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Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Theater Review: The Front Page


Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's "The Front Page" is one of the most beloved scripts of the 20th century, and a remarkable group of talented people have performed it. It was a hit in its first incarnation 88 years ago, directed by George S. Kaufman and produced by Howard Hughes. It has been revived five times. It was also turned into a 1931 movie starring Adolphe Menjou and Pat O'Brien, then remade into a fast-talking gender comedy as "His Girl Friday" with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell directed by Howard Hawks in 1940, then back into its original form with a Billy Wilder version starring Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon in 1974.

Now it's back on Broadway, and while my wife and I were visiting my daughter this weekend, we managed to score three tickets to what is already the hottest show in town because of its all-star cast: Nathan Lane, John Slattery, John Goodman, Jefferson Mays, Holland Taylor, and Robert Morse. Those are the big names, but the character actors who fill the supporting roles are impressive, too, including Lewis J. Stadlen, Christopher Macdonald, Dann Florek, Dylan Baker, Halley Feiffer, and Sherie Rene Scott. Aside from the last two, you'd probably recognize any of them as soon as you saw them.

"The Front Page" takes place in an era when newspapers were king, when most big cities each had half a dozen dailies, and they competed with each other for every tabloid-ish story they could cover. Here's the Wikipedia summary of the plot:
The play's single set is the dingy Press Room of Chicago's Criminal Courts Building, overlooking the gallows behind the Cook County Jail. Reporters from most of the city's newspapers are passing the time with poker and pungent wisecracks about the news of the day. Soon they'll witness the hanging of Earl Williams, a white man and (supposed) Communist revolutionary convicted of killing a black policeman. Hildy Johnson, cocky star reporter for the Examiner, is late. He appears only to say good-bye; he's quitting to get a respectable job and be married. Suddenly the reporters hear that Earl Williams has escaped from the jail. All but Hildy stampede out for more information. As Hildy tries to decide how to react Williams comes in through the window. He tells Hildy he's no revolutionary and shot the police officer by accident. The reporter realizes this bewildered, harmless little man was railroaded — just to help the crooked mayor and sheriff pick up enough black votes to win re-election. It's the story of a lifetime. Hildy helps Williams hide inside a roll-top desk. His daunting challenge now is to get Williams out of the building to a safe place for an interview before rival reporters or trigger-happy policemen discover him. The Examiner managing editor, Walter Burns, is a devious tyrant who would do just about anything to keep Hildy with the paper. Nevertheless, Hildy has no choice but to ask for his help.
Slattery plays Hildy, and it's a little odd seeing him in this role after he was part of the great ensemble in "Spotlight," last year's Oscar-winning movie about newspaper journalists. And there's an unintended laugh when Hildy announces that he's quitting reporting to move to New York for a job at an advertising agency -- yes, he's off to become one of the "Mad Men." But Slattery handles it all very well and is more than up to the part.

In any other production, he'd have top billing, but Nathan Lane is the King Of Broadway and, even though his Walter Burns doesn't appear until late in the second act (of three), he's the one many theatergoers want to see on stage. In fact, there's a moment in the middle of the play, when Lane has yet to make his entrance, that Jefferson Mays (Tony-winner for playing multiple characters in "A Gentleman's Guide To Love And Murder") re-enters the newsroom unexpectedly, and several audience members applauded thinking it was Lane finally getting on stage. Once Lane does appear, it's essentially a two-man show -- he and Slattery engage in the kind of rapid-fire dialogue you'd normally see in a British farce, complete with door slamming and other physical shtick. Their timing is impeccable.

Goodman plays Sheriff Hartman as a gravel-voiced buffoon who's always at odds with the newspapermen. Goodman looks to have lost quite a bit of weight for the role, but he can still throw it around on stage and hold his own. He's particularly good in an extended scene with "Law and Order" veteran Florek as the Mayor of Chicago -- two dumb politicians plotting Williams' execution to advance their own careers with election day approaching.

As a stage play, "The Front Page" has always been a little bit too long at 2 hours 45 minutes. A lot of the setup in Act One could be done away with -- there's too much time spent with the other newspapermen before Hildy Johnson shows up. The movie versions (particularly "His Girl Friday") are a lot tighter, but director Jack O'Brien has everyone working at a crackling pace, and the special effects of shattered glass and gunshots ringing around the newsroom during one key scene were very well done.

