The TCM Classic Film Festival Preview

Read my preview of this week’s festival of classic movies, the TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood, at The New Romanticist here. The theme of this year’s event is the movie with literary origins. Accordingly, and happily, Turner Classic Movies is honoring writer and director Robert Benton, screenwriter for Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Superman (1978), with new interviews including Q&As surrounding his dramatic classics, Places in the Heart and Kramer vs. Kramer.

‘Kramer vs. Kramer’ at 2018 TCM Classic Film Festival

To honor the New York City screenwriter and director, whom I’ve previously urged TCM to invite as a guest to the festival, I’ve recently reviewed both of Benton’s featured movies. As an admirer of his films, which are often marked by shocking violence and humor yet always meant to be taken seriously, it’s been a pleasure to go back to these movies, especially his Oscar-winning Best Picture for 1979, which was that year’s top box office hit. I’ve interviewed Benton about his outstanding if lesser known pictures, such as The Human Stain and Feast of Love, read writings by John O’Hara upon his recommendation and received valuable feedback from him on my own fiction writing.

Read my new reviews of his motion pictures Places in the Heart (1984) and Kramer vs. Kramer (1979). Also, this weekend is the final LA curtain call for playwright Neil Simon’s biting take on writing for television, which I previewed for the Los Angeles Times‘ local edition here. Look for new information, posts and updates about TCM’s event, classic movies and opportunities to enroll in my summer courses in the near future.

Hotel Review: DoubleTree by Hilton Pittsburgh, Green Tree

This hotel is nestled into lush, green hills in Pittsburgh’s Green Tree neighborhood with perfect location, accommodations and property assets and amenities. Needing to be near this location for a recent trip, I booked here as against downtown Pittsburgh, where I recently stayed at the Fairmont, primarily because Pittsburgh’s newest Hilton hotel has an airport shuttle, which I needed to use.

DoubleTree by Hilton Pittsburgh | Green Tree

The courtesy shuttle turned out to be a hassle. I phoned when my flight landed as instructed, spoke to someone who spoke with broken English who told me that a shuttle was waiting for me or would be dispatched. Neither was the case. I went to the designated spot, waited for a while and called again. I was told that a driver had been dispatched. No shuttle arrived. I made two more calls while waiting for over an hour — each time, I was informed that the driver was nearby and on the way — and, after being told that the shuttle had to wait for a flight crew which was causing the delay, I finally pieced together that the driver wanted to wait to pick up a flight crew that had been booked at the hotel. I would’ve taken and paid for my own ride but the front desk clerk kept telling me that a shuttle was coming soon. I saw seven Parking Spot shuttles come and go during the hour plus-wait. When driver Norman finally showed up over an hour after the initial call, one other passenger — the airline flight crew he’d been waiting for — boarded. The other passenger proceeded to play hip hop on his device without headphones. Norman said nothing during the entire drive. So, expect confusion and a long wait for the hotel shuttle. This was not the best door to door service.

DoubleTree by Hilton Pittsburgh | Green Tree

The hotel was apologetic, however. So, I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt that this was the shuttle service having a bad day. The front desk clerk gave me a generous voucher (and, upon checkout, the clerk added extra Hilton Honors loyalty rewards points). It’s a convenient location and I’d stay at this hotel again. I won’t be taking the shuttle if I can avoid it. But the room, with a comfortable bed and desk, chair and closet with safe, iron and ironing board, is neatly appointed. There’s also an in-room coffeemaker with Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf coffee and tea. The bathroom had what I need, though its door closed too close to the toilet, and the warm cookie upon check-in and bottled water in the room were nice and convenient.

Front desk staff, with the exception of that first night before checking in, were friendly, attentive and helpful.

DoubleTree by Hilton Pittsburgh | Green Tree

A bistro marketplace sells Starbucks coffee and various types of food including pizza. The bistro also stocks small grocery, souvenir and toiletry items. An adjacent gathering area with tables and chairs near two large screen TVs tuned to cable sports and news makes it easy to have a snack and catch up on headlines and games. Unfortunately, bistro hours vary, so it was closed one morning when I wanted to buy something.

The restaurant, which offers buffet service, is very good. Service is attentive and food is fresh and delicious. The spacious bar also features big screen high-definition TVs and serves happy hour specials. DoubleTree by Hilton Pittsburgh at Green Tree also features a shared workspace with printers, computers and supplies and a fitness room off the lobby and a swimming pool with separate hot tub.

