Jun. 12th, 2017

We went to the Downer Theater to see A Quiet Passion, the film about American poet Emily Dickinson. Although now regarded as one of the most important poets of the 19th Century, her work was largely ignored during her lifetime, with only a dozen or so of more than 1800 poems written published during her lifetime, and those were usually significantly “edited” by the publishers.

Most of Dickinson’s correspondence was burned at her death by her wish, so I expect that director and screenwriter Terence Davies had to invent most of the dialog, if not incidents, but if, so, he does a very good job of evoking a very particular time and place. The Amherst we see is genteel, puritanical, and self-critical. Manners are everything. Emily’s father reproaches her, and she sincerely apologizes, for having spoken brusquely to the servants while suffering a kidney-stone attack (or something similar).

Things start off well enough. Emily has the support of her revered father, who uses influence with his friend, Samuel Bowles, to get her poems published in his newspaper. She has the friendship of her attractive sister, Lavinia (Vinnie), her adored brother Austin, and her vivacious friend, Susan Gilbert, with whom she can exchange “wicked” ideas. Her mother, whom she regarded as distant, nevertheless gently tolerated Emily’s growing eccentricities.

Frustration begins to build up as she sees even her publisher, Bowles, repeat the idea that only men have the spirit to be poets in an article in his paper. (Noted poets of the time all had names like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier, and William Cullen Bryant--.) Her comfortable life slowly unravels as her father dies suddenly. Her mother is incapacitated by a stroke and eventually also dies. Susan Gilbert marries and moves away. Austin Dickinson falls off his pedestal by becoming estranged from his wife and engaging in an affair with a married woman, Mabel Loomis Todd. There was tension between Emily, who was shocked and horrified, and Vinnie, who was more forgiving. (Ironically, Mrs. Todd was one of the people who helped get Dickinson’s poems into publication after her death.)

She gradually became more reclusive, declining invitations to visit elsewhere, and only speaking to visitors who came to the house from the other side of a door, but all the while continuing to write poems and letters. She died in 1885, at the age of 55, of what was diagnosed as kidney disease.

Cynthia Nixon plays the adult Emily, and does a very fine job of what of necessity must be an understated role. She’s supported by a cast of very skillful and subtle actors, including Jennifer Ehle as Vinnie, Duncan Duff as Austin, Keith Carradine as her father, and Joanna Bacon as her mother.

The film looks beautiful, capturing the period well, as the people act out their austere and reserved lives against a background of Victorian elegance in homes and lush beauty in gardens.

We were very glad to have seen this interesting movie about this very interesting person. (Georgie’s one criticism was “too much hard dying, too long,” referring to both Emily’s and her mother’s death scenes--.)

On June 4th, we went to see Wonder Woman, the latest film in what is now being called the “DC Cinematic Universe,” and the first one we have seen since I declined to see Man of Steel. We were glad to see this one, and enjoyed it quite a bit.

I’m a bit bemused by the decision to set the story of Wonder Woman’s entry into the outside world in the final days of World War I. I liked it, and I can understand why WWI was chosen for purposes of plot, but I wonder if anyone has considered the profound changes this would make in the DC universe timeline. In the “standard model” Superman was the first superhero to come to public notice, either in the 1930’s (per the original comic books) or the 2010’s per the newest movies. However, now, Wonder Woman is first on the scene, by almost a hundred years? I expect that this will be glossed over for the future, but there would have probably been a very different approach to Superman’s advent, had Wonder Woman been around for a long time before that.

The opening sequences of the movie, portraying Diana’s youth and training on the island of Themiscyra are beautiful and wonderful. The island is fantastic, of course, but watching the Amazons train is fascinating, and in particular it’s great to see that not every Amazon has to be young and dewy-looking. Robin Wright as lead warrior Antiope, and Connie Nielsen as Hippolyta, show us that a woman can have some lines in her face, or edgy collarbones, and still be fabulous and powerful.

