremely likable, and though young (28) that is not a problem in this category--she's older than last year's winner, Brie Larson. She has also been nominated before, and she does something that most performers are deadly afraid of putting on film--singing and dancing.

During the last few months there was noise about Natalie Portman winning again for Jackie. It is a wonderful performance, but she has won before and the film didn't get the traction that some thought it might--it's only other nomination is in costumes. That Portman didn't win the Golden Globe is telling.

That award went to Isabelle Huppert, who might be Stone's main competition. There have been only two wins by a Best Actress in a foreign language film, but Huppert certainly has the goods as a woman with revenge on her mind in Elle. There might be something of a career-award sentiment, although most Americans don't know who she is (she's made over sixty films).

In the don't bother writing a speech category there is Meryl Streep, with her twentieth nomination for Florence Foster Jenkins. The role is one of great skill, playing a woman is the world's worst singer and feeling intense sympathy for her, but Streep is not likely to win a fourth Oscar for this.

It is notable this year that all four acting categories feature a person of color; in the Best Actress category it's Ruth Negga playing a woman taking anti-miscegenation laws to the Supreme Court in Loving. It's a performance that often isn't nominated, because Negga plays her very quietly, and has no big moment "Oscar-clip" scenes. That probably will ensure that she doesn't win. It's very well possible that three actors of color will win on Oscar night, but not all four.

Will Win: Stone
Could Win: Huppert
Should Win: Stone
Should have been nominated: Amy Adams, Arrival

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The Ring

Today in my after-school horror film class, I showed the kids The Ring, and some of the kids got so scared they ran out of the room. It's interesting to watch children who don't extensive knowledge of film structure think a movie is over when the scariest scene is coming up (that was true with Poltergeist, too).

The Ring is a 2002 film, directed by Gore Verbinski, that was adapted from what has become a fertile ground for remakes--the Japanese horror film. This time it is set in Seattle, where two girls begin the thing (reminiscent of the Scream films) discussing a video tape that kills you if you watch it, but not for seven days.

One of the girls is dead of a stopped heart, the other is confined to a mental institution. The girl's mother turns to reporter Naomi Watts to try to get to the bottom of things. In some rather easy steps she finds the tape, watches it, and then gets that warning phone call that says "Seven days" (if only I could have arranged to have my phone ring after the video is shown--the kids would have jumped out of their skins). Her son's father, Martin Henderson, is a photographer and tries to get to the bottom of where the video came from, but it's a clue in the video, a lighthouse, that leads Watts to an island where there has been a lot of tragedy.

The Ring is one of the more effective horror films of this century, and it does it without much gore, sex or profanity, which is how I could show it to my students. Verbinski and his team are successful in creating such a sense of dread that anything can set one off. I particularly liked the use of a lone tree set against the sky, and the almost constant presence of rain (probably why it was set in Seattle). The video in question is also quite creepy, especially when the woman Anna Morgan looks at the camera while facing a mirror.

Watts, who is one of my favorite actresses, finds the right balance of incredulity and dogged persistence, and then amps it up after her son watches the tape. Brian Cox has two scenes, one of them quite shocking, and is his usual reliable self.

When everything seems to be over, and the mystery is solved, there is another scene, a masterpiece of fright, when the little girl climbs out of the well and comes right through the TV set. It has such resonance in today's pop culture that a sequel of sort was released a few weeks ago and a prank was pulled in an electronics store, with a girl dressed like "Samara" seemed to pop out of a TV set.

Of course, given the quick obsolescence of video, nobody is going to die these days. There are no VCRs to play the damn thing.