Friday, April 18, 2014

Robo-calls

 
Thanks to Edward Snowden, we now have some idea of how awesome the NSA’s power is. The spooks there and at the CIA can monitor every phone call we make, every e-mail we write.  If we “like” something on Facebook, or buy something on Amazon, or search for something on Google, chances are that someone somewhere will know it.

So why can’t our government, which certainly has the technology, protect us from robo-calls?

Today I received about four or five of these calls, from, according to my caller ID, “Out of Area,” “Anonymous,” “800 Service” and other aliases.  I didn’t answer any of these calls, but sometimes I search the calling number on-line and read angry reports from dozens of people, some of whom took the trouble to identify the callers, many of whom are political parties.  Therein lies the tale.

When politicians authorized the FCC to give us the Do Not Call Registry, which presumably shields us from such garbage, they exempted certain classes of callers from the DNC embargo. Among these are charities and (surprise, surprise) politicians and political parties.  The Do Not Call Registry is aimed at telemarketers, not politicians – which happen to comprise most of the calls we get these days.

Thus we are protected from the private sector, but not from the public sector. Hmmm. The Do Not Call Registry offers no protection whatsoever from the Democratic or Republican National Committee, individual office-seekers, Citizens United, and advocates who just want to talk to you about ObamaCare.  

Some people answer these calls, bent on chewing out the callers. Others leave the phone off-hook until the caller realizes he or she is being had.  Best bet is simply not to answer.  Picking up the phone simply verifies that your phone number is good. Moreover, some calls, which may be from overseas, initiate a scam designed to extract money from your bank account.

Some phone services offer blocking programs that allegedly intercept designated calls and serve as your private do-not-call list.  But robo-callers are sneaky, changing their numbers periodically, so any list of blocked numbers could prove a moving target.

If you want to rid your life of these nuisance telephone calls, your first step should be to demand that your congressman eliminate the exemption that politicians, political parties, PACs, etc. enjoy in the law that authorizes the Do Not Call Registry.

Good luck with that.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

The Demalling of America

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Once upon a time, not so long ago, when you shopped for non-food items, you went to a mall. Malls were everywhere, often just a few miles apart, and your basic shopping decision was which mall to go to.  Now, if you haven’t noticed, things are different.  You buy things on-line – not everything, because that would trigger panic in the retail community, and there are no signs of panic.  But the trend is clear.

In Biddeford, a small city near here, a new mall opened a few years ago. It was the worst possible time to open a new mall, compounded by the fact that the mall was hopelessly misdesigned, with traffic patterns that defy motorists to choose the correct lanes to drive in.

So, in a breathtakingly short time, stores began failing. Lowe’s and a Best Buy, both large stores, were among the first to fold, but they were not the only casualties. Several restaurants closed or were sold to new franchisees.  A Market Basket supermarket replaced Lowe’s, undaunted by the existence of three supermarkets nearby – including a Super Wal-Mart and a Shaw’s within a half mile. A Target store still stands hopefully in the mall, next to the vacant Best Buy, but few people expect it to become a mecca for shoppers.

I’m not picking on Biddeford Crossing. The same thing is happening across America.
There is a sea change underway in consumer shopping patterns. The old, brick-and-mortar stores are under siege, and it’s hard to see anything that can change the trend.  Those stores that have successfully added an on-line shopping option will do better, but the question remains: What will become of all that brick and mortar?

The effects of the demalling of America will be felt in many quarters, including employment (that new Market Basket, it is reported, employs 450 workers!) and investment. Best Buy and Target, notwithstanding recent bounces, sell for about 15 times earnings, while Amazon stock sells for 75 times 2015 earnings estimates! 

What will become of all that brick and mortar? Stores will fail, and malls will disappear. The process will be painful for many employees and investors, but it is inevitable. Technological change is often painful, but those who play it wisely will do well.

Monday, February 03, 2014

The Final Cut

The Final Cut, a compilation of blogs about the arts - books, movies, plays, music, etc. - has just been published. It's a 205-page paperback containing 64 mini-essays dating back to 2006. No politics, no memories of growing up in Dorchester, no travelogues, no sports talk, no discourses on the passing scene in Maine - just commentary on the arts, as watched, read, and listened to over a long lifetime. If this sounds like your thing, you might enjoy sharing the journey with me.  The book is available at www.lulu.com.

Monday, December 09, 2013

The Sound of (Live) Music



It has been four days since NBC presented a live performance of The Sound of Music, time enough for all the critics to lambast Carrie Underwood because she isn’t Julie Andrews and to lament the play’s cloying sentimentality.  Enough, already.  Someone should speak up for the production, which, despite a few shortcomings, was a high-quality rendition of a high-quality musical.  And Carrie Underwood should hold her head high; she was an excellent Maria.  As a matter of fact, hearing that the network was planning to air a live performance, I sensed a disaster in the wings, but I needn’t have worried. NBC pulled it off with flying colors.

First, the material:  This Sound of Music was not based on the movie, which everybody has seen, but on the Broadway musical, which relatively few people now alive have seen. That play opened on November 16, 1959, ran for 1433 performances, and won mostly rave reviews, especially for Mary Martin, its star. (Theodore Bikel was the baron.) At least two of the songs were not used in the 1965 blockbuster movie: but were fortunately resurrected for the NBC production: “No Way to Stop It” and “How Can Love Survive?”  For the broadcast, the producers also decided to use one song written specially for the movie:  the lovely “Something  Good.”  

