Is Captain Marvel as bad as New Yorker magazine says?

The latest superhero movie gets a super bad review in New Yorker:

Captain Marvel” is like a political commercial—it packs a worthy message, but it hardly counts as an aesthetic experience. The message of the film is conveyed less through the story than through its casting: women and people of color need to have starring roles in major Hollywood productions …

Brie Larson plays Vers, a warrior from the Kree, a humanoid population from a distant galaxy, centered on the planet Hala, that is in age-old war with the shape-shifting Skrulls.

(A fierce warrior is played by an actress named after a cheese from the country most associated with military defeat?)

The movie sounds perfect for people my age:

The action, it’s soon revealed, is set in 1995, and the videotape-filled store (featuring a standing display for “True Lies,” among other contemporaneous titles) inaugurates a skein of nineties-nostalgia objects that figure in the plot, including a RadioShack, a quaint AltaVista search engine, the foot-tappingly fitful loading of a CD-rom, a pager,

I loved AltaVista!

Carol discovers that the Kree’s longtime battles were based on a false premise. The Skrulls, far from being evildoers (or, as one character calls them, terrorists), have been displaced from their homelands by the Kree; they describe themselves as “refugees” and are merely seeking a home. Carol comes to doubt the presumptive virtue of her own nation and to recognize the legitimate claims of its enemies; she decides to return to battle, not to win but to “end it”—to end “the wars, the lies.” In this thread of themes, the Marvel overlords make the political positioning of the movie clear. The marker is made all the plainer when Lawson tells her that the Kree are fighting to defend their “borders.” “Captain Marvel” wants to make clear that it is a Democratic movie.

If it is anti-Trump, New Yorker should love it! Except that they don’t…

The directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (who are also among the film’s co-writers) display as little style here as they do in their lower-budget and live-action films. The inert direction is amped up by a rapid pace of editing, resulting in a jumpy mosaic … The idea packs great dramatic potential, which makes its facile execution all the more disappointing.

Readers: What do you think? Is the movie as bad as the Official Magazine of Trump Hatred says?


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Du Bois Orchestra concert

We escaped the suburbs recently for a concert by the Du Bois Orchestra:

Founded in 2015, the Du Bois Orchestra offers the opportunity to listen to and perform both the standard and historically neglected repertoire of the classical canon. Inspired by the work of Harvard alumnus and civil rights icon W.E.B. Du Bois, our mission is to raise awareness about issues of social exclusion in classical music. We in the Du Bois community see music-making and listening not only as a means by which to break down aesthetic stereotypes but as a model for constructive societal dialogue. The Du Bois Orchestra engages in community outreach and educational programming.

The concert featured one work by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, a composer whose biological father was a physician from Africa and whose mother was an English woman who ultimately married a “railway worker”. It is unclear how he was an example of race-based “social exclusion,” though, since the program notes describe one of the most brilliant musical careers in history. He was admitted to the Royal College of Music at age 15. He become a professor of music, principal conductor of the Handel Society of London, was received at the White House by President Teddy Roosevelt, and enjoyed gushing reviews from critics around the world, e.g., “I have long been looking for a new English composer of real genius and I believe I have found him.” (Auguste J. Jaeger)

The overture to Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast (1898) was about 50 years ahead of its time. Coleridge-Taylor would have made good money as a Hollywood composer if he hadn’t died of pneumonia in 1912, aged 37. [The piece is not about a wedding among Elizabeth Warren’s ancestors, but rather is derived from Longfellow’s poem.] Listen to a version on YouTube.

A new piece by Sachiko Murata, Sorrow Songs, was well-received and easy on the ears due to incorporating a lot of folk tunes (not your usual painful dissonant “modern classical” work). She says that she was inspired by W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk. From the program: “I am from Japan and came to the United States as an immigrant. … Du Bois used his whole life to promote equality and fight against racism. His message is still so strong and appropriate in this time.”

Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet was played. without a disclaimer that one or both principals would be considered criminals in most U.S. states (Juliet was 13-turning-14 and Romeo may also have been under the age of consent).

Thomas Cooper was the soloist for the Chausson Poème, which was beautifully played with perfect intonation and expression.

Apparently contradicting the “social exclusion” hypothesis, the program notes say that Ernest Chausson, who was from a wealthy white family, had a much tougher time with the critics and audiences than did Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. But maybe people today are more racist than folks were circa 1900 when Coleridge-Taylor was most popular? On the third hand, Kanye West does not identify as white (as far as I know) and he has achieved #1 status. So if classical music listeners have become more racist then there is no inconsistency? On the fourth hand, most classical music listeners will soon die of old age, so the problem will resolve itself.

