Monday, May 21, 2012

Rainy Days and Mondays

Rain means things that were drying outside are wet again.

The rugs I’d washed were drying nicely in the sun yesterday.  Then the sun went down, when I wasn’t looking.  This morning I woke to rain, and the rugs were still outside.  Sigh.

I set up the drying rack inside and laid out the rugs.  The cats watched.
The drying rack -- and it was morning outside, just very dark
Fascinated, they sniffed, they stood on their hind legs, they tried to climb up.  I told them not to jump up, because the whole thing might collapse.  They did not listen.

Mama Millie first
Chick's turn

Finally Wilbur.
    ~ Molly Matera, signing off.  It's not safe to be in a different room from the Cat-astrophe to come ....

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Whedon Rules a Panoply of Superheroes

I had a wonderful time at the movies this weekend, watching Marvel’s The Avengers in a packed house.  Joss Whedon writes witty stuff and did not leave that talent behind for the screenplay for this long-awaited mega superheroes film.  The script is fine-tuned, detailed, well structured, exciting, and funny. Add to that Whedon’s other skill — he directs clearly, lovingly, giving his actors scope and allowing them to spread their wings – or whatever they have – to fly.  He tells the story, tossing bombs and reptilian or crustacean-like creatures as needed.

So what’s this movie about?  Super heroes who don’t play well with others will do when push comes to shove from external critters.  There’s such a fine line between fine lines and spoilers that I’m just going to make a list of the top-of-the-Hollywood Hills performances in this fun film:
The Avengers (c) 2012 Marvel

Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man is charming, witty, vain.  Downey brings a cool intelligence to Tony Stark and has a subtle but clear revelatory moment toward the end that is just part of the plot here, when he recognizes a link between himself and Loki.  Downey does it well, Whedon wrote it well, it’s a collaborative art.
Evans and Downey as Captain America and Tony Stark.  (c) 2012 Marvel.

Chris Evans as Steve Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America, is as realistically sweet, naïve, and powerful as we expect from his film last summer.  Don’t be fooled by his goodness, though – he’s tough as nails, confident, and insists on doing the right thing.

Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner, a.k.a. The Hulk, has created a quietly intense Bruce Banner and a damned funny Hulk – or, as Banner refers to him, “The Other Guy.”  He gets some massive laughs in this film, and deserves every one of them – as do the CGI artists.  Mark Ruffalo is the best Bruce Banner/Hulk ever.

Chris Hemsworth as Thor, a.k.a. Son of Odin, Demi-God.  He fell from grace out of Asgard, but came back to Earth to help the planet under his protection.  There’s an ‘aw shucks’ quality to Hemsworth that lends warmth to a character even more arrogant than Tony Stark.

Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff, a.k.a. The Black Widow, does fine work here.  Not surprisingly in a Joss Whedon script, she has lots to do showing Natasha’s physical and intellectual strengths.  And quite a lot of heart.  
Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow

Jeremy Renner as Clint Barton (never called that), always known as Hawkeye. Hawkeye’s a tough guy and Renner gets to do his dark and light sides, strength and pain, and I only wish he’d been onscreen more.

Clark Gregg as Agent Phil Coulson, dapper and neat, is disarmingly important.  His arrival invariably presages trouble despite his total calm and confidence. 

Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, a.k.a. the Boss a.k.a. Director of SHIELD.  He’s basically the CEO who reports to a higher power, the World Council, who appear as shadowy faces on computer screens.  They are desk jockeys who don’t get it.  Fury manipulates, he drives, he puts people together and watches the explosions.

Tom Hiddleston as Loki, a.k.a. adopted son of Odin, Demi-God.  Despite the fact that Loki’s demigod outfit kept making me laugh, he is a dastardly and very cool villain.  He so enjoys being bad, it’s a delight to watch.  He revels in his mischief, and the angle of the shots of his grinning face are brilliantly composed.

Stellan Skarsgård as Professor Erik Selvig, is almost a cipher here, which is pretty odd, considering Skarsgård’s skills and what happens to Selvig in this story.  It’s a mystery.

Cobie Smulders as Agent Maria Hill, a.k.a. regular human.  Smulders smoulders, obeys orders, questions privately.  A mere human who’s tough and smart, the way Whedon likes his women.

Of the thousands of people listed who contributed to this film, I’ll single out only two more:  Cinematography by Seamus McGarvey was gorgeous, brisk, bright, gloomy, everything it needed to be.  Film Editing by Jeffrey Ford and Lisa Lassek (uh oh, more than two already) was razor sharp, contributing to perfect pacing.  Oh and the production design by James Chinlund was beyond cool, phantasmagorical, lyrical, and overwhelming.  Suffice to say, this film has been put together extremely well, so much more than I could have hoped or expected.

