Thumbs Partly Down, Thumbs Way Up: Reviews Of Sing Street And Miles Ahead

Movies, movies, movies. They make good fodder for opinions. I never knew I had so many opinions about movies, and about all kinds of things for that matter, till I started writing this blog. Now I can’t shut myself up. When I retire from blogging I plan to go back to my former ways, which involved a vow of near-silence and rigorous mental training to keep opinions at an unmeasurably low level. For now, though, here we go again:

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My wife Sandy and I caught two movies, their themes heavily musical, in suburban Philadelphia on a recent weekend. First we saw Sing Street. The next day it was Miles Ahead. Sing Street came with a three and a half star rating from The Philadelphia Inquirer. I took a look at The Inquirer’s 50-word summary of the movie and at some words of praise quoted in the film’s newspaper advertisement, and I was sold. I mean, here was a story, set in 1985, about an Irish lad infatuated with the idea of forming a rock and roll band, and also infatuated with a girl. Undoubtedly it would be a charmer. Count me in.

Turns out that Sing Street ain’t da bomb. Very surprising, since John Carney, its director and author, previously turned out way solid fare with two music-infused films, both of which he also wrote and directed. Is there anybody who didn’t like Once, the lower-than-low budget love story from 2007 that brought the world to tears with dazzlingly tender songs such as Falling Slowly? And what was there to dislike about Carney’s 2013 opus Begin Again? It starred Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo, and it did nothing but snap, crackle and pop.

Now, Sing Street isn’t the worst. It’s watchable. It’s pleasant. But halfway through I began scratching my head, wondering if I was viewing the same flick that the Inquirer’s reviewer had fawned over. Admittedly, on paper the set-up seems good: Fifteen-year-old Conor, a nice, directionless kid, is living in Dublin with his sister and older brother and squabbling parents. He is introduced to emotive, big hair 1980s rock and roll (The Cure, Duran Duran) by his slacker brother. Then he meets a cute 16-year-old girl who knocks his socks off, and decides to become a musician and put together a rock band to impress said girl. Conor, natch, will be the band’s big-haired lead singer. So, what’s my gripe? In two words, sloppy screenplay.

Example number one: This is a movie partly about a boy and his band, yet only one of Conor’s four bandmates gets to do much yapping. Whatever personalities the three others possess are pretty invisible. Collectively those three lads recite maybe 60 words during the movie.

Number two: Family-wise, the movie delves only into Conor’s relationship, which is strong, with big brother Jack. But Conor seems to get along pretty nicely with the other family members. Which is why I was lost at sea when Conor, permanently leaving the parental household near the end of the film, directs moving words toward his mother but not a syllable toward good ol’ Dad or Sis.

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That’s enough examples. Hey, sometimes you lose. But sometimes you win, and I can’t say enough good things about Miles Ahead. This is a most unorthodox and highly creative take on Miles Davis, the superb jazz musician whose aura blanketed the globe for over 40 years. Miles was a force musically and sartorially, and set the standard, if you can call it that, for hipster cool. He was a singular talent, a complicated guy, multisided. Not everybody he knew necessarily saw the same sides. And he was a prolific and hardworking musician, recording many dozens of albums as a leader, starting in 1951. His final studio sessions took place in 1991, the year he died at age 65.

A strange thing happened, though, during the second half of Miles’ career. Due to health problems and drug addictions and who-knows-what-else, he went into near-seclusion in 1975, holing himself up in his Upper West Side townhouse in Manhattan. And for the next several years apparently he didn’t do much of anything worth noting. Eventually he felt the urge to make new music, and returned to the recording studio in 1980. The next year he began to tour again. But what was life like for Miles during his period of withdrawal from public life? What was going on inside his head? Those are the questions that Miles Ahead grabs hold of. Fantasizing some answers, the movie takes the audience on a wild ride.

Miles Ahead is Don Cheadle’s baby. He plays Miles in the movie. He looks a lot like him, nails the raspy voice, and constructs a cinematic Miles so natural and believable I have a feeling that he comes damn close to the real thing’s personality. Not only that, Cheadle directed the movie — to me, flawlessly — and co-wrote the screenplay. Yeah, you bet this guy is talented.

Frances Taylor Davis is on the covers of these two Miles albums.
Frances Taylor Davis is on the covers of these two Miles albums.

During his self-imposed confinement, was music ever far from Miles’ mind? Probably not, though he had hit a huge creative roadblock. The movie opens in 1979 or so, in Miles’ spacious and disheveled home, where he has yet to come out of his lengthy funk. And where he dwells on the past, on the music he had made. In flashback scenes throughout the film, covering the late 1950s through about 1966, we see Miles at work. And in love. That was a fecund musical period for Miles, and during it he was head over heels for Frances Taylor, a professional dancer who married (and divorced) him and helped inspire him. Seamlessly blended with the past is an invented scenario in which 1979’s Miles becomes involved in a loopy caper that has some good results: It gets him out of his house and ultimately leads him to reclaim his misplaced musical mojo. His semi-trusted companion in the adventure is a music journalist (done just right by Ewan McGregor) who has edges as flinty and unpredictable as Miles himself. And that is why Miles comes to like him.

I won’t say more about the plot. What I’m wondering, though, is if a viewer needs to be a Miles Davis fan to enjoy this movie. Me, I’m a big fan. But I think I’d have loved the movie even if I weren’t. It seems so real. It breathes like Miles Davis trumpet solos . . . on the trumpet, Miles might dartingly probe the outer planets of the solar system, or might ruminate bittersweetly. And it’s the opposite of the standard biopic in more ways than its fantastical caper. After all, it entirely skips about 55 years of Miles’ life. If Miles, a forward thinker, were alive to view the flick, no doubt he’d say something like this to Don Cheadle: “Man, I don’t know how you came up with this crazy plot, but it slays me. Motherf**ker, that’s me up there on the screen.”

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Three Movies: The Fast, The Really Fast, And The Nice And Slow

“Hey, Neil,” my wife Sandy called to me a little while ago. “Pull your thoughts together. Your legions, or should I more accurately say handfuls, of readers are depending on you to digest and configure and explain our cinematic encounters from two weeks ago. C’mon, boy. You can do it. I’ve got faith in you.”