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Dear Evan Hansen: A musical for 12-year-old girls…

… and their parents too.

Most of the newer Broadway musicals seem to be targeted at 12-year-old girls (e.g., Wicked). In order to guarantee that at least one member of the Greenspun 2019 business trip theater expedition had a good time, I augmented my inner 12-year-old girl with an actual 12-year-old girl (she’ll be 13 soon) for a night at Dear Evan Hansen. We had a tough time getting into the theater because there was a huge herd of 12-year-old girls being ushered in by their adult (female) chaperones. My companion: “This is the hottest show on Broadway right now.”

The material seems to fit the musical format better than most. Most of the show is one-to-one conversation in which it doesn’t seem crazy that one actor would sing to another.

In addition to the challenge of navigating the teenage years, the show dwells on the challenges and limits of parenting, especially of parenting teenagers who are not thriving. Thus, this musical has much broader appeal than the typical new show.

One group that might not love the show is LGBTQIA. “This must be the only new Broadway show without an LGBTQIA theme or character,” I remarked. My companion, a regular at the theater, agreed, but that might be because her LGBTQIA teacher typically chooses LGBTQIA-themed shows for the public middle school crowd. The only reference to LGBTQIA issues is when teenage boys are anxious to avoid being perceived as gay (“that’s how it is in my school, too,” said the 12-year-old next to me).

Stop reading and buy a ticket if you are afraid of spoilers…

The title character is a casualty of the American no-fault divorce revolution. Dad wanted to have sex full-time with a “cocktail waitress,” so he abandoned Mom when Evan was 7 years old. Evan is marooned in an unnamed suburb in an unspecified state while biological dad has moved to Colorado and has two new kids with the new sex partner. It sounds as though Evan hasn’t seen the dad for years. Mom doesn’t seem to be getting any child support cash from dad so she is constantly working as a nurse’s aide and taking classes to become a paralegal. Mom-of-suburban-teenager (Lisa Brescia) is Manhattan/Paris slender with fantastic posture.

[While heroic involuntarily single mom makes for good theater, the father who leaves the wife and kid is a statistical rarity in the U.S. Most commonly it is the mom who wants out and sues the dad (3:1 ratio here in Middlesex County, Massachusetts). Larger statistical studies have shown that in states where a woman can expect to win custody of children and associated lucrative child support, the majority of divorces and divorce lawsuits are initiated by women. Also, Wife #1 has first claim on the man’s income in nearly all U.S. states, so it doesn’t make real world sense for Evan’s mom to be financially struggling if this guy has enough money to support the cocktail waitress and two new kids.]

Perhaps as a consequence of being fatherless, Evan (25-year-old Michael Lee Brown on the Tuesday night that we attended; usually a 16-year-old(!) plays the role) is a psychological wreck and his therapist instructs him to write letters to himself, staring with “Dear Evan Hansen.” An even more distressed teenager at the school (Alex Boniello as Connor) grabs one of these notes out of the printer and commits suicide with the letter in his pocket. The parents assume that these are their son’s final words and that Evan Hansen and Connor were close friends. Evan is in love with Connor’s sister so he is anxious to insinuate himself in this grieving family’s life. A web of lies ensues. This is probably the funniest show about suicide ever created.

The family devastated by suicide was an intact 1950s-style family in which the lawyer dad wears a suit and tie to work every day and mom doesn’t work. Dad (Michael Park, a lot more slender than the law partners I meet with in conference rooms!) has no function with the kids other than to pay the bills. He was not sensitive or sympathetic to his son’s troubles. The mom (Jennifer Laura Thompson) was heavily invested in her son and infinitely forgiving, but she couldn’t reach him either. The teenage daughter (Mallory Bechtel) is the only one who could see her brother rationally.

One funny part of the musical that we experienced is that a Jewish teenager, originally played by a white actor, is now played by a non-white actor (during the performance we watched: Roman Banks, who was fantastic). So we saw an African-American youth talk about his Bar Mitzvah, etc. (Of course, in real life a black convert to or adoptee into Judaism would be most welcome, but the situation is unusual enough to entertain the audience.)

I like works that don’t take the easy way out and Dear Evan Hansen is one of them. Nobody does anything that is radically implausible. There is not a neat happy ending. (See also The Weather Man.) As a provincial, I was awed as usual by the depth of talent in Manhattan, including the orchestra.

