Matewan (1987) starring Chris Cooper, James Earl Jones, Mary McDonnell, & David Strathairn

Dir_JohnSayles
Director John Sayles at AFI Silver Theater on May 17, 2017.

I’d never seen this movie (part of DC Labor Film Fest this year) before, though I’m a BIG fan of independent director John Sayles. On this blog, you’ll find reviews of Passion Fish and Casa de Los Babys– two of his more female-centered works. In my view, Sayles was a “masculine feminist” even before the term became popular. He writes BOTH male and female characters who are multi-dimensional living inside stories which are realistic.

Now, you may be thinking- HOW does Sayles keep doing his own high-quality, yet rather low-budget projects!? He explained that his day job is “writer for hire”- he worked on movie and TV scripts, many of which didn’t get made by the big Hollywood studios. “In the past 15 years or so, studios seem to want their leads to be like Tony Soprano,” Sayles explained in the Q&A session after the film. (Most of the audience laughed at this part.) 

Matewan_ChrisCooper
Union organizer Joe Kennehan (Chris Cooper) addresses the miners.

Matewan is based on true events which occurred in a rural town in 1920s West Virginia. Some of the character names are real; others are amalgams of several people. When I first saw the trailer for the film two weeks ago, it reminded me of the Western genre (which Sayles was inspired by). The cinematographer here was Hollywood veteran Haskell Wexler (d. 2015); he won two Oscars, one for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) and the other for Days of Heaven (1978)- considered one of the MOST beautiful films by critics and fans alike. The music is also a crucial element here; there is a blending of different styles.

A stranger- Union organizer Joe Kennehan (Chris Cooper in his first film role)- arrives in the town of Matewan. (Cooper plays the lead in Sayles’ Lone Star, which also stars a young Matthew McConaughey.) He gets a room at a boarding house run by a widow, Elma Radnor (Mary McDonnell- lead in Passion Fish), and her teenage son Danny (Will Oldham, then just 17 y.o.) Danny recently went to work in the mines, though he’s NOT yet 15 y.o. His real passion is preaching. 

Matewan_JamesEarlJones
Few Clothes (James Earl Jones) is a representative/leader of the black miners.

Joe meets w/ (white/native born) coal miners at the local restaurant. These workers, struggling to form a union, are up against the Stone Mountain Coal Company operators and thugs from the Baldwin-Felts agency (basically guns for hire). Black and newly-arrived Italian immigrants, brought in by the company to break the strike, are caught in the middle. A tall, burly black miner- nicknamed Few Clothes (James Earl Jones)- boldly comes to this meeting. He’s an advocate for the African-American men brought in to work recently from further South. The local white miners don’t want to include the black men (or Italians) in the union; they consider these two groups to be a threat to their livelihood. (Well, some things NEVER change! And yeah, Italians were NOT considered “white” at this time in American history.)  

You think this man is the enemy? Huh? This is a worker! Any union keeps this man out ain’t a union, it’s a goddamn club! They got you fightin’ white against colored, native against foreign, hollow against hollow, when you know there ain’t but two sides in this world – them that work and them that don’t. You work, they don’t. That’s all you got to know about the enemy. -Joe explains to the white miners

Matewan_DavidStrathairn
Police chief Sid Hatfield (David Strathairn) readies his pistol in his office.

I’ve met Mr. Felts. I wouldn’t pee on him if his heart was on fire. -Sid Hatfield tells the men from the Baldwin-Felts agency

This film contains some colorful characters, including stone-faced cop Sid Hatfield (David Strathairn). Kevin Tighe (a veteran of film and TV) and Gordon Clapp (who later made a name on NYPD Blue) play the main villains. Sayles is in the small role of a fiery, anti-union Baptist preacher. Producer Maggie Renzi (herself of Italian heritage) takes on the role of Rosaria, wife to one of the Italian miners and mother to several kids. Sayles and Renzi have been creative and life partners since their days as students at Williams College. Sayles also met Strathairn at Williams; they’re good friends. Local people (NOT professional actors) were used in MANY of the scenes of Matewan; they give authenticity to the film, as does the setting.