Oh yeah? She’s got to be kidding. I’m moments away from throwing in the towel. I feel my eyes tiring, my attention being directed elsewhere as if by a sorcerer’s hand. But I won’t give in. I know what I have to do, and it involves pain. WHACK, WHACK, WHACK. There, I’ve slapped myself in the face. Works every time. I’m feeling better. On with the show.

Very recently Sandy and I went to the movies on three consecutive days. After that streak ended I figured I ought to try and bang out a story about the trio of flicks for my insatiably content-hungry blog. It wouldn’t do, I decided, to focus on only one of the films, examining it from all angles like a jeweler ogling a precious stone. No, ambitious me would strive relentlessly to find and then analyze the thematic threads woven between the three movies. And believe me, I’ve been looking. Real hard. And so far here’s what I’ve come up with: zippo and bupkis.

But there’s got to be an angle. There always is. And so I’ve decided to throw connective threads to the winds and pull something out of my wazoo in a desperate attempt to create a blog story. Speed . . . yeah, that’s what I’m going to look at. The degree of rapidity of the movies’ action. And speaking of speed, I notice that it has taken me over 300 words to get around to naming the movies that Sandy and I watched. Oh well, my incredible slowness ties right in with what now is this article’s subject. And I suppose that Sandy’s faith in me possibly has paid off. In any case, the movies in the order that we saw them are The Big Short, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and 45 Years.

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Respectively, those movies overall are, in terms of pace, fast, really fast, and nice and slow. And in terms of how much I liked them they are, respectively, very much, eh, and quite a lot. I’m amazed that I didn’t get big kicks from the newest Star Wars, the seventh in the franchise. Entering the theater I thought I would. A thousand years ago (in 1977) I loved the first in the series. It seemed cool as can be to me, action-packed and stocked with a fabulous menagerie of characters, human and otherwise. But, unlike 95% of the world’s population, I didn’t see any of the next five SW vehicles or do any reading over the years to keep up with the SW storylines. Watching The Force Awakens I was surprised to learn that Darth Vader no longer is on the scene, and I barely remembered what a Jedi is. But I was glad to see Harrison Ford on board playing the wisecracking and fearless Han Solo.

Most importantly, I was expecting an exhilarating ride. For sure, The Force Awakens often moves like lightening. I lost track of how many times Good was battling Evil on one planet or another, and seemingly only moments later the fight had shifted to an orb millions of miles away. I enjoy that kind of zooming sometimes, but after a while it wasn’t doing the trick for me. I began to feel that the screen was filled with too much of too much, that the plot almost was losing itself. I became bored. A healthy dash of better dialogue and believable human dynamics wouldn’t have hurt. Not that the film’s writers didn’t try to bring emotions into the proceedings, but the results of their efforts, probably purposely, are pretty cardboardy. The occasional hug and goo-goo eyes don’t meaningful human relationships make.

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Unlike SW:TFA, The Big Short doesn’t suffer from underdeveloped characters, though it contains plenty of characters, as in people with strong ways of expressing their inner selves. And its propulsion is mighty chipper, though it avoids the warp speed of many scenes in SW:TFA. The Big Short takes on a most unlikely candidate for a cinematic story, the worldwide financial catastrophe of 2008. The film tackles the subject inventively and with energy to spare. Basically, The Big Short rocks. Fast-thinking denizens of the investment world, some of them motor-mouthed (played by Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling and others) make for a heady and dizzying trip. Add snappy editing to that and you’ve got a really winning movie.

What’s more, you very well might leave the theater thinking you’ve finally begun to understand who and what caused calamity to shower the Earth eight years ago. And hopefully you won’t be like me, dumb as dirt once again in financial matters by the time you arrive home.

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Within the low range of the miles-per-hour spectrum stands 45 Years, replete with a top-notch screenplay and realistic portrayals by Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay of a married couple, the Mercers. This duo finds themselves with emerging marital problems on the cusp of their 45th wedding anniversary. But if you’re thinking of catching the Mercers’ predicaments, be prepared for a slow and deliberate adventure. Everybody takes their good ol’ time doing things and vocalizing. The most intense action in the movie occurs when Rampling struggles with a pull-down attic ladder. Yup, eventually she conquers the beast and makes her way upward to where a revelatory discovery awaits her. You go, girl!

What’s my point about all of this? Good question. Luckily I have an answer or two. A movie’s pace is important and should fit the circumstances of the plot. Movies with mucho scenes that rip along wildly can be terrific (think His Girl Friday and the version of Casino Royale with Daniel Craig), and so too can be those that mosey (think Hud and Nebraska). Velocity is only part of the equation. Whatever its pulse rate, a film usually will rise only if its story is strong, its dialog solid, its characters believable, its actors on top of their game and its director in firm control. The Big Short and 45 Years meet the criteria beautifully. Not so for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which comes up a bit short in the plot, dialog and character development departments in my puny opinion. Shows what I know, though. SW:TFA to-date has grossed almost one billion smackers at the domestic box office, let alone the rest of the world. I bow before the power of the dollar.

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(Photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on a photo, a larger image will open)

I Never Met Thelonious Monk, But . . .

The front cover of the author's copy of Criss-Cross.
The front cover of the author’s copy of Criss-Cross.

I loved Thelonious Monk’s music from the first time I heard it, and I’m sure I’m not alone in that. The year was 1964, maybe ’65. I was a high school senior entranced by rock and roll, R & B, some folk music, and by standards singers such as Sinatra and Bennett. But not by jazz, which was foreign territory to me at that time. My high school buddy Dave had just obtained his New York State driver’s license and one day informed me that he was going to take a ride to a local Sam Goody’s, a popular record store chain that sadly is no longer with us. For whatever reason, I didn’t accompany him. Dave asked me if I wanted anything from Goody’s. I must have been feeling adventurous because I requested a jazz album. Any jazz album would do, since I didn’t know one from another. The record that Dave a day or two later placed in my hands was Criss-Cross, Monk’s 1963 release. I doubt if I had ever heard of Monk before, though he was one of the most famous jazz pianists in the world. And I doubt if Dave knew much about him either. How, then, had Dave come to select this album, which to this day I consider to be magnificent? I don’t know. Dave possessed powerful intuitive talents, still does, and it seems that choosing great music from out of the blue was one of them. On the other hand, maybe he just liked the album’s cover. It is très cool.