Final verdict from the local 12-year-old critic: “This is my favorite show so far, except for Hamilton because it’s Hamilton.”

(I said that I would see Hamilton when it could be accomplished for $15 or less at the movie theater. This prompted my retired fund manager friend to respond that he was waiting for it to be available for free on a Chinese file-sharing site.)

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La Traviata: first opera performed on the Outer Banks

I was fortunate to be among the first 600 people to enjoy a fully staged opera on the Outer Banks of North Carolina: La Traviata.

Three charitable foundations got together to make a professional production possible in the swank community auditorium that was built in 2004 as part of the First Flight High School, adjacent to the Kitty Hawk Monument/Airport.

Local hero Tshombe Selby was a powerful Alfredo. It’s easy to see why he was picked up for the Metropolitan Opera chorus. Wayne Line brought a truly huge baritone to the role of Alfredo’s dad.

The women were equally good: Sarah Joyce Cooper in the title role of Violetta and Caroline Tye as her good-time girlfriend Flora.

One of the fun parts of the program was finding that the conductor’s name is also “Violetta”: Violetta Zabbi. Her parents back in Communist Odessa watched Teresa Stratas in the Zeffirelli movie and were inspired.

As with a recent La Boheme (see below), it was nice to see opera in a smaller venue, bringing the form back to its roots in 17th century Italy. The 3,800-seat Metropolitan Opera House would be great if not for the existence of video cameras. Given the existence of video, however, why would anyone want to see a live opera from seats that are so far away that binoculars are required?

The smaller venues give younger performers a chance to grow and develop. Cole Tornberg, Gennaidi Vystoskiy, and Erik Tofte were able to shine as Gastone, Doctor Grenvil, and the Marquis D’Obigny. Debra Kasten was appropriately discreet as the courtesan’s maid Annina. John Adams, in black tie with cane, was convincing as “Baron Douphol, the man who has been supporting Violetta.”

Sets were simple, but effective. The audience was never in doubt as to where the characters were.


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Fahrenheit 11/9

Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 11/9 is streaming on Amazon Prime right now.

It’s worth watching, even if you don’t advocate for abandoning capitalism in favor of socialism, as Mr. Moore does.

The first section is about the 2016 election. Moore says that Trump didn’t want to run for president, but only staged a couple of fake rallies to show NBC that he should be paid more. Only when Trump saw how voters loved him did he decide to run in earnest. The presentation of footage from the respective campaigns on the night of the election is dramatic even though we know the outcome.

The next section is about the incompetence, insincerity, and mendacity of establishment Democrats, including Hillary Clinton and the officials who suppressed votes for beloved Bernie Sanders at the convention, even from states that Mr. Sanders had won (but what difference would it have made? Hillary did win more votes).

Moore doesn’t waste too much time trashing establishment Republicans, whom his audience presumably already associate with being on the payroll of the rich. In fact, he says that, starting with Bill Clinton, most Democrats are also on this payroll and there is little to distinguish non-socialist Democrats from Republicans.

Moore covers the Flint, Michigan water situation in detail (it was all caused by Republicans and cronies who wanted to make big $$; simple incompetence was not a factor), but the relevance to Donald Trump is never clear. Everything significant happened prior to Trump taking office (though Trump was the only candidate from either party to visit Flint during the campaign, according to Moore). There is footage of Obama lying to citizens about drinking the water. He is shown asking for a glass and just wetting his lips with the potentially tainted water, but not sipping any. Hidden below the podium is a glass of the actual water that he is consuming.

Another theme that keeps coming up is the Parkland shooting, but Donald Trump’s involvement is not explained.

There is a lot of footage of Adolf Hitler. Trump’s voice is synced up with Hitler’s lips moving. (Those who are passionate about women in aviation will be disappointed that Hannah Reitsch isn’t shown or quoted (“It was the blackest day when we could not die at our Führer’s side.”))

Yale History professor Timothy Snyder is quoted saying that the comparison of Trump to Hitler isn’t perfect, but only because no comparison ever is. A 99-year-old Nuremberg prosecutor is interviewed saying that what Trump is doing by separating children from migrant parents at the border is as bad as the crimes he was prosecuting, e.g., killing 90,000 Jews. (Michael Moore has experience with U.S. family court litigation, but not a custody lawsuit that separated a child from a parent. All of the fighting has been over cash and real estate. The litigation has stretched over most of this decade and a new lawsuit was filed a few months ago (Daily Mail).)