This was only the fourth preview night for this production, which will officially open on October 20th, so there were a few slip-ups, but they were barely noticeable with a cast this extraordinary. All of us who left the theater Friday night walked away happy, as will anyone lucky enough to get seats for the guaranteed-to-be-sold-out limited run of this American classic.

Monday, September 26, 2016

As I Tweeted

  • Surprise! I thought everything on Twitter today would be experts predicting what will happen at tonight's debate, but it's only 9 out of 10.
  • Looking forward to tomorrow, when all those experts apologize publicly for their predictions turning out to be wrong and accept accountability.
  • Here's the only prediction guaranteed to be 100% right: no Clinton or Trump spokesperson will admit the other candidate made any good points.

Movie Review: Queen Of Katwe


Until now, there has been exactly one great movie about chess, "Searching For Bobby Fischer," the 1993 drama about Josh Waitzkin, a real-life chess prodigy played by Max Pomeranc, with Joe Mantegna and Joan Allen as his parents and Ben Kingsley and Laurence Fishburne as chess teachers with very different methods.

Now comes "Queen of Katwe," another real-life story about Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga), a girl from the very poor Ugandan village of Katwe who develops an extraordinary talent for chess. She's coached by Robert Katende (David Oyelowo, who should have been Oscar-nominated for playing Martin Luther King Jr. in "Selma"), who introduced to the game to several of the boys and girls in the village. When her abilities become more apparent, he wants to take her to regional, national, and then international competitions, but money is a severe problem.

Her mother, played by Lupita Nyong'o (Oscar-winner for "12 Years A Slave"), is barely keeping a roof over their heads for Phiona and her brothers and sisters by selling corn in the marketplace -- their father is long gone. Her daughters don't have much of a future in the town unless they take up with a man with money (as Phiona's sister Night does), but with Katende's urging and his clever politicking with the chess authorities, Phiona grows from a child of the slums to a teen with a talent that can help her rise above her surroundings.

Director Mira Nair doesn't let "Queen Of Katwe" fall into Disney's underdog-wins-in-the-end cliches. She gets wonderful performances from Nalwanga and all the other child actors. Nyong'o is just right as the mother overwhelmed by her circumstances, and Oyelowo is perfect as the chess mentor who teaches Phiona about the game and how to overcome life's obstacles. Nair also uses a color palate that keeps the scenes vibrant even when the drama is at its most intense.

"Queen Of Katwe" is a wonderful family movie. It would be nice to see it inspire more kids of color (as well as Caucasians) to take up chess, to learn its strategies and its disciplines, to understand how to plan ahead and consider the consequences of their actions -- both on and off the board.

I give "Queen of Katwe" an 8 out of 10.

Watching it, I was reminded of two other chess movies that, while not as great as "Searching For Bobby Fischer," are both very good. One is "Brooklyn Castle," a documentary about a public school in New York's poor BedStuy neighborhood that keeps turning out chess champions. The other is "Pawn Sacrifice," with Tobey Maguire as Bobby Fischer taking on Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber) in Reykjavik in 1972.

Previously on Harris Online...

Best Thing I've Read Today

An essay by nearly-one-hundred-year-old Kirk Douglas on the rise of Trump.

Movie Review: The Magnificent Seven


The original 1960 "Magnificent Seven" starred Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, James Coburn, Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn (and 2 other actors you've never heard of) as the good guys. It was directed by John Sturges, who also made "Bad Day At Black Rock," "Ice Station Zebra," and "The Great Escape" (McQueen, Coburn, and Bronson starred in the latter, too). Plus, "The Magnificent Seven" contains the greatest theme song ever written for a western -- it got an Oscar nomination for Elmer Bernstein.

The 2016 remake stars Denzel Washington, Ethan Hawke, Chris Pratt, Vincent D'Onofrio (and three actors you've never heard of) as the good guys. It was directed by Antoine Fuqua, who has made two other movies starring Denzel ("Training Day," "The Equalizer"), as well as "Shooter" and "Olympus Has Fallen." It also has music by James Horner that you will not remember -- until the end, when Bernstein's original theme plays over the credits.

