This Is Who I Am

Some of you have seen ads for the Woolly Mammoth online theater, which is being sponsored in association with 5 regional theater companies, including the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

We saw the current production, This is Who I Am, the other night, and liked it a lot. It’s a two-character play, featuring an estranged father and son who are trying to repair their relationship by cooking a family dish together via Zoom. It’s a great topic for a cooking group!  The director, Evren Odcikin, is the new Associate Artistic Director of OSF. 

The play is 70 minutes and is done live – no replay.  The live performance gives you some of the impact of live theater, but not all of it (no real time audience feedback).  The intimacy of a small screen was good though – it was easy to see that one of the characters was much more experienced at cooking than the other, which would have been hard to see in a stage production, even in a small theater.

Tickets are $15 for one screen – we bought two tickets so we could listen on separate screens via headphones.

Theaters are working very hard right now to create alternatives for theater loves, and this is a worthy effort. 

Check it out! https://www.woollymammoth.net/

El Cid

This is being billed as the Spanish Game of Thrones, but it’s more like the Spanish version of The Last Kingdom  (a good thing).  It’s the story of a born military leader in a martial age, who is smart enough to know how to outwit his enemies as well as outfight them. 

Rodrigo Diaz was born into the minor nobility of 11th C Spain, during what is known as the “taifa” period. The Caliphate of Cordoba had fallen, and Spain was divided into a group of kingdoms, some run by Christians and others by Muslims, who fought against each other for dominance.  Political alliances didn’t always form along sectarian lines – Christian kings sometimes allied with Muslim ones against Christian rivals – although the two groups were already starting to move into the fundamentalist corners which would define Spanish politics for the next few hundred years.  El Cid himself fought as a mercenary soldier in Muslim armies – his historical name is derived from the Arabic “al-sayyid”, or the Leader – and eventually he led a multicultural alliance against the invading Moroccan Almohads.

I thought the series did a good job depicting life as it might have actually been experienced in 11th C Spain. People’s lives were hard and uncertain, and there was always the possibility of random violence.  Most of the blood and gore, however, were confined, as in real life, to the battlefield, and full-on battles weren’t that frequent. The depiction of tSpanish Muslims as relatveiy relaxed in their practice of Islam – many even drank alcohol – is historically accurate.  The scenes involving military training are pretty good, and the scale of the joust seems about right as well.  The battle scene, while well done, involves way too many mounted knights, but I guess the lure of filming knights on horseback is hard for filmmakers to resist.  

The performances are fine.  The actor playing El Cid is surprisingly short, but he has the requisite intensity.  I particularly liked the women, many of whom portray tough as nails characters who, despite their legal inequality, know perfectly well how to wield political power.

My principal complaint about this show is that it’s too short – only 5 episodes.  We see Diaz’s early years, his first great battle success, and what appears to be an important turning point in his life.  But the series seems to end in the middle of what looks like a 10-episode story arc.  I don’t know if filming of the series was interrupted by Covid or financial pressures.  But it’s a good beginning, and I hope it will continue.  

Recommended. On Amazon Prime.

Note:  I usually watch foreign shows with English subtitles, because I like the cadences of the original language.  I’ve read that the English dubbed version of this series is particularly bad, so I urge you to try the subtitles, even if you don’t usually like them.  This is not a particularly “talky” series – there’s a lot of action, and the plot is simple to understand.  

The Looming Tower

Somehow I missed this when it was released in the spring, probably because I am not a regular subscriber to Hulu.  It’s a journalistic account of the intelligence failures that contributed to the disaster of 9/11.  The FBI and CIA were restricted in sharing information, for legitimate historical reasons dating back to the abuses of J. Edgar Hoover.  But by the 1990s, the CIA was treating the FBI as a more serious threat than some of our foreign enemies.