I think ALL the actors did a fine job; I esp. liked the characters played by Jones (what a great get for young filmmakers) and Renzi (who spoke in Italian). Cooper was the first actor who auditioned for the role of Joe; he had ONLY done theater before. Sayles revealed that several well-known actors also went in for the part, BUT he and Renzi kept thinking back to Cooper. As for Jones, they wanted someone like him, b/c they thought there was a small chance of the man behind Darth Vader taking on a supporting role. Well, you NEVER know until you try!

Advertisements

Macbeth (Shakespeare Theatre Company: APR 25-MAY 28)

When I work on a play, I think about where I’m doing it and figure out what the pulse of that city is. In this case, it’s D.C., it’s politics—and it’s also structural politics. They’d understand this idea I’d have. So I identify the place and then I figure out how to get the play into the laps of the audience, so it’s not an intellectual thing that they can just sit back and let wash over them—it feels visceral. It feels like it’s a play for them.

-Liesl Tommy, Director

Director Liesl Tommy grew up in segregated Cape Town, South Africa, before immigrating to Boston at age 15 w/ her family. She has located her Macbeth in some unnamed, majority-Muslim (note the hijabs) country in North Africa. This is a land troubled by civil war in the modern-day. The three “witches” are mysterious foreign operatives, lead by Hecate (who has a Russian accent a la Putin). 

If you’re familiar w/ the play, you’ll quickly notice that several of the originally male characters have become female: Duncan, Donalbain, Ross, Young Lennox, one of the (here only a teen) assassins, Macduff’s child, and the Doctor. This production is also influenced by House of Cards; you’ll note how Macbeth’s monologues/asides are done. (In 2013, Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright explained that they modeled their Frank and Claire Underwood roles after the ultimate power couple, Macbeth and Lady M.)

I think this production will appeal more to those who are NOT so familiar w/ (or invested in) Shakespeare. As you may know, I’m NOT one of those folks (LOL)! In my opinion, there are some effective scenes, BUT as a whole, there is a LOT missing. Sometimes the energy gets low, such as the extended dance number and coronation scene. It could’ve been much shorter (as was noted in Washington City Paper). 

Above all, Macbeth offers a glimpse of the tragic themes that seemed to obsess Shakespeare—the corrupting currents of power and ambition, the inevitability of time, the toxic intimacy of husbands and wives, blood that will have blood. All of these themes can be said to equivocate, extending the play’s resonance beyond its specific context and Shakespeare’s life and times to shed insight on our own. 

-Drew Lichtenberg, Literary Manager

In the lead role, Jesse J. Perez is comfortable w/ The Bard’s language, BUT there is something missing in the way he expresses the words. 

Though he may be committed and driven, Jesse J. Perez embodies Macbeth with volume and gesture, but little else. If he is to stir and unsettle, Macbeth must convincingly reveal his inner battles — between right and wrong, between strength and weakness, between ambition and cowardice. It is found in the subtleties of the language, its music, and the expressive spaces in between. Perez misses these opportunities, choosing instead a broad and agitated brush. 

-Kate Wingfield (Metro Weekly)

Nikkole Salter does a  fine job as Lady Macbeth; the audience seemed to like her performance. Her Lady M is an alpha female, for sure! The way she interacts w/ her husband make their marriage seem like one of convenience, NOT passion (as I’ve usually seen portrayed onstage and film). Salter has command of the language, which contributes to an exciting presence. 

As one watches the appealing earnestness and latent dark energies (seen to great effect when he turns into a ghost) of McKinley Belcher III’s Banquo, the friend so cruelly betrayed by Macbeth, it’s hard not to wonder what he might have done with the title role. 

