Movies: A QUIET PASSION and THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE

A QUIET PASSION tells the story of poet Emily Dickinson.

A QUIET PASSION tells the story of poet Emily Dickinson.  It’s a visually beautiful movie.  If you enjoy costume dramas, you’ll love it, set as it is in the time period before and after the Civil War.

But if you walked into the movie not knowing too much about Emily Dickinson, as I did, this film may very well leave you with more questions about her life than answers.  It seemed to leave some essential something about the story out.  Apparently Emily, played by Cynthia Nixon, lived in a college town, though that was never illustrated.  She said she was too devoted to her family to ever want to marry, yet while they got along well, at least most of the time, they didn’t seem to be so wonderful that a gal would want to stay with them forever.

Apparently, I just found out, Emily was increasingly reclusive, though I also didn’t fully realize that while watching the movie; in it she seemed to circulate, though not particularly widely, until she became ill, when it wasn’t practical to do so.  How many women in the 1800’s went all over the place, though?  If I was supposed to realize she had an aversion to leaving the house, all I can say is that I didn’t.

Emily also had a lot of doubts about religion, God, souls, and so on, and didn’t want to attend church – which in those days was considered scandalous – yet did an about-face about religion and propriety when her married brother had a flirtation with a married woman.

I was left sitting there, during several scenes, just wondering, “Huh?”

On the other hand, a friend who does know a lot about Emily Dickinson was with me at the theater, thought the movie was wonderful, informative, fantastic, and wanted to go back and see it again!

THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE, on the other hand, makes a lot more sense.  Jessica Chastain has the title role in a movie based on the true story of a zookeeper and his wife who saved 300 Jews in Warsaw during the Holocaust.  And what a spread they had where they could hide them: an entire zoo!

This story follows the book of the same name very well, without too many Hollywood embellishments.  It mostly sticks to the facts, which are dramatic enough in themselves.  It was interesting on several levels: the animals, the rescuers, the hidden Jews, the bombings, the creepy Nazis and their menacing interactions with the Polish characters.  I especially enjoyed the llama who followed the zookeeper’s wife around the zoo when the animals were still in residence (before a Nazi removed most of them to his zoo in Munich) and a scene where Chastain assists in the birth of a baby elephant.

One problem with the movie: the English-speaking actors spoke their English lines with Polish accents.  At times, this made the dialogue hard to understand.  Having actors speak with heavy accents in Hollywood movies not set in America is a trend that I wish would lessen a bit: Hello, the audience can get it that the movie’s set in Poland without having to strain to decipher the words being said.

It’s still a good movie, and showcases a courageous couple.  THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE is worth seeing.

Jessica Chastain does a great job as THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE.

AMERICAN HEIRESS by Jeffrey Toobin

AMERICAN HEIRESS tells the bizarre story of the kidnapping of Patty Hearst.

Do you remember the Patty Hearst kidnapping?  I certainly do!  It happened while I was in the seventh grade, and it was the major news story of 1974, at least until Nixon resigned.  It got even more attention than the latest hilarious craze: streaking.  That kidnapping was a crazy story of countercultural revolutionaries run amok and had more twists and turns than a snake.

Patricia Hearst, grandchild of ultra-wealthy newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, was first kidnapped from her apartment by a group calling themselves the “Symbionese Liberation Army.”  It was an interesting title.  “Symbionese” is not a word, and that was one of the first things I remember hearing about the story after Patricia was taken.

What happened next, after Patricia was forcibly removed from her home at gunpoint, is still a source of some debate.  Her parents were instructed by the Symbionese Liberation Army to give food packages to the poor as a “good faith gesture” to ensure the 19-year-old’s release. Meanwhile, they kept Patricia locked in a closet, blindfolded, where she was justifiably terrified.  Some of the kidnappers took turns sitting outside of the closet door and subjected her to anti-American and Marxist harangues.  These were violent people, involved in not only this kidnapping but others, carjackings, bank robberies, and even a murder, yet they didn’t like “society” and wanted to “transform” it.  (Into what?)  Patricia, stuck in a closet, had no choice but to listen to this stream of nonsense.  Within a few weeks, the case took its first incomprehensible turn when Patricia claimed she had decided to join that “Army” of the people who had kidnapped her, and didn’t wish to be released.  What the…?