Stage Review: Laughter on the 23rd Floor (2018)

Playwright Neil Simon’s hallmark intelligence, wit and, briefly, pathos remains on display in a revised version of Simon’s 1993 comedy, Laughter on the 23rd Floor, playing at the Garry Marshall Theatre (formerly the Falcon Theatre) in Burbank. The two-act play runs through April 22.

The setting is a New York City television writers’ room in the early 1950s, when a band of comedy writers, a secretary and a brash TV show host banter, clash and strive to tap what’s humorous about news, politics and culture amid a major media transition from radio-friendly routines to the onset of televised sports, variety and situational comedy. This is Neil Simon’s homage to early television figures such as Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks. Revised through a modern perspective by director Michael Shepperd, neurotic creatives try to please the blustery boss of a weekly 90-minute show. Though a recent Saturday night performance was a bit sluggish in the first act, and some of the acting was overdone, cast, crew and show come through.

You can tell from the caustic humor that this is an early 1990s take on the early 1950s. The 40-year difference lies in a few too many McCarthy jokes and flat lines about the deaths of Josef Stalin and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. The basic narrative with young Neil Simon stand-in Lucas (Jason Grasl in his Garry Marshall Theatre debut) punctuates and frames the story about the strain of storytelling when making sharp jokes about Ibsen and Shakespeare was about to fall prey to the less literate post-war culture. Not that these writers for the fictional Max Prince Show put on high brow material. They don’t, which inevitably is part of the play’s point that writers are human and must deal with the culture, too. Laughter‘s funniest shtick mines this self-awareness, which goes to Neil Simon’s strength in portraying ordinary people making light of life’s indignities — enduring damage, digs and hardship — without making fun of what matters.

Like Simon’s Lost in Yonkers and his 1980s trilogy of coming of age-themed plays, Laughter on the 23rd Floor recreates artistic struggle with a wistful longing that wrestles with the Fifties’ deficiencies, too. Neil Simon is a master storyteller. Here, too, he sets forth arcs of loss and love in life and work. With a standout performance from understudy Jason Weiss (also in his Garry Marshall Theatre debut), filling in for Jeff Campanella as hypochondriac Ira, a pivotal role that helps Pat Towne bring the show to a climax as TV host Max Prince, the 130-seat Garry Marshall Theatre delivers with Laughter on the 23rd Floor, which marks the final production in its four-play inaugural season.

Tickets, starting at $45, are available by calling (818) 955-8101 or visiting GarryMarshallTheatre.org

The Problem with Starbucks

Starbucks, Apple, Disney. These three big brands represent a kind of gold standard in modern, streamlined business. Each of these Western American companies is a global enterprise with a history of activating radical ideas. Starbucks brought premium coffee, tea and other products to retailing while re-creating the cafe and restaurant as a creative and meeting place as part of a whole, new mobile lifestyle. Apple brought superior design, functionality and quality in computers to technology. Disney brought wholesomeness, consistency and integration in storytelling to motion pictures. Each company became legendary by being driven by a single individual. Each brand challenged and smashed the status quo, failed and made mistakes, improved and went on to become a worldwide symbol of excellence in lifestyle, technology and entertainment.

Each is also fallible. In fact, I have criticized all three in separate, previous posts. But these are outstanding American businesses deserving recognition for exceptional innovation and achievement. Each big business generally honors their prime movers Howard Schultz, Steve Jobs and Walt Disney. That said, as with any business, including my own, each also runs the risk of not minding the store.

Or, in the case of Starbucks, not minding the store by way of drifting from a focus on the store toward, instead, minding customers’ privacy. Recently, and this week in earnest, the coffee company started requiring a customer’s first and last name, e-mail address and postal ZIP code in order to access its free wi-fi through Google. Accepting terms and conditions now grants permission to let Google-Starbucks track your computer, which each Starbucks store will remember for the next and subsequent visits. Supposedly, there’s an opt-out but it isn’t clear how. As a Starbucks customer, loyalty rewards member and enthusiast, I find the company’s recent shift away from adding lifestyle value toward mining and collecting data disturbing. It suggests a breach of the Starbucks commitment to earning customer loyalty.

