four Hunger Games movies (2012-2015)

They made the three Hunger Games books into four movies, which I watched over a week or so with halfhearted interest. This is a brief review, but tldr: the books are better.

It was neat to see the characters brought alive onscreen. The visual interest of the Capital and its weird denizens was not, I think, exploited to its potential, but it was still worth seeing. And I confess I am as susceptible as anyone to the appeal of seeing the young love play out live-and-in-person (sort of). I was disappointed with the casting of Peeta’s character at first, but he won me over. Gale just looked old – too old for the character’s age – like, as usual, they picked a 30-year-old to play a 17-year-old. (Turns out Liam Hemsworth was 22 when the first movie came out, but this was my reaction.) Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss felt a little unconvincing; or maybe the acting in the final two movies (when her character is herself failing as an actor in the Mockingjay role) was a little too good? Most of my impressions can be summed up as ‘meh.’ The biggest problem, of course, is the one consistent with book-to-movie adaptations: they couldn’t fit the story and all its nuance, backstory, character motivation, interiority, etc. into this format. The movies failed to develop the history of Panem and of Katniss’s own family; they cut too many minor but instructive sideplots; minor characters were underdeveloped (Cinna!!) or missing; and Katniss’s thoughts and feelings, which make her human and complicated and conflicted, were entirely lost. I understand the challenge. It’s hard to do thoughts and feelings without straight narration, which comes with issues and dragginess of its own. But I thought a lot of what was best about Collins’s novels was missing from these films. I can see the appeal, and note I watched all four movies. But I watched them with about 65% of my attention. I think my recommendation would be to just stick to the books.

Anybody read the new prequel The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes yet? Reviews are indifferent; not sure I’ll bother. Oh, well. The trilogy’s pretty great!


Rating: 5 meals.

movie: The Booksellers (2019)

Thanks, Pops, for making sure I got the chance to see this documentary. The Booksellers is about, yes, booksellers – really, book dealers, those handling antiquarian and rare books and ephemera, rather than the clerk at your local. It therefore covers a handful of collectors as well as the rarefied worlds of New York and London book fairs and dealer circles.

Obviously as a librarian and book lover (and blogger, hello) I appreciate the appreciation for books, the excitement and fascination, the enthusiasm for this or that object; I love the visuals of books and of libraries. I roll my eyes again at predictions of the death of the book; but the film mostly rolls its eyes as well, pointing out why this will never happen. (Quintessential New Yorker Fran Lebowitz is a welcome breath of fresh air and sarcasm throughout: “The people that I see reading actual books on the subway are mostly in their 20s. This is one of the few encouraging things you will ever see in a subway.” Etc.) I guess I didn’t learn anything earth-shattering, but it was neat to get a closer view of what it looks like to really live and breathe books in a different way than I have ever known personally, even though you could say I live in books to a large degree – librarian, book reviewer, MFA student, English teacher. I confess that, while I’m committed to reading print books rather than e-books, the book-as-object is important to me only as a vehicle for the words it contains; I don’t often really geek out on the object itself. I get the appeal, though, and I dig what these folks are into, and I’m so glad they’re out there, documenting the history of print.

On the other hand, it’s a world of great privilege and funding (and the odd bit of nepotism, as frankly stated by one profiled bookseller), and it’s overwhelmingly white and male. Early on, there’s a quick flipping through of pictures of booksellers, as voiceover discusses the stereotype (old guy in tweed with pipe), to demonstrate that they’re actually not all old guys with pipes! – but they were all white. It looks to me like the documentary made an effort to showcase diversity, and good on them; I counted a whopping three people of color in the whole film, with women relatively well represented and with plenty of discussion of the women in the boys’ club situation. (All but one woman were white.) Race was not discussed until the 1:15 mark, by which point I was getting pretty frustrated with that silence. Only oblique reference was made to the fact that this stuff takes a lot of money. I guess I was left feeling a little disenchanted: cool old books and history are awesome, but very few people get invited to this party, and it’s a damn shame not to state that early and talk about it at the forefront.