As I said, most critics loved the play. Frank Aston of the World-Telegram called it “The loveliest musical imaginable,” and Richard Watts of the Post wrote that the “show has a warm-hearted, unashamedly sentimental, and strangely gentle charm that is wonderfully endearing.” The raves are worth noting, because the movie, so beloved by the public, has become a favorite piñata of the critics, who routinely savage its sentimentality (The Sound of Mucus).

The cast:  It was up to Carrie Underwood to carry the production, just as it was up to Mary Martin and Julie Andrews, and Ms Underwood did far better than one could reasonably expect, given her limited dramatic experience. She looked right, and that alone put her on second base. Add a fine voice, and that put her on third.  There was not a flat note (none that I could detect, anyway) and not a jarring  line or reaction. No, she’s not Julie Andrews (who is?), but remember that if Julie flubbed a line or didn’t hit a note right, why, they simply shot it over, as many times as necessary, until it was perfect.  As for Mary Martin, she was 46 (!) when she played Maria, and she had decades of stage experience behind her.

The supporting cast was excellent, notably including Laura Benanti as Elsa Schrader.  Laura is a real singer and played the role with warmth and wit. (Eleanor Parker, the movie’s Frau Schrader, was edgier and did no singing.) Christian Borle was a fine Max Detweiler (the impresario), particularly when singing with Laura Benanti, and the children were adorable – and good singers, to boot. If there was a weak link it was the baron. Stephen Moyer was stiff and sang poorly. He looked the part, and that must have landed him the job.  But that only got him to second base, where, alas, he died.  Audra McDonald, as the Mother Superior, was formidable, as she always is.

The interior sets were well executed.  As for the exteriors (the Austrian Alps), they were embarrassingly bad, although I don’t know how they could have finessed that except by bringing in video of the real Alps or resorting to computer graphics – both of which would have brought howls from viewers who were promised a live production.  In 1959, faux mountains probably didn’t matter, but expectations have been inflated since then.

Carrie Underwood is 30 now – the same age Julie Andrews was when she made The Movie. Let’s hope Carrie’s career has the same kind of arc that Julie’s had. And let’s hope that NBC doesn’t let the naysayers keep it from televising more live musicals.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Company


This week PBS brought us a concert version of Sondheim’s Company.  While I am always glad to see Broadway musicals on television, I am afraid that this one was a misfire.  Not that the audience at Avery Fisher Hall didn’t enjoy it; they lapped it up. The play is a favorite of high schools, colleges, and community theaters, partly because it is easy to stage, partly because the material has a gloss of sophistication that is appealing to many.

Company has never been one of my Sondheim favorites. The problem is the book, by George Furth.  The story line, if you don’t know, is bookended between two scenes of a surprise birthday party for Bobby, a 35-year-old bachelor surrounded by married couples who are (1) trapped in a state of marital warfare and (2) preoccupied with Bobby’s singleness.  Bobby also has a few girlfriends who float in and out of the play.  The problem with the book is its shallowness, disguised by a lot of snappy one-liners, some funny, some not.  Sample: One of Bobby’s girlfriends says, “He’s from New York; he’s not interested in anything.”  The audience, made up of people presumably from New York, roared with laughter. 

The music is brittle and the lyrics are very clever, both characteristics typical of Sondheim’s work. One can imagine that the composer/lyricist was right at home with Furth’s book, for Sondheim is the master of nihilism, and nihilism is overflowing in Company. The orchestra, a slimmed down New York Philharmonic conducted by Broadway old-hand Paul Gemignani, was fine. It was highly visible on stage, as is the custom in concert productions. 

Bobby, in Furth’s book, is essentially a straight man for the husbands and wives and girlfriends who surround him.  A successful performance, therefore, depends entirely on the ability of Bobby to be a sympathetic character whom one cares about.  That brings me to the second weakness of the PBS production: the cast.  Bobby was played by Neil Patrick Harris, a television actor who has some talent (on display when he emceed the Tony Awards) but not the presence that makes you really care – or understand why his married friends care two hoots if he gets married or not.

The supporting cast was also made up of people who owe their celebrity mostly to television - Stephen Colbert from the Comedy Channel, Christina Hendricks  from Mad Men, etc. The only one with Broadway bona fides was Patti LuPone.  It’s not that television is inherently inferior to the legitimate stage, but someone who has acted on Broadway for years has a way of moving and talking that sets him or her apart – as Patti LuPone amply demonstrated in this production. Colbert was solid, and Hendricks was very good, but neither they nor others had to demonstrate the talents usually associated with musical theater.  And Neil Patrick Harris lacked the voice that might have offset his lack of personal magnetism. Harris’s voice was especially inadequate in Bobby’s closing song of redemption, “Being Alive.”

But, all that notwithstanding, we should rejoice that any Broadway musical – even a weak one like this – makes it into our living rooms. Now we can wait, with great anticipation, for Oklahoma!, starring a young Hugh Jackman,  which will be shown on Great Performances on November 15.  This one, probably inspired by the fact that it has been 70 years since the landmark musical opened on Broadway, is not to be missed.