This is especially true given the glut of recent, chronic and persistent problems with daily operations at Starbucks, specifically the retailer’s failure to:

  • Get transactions right, including honoring the 10-cent personal cup discount. I understand that pricing varies by store location. But baristas ring up the wrong price too often by my experience. Others have noticed overcharges, too. The personal cup discount is typically not honored in my experience. When I use one during visits, I’ve now taken to reminding the barista in advance. It’s part of an overall trend I’ve noticed in which the customer essentially is increasingly put in a position to have to know more than the employee.
  • Bus and clean store tables.
  • Take reasonable measures to preserve space for customers and protect them from harm. I’ve encountered several conflicts at various Starbucks stores and witnessed many more. During one incident, when I sat down at a shared table to eat and drink products I’d purchased, a seated person who’d been squatting at the table with his stuff, none of it from Starbucks, threatened me and told me to leave. When I explained that it was the only available seat in the store, he became violent, pounding the table and physically lifting and shoving the table into me. Starbucks employees did nothing, despite audible gasps and everyone expressing alarm at the outburst. A couple came over and invited me to take a seat after they left because they’d decided to leave in light of the meltdown. At a store in Hollywood, a security guard and employees did nothing while the store was robbed with the store packed with families, customers and tourists. In Old Town Pasadena this winter, two homeless men started fighting over a table. Thugs, criminals and squatters, who sometimes don’t buy anything but use space, go unreported or unpunished, which is a real problem. The company’s apparent conflict avoidance policy may lead to loss of revenue and store closures as has happened to other lax retailers such as Borders. I’ve called, written and complained to Starbucks. In my experience, they don’t really listen, respond or address, let alone resolve, this serious problem.
  • The above might be no big deal if you drink the company’s coffee at home or work but ordering products online is off limits because, recently, Starbucks ceased to operate an online store. With few exceptions, products now must be bought in stores.
  • This, too, might not pose a problem if you pre-order using the app or have no need to meet, dine in or take a seat at Starbucks’ stores. Assuming you’re able to avoid crime, harassment, hassles, threats and stay out of harm’s way, while employees stand by, good luck finding the product you want. Frequently, Starbucks does not supply what’s in demand. This goes for beverages, food and Via or Verismo products. Often, they’re out of stock for days, even weeks. This applies, in my experience, to stores across the country, from Hawaii to Pennsylvania.
  • Good luck asking for supply information, help or about the menu. Poorly trained baristas don’t know the menu, pricing and basic facts. Morale among employees strikes me as pretty low across the board. Complaining baristas are everywhere, often at loud volume, griping about the labor, company policies, reduction in shift hours, other employees, even customers’ tipping.
  • About that tipping point. Whether you pay by app, Apple Pay, cash or credit card, a tip can be added at the customer’s discretion. I’ve noticed that employees — many, if not most, of whom get 100 percent company payment of health plan premiums (which may be why Starbucks prices keep rising) — act as though a tip is an entitlement. Starbucks ought to strive to acknowledge that tipping is an option, not a prerequisite for service.
  • Sometimes, baristas fail to get the order right. Not very often in my experience and, to be fair, theirs is a large, constantly changing menu. But in as often as over half the orders I place, usually involving food, beverage and a glass of water, part of the order is missing or wrong. Again, as with most of the above problems and, I suspect, stemming from a general problem within Starbucks’ subculture, this is a fixable challenge. The basic value proposition for a premium coffee experience rooted in lifestyle, as Starbucks is rightly proud to offer, is to get the customer’s order exactly and consistently right.

I’ve tried to encourage Starbucks by calling customer service, speaking with managers, store and district, filling out surveys (of which there is no apparent end, making me wonder who reads, processes and evaluates those results). Maybe Starbucks is having growing pains. Maybe Starbucks, which has launched bold initiatives and changed the culture with its lifestyle brand, has started to run its course. In any case, Starbucks can do better. I’m rooting for the company to meet its demands, make money and succeed. I hope this post helps.

Movie Review: Chappaquiddick

That this movie exists is a cinematic achievement. Whatever my criticism, whatever its flaws, the movie about an American government official’s deliberate, historic conspiracy — a real, proven conspiracy of corruption, deceit and silence, ahem, Oliver Stone — to cover up complicity in what amounts to manslaughter in every sense of the word defies both Washington’s and Hollywood’s status quo. Don’t wonder how America elected a leader as repulsive and corrupt as Trump. See Chappaquiddick with its portrayal of the morally bankrupt people of Massachusetts and you’ll have a better grasp why.