The Reichstag fire is compared to 9/11 in terms of providing the would-be dictator an excuse to seize power, but it is unclear how Trump could have engineered an emergency 15+ years prior to taking office.

Moore and Professor Snyder seem pretty sure that Trump is on track to be the next Hitler, but they don’t say how it can be accomplished.

I had never seen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on video before (we are not TV news watchers), so it was interesting to see footage of her campaigning. Moore expresses enthusiasm about young female socialists, preferably immigrants and/or Muslim, taking over the Democratic Party.

The documentary footage closes with the Hawaii mistaken missile alert (all done by state officials in a state that last voted for a Republican in 1984) and with a student from Parkland speaking dramatically about the school shooting (but, again, why is Trump to blame for these unfortunate events?).

So Fahrenheit 11/9 is worth seeing both for how Michael Moore weaves together familiar topics and also to try to understand how young Americans who call themselves “socialist” think.

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Mid90s Movie

The life of a software expert witness involves quite a bit of “hurry up and wait.” Thus did I recently find myself in Easton, Pennsylvania waiting for things to move in the Federal Courthouse. After roaming the strip mall to find treasures for the kids, I spent an evening watching Mid90s.

Rotten Tomatoes doesn’t rate movies for wokeness, so maybe I can add that this movie should get a 40/100 on the wokeness scale. Positive: the only intelligent, wise, and ambitious youth in the movie happens to be African American. Negative: A 13-year-old enagages in sex acts with a woman of 17 or 18. The older sex partner is the initiator and therefore it is unclear if the encounter can truly be described as “consensual.” Certainly the 13-year-old does not explicitly say “yes.” Unlike the kids who’ve had sex with teachers recently, he is not damaged to the tune of $millions by this experience and, in fact, seems proud of it and happy to have had it. Definitely not in sync with our modern (enlightened/woke) thinking about youth sex.

The movie is primarily about this 13-year-old who is curiously undamaged by his sexual encounter. He is not loving life at home. The 36-year-old Mom started having sex with a long list of random guys beginning in the mid-70s. Two of the sexual encounters resulted in pregnancy and childbirth so the 13-year-old has a violent 18-year-old half brother. The mom’s sexual encounters with strangers have been reduced in frequency recently, but the 18-year-old reports that noise from these events would often disturb his sleep when he was young.

(Mom has enough money to sustain a middle-class LA lifestyle, but it is unclear if this is due to wages from work or child support from the biological fathers of the two boys. Her boys were born prior to the formulaic child support guideline system (history) so it may be the case that she didn’t get a lot of money out of them and/or that she didn’t have sex with men with sufficiently high income (California provides for unlimited child support revenue for single mothers who select high-income defendants; see this calculation of what Ellen Pao could have made by having sex with her boss).)

The 13-year-old escapes the half-brother and the mom by hanging out with older skateboarders, all of whom are burnouts except for the African American (see above). The stunts are pretty awesome and, I think, done by the actors themselves (but maybe Hollywood magic is hard to detect?). The movie is strong on teenage life before the helicopter parenting age. Adults don’t interfere too much with tribal activities and are seldom even seen.

There is a dramatic car crash in the movie, which makes me like it less. It is a cheap way to generate drama. One thing that I love about Sideways, for example, is that nothing unusual occurs. The filmmakers have to work harder to make the audience care. At the opposite end of the spectrum are movies where a main character becomes paralyzed or is diagnosed with a terminal illness. Mid90s is closer to Sideways, but not as pure in its rejection of the easy way to audience hearts.


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Artwork of victimhood strategy proves unprofitable for our local museum

The deCordova museum hit the financial wall recently and is being absorbed by a more successful nonprofit. From the press release:

Like many non-profits, deCordova has an endowment that has not grown over time to keep pace with the organization’s needs. The endowment currently covers only 7% of the annual operating costs, compared to a national average of 22% for art museums, and up to 70% for some museums in the Boston area. While the Museum has expanded and diversified its revenue sources, it was not enough to support even a dramatically pared down operating budget.

Integration with The Trustees will provide deCordova with long-term fiscal stability, but that’s not the only reason this integration makes sense.

The museum’s main strategy recently could be characterized as the “the artwork of victimhood.” From “Expanding Abstraction: New England Women Painters, 1950 to Now”:

This exhibition presents a vital yet lesser-known history of abstract painting in New England by showcasing the work of women painters with strong connections to the region. Despite their relative exclusion from mainstream and male-dominated conversations on postwar abstraction, these artists have made significant contributions to the field.