Saturday, August 17, 2013

Hobson's Choice (The Ballet)



Hobson’s Choice is chiefly remembered today as a very good old (1954) movie starring Charles Laughton.  But there is also a ballet based on the same turn-of the-century play, and if you like ballet – if even if you don’t – you might seek it out.  It will open your eyes and ears.

The ballet is by David Bintley, and the music was composed by Paul Reade. The only performance that was recorded, as far as I know, is by the Birmingham Royal Ballet Company in 1992, and I believe it is available. (I taped it when it was broadcast on Bravo a long time ago.)

The story: Hobson, a bootmaker, has three daughters who run the shop under their father’s iron hand. Hobson is irresponsible and an alcoholic, and the shop survives only through the hard work of the bootmaker Will Mossop, who labors unseen and unrewarded.  Hobson dominates his daughters, for whom marriage is out of the question. But the oldest daughter, Maggie, has an independent streak, as well as an eye for Will Mossop. I will reveal no more, other than to say that the story ends happily.

The principal dancers are Michael O’Hare (Will Mossop) and Karen Donovan (Maggie), and they are excellent. Hobson is played by Desmond Kelly, a veteran dancer who is also the production’s ballet master. 

The music is beautiful. Composer Reade has chosen to interpolate an old song, Lily of Laguna, which adds greatly to a pivotal scene. The orchestrations make full use of the large Royal Ballet Orchestra; in fact, the audio quality of the recording exceeds the video quality – a reflection of the state of technology in 1992.

I know next to nothing about ballet, but I know what I like, and I like David Bintley’s ballet very much.  If you’re interested, you can sample a bit of it by searching YouTube. 

Friday, August 16, 2013

The Billionaire's Apprentice


 
The subtitle of this book gives away the content: “The Rise of the Indian-American Elite and the Fall of the Galleon Hedge Fund”.  The author is Anita Raghavan, a Malaysian woman who spent 18 years with the Wall Street Journal, then became the London Bureau Chief for Forbes.  Ms. Raghavan knows her subject, and her long book smothers you with facts, mostly about the bright but opportunity-starved youths from India who, after graduating from IIT (the India Institute of Technology), trekked to the Harvard Business School or Wharton and thence to Wall Street. Now, as the book shows, they are everywhere: investment banks, hedge funds, consultants and the SEC. They are the bad guys, but they are also the good guys who catch the bad guys.

The plot centers on Raj Rajaratnam (the billionaire), a securities analyst and the founder and leader of the Galleon Fund, a hugely successful hedge fund based in New York.  The Feds, suspecting that Galleon's traders are using inside information to give them an “edge” in stock trading, slowly but methodically built their case, using “willing cooperators” (tippers and tippees who traded information for softer sentences) and court-approved telephone wire taps. Eventually the net was closed, and Raj is now in jail. 

This should have been a great summer read, with cops, robbers, sex, money, etc. There are colorful characters, a Gatsbyesque milieu with lavish parties and international travel, an obsessive chief investigator (Indian, of course), and ambitious young women who feed Raj market-moving information. Unfortunately, though Ms Raghavan is probably a great reporter, she is not a skilled writer. A good editor might have helped. As it is, the story of the chase is interrupted too often by chapters about life in India. It is a sociological tract at war with a suspense story, and the suspense story loses.

So, unless you have a voyeur’s interest in watching Raj crash and burn or a lawyer’s interest in the construction of an insider-information case, you can skip the 425-page text (plus about 70 pages of notes) and open the Complete Short Stories of Evelyn Waugh, as I just did.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Page Eight


David Hare, who has been writing screenplays for a long time, has polished off a corker of a spy story, called Page Eight.  And it is timely, in the light of recent revelations that the American spooks at the NSA have been eavesdropping on the British spooks.  The movie, which was directed as well as written by Hare, benefits from a first-class cast, headed by Bill Nighy, who plays MI-5 analyst Johnny Worricker with his usual laconic persona – a perfect fit for this character.  Also in the cast are Michael Gambon, who plays MI-5’s Director General and Worricker’s mentor, and Ralph Fiennes, who plays the British Prime Minister. It will not spoil things if I tell you that the plot pivots on whether the PM knew about the Americans’ rendition of prisoners to countries known to tolerate torture.

Most of the male characters, especially Worricker and his boss, are decent human beings, while most of the baddies are female – particularly  Judy Davis, who is terrific as Jill Tankard, a colleague of Worricker’s at MI-5.  The dialog is crisp, a Hare staple, and the production values are good. In fact, one wonders why more wasn’t made of the film when it was released in 2011. Maybe Nighy wasn’t big enough a star to warrant major promotion; if Johnny Depp or George Clooney had played the lead there might have been more – but it wouldn’t have been nearly as good a movie.

As mentioned, there are several references to the sharing or nonsharing of intelligence between the American and British intelligence agencies, and Hare makes no bones about the realities of the situation. Intelligence people lie – that’s what they do, even to each other – and to think otherwise if plain foolish.  If Barack Obama summons the head of the CIA or NSA and asks him a straight question, will he get a truthful answer? Maybe, but one would be foolish to bet one’s life on it. The same is true the world over.

Sharing top billing with Nighy, for reasons unknown to me, is Rachel Weisz, who plays Nancy Pierpan, a neighbor of Worricker’s. She is the nearest thing to a romantic element the film offers, and her character adds little to the plot.  In fact, the pace quickens in the scenes at the offices of MI-5 and reaches a crescendo in the scene between Worricker and the Prime Minister.