We are all on our own personal journeys of woke-ness and of noticing what the world around us looks like. These days I’ve been noticing a lot of all-white or almost-all-white spaces.

Very cool documentary, lots of great visuals, and plenty of romance to appreciate about rare and antiquarian books, the quirky folks who deal with them for a living, and the histories we have yet to uncover. I am so glad there are professionals doing this work and continuing to uncover those histories. I love books, and I think I’d be tickled to get to hang out with one of these people in real life. It’s important that we recognize where money and resources keep this field pretty undemocratic, though. The hard work continues in all spheres, and radical book collections are no exception.

Still recommended.


Rating: 7 fabulous plates of fossil fish.

Stratford Festival on Film presents King Lear (2015); and my weekly update

I tried to watch NT Live’s Antony and Cleopatra. I’m far more enamored of Shakespeare’s comedies than his tragedies, and this tragedy/history (with lots of battles and allegiances that I do not find compelling), with which I’m not previously familiar, just didn’t work for me. If you expect a different outcome, by all means give it a look here. I’m sure it’s a fine performance, and Ralph Fiennes looks to be a passionate Antony (who incongruously drinks St. Pauli Girl), and Sophie Okonedo is a powerful Cleopatra. But I couldn’t get into it, and sometimes it works out that way. I’m pretty excited about the next few shows, though! Check those out here.

Antony and Cleopatra: certainly gorgeous.

Happily, my father had just passed on some additional Shakespeare opportunities via Bard on the Beach – truly a wealth of options. I had planned on the Stratford (Ontario) Festival’s production of King Lear until a friend of mine posted up the access to the New York Shakespeare Festival’s production of same – starring James Earl Jones! It’s a strange, Shakespeare-rich pandemic we are living through. I was a little tempted to try to watch both, sort of side-by-side, a few minutes at a time, but questioned whether I had five and a half hours of Lear in me.

Stratford’s Lear and Cordelia

Well, I just couldn’t choose, and so I began with the first half-hour of New York and then the first half hour of Stratford. After that sampling, my judgment was: James Earl Jones is an excellent Lear; Colm Feore was an equally excellent Lear, but the rest of the cast at Stratford won by a landslide. (The latter’s 2015 production date, compared with 1974 in New York, didn’t hurt – the more modern was understandably much more slick and visually appealing, and the sound quality much superior.) I settled in to watch the Stratford production. But I couldn’t leave Jones, either, and so every time Lear had a compelling scene I switched over to see Jones’s version of it. I ended up watching about four and a half hours of Lear after all.

New York’s Lear and Cordelia

…Which puts the lie to my statement that I find Shakespeare’s tragedies less appealing. This is really an outstanding play, and one I hadn’t revisited in many years. It seems questionable, but I remember studying this one in middle school, and watching a film version? I don’t know. I love that this play has it all: comedy, treachery the wise fool, and truly a quintessential tragedy of hubris and temporary blindness (as well as literal blindness). The father/child relationship is explored in several different plotlines, which I found a pleasing but not overdone parallel. It’s also the play that yields such famous Shakespeare lines as

How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!

That way madness lies

I am a man more sinned against than sinning

‘Tis the times’ plague, when madmen lead the blind.

As well as the quotable

Thou art a boil, a plague sore, an embossed carbuncle in my corrupted blood.

I was deeply pleased with the play itself. But also the acting – I was thoroughly absorbed in Feore’s Lear, the compelling Goneril and Regan, and the scheming Edmund. Even Cordelia, who can be a bit prim, was played feelingly by Sara Farb. Albany, Cornwell, and Kent – all memorable roles. The fool was masterful. By contrast, I found the New York company a bit under-dramatic; maybe it was the theatrical fashion of 1974 to downplay the drama. (The Stratford cast was much more white, and I appreciated the diversity in New York’s, but my feeling about the acting remains.) I except Jones from that criticism, of course; he was passionate and resounding, as he is at his best. The two Lears were quite different but both lovely; I loved being able to see them side-by-side. I do recommend this way of immersing yourself in the play, if you’ve the time and inclination! And hey, as usual your mileage may vary as to the relative strengths of each show. Try ’em both. I’m very pleased with how I spent my Saturday night.