This 10-part series features fine performances by Jeff Daniels as John O’Neill. the head of the FBI’s NY Counterterrorism Center,  Arab-French actor Tahar Rahim as Ali Soufan, O’Neill’s Arab-American partner, Bill Camp as a veteran FBI agent, and Michael Stuhlbarg as RIchard Clarke.  Although real names are used for many of the FBI personnel, the principal CIA people are represented by pseudonyms, probably because their portrayals are so repellent. Ali Soufan has a producer credit, so the bias is obvious.  Nevertheless the creepy sex vibe between the head of the CIA office responsible for liaising (or not) with the FBI, and his deputy is based on reality – the two later married.  Michael Scheuer, on whom the character is loosely based, later left the CIA, got involved in the Obama birther conspiracy and these days is full on Q.  His wife later became one of the premier torture enthusiasts in the CIA, and her character was also the inspiration for the female CIA officer in Zero Dark Thirty.  Remember when we thought that Homeland’s Carrie Mathison was too crazy to be a credible CIA agent?

Except for a few flashforward sequences depicting the Congressional investigations into intelligence failures, the series pretty much ends with  9/11 and its immediate aftermath.  There’s a brief reference to the Bush Administration attempting to frame Saddam Hussein for the attack.  But otherwise the story of the Iraq War is left for another day.

The narrative sags at times, particularly in the middle episodes – how much do we really need to know about O’Neill’s messy personal life?  But the scenes depicting the investigations into the Kenya bombing and the attacks on the USS Cole are really good.  And the dramatic climax really hits you in the gut, even though you know it’s coming.

Recommended.  On Hulu.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

This adaptation of August Wilson’s play is takes place almost entirely in a Chicago recording studio on a steamy hot summer day in the 1920s.  Ma Rainey, a historical person, was a successful blues singer, although her audience was primarily black.  The (fictional) white music producers are seeking a “crossover” hit that will appeal to white people as well.

Viola Davis does a magnificent job as Ma Rainey, conveying the force of her personality and her music despite the grotesque  (and totally unnecessary) makeup designed to make her look like the historical woman, complete with bad teeth.

The real standout is Chadwick Boseman as Levee, a trumpet player in Ma’s backup band who, depending on who you talk to, is either a brilliant young musician or a poseur who plays too many notes.  Levee, whose force of nature personality is almost equal to Ma’s, is a lot more optimistic and hopeful than any black boy brought up in early 20th C Alabama has a right to be.  Boseman is spectacular in this role – anytime he is in the frame, even if he’s only in the corner, you can’t take your eyes off him.   He has the ability to project his whole soul through his face.  Boseman died of cancer shortly he completed work on this film – a real loss.
Highly recommended. 

On Netflix.

Mank

I really wanted to like this movie.  It’s got a great premise (the troubled creation of the movie Citizen Kane), a great cast, great writing. And it certainly looks good.  But it didn’t work for me.

Herman Mankiewicz was a reporter who went to Hollywood and found success as a screenwriter for MGM studios around 1930.  Early in his career, he attracted the favorable attention of William Randolph Hearst, and he became friends both with Hearst and his long time mistress Marion Davies.  Barely 10 years later, Mank was writing a movie script expose of Hearst, which particularly trashed the reputation of Marion Davies.  How did that come to be? 

David Fincher finds an answer, of sorts, in the 1934 gubernatorial campaign of the novelist Upton Sinclair.  Sinclair  played in a wonderful cameo by Bill Nye the Science Guy) ran on an economic platform to the left of FDR and, not surprisingly, lost.  Hollywood executives were Republicans at that time (Louis B. Mayer was the Chairman of the California Republican Party) and movie moguls contributed heavily to the Republican candidate.  Not willing to leave anything to chance, MGM sponsored a series of fake news radio spots and newsreels, in which dirty hoboes and people with dusky skin tones expressed support for Sinclair, while nice white people expressed their fears of “socialism.” The fake news spots were bankrolled by Hearst and produced by Irving Thalberg, the studio wunderkind best known today as the name on a Hollywood award for philanthropy.  So much is true.

In the movie, Mank is all-in for Sinclair.  He contributes to the campaign, betting money he doesn’t have, and openly refuses Mayer’s request that all of his writers “voluntarily” contribute to the Republican campaign.  The guy who directs the fake news spots was a friend of Mank’s and goes into a tailspin.  Mank is angry when he finds out that Hearst bankrolled the spots and is out for revenge.  This part of the story appears to be little more than Fincher’s invention.  We have no idea what his politics were, although he did (as shown in the movie) act as a paid sponsor for German Jewish refugees.  He did not refuse Mayer’s strongly worded suggestion that his employees contribute to the Republican gubernatorial campaign, although others did.  And there is no evidence the guy who created the fake news spots ever felt any remorse about it – he certainly didn’t end up the way the guy in the movie did.  