Both movies are about gunmen in the old west who are hired by the people of a small town to protect them from the bad guys. In the original, they were a bunch of Mexican banditos led by Eli Wallach, overacting with a bad accent. In the remake, they're the enforcers for a ruthless businessman played by Peter Sarsgaard, underacting with a constant snarl.

Denzel plays Chisolm, a gunfighter who recruits a multi-cultural group of defenders at the behest of Haley Bennett, a woman from the town who hires them. Bennett's previous claim to fame was her 2007 debut as a Britney Spears-like singer in the underrated Hugh Grant/Drew Barrymore romantic comedy, "Music and Lyrics." You'll see a lot of her this fall, as she also stars with Emily Blunt in next month's "The Girl On The Train," followed by Warren Beatty's "Rules Don't Apply," and she's fine in this.

It's fun to see Denzel on a horse, dressed all in black, sporting a weapon on his hip (am I the only one who had a flashback to Cleavon Little riding into Rock Ridge in "Blazing Saddles"?). As in most of his movies, he's the authority figure everyone else looks to, and he's more than up to the task. The rest of the cast is okay, although they're not given anything original to do. Unfortunately, Fuqua follows the lead of so many other action directors by cutting too quickly, so it's hard at times to see the impact of the bloody gunfights that make up the bulk of the movie.

There's not much more to say. If you've seen the original, you know how "The Magnificent Seven" is going to end. If you haven't, you can probably guess anyway.

The remake pales in comparison, but it's not a bad two hours of predictable big screen entertainment. I give it a 7 out of 10.

Friday, September 23, 2016

No Show Today, But Dolly

Ian, Dan, Colin, and I are still too depressed about the end of Brangelina, so we won't be on the air this afternoon. That means I won't be posting any podcasts this weekend, but in the meantime, you can enjoy Dolly Parton doing a beautiful a cappella version of her 1973 hit "Jolene" with help from Pentatonix...

Best Thing I've Read Today

I can't post the chart here, but go check out the graphics Scott Bateman makes under the heading, "What Trump Has Lied About In The Past 24 Hours."

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Designated Survivor


I liked the first episode of ABC's "Designated Survivor," in which Kiefer Sutherland plays Tom Kirkman, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, who suddenly becomes President after everyone else above him in the line of succession is killed when the US Capitol is bombed during the State Of The Union address.

That's a compelling start to a story, and one that we'd joked about in our family when my brother, Seth, became Acting Secretary Of Labor in 2013. During his six months in that office, he went to cabinet meetings, had a large security detail that protected him as he traveled, and was officially the eleventh person in line for the presidency.

I asked Seth how he felt about that, and he told me that if I ever saw him on TV from the Oval Office telling the world that everything is okay, well, everything is most definitely not okay.

Which brings me to the end of the "Designated Survivor" premiere, when Sutherland sits down and is about to do exactly that -- reassure the country from behind the presidential desk. Just before airtime, his speechwriter (played by Kal Penn, who gave up acting for a few years to work in the Obama administration) tells Sutherland to remove his glasses because "they don't look presidential."

That's when I called bullshit, for two reasons: 1) there's nothing wrong with a middle-aged man needing glasses; and 2) when the man is about to make the most important speech of his life off a teleprompter and needs to be confident and authoritative, you can not take away the glasses that make it possible for him to read that speech!

I'm looking forward to next week's episode, in which the presidential optician has to make an emergency house call.

I Want Candy


On the way to work the other day, I needed a sugar fix. I was coming up on a supermarket, so I pulled over, went in, picked up a bag of M&M's, and walked to a cashier. He scanned the bag, and told me it cost fifty-two cents. I handed him a dollar bill. He put the M&M's in a plastic bag, counted out my change, then handed both of them to me along with the receipt.

Now, I know that's how a supermarket cashier is supposed to handle every transaction, but let's break this one down.

First of all, when I'm buying M&M's, you don't need to put them in a bag. They're already in a bag.

Second, I don't need the receipt. There is exactly zero chance that I'm going to come back to the supermarket to lodge a complaint about candy and demand my money back. Even if it's stale and tasteless, I'm going to write off the fifty two cents and go on with my day.