In other news, Pops sent me this essay from Orion: “Losers Keepers” by Robert Michael Pyle. I love Bob Pyle, and I love an objects focus (as you may have noticed). This is a beautiful short meditation on objects, loss, and the temporary nature of people and things; he explores the sort of materialism that causes us to love our old and battered possessions even if we maybe don’t entirely fit the standard definitions of materialism. I found the final line spellbinding, and I really enjoyed what felt like revisiting an old friend with this quick read. Thanks, Pops.

Also this week, I attended a Patterson Hood concert on the evening before my birthday (thank you, thank you), livestreamed from his attic. It was very special – he read an excerpt from his memoir-in-progress, and played some deep cuts, and said we should all #runwithMaud, and generally treated us to what felt like a really intimate, personal evening. I loved being able to see this show in my PJs with my dog in my lap, as a special birthday treat.

Patterson Hood in my living room

In other news I’ve been painting and making some solar prints, reading a lot and sort of bouncing off the walls – after a week of up-and-down weather it snowed for two days this weekend, just in case this wasn’t already an exceptionally weird time to be alive. Hops and I will be looking for some good hikes once things clear up again. I’m getting to know my Kindle well. I poked into a few new television series but rejected each of them. I really wish there were more of The Wire. Let’s see… I worked two jigsaw puzzles and I won’t be doing any more of those; I’m too obsessive. In the absence of gym or lap pool, I’ve been doing exercise videos when the weather turns crappy, and Hops gives me the most withering, disgusted looks – I should document his reaction to my workouts for you all! Okay, back to books on Wednesday (and back to NT Live this weekend!). Thanks for bearing with me, all.

movie: The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019)

Again thanks to my mother’s urging, I watched this introspective film online the other night. It was odd, slow-moving in that way that art films often are, but visually beautiful, thoughtful and poignant.

Jimmie Fails is a little bit obsessed with the family home – that is, the house that his family lost some years ago. He and his buddy Mont hang around and work on the house when they can get away with it – the white lady who lives in it now is apt to throw croissants when she catches Jimmie touching up the paint on the trim. Jimmie lives with Mont and his blind grandfather as sort of a charity case, in an outlying part of the city. A group of young men hang out on the sidewalk outside Mont’s house, talking shit as the pair comes and goes. There’s less action to this movie than there are scenes, even montages. Mont works at a fishmonger’s; we see him killing and wrapping catfish. Jimmie works at an old folks’ home. They wait on the bus. Jimmie rides a skateboard. The men on the sidewalk talk their shit. And Jimmie worries over the house.

Jimmie’s grandfather built this house – “the stairs, these windows, the columns, the archways, the witch hat, the balustrades, the fish scales, this balcony… all of it by Jimmie Fails the First with his own two hands.”

the house in question (click to enlarge)

And Jimmie’s determined to have it back. Accompanied by the eccentric (but who isn’t?), loyal Mont, he’ll get back there.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco showcases footage of the city and one completely extraordinary house (with a built-in organ in the front hallway, a hidden room behind a bookshelf, and all the flourishes), and takes time and attention with faces and personalities. Again, just visually, it’s a striking series of studies. See the white men in full haz-mat suits cleaning up sidewalks where Black children play among street preachers and those sidewalk loiterers, who form a Greek chorus of sorts… Jimmie and Mont spend as much time standing, sitting, riding, and musing as they spend in action, but their actions are momentous. Jimmie is driven, single-minded. Mont is an artist, a writer, and an unusual soul. When Jimmie asks why he’s lovingly drawing the sidewalk guys, who are basically bullies: “I shouldn’t get to appreciate them… ’cause they’re mean to me?”

Obviously, this movie is a commentary on race relations and on gentrification, the plague on San Francisco in particular but on many or all of the cities in this country. It’s about class and exploitation and how we value history, and family relationships. It’s also about friendship: the friendship between Jimmie and Mont is something really special.