Whedon Rules.

Is it necessary to have seen Thor, Iron Man and Iron Man 2 and Captain America: The First Avenger to get this film?  Tough to tell, since I’ve seen all of them, but I think Whedon lays it out clearly and coherently in reasonably chronological order.
-         Immediate situation:  Fantastic secret complex invaded, people killed, people kidnapped, who’re you gonna call?
-         Establish who’s needed so that, one by one by one, Nick Fury’s people gather — and introduce — the superheroes, odd ducks, and outcasts who will comprise his team of Avengers.
-         What do you need in an action adventure movie?  Fast-paced coherent action; colorful, interesting, funny, sexy characters; things that go boom; things that slither; laughs; moments of quiet reflection (well, most action adventure movies don’t have this, and don’t really need it, so The Avengers gets Extra Credit for sneaking them in); more laughs, more explosions, flying things….  The beat goes on.  The Avengers has it all.

Actors leave their egos at home so their alter egos can do battle on the screen.  What do you get when you put a couple geniuses, an old-fashioned boy chemically engineered to be a superhero, and a demi god into a room together?  Fireworks.  Violence.  Broken furniture.  Does Black Widow tell the guys what’s what?  Of course she does.  Do they listen?  What fun would that be? 

If there’s a flaw to The Avengers, it’s the embarrassment of endings, a common feature in continuing sagas advertising their sequels in the last reel.  What appears to be the final shot is directly connected to Tony Stark’s revelatory moment, and is enough to say there’s more to come.  Then, in the way of such franchises, a whole new scene is included to tell you that. 

I can tell you that I cannot wait.

In closing, I repeat my advice to film audiences to show respect and courtesy to the thousands of people it takes to make a film, otherwise they may miss out on stuff after the credits.  The final bit of film in The Avengers is heartfelt and hilarious at the same time, and garnered applause from those hearty few of us left in the theatre to enjoy it.  Wait for it.

~ Molly Matera, signing off, but not logging off — now I can watch all the videos online about this delightful entertainment….

Saturday, May 5, 2012

A Play About Football, Trauma, and Heroes

“Life ain’t measured in years, it’s measured in yards!”  So cries Duncan Troy, retired NFL linebacker.  He sacked countless famous players in his day, and has the photos on his wall and the videotapes to prove it.  He plays them over and over and is planning to post them on You Tube.  In the hierarchy of males, he’s a pugnacious alpha.

In the opening of Patrick Link’s new play, Headstrong, Duncan Troy plays confident host to a stranger, Nick Merritt, in his living room cum trophy room, which is dominated by photographs of himself as a pro football player, and a liquor cabinet.  Merritt’s goal in Troy’s home becomes clear when Troy’s daughter Sylvia arrives.  Her ex-husband Ronnie Green was a pro running back who couldn’t run for long. He’d retired younger than Troy would have contemplated, and then his life fell apart.  Even before Troy’s daughter Sylvia divorced him, Ronnie had begun to spiral downward until he committed suicide just a few weeks before the play begins.
Ron Canada as Duncan Troy and Alexander Gemignani as Nick Merritt in the trophy room.  (c) 2012 Gerry Goodstein.

Sylvia doesn’t want to deal with the reality of her husband’s decline and death.  Her father’s judgment, voiced to Merritt, is condemnation of his son-in-law as weak.  As Ronnie’s legal widow, despite her characterization of him as her ex, Merritt (who is based on Chris Nowinski, a former professional wrestler who suffered brain damage during his professional career) needs Sylvia to sign authorization for Merritt and his associate Dr. Moses Odame (based on neuropathologist Bennet Omalu, who discovered the condition of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, commonly known as CTE) to analyze Ronnie’s brain, hoping to learn what damage may have occurred with repetitive injury in his years in pro ball.  Sylvia refuses for her own reasons, which are not her father’s, who eavesdrops and bullies to convince her to refuse consent.  

You see it in the papers far too often.  A retired ball player dies, perhaps by his own hand, perhaps willing his brain to research.  Concussions have been studied sufficiently to know the damage they do to athletes.  Ronnie didn’t have any concussions, but science wants to know more about professional athletes with similar symptoms.  Science wants Ronnie Green’s brain.