Good spy dramas don’t need shootings or stabbings to keep you on the edge of your seat. What they need is believable characters who talk intelligently about subjects that  matter.  It helps if the central character is sympathetic and perceived to be in mortal danger.   Page Eight delivers on all counts.




Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Little Tin Box

Here's how to make a quick million. Of course, you have to be a U.S. Senator, but if you qualify, the rest is easy. Here's what you do:

On May 21, a senate subcommittee on which you serve is scheduled to grill Apple CEO Tim Cook about his Company's avoidance of income taxes. You, as a member of the subcommittee, have the opportunity to accuse Apple of shirking its moral duty to pay taxes on income derived overseas through the use of "loopholes." You will thus be able to act the patriot by beating up on "big business." Even before the hearing begins, it's clear that Apple stock is going to take a drubbing. The New York Times, in its front-page lead, headlines "BILLIONS IN TAXES AVOIDED BY APPLE, U.S. INQUIRY FINDS." Apple stock will take a drubbing. How can you translate that knowledge into profit?

Well, you could short the stock, but there's a better way to leverage a small amount of money into a huge profit. You buy puts - options to sell the stock at a higher price. It's important to cover your tracks here, so you have some relative buy them. Then, when the stock falls and the value of the puts rises, you close out your position and assume the role of a hero for having the nerve to attack a giant corporation.

In the first hour of trading on May 21, Apple stock falls 7-3/4 points. The puts soar, and you sell them at a handsome profit. As a United States senator, your conscience may not allow you to profit from the hearings. But can you say the same of all the members of your staff, your speechwriters, your researchers?

To my knowledge there has been no instance where a political leader or other government employee has been found guilty of using insider information. The Justice Department, the Food and Drug Administration, the SEC, and many other agencies employ thousands of people with privileged access to market-moving information - information on mergers or the approval or nonapproval of a drug, etc. But "insider information" cases all seem to be leveled at hedge-fund managers or other Wall Street types.

Maybe I'm being too hard of the pols. Maybe most of them are wealthy because they collected bottles and saved the deposits in a little tin box, as a song in an old musical suggested. But I wonder.

Friday, May 17, 2013

A Carousel for the Ages



Late in April, PBS broadcast a concert version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Carousel.  I have seen several productions of Carousel and, like many, I regard it as Rodgers’s finest score and Hammerstein’s most soaring poetry. But I have never heard a Carousel so musically rich or so well sung as this one. For those who treasure music rather than stagecraft it will stand as the definitive Carousel for a long time.

First, the leads.  Nathan Gunn was Billy Bigelow, the rough-edged carousel barker. Gunn has one of the strongest, truest voices in the world of opera, and he is equally at home in musical theater. (He also sings in the definitive CD of another Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, Allegro.)  His Soliloquy is on a par with John Raitt’s, which is saying a lot, and his duet with Julie, If I Loved You, is riveting.

Julie is played by Kelli O’Hara, who is perfection as Julie Jordan. Whenever I think of Carousel in the future, I will conjure up a mental picture of Kelli O’Hara.  The make-up crew and wigmaker deserve a special award, so absolutely right does she look – and act, with beautifully expressive eyes revealing a deep love for the caddish Billy. Musically, she is terrific. In fact, I have never heard Kelli O’Hara sing as well as she does here.

Since in this play the music is the thing, it must be stated here and now that Carousel deserves nothing less than the New York Philharmonic. To play that overture with a pit orchestra should be a mortal sin.  This orchestra, with Rob Fisher conducting, is heaven to listen to.

The supporting cast is fine. Opera’s Stephanie Blythe as cousin Netty sings June is Busting Out All Over with gusto and is thrilling in everybody's favorite anthem, You’ll Never Walk Alone.  Enoch Snow and Carrie Pipperidge are played by Jason Danieley and Jessie Mueller, and, while the comedic touches one associates with these characters are missing, both are in fine voice.  Kate Burton makes the most of her small but key role as carousel owner Mrs. Mullen, and special mention must be made of Shuler Hensley, who plays the role of Jigger, Billy’s partner in crime. It’s not easy to play a bad guy and a comic character simultaneously, but Shuler pulls it off – and sings well, too.  And John Cullum must be just the kind of star-keeper Oscar Hammerstein had in mind when he wrote the final scenes.

As you probably know, the plot of Carousel is derived from Molnar’s Liliom.  Rodgers and Hammerstein made major plot alterations, principally to move the story to New England and to brighten the ending, but Molnar deserves credit; without his approval, we would be deprived of what Time called the greatest musical of the twentieth century.

The staging is arranged so that the ensemble comes and goes through the same space that the orchestra inhabits, a device that somehow forces you to remain aware of the wonderful Don Walker arrangements and the artistry of the Philharmonic. 

All told, this is the finest production in the Live at Lincoln Center series I have ever seen, and we are indebted to those who made it possible..