Even as it happened, the country was captivated by the seeming mystery of it.  I recall a very horrible tape playing on the radio of Patricia calling her parents “those pigs the Hearsts,” not long after they gave away a fortune in food to the poor to try to ensure her safe return.  I was twelve years old – and appalled.  Why would Patricia turn against her own parents, who had spent a fortune on the food giveaway in the hopes of “ransoming” her, and toward her kidnappers?  Why would she side with this spooky, shadowy Symbionese Liberation Army, anyway, after they burst into her house with a gun?  Did she really mean what she said, or was it possible that she had been brainwashed?

And just as the rest of us, all over the country, were wondering about those questions, the situation became even more convoluted about a month later: Patricia took the revolutionary name of “Tania,” then joined her new “comrades” in robbing a bank!  There was even a security tape to prove it.

Last weekend when I saw Jeffrey Toobin’s book,  AMERICAN HEIRESS: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patricia Hearst, had come out in paperback and was sitting on a table at my favorite Barnes & Noble, I eagerly bought it.  It’s an impeccably researched book – bravo, Mr. Toobin! – and brought back a flood of memories.  I can vividly recall reading about the case in a “Weekly Reader” in my mint-green-painted 7th grade Social Studies class, though I can’t remember much else of what we read that year in that little publication; seeing another article about it at my grandfather’s house, in a magazine that had Patricia as “Tania” on the cover, holding a gun; watching the news footage when a house that was surrounded by the FBI was burning down, with many of the “Army,” but not Patricia, still in it…

Nobody knew what to make of Patricia’s “transformation” into a “revolutionary” at the time, and no one is sure what to think about it even yet.  Yet Jeffrey Toobin’s book brings up a whole other mystery about the case of which I wasn’t aware until I read it.  The so-called “Symbionese Liberation Army” turned out to be comprised not of legions of units of soldiers but of eight young discontented assorted nuts.  There had been ten, but two were in jail for a murder they didn’t commit.  It was three of the members who kidnapped Patricia who were the real murderers.

These people were the oddest collection of malcontents imaginable.  The leader, for example, is a prison escapee, often drunk, who was believed to be a schizophrenic by a prison psychiatrist, so you can imagine what kind of people were his acolytes.  The descriptions of each one are fascinating to read, though reminiscent of watching a train wreck, where you don’t want to see it, but you can’t look away, either.  AMERICAN HEIRESS is a page-turner and a jaw-dropper.  What a cast of characters!  And after reading about the members of this, ahem, “army,” there’s a new riddle to add to all the others about the unreal saga, and it’s this.  How did those eight lunatics manage to summon the logic to pull off any crimes in the first place, with guns, yet, without anyone shooting themselves in the feet?

This book needs to be made into a movie!

Splendiferous Movie Recommendation: HIDDEN FIGURES

Janelle Monae, Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer star in HIDDEN FIGURES.

Janelle Monae, Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer star in HIDDEN FIGURES.

Would you like to see a movie that will make you stand up and cheer, and not just once, but several times?  Then I can’t recommend a better one than HIDDEN FIGURES!

It’s 1961, and the United States is in a mad competition with the Soviet Union to win the “space race.”  Far behind the scenes, three gutsy and incredibly gifted African American women are working as human “computers” at NASA in Virginia.  Their talents are being well utilized by the powers that be…but the unenlightened time period is such that the ladies, and the rest of their friends in the Computing division, are being subjected to one segregated indignity after another…

I never like to include “spoilers” in blog posts about shows and movies so I don’t want to say too much more about the plot of this wonderful and layered film, except that the three lead actresses are terrific.  Katherine, played by Taraji P. Henson, is a mathematical genius and also a widow raising three lovely little girls; that Janelle Monae, as Mary Jackson, dreams of becoming an engineer; and Dorothy Vaughan, played by Octavia Spencer, is already working as her unit’s unofficial supervisor but has yet to get officially promoted.  Oh, and in addition, they’re all part of the team at NASA that’s frantically trying to get a man on the moon…

I’m already planning  to see this movie again, I liked it so much.  HIDDEN FIGURES won the SAG Award for Best Ensemble Cast.  It’s also rightfully been nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, and so is Octavia Spencer, for Best Supporting Actress.  My only wish is that Taraji P. Henson and Janelle Monae  could have been nominated as well, because they were equally superb.  Kevin Costner is also fascinating to watch as Katherine’s initially-remote boss.

Meanwhile, get out of the house and go to see HIDDEN FIGURES.  These ladies will remind you that it’s always a good idea to reach for the stars!

Here’s the trailer: HIDDEN FIGURES

 

York Theater’s Fabulous Production of MILK & HONEY

MILK & HONEY at the York Theater's Musicals in Mufti Series: Mark Delavan, Anne Runolfsson, and the hilarious Alix Korey.