It took a native New Yorker, John Curran, who directed 2006’s exquisite adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil, to make a film about Ted Kennedy’s first major atrocity. Yes, before he worked with Nixon to force American businesses to “offer” HMOs, which came to dominate and ruin the medical profession, before monstrosity after monstrosity, Ted Kennedydrove a young woman off a bridge, let her gasp for air for hours until she finally died and then conspired to cover up what he’d done. And that’s putting what happened in the summer of 1969 at Chappaquiddick Island mildly.

Depicting Kennedy too kindly is part of what’s wrong with Chappaquiddick. But this shouldn’t stop audiences from seeing it. As soft as it is, and it is, what’s dramatized on screen is jaw-dropping and horrifying and most of it is based on facts derived from the inquest (corrupt as that was) conducted after Sen. Kennedy’s crimes. Suffice it to say that certain aspects of the record have been sugarcoated or whitewashed to “humanize” the oafish Kennedy, who had been pushed into politics after three of his brothers died, one of whom was the deified President Kennedy, another of whom had been assassinated in Los Angeles a year before this picture’s events took place.

Also, the senator’s 28-year-old victim, Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara, We Are Marshall, Brokeback Mountain) is underplayed here. Thus, Chappaquiddick deliberately lacks any sense of what went on between the unmarried Catholic Kopechne and married Catholic Kennedy. Kopechne left her purse and hotel room key at a cottage party of mostly married men mixed with bachelorettes and went off alone with the married Kennedy in an Oldsmobile, only to end up on a beach and, later, saying the Our Father while trapped and abandoned in the upside-downed Olds in an air pocket for hours at the bottom of a pond while Kennedy covered up, dodged and rationalized the crash. There were claims, but no evidence, that he and others tried to dive and save the young woman. Audiences should know that the truth of what happened is, in fact, worse than what’s portrayed in Chappaquiddick.

What’s depicted is bad enough. With well crafted scenes, Curran and company, capably lead by Jason Clarke as Edward Moore “Ted” Kennedy, contrast the Apollo 11 rocket launch and subsequent moon landing (which is overcredited as usual to an American president) and set an eerie tone. Slowly sweeping a camera over the car, with its rolled up windows, as it drives across the low, angled bridge earlier in the day, showing Kennedy’s plea to his father (Bruce Dern, Nebraska) for help as well as Kennedy’s seizure of the police chief’s office as his own, personal post-crash command post — all of it’s shocking, horrifying and, on its face, mystifying, suggesting more sinister facts and motives. Not that this is Curran’s and the writers’ intention. Indeed, they go too easy on the youngest Kennedy brother, who comes off like an oversensitive, overfed oaf, like a pampered mafia child accustomed to getting his way through the unspoken threat of brute force.

At its best, and in sum total, Chappaquiddick dramatizes the Kennedy’s as America’s other notoriously criminal 1969 family. Another, more infamous Family in 1969 was Manson’s mass murdering bunch, and, though the Kennedys’ similarity to mob families is more obvious and apparent, with complicity of the entire state of Massachusetts, the Manson Family’s fundamental faith in brainless patriarchy and depravity parallels the Kennedy clan’s faith-based followers, too. After all, the Kennedy patriarch was a conniving, corrupt bootlegger and wannabe powerbroker who fought to remove Jews’ names from movies to appease the Nazis. Ted Kennedy and what he became was, in this sense, hardly an accident.

Businessmen are often portrayed as slobbering fatcats sitting around lying, cheating and ripping people off. In Chappaquiddick, one finally gets at (some of) the truth of the matter — that the slobbering fatcats are politically connected cronies, thugs and slobs like Kennedys and their corrupt cousins, cops, judges and assorted other New Englanders only too eager to genuflect at the Kennedy shrine or turn the other cheek from their crimes.

This movie isn’t that biting. And, notably, it doesn’t do right by Mary Jo Kopechne, whose best bud and fellow Robert Kennedy “boiler room girl”, upon learning that Mary Jo died, wants only to know “what do we need to do to help the senator?” But with solid performances, craftsmanship and a ghoulish recreation of one of the few sordid Kennedy crimes for which they were held partially accountable, Chappaquiddick — if nearly 50 years after Mary Jo Kopechne was left alone underwater to slowly die — succinctly engages the audience in wanting to know more.