I was fascinated to learn the backstory on this movie. Jimmie is played by the real Jimmie Fails, whose life story closely matches his character’s. (The house is not his family’s house, though.) Director Joe Talbot is his longtime best friend; together the two decided to tell this true story in fictionalized film form, and it’s genius. It also means that actor/character Jimmie has bared his soul in a pretty big way. Mont is played by Yale-trained Jonathan Majors, and I’ve seen indication in two different places that he both is and is not based on a real-life friend of Jimmie’s. Whatever the case, he’s an indispensable part of this story, as Jimmie’s foil, and partner both in musings and in action. His artistic inclinations move the plot along and allow for important commentary.

I’d say the only criticism to be made here is pacing, and that’s a qualified criticism; it’s just got that art-film thing where there’s plenty of space and time for ideas to expand, which is not for every viewer. But this movie is beautiful, thought-provoking, important, wise, and funny. I do recommend. Bonus points for SF lovers, of course; and for those of us with strong commitments to place, check out Jimmie’s line: “you don’t get to hate [the city] unless you love it.” Indeed.


Rating: 8 brush strokes.

National Theatre Live at Home presents Frankenstein (2011); and my weekly update

Last week’s NT Live release was 2011’s Frankenstein, which is viewable here until this Thursday night, when we get a chance to see Antony and Cleopatra.

Well, it had to happen: there had to be an NT Live production I was less taken by. I found less to revel in here than usual. I’m sure the acting was very fine, but it felt a little indulgent, in terms of theatricality. Opening scenes in which the Creature discovers himself and the world around him went on a little long for my patience. The pacing in general felt a bit draggy, and the themes of trying-to-be-god and man-is-monster not terribly uplifting… which might have been my feelings about the novel, too, actually. Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller alternate playing the two lead roles, Victor Frankenstein and the Creature; this film version offers Cumberbatch as the Creature. Again, very good acting I’m sure, but I often felt a little impatient; I didn’t buy into the drama as I usually do. This production also included just a few musical sequences and the odd spot of comedy, both of which felt a bit out of place in a story that’s otherwise, well, quite serious. If you love Frankenstein, do check this out, of course, and I’d be interested in your take. This one was not so much for me. Ah, well. This week will be better.

In other news, since around the beginning of shelter-in-place orders, I’ve been having weekly literature talks (by phone) with the 8th-grade daughter of some friends of mine. We are heading into our seventh week together. L has mostly read short stories that I’ve also taught to my Short Fiction class (semester wrap-up coming later this week!), and our discussion follows what I’ve done in class; I’ve found her to be at least as ready as my college students (freshmen through seniors) to handle the elements of fiction and the real-world implications of the themes of these stories. It’s been an absolute pleasure – and now that my own semester has ended but my chats with L continue, I’m still more grateful for this small-scale opportunity for a little teaching, a little talking, a little contact with a lovely, clever young woman. Last week I asked her to assign me a reading, based on our recent discussion of dystopian fiction (following stories by Shirley Jackson, Ursula Le Guin, and Lidia Yuknavitch), so we discussed chapter 3 of The Hunger Games. And now I’m going to be reading that book. Good job, L.

In other news, I have been sorry to learn that my book review gig with Shelf Awareness will be moving to a digital reading format due to the pandemic and resulting difficulties with printing galleys and ARCs… it all makes perfect sense and there are far bigger issues to be sad about, but still I was sad to realize that all my reading-for-review will be moving away from hard-copy. My first e-reader arrived in the mail last week, and I’ve been loading my e-galleys and DRCs (that’s digital review copies, previously advanced review copies which were printed) onto it and doing my first reading. The Kindle Paperwhite is much smaller than I’d expected. But it’s pretty easy to use, once I got it set up, and the small, lightweight physicality of it is nice, I admit. I guess I’m torn between feeling grumpy about this new development, and committing myself to liking this, since it’s going to happen regardless. I’m trying hard to commit myself to liking it. And to be fair, nothing about the reading experience is hateful so far – although I definitely miss the feel of pages and the ability to take my notes on a bookmark and even underline passages on real paper. (I’m aware that the e-reader has highlighting & note-taking functions. It’s not the same; and it’s not nearly as easy.) Well, we’ll see, but I’m trying to get happily on board.