Gal Gadot, as Diana, is just great.  She looks wonderful in the role, and her background in the military and martial arts give her the bearing she needs to truly be a warrior princess. She’s well matched by Chris Pine, who is a smarter and edgier Steve Trevor than ever was in the comics or TV. The other “good guys” include Lucy Davis as Etta Candy. The character was originally part of Wonder Woman’s “comic relief” squad, the “Holiday Girls” in the 40’s comics. Here, she’s become a Brit, doing a WWI version of the “Keep Calm and Carry On” thing as a sort of Miss Moneypenny to Trevor’s Americanized James Bond. It’s a pity that we aren’t likely to see more of her. In order to foil the villains’ plot, Trevor puts together a particularly unlikely version of the classic “rag-bag team,” made up of Said Tagamouhi as a Moroccan actor turned con man, Ewan Bremner as a Scottish sniper with PTSD, and Eugene Brave Rock as a Native American smuggler, all of whom are interesting characters and have things to say about the world of 1918.

The chief villains are Dany Huston as General Erich Ludendorff, and Elena Anaya as Dr. Maru. Ludendorff, who really existed, is an interesting choice. The historical Ludendorff was Quartermaster General of the German Army until October 1918 (and so in position to make decisions about new weapons), when he resigned, a requirement of armistice negotiations. He went on to become a nationalist politician who promoted the theory that Germany was “stabbed in the back by Marxists and Jews,” took part in Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch of 1923, and wrote a book called The Total War in 1935, arguing that peace was only an interval between wars.  Although he did break with Hitler by 1933, I think we can fairly say that his portrayal in the film does not malign him too much, and Huston’s portrayal makes him believably megalomaniacal and dangerous.

Dr. Maru, alias “Dr. Poison”, played by Spanish actress Elena Anaya, is a recycling of a WW2 Wonder Woman villain, who was a Japanese chemist specializing in sabotage.  The doctor as portrayed is rather generically European, unsettling with the creepy prosthetic covering her scarred face, and not so much a “mad” scientist as an obsessive one. Her new weapon, the so-called “hydrogen mustard” gas is truly horrific, though not much more so than weapons actually developed. (The arsenic compound Lewisite, not used in WW1, could penetrate clothing and thin rubber--.)

I wasn’t put off by Wonder Woman’s stated goal to destroy the war god Ares as I was by (spoiler in case you haven’t seen it) Superman’s killing of General Zod in Man of Steel. In the movie, Diana considers destroying Ares to be her major mission in life, so its rather a given, and it was established in the comic books years ago that Wonder Woman would in fact kill in defense of life if the need were great enough. (And I’d be pretty sure that not all the German soldiers she clobbered liberating a Belgian village probably survived, either, although, as in many of the comic-book movies, there’s little blood, and most death is off camera--.)

We liked the movie’s approach to combat. Wonder Woman fights with focus and with purpose, but never with malice, and revenge, a frequent “hero” motivation, plays little part.

Of course, I have some technical quibbles: The Fokker Eindekker Trevor steals is way obsolete by 1918 (although that could be the reason it was in Turkey, far from the active front--), whereas the giant bomber in the final sequence, which vaguely resembles one of the late-war Zeppelin-Staaken bombers, is somewhat futuristic. We can tell that Themiscyra must be within a relatively short air flight from the Turkish coast: so far, so good, it makes much more sense for it to be among the Greek islands than off the coast of North America, as in the early Wonder Woman comics. However, in our 1918, there were no Central Powers warships, let alone German, operating in the Mediterranean, to have pursued him there--. Oh, well, it’s not actually our world, after all. However, getting from the Eastern Med to London in the course of a sleep by sail, even with the aid of a tugboat, just isn’t possible--.

Seeing this film makes me much more optimistic about the forthcoming Justice League feature.

