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August 7, 2017

Cymbeline: Shakespeare’s worst play (Or: Lordy, I hope there’s a tape)

The hosts of the BardCast podcast consider Cymbeline to probably be Shakespeare’s worst play. Not enough happens in the first two acts, the plot is kuh-razy, it’s a mishmash of styles and cultures, and it over-explains itself time and time again. That podcast is far from alone in thinking that it’s the Bard’s worst, although, as BardCast says, even the Bard’s worst is better than just about anything. Nevertheless, when was the last time you saw a performance of Cymbeline? Yeah, me neither.

We saw it yesterday afternoon, in its final performance at Shakespeare & Co in Lenox, Mass. It was fantastic: hilarious, satisfactorily coherent (which is praiseworthy because the plot is indeed crazy), and at times moving.

It was directed by the founder of the company, Tina Packer, and showed her usual commitment to modernizing Shakespeare by finding every emotional tone and every laugh in the original script. The actors enunciate clearly, but since we modern folk don’t understand many of the words and misunderstand more than that, the actors use body language, cues, and incredibly well worked out staging to make their meaning clear. We used to take our young children to Shakespeare & Co. shows, and they loved them.

I’m open to being convinced by a Shakespeare scholar that the Shakespeare & Co.’s Cymbeline was a travesty that had nothing to do with Shakespeare’s intentions, even though the players said all the words he wrote and honored the words’ magnificence. I’m willing to acknowledge that, for example, when Imogen and King Cymbeline offer each other words of condolence about the death of the wicked, wicked queen, Shakespeare didn’t think they’d wait a beat and then burst out laughing. But when Posthumus comes before the King at the end, bemoaning the death of his beloved Imogen, I would not be surprised if Shakespeare were to nod in appreciation as in this production the audience bursts into loud laughter because Imogen, still in disguise as a boy, is scrambling towards Posthumus, gesticulating ever more wildly that she is in fact she for whom he mourns. Did Shakespeare intend that? Probably not. Does it work? One hundred percent.

These two embellishments are emblematic of the problem with the play. In that final scene, it is revealed to the King in a single speech that the Queen he has loved for decades in fact always hated him, tried to poison him, and was a horrible, horrible person. There’s little or nothing in the play that explains how the King could not have had an inkling of this, and he seems to get over the sudden revelation of his mate’s iniquity in a heartbeat so that the scene can get on with its endless explication. The laugh he shares with his daughter gets a huge laugh from the audience, but only because the words of sorrow Shakespeare gives the King and Imogen seem undeserved for a Queen so resolutely evil; the addition of the laugh solves a problem with the script. Likewise, Imogen’s scramble toward Posthumus, waving her arms in a “Hey, I’m right here!” gesture, turns Posthumus’ mournful declaration of his devastation at the death of Imogen into comic over-statement.

To be clear, most of the interpretations seem to bring Shakespeare’s intentions to life, even if unexpected ways. For example, Jason Aspry’s Cloten was far different from the thuggish and thoroughly villainous character we expected. Asprey played him hilariously as a preening coward. This had me concerned because I knew that he is killed mid-play in a fight with the older of two young princes who have been brought up in a cave. (It’s a weird plot.) How can the prince kill such an enjoyable buffoon without making us feel like someone casually shot Capt. Jack Sparrow halfway through the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie? But the staging and the acting is so well done that, amazingly, the biggest laugh of the show came when the prince enters the stage holding Cloten’s severed head. (Don’t judge me. You would have laughed, too.)

So, this may well be Shakespeare’s worst play. If so, it got a performance that found everything good in it, and then some.

 


 

I do want to at least mention the brilliance and commitment of the actors. Some we have been seeing every summer for decades, and others are new or newer to us. But this is an amazing group. Among the cast members who were new to us, Ella Loudon was amazing as the older prince. I feel bad singling anyone out, but, there, I did it.