I listened to jazz in small amounts over the next few years and in 1969 began to become the jazzhead that I am when I started heavily to inhale the outpourings of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Ornette Coleman and an ocean of others. And Thelonious Monk too, of course. Monk is one of my all-time favorites.

There’s something peaceful about Monk’s playing, even on the upbeat numbers. Something mesmerizing. Something irresistible in the way he’d offer the unexpected note, the tantalizing trill. Monk had an instantly recognizable sound on the piano, an intriguingly off-center approach. He didn’t play overly fast, just fast enough, and he put his heart and soul on display. He didn’t compose a lot of tunes (73 is the official count), but the unadorned and undeniable beauty of many of his compositions have connected with millions of listeners and with his peers. During the 1980s and ’90s it seemed that every month brought forth a new Monk tribute album. Even now, many jazz albums include one or two Monk works. Great compositions such as ‘Round Midnight, In Walked Bud, Ruby My Dear, Hackensack. Monk died in 1982, and remains a giant.

Thelonious Monk was someone I wish I had met and talked to, though I gather he wasn’t a man of many words, at least at times. I suspect that his song titles indicate this. Fifty of the 73 are either one or two words in length. Still, how fine would it have been to ask Thelonious Monk some questions: Have your piano practice habits changed over the years? Which of your songs mean the most to you? Do you ever listen to Top 40 radio? As a New Yorker, whom do you like best, the Yankees or the Mets?

But I never met Monk. In the 1960s and ’70s, however, three people I knew had up-close Monk experiences, which as a Monk fan I always have looked upon fondly. And in a sense have made my own. The earliest involved one of my high school friends, a young lady. We had graduated in 1965, and soon after that she and her family moved from Long Island to an apartment building in Manhattan near Lincoln Center. Amazingly, this was the building in which Thelonious Monk and his family resided, and had for years. More amazingly, my friend and her family occupied an apartment either directly above or below the Monk pad, I’m not sure which. I recall my classmate telling me, not long after our high school careers ended, that she often would hear Monk playing the piano, which, to say the least, was incredible to me. And enviable.

Back cover of the author's copy of Criss-Cross.
The back cover of the author’s copy of Criss-Cross.

The second occasion involved my friend Dave, who got my Monk ball rolling, with Criss-Cross, in the first place. He once had a brief encounter with the man. Dave thinks the meeting took place in 1966 or ’67. The location was a New York City subway car on which Dave spotted somebody who looked awfully familiar. This somebody was clothed in what Dave described to me as pajamas. Pajamas? Sure, why not? Intrepid soul that Dave was and is, he walked over and asked “Are you Thelonious Monk?” “Yeah, I’m the Monk,” came the reply. End of conversation.

The third Monk event was the topper. My mother was part of it, and I was there when it happened. The month was March, the year was 1976. WKCR, Columbia University’s radio station that programmed jazz in its classic and far-out varieties, was holding a Thelonious Monk marathon, playing his recordings nonstop over a multiday period. I imagine that the station’s intense tribute was timed to coincide with a concert by Monk and his band that same month at Carnegie Hall. My mother was a devoted jazz fan and WKCR listener because her son (my brother) Richard was in attendance at Columbia and was a WKCR jazz DJ. As such, he was on the air for portions of the Monk fest. But not on the evening in question, during which I sat with my mother in the kitchen of her Long Island home as the Monk celebration emanated from a small radio on a counter between the sink and the stove. Concerned about others as she always was, she said something like “I wonder if Thelonious Monk knows what KCR is doing.”

She went to the telephone and dialed 411, the number for directory assistance. Did Monk have a listed number? Somewhat surprisingly, he did. My mother called. Someone on the other end picked up. “Is this Mr. Monk?” she asked. “Yes,” was the reply. “Hello,” my mother said. “I wanted to ask if you know that WKCR is playing all of your music. It’s a wonderful tribute.” “Yes, thank you,” replied Thelonious Monk. My mother probably then complimented Monk on his talents, and Monk probably said “thank you” again. And that was that. I sat there semi-stunned. My mother, to my recollection, had never done anything like this before. She keenly followed the world of celebrities, but always from afar. Of all the stars that she admired, from Mary Tyler Moore to Lena Horne to Paul Newman, I never would have guessed that her one personal contact would be with a jazz pianist.

I was a mere bystander to my mother’s bold move. I, however, had one engaging and in-person Monk experience of my own. This occurred on March 26, 1976 from a balcony seat  at Thelonious’ aforementioned concert at Carnegie Hall. Sitting next to me were my brother Richie and his wife-to-be, Sara. I can’t recall if the performance took place just before or after my mother’s conversation with Monk. Likely, after. Monk didn’t play often in public those days, so the Carnegie gig was a highly anticipated event. In fact, two appearances in July of that year would be his last ever. He was on stage with four musicians, including his son T.S. Monk on drums. Thelonious said little, maybe nothing, to the audience. What mattered was his playing, and he was in superb form. Strong, poignant, totally on the money. His fingers did the talking.

(Photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on a photo, a larger image will open)

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The End Of My Long Affair (With Turner Classic Movies)

When I moved to Philadelphia in 1974 I became a film buff of sorts. It all happened very naturally and wasn’t anything I thought about. There were fewer options for movie lovers back then in Philadelphia than there are today, but there were enough. In addition to first-run theaters, Philadelphia had various venues that specialized in lesser-known flicks — some were foreign, some not. I had never before seen many foreign or cult movies and found myself liking them. My cinematic diet, consisting of the mainstream, the obscure, the subtitled, has remained consistent ever since.

My wife Sandy, whom I met in 1990, is a big movie fan too. Each year she and I leave the house 40 or more times to take in movies. Chez us, together we catch an additional 25 or so flicks on the tube. We like doing things together. For a span of eight years in my married life though, I also viewed hundreds of films on my own. I watched them on the Turner Classic Movies cable channel. I became addicted to TCM, but I’m not anymore. Here’s the story:

In 2006 my thoughts and activities were less-focused than they should have been. My father had died the previous year and I think my restlessness was partly connected to his passing. He had lived with Sandy and me, and we spent a lot of time caring for him. With him gone I had trouble finding ways to fill up my days fully.