Have I ever returned something to a supermarket? Yes, when my wife told me I bought the wrong brand of cheddar cheese or detergent or whatever -- but not because it was faulty, and not if it cost under a buck.

While I'm off on this returning-items tangent, I've often thought about taking cantaloupe or watermelon back once I got them home, opened them up, and found them not nearly ripe enough for consumption. But if I started doing that, I'd be at the customer service counter every day, because the produce department of supermarkets no longer sells ready-to-eat melons. They've all been picked-and-shipped prematurely, several days away from being close to ripe. Same thing with their bananas, which are consistently green with nary a yellow one in the bunch, as if no one could possibly want a banana now. If they sold bread the same way, you'd end up with unbaked dough every time.

Back to the M&M's. After they fulfilled my need for a sugar buzz, I noticed two things on the package I'd never seen before. One was the apostrophe in the trademarked name -- they are M&M's, not M&Ms. Since there's nothing possessive about the candy, and its name is not a contraction, that seems wrong.

The other thing that caught my eye, right next to the mandatory nutrition information rectangle that seems moot on a bag of candy, was the box that read:
This product should reach you in excellent condition. Satisfaction guaranteed or we will replace it.
Then it gave a phone number to call with questions or comments. What must it be like to answer the M&M's customer service line and hear complaints like these?
  • There was only one blue M&M in the bag! You ripped me off! 
  • I found a half of an M&M in the bag along with the whole ones. Do I get a refund?
  • I put a handful of M&M's in my mouth and almost choked to death! Where do I send the lawsuit?
  • I'm trying to limit my dextrin intake. Exactly how much is in a single M&M?
  • What's the record for longest toss of an M&M across the room into a stoned guy's mouth?
Again, we return to the idea of returning candy. Let's say you were in my situation -- you wanted a snack, chose M&M's, then were dissatisfied with them for some reason. If you call to complain, you're not going to get anything to satisfy your craving at that moment. It's going to take a few days for them to mail you a coupon for a new bag. Meanwhile, you're going to go somewhere else to purchase some other sugary thing to stick in your mouth, right? 

Is it worth the time? And what are the chances you still have the receipt?

Worth A Link

  • Samantha Bee explains why she went after Jimmy Fallon for his softball Trump interview.
  • A judge says the Rams must provide season tickets or refunds on deposits for St. Louis PSLs.
  • A law professor explains why you should never talk to the police.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Polling Chasm Followup

After my piece earlier this week wondering how accurate polls (presidential preference of otherwise) can be if so many of us don't have landlines, and we can easily ignore calls from numbers we and our smartphones don't recognize, Dennis Hartin e-mailed:

Read your post with interest, and have wondered the same thing, thanks to a feature of our landline phone. Our phone recognizes robo-calls, or calls that are coming from a call center, and only rings once on such calls. As you might expect, we only pick up after the second ring. How many other people have this feature, and how do the pollers factor that in?
I hadn't heard of this, so I asked Dennis for more information:
The service we use is not from our landline carrier, but a web site with the euphonious name of nomorobo.com. You register your phone number with them, and it screens your calls. If its program sees an incoming call that's a telemarketer or robocall, it answers the call for you -- hence you hear only one ring.
I checked the site, and found the service is not available for traditional landlines -- only for VoIP, which is what you probably have if you get your phone service from a cable company like Charter or something like AT&T U-Verse. In that case, it's free. If you want it for your smartphone, it $5/month.

I'm happy with the call-blocking technology already built into my iPhone, and we don't have a landline, so I wouldn't use NoMoRobo and can't speak to its efficacy, but I pass along the information in case you're interested. Neither I nor Dennis has any financial interest in the company (in fact, I have no idea how they make money on the landline-blocking service).

To get back to the point of my original piece, everyone who uses services like this would also be among the un-poll-able public, creating yet another demographic of Americans whose opinions are never tallied.

On a related subject, Timothy Noah has a terrific piece in Slate about the death of the phone call:
Calling somebody on the phone used to be a perfectly ordinary thing to do. You called people you knew well, not so well, or not at all, and never gave it a second thought. But after the Great Texting Shift of 2007, a phone call became a claim of intimacy. Today if I want to phone someone just to chat, I first have to consider whether the call will be viewed as intrusive. My method is to ask myself, “Have I ever seen this person in the nude?” The sighting doesn’t have to be (indeed, seldom is) recent. Nor is it necessary that I remember it. I need only deduce that, sometime or other, I must have seen this person naked. That clears phone calls to a wife or girlfriend, to children, to parents, to siblings, to old flames, to former roommates from college, and very few others.