From Dana C. Chandler Jr.’s “The Ghetto”:

Since the 1960s Dana C. Chandler Jr. has been committed to addressing social inequities fostered by racism in the United States. His art confronts the stark realities of poverty, incarceration, and oppression as well as leadership and empowerment in African-American history and contemporary life.

Well, you get the idea. How could they have run out of money given this virtuous program? The museum is surrounded by Millionaires for Obama. If these folks are as committed to social justice as they say, why wouldn’t they open their checkbooks, as well as their hearts?

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An hour’s train ride north of Manhattan, straight up the Hudson River toward Poughkeepsie, is the new Dia:Beacon art museum.  I stopped there today on my way back to Boston from Washington, DC.  It is a vast warehouse of contemporary art, sort of like Mass MOCA, but much more a celebration of the art and the artists and much less about the building and the institution.  Where Mass MOCA has big signs talking about the history of each room, the Dia:Beacon has only signs giving information about the art.  Where Mass MOCA crams the art into whatever space is convenient for a season or two and then shoves it back out the front door, the art at Dia:Beacon has found a permanent home.  Each artist gets at least one room to him or herself.

Philip and Annie’s tips for would-be visitors:

1) Don’t judge Dan Flavin, the fluorescent tube artist, by what you see in Beacon; go to Marfa, Texas (another Dia-funded project).

2) The cafe is rough around the edges.  Eat before you arrive unless you just want coffee and carbs.

3) Don’t miss the Robert Irwin garden (same guy who did the garden at the New Getty) and the big collection of Serras in the adjoining basement.

4) Be sure to read the essay in the Sandback string sculpture room, which is also available on the Web site (pull down “Riggio Galleries” from the “Beacon” menu).  Favorite excerpts:  “space is both defined and imbued with an incorporeal palpability”; “each sculpture is newly parsed for the site”; “Fact and illusion are equivalents,” [Fred Sandback] asserts; “Trying to weed one out in favor of the other is dealing with an incomplete situation.”  [Getting to the Dia:Beacon had required flying through 30 minutes of cumulus clouds on an instrument flight from Gaithersburg, MD, the rest of which was obscured by the same kind of summer haze that proved fatal to JFK, Jr.-style; imagine if the airline pilots flying through the same conditions decided that fact (what the instruments say) and illusion (one’s natural perceptions of being straight and level or falling sideways) were equivalent.]

For pilots or people whose friends are pilots:  You get to Dia:Beacon by flying into Stewart Air Force Base, KSWF, an active base for C5 cargo jets.  The runway is 11,800′ long so if you have trouble landing a Cessna there don’t tell anyone.  Taxi over to Rifton Aviation and borrow a crew car (1994 Ford Escorts with 110,000+ miles on them, perfectly adequate with air conditioning and a radio, thus proving the previously stated theory about the $2,000 Chinese car) for a 15-minute drive over to the east side of the Hudson River.  Take the first exit on 9D and follow signs for the train station in Beacon.  The museum is just south of the train station.

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Saturday Night at the Movies

Today’s theme is nostalgia.  We start by renting the 1955 Picnic, starring William Holden and Kim Novak.  This provides a fascinating portrait of early 1950s small-town Midwestern life as a backdrop to some ageless tensions (rich/poor, intellectual/ignorant, natural/stuffy).  Move next to the 1996 When We Were Kings, which documents the 1974 fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in the then-new nation of Zaire (now back to its old name of “Congo”).  The subjects of the documentary can’t foresee that the new leader, Mobutu, will become one of the 20th century’s most notorious kleptocrats (though as discussed in the Israel Essay, he actually did not steal as much from his countrymen as the average Fortune 500 executive team steals from its shareholders).  Nor can they foresee that many of the dancing and singing children among them will be dead of AIDS by 2003.  At some level the movie is about two guys who hit each other really hard but the innocence of the time and optimism about Africa’s future is what really touched me.  Some favorite lines:  “I’m so mean, last week I murdered a stone–I killed a rock”; “No Vietcong ever called me ‘nigger'” (Ali served a prison sentence rather than be drafted into the Vietnam War).

[Warnings  This film’s clips of Ali’s efforts to influence his fellow Americans may make you see our current crop of leaders, black and white, as intellectual and spiritual midgets.  When We Were Kings is also marred by a few minutes of interviews with Spike Lee, the movie director, who tries to sound profound while stating the obvious.]

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