-Kate Wingfield (Metro Weekly)

It took me a few minutes, BUT I recognized Belcher from PBS’ Mercy Street. Now that may NOT be the most interesting show, BUT his character is a pretty interesting/conflicted man. As for Corey Allen, his Malcolm is VERY effective. This is a leading man in the making, no doubt! 

It’s an interesting take on Macbeth the story, but it has a crippling effect on Macbeth the character. Tommy has replaced the godhead (or, at least, the Meddlesome Fortunetellers) with Uncle Sam, but Shakespeare wasn’t interested in puppets. 

By amputating the supernatural elements, STC has grounded Macbeth on the human plane, which was its intention. Attempts to make the man “resonate” with 2017 theatergoers, however, rob him of his twisted, fatalistic nobility. This is the worst character Shakespeare still liked, not some banana republic placeholder.

Brightest Young Things

Indian-American actress Anu Yadav (who I saw last year in The Who and The What at Round House Theatre) is part of the company; she plays an assassin and maidservant to Lady Macbeth. Later on, I saw in the playbill that Lady Macduff was also played by a South Asian actress- Nilanjana Bose.

Myra Lucretia Taylor (who was interviewed recently on WETA) provides some (much needed) humor as the Porter. In another small role, the Doctor, she brings gravitas. Taylor is obviously comfortable w/ Shakespeare’s language! 

Catastrophe (Amazon): Season 3

catastrophe-season-3-poster1.jpg
A poster for Season 3 of the series.

NOTE: This review contains MILD spoilers.

…“Singles in America” study that I do with Match.com, we ask them, “What must you have in a relationship?” And, “What’s very important?” And they must have somebody they can trust and confide in. They must have somebody who respects them. They must have somebody who makes them laugh, which actually is very important biologically.

-Dr. Helen Fisher (Biological Anthropologist)

…Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney can communicate so much with raised eyebrows or a sour expression.

Catastrophe has given this couple so many chances to wash their hands of one another, but one of the show’s underlying strengths is that they so clearly don’t want to. Because they’re connected in so many different ways…

-AV Club

Catastrophe-S03E01-ER.jpg
Sharon (Sharon Horgan) and Rob (Rob Delaney) with their son in the ER.

Rob Morris (Rob Delaney) and Sharon Norris (Sharon Horgan) are back for Season 3 of their irreverent, funny, yet still romantic, comedy. By this time of life- Rob is 40, while Sharon is 44- the romance is in the commitment; this something that Dr. Helen Fisher noticed from an esteemed Chinese relationship expert, NOT unlike herself. In America, we value falling in love, BUT in China, they focus on the long-term. 

carrie-fisher-catastrophe.png
Mia (Carrie Fisher) talks on the phone with her son Rob.

Fisher appears in only a handful of episodes overall, her appearances are extremely memorable.

-Collider (on actress Carrie Fisher’s last performance)

The themes and events in this season are the darkest yet, though there are still laughs to be had (no matter if the viewer is single, married, or something in between).  In the first episode, Sharon wonders what exactly happened w/ that younger man in the Season 2 finale. She thinks of returning to her teaching job. Rob is still a stay-at-home dad, BUT financial reasons could compel him to get back work. 

catastrophe3_school_ep2.jpg
Rob (Rob Delaney) is shocked by his own behavior to one of the other parents.

Their families and friends are going through some issues of their own. Sharon’s younger brother, Fergal (Jonathan Forbes), moves his family to Spain (where his wife is originally from). Sharon’s close friend, Fran (Ashley Jensen), is feeling lonely and insecure re: aging. Fran’s ex-husband, Chris (Mark Bonnar) is one of the MOST quirkiest, BUT also most loyal/dependable, friend characters in modern TV. I esp. LOVE how he is there to listen to Rob, BUT doesn’t judge. There is a LOT more going on (including some notable guest actors), so do check this show out yourself! (FYI: Season 4 has been confirmed.)