 


 

Finally, Shakespeare & Co. doesn’t post videos of performances of their plays after they’ve run. It makes me heartsick that they do not. I’ve asked them about this in past, and apparently the problem is with the actors’ union. I was brought up in a pro-union household and continue to be favorably inclined toward them, but I wish there were a way to work this out. It’d be good for the world to be able to see these exceptional performances and come to love Shakespeare.
It would of course also be good for Shakespeare & Co.

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July 20, 2017

I didn’t like the new Planet of the Apes movie. [No spoilers.]

War for Planet of the Apes has 95% positive ratings at Rotten Tomatoes. Many of the cited reviews are effusive. For example, Charles Taylor at Newsweek calls it “a consistently intelligent, morally thoughtful and often beautiful picture.”

I’d rephrase that a bit. I think it was a dumb, predictable, boring movie with a couple of nice landscape shots. We went to see it on one of our few movie nights out because we’d enjoyed the first two in this series.

If WARPA weren’t about apes but was instead about the actual human ism‘s it intends to get us to see from the Other’s perspective — racism, colonialism, militarism — we’d view it as embarrassingly trite and shallow. Casting apes as the victims doesn’t make it any less so.

It doesn’t help that while the facial animations are incredible, the ape bodies look like pretty good animations of people wearing ape suits. Plus, I have to say that these apes’ lack of genitalia or assholes diminishes the vividness of the premise of the movie: the apes we’ve treated as an inferior species are deserving of respect and dignity. Instead, we get damn, dirty hairy aliens.

But most of all, there isn’t a cliche the movie doesn’t miss. If you’re sitting in your seat thinking that the next obvious thing to happen is X, then X will happen. Guaranteed. The only surprises are the plot holes, of which there are many.

The music is bad in itself and is used as a cudgel. They might as well have skipped the music and just put in subtitles like “Feel sorrow here.”

Full marks to Andy Serkis and the motion capture crew. As others have suggested, he deserves his Special Achievement Oscar already. Well, he deserved it for Lord of the Rings, but his work in this movie is absolutely its highlight. Steve Zahn also has a good turn as the comic relief. But poor Woody Harrelson is stuck with ridiculous lines and a clumsy narrative attempt to give his character some depth. His best moment is when he shaves his head in one of the movie’s embarrassing flags that it thinks it’s on a par with films like Apocalypse Now.

Also, this movie is no fun. It’s grim. It’s boring. It’s unfair to the humans.

That last point is not a political complaint because lord knows we deserve all the monkey feces thrown at us. It’s instead a complaint about the shallowness of the movie-making.

Overall, I’d give a 95% chance of disappointing you.

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February 13, 2017

Ricky Gervais's "Life on the Road": Review

[NO SPOILERS YET] Ricky Gervais’ new TV movie, Life on the Road, now on Netflix, suffers from the sort of mortifying errors committed by its protagonist, David Brent, the manager of The Office with whom the movie catches us up.

[TINY SPOILERS THAT WON’T SPOIL ANYTHING] The movie is amusing in some of the main ways the original The Office was. David Brent is an unself-knowing narcissist surrounded by people who see through him. It lacks the utterly charming office romance between Tim and Dawn (Jim and Pam in the US version). It lacks any other villain than Brent, unlike Gareth in the original (Dwight in the US version). It lacks the satire of office life, offering instead a satire of self-funded, doomed rock tour by an unknown, pudgy, middle-aged man. That’s not a thing, so you can’t really satirize it.

Still, Gervais is great as Brent, having honed uncomfortable self-presentation to an art, complete with a squealing giggle that alerts us to his inability to be ashamed of himself. And Gervais sings surprisingly well.

[SPOILERS] But then it ends suddenly with Brent being accepted by his band, by the office where he’s been working as a bathroom-supply salesperson, and by a woman. Nothing prepares us for this except that it’s the end of the movie and Gervais wants to give his character some peace and dignity. It’s some extraordinarily sloppy writing.