Sunday, May 05, 2013

The Next Cold War



The so-called “Cold War” between the United States and the Soviet Union was a triumph, maybe of diplomacy, maybe of luck, but whatever it was, it was historic. Never before had two mighty powers armed to the teeth without eventually going to war. When my wife and I were first married and looking for our first house, we saw more than a few with bomb shelters.  Nike batteries were underground in the Boston suburbs, ready to fire. (At the time, the comic novel Rally ‘Round the Flag, Boys spoofed a missile battery in suburban Connecticut, with the climax of the send-up describing an accidental firing on the Fourth of July while the crowds of locals went “oooh” at the explosions overhead.)  The Cuban missile crisis sent thousands scurrying to hardware stores to stock up on whatever they thought they’d need when the nukes hit.  There was real tension in the air in those days, but the nuclear weapons stayed safely in the caves in the USA and the USSR until, unbelievably, there was no more USSR, and the Cold War was over.

Today, there is no military power that threatens another Cold War. China? No. There will be tensions from time to time, but the USA and China are too interdependent We need each other. Globalization is here, whether we like it or not. (Did you know that 61 percent of Apple’s revenues come from outside the U.S.?)

The emerging threat to our safety comes, not from countries, but from small groups of ideologues who learn how to make bombs on websites.  The Boston Marathon disaster was really too easy to pull off.  Two brothers taking out their grievances by setting off two homemade bombs on a bright sunny day at Copley Square.  No TSA guards to inspect their shoes, no “no-fly” lists to navigate around. In an open society like ours, there’s nothing we can do to stop it. We can find out who did it after the fact; cameras are everywhere. But we can’t stop it.

The answer, I’m afraid, is that we’re going to become a less open society.  And when critics complain, the answer will be two words: “Homeland Security.”  It’s unfortunate, but the genie is out of the bottle. There are lots of people with grievances they feel passionate about. Some are on the right politically, some are on the left, some are angry over joblessness or high taxes or immigration reform or moral decay or whatever. But here's the thing: Too many people are too angry. I get forwarded emails and robocalls, maybe half a dozen a day, every day, and most are really angry. It's time for someone in authority to shout

                                                             COOL IT!!!

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Cloudstreet



It has been over 30 years since I first saw the Granada miniseries Brideshead Revisited, and ever since then I have considered it the finest drama ever produced for television. I still do. The writing (much of it lifted directly from Evelyn Waugh’s novel), the acting, the photography, the direction, the music were all, as the British would say, top-shelf, and I have never questioned my original assessment of it as the best.  There have been flashes of brilliance in other dramatic series, but, taken as a whole, nothing compares with Brideshead.  But I have just seen a six-part miniseries that comes very close.  And the chances are that you’ve never heard of it.

The series is called Cloudstreet, and the DVD is available, although it has yet to be seen on American TV.  The production is from Australia and is based on a much-acclaimed (in Australia) novel by Tim Winton.  It has nothing in common with Brideshead except the quality of the story and the wizardry of the casting and direction and acting.  It probably will not satisfy all tastes, but it certainly satisfied mine.

The story involves two families in Western Australia in the 40s and 50s.  They are the Lambs and the Pickles, both hit by the depression and by tragedy.  Sam Pickles has lost the fingers of one hand in an accident, and the Lambs’ youngest son has nearly drowned and is as a result retarded.  Sam Pickles inherits a large but ramshackle house near Perth and looks for a family of tenants to share in the upkeep. Enter the Lambs.  The spine of the story is the relationship of the two families as the years pass.  But it is most assuredly not a soap opera.  “It is a story about life,” says the book’s author, simply.

Promising as the story is, it is the artistry of the director (Matthew Saville) that produces the magic that we see unfold in the DVD. That plus the casting. The acting is absolutely flawless, and it is all the more striking to an American viewer because the Australian cast is unfamiliar.  There is not a weak link in the bunch. 

How can Australia, which has fewer people than Texas, produce such a beautifully crafted television drama?  Years ago, the country gave us A Town Like Alice, an excellent series based on a Nevil Shute novel, but that was 1981 (the same year that gave us Brideshead).  Maybe there were other great dramas from Down Under, and I just haven’t been paying attention, but I doubt it. But I certainly will be watching from now on, and I have marked Matthew Saville as a name to be reckoned with.

You are unlikely to see Cloudstreet on Masterpiece Theater.  The series has several sexually explicit scenes and some four-letter words, and the Aussies would probably not tolerate heavy-handing editing.  Too bad; such quality television deserves a large audience.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Falkland Islands



The  accession of Cardinal Bergoglio to the Papacy has turned the world’s attention to Argentina, and thus to the ongoing dispute between Argentina and Great Britain over the ownership of the Falkland Islands.  Adding to the turmoil, the population of the islands recently voted overwhelmingly to remain British. (The vote was 1514 to 3, of a total turnout of 92%.)  That doesn’t matter, huffed the President of Argentina, comparing the plebiscite to squatters voting to continue living in a building.  (Well, yes, but what if the squatters lived in the building for 160 years?)  Anyhow, most Argentinians seem to agree with their President; 59% in a recent poll thought the Falklanders should have no say in the matter.

The temperature seems to be rising. Most other South American nations agree with Argentina, though everyone agrees that the vote was free and fair.  Argentina holds strong cards, including the threat to close its ports to ships calling at the Falklands.  Apparently the Falklanders don’t take kindly to such threats, even in the face of growing isolation and financial hardship.

The Falklands are a pretty place. Jill and I visited the capital, Port Stanley, in 1998. The photo above was shot on that memorable visit. (The Economist calls the Falklands “the sparsely populated islands, which lack paved roads.” The writer has apparently never been to Port Stanley.)  The town was proudly British, with shops selling tea and woolen sweaters and tidy houses sporting flowered window boxes. Occasionally an RAF jet would shoot by, having taken off from the air base that serves as the Falkland’s principal link to far-off England.