MILK & HONEY at the York Theater’s Musicals in Mufti Series: Mark Delavan, Anne Runolfsson, and the hilarious Alix Korey.

On Saturday night I got the treat of a lifetime: the chance, at long last, to see Jerry Herman’s musical about Israel, MILK & HONEY, performed in concert at York Theatre as part of their “Musicals in Mufti” series.  It’s a no-frills production without elaborate costumes or sets, but that only adds to the fun.

If you’ve read my blog this far, you already know what a fan I am of Jerry Herman’s wonderful, uplifting music.  MILK & HONEY was his very first Broadway score, and there’s songs in it that I have adored for years.  However, I never saw a production of the show before.  That’s because it was on Broadway the year I was born, and for some unfathomable reason, has never been revived since.

And that, my friends, fits my idea of nothing less than a crime, because this show needs to be seen, not relegated to the theatrical history books.

I was astounded by the show.  Jerry Herman’s work is always upbeat, and even in his first attempt he nailed it.  And how!

The plot revolves around a group of adorable American Jewish widows who land in Israel for a tour, circa 1961.  One, Clara Weiss, played by the hilarious Alix Korey at the York, is there specifically in the hopes of meeting a wonderful guy.  Another, Ruth Stein (played by Anne Runolfsson), is the first to actually meet one, a nice man named Phil Arkin (Mark Delavan).  But there’s a problem: Phil hasn’t quite managed to divorced his estranged wife…

Yet there’s an additional “character” in this show, and it’s the pioneering spirit of  Israel.  Phil has an equally nice daughter living on a collective farm, and the going there is tough, but as the characters sing in the title song:

“What if the earth is dry and barren?

What if the morning sun is mean to us?

For this is a state of mind we live in,

We want it green and…so!  It’s green TO US!

For when you have wonderful plans for tomorrow somehow even today looks fine

So what if it’s rocks and dust and sand?

This lovely land is mine!”

I sincerely hope the York Theater finds a way to record a cast album of this production.  I’d love to see them propel this show onto Broadway, too.  It’s hopeful and positive, with a heartbreaking aside, and should be seen by as many people as possible.

I didn’t know until I read the notes in the program on Saturday that the main character in the show, Ruth Stein, was named after Jerry Herman’s own mother.  I saw that and almost began to cry.  It was Mr. Herman’s mom’s positivity that inspired so many of his most uplifting songs later.  When he came home from school one day and asked his mother why she was throwing a party, she replied, “It’s today,” a line that became the inspiration for the party song he wrote for Mame.  Ruth’s philosophies have been enhancing people’s lives all over the world through the music and lyrics her son was inspired to write, and I for one have gotten so much joy from his work over the years that I wish I could have met her.  Unfortunately, the real Ruth Stein Herman died before she ever saw one of her son’s shows reach Broadway, but if there’s any order to the Universe at all, somewhere, whenever the curtain goes up on one of her son’s productions, she’s humming along – and bursting with pride in the way her son pays tribute to her through his work.

Here’s  a link to the York Theatre’s website.  Berlin to Broadway by Kurt Weill is up next, followed by Jerry Herman’s Dear World, starring Tyne Daly, is next up as a “Musical in Mufti,” so New Yorkers, you won’t want to miss it!  I’ll be at both – with bells on.  Tickets can be found right here: http://www.yorktheatre.org/buy-tickets.html

Jerry Herman when he was first starting out.

Jerry Herman, about the time he wrote MILK & HONEY.

The original cast album of MILK & HONEY. York Theater: please record your cast's version, too!

The original cast album of MILK & HONEY. York Theater: please record your cast’s version, too!

Onward to the Oscars!

Absolutely adorable: Sunny Pawar, child star of LION.

Absolutely adorable: Sunny Pawar, child star of LION.

Now on to something more pleasant than that last blog post I had to write.  Pretty soon we’ll be finding out who will be nominated for the Oscars!

I saw so many wonderful movies this year that it’s going to be fun to see who gets the honor of a nomination.  This year I’ve got so many favorites that I don’t even know where to begin.  My personal favorite movie was PATRIOT’S DAY, and if Mark Wahlberg doesn’t get nominated for his performance in it then there’s a flaw somewhere in the universe.  John Goodman should get a nod, too.  So should J.K. Simmons.  So, too, should about five or six other cast members, including the two actors who had the unenviable job of playing the bombers.

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA was a powerful dramatic vehicle for its wonderful ensemble.  Casey Affleck will almost certainly be up for Best Actor, and  Michelle Williams for Best Supporting Actress.  The star of JACKIE, Natalie Portman, knocked the part right out of the ballpark.