I make exceptions to the naked rule now and then, but always with trepidation, because when a friend you’ve never seen naked sees your name pop up on his smartphone he’s liable to think you lack boundaries. If you aren’t on this never-naked person’s contacts list, forget about connecting at all. Nobody answers a cellphone that blinks an unfamiliar phone number, and nobody has the patience to listen to voice mail. (The final voice mail that anybody actually heard was recorded sometime around 2009.)
Read Noah's full piece here.

Best Thing I've Read Today

Julie Stahl lost her 18-year-old son two years ago when he was hit head-on by another driver who was high on drugs. She was (and is) devastated, of course, but found no comfort in the religious platitudes she received from people -- things like "God has a plan for us all" or "He's looking down on you and keeping you safe" or "Your son will be waiting for you in heaven."

That led Julie to write a powerful piece entitled, "Don't Inject Your Religious Beliefs In My Grief"...

To an atheist like me, these aphorisms are loaded with offense. They feel presumptuous, taking for granted a shared belief in a higher power and an afterlife. They are also condescending. After all, if I believed in a god and/or a heaven, wouldn’t it have already occurred to me to take comfort from my faith in these? They insult my intelligence, all of them being childishly simplistic and illogical. No. 5, for example, would have me believe my son has become an angel who will watch over me. I guess I’m not supposed to wonder where his angel was (my mother, for instance, who adored him and died 10 years ago), when he needed one. Why would I get one, but he would not? As for him waiting for me in heaven, if I thought that were the case, do you think I’d still be here? I would have committed suicide days, perhaps even hours, after he was killed.
Julie goes on to include a list of things you can say to someone who is grieving the loss of a loved one...
If you can’t say any of these things, it’s OK to say nothing. You can even say, “I realize there is nothing I can say.” That is profoundly more helpful, honest and comforting than the empty, “God has a reason for everything.” Life is random. Death is random. And unless you die painlessly in your sleep at a ripe old age, it rarely makes sense. Nothing you can say to me in the wake of my child’s death is going to have it make sense.

The bottom line is you can’t fix me, no matter what you say or do. There are no magic words that will ease my sorrow. If I’m lucky, the passage of time and the loving, happy memories I have of my son will rise to the surface of my heart and crowd out the anger at the man who killed him, the guilt for not being able to protect my child from harm, the remorse for not doing something I might have done that could have changed the course of events that day. If you really want to help, then offer to help, or say something that draws on your humanity, my humanity, and the fact that we are all in this thing called “life” together.
Read Julie Stahl's full piece here.

Two Things Only

Clicking around the channels on TV the other night, I came upon the last 15 minutes of Rob Reiner's "An American President." It was right at the point where President Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas) bursts into the press room to respond to some of the attacks his opponent, Bob Rumson (Richard Dreyfuss), has been making on the campaign trail. I couldn't help noticing how well Aaron Sorkin's 1995 script would still play in today's political environment, particularly the "two things only"...

America isn't easy. America is advanced citizenship. You've gotta want it bad, 'cause it's gonna put up a fight. It's gonna say, "You want free speech? Let's see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who's standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours." You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country cannot just be a flag. The symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Now show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms. Then you can stand up and sing about the land of the free.

I've known Bob Rumson for years. And I've been operating under the assumption that the reason Bob devotes so much time and energy to shouting at the rain was that he simply didn't get it. Well, I was wrong. Bob's problem isn't that he doesn't get it. Bob's problem is that he can't sell it!

We have serious problems to solve, and we need serious people to solve them. And whatever your particular problem is, I promise you Bob Rumson is not the least bit interested in solving it. He is interested in two things, and two things only: making you afraid of it, and telling you who's to blame for it. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you win elections. You gather a group of middle age, middle class, middle income voters who remember with longing an easier time, and you talk to them about family, and American values and character, and you wave an old photo of the President's girlfriend and you scream about patriotism. You tell them she's to blame for their lot in life. And you go on television and you call her a whore.