In 1982, a war was fought between Great Britain and Argentina over the ownership of the islands. It was brief (two months), but there were over 2700 casualties, two-thirds from Argentina.  Could it happen again?  Before you answer, consider this: Could the U.S., still smarting from the cost of Iraq and Afghanistan, embark on a war with Iran or Syria?

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Rules of Civility



The novel is Amor Towle’s first, and it’s a most impressive debut.  Written in the first person, it’s a story told, mostly in flashback, by Katie Kontent.  As the novel  opens, Katie and her husband are touring an exhibition of photographs taken on the New York subway in the 1930s.  The subway riders wear faces of urban boredom, which is the point.  Katie thinks one of the faces is familiar, then she sees him again in another photograph.  Now she is sure: It is Tinker Grey.  Her husband confirms it, Katie’s memory takes over, and the novel is launched.  

This is a New York novel, with more than a hint of Scott Fitzgerald and the New York novels of Dawn Powell. Manhattan in the late 30s.  Most of the characters are well insulated from the Depression, privileged people with pieds-a-terre in Manhattan and big homes on Long Island.  Katie is a working girl, most definitely on the outer fringes of society, but she and her friend Eve parlay good looks and sharp wit to worm their way into the inner circle.  Tinker Grey is at the center of this circle, along with various friends that inhabit the social stratosphere.

The author is a literary stylist, and a damned good one.  A graduate of Yale and Stanford, he is a principal of a New York investment firm.  For a male writer to channel a female memoirist is no small trick, but Towles pulls it off convincingly. 

Katie is the kind of a girl that today’s television would build a sitcom around.  She has pithy one-liners galore, and she attracts not only men but women, who collide with her a little too often, given the population of 1938 Manhattan. (“Katie? Katie Kontent? Is that you?”)

The title refers to a list of 110 rules of civilized behavior, as drafted by a young George Washington, and printed in an appendix. (No. 65: Speak not injurious Words neither in Jest nor Earnest. Scoff at none although they give Occasion.)  The list of rules has relevance to the plot, but I should tell you no more.

Monday, February 18, 2013

The Vast AM and FM Wasteland



In this area, there used to be two FM stations that broadcast classical music:  the local “W-BACH," which serenaded me to sleep each night, and the NPR station, whose outlets were scattered around the State and which intermixed classical music with jazz and news and word games.  Now classical music is gone, gone, gone. You can find country music and Latino music and hard and soft rock.  You can find, on the AM and FM dials, political talk and sports talk and call-in talk, which is whatever idiotic subject Joe Sixpack wants to vent about. But you cannot find Beethoven or Mahler or Mozart. For that matter, you cannot even find Jerome Kern or Richard Rodgers or George Gershwin.

It is just as bad on the road, for the high-fidelity radio in my car carries nothing but low-fidelity content.   So I depend on CDs for good music.  At night, an iHome and an iPod stocked with show tunes and classical music soothes me to sleep.  So all is well, except for one thing:  If the roughly 40 commercial radio stations within range deliver nothing but inane chatter and rock, who needs them? Fewer and fewer of us, I’ll bet, as more and more of us listen to CDs and iPods.  The radio is useful for news and weather and sports, but you need only two or three stations for that, not 40.  As for music, it’s all the same, a waste of precious bandwidth.

Right now, as I am typing this, I am listening to Jean-Yves Thibaudet playing Gershwin’s Concerto in F with the New York Philharmonic.  The concert was broadcast New Year’s Eve, and I recorded it on DVD.  It’s gorgeous music, and there are no commercials. If W-BACH were still in business, I’d probably have it playing. But it’s gone. The same fate awaits most of the stations on the AM and FM bands.

Monday, January 07, 2013

Two Hugo Movies



I saw two Hugo movies in the last few days.  One was Les Miserables, the musical based on Victor Hugo’s classic novel. The other was Martin Scorsese’s  Hugo, a fantasy based on Brian Selznick’s children’s book.  Both were terrific.

Les Miserables

Les Miserables, popularly called Les Miz, is the most successful musical-theater production of all time, and its transfer to the big screen has been eagerly awaited.  The wait was worth it.   Hugh Jackman, as the hero Jean Valjean, is simply marvelous.  The Australian is of course no stranger to the musical theater, but his past successes do not prepare you for his performance in Les Miz. He is a certain contender (if there is any justice) for a best actor Oscar. 

One of the best roles the musical theater has to offer is that of Jean Valjean’s stalker, the policeman Javert, and once again Hollywood chose box-office appeal rather than talent. Not that Russell Crowe can’t act; he is in fact an excellent actor, but he is no singer, so Javert’s dramatic soliloquy Stars does not get the show-stopping treatment it deserves.  It is an infuriating miss, reminiscent of Hollywood’s choice of Rosalind Russell over Ethel Merman in Gypsy or its snub of Julie Andrews in My Fair Lady.

Anne Hathaway, not known as a singer, handles her songs very well, and her acting has earned her widespread praise. Amanda Seyfried plays Cosette rather woodenly.  Speaking of wood, Helena Bonham Carter plays Madame Thenardier.  Her husband, the “master of the house,” is played adequately by Sacha Baron Cohen.