But my favorite star of them all is a pint-sized newcomer: Sunny Pawar, the irresistible little boy who played Saroo Brierly in LION.  I’m not just hoping for LION to get nominated for Best Picture, as well it should, but I’d love, love, love to see that little Sunny nominated.

Tuesday, January 24, the nominations will be announced.   Stay tuned!

Disturbing and Creepy

Exactly!

Exactly!

 

What would you do if, as an adult, you found out that one of the people in a position of responsibility over you, as a child, may have had an unhealthy attachment to you?

What would you do if someone told you that that person still, decades later, asks all kinds of questions about you to mutual acquaintances, desperate, or so it seems, for news of you?

And what if this was the last person on the face of the planet you ever would have wanted anywhere near you, whether you were a child, an adult, or even the sole survivor of earth, save for the jerk in question?

This, apparently, is the position I’ve been told I’m in, and I never even knew about it.  I was jail bait to a pervert?  That’s as insane as it gets.  Yet two of the people who were approached about me, and barraged with questions, said that’s exactly what it looks like to them.

Fortunately, it’s hearsay, and might not be true…and yet.  It could just as well be accurate, disturbing as that is.  In a way, some of the events I remember regarding that particular individual now make a lot more sense.  I was a very observant kid.  That, surely, made me a threat to someone who was into that which would not have survived scrutiny.  No wonder that person tried to undermine me later, several times.  But prior to realizing I was savvier to the ways of the world than Creepy had previously believed, there were other incidents, too…which went nowhere because I didn’t let them.  But…it’s shaken me up, wondering how bad things may have become if I’d been less of a strong-willed, no-nonsense child, say, one who could have been pushed, who didn’t know quite clearly what I didn’t want, rather than one who did…I wasn’t, but even so…

Why am I writing this on my blog, though?  Well, it seems to me that anyone who would be asking questions about me, my life, my this and my that, behind my back, yet,  forty years after the last time they saw me – yes, folks, forty years! – is probably reading my blog, too.  As creepy as that is, I’m going to use the blog as a signpost to that now-geriatric lunatic.  Read away, creep!  Go away, too.  You want to track me, fine, well, TRACK THIS!  You’d better hope I don’t start talking, because if I hear you’re asking more questions, guess what?  I’ll be pushed to write a blog post about this again, next time, I’ll name you, and all those who, unlike you, really know me, know I’m capable of it.

Two Massachusetts Movies: Manchester by the Sea and Patriot’s Day

Manchester by the Sea: realism at its best.

Manchester by the Sea: realism at its best.

It’s a fun coincidence that two of the best movies that are in the New York theaters at the moment are both set in the state of Massachusetts.  I saw one yesterday and the other today.  It’s a wonder I’m not talking in an accent that leaves out all the R’s by now, after such a  double-dip of Massachusetts dialogue.

Both of the movies – Manchester by the Sea and Patriot’s Day – were awesome, though different.

Manchester is the fictional story of a man, haunted – for good reason – by his actions in the past, who “inherits” a teenage nephew, Patrick, when his brother dies.  Unfortunately his brother never discussed naming him his son’s guardian before appointing him in his will, and it’s not what he’s up for…  Casey Affleck is Uncle Lee, Michele Williams plays his ex-wife, and Lucas Hedges plays Patrick, heading a terrific ensemble cast in one of the most realistic movies I’ve ever seen.  The scenery, in many of the shots, is spectacular.  My one critique: the number of F-bombs dropped in this movie was way over-the-top, and hey, I’m no prude when it comes to foul language.  I do, however, find it works more effectively when used for emphasis, not practically as conjunctions.

Patriot’s Day is not in wide-release yet, but it’s here and I saw it tonight.  Patriot’s Day is a Massachusetts state holiday.  It’s also the day of the Boston Marathon, and this movie covers the participants in the true story of the cowardly bombing of that event that took place in 2013.  If you’re faint at heart, be warned: in order for the movie to remain true to the subject matter, there’s a lot of violence and graphic medical scenes.  I’m usually pretty much of a toughie when it comes to seeing violence onscreen, but there were a few hospital scenes even I found unbearable.  So avert your eyes, if need be,  but then, keep watching.  It’s fascinating to see how the police, FBI and first responders conducted their excellent investigation into the perpetrators.  Mark Wahlberg stars as cop Tommy Saunders, and you’ll come out of this one feeling “Boston Strong!”

Patriot's Day: the story of the Boston Marathon bombing.

Patriot’s Day: the story of the Boston Marathon bombing.