Worse, the ending seems way too close to what Gervais himself seems to want. Like Brent, he wants to be taken seriously as a musician and singer, except that Gervais’s songs are self-knowingly bad, in the style of Spinal Tap except racist. Still, you leave the movie surprised that he’s that good a singer and that the songs are quite good as comic songs. Brent-Gervais has achieved his goal.

Likewise, you leave thinking that Gervais has given us a happy ending because he, Gervais, wants to be liked, just as Brent does. It’s not the angry fuck-the-hicks sort of attitude Gervais exhibited during and immediately after The Office.

And you leave thinking that, like Brent, Gervais really wants to carry the show solely on his shoulders. The Office was an ensemble performance with some fantastic acting by Martin Freeman (!) as Tim and Lucy Davis as Dawn, as well as by Gervais. Life on the Road only cares about one character, as if Gervais wanted to prove he could do it all by his lonesome. But he can’t.

Ricky Gervais pulls his punches in this, not for the first time. Let Ricky be Ricky. Or, more exactly, Let Ricky be David.

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December 28, 2015

Hateful Eight review [NO spoilers]

We saw Hateful Eight in 70mm splendor in a packed and enthusiastic theater last night. Totally worth seeing. The three hours went by quickly. But it was less ambitious, and less cinematic, than his recent work. In fact, it is basically a stage play. It’s as if Tarantino was given license to take one of his set pieces — say the phenomenal thirty minute German tavern scene (about the scene) in Inglorious Basterds — and blow it out to three hours, although to be fair it’s actually two or three of those set pieces.

Tavern scene from Basterds

The characters are colorful and well-etched. I loved watching the actors act, as in every Tarantino film. The dialogue is Tarantinesque, although not as memorable as his very best. The violence is explosive and over the top. (“Is it a spoiler to say that there’s violence in a Tarantino film?”Is it a spoiler to say that there’s violence in a Tarantino film?)


But it’s also a genre film in a very unexpected genre for Tarantino. I’d say what genre but I think that really might count as a spoiler. Let me put it like this: it’s as if you’re watching Pulp Fiction and realize that, what the heck?, it’s really a version of Emma. (And that was definitely not a spoiler for either film.) It’s sort of cool that Tarantino did this, but also a bit confining for him. At more than 3 hours and in 70mm Cinerama, this is in some ways a small film.

cinerama logo

While seeing the “Cinerama” banner took me back, oh, fifty years, I can’t say that what he went through — and what he forced theaters to go through — to show it in 70mm was worth it. There are a couple of shots that that had me think “Nice 70mm!” but had I not known that it was in 70mm, I simply would have said, “Nice shot!.” There were a few shots where the color was especially rich and beautiful, but, again, I wouldn’t have attributed that to anything except excellent digital cinematography had I not known any better. On the other hand, I also can’t see any real difference between an ordinary Mac screen and a Retina display. I’m glad Quentin got to do it his way, and I hope it makes him happy.

“Then there’s the question of what it’s about”Then there’s the question of what it’s about. Race and racism? Legal justice and frontier justice? Yes, I think so. But it doesn’t have easy lessons. Tarantino is totally a non-didactic filmmaker, unlike, say, Spielberg. He’s got his values, he’s got his characters, he puts them together, one of them will discourse on an unexpected cultural theory, one person’s brain matter is probably going to end up in someone else’s face, and that’s about it.

Why would we expect there to be more? For two reasons. First, the movie-making is so superbly crafted. We are completely in his thrall. That’s the experience of art. Second, the violence is so extreme that we want it to be justified by significance.


But violence serves the role of humor in Tarantino’s films. I’m not saying it’s funny, although it often is, and last night’s enthusiastic audience burst out in laughter at some of it. Me too. Tarantino uses violence not just to advance the plot, and not, I believe to show us the true effects of violence, for he skimps entirely on the effect violence has on its survivors. Rather, the “violence like a sudden joke snaps the audience out of the comfort that narrative flow provides”violence like a sudden joke snaps the audience out of the comfort that narrative flow provides.