The real star, aside from Hugh Jackman, is the material.  The book is the most moving piece of fiction I have ever read, and the score is stunning. (The same composer gave us Miss Saigon, whose score is almost as good.)  Bottom line: Despite the shortcomings, this motion picture is well worth seeing.

Hugo

In my opinion, Hugo is Martin Scrosese’s masterpiece.   This is the tale of a young boy (Hugo) who tends the big clock in a Paris railroad station, after the deaths of his father, a mechanical whiz, and his uncle, a drunkard.  Hugo lives in the dark recesses of the station,  where he must avoid the clutches of the gendarme (Sacha Baron Cohen),  who sweeps boys like Hugo into the orphanage.  Hugo, who has inherited his father’s love of machinery, works on an automaton left by his father – an automaton, Hugo believes, which holds an important message.

In the station is a toy shop, whose owner is a misanthrope (Ben Kingsley) who, it turns out, once was a movie pioneer. There are thus two story threads, one involving the boy and his automaton, one involving the earliest days of movies, and the two threads merge in a conclusion that is wholly satisfying.  The movie is, in a word, wonderful. The recreation of 1930’s Paris is staggeringly beautiful. (One can see why the film cost $170 million to produce.) The acting is topnotch, as are the cinematography, the music, and, most of all, the charming story.  A plus: It is a film that families can enjoy together. Now, how many Martin Scorsese movies can you say that about?

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Bloomer Girl, Dearest Enemy



Santa, who knows my passions, gave me two videos that I cherish.  One is the Rodgers & Hart musical Dearest Enemy, the other is Bloomer Girl, written by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg.  Both shows were television productions, in 1955 and 1956.  They are black and white videos, and the technical quality is, well, primitive. But the material! Let me tell you about them.

Both are set against the definitive wars of our country. The American Revolution supplies the plot for Dearest Enemy, which opened in 1925, just months after the Rodgers & Hart breakthrough review, The Garrick Gaieties.  Dearest Enemy was thus the first book musical written by the pair of youngsters. (Rodgers was only 23.) The story line: General Howe and his contingent of British soldiers are bent on capturing George Washington, who is planning to rendezvous with one of his officers. The British are staying at the New York inn of Mrs. Murray, and Mrs. Murray and the other women at the inn contrive to detain the British long enough to spoil their plan. You can fill in the blanks. The romantic leads are played by Robert Sterling (a British officer) and Anne Jeffreys (one of the American contrivers).  The comic relief is furnished by two old pros, Cyril Ritchard as General Howe and Cornelia Otis Skinner as Mrs. Murray. Only one song had lasting popularity: Here in My Arms.  Here’s a Kiss gave a hint of the melodic treasures that Rodgers would give us over the decades to come, and Cheerio and Sweet Peter (Stuyvesant) were good  novelty songs. The show was telecast (live, of course) on November 26, 1955.  The credits include co-scripter Neil Simon and producer Max Liebman, best remembered today (by those old enough) as the creator of Your Show of Shows.

The other video, Bloomer Girl, is one of the great musicals of the 40s.  Composer Harold Arlen and lyricist “Yip” Harburg had teamed up five years earlier to give the world the score for The Wizard of Oz, and the two outdid themselves in Bloomer Girl, with one blockbuster song after another, including Evelina, The Eagle and Me, Right as the Rain, When the Boys Come Home, and Sunday at Cicero Falls (with the memorable line “virtue is its own revenge”).  The television cast is top-drawer, headed by Barbara Cook (pre-Marian the Librarian, pre-Cunegonde), with Keith Andes, Carmen Mathews, and Paul Ford providing strong support.  Agnes DeMille  staged the dances, and four of the dancers were in the original cast in 1944. (The television production was aired on May 28, 1956.) The title refers to the women’s campaign to replace hoop skirts with bloomers, but the weightier theme is the country’s schism over slavery. Harburg, always an ardent liberal, wrote one of his best lyrics for The Eagle and Me. (“What makes the gopher leave its hole, trembling with fear and fright?  Maybe the gopher’s got a soul, wanting to see the light…”)  This is a more serious play than Dearest Enemy, but it is still a musical comedy.  There is a war in the wings in both plays, but not a drop of blood is spilled in either.

Any lover of musicals will value the chance to see these telecasts – the only surviving record of either play. It is hard to understand how Arthur Freed let Bloomer Girl escape the MGM treatment.

When watching these grainy kinescopes, it is easy to cluck at the their technical shortcomings. But wait.  Viewers in 1955 and 1956 may not have had Blue Ray or Surround Sound, but they could watch good studio productions of important musicals. What do we have in their place?  Two and a Half Men?  CSI?  People 50 years ago could watch good variety shows, with Jackie Gleason, Sid Caesar, Carol Burnett.  They had The Bell Telephone Hour, Playhouse 90, Studio One. We have big, flat screens – and very little of quality on them.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Newtown, CT



The simplest course for President Obama is to make some nice speeches – as his predecessors have in similar circumstances – and hope that other problems take people’s minds off Newtown, Connecticut.  There is no shortage of other problems.  In a pre-election blog we wrote that, given the state of the country and the world, the winner of the election might be the real loser.  Tonight, as he ponders the wisdom of taking on the NRA, he may wish Romney had won.