On Tuesday evening, June 6th, we went to the Downer Theatre to see a really fine production of Tom Stoppard’s play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, which shows us the existential dilemma of two minor characters in a great play, and what they do, and do not do, between scenes. The play has a lot in common with Samuel Becket’s Waiting for Godot, but we like it better since Rosencrantz and Guildenstern engage in debate about the meaning of it all, whereas Vladimir and Estragon in Godot are just overwhelmed by the meaninglessness.

The play had an excellent cast, lead by Joshua McGuire (mainly known for British TV) as Guildenstern, Daniel Radcliffe as Rosencrantz, and David Haig as The Player. The little pre-show film mentioned that Stoppard himself had been involved in this production, and I do believe the script had been tweaked in comparison with earlier versions I had seen. It seemed to me that scenes with Hamlet, Polonious, Claudius, and Gertrude were cut or shortened, and The Player, who is Stoppard’s voice on stage, had a good bit more to say.

The play was set in a mostly timeless time, and a largely undefined space, which underscored the characters’ being adrift from reality. This didn’t really affect the performance much, but at least did not distract.

McGuire and Radcliffe in particular were very good, and handled Stoppard’s lightning-speed dialogs with alacrity. I was a bit surprised at first that the bigger name Radcliffe did not have the more intellectual role of Guildenstern, but found that he was wonderfully good as the frequently clueless Rosencrantz, being able to do an effective variety of blank, baffled, or just plain stupid expressions.

I’m not sure I would say that this was a definitive performance, but it was very, very good, and I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in this play. (The 1990 film with Gary Oldman, Tim Roth, and Richard Dreyfuss is also very good, in my opinion.)

Every year, in the first week of June, numerous restaurants in downtown Milwaukee participate in “Downtown Dining Week,” in which they put on special priced menus in order to attract business downtown at the start of the summer season.  This is an opportunity for us to visit new places, or revisit favorites at a break on price.

This year, we hit two. We went to Ward’s House of Prime for a lunch, which was very good.  I had the house salad, which was nice, with good fresh greens, the prime rib French dip, also very good with lovely meat and nice French fries, and the apple tart with caramel drizzle for dessert. The tart had an unusual rather thick crust, but was tasty and had evidently been made with fresh apples. Georgie had the tenderloin tips with mushroom sherry sauce over egg noodles for main dish, and found that very good as well. At $12.50 per person, this was definitely a real deal. At noon on Friday, Ward’s was busy and loud, but service was fast and friendly.

For a dinner, we went to Pastiche at the Metro Hotel, our first time visiting this restaurant at the new location.  For starters, I tried the country style pate, which I thought was very good and compared favorably with the house terrine we had had in France at places like Les Bacchantes. Georgie had the tomato bisque, which she pronounced delicious. (I am not a fan of tomato soup, but sampled it and had to agree it was the best I had had--.) For “plat” I had the “Steak Frites,” which in this case was a grilled New York Strip, accompanied by French Fries and garlic aioli. The steak had had a very effective flavor enhancing rub, was grilled to perfection, and topped with a blob of herbed butter. It was decadent and delicious. The “frites” were nicely spiced, and went down very well with the aioli. Georgie had the pan roasted chicken breast with lemon herb sauce, which was quite delicious, accompanied by some roasted fingerling potatoes, and very fresh and tender asparagus. (Georgie tried dipping the asparagus spears in my aioli, and pronounced it “the” way to eat asparagus.)

For dessert, Georgie sampled the chocolate mousse, which was a dollop of very dark, almost bitter, chocolate confection of a puddingy consistency, garnished with some fresh berries and whipped cream. I tried the strawberry shortcake, which was a square of rather coarse, yellow cake (the better to soak up juice and not turn to pulp--), set on a coating of strawberry coulis, drizzled with juice, and topped with vivid-tasting “marinated” strawberries and also whipped cream.  I could have used a few more strawberries, but I have to say that, although on first glance, the dessert portion sizes appeared small, after the rest of the meal, they were quite adequate. We went away feeling very well fed.

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