In other news, let’s see… I’ve enjoyed a few TV series online in the last two months (already!) of work-and-everything-else-from-home. I fell in love with Luther and then even more in love with The Wire – I may very well turn around and watch the latter again. I ripped through season six of Bosch, and was glad to see that my enjoyment of that series has not suffered from my recent disappointment with a Connelly novel on audiobook (that review to come).

Spring is off-and-on here in central West Virginia, and when it’s on, Hops and I walk miles and I ride my bike on the local trails, which have been mucky for weeks and weeks but are super fun nonetheless; I’ve also put in some trailbuilding & maintenance with my new friends here. Oh, that’s right: I’ve begun a new little project via a new Instagram account, wvwildlifewanderer, where I document the plants and animals (mostly plants, much easier to observe and photograph) that I see around here. I’m trying to learn how to recognize trees and flowers, which does not come easily to me, but it’s been a rewarding process so far.

What have you seen, onscreen or in the world, that intrigued you lately?

National Theatre Live at Home presents Twelfth Night (2017); and my weekly internet roundup

This week on NT Live at Home: Twelfth Night, viewable for free here until this Thursday night, when we lose Twelfth Night and gain Frankenstein (with Benedict Cumberbatch). Lucky us!

And you’ll be shocked to hear it’s another excellent one. This is a great play, and I love the casting and the acting here. Viola/Cesario and Sebastian are Black; Malvolio, Fabian and Feste the fool are women (Malvolia, Fabia and… I think just Fool); and the whole thing has been recast in, what, 1930s-ish trappings? There’s no modernization of the dialog, thankfully, just the visual effects. I love the gender play, and what could make more sense in a play where a woman dresses up as a man to woo another woman on behalf of another man, than to mess about with gender roles a bit more? Malvolia is as ridiculous as ever; the lesbian twist on her desire for her boss is only natural. I think this may be the best Malvolio I’ve seen (although he was memorable in that movie version). I think the best chemistry of the whole production was that between Viola/Cesario and Duke Orsino. Sebastian is hot, and I loved the moment with Orsino gets confused one more time at the end and kisses the wrong twin; but the Viola + Orsino scenes have something going on that no other prospective couple achieves.

This one also features another creative set design, circular and moveable-changeable. While not all reviewers loved the drag/fetish club scene, I thought it was great fun. Again they had me guffawing out loud and startling a sleeping old dog (sorry, Hops). I was all-around entertained. I think Twelfth Night might be one of Shakespeare’s most accessible plays to follow, and there is fun here for anyone, promise. I’d watch it again in a heartbeat and heartily recommend it all around, as usual for everything NT Live offers.


Rating: 8 hot tubs.

Continuing my new pandemic tradition of reviewing other cool stuff on the web: I was so pleased with this astonishing performance (via a link from Mark Doty, so thank you for that, sir) that I’ve watched it several times now. It’s tableaux vivants of Caravaggio paintings, performed to Mozart; but beyond the classical tableau vivant which is a stationary performance, these are shown in setup and takedown as a whole moving theatre. The addition of movement helps me to appreciate the physical strength of the players, making it athletic as well as dramatic as well as a visual art form – plus the music – really a revelation.

A couple of nights ago I “attended” a 50th anniversary show for KPFT, Houston’s Pacifica public radio station, and got to see performances by nearly three dozen artists with ties to my hometown, including a couple of old favorites and a few I didn’t know but was really drawn to. Hayes Carll made me cry unexpectedly. Other highlights included BettySoo, Ruthie Foster, Shinyribs, and Lisa Morales. I don’t think this is available anywhere now, but it was a real treat for me, and since then I’ve been spending some time on Carolyn Wonderland’s YouTube page.