But that would be wrong.  He could be the right man in the presidency at the right time.  For if the massacre of 20 little children can’t move this nation to end its gun culture, then nothing can.  If Obama, one of our most gifted orators, can’t move the public to demand tough federal gun-control laws, then no one can.

 The NRA is politically very powerful, with many Congressional allies.  For any politician, a cardinal rule of self-preservation is: Don’t upset the NRA.  Yet the NRA has 4.3 million members. That means that there are about 296 million people in the United States who are not members of the NRA.  How many of those 296 million believe that this nation, more than any other developed country, has tolerated for far too long an obsession with guns – not the kind one hunts with, but the kind that is manufactured for one purpose and one purpose only:  to kill other human beings, as many as possible in the shortest possible time?

In the eighteenth century this country’s founders crafted the second amendment as a counterweight to an oppressive government, and many believe that freedom to bear arms is still our best defense against tyranny.  But that’s nonsense. We live in an age of drones and wiretaps and security cameras and Navy Seals and the CIA.  Does anyone really think that a stash of firearms will defend him and his family against a rogue government? 

It is time to outlaw the private possession of automatic weapons and to require a background check before issuance of a gun permit.  If the NRA is smart, they will take the lead in the movement to enact sensible gun laws.  But if they do not, they will incur the public scorn they will deserve.  It is all up to Barack Obama.  In the weeks ahead, we are going to find out what kind of a leader we have elected.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Old Movies Recently Watched


 
Avanti!

One of my all-time favorites, this was Billy Wilder’s best movie, much better than Some Like it Hot. If you haven’t seen it, you’re in for a treat.  A wonderful plot for an off-beat romantic comedy, starring Jack Lemmon and Juliet Mills, with the incomparable Clive Revill and a host of wonderful Italian character actors lending support.  It was filmed on the Italian island of Ischia and released in 1972.  As the movie opens, executive Wendell Armbruster Jr. is boarding an Al Italia flight for Italy to claim the body of his father and return it to Baltimore for a huge funeral, to be attended by everybody who is anybody in 1972, including Henry Kissinger and Billy Graham. To tell you more would be criminal.  By all means see it.

Pride and Prejudice

The 1940 film starred Green Garson as Elizabeth Bennett and Laurence Olivier as Darcy. Squeezing the story into two hours required some compromises, which limit the impact of this one and the 2005 film starring Kiera Knightly.  Still, if you have only two hours, the 1940 black-and-white film is the better movie.  Most Jane Austen aficionados (like me) prefer the 1995 miniseries starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle.  A special delight is David Bamber’s portrayal of Mr. Collins. But my favorite production of an Austen novel is the 2008 miniseries

Sense and Sensibility

which is outstanding.  Hattie Morahan (sense) gives what may be the truest depiction of an Austen heroine that I’ve ever seen, and Charity Wakefield is almost as good as Marianne, her sister (sensibility). A bonus, for Downton Abbey fans, is the opportunity to see Dan Stevens before he was Matthew Crawley.  This is a first-class production, with good writing (Andrew Davies), excellent acting, and beautiful scenery.  Best of all, it ties everything up in three one-hour episodes.

Woman Times Seven

Speaking of Downton Abbey, which adds Shirley MacLain to the cast in Season 3, those who want to see Shirley as she was in 1967 might sample this series of seven short stories, all starring Ms MacLain. Only two of the seven are worth your time – the first, co-starring Peter Sellers, and one other, featuring MacLain as a Parisian grande dame who is infuriated to find that the dress she plans to wear to the Paris Opera has been copied by a rival. The entire movie was filmed in Paris. A much better look at la MacLain in her youth is The Apartment, filmed in 1960.

Romantics Anonymous
Death at a Funeral

By no means a memorable movie, Romantics Anonymous is a harmless way to spend an hour and a half. It is a French romantic comedy about two socially inept people, one of whom, the lady, works at a failing chocolate factory run by a man even more socially awkward than the lady.  Death at a Funeral is a British farce starring Matthew Macfadyen. It has some hilarious moments, but not enough of them to warrant my recommendation.

Bottom line: See Avanti! and the 2008 miniseries Sense and Sensibility.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Millionaires and Billionaires

 
President Obama wants to raise taxes on the “millionaires and billionaires” he railed against in his campaign.  So he targets those people who earn more than $200,000 a year in the  income-tax revamp he proposes, thereby conflating those “fat cats” with the millionaires and billionaires of his wrath.  A lot of people in New York City and Los Angeles (ironically, two of the bluest cities in America) must be wondering what their idol is smoking.

If you are a single filer in New York who is earning $200,000 a year, you probably don’t feel like a fat cat.  After paying State, City, and Federal taxes, there’s not much left.  $200,000 may be a comfortable wage in Wyoming, but it almost qualifies you for food stamps in Manhattan.  (Hey, here’s an idea that some legislators could embrace: Make income tax rates depend on where you live.)

There’s another problem:  Once inflation starts to roll, $200,000 will not seem like so much. In fact, the median income could quickly rise to six figures, and the tax meant to nail fat cats (like the Alternative Minimum Tax) will start hitting Joe Six-Pack.

Attempts to avoid the “fiscal cliff” may force Obama to swallow a higher break point – say $500,000.  New York legislators, worried that legions of executives will flee the Big Apple, may join Republicans in pleading the case for the $200,000 billionaires.  After all, New York is Obama country.  In Wyoming, he got only 28 percent of the vote.