I began watching TCM movies on this TV in 2006. This is a recent photo of the TV.
I began watching TCM movies on this TV in 2006. This is a recent photo of the TV.

Sandy had been suggesting I might do well to add some prime time television viewing to my regimen as one way to get my mind off of things. But I couldn’t decide what to watch, didn’t think I’d  be happy devoting a bunch of hours to the small screen. Somehow though, I heard the call of TCM. Our meeting must have been preordained. And so a few months into 2006 I began descending the stairs on many evenings from our kitchen to finished basement, a place I hadn’t visited all that much since moving into our house the year before. In the basement’s den area sat an old bulky TV that had traveled from our previous home.

The Letter was the first movie I watched on TCM in 2006. I took this photo recently.
The Letter was the first movie I watched on TCM in 2006. This is a recent photo.

I began the affair gingerly. The first TCM movie I watched in 2006 was The Letter, a Bette Davis melodrama. It was pretty good. “OK, let’s try another,” I thought, and not too many days later Tender Mercies passed before my eyes. I had seen it when it came out in 1983 but didn’t recall it too clearly. I gave it two thumbs up in 2006.

Turner Classic Movies is quite the amazing broadcaster. Movies in their unedited versions 24 hours a day with no commercial interruptions. TCM’s core is English-speaking productions from the 1930s through 70s. Once in awhile the station throws in a foreign movie or a silent or a post-1970s film such as Tender Mercies. Despite the station’s name, however, hardly every TCM movie is a classic. There are plenty of clunkers. On many occasions I turned off a movie within its first 30 minutes and made the long climb upstairs.

And yet, duds or not, I became very comfortable sitting in a recliner in front of the basement TV. By 2006’s end I had watched 61 movies on TCM. The next year’s number was 103, and the year after that I reached the 87 mark,  my two highest totals. Since then the counts have descended, from 64 in 2009 to seven in 2014. I’ve managed merely one movie so far in 2015, The Great Santini, a good one that seemed a tad better to me when it made its initial rounds in 1983.

Why the dramatic falloff? Well, after cutting a slew of notches into my movie-watching belt I discovered that my TCM motor was running out of gas. Eventually, many of the movies I contemplated watching didn’t seem, upon investigation, good enough to spend time with. And the slim pickings of films from 1980 onward began to bother me a little.

But I tip my hat to Turner Classic Movies without hesitation. You see, to Sandy’s amazement somehow I’d made it into my late 50s and early 60s without having witnessed On The Waterfront, West Side Story, Singin’ In The Rain, From Here To Eternity and others that the general populace would deem to be true classic films. TCM rectified that situation. Contrarian that I sometimes am though, Singin’ was the only one of those that I felt was completely worthy of wearing a crown. And, besides Singin’, at least 15 more offerings that I first caught on TCM are now on my list of elite movies: In A Lonely Place, Odd Man Out, The Misfits, Darling, Sweet Smell Of Success, Hud . . .

Hey TCM. you’re a great station and I thank you for all the entertaining hours that you bestowed on me. Add some movies from the current century and maybe once again you and I will become pals.

(Photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on a photo, a larger image will open)

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A Cape Cod Sunset Story

My wife Sandy and I have a love affair going with Cape Cod, which is where we are vacationing as I type this missive. We live in suburban Philadelphia, but in most ways prefer the Cape. Boo hoo . . . we’ll be back home tomorrow.

In 1998 we visited the Cape for the first time, expecting it to be a locale we’d enjoy. Well, we did. And decided to come back the next year for some more good times. I think it was on that second trip that I realized I liked Cape Cod much more than I ever thought I would, that it really suited my soul, that I was starting to become smitten. Sandy and I have returned every year since then, excepting one. Before Cape Cod entered the picture, in my adult life it had never occurred to me that there might be an Eden of sorts waiting for me, someplace beautiful and in which I truly felt at home. A favorite place.

Sandy and I have had only great vacations on Cape Cod. We’ve been there in all seasons except summer, which is the one time of year when the Cape is overrun. With humans. We fill our days with a variety of activities: nature walks on sand or through forests; poking around in country-imbued villages; art gallery and museum hopping; attending movies, plays and concerts; lots of tasty eating in restaurants humble and above; the list continues. No doubt, this is the good life. I feel almost guilty that such fine fortune has come my way. But I’ll take it.

Atlantic Ocean shoreline. Eastham, Cape Cod.
Atlantic Ocean shoreline. Eastham, Cape Cod.

If I had to select one reason above all that puts Cape Cod at the top of my list, I’d point to the expansive areas of natural beauty. Such as the 40 or more mile-long Atlantic Ocean shoreline, much of it government-protected and thus little disturbed or altered by the hands of man. The vistas there are pretty elemental and always knock my socks off. Ocean, sky and beaches backed by dunes-topped sand cliffs. My psychological and emotional makeups, whatever the heck they might be, vibrate in a calm, contented and awestruck manner when I’m in the midst of such.

And there are other reasons. To name one: When vacationing on Cape Cod sometimes an unexpected present drops into your lap, just as with life in general. One day last week an example came my and Sandy’s way. I’m talking about a sunset. Right, right, I know that over the centuries untold thousands of scribes have oohed and aahed in print about sunsets. And millions of sunset photos have been published, more in the last 15 or so years than ever before thanks to the Web. But hey, I’m not embarrassed to add a few hundred sunset words, and a handful of photographs, to the Everest-high piles already out there. Don’t bail out on me. Keep reading.

And so on the aforementioned day at 5:15 PM, Sandy and I were in Chatham, a needless-to-say charming Cape Cod town. We had just watched Steven Spielberg’s latest oeuvre, Bridge Of Spies, in the Chatham Orpheum Theater. Our next planned destination was 20 miles away, Harvest Gallery Wine Bar. There we meant to dine and listen to a tough as nails rock trio, The Catbirds. But there was no need to arrive before 7 PM. We had time to kill. We scratched our heads, coming up empty. Then “sunset” popped into my mind. Sandy checked with her phone, which is much smarter than me, and learned that the Sun would dip below the horizon at 5:57. I steered our car westward and then turned south onto a road I’d never heard of, hoping that we eventually would find our way to a Chatham beach on Nantucket Sound. The sand gods must have been with us, for Hardings Beach Road soon materialized. And moments later Hardings Beach itself emerged.