Patrick Link has crafted Headstrong so that different points of view on the dangers of contact sports are expressed with deep belief by different characters — including more than one desire by the same character — without resorting to cardboard cutouts spouting a thesis. To Troy, quality of life after sports is something women think about, although Troy uses ruder terms than “women” for Merritt’s concerns regarding potential brain damage.  Apparently Merritt’s masculinity is in question if he cares about life after football.

A lot of this play is about what is perceived as weakness, strength, and courage.  Troy sees heroes where Merritt sees athletes and victims.  Merritt’s own physical injuries are to him a sign of weakness that he would never admit to Troy.  Ronnie’s barely recognized physical injuries may have caused his depression and dementia that led to his grisly suicide.  Perhaps the position of Sylvia, widow and daughter of football players and mother of a young son, is a resolution that both men dread.  Sylvia Troy Green does not want her son to play football — whatever else she chooses to deny or admit, that choice speaks louder than words.

Headstrong is tightly written and makes its points in three scenes creating food for thought and conversation. Everyone in the audience was buzzing as we trailed out into the muggy night.  William Carden, Artistic Director of EST, directs Headstrong simply and succinctly, allowing the play and the characters to speak for themselves. A smart set by Jason Simms efficiently uses the tight space of the 2nd floor theatre at EST.  Video design by David Tennent drew us in without distracting as it showed the glory, pain, and danger of football.  Suzanne Chesney’s costume design was on the mark for each character, and sound by Jannie Bullard was subtle and effective.  As for the cast:

Ron Canada as Duncan Troy is tough, angry, and frightened all at once, in a fine performance.

Alexander Gemignani as Nick Merritt starts the play sure of his goals but so unsure of himself that he is whittled down by the end of the first scene with Troy, and totally uncertain in the second scene.  His excellent performance personifies the conflict between the desire to retain the unrestricted hitting football game (and other contact sports) while trying not to destroy its players. 

As Sylvia Troy Green, Nedra McClyde’s voice and face are expressive, sometimes sly, sometimes hiding the devastation of her loss. However, her body doesn’t altogether keep up with her characterization. The stresses that had to weigh on her don’t show below the neck.

Tim Cain as Dr. Moses Odame has charm, passion, and hope with science on his side, yet his words and delivery are rather uninspiring. 
Nedra McClyde as Sylvia and Alexander Gemignani as Nick (C) 2012 Gerry Goldstein.

Full disclosure:  I love theatre.  I do not love football.  I admire the attempt of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation ( to encourage plays about science and technology in our society.  The challenge has always been to make a good play.  Science is largely theoretical, and I think playwright Link did a good job presenting what has a lot of evidence, what hasn’t, and what is needed to confirm burgeoning theories of connections between repetitive if lesser hits that did not cause concussions, but may still contribute to brain injuries.  Making a well structured play that satisfies, from a purely theatrical point of view, is not so simple, however, as writing a sturdy and well-balanced thesis.

Although I found Headstrong compelling and intellectually effective, something is lacking in the play’s structure.  Perhaps it is that there’s no single protagonist. Troy, the alpha male, leads the scenes he’s in by brute force, but his only goal is to retain the status quo.  Sylvia is still taking care of everyone else.  Merritt had a goal, and he thought he’d failed; that he achieved it is not really his victory, but Sylvia’s.  And Dr. Moses gets what he wants by doing nothing.  
Gemignani as Merritt and Tim Cain as Dr. Moses Odame.

Link gives us information and choices through well developed characters. The questions raised are about a good deal more than sports.  Headstrong’s closing moments impart an enduring image, part visual, part aural, and filled with a vague unease… even fear.  

Presented by The Ensemble Studio Theatre/Alfred P. Sloan Project for New Plays on Science and Technology, the play runs through May 13 in an intimate space at EST.  Perhaps a slightly larger Off Broadway space could be next to reach a broader audience, although, despite its looming subject, the play isn’t yet big enough for a much larger space….

Finally, and this isn’t about the play as a play....  I just need to argue one point with Mr. Troy (or Mr. Link).  He insists that football players and other sports stars are our heroes.  That in our society, we don’t have monsters like Grendel (and that, my friends, is a crock), so we don’t have heroes like Beowulf.  Therefore we need substitute heroes, presently in the form of grown men — and some not finished growing — crashing their entire body weights into one another to stop a play or make a play, or sometimes trying to knock a person out of the game entirely (which, as a lowly female, I would consider cheating).  Heroes?  Our society has monsters.  And if these guys are our society’s heroes, they've missed the mark.  If they're heroes, why are we still fighting actual wars?

~ Molly Matera, signing off, hoping not to wake to news of yet another sports figure committing suicide.