Finally, and while we’re thinking about Shakespeare, I dug this Guardian article about the question of reading drama versus watching it performed onstage. I guess I’ve always assumed that theatre performances were the highest actualization of any piece of written drama – why write a play but to have it performed? But there are some good points here. I’ve certainly enjoyed reading drama, and while there’s a special place in my heart for the stage, it’s nice to be reminded that we can all bring Shakespeare (and others) home with us as well. The timely article is about bringing him home now when we can’t get out to the theatre, but of course, thank dog for NT Live! Yes, you can have it all!

I watched a great movie the other night too but that one gets its own review, of course. I think this is the week that pagesofjulia will have to return to thrice-weekly posts… so much goodness in the world, in terms of art and entertainment. Plenty of bad, too, but so much good.

National Theatre Live at Home presents Treasure Island (2015), and the other stuff I’m watching online

This week’s edition of NT Live at Home is another repeat for me, but one I was glad to be able to revisit. Treasure Island can be viewed here until Thursday, when we’ll get access to Twelfth Night. I’m looking forward to it!

This was the first NT Live show I ever saw, with my father, in Bellingham, WA at their outstanding Pickford Theatre. It’s as delightful as I remember. The talented Patsy Ferran plays Jim, who’s a girl in this version – I love a little gender-twist to a classic, and the empowerment that comes with it in a case like this. While it’s not such a big deal as to steal the show, she gets in a few lines about how girls can have adventures too. (Likewise, a few female crew members and pirates draw the odd remark – acknowledged, but not earth-shaking.) Ferran’s Jim is expressive and fun. Arthur Darvill’s Long John Silver is perfect: charming, and terrifying. I love the scene where his one-leggedness is revealed. And I like how they managed the one-leggedness onstage. I see in my original review that I was bothered by certain aspects of the adaptation from Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel; I am unbothered on this go-round, by more distance from reading the novel, for one thing, but also by appreciation for the theatre. Still impressed by the modular set! This is a great show.

Otherwise, this weekend I’ve been catching up on some of NPR’s excellent Tiny Desk Concerts: Bob Weir and Wolf Bros., Chika, Megan Thee Stallion, Rising Appalachia, Los Lobos, Sheryl Crow, Café Tacvba… and the odd Tiny Desk (Home) Concert, like one from Tank (from Tank and the Bangas). There are so many great ones to dig into.

I am also reading my way right through nearly 1,200 pages of The Stand and grading hundreds of pages of student essays.

Put NT Live on your schedule, if you haven’t already!

National Theatre Live at Home presents Jane Eyre (2015), and other online events

Week two of NT Live at Home! This was a repeat viewing for me – I saw Jane Eyre when it was a new production, and loved it. I was perfectly happy and grateful to see it again. And again, to remind you: this production is viewable for free but for a limited time, until the next show goes up on Thursday, so do go see it here asap. This week’s release will be Treasure Island, another outstanding production. Put it on your calendar!

So, Jane Eyre as repeat: still outstanding. I think I loved it even more this time around, although I see I originally rated it a 10, so I can’t do better than that! I am impressed all over again with the set – so simple, and yet used to convey so much movement and so many different sets; the movement of people, including the lovely, clever form of travel in a carriage left to the imagination but fully communicated by the actors; the use of actors as set (as a doorknob, for example) and (I still love this) the actor who plays a dog. And the bird. Each actor, excepting Jane herself, plays multiple roles, with few but meaningful costume changes, and yet they’re not a bit hard to keep straight. Minimalism is the thing all around: set, costuming, cast (in numbers only) are spare. But the acting is superb.

I had forgotten the musical numbers entirely! And while they contribute something (and are stunningly performed), they are not the most important element. What I remembered best about this play – minimalism and extraordinarily great acting – are still the best parts. I didn’t remember it being so passionate – I don’t remember Jane being so passionate, even when she was a child. As my mother would say, this character has an overdeveloped sense of justice. (I won’t say whom my mother has said that about!) That’s interesting, because in my interview with author Erin Blakemore, I recall she and I agreeing that Wuthering Heights is the novel of passion where Jane Eyre is the novel of reason – but this is surely a story of passion! at least in the stage version. Another new observation: on this go-round I badly want to reread the novel, which I haven’t read since high school. Maybe I can straighten all that out.