We parked. The spot was gorgeous. Lovely sands, magnificent Nantucket Sound waters gently rippling beneath a sky puffy here and there with clouds. The clouds made my heart leap, or something like that, because a scattering of clouds, as I’ve come to realize from years of sunset-gazing on the Cape, is key to a good sunset. Their water droplets and other particles refract light beams and reflect colors. Their movements and changing forms turn sunsets into active canvases. And that’s what happened as Sandy and I watched our fiery faraway friend say goodnight.

Sunset at Hardings Beach. 5:56 PM.
Sunset at Hardings Beach. 5:56 PM.
Sunset at Hardings Beach. 6:05 PM.
Sunset at Hardings Beach. 6:05 PM.
Sunset with the Moon at Hardings Beach. 6:07 PM.
Sunset. The Moon. Hardings Beach. 6:07 PM.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A lot of people claim to dislike colorful abstract art, certain paintings by, say, Vasily Kandinsky or Jackson Pollock. I don’t get that, because everybody loves sunsets, which to me can be among the ultimate in eye-popping abstractions. I’ve never read that sunsets inspired any brush wielders to go wild and free in their approach or vision, but it wouldn’t surprise me if in fact this were the case. Sandy and I watched the sky for 20 minutes. The pinks and oranges darkened as the big event rolled on. The clouds worked their wonders. And in a little while Sandy pointed up and said, “There’s the Moon.” It was a graceful sliver of white balancing above swashes of pastel hues.

On Cape Cod I’ve been a lucky son of a gun many times. That evening on Hardings Beach was one of them.

(Photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on any photo, a larger image will open)

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Stuff And More Stuff (Part Two)

So here I am, about to attempt a Part Two rumination on the time that my wife Sandy and I spent recently with our friends from France, Alan and Martine (click here to read the first installment). Part Two? Man, it’s hard enough for me to write about any topic, let alone something that requires follow-up thought and analysis. In the future I’m going to stick strictly to Part Ones.

As I’ve previously mentioned, the weather was ungodly hot while Alan and Martine stayed with us in the Philly burbs. We all decided to take outdoor activities off the table. On the first full day of the visit, we beat the Sun by looking at 150-year-old American artifacts inside the Mercer Museum, in Doylestown, PA. Where to on the second full day? Hey, we’d had enough history and culture at the Mercer. Why not aim lower and head to a locale whose charms are undeniable and, for some, irresistible? Namely, Willow Grove Park Mall, a gigantic and enclosed shopping mecca a mere half mile from Sandy’s and my abode. Alan and Martine, non-fussy sorts, readily agreed.

At the mall, we split up into pairs, females banding together, ditto for the lesser gender. Alan and I said goodbye to our wives within Macy’s, the establishment we all first had entered from the parking lot. “Call us when you’re done,” he and I said, and off we went. As Alan and I made our way past Macy’s cosmetics counters, heading towards an exit that would bring many of the rest of the mall’s retailers into view, I mentioned something I’ve thought about over the years. “This place,” I said, referring to Macy’s, “is like a museum.” The same could be said for the mall in toto.

Partial view of the Mercer Museum's central court.
Partial view of the Mercer Museum’s central court.
Partial view of the Willow Grove Mall's central court.
Partial view of the Willow Grove Mall’s central court.

The Mercer Museum displays 30,000 or more everyday implements and goods from America’s olden days. It’s a fascinating place. The Willow Grove Mall is no less fascinating, when you think about it. You want artifacts? The mall has 1,500,000 of them, I bet, putting the Mercer’s count to shame. Not only are the Mercer and the mall both repositories, they’re laid out kind of the same too, with large open courts (really large at the mall) ringed by several levels of rooms. At the Mercer the rooms (i.e. galleries) are small, each displaying tools and wares from a specific occupation or other category. At the mall the rooms (i.e. shops) may be bigger, but, excepting the department stores, each is narrow in its focus, just like at the Mercer. Shoe stores display only shoes. Electronics stores display only electronics. See, what’d I tell you? . . .  The Mercer Museum and the Willow Grove Mall are pretty similar. Except, of course, that the stuff inside the Mercer Museum ain’t going anywhere. At the mall, a museum in constant flux, the faster the stuff makes its way out the doors, the better the store owners and managers like it.

Hats at the Mercer Museum.
Hats at the Mercer Museum.
Lids, a hat store in the Willow Grove Mall.
Lids, a hat store in the Willow Grove Mall.

Department stores aside, the variety of items at the Mercer is, I think, a lot greater than at the mall. But there is definitely some overlap. No, you won’t find smart phones at the Mercer, or a whaling boat at the mall. But how about hats, for one example? Mercer has a room devoted to them and their manufacture. And Willow Grove Mall contains Lids, a sharp little shop stocked from floor to ceiling with caps, mostly of the baseball type.

While Sandy and Martine (as Alan and I later learned) happily wandered through Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, Uniqlo and other wondrous spots, Alan and I strolled around the second and third level walkways overlooking the great court. We passed one emporium after another, but entered not a one. Neither of us were in need of any new duds (I mean, we’re talking here about two of the already-sharpest-dressed guys on the planet!), nor of much anything else. And thus to the food court we finally headed, where we sat and chatted about this and that, coming close to solving a couple of the world’s problems, though not quite close enough.

Eventually, Sandy and Martine rang us up. And came to join us at the food area. They’d had a grand time. So had Alan and I, in our own way. Sandy and Martine had made a few small purchases. And, before heading back to the Scheinin hacienda, Martine dropped a few dollars more, taking away some old timey candies and roasted nuts from a colorful and alluring sweets stand at the food court. These were gifts for relatives whom she and Alan would be visiting in Massachusetts in a couple of days.

Thank you, Willow Grove Mall, provider of fun, enlightenment and relief from the Sun’s punishing rays. I bow in praise.

(Photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on any photo, a larger image will open)

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Stuff And More Stuff (A Visit To The Mercer Museum)

One of my closest friends, Alan, lives in Paris, France, so we don’t get to see each other too often. My wife Sandy and I are crazy about him and his wife Martine. Wonderful people. Smart, gracious and, if the conditions are right, up for pretty much anything. Alan and I have been buddies for 50 years. We met at college in Vermont lo those many years ago. He and Martine were in the USA for a couple of weeks recently for family gatherings and to tour New England a bit, and they also visited Sandy and me for a few days. We all had a terrific time together.

The weather was hot while they were with us. By 10 AM each day the sun was kicking ass. Sandy and I had hoped to show Alan and Martine some beautiful outdoor sights in Philadelphia or its environs. Maybe Morris Arboretum. Maybe Longwood Gardens. Maybe Philly’s Old City section and its nearby Penn’s Landing waterfront. But we scratched all of those ideas off our list. None of us felt like dealing with the heat. Where to, then?

Doylestown's Mercer Museum.
Doylestown’s Mercer Museum.

I’ve written a number of times about Doylestown, PA, a fine village in Bucks County about 20 miles from Philadelphia. Doylestown was the home of Henry Chapman Mercer, a talented and brilliant chap with eclectic interests who lived from 1856 to 1930. He designed and constructed three large and unusual buildings in Doylestown, one of which, the Mercer Museum, fit the bill as an indoor destination for Sandy, me and our friends. On the first full day of Alan’s and Martine’s visit, that’s where we headed.

Henry Mercer was a traveler, an archaeologist, an outside-the-box thinker and a collector of myriad objects. He also was well-heeled, a circumstance that allowed him to indulge his passions and to live pretty much as he chose. The collecting bug bit him early in life and took hold very strongly in the 1890s when he saw the effects that industrialization was having on the American way. Before they would be entirely phased out and disappear, he decided to amass examples of the handmade objects that once were, and in some cases still were used in typical homes, in everyday trades, on farms and in workshops. The tools and household and recreational goods, in other words, that defined how folks lived in the 1700s through roughly 1850.

Mercer spent much time at junk dealers, auctions and country sales, and often for little money purchased an astonishing array of items, thousand and thousands of them. But where would he keep all of this stuff? No problem. The amazing Mercer designed a sprawling idiosyncratic castle of sorts to house his Americana collection. A small team of workers built the structure in just a few years. The Mercer Museum opened in 1916, and Henry immediately donated it and the stuff to the Bucks County Historical Society, which to this day owns and runs the operation.

I was pretty certain that Alan and Martine would like the Mercer Museum. It’s not well-known, why I don’t understand. But it is fascinating and maybe one of a kind. The building alone is worthy of examination, a concrete behemoth awash with windows and topped with a dizzying display of towers and chimneys and who-knows-whats. Mercer selected concrete as his primary construction material because he desired a fireproof enclosure for his collection, and it certainly seems as though he made the correct choice. To date, no flames.

A dory, a sleigh and much else, all suspended from the ceiling and arches in the atrium.
A dory, a sleigh and much else, all suspended from the ceiling and arches in the atrium.

And the collection? “Incredible” is an understatement. Thirty thousand or more things to eyeball, many of which you’re not likely to encounter elsewhere. A well sweep (it drew water from wells in pre-pump days), a stagecoach, a hay rake with 24-inch-long teeth, components of a water power saw mill . . . not to mention smaller items such as tools used in hat making, tinsmithing, coopering, the healing arts, you get the idea. Mercer suspended some of the big boys (a dory and a whaleboat, for instance) and also some of the little guys from the ceiling and arches of the museum’s large central atrium, where the effect is hallucinatory. It takes long looks to figure out just what it is you’re looking at, despite the quite good signage. And Mercer apparently had a real sense of the whimsical, as chairs, chests, baby cribs and other artifacts I couldn’t easily identify dangle from the ceiling, often upside down.

The Hat Making room.
The Hat Making room.
High Wheeler bicycles "floating" above a stagecoach.
High Wheeler bicycles “floating” above a stagecoach.

Most of the tools and results of America’s myriad trades, thankfully I suppose, are much more neatly displayed. They are divided up, by occupational use or other categories, in rooms, alcoves and niches that surround the atrium on six different floor levels.

Brown is the color of the day at the Mercer Museum, since so many of the objects on display, especially the hefty ones, are made of wood. Alan and Martine and Sandy and I took our time in the Mercer forest, but after two hours started to run out of gas. Alan said the museum is one of the best he has ever been in, and I concur. This trip to Mercer was my third or fourth. A fellow visitor, whom I chatted up slightly while we both gazed at eight-foot-tall High Wheeler bicycles hanging from the ceiling above a western Concord stagecoach, got it right when she said that “[Henry Mercer] makes hoarders look good.”

A few suggestions to the interested. Go, definitely go to the Mercer Museum. But make the voyage on a sunny day, as there is a paucity of artificial light there. And skip the dead of winter. The museum is unheated.

As mentioned hundreds of words above, the day following the Mercer experience featured temperatures just as disagreeable as its predecessor’s. Once again, an indoor attraction it would have to be. Where? (To be continued)

(Photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on a photo, a larger image will open)

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The Michener Museum Shines Yet Again

James A. Michener Art Museum.
James A. Michener Art Museum.

One of the things I like about art shows is that they can surprise you (in a good way). It’s a gas when a museum or gallery curator comes up with a new slant or assembles a themed exhibition that makes you say “great idea!”  That’s part of the fun of going to places such as the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, PA. Not always, but often you can expect the unexpected there. Five years ago the Michener mounted a fascinating display of costumes worn by movie stars in famous movies. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s black leather jacket from The Terminator was in the house. So was Elizabeth Taylor’s gown from A Place In The Sun. That show caught me off guard by its coolness and inventiveness. Its idea seemed obvious, but only after the fact.