Which is to say that I don’t think Hateful Eight is rigorously about anything, except perhaps the everyday chaos engendered when people who are unalike have to share a space, or, in this case, share a movie — except in this case, the chaos is amplified by people with guns and their own loose-triggered codes of behavior.


TL;DR: Worth seeing because Tarantino.

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December 7, 2015

Jaipur restaurant review: Surya Mahal (plus some doggerel)

TripAdvisor is being wonky about letting me write a review for a restaurant it doesn’t have listed; it has me stuck in a loop, insisting that I confirm that it is in an unlisted city, which it is not. Anyway, here’s the review I would have posted there.

A local resident recommended Surya Mahal (Shop No A, 179, MI Road) as the pure vegetarian place he goes with his family. It is indeed a family restaurant, down to paper placemats with absolutely terrible jokes on them.

But the food was just so good.

The menu includes Chinese and Italian, as well as Indian. We had the King’s Tali: little dishes of malai kofta, paneer butter masala, vegetable pulao (rice), some type of dal, and a raita (spiced yogurt) plus papadam, bread (we got roti) and two gulab jamuns. One tali served both of us.

Everything was exceptionally delicious: richly flavored, nicely textured. We ate all of everything and left satisfied in every direction. I’m no expert on Indian food, but I’m going to stand by what I just said.

Plus the children running around were adorable.

The owner (or so we assumed) was very helpful and enthusiastic. He honored our counter-cultural request that the food not be very hot in the peppery sense; one of us is a wimp.

Total cost, including a large bottle of mineral water, was under 500 Rs. — about US$7.00.


One night when we woke up in the middle of the night and could not get back to sleep (thanks to the lag of jets), I was thinking how, in my limited experience, almost all northern Indian food comes in lots of sauce or is a sauce itself. The following doggerel popped into my head:

Put on your galoshes
‘Cause everything sloshes.

Except the banan-
a, which is second to naan.

I had a third verse as well, but I eventually fell asleep and forgot it.

Just as well.

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October 18, 2015

The Martian

My wife and I just saw The Martian. Loved it. It was as good a movie as could possibly be made out of a book that’s about sciencing the shit out of problems.

The book was the most fun I’ve had in a long time. So I was ready to be disappointed by the movie. Nope.

Compared to say, Gravity? Gravity‘s choreography was awesome, and the very ending of it worked for me. (No spoilers here!) But, it had irksome moment and themes, especially Sandra Bullock’s backstory. (No spoilers!)

The Martian was much less pretentious, IMO. It’s about science as problem-solving. Eng Fi, if you will. But the theme that emerges from this is:

Also, Let’s go the fuck to Mars!


(I still think Interstellar is a better movie, although it’s nowhere near as much fun. But I’m not entirely reasonable about Interstellar.)

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February 12, 2015

“Whiplash” better in memory

[NON-SPOILER ALERT: There are no spoilers in this that you wouldn’t get from the most general discussion of what the movie is about. Less, probably.] I saw the movie Whiplash on a plane yesterday. I thought it had some bright-colored acting and fantastic music, but was predictable. Every ten years or so there’s another movie about an inspiring teacher,. Sometimes the teacher is kooky or lovable. Sometimes the teacher is crusty or tough or very tough, but it’s all for the kids. Whiplash is a spin on that overall genre.

The acting was pleasantly hammy, as is the mode these days. And I’m longtime fan of J.K. Simmons. (Let’s not forget Cave Johnson.) But I ended the movie a bit disappointed. Elements of it were terrific. Overall: Saw it coming like a bridge after the second verse.

But today I’m remembering it more fondly. I’m going to suggest to my wife that she see it, and I’ll watch it again with her. Mainly because the music is fantastic: great performances, and great presentation of those performances. If you think you don’t like jazz, you should watch Whiplash just to make sure.

Just be prepared for some predictable cheese.

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January 20, 2015

Fargo: an open outliner

Dave Winer loves outlines. I do, too, but Dave loves them More. We know this because Dave’s created the Fargo outliner, and, in the way of software that makes us freer, he’s made it available to us to use for free, without ads or spyware, and supporting the standards and protocols that make our ideas interoperable.

Fargo is simple and straightfoward. You enter text. You indent lines to create structure. You can reorganize and rearrange as you would like. Type CMD-? or CTL-? for help.

Fargo is a deep product. It is backed by a CMS so you can use it as your primary tool for composing and publishing blog posts. (Dave knows a bit about blogging, after all.) It has workgroup tools. You can execute JavaScript code from it. It understands Markdown. You can use it to do presentations. You can create and edit attributes. You can include other files, so your outlines scale. You can includes feeds, so your outlines remain fresh.

Fargo is generative. It supports open standards, and it’s designed to make it easy to let what you’ve written become part of the open Web. It’s written in HTML5 and runs in all modern browsers. Your outlines have URLs so other pages can link to them. Fargo files are saved in the OPML standard so other apps can open them. The files are stored in your Dropbox folder , which puts them in the Cloud but also on your personal device; look in Dropbox/Apps/smallpicture/. You can choose to encrypt your files to protect them from spies. The Concord engine that powers Fargo is Open Source.

Out of the box, Fargo is a heads-down outliner for people who think about what they write in terms of its structure. (I do.) It thus is light on the presentation side: You can’t easily muck about with the styles it uses to present various levels, and there isn’t an embedded way to display graphics, although you can include files that are displayed when the outline is rendered. But because it is a simple product with great depth, you can always go further with it.

And now matter how far you go, you’ll never be locked in.

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December 25, 2014

Instant review: The Interview

I watched The Interview tonight in part because for $6.00 I wanted to see it, and in part because I want to encourage this mode of distribution — no, not by the intervention of terrorists but over the Web.

Given the build up, I was surprised that it’s not a political satire at all. It’s a media satire. The butt of the jokes are the media, with Kim Jong Un there merely as a convenient villain.

The first two thirds were pretty funny. The last third is more predictable and pointlessly violent. Sort of like Pineapple Express. I don’t get why that sort of violence is supposed to be funny. It’s like the Three Stooges with hatchets.

Anyway, I liked it more than I expected to.

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October 2, 2014

What does Men, Women & Children think it’s about?

I went to a screening of the new movie “Men, Women and Children” last night. The only positive thing I can find to say about it is that it squandered some good performances from some great actors. In fact, I left wondering why on earth anyone made this movie. What did the director and co-writer, Jason Reitman, think he was achieving? Why did he make it? What’s it about? I don’t know, I don’t know, and I don’t know. By 30 minutes into it, I didn’t care. And now that I’ve had time to think about it, I think it’s actually worse than I had at first thought. [Spoiler: Everything you think might happen in this movie does happen.]

I liked Reitman’s Up in the Air, detested his Juno, and had mixed feelings about his writing on Thank You for Smoking. I wanted to like Men, Women & Children. But it is one of the most intensely unlikeable films ever. Some of that is on purpose. Most of it is not.

The movie was introduced to me as being about the Internet. That threw me, because although much of it documents its characters’ interactions with and over the Internet, it seemed to have nothing to actually say about the Net. In this movie, most of what happens via the Net is anti-life: a student is swayed by a pro-anorexia site, another is unable to get erect with a real girl after all of his extreme masturbatory encounters online — there’s more masturbation in this movie than at a boy’s camp the night after a social — another goes online to hire a prostitute, etc. But the Net also shows up, briefly, as the only way the two most positive couples are able to sneak out together, and as the pitiable source of salvation for a lonely soul. In fact, the clearest villain in the movie is Jennifer Garner’s cartoonish anti-Net control freak. (It’s not her fault. She was written that way.) While overall the movie presents a hugely negative picture of the effect of the Net, most of its characters’ issues are ones they have brought to the Net. The movie thus seems to have no coherent hypothesis about the Internet.

So this morning I concluded that whatever the hell this movie is about, it’s not about the Net. Which is too bad, because what I think it is about makes it an even more of an epic fail, as those young rapscallions say on the Net.

It’s an ensemble piece that follows a set of young high school students and their parents. It only cares about their love lives. It is completely by the book. These are types, not characters. They get what they deserve. End o’ story. At that level, this is merely a vapid, incompetent, trite movie.

But Reitman apparently is after something bigger. The movie is framed by long shots of the Voyager space craft (CGI, natch) sailing through space, with an elegiac narrative intoned by Emma Thompson. Now, Emma to the T has no bigger fan than me, but you have to ask why Reitman chose her. A woman’s voice? Great. A British voice about this very American movie? Was he thinking that a British voice would lend it some class? Really?

In any event, the space framing and the overvoice completely fails. The heavy-handed point it makes is that the troubled lives we are about to see are nothing in the grand scale of things. It is an intensely gloomy perspective. It is in fact the “philosophy” explicitly mirrored by one of the teen characters. It suits a depressed teen. It does not suit an adult. And, yes, the movie ends back in space with Thompson reading a long modestly hopeful quote from Carl Sagan‘s Pale Blue Dot. But did we really have to sit through a two-hour movie to be reminded that we only have each other?

Not to mention three problems with the overvoice: First, I couldn’t get Hitchhiker’s Guide out of my head every time it started. (No, I’m not proud of the fact that for me (British Narrator + Space) = Hitchhiker’s Guide.) Second, Reitman uses it for endless explicit exposition of the plot. Third, he actually has Emma’s overvoice interrupt the action midway through in order to make a jokey comment about the scene we’re watching. If you’re going to have a narrator, it’d be good to have her role be a little consistent. At least make the joke funnier.

Which brings up something you should know about this movie. It is unbelievably depressing. Or it would be if it were any good. It is a movie without joy. Everyone is unhappy. Always. I laughed once, and not that hard. There’s nothing wrong with presenting a bleak picture of life. But you have to earn it.

Realizing that Reitman probably thinks this is a movie with a big idea makes it even worse, in my estimation. He thought he wouldn’t make the usual ensemble teen comedy. He’d tell it like it really is. And he’d spend equal time on the parents as well as the children.

Fine. But what message does he have for us men, women and children? What does he have to tell us that justifies the time and expense and contribution of useful hours by his cast and crew? And our time and money as an audience? It turns out that Reitman, who is about 37 years old, has come to the adolescent’s recognition that none of us is the center of the universe despite the way our parents’ focused on us. Reitman thinks this audience is stuck on that awful teenage truth. But you can’t become an adult without getting past that truth and incorporating it into a idea of meaning at a more modest scale.

Perhaps that’s why I didn’t recognize a single human being among the ensemble he put on the screen. We are not all miserable creatures, wrong about ourselves, masturbating ourselves into sexlessness, frittering away our time on our pale blue dot. And if we were, this movie would not help, not only because it’s bad art but because in lieu of providing any vision of meaning beyond that of a disappointed adolescent, it leaves its characters either in their misery or in a phony-baloney Hollywood wrap up.

There is not a single reason to see this movie. Not even Emma Thompson.


Here’s the end quote from Pale Blue Dot from a much earlier production. Now you don’t have to see “Men, Women & Children.

You’re welcome.


So, one more thing. You know how at the end of Casablanca Bogart, er, Rick says that “the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world”? That’s an important thing to remember, but only because the film has shown us that problems of three little people do amount to something.

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