I was really stunned and deeply impressed with this re-viewing. Don’t miss it. My previous rating, 10 fires burning brightly, stands.

In other news, and continuing my feeling of overwhelm at all the lovely art & culture available online these days, I’ve seen some additional great stuff the last few days, including a Drive-By Truckers concert (from Pickathon 2017), a Jason Isbell & Amanda Shires jam session and fireside chat, and an author reading by Paul Lisicky and Carter Sickels at the Blue Stoop in Philly. (This was an event I’d originally planned to see in person – I had a dogsitter lined up and everything. But instead I got to attend with a whiskey in hand and dog in lap.)

This was the third time I’ve gotten to hear Paul’s voice in recent months. I interviewed him about his recent Later (that interview will be here on Friday), and I attended (online) another recent reading. He’s made me cry all three times; I don’t know what to tell you about that, but it’s a moving book and I’m a fan. Actually, Carter’s reading made me cry as well; they were both lovely, beautiful readings as well as beautiful books. (I haven’t read Carter’s, but I’ve since preordered it through Taylor Books.) There was some question of how new releases are reading, now, in the pandemic – because the books that are being released now of course date from before COVID ruled our lives. And while some have not profited by the change, sounding frivolous or tone-deaf in the new landscape, both of these books have aged well, if you will. Both are about sickness, which of course is creepy in its own way, but both have intelligent things to say about contagion, isolation, and how illness and death are in some ways confirmations of life.

having a whiskey with Paul Lisicky

Just last night I reveled in this Tank and the Bangas concert. There are concerts and plays coming out fast and thick – and I’m also reading three books at once and teaching a couple of college courses! Whatever else may be true in social isolation, bored I am not. I’ll say it again: the pandemic is a terrible thing. But there are some bright points of light in this darkness: art.

movie: Fantastic Fungi (2019)

Thanks, Mom, for making sure I took a look at this delightful documentary. In the age of work-from-home and social distancing, the days of the week have begun to run together, and I’ve decided to view something special each Friday night to mark the beginning of the weekend, lest I miss the occasion altogether. Fantastic Fungi kicks off my new tradition.

This film is visually stunning, and there are other benefits, but I think this might be the headline. Gorgeous! (Check out the trailer at the Fantastic Fungi website – you can also watch the whole movie from there for $5.) The sped-up/time-lapse film of mushrooms growing and spreading is mesmerizing, beautiful, and surprising: you may find that mushrooms come in far greater variety than you ever realized. And fungi, of course, of which mushrooms are only a subset.

Besides those magnificent visuals, there is plainly-stated science for laypeople – chiefly, the revelation that massive networks of mycelium make up part of the earth under our feet, wherever we go. The interconnectedness of fungi is one of their coolest features. Mushrooms have medicinal properties, make good food, and can be used to filter water; and we understand but the merest bit of them.

And then there is the magic of mushrooms. The film features a series of personalities, mycologists and mushroom-lovers, scientists and entrepreneurs, and of course there are some personalities in this part. When we get to the psychedelics, I’d say it gets a bit carried away and cult-like (and I say this as someone who is totally fine with y’all tripping on mushrooms if you want to, please understand). But there are some great points made about the weird prejudices we (the U.S.) hold as a country and as a society, the setbacks in research in this field, and the very cool recent research in the last 20 years into how psilocybin might could help cancer patients and those who suffer from depression and PTSD. Good information, but a bit mystical and awed. That said, this beautiful film would probably be enjoyable while eating the magic mushrooms, too.

The NYT calls it “informative and kooky,” and I think that’s about right. If you’re not already moderately mushroom-expert, this documentary will teach you something, and it will certainly stun and sooth your eyeballs. I rather agree with the reviewer that “I could have done without Brie Larson’s cutesy narration,” offering the fungi’s collective point of view. But cutesy is part of the shtick here. And I’m unconvinced by the idea that mushrooms will help us – with technology, of course – to save the world, but that’s a matter of my worldview, and your mileage, as usual, may vary. Worth $5 and 80 minutes of my life? Heck, yes. I’d love to have that time-lapse fungi playing on a loop, in fact. Enjoy.