A similar sense of forward thinking surrounds a current Michener exhibition, the long-titled Iron And Coal, Petroleum And Steel: Industrial Art From The Steidle Collection. The works on view have been borrowed from their permanent home in State College, PA. There they reside within Penn State University’s Earth And Mineral Sciences Museum And Art Gallery, another mouthful. Hats off to the Michener for knowing of the off-the-beaten-track Steidle collection’s existence and for smartly organizing the paintings and their messages.

Edward Steidle (1887-1977) was a mover and shaker for many years in the worlds of mineral and petroleum extraction and use. An engineer, teacher and college administrator, he was dean from 1928 to 1953 of Penn State’s College Of Earth And Mineral Sciences. He also collected art, much of which he commissioned, that depicted the earth industries in action. The students at Penn State’s earth and minerals school were surrounded by examples of ores and extraction implements in the school buildings. Steidle, to my mind somewhat of a visionary in this respect, wanted artistic representations of the same also to be on view at the university.

Bituminous Coal Tipple, painted by Louise Pershing in 1936.
Bituminous Coal Tipple, painted by Louise Pershing in 1936.

Louise Pershing’s Bituminous Coal Tipple, from 1936, was the first work I grabbed onto at the Michener after quickly scanning the collection.  I loved its muted tones, the hulking mass of the tipple and of the hill in the foreground, the clouds of smoke issuing from all over the canvas, the lonely patch of green grass. Pershing mapped out her painting precisely and filled it with feeling.

 

Pershing’s oil painting represented a pretty good number of the ah-hah moments that I had in the Steidle galleries. What struck me first when I walked into the exhibit were the colors on the canvases. As with Pershing’s work, largely they were subdued or somber, the hues of earth and coal, of heavy equipment. As I walked around the galleries I noticed some other things. For one, nearly all the paintings were strongly designed and observant. Steidle had a good eye for art. Also, I was completely unfamiliar with the 40 or so artists in the show, excepting one or two. Post-Michener research confirmed that most of them had nice modest careers in their day but didn’t make it to the ladder of fame — only a few have garnered Wikipedia biographies. And I saw that a good number of the paintings were by women, not always the case on museum walls.

Miners In A Lift, painted by Henry Poor in 1947.
Miners In A Lift, painted by Henry Poor in 1947.

The Michener’s Steidle exhibition is a winner because it includes a boatload of works equal to Pershing’s Bituminous Coal Tipple, some maybe even better. Henry Poor’s Miners In A Lift, for example, which he painted in 1947. Five (or is it six?) coal miners are within the tight wooden cage, about to step outside the mine entrance, their shift over. Emerging from near-darkness into light, their eyes are hugely distended. The painting tells life stories, as the workers’ uneasiness about their dangerous occupation is on their faces. The confined framework of the painting brings power and immediacy to this work. It probably was my favorite at the Michener show.

The Steidle collection is said to be one of the best collections of industrial art in the USA. When these works were created, coal and steel were massively important industries in Pennsylvania and nationally. A few decades later they pretty much collapsed. The paintings are in that sense a time capsule of what once was. The historical aspect of the Michener show was presented clearly and didn’t make my eyes glaze over, the museum avoiding ponderous explanations on its informational placards. But, half-baked art aficionado that I am, I was more interested in the painterly aspects of the Steidle exhibit than in straight history.

Forging The Shaft: Hydraulic Forging Press, painted by Rose Ann McGary in 1936.
Forging The Shaft: Hydraulic Forging Press, painted by Rose Ann McGary in 1936.

Take, for instance, Rose Ann McGary’s Forging The Shaft: Hydraulic Forging Press. She painted this canvas in 1936. It shows workmen shaping red hot steel, and would have earned a thumbs up from the artist Fernand Léger and his fellow Cubism descendants. A carefully assembled construction of planes, cylinders and boxlike shapes, Forging The Shaft takes Cubism’s original color scheme of grays and browns and adds, just off-center, an explosion of pink. It is both a contained and dynamic painting.

The Steidle show closes on October 25. There’s still time to see it.

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One More Stop On The Road For Donna The Buffalo

My wife Sandy and I recently saw in concert an electric and eclectic band from upstate New York amusingly named Donna The Buffalo, and afterward I wanted to write about the show. Before sitting down to compose my magnum opus though, I mulled over my approach to the subject matter. The main question I posed to yours truly was: What should the subject matter comprise? Naturally, Donna The Buffalo needed to be a big part of the focus. But you know what? I knew little about DTB pre-gig, and possess only a cursory knowledge about the band now. We went to see them on little more than a whim. I’d heard of them, knew that their history was lengthy, and decided that taking a chance on them would be fun. When my mulling concluded, I was of the opinion that the path that brought me to this show also should be part of the story.

I think of myself as a music lover. I listen to a wide variety of genres and have been to well over 1,000 concerts during my earthly tenure. Yet, these days I feel like a tyro when I listen to radio stations or read music-related websites, magazines and newspapers. I mean, more often than not, I am unfamiliar with the musicians. To me, it is just incredible how many solo performers and bands are out there playing the game. In the USA alone, there must be 50,000 professional musical acts, maybe more. In my younger days I thought that I had a handle on a fair percentage of music makers. No longer, not now in the Internet Age when anybody and everybody can make his or her presence felt.

And so, ten or more years ago I largely gave up on trying to keep up with the avalanches of musicians plying their trade. It was just too much work, too exhausting. Better, I think, to stay in tune to a lesser extent, and also to take gambles and hope for the best. As with Donna The Buffalo.

New Hope Winery, one half hour before showtime.
New Hope Winery, one half hour before showtime.

Donna The Buffalo appeared at New Hope Winery, a venue in the Philadelphia suburbs that Sandy and I discovered last year and have become very fond of. The joint was packed with 200 or more souls when DTB took the stage. A front-and-center area, where tables normally would be placed, had been cleared to create space for dancers. I looked over the crowd. At some previous visits to the Winery I’d seen demographics heavily tilted to the 50 and above bracket. Not this night. DTB had tipped the age scales downward substantially. Twentysomethings and thirtysomethings abounded. There even were a few very young children in the room.

Donna The Buffalo in action at New Hope Winery.
Donna The Buffalo in action at New Hope Winery.

What a band. Not having known what to expect, song number one told me that I had chosen wisely by attending this concert. A quintet, DTB was tremendously tight and intuitive all night long, and possessed a large catalog of songs to choose from. They held the stage for two hours and 10 minutes, filling their long set with 22 songs and little between-tune chatter. I was standing just behind the dance section, which was crowded with bobbers and weavers. After two or three songs, I too began to go with the flow. And kept going. But I was bouncing alone — Sandy stayed at the extremely stage right table to which we had been assigned. Her view of the musicians from there was lousy, but in the dance area she wouldn’t have had a chance seeing over anyone’s head. Mea culpa.

DTB has blended a bunch of musical styles into their sound: rock, country, zydeco, reggae. Rock being the dominant force. On some songs (What Money Cannot Buy; Love and Gasoline) the power was relentless, Stonesy, irresistible. On others (The Ones You Love; Conscious Evolution) the groove expanded, contracted, widened once again, giving no mercy to the audience. All you had to do on those expansive numbers, Grateful Dead-ish and Allmans-ish as they were, was close your eyes to be transported to a higher and mind-opening plane. Yes, Donna The Buffalo was that good.

DTB began its journey in the late 1980s, picking up steam in the mid 90s, and in the current century has become a decently successful and popular unit. They tour like crazy and have amassed a loyal national fan base known as The Herd, a mini version of the Deadheads. Two original band members (Tara Nevins and Jeb Puryear) remain. Tara and Jeb compose most of the group’s songs, usually individually. At the Winery, each took the lead vocal spotlight on his or her compositions. Jeb opted for the laidback Jerry Garcia approach to singing and handled electric guitar sizzlingly. He’s a guitar hero unknown to 99% of Americans. Tara’s sweet and gentle mountain drawl pleased me much. And she was the band’s multi-instrumentalist. Fiddle, acoustic guitar, accordion, tambourine and scrubboard (for the zydeco numbers) were her arsenal.

A bunch of musicians have played alongside Tara and Jeb since DTB’s inception. The three current guys have been around for several years. Mark Raudabaugh killed on the drums. Kyle Sparks was all over his electric bass’ strings, drawing out lines that percolated and sang. And organist David McCracken was immense. So many times in so many bands, especially the poppier or atmospheric ones, the keyboard player is on the lame side, somehow fooling the audience with pretty chords and simplistic runs. Not McCracken. He can play. He jabbed, moved fast, reached for the skies, whatever it took.

So, how many acts that I’ve never heard of or barely heard of, and that I’d find to be great, are on the circuit? The question is a puzzle, the answer unknowable. Which makes music and, similarly, much else of life, delightful.

(Photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on a photo, a larger image will open)

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Screwball Begone! (A Review Of Mistress America)

I wasn’t as fond as I thought I would be of the movie that my wife Sandy and I went to see recently. Sandy told me that various critics have heaped praises upon said flick, Mistress America, some calling it a screwball comedy in the grand old Hollywood tradition of Howard Hawkes and Preston Sturges. I saw the movie differently. I found it to be as much a drama as a comedy, as bittersweet as it is funny. And as for screwball, which can be great . . . well, Mistress America’s try at the madcap art form encompasses not the entire movie at all, settling instead for one long and uncomfortable segment in the second half. I didn’t have much fun with that interlude. A collection of intersections involving most of the movie’s cast, it felt flat and strained to me, out of place with the decidedly tilted but more realistic antics and people-play that populated the rest of the film. In other words, Mistress America overextended its ambitions. It would have been a better movie if its creators, Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig, had kept their eyes on the  wry and poignant, and left the supposedly wild and crazy alone. My rating? Two, maybe two and a half out of four stars.

We saw Mistress America at the Regal multiplex in Warrington, PA.
We saw Mistress America at the Regal multiplex in Warrington, PA.

Mistress America revolves around a small parade of characters led by Brooke Cardinas (Gerwig) and Tracy Fishko (Lola Kirke). Brooke is a 30ish lady on the go, an at-times free spirit who cobbles together a living in New York City by leading exercise classes, doing interior decorating, whatever it takes. Her dream is to open a restaurant slash hair salon slash hangout in Lower Manhattan called Mom’s, a place where customers will settle in and feel really comfortable. A wifty notion possibly, but who knows? Brooke already has signed a lease for the empty space she plans to transform, and is in the process of assembling financial backing. She’s committed, and several steps ahead of herself.

Into Brooke’s life enters Tracy, a Barnard College freshman not connecting very well to the college scene in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. At Mistress America’s outset, Tracy and Brooke have never met. Tracy learns of Brooke’s existence from her mother, who has plans to tie the knot with Brooke’s father. Following her mom’s suggestion, Tracy gives her stepsister-to-be a call. They meet, they bond, and the slings and arrows and goofy twists of fortune begin to fly.

Excising the unwieldy aforementioned portion of Mistress America, what we’re left with is an observant study of two women looking for some answers. Tracy is young, an introvert, and beginning what appears will be a very long process of self-discovery. I’m not placing heavy bets on her ever finding peace and contentment. She can be nasty and guileful, sides of her personality she might not have known were alive till the forceful Brooke’s influence poked them to the surface.

Brooke on the other hand is a longtime gung-ho trooper. Disappointments have peppered her life, but on she goes, pushing aside her doubts and sadnesses as she seeks the next opportunity or person that might set her on the true path. Late in the movie Brooke offhandedly takes a deep look inside and throws out some comments that almost are on target. To Tracy she says something to the effect of  “I know everything about myself. That’s why I can’t do therapy.” Actually, she knows so much that, I think, she scares herself. And keeps on running.

Baumbach and Gerwig, a real life couple, have been feeling their collaborative artistic juices the last few years. They cowrote Mistress America, and Baumbach directed. Ditto for 2013’s Frances Ha, which resembles Mistress America in that it centers upon a young woman who stumbles a lot in life. Frances, though, is several notches below Brooke on the got-it-together scale. Gerwig starred in Frances Ha, and I wasn’t sure if she would have the acting chops to differentiate her leading roles. I am glad to report that she does. Her Brooke is a complicated soul, usually energized and with a gleam in her eyes, but down enough times that my good wishes went out to her. Mistress America, despite its big ol’ flaw, offers plenty to chew on.

(Photo by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on it, a larger image will open)

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