The story of a young man with a lot of potential who destroys himself with alcoholism and an uncontrolled gambling habit, is the stuff of tragedy.  Barely 10 years in 1940, his career was on the skids.  So when Welles came calling and asked him to dish the dirt on Hearst, he readily agreed – he needed the money.  If he was trying to revive his career, it failed.  He shared the screenwriting Oscar with Welles, but the two never worked together again.  Barely 10 years later, Mank was dead, his health irretrievably ruined by alcoholism.  But obviously that wasn’t the movie that David Fincher wanted to write.

The movie does have its enjoyable parts.  The photography is great, the writing is snappy, and it’s fun to spot the famous names in the writers’ room.. Amanda Seyfried finds exactly the right line in her portrayal of Marion Davies – a woman who knows how the world works and exactly what trade offs she is making, but who hasn’t forgotten the difference between right and wrong.

See it if you want.  But it’s a work of fiction. On Amazon Prime.

Fun Fact (from the movie):  One of the guys working with Welles at this time was John Houseman, familiar to younger audiences as the crusty old professor in The Paper Chase.

Funnier Fact (not from the movie):  Sinclair’s campaign slogan was EPIC (End Poverty in California). Although he lost, there were some EPIC candidates down ballot who won, and the guy who won the 1938 gubernatorial election was a Democrat with a similar platform.  There was even a publication called the EPIC weekly.  One associate editor of the weekly, who lost his campaign for the state legislature, decided to quit politics and write science fiction to retire his campaign debt.  His name was Robert Heinlein.
Once upon a time, Hollywood was fascist and Robert Heinlein was a socialist.  The auras of the two institutions must have crossed as they were making their separate journeys across the political universe.  How did we avoid the Cosmic Karma Explosion?  

https://slate.com/culture/2020/11/mank-movie-accuracy-david-fincher-upton-sinclair-netflix.html
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/End_Poverty_in_California_movement

Mangrove

Last night, we watched Mangrove, the first of a series of small films about the Afro Caribbean experience in the UK in the 1970s and 1980s. The films are directed and co-written by Oscar winning director Steve McQueen, and listed as a group under the name Small Axe.

The Mangrove was a restaurant / social club opened in London by a black Trinidadian in the late 1960s. It was designed a place where Caribbean immigrants could gather and eat the food of their home countries, but it quickly became a place for political gatherings, including members of the British Black Panthers (I didn’t even know they were a thing). The place was regularly raided by racist British police.

Eventually activists organized a protest demonstration, in August 1970, which was intended to be peaceful but soon devolved into scuffles between demonstrators and police. The police arrested a bunch of demonstrators, and the trial of the Mangrove 9, as they became known, led to the first official recognition that there might be widespread racism in the British police force.

In a welcome surprise, the movie tells the story straight, without “dramatizations” to make the characters more or less sympathetic. The character of Officer Pulley, the instigator of the racially motivated raids, comes off as a bit of a caricature, but the others involved are shown in all their complexity. Apparently McQueen’s father was a friend of one of the defendants so he wanted to get it right.

Two of the defendants (including one woman) acted as their own attorneys and delivered some pretty powerful speeches.

The movie, at a little over two hours, is deliberately paced, but not slow. The director lingers over a few scenes longer than we’re used to, in these days of Hollywood quick cuts. But that’s all to the good – with a bit of extra time, the importance of those scenes sinks in.

Well worth your time.

On Amazon Prime. It may be listed under the name Small Axe, which is the name of the entire group of films.

The Crown (season 4)

Although this series began as at least a notional celebration of the monarchy, with each passing year it has become subtly more anti-monarchical, simply by presenting the royal family more or less as they are.

This season covers the 1980s, the era of Diana and Margaret Thatcher, so there’s plenty of dramatic material.  The conversations between members of the royal family are of course fictional, although it seems to me that they represent reasonable guesses about what the characters really thought.  I doubt that the Queen was as much of a ninny as she is portrayed here, although she is clearly out of touch with the lives of ordinary people.  But Princess Margaret and the Queen Mother really were nasty pieces of work.  Interestingly, the most likeable royal is Prince Phillip, which may be more of a tribute to the actor Tobias Menzies than anything else.

The marriage of Charles and Diana is presented as doomed from the start, which it probably was.  The arranged marriage between a privileged man, who was nonetheless prevented from marrying the woman he truly loved, and a young woman little more than a child who thought she was living in some sort of fairy tale was truly tragic.  The lunch meeting of Diana and Camilla before the wedding really did occur – and who thought THAT was a good idea? – although I suspect the conversation that actually occurred was even more surreal than the one depicted here.

I didn’t much care for Gillian Anderson as Margaret Thatcher.  She got the clenched-jaw speech pattern right – Thatcher actually took elocution lessons to learn to speak that way, in a futile attempt to be more acceptable to the British upper crust. But the net effect of this hyperrealism is to reduce the portrayal to a kind of caricature.  It’s the same mistake Meryl Streep made in The Iron Lady, IMO:  Someday we’ll get an honest cinematic appraisal of Thatcher by someone who actually likes her – it hasn’t happened yet.

Despite these reservations, though, I think on the whole this series is worth watching.

On Netflix. 

One Child Nation

This documentary about the one child policy enforced by the Chinese government for several decades tells an important story, although one that’s often difficult to watch.  The policy involved not only a massive propaganda effort to get people to have only one child, but also the active murder, either by late term abortions or actual exposure, of unwanted second children.  The orphanages set up by the Chinese government to arrange for the foreign adoption of some of these babies came about relatively late in the game.

The most disturbing parts of the documentary are the interviews with the people who participated in the program – the midwives who killed babies, the relatives who brought babies to street markets knowing that they would die,  the market vendors who watched them die.  Some have come to terms with their past – one midwife now spends her life trying to save high risk babies.  But far too many still justify their actions as totally necessary to save China from overpopulation.  Whether that’s their real belief or a colossal self deception to save their sanity is hard to say.

On Amazon Prime

The Life Ahead

A young Senegalese orphan who has fallen through the cracks of the Italian social safety net winds up in the home of an elderly woman, a retired prostitute who has over the past few decades taken in many such forgotten children.  She’s not much of a traditional mother – her house is a mess, and not much cooking is going on. But she knows the difference between right and wrong (as opposed to legal or illegal) and tries to impart that to her charges.

The old lady is played by Sophia Loren, a lifelong sex symbol who in this movie has the courage to appear as the age she actually is (86) – it probably helped that the director, Eduardo Ponti, is her son.  Ponti also gets an honest performance from the little boy playing the orphan.

The movie doesn’t gloss over the gritty realities of life on the margins in a poor southern Italian city.  But it manages to be life affirming nevertheless.

On Netflix.

A Suitable Boy

This 6 part adaptation of Vikram Seth’s monumental 1993 novel seems to have fallen under the radar, which is a shame, because it’s quite good.

The story, set in India in the early 1950s, begins with a wedding, after which the mother of the bride starts looking for a husband for her younger daughter Lata – the “suitable boy” of the title.  Of course, Lata has her own ideas.  

The story quickly opens up and covers a number of issues – retail politics in what was then a new democracy, the changing status of women, life in rural villages, creeping nostalgia for the recently departed British, land reform, the development of new industries, and the still thorny issue of Hindu/Muslim relations.  Even cricket has a moment.

Although the story of Lata and her search for a husband is the “primary” narrative, the story of her brother in law Maan takes over somewhere in the middle episodes, which is good because his story is more unusual and more interesting.  Maan, a younger son described as “a disappointment to his father” has unsuitable relationships of his own.  As a result of his bad choices, he is exposed to parts of Indian life which are as foreign to him as they are to us.  He learns a lot, as do we.  

Although this is a BBC production, the cast is almost exclusively Indian actors, and the director is an Indian American, Mira Nair.   Perhaps for this reason It feels more authentic than many recent British productions set in India.  There are extended sessions of Indian vocal and instrumental music, which I found enchanting. 

The first episode is a bit slow, since it takes a while to introduce all the characters and their relationships.  I wish Netflix had included a family tree on its website.  By the middle of the second episode, though, the introductions are done.  And the characters won’t let you go.  

On Netflix.