Rating: 7 spores.

National Theatre Live at Home presents One Man, Two Guvnors (2011)

PSA: The amount of arts & culture that has become available online, in our homes, for free during this pandemic is glorious and frankly, overwhelming. (The pandemic is a horror, but let’s still recognize a boon when it occurs. And let’s please note the clear importance of the arts, and keep that lesson in mind ever after. Fund the arts! Support artists!) I am impressed and humbled and glad; also overwhelmed. But for me at least, the best thing to come along yet is this: National Theatre Live At Home. Every Thursday night for at least the next several weeks (and, I’d imagine, to continue beyond that), they’ll show one of their greatest productions on YouTube, free to stream until the following Thursday night. That means that the first free production, reviewed here, will stay available at this link until this Thursday night when we get a new one. Oh joy! Do take advantage. (And if you’re able, you might consider making a donation to support NT Live, too.)

One Man, Two Guvnors premiered at the National Theatre’s Lyttelton Theatre in 2011. The play is an adaptation of the commedia dell’arte Servant of Two Masters, resetting the plot in 1960s Brighton, England. It has many classic elements of comedic theatre, not to say Shakespeare: a woman disguises herself as her own twin brother (gender-bending); mistaken identities lead to heartbreak (love triangles and squares); abundant slapstick/physical humor; and the servant with two masters, which is reminiscent of the twin bosses and twin servants of The Comedy of Errors. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: it all brings me back around to Shakespeare. There’s also an actor playing a character who wants to be an actor (and thereby making fun of actors), and I’m always tickled by meta-humor like that.

Quick plot run-down: Francis Henshall has taken on two jobs at once, gofer for both gangster Roscoe Crabbe and upper-crusty Stanley Stubbers, and he has to keep them both unawares. Except Roscoe is really Rachel disguised as her twin, who is dead, murdered by Rachel’s boyfriend, who is Stanley. Roscoe is gay, but engaged to the daughter of another criminal type, Mr. Duck, even though said daughter would rather marry a (terrible) aspiring actor. Francis attempts to court Mr. Duck’s bookkeeper, but his chief concern is food: the chubby “man with two guvnors” hasn’t eaten all day and he’s famished. Key scenes include the one in which he must act as waiter to both “Roscoe” and Mr. Duck (in one room) and Stanley (in the other). This one involves a geriatric waiter-in-training and Francis’s scheme to waylay as much food as possible for himself. There’s another in which Francis’s good and bad angels (if you will) get into an altercation, so that he flails and rolls around the stage, a one-man fistfight. The ending I’ll just say is also typical of Shakespeare.

While I’ll confess this play started off a little slowly for me, it soon had me laughing so hard I cried, and at one point snorted beer on a sleeping dog who was most displeased. The acting was excellent: James Corden deserves the accolades he’s received for the role of Francis, which he fully embodies. Musical acts between scenes add to the period feel, in the style of early Beatles (whom Francis claims to have assisted in their founding); the musicians are joined by various cast members.

It’s also worth nothing that, not without its problems, this play engages in the odd bit of racism and plenty of sexism and even a rape joke – that last I would take right out. We make certain allowances for period drama, but I don’t think there’s any excuse for rape jokes.

One of the most remarkable elements of this play is that the fourth wall is thoroughly broken down; actors look to the audience for effect and pause mid-dialogue for laughter, which only increases it. Most importantly, there are several points at which audience members are solicited for sandwiches or dragged onstage to participate in the action. One such participant, “Christine Patterson,” gets quite deeply involved, and winds up, well, the brunt of some physical humor herself, shall we say. (I’m quite sure she was a plant, but the others, I’m unclear.) This was perhaps the best and cleverest bit of the whole thing. It was the Christine sequence that had me snorting beer.

I had a massively fun time watching Corden’s antics and the quite silly but thoroughly amusing plot of One Man, Two Guvnors. And for free! Thoroughly recommended (although future productions will be just fine without the rape joke).


Rating: 8 soup tureens.
%d bloggers like this: