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Divided Texas Supreme Court Evades Deciding Gay Divorce Issue

Posted on: June 23rd, 2015 by Art Leonard No Comments

With a ruling on same-sex marriage from the United States Supreme Court just days away, the Texas Supreme Court finally acted on June 19, 2015, on a pair of appeals argued nineteen months ago in November 2013, holding in State v. Naylor, 2015 Tex. LEXIS 581, that the state’s attorney general did not have standing to appeal an Austin trial judge’s order granting a judgment “intended to be a substitute for a valid and subsisting divorce” to a lesbian couple who had married in Massachusetts, and granting a motion to dismiss an appeal in In re Marriage of J.B. and H.B., in which the Texas Court of Appeals in Dallas had ruled in 2010 that Texas courts lack jurisdiction to rule on divorce petitions from same-sex couples married elsewhere.  The court’s opinion in the Naylor case by Justice Jeffrey V. Brown was joined by four other members of the court, one of whom also penned a concurring opinion.  One member filed a dissenting opinion for himself and three others, arguing against the ruling on standing.  One of the dissenters filed an additional dissenting opinion, arguing at length that the Texas ban on performing or recognizing same-sex marriages does not violate the 14th Amendment.  One member did not participate in the case.

The motion to dismiss the J.B. and H.B. appeal was actually filed by James Scheske, who represented the party seeking an uncontested divorce.  The two men married in Massachusetts in 2006 and moved to Texas in 2008.  Shortly after moving to Texas they ceased to live together, and J.B. filed a petition in Dallas County seeking a property division and that his last name be changed back to his original name as part of a divorce decree.  The state intervened and argued that the court had no jurisdiction to decide the case, but the trial judge, Tena Callahan, issued a ruling on October 1, 2009, holding that the Texas ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional and that she could decide the case.  The state appealed that ruling, and the Texas Court of Appeals in Dallas ruled on August 31, 2010, that Judge Callahan was wrong.  An appeal to the Texas Supreme Court followed, and the case was argued, after much delay, in November 2013.  But H.B. subsequently died, and Scheske filed an uncontested motion to dismiss the case, since his client’s marriage had been terminated by death so a divorce decree was no longer needed.  The court granted that motion on June 19 without explanation, but one of the judges noted in his concurring opinion in the Naylor case that the J.B. appeal was “moot” as a result of the death of one of the parties.

Angelique Naylor and Sabina Daly, Texas residents, went to Massachusetts to marry in 2004. Naylor filed a divorce petition in Travis County a few years later.  The women had a child and were operating a business together, so, as Justice Brown explained, “Naylor hoped to obtain a judgment addressing their respective rights, some of which they had already settled in a suit affecting the parent-child relationship.”  Although lawyers from the attorney general’s office were aware of the case and were actively monitoring its progress, they didn’t formally try to intervene until after the trial judge issued his bench ruling incorporating the parties’ settlement agreement into a judgment, which the judge explained “is intended to dispose of all economic issues and liabilities as between the parties whether they are divorced or not.”  The following day, the state petitioned to intervene “to oppose the Original Petition for Divorce and to defend the constitutionality of Texas and federal laws that limit divorce actions to persons of the opposite sex who are married to one another.”  The trial judge rejected this petition as too late, and the Court of Appeals in Austin agreed in 2011.  An appeal to the Texas Supreme Court followed, and it was consolidated with the J.B. appeal and argued on the same day in November 2013.

There was widespread speculation that the Texas Supreme Court, observing all the marriage equality litigation going on in Texas and elsewhere in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s U.S. v. Windsor ruling, had decided not to rule on these appeals until the U.S. Supreme Court settled the constitutional questions around same-sex marriage one way or the other, so the Texas court’s June 19 actions caught many by surprise.  Writing for the majority of the court, Justice Brown agreed with the Court of Appeals that the state lacked standing to appeal the trial court’s judgment.  “Texas courts allow post-judgment intervention only upon careful consideration of any prejudice the prospective intervenor might suffer if intervention is denied, any prejudice the existing parties will suffer as a consequence of untimely intervention, and any other circumstances that may militate either for or against the determination,” he wrote.  In this case, by implication, those considerations weighed against ordering intervention.  Although Justice Brown left it unsaid, it seemed clear that the majority of the court saw little reason to litigate the underlying issue in this case when the U.S. Supreme Court was on the verge of ruling.  He devoted most of his opinion to a close analysis of Texas laws governing post-judgment intervention, and almost none to the underlying question whether same-sex couples can get divorces in Texas, merely stating general agreement with Judge Devine’s analysis described below.

In a concurring opinion, Justice Jeffrey S. Boyd explained further the underlying rationale for dismissing the appeal.  “I write separately to emphasize a point on which everyone agrees: the State of Texas is not bound by the divorce decree at issue in this case.”  He continued, “The State lacks standing to appeal because it was not a party, it shared no privity or interest with any party, and the trial court’s judgment is not binding on it. . .  As a non-party who is not bound by the judgment, the State has no obligation to give any effect to the trial court’s divorce decree.  In fact, it may be, as the State contends, that our laws prohibit the State and all of its agencies and political subdivisions from giving any effect to the decree.”  Since the state did not recognize the marriage in the first place, and had been taking the position all along in both cases that such out of state same-sex marriages are considered “void” in Texas, the decree was of no consequence to the state.  Judge Boyd’s opinion overlooks the plain fact that the trial judge had not even necessarily considered this to be a divorce decree, but rather a “judgment” incorporating a settlement agreement reached by the parties.   Judge Boyd did comment that the dismissal of the J.B. appeal as moot “leaves the Dallas court’s opinion as the only currently existing Texas law” on the issue whether same-sex couples married elsewhere can get a divorce in Texas, and that ruling, of course, was negative.

Justice Don R. Willett’s dissent argued strongly that the court should have allowed the State to intervene because of the importance of the question.  Justice John P. Devine’s dissent, quite lengthy, plunged into the constitutional merits and argued that the Texas ban on recognizing same-sex marriages from other jurisdictions did not violate the 14th Amendment.  In addition to relying on Section 2 of the Defense of Marriage Act, the provision that was left untouched by the U.S. Supreme Court in U.S. v. Windsor, which provides that states are not constitutionally required to recognize same-sex marriages from other states, he argued that Texas had good policy justifications for refusing to allow same-sex couples to marry and treating out-of-state same-sex marriages as void in Texas.

Ignorant comments by the governor and attorney general in response to the Naylor ruling led to misleading media reports suggesting that the Texas Supreme Court had “upheld” a same-sex divorce sought by Naylor, but clearly the court had done no such thing, merely holding that it was itself without jurisdiction to rule on the state’s argument that the trial court lacked jurisdiction.

Ultimately, these actions by the Texas Supreme Court will be of only passing interest after the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges.


“Noah” – The Film (Caution: Plot Spoilers)

Posted on: April 20th, 2014 by Art Leonard No Comments

It may seem strange to mention “plot spoilers” in connection with a cinematic presentation of one of the most famous old stories from the Book of Genesis, but anybody whose familiarity with the story of Noah derives solely from that source is going to encounter some surprises in this film. One could be outraged, especially if one believes that “The Bible” is presented as a literal source of history of Divine Inspiration with which one must not tamper.

But if one takes The Bible as the epic mythology of an ancient people, then I say “all’s fair” in trying to make a dramatic movie with some suspense to engage the rapt attention of the audience. So the departures from Biblical text served to enhance the drama. Everybody knows how the story of Noah turns out in the end, of course, and the filmmaker wasn’t about to change that, but keeping an audience engaged through a two+ hour movie requires some more plot complications than are provided by the simplistic Biblical text.

In Genesis, Noah, his unnamed wife, his three sons and their wives are cooped up in the Ark through the period of the great flood. In this movie, none of the sons are married when the flood arrives, although the oldest, Shem, is hot for the family’s adopted daughter, who is around his age but believed by them all to be barren. As they are adrift upon the rising waters, Noah sits down his family around the dinner fire and tells them that they are destined to be the last humans, as G-d has decreed that all humanity must be eliminated as a failed experiment. Since their little band includes only Noah and his wife, who (at age 600 according to the Biblical text) were not expecting to produce any more children, and three sons with a barren step-daughter in tow, no more children will be produced and when the youngest son, Japheth, dies, that will be the end of the human race. What they weren’t counting on, however, in this verion of the tale, is that the daughter has been blessed shortly before the deluge by Noah’s grandfather, Methuselah, and is no longer barren. Indeed, her furious coupling with Shem in the forest shortly before the deluge has gotten her pregnant. When Noah hears this news, he is outraged, since it is a violation of G-d’s plan as he understands it. This Noah is a fanatic who is single-mindedly dedicating to carrying out G-d’s plan. If the young woman bears a girl, he says, he will have to kill it fresh from the womb to avoid the possibility of another generation of humans being produced.

There is another complication. Ham, the second son, deprived of female companionship but horny as any young man could be, has ventured into the corrupt world and found a new girlfriend, but in the rush to get to the Ark as the rains begin, she is trampled underfoot when Noah refuses to release her from a trap set by the descendants of Cain (who are depicted in this film as the corruptors of the earth). The resentful Ham is back in the ark, skulking about through disaffection from his father, and discovers that Tubal-Cain, the king of the corrupters, has managed to stow away in the ark. They conspire together for revenge against Noah… another source of suspense. But you know how this has to turn out. Tubal-Cain must die, and Ham must survive in order to incur Noah’s curse in the post-Ark incident that leads to the descendants of Ham’s son – Canaan – becoming a different people from the descendants of Shem and Japheth. (And, of course, Shem’s woman has to bear a girl — twins in this account — so that the earth can be repopulated after the Flood. But, a loose plot-element, after being cursed by his father (and not explicitly so in this account), Ham wanders away feeling that he doesn’t “belong” with the family, and one wonders who he is going to produce descendants if he’s not going to be around to couple with one of his half-nieces, since all the other women in the world were wiped out in the Flood…. ??

Anyway, there is lots of tampering with the Biblical text here, but the resulting movie stands up pretty well on its own. Russell Crowe is properly obsessive as the stubborn and fearful Noah, and Jennifer Conley is fantastically good as his wife – there is at least one scene, where she pleads with him to abandon his plan to kill any girl born to their step-daughter – that is definitely Oscar-worthy in its intensity. Anthony Hopkins is quite entertaining as old Methuselah, and the young actors who play Noah’s sons and step-daughter are all quite fine. The piece is a bit overrun with special effects, and the decision to make the “giants” – Nephtilim – who receive passing mention in the Biblical account into interventionist stone figures that come to life as the Watchers threatens to turn the piece into too much of a sci-fi thing. But, on the other hand, the entire production is richly imagined, and I don’t really think that it can be tarred is irreverent. I would see it again… after a decent passage of time.

Philomena – The Film

Posted on: March 14th, 2014 by Art Leonard No Comments

Visiting my Mom in Houston this past weekend. Usually that involves taking her out to see a movie, which she loves to do, after a Chinese lunch. True to form, we had a Leonard family Chinese lunch with all the Houston relatives, and then across the street to the movie theater to see “Philomena,” just the sort of film my Mom would enjoy. And me, too!

Judi Dench and Steve Coogan are fantastically good in this dramatization of Martin Sixsmith’s book about an Irish woman’s search for the “illegitimate” son she was forced to give up for adoption half a century before. This is a movie that really packs an emotional punch, and gives strong feelings for the times and places it depicts. An Irish teenage girl has a one-night stand with a handsome slick-talking stranger at the county fair in 1952, become pregnant, is packed off to a “home” operated by nuns as her family can’t bear the humiliation of their pregnant daughter, gives birth there to a boy who is, in effect, sold at age 3 by the nuns to an American couple who had come to adopt a girl but were entranced by the little boy who clung to the girl. The nuns will not, of course, tell Philomena who adopted her son or where he was taken, having required her to sign an agreement when she first arrived to give up all rights to the child. Eventually she earns her way out of the workhouse for wayward girls, gets training as a nurse, marries, has children, but carries the secret of her son in her heart. Occasional attempts to get the nuns to tell her something about what happened to her son are unsuccessful. Finally, fifty years later, she spills the beans to her daughter, who encourages her to hook up with a journalist who might want to do a feature story about this, which could involve helping her to find her son. Sixsmith, “between jobs” after being sacked from a political position, is enlisted and becomes absorbed in the task, but for me to say any more would be a plot spoiler for those who haven’t seen the film. The entire thing is very well done, Judi Dench as always is great as the Irish mother, Steve Coogan is great as the journalist.

The story gave me enough of an emotional jolt to get me to order a copy of the book, which I look forward eagerly to reading.

Busy Culture Week: Kill Your Darlings, A Time to Kill, Peoples’ Symphony Concerts (Borromeo Quartet & Richard Stoltzman), Thor

Posted on: November 10th, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

A little bit of this, a little bit of that….  I already wrote about the Ned Rorem 90th Birthday Concert that I attended on Tuesday night (Nov. 5), but wanted to mention my other expeditions of the week.

On Monday night, I saw “Kill Your Darlings” at Film Society of Lincoln Center.  I thoroughly enjoyed this tale based on real events.  It focuses on Allen Ginsberg’s first year as a student at Columbia University, and the crowd he fell in with, some of whom went on to become part of his literary circle as “the Beats”.  But the focus of this is the radicalization of Ginsberg, who came from a somewhat sheltered New Jersey suburban childhood and fell in with a “rad” crowd centered around a wild young man enchantingly portrayed by Dane DeHaan, who steals the film right out from under Daniel Radcliffe (who plays Ginsberg).  Also notable are Ben Foster as William Burroughs and Michael C. Hall as a slightly older man who is obsessed with DeHaan’s character and comes to be a rival to Ginsberg for his affections.  A little curious internet snooping after seeing this film confirmed for me that the main lines of the story depicted in the film are accurate, but not all the details by any means.  I’m a sucker for “historical” films, however, and I also loved the score by Nico Muhly (who seems to be everywhere these days).

On Wednesday night I saw a performance of “A Time to Kill,” a Broadway play based on the novel of the same name by John Grisham.  When I read the book, many years ago, I thought it was a fantastic inside look at criminal defense work that should be read by law students.  I was surprised when somebody tried to turn it into a film, which did not turn out particularly well, and even more surprised when I heard somebody was turning it into a play (Rupert Holmes).  I don’t think this material translates well either to screen or stage.  The strength of Grisham’s novel is the inside look it gives at the procedure of putting together a defense of a capital murder charge, and much of the interesting detail goes by the wayside, since a film or play has to focus on characters and plotting.  And although some of the characters are interesting in their own right in the novel, that is mainly because of the back-stories Grisham gives them, much of which perforce is omitted from the dramatizations.  The plot itself is pretty far-out and unconvincing much of the time.  One keeps thinking “that couldn’t really happen, could it”?  On Thursday morning the Times ran the announcement that the play would be closing in two weeks.  If the actors received that announcement before Wednesday’s production, maybe that helps to explain the somewhat listless performance.  I was sitting in the first row of the rear mezzanine, and the overwhelming majority of seats up there were empty.  The closing notice was no surprise.

Thursday night I attended a farewell party at Bar-Tini for Brad Snyder, who has stepped down as Executive Director of the LGBT Law Association to take up a development position at the LGBT Community Center.  Brad has done wonders for LeGaL, professionalizing the office operation in many ways, putting together great annual dinner programs and CLEs, and most importantly in terms of my involvement working a visual transformation on Lesbian/Gay Law Notes and initiating the monthly Law Notes podcasts.  I’ll really miss him, and so will the organization.  His interim replacement while a search is launched for a permanent successor will be Matt Skinner.

Last night I attended Peoples’ Symphony Concert’s program at Washington Irving High School.  The Borromeo String Quartet caused a bit of a stir by performing from laptops instead of sheet music.  As their first violinist explained, this made it possible for them to play from full scores instead of individual parts, which they deemed advantageous.  The laptops were fitted out with foot pedals that they used to effect the “page turns” (actually just advancing a page on the pdf’s that were exhibited on their screens.  In the first half they gave us a suitably serious performance of Beethoven’s “Serioso” String Quartet, Op. 95, and the first NY performance of Lera Auerbach’s String Quartet No. 7, which was written for them.  The Auerbach piece is just modernistic enough to be a little challenging for the audience, but not off-putting to anybody who stays current on new music trends.  She has mastered writing for this combination of instruments, and the finale, in particular, ended with a real haunting repeated melody that kept playing in my head after the piece was over.  I hope they get to record it.  (The concert was taped; I suspect this was to be able to provide Auerbach with a recording of her piece.)  After intermission, Richard Stoltzman joined the quartet for a performance of Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet, one of that master’s last works.  As a longtime fan of Stoltzman, I’m sorry to report that unless this concert was an outlier, he is no longer up to performing in concert.  Although he’s only 70 — not a really great age as clarinet players go, as far as I know — the breath control is no longer dependable, the fingers are a bit stiff, and the results are sometimes distressing.  His tone on high notes was shrill and metallic, and there were little hesitations at the start of arpeggios and scales that seemed to me more about technical weakness than interpretation.  These problems were particularly evident when it came to long sustained notes in the sublime adagio movement; he had difficulty sustaining them with any kind of quality.   The third movement – menuet and trio – was the least problematic, but that was partly because Mozart doesn’t use the clarinet during the trio portion.  As an encore, they played a movement from another clarinet quintet that Mozart abandoned; Kitchen announced that musicologist Robert Levin completed the movement from Mozart’s surviving sketches.  It struck me as interesting without being special, and that may explain why Mozart abandoned the project.

Finally, for a little mindless diversion this morning before getting to the office, the newest film in the “Thor” series, with Chris Hemsworth as the title character.  If one had not seen the first film, one would be very puzzled about who these characters are and what is going on.  Even with that, the plotting was minimally comprehensible most of the time, the 3-D effect was minimal, and the screen was filled up with CGI more than people a lot of the time.  Lots of noise on the soundtrack, too.  In other words, I got what I was expecting – some mindless, fast-paced entertainment.  The guy who plays Thor’s evil brother stole all his scenes, Anthony Hopkins was almost unidentifiable as Odin, Thor’s father.   Well, it’s a franchise.  If the film does well, there will be a third Thor….


Recent Movies: Rush, Gravity, 12 Years a Slave, Captain Phillips. . . And Not So Recent: Tennessee, and Adopt a Sailor

Posted on: October 29th, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

I’ve managed to squeeze in theater visits to see several of the recent big movie releases over the past three weeks, and have been saving up my comments.  Of the four mentioned above, I think “12 Years a Slave” is the most consequential and should be first on anybody’s list, even though it is not as yet quite so easy to find.

The company marketing this movie is rolling it out slowly, hoping that good reviews and word of mouth will build momentum and make it a hit.  I think they shouldn’t have been so cautious, because it is a fantastic movie, with excellent script, direction and editing and a very talented cast, and could have done well with a wide release.  There are few widely-recognized names in this cast, which may have induced the caution, but the standard of quality is high.  A little cameo appearance by Brad Pitt in a supporting role might help it along some; he is also a producer on the film, and committed to its promotion worldwide.  This is an important film because it is a rare attempt to try to dramatize an African-American slave narrative that was published before the Civil War, with a degree of verisimilitude calculated to explode revisionist nostalgia about the pre-war South and to force audiences to confront the reality of life under the draconian slave codes in effect in this country during the first half of the 19th century.  Will people actually go to see this, having been forewarned that this is what they will see?  They should, because it is also a grippingly dramatic tale, very well told.  I think “The Butler” goes some way towards this direction in realism, but this movie takes it the next step, perhaps because the tale it has to tell is older and thus more alien to a modern audience.  I hope that momentum does build and propel it into a monster international hit.  People should really see this!

After that, the next most consequential of these films, in my view, is Captain Phillips, because of the unflinching eye it casts on a modern phenomenon that occasionally surfaces in the headlines but is worth our concentrated attention: how dismal conditions in parts of Africa have driven young men to piracy on the high seas.  Most of the attention, naturally, would focus on the captain of the American-flag freighter that was boarded by pirates off the coast of Somalia, and his subsequent abduction leading to a confrontation between four pirates in a small life-boat and three big ships of the U.S. Navy.  (This film was obviously made with the cooperation of the Defense Department, and it has the naval officers coming off as sensitive diplomats.  How realistic this is, who knows?)  But I think this film is strongest when it tries to probe the characters of the pirates, and it could have stood with some more of that.  (The Hollywood Star at the center of the story tends to soak up the screen time and attention, making the story about him.)   Like “12 Years a Slave,” this was based on a memoir, this time by the merchant ship captain, Richard Phillips.  As in the case of the other film, one might question how “objective” a story is when told from the point of view of one of the participants.  But the idea of “objectivity” in story-telling is a false herring.  It is really impossible to achieve; there is always a point of view.  And here, the story is told from the point of view of the merchant ship captain, but I think the story could have been even more consequential were it told entirely from the point of view of the pirates.  That’s just me being contrary, however.  The filmmakers here do a good job in trying to project the human complexity of the pirates, and the emotional devastation to the captain, especially at how the impasse was resolved.  This is a serious adult drama, but also an exciting action film, which deserves its current status leading the domestic box office.

“Rush” and “Gravity” strike me as less consequential films.  “Rush” is also based on a true story, though not, I believe, a memoir by one of the participants.  It uses the device of first-person narration, mainly by the actor playing the part of Nicki Lauder, an Austrian race car driver whose competition with the British James Hunt in the Formula 1 competition is the subject matter.  I would not normally bother going to see an auto racing movie — it is not an activity that holds my interest — but I had seen previews that did their job of making me want to see this by intriguing me with the contrasting characters of the two competitors.  The movie is, as one would expect, fast-paced, and there is plenty of humor as well as intensity, and the racing scenes are thrillingly depicted – lots of good editing here, I think.  The story certainly held my attention, but I don’t think the film had a deeper message, other than to tout the fierce determination of these two competitors to surmount any obstacle to be the champion.  The level of blood and gore is pretty high for a film that isn’t a war story — one expects blood and gore in “12 Years a Slave” and, to some extent, a movie about piracy on the high seas.  In this case, however, “Rush” brings home how dangerous high stakes auto racing is.  Do these drivers have a death wish?

Finally, of the recent releases, I saw “Gravity”, the special effects extravaganza about an accident in earth orbit that tests the resourcefulness and courage of two American astronauts.  I saw this one in 3-D, which is the only way to see it, really.  It would be so less interesting in the more normal two-dimensional configuration.  Some might find this film boring for long stretches because it channels the slow-moving (relatively speaking) nature of movement in space, as did the first important movie in this genre, “2001: A Space Odyssey,” –one  of the films I loved as a kid, mainly because of the classical music on the soundtrack and the incredibly handsome young actor playing the lead.  “Gravity” has its chilling moments, and I will not spoil the ending for anybody here by making any big reveal, but I think in terms of plotting and execution there is a high degree of formula in this film, and not so much originality.  The CGI effects are so spectacularly handled as to give one an impression of realism, even though numerous experts have now weighed in as to the impossibilities of this plot actually happening in this way.  Science fiction becomes less persuasive as it moves further away from anchoring in actual science, but when it is well done it can be entertaining nonetheless.  On that front, however, I think the new Star Trek movies are better cinema, because the interaction of the characters is more involving.

Now, the not so recent….  At the beginning of this concert season, I attended an unusual program in lower Manhattan presented by Salon/Sanctuary concerts, a presentation bringing together excerpts from baroque operas dramatizing scenes from the story of the House of Atreus.  The format was to intersperse musical selections from a period instrument ensemble and two solo singers with dramatic readings from English translations of the ancient Greek and Roman texts by three actors, who moved about the performance space will delivering their lines.  One of the those actors — the one who made the most favorable impression on me – was Ethan Peck, the only one of the three who had actually memorized most of his script and spoke it with passionate involvement rather than rendering a “reading” while carrying a script.  Peck, grandson of the great actor Gregory Peck, has been building a career in theater, TV and film, but without attracting my attention prior to this.  I sought out some examples of his film work, and ended up seeing two independent films in which he played major roles, “Tennessee” and “Adopt a Sailor.”  “Tennessee” is the one to see, a compelling story about a charming young man with a fatal disease and the way he influences the lives of others.  Peck, as the young man, gives a subtle and charming performance, radiating quiet confidence and intelligence.  The other film, “Adopt a Sailor,” is a silly little piece about sailors on shore leave during NYC’s annual fleet week being “adopted” through the USO by New York families to afford them some native hospitality.  Peck plays the sailor, and as the part is written, the sailor is a bit of a hick from the central rural  USA sticks (fresh off the Arkansas farm), who is not all that articulate but manages to come out with surprisingly sage observations.  I thought Peck played the part nicely, given what he had to work with, but the three-character plot seemed awkward to me, and I can understand why this film pretty much disappeared without a trace.  “Tennessee,” a more ambitious film, deserves better, and anybody who collects films might want to have it, not least for an early record of Ethan Peck’s work.  I think he has the potential to develop into a really solid actor — he’s already pretty much there — and now the issue is to land roles in bigger films.

The New Season Begins – Opera, Symphony, Film, Theater

Posted on: October 5th, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

My new culture season is duly launched.  As of last night, I’ve taken in: “Anna  Nicole,”  apparently the last production of New York City Opera, presented in collaboration with the Brooklyn Academy of Music on September 21; the new film “Don Jon” by Joseph Gordon-Levitt at the AMC Theater on Broadway at 84th Street on September 29; a memorial celebration for my friend, the late Ari Joshua Sherman, at the DiMenna Center for the Arts that same evening, September 29; my first New York Philharmonic subscription concert at Lincoln Center on September 28; the new Broadway revival of “The Glass Menagerie” at the Booth Theatre on October 1; and the American Symphony Orchestra’s “New York Avant-Garde” concert at Carnegie Hall last night, October 3.

Herewith a brief summary of these experiences as the season really gets under way.

New York City Opera has been an important part of my cultural life ever since I arrived in the city in the fall of 1977.  I have particularly appreciated their staging of new works and works that are not central to the repertory, since the mainstream stuff is available in generally superior performances from the Metropolitan Opera.  It isn’t so much that City Opera was less expensive to attend, but that it was usually more interesting to attend, even when they were putting on standard works such as “La Boheme” or “Carmen,” since they usually found an interesting “twist” that made them seem like new works as well.

But a series of management mistakes, and the heavy fundraising competition of the Met, together with the impact of the Great Recession on charitable donations, has put the City Opera into a financially untenable position.  If there had to be a last production, I’m glad it was a new opera, a premiere for New York, and something that lived up to most of the advance hype.  Although I found Mark-Anthony Turnage’s score to be serviceable rather than memorable, the libretto by Richard Thomas would have made an excellent play with incidental music on its own, and the production directed by Richard Jones with the music conducted by Steven Sloane was consistently entertaining and attention-grabbing.  From one perspective, this might seem a trivial piece of musical theater fluff about a gold-digger who was famous for marrying an elderly billionaire and then battling his family in court for her intestate inheritance as a surviving spouse, but it had an awful lot to say as wry satire about our celebrity-obsessed society and the dangers that these “no-talent” celebrities run into as they encounter the hangers-on, exploiters, and – in this case—hostile “in laws.”   Too bad there is unlikely to be a film from this production, but I think there may be one from the original English production at Covent Garden.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s “Don Jon” is reportedly his first attempt at scripting and directing a major motion picture – starring himself – and I think Gordon-Levitt pulls off the Woody Allen act with aplomb.  He impersonates a “dumb jock” Jersey boy obsessed with his body, his car, his pad, his boys (friends) and his girls (sex objects).  He haunts the suburban nightclubs looking for chicks to score, and because he’s a self-confident, sexy hunk, he can have almost anybody he wants.  But the sex is not satisfying – there’s really no emotional connection – and he’s convinced that masturbating to pornography is more satisfying.  As a result, even though he’s having sex several nights a week with real women, he’s getting off to porn several times a day.  Something has to give.  And there’s the story, when he happens upon somebody to whom he’s attracted who doesn’t want to jump into bed without some personal acquaintance.   Of course, this isn’t a perfect film.  No film is.  But it is dramatically credible, well written, acted, and directed, and I found it compelling – at least to the extent that my mind never wandered, as it tends to do if a film bogs down in slow, talky, lassitude.  This one never does.

The New York Philharmonic initiated its subscription season with a program that could easily be criticized as semi-pops concert fare: Ravel’s Alborada del gracioso, Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, and Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1.  Light, not challenging, virtuosic, catchy tunes and rhythms, etc.  But, as expected from this orchestra conducted by Music Director Alan Gilbert, everything was so well-played, and the program was actually so canny in terms of constructing a concert program that “works,” that it was a pleasure to attend.  I might have wanted the Ravel to be slightly faster in pacing, but the moderate tempo made it easier to appreciate the subtlety of orchestration, and then to remark to myself about how whoever was responsible for the orchestration of the Bernstein piece really knew their Ravel!!  This is a bit of a question, actually: Bernstein followed Broadway tradition of having the usual experts translate his piano score into an orchestration for a standard B’way pit orchestra, and various other hands were involved in extracting the dances, knitting them together into a continuous piece, and expanding the orchestration for a symphony orchestra.  Of course, the musical ideas are Bernstein’s, but it’s unclear to what extent the orchestration is.  He didn’t even conduct the world premiere, although he subsequently recorded the piece with the NYP, and surely he approved the final orchestration and probably tweaked it. . .  As for the Tchaikovsky, Yefim Bronfman, who is the orchestra’s “artist in residence” this year, was reportedly playing it for the first time in public!  Hard to believe, not just because it was such a well-conceived and executed performance, but because he was born and educated in Russia and is famous for his Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich concerto performances. Every young pianistic firebrand is expected to have this concerto in his or her active repertory.  But for whatever reason, he hadn’t gotten around to Tchaikovsky until the NYP asked him to do it to start off this season.  Magnificent!  He and Gilbert should get right into the recording booth together.

Ari Joshua Sherman, know to his friends as Josh, passed away last spring in Vermont.  He had not let many know that he was seriously ill, and the NY friends were used to long periods between sightings after he and Jorge had shifted their principal residence from W. 108 Street to Addison, VT.  Jorge arranged two events for friends to remember Josh, one in Vermont and the other at the DiMenna Center (housed in the basement level of the Baryshnikov Center on W. 37 St.).  The event was a worthy tribute and remembrance, including performances of music that had been important to Josh, who was an enthusiastic chamber musician (violin) and music lover, interspersed with readings from the memoirs he had worked on over many years.  So sad that a long-time friend is gone, but consoling that he had such an interesting and productive life.

Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie” put him on the Broadway theater map, but I find it a lesser work than some of his subsequent plays.  This performance is really mainly about Cherry Jones, one of our greatest living actors, whose portrayal of Amanda Wingfield in this production is a completely convincing one.  Talk immediately began about Tony nominations as soon as previews began, and this is now expected, regardless what happens the rest of the season.  Zachary Quinto as her son Tom is not so totally successful.  I thought it took him some time to warm up at the performance I attended, not really coming alive fully until well into the first act, but burning on all cylinders in the second.  Celia Keenan-Bolger was extraordinary as Laura, the shy daughter, and I thought her performance was right up there with Cherry Jones in terms of accomplishment and vivid characterization.  I enjoyed Brian J. Smith as “Jim, the gentleman caller,” who appears only in the second act, but then for an extended scene with Laura that provides great comic relief and emotion combined.  Smith was just right in this part.   In short, this was a performance that worked very well, performed on a set that worked very well, with fine incidental music by Nico Muhly, in a wonderful conception of the script directed by John Tiffany.  The show, whatever its flaws, was certainly worth reviving in a production of this quality as a showcase for these fine actors.

Finally, the American Symphony.  At first it appeared this concert might be lost to the Carnegie Hall stagehands’ labor dispute, which had cause cancellation of the opening night gala the prior evening.  But the union had made its point and was content to hold back for a while and allow the season to begin with the ASO while continuing to negotiate, and I just heard that a bargain was struck on Friday.

Leon Botstein’s program, “New York Avant-Garde”, took as its point of departure the famed “Armory Show of 1913” that formally introduced New York to the new “modernism” in visual art.  Botstein suggests that this program had echoes in music that first began to be expressed in New York concert halls after World War I, in a burst of musical modernism that extended to the end of the 1920s.  This showcase for the avant-garde presented music by George Antheil (A Jazz Symphony 1925), Charles Griffes (Poem for Flute and Orchestra (1918), Aaron Copland (Organ Symphony 1924), Carl Ruggles (Men and Mountains 1924), and Edgard Varese (Ameriques 1918-21).  The particular Carnegie connection was that the first and last of these pieces were first performed at Carnegie Hall during the 1920s, the Varese in a performance conducted by Leopold Stokowski, who would later in his career found and conduct the ASO.

I thought the concert was very successful, especially given the uncertainties of the day that had resulted in some juggling of last-minute rehearsal time.  The ASO secured the services of three excellent soloists.   Pianist Blair McMillen was a joy to hear and to watch as he threw himself body and soul into the Antheil Jazz Symphony, which is not quite a piano concerto but at times seems to think it is one, with extended piano cadenzas that McMillen tossed off insouciantly.  Randolph Bowman, principal flutist for the Cincinnati Symphony and the ASO’s summer seasons at Bard College, was excellent in the sumptuous Griffes piece.  Stephen Tharp pulled out all the stops (couldn’t resist that) in the Copland, whose organ part was originally conceived for Nadia Boulanger’s American tour and appearances with the Boston Symphony and New York Symphony.  This first half of the concert was just one thrill after another.

I was a bit less thrilled by the second half.  I’ve never quite “gotten” Ruggles.  Although at times I find his orchestration to be interesting, I don’t get a feeling of organic flow to his compositions, which to me are an essential part of music.  It feels too static, too granitic, although on this occasion I had a more favorable reaction to the middle movement – Lilacs – which actually seemed to flow in the hands of the ASO string players, who made a warm sound amidst the pounding brass of the outer movements. 

The first time I heard Ameriques at Carnegie Hall, Christoph von Dohnanyi was conducting the Cleveland Orchestra.  On that occasion, it struck me forcibly how strongly influenced Varese was influenced by Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps, which was first performed shortly before World War I broke out.  I was less struck by the resemblance at the ASO concert, perhaps because Botstein’s interpretation was less overtly aggressive than Dohnanyi’s. 

Overall, however, I thought this was a useful concert for bringing to light music that doesn’t get played very much, and the orchestra did a marvelous job of pulling it together and making it work.

NewFest: The NY LGBT Film Festival for 2013

Posted on: September 11th, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

Three groups came together this year for a consolidated LGBT film festival in New York City: Newfest, Outfest, and Film Society of Lincoln Center, which played host in its Walter Reade Theatre, a classy location but unfortunately not providing as many seats as a large commercial theater might have done.  I add this caveat because by the time I got around to obtaining tickets, many of the shows I wanted to see were already sold out.  As I result, I can only comment firsthand on two of the new movies screened during the festival, Geography Club, by Gary and Edmund Entin (director and screenwriter), and Last Summer, by Mark Thiedeman (director, writer and editor).  Both of these films dealt with the travails of gay male adolescents.

Geography Club, to my mind the more accomplished of the two films, presents the story of a closeted high school student who gradually inches his way out of the closet within the welcoming structure of a small LGBT student group formed under the innocuous name “Geography Club” in order to avoid undue attention from the rest of the student body.  The film was inspired by a popular teen novel, tells a compelling story, is well paced, photographed and acted, and has already won an award at a gay film festival in Los Angeles earlier this year.  The film is headed for a commercial theater release later this year, and one hopes will find some success.  That said, I would point out that the novel on which it was based depicts a slightly earlier time in the development of gay student organizations in high schools, and in many parts of the country attitudes have certainly moved forward.  The filmmakers decided to depict this as “contemporary” rather than “recent historical,” which involved some changes to the novel, and at times makes what is happening on the screen seem slightly incongruous — until one remembers that progress has been uneven at the high school level and so this might still be a realistic depiction in many parts of the country. 

Last Summer shows the perils of influence.  The festival program book refers to “echoes of Terrence Malick” in describing the film, but I thought the heavy influence of Malick at times overcame the common sense of the director/writer/editor.  Indeed, I thought this film would have benefited from those functions being divided up, since more eyes on the final product would probably have produced a more effective final product.  This is a tale of two 16 year old boys infatuated with each other, but suffering the pains of that final summer before one of them will go “up north” to college, leaving the other academically mediocre one to his fate in the rural south.  No family tensions here about sexuality – the parents seem to accept their sons’ relationship – but the more gifted of the two is adopted and there are tensions with his adoptive parents due to his somewhat superior intellect and manner.  The pacing is “stately” – that’s actually a kind way to put the very static feel of this film.  I reacted to the opening sequences by thinking it was like watching paint dry (and a facebook friend who was also there reacted to this comment on my newsfeed by observing that in fact it appeared that we were actually watching paint dry at one point during the opening sequence).  Some scenes had more animation, but the filmmaker effected the Malick style by making his characters laconic and slow-moving, and interspersing lots of very beautiful but very static shots along the way that put a real strain on the attention of the viewer.  Malick, the experienced hand, generally knows how long to prolong a static shot without losing all momentum in his film, but this less experienced filmmaker has yet to acquire that skill.  Having somebody edit the film would have helped.  Giving the characters more dialogue to develop their personalities would have helped.  Using classical music on the soundtrack is find — avoids copyright issues!!) — but came across as heavy-handed at times.  In short, I found this much less convincing as a film than Geography Club.  But it was worth seeing and I hope the filmmaker learns a lot from the experience and finds his own distinctive approach in the future.

Some Recent Films – Blue Jasmine, Elysium, The Butler

Posted on: August 16th, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

I’ve recently seen these three new films, and I would have to rank The Butler as the best of them.  Forest Whitaker plays a man who served as a butler in the White House from the Eisenhower Administration through the Reagan Administration.  The film is based on a true story, although names are changed and I don’t know how much of the detail of the film is true or imaginary.  Oprah Winfrey plays his wife.  Various movie stars have brief cameo appearances as Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Reagan.  (They don’t have anybody playing Ford or Carter, whose presidencies are briefly skirted over with some news clips.)  The butler — like most of the service staff at the White House during the period in question — was African American, and it is interesting to see the butler and other service staff standing around as presidents and other officials discuss civil rights issues, maintaining their impassive posture and avoiding getting involved in any political discussions, since it is a prerequisite of their job that they be totally apolitical.  The contrast is drawn with the butler’s older son, who goes off to college in 1960 and immediately gets involved in the civil rights movement, participating in a lunch counter sit-in, voter registration activities in the south, marching with Dr. King, etc.  The film provides a valuable history lesson from an unusual perspective, but it is not overly didactic.

In fact, that is part of my problem with Elysium, which I found to be rather heavy-handed in its political message.  Matt Damon plays an ex-con centuries in the future who is trying to go “straight” but is defeated by the inequalities in his society.  Earch is so polluted and decayed that the wealthy live on a satellite orbiting the planet, their Elysium, while the common working folk barely exist on the earth below.  The Damon character, subject to abusive treatment at his job, is needlessly exposed to a massive dose of radioactivity, and must struggle to get to Elysium where there is the technology to cure his condition.  To do so, he falls in with a “criminal element” (or freedom fighters, depending how you see it).  I thought this was a film with an interesting premise that was weighted down a bit with its political message and ultimately devolved into what you always seem to get with a high-budget mass market action picture – lots of slam bang and special effects….

Finally, Blue Jasmine, the latest from Woody Allen.  This is a very disturbing film in which all the characters are flawed, some so much that they are totally unlikeable, especially the principal character played by Cate Blanchette.  The location shots in New York and San Francisco are fun for anybody familiar with those cities — identifying where scenes were shot is a diverting parlor game for New Yorkers attending Woody Allen films — but I found my sympathies were not really engaged much by the characters, even though the story held me throughout. 

So, if I were deciding which new movies in first release I wanted to see, I would rank The Butler well above the other two.

Hugh Jackman in “Wolverine”

Posted on: July 28th, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

Saw the new Wolverine movie.  The big question – are those really Hugh Jackman’s muscles, or is this CGI at work?  Actually, this is a fast, sometimes confusing, CGI-afflicted succession of stunt scenes.  You will stay awake, but at the end you will wonder what it was for.  I think CGI has gone too far now, and it has made it altogether too easy for filmmakers to go over the top and not even bother trying to construct believable characters and relationships.  Just pack in the chase scenes, explosions, fake location backgrounds, etc.  Overall, disappointing.

A “Multicultural” Weekend in NYC: The Yankees, City Center Encores!, and “The Lone Ranger” Movie

Posted on: July 15th, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

I use the term “multicultural” in a special sense here, not referring to different ethnicities but rather to different forms of our modern entertainment culture – major league baseball, musical theater, and major Hollywood motion pictures!  My Friday and Saturday this past weekend combined these three different cultural experiences.

First up: Major League Baseball.  As a delayed birthday present, my usual theater and concert-going companion arranged to buy skybox tickets at Yankee Stadium for Friday’s game between the Minnesota Twins and the Yankees.  I had never been in one of these privileged locations in the “new” Yankee Stadium. The Audi Yankees Club is perched high above left field, with a glass wall providing a striking view over the field from above, while along the back wall of the club buffet dinner is being served, included in the ticket price.  I wouldn’t characterize the food as “gourmet,” but it was definitely several cuts above what one buys from vendors in the Stadium, and it was possible to put together a good tasting, reasonably healthy meal – although I wouldn’t use the word “healthy” to charactize the desert selection, packed with all the sugar and cholesterol one could want.  (For the health-conscious, they did offer fresh fruit!!) 

Seeing the game from the Audi Yankees Club is a very different experience from sitting in the stands.  One is quite distant from the players, of course, so opera glasses came in handy.  But the view is unobstructed from the eating stations (but not from the tables for those who paid for sit-down meals, and I really didn’t understand the logic of that), and despite the distance, one adjusts and becomes involved in the game, even though the Club is sonically isolated from what’s happening on the field and in the stadium.  The roar of the crowd is only occasionally sensed at moments of high excitement (runs scoring, for example, or a crucial strike-out), and instead of hearing the stadium announcer, one gets the piped-in play-by-play on the game broadcast, loud enough to hear but not so loud as to be unduly obtrusive.  In other words, although the room gets rather loud with conversations among the fans, especially in the bar area, one can carry on a conversation without shouting, which is a pleasant difference from a seat outdoors.  Most importantly, one is sitting in air-conditioned comfort and out of the glare of sun or the drenching of rain – the latter more of an issue on Friday, when we experience a 77 minute rain delay during the 4th inning.

The game itself?  I got to see the Yankees win a game (they went on to lose the following two, and thus the series with the Twins), I got to see Kuroda pitch — one of their better starters in this difficult year — and, most importantly, I got to see Mariano Rivera close out the win with an excellent 9th inning of three up and three down. 

The price is high to see a game in this kind of comfort, but factoring in the course of a complete restaurant meal of this quality and comparing it to Broadway theater tickets or even the cost of such a dinner and a good seat at Lincoln Center or Carnegie Hall, the cost is comparable.  Our tickets, acquired on-line as resales from a season ticket holder, were about $120 each, but $125 was printed on them.  I saw some used tickets lying on tables that said $150.  So it’s clear that the price varies depending where and when you buy them, but that seems to be the range.

But for a less expensive way to see classic great musical theater than the over-priced Broadway, check out City Center Encores!, the series devoted to reviving old musicals and presenting them in semi-staged format with a full theater orchestra on stage backing up the fully-professional casts, with top-flight direction, costuming, and, where needed, choreography.  Encores! normally presents three programs during the winter and spring, running from January or February through April or May, with 4 or 5 performances of each after brief rehearsal periods.  As an experiment this year, they decided to take advantage of the wonderfully refurbished and air-conditioned City Center auditorium by presenting an abbreviated summer edition, and my concert-going companion and I attended the Saturday matinee performance of the first offering on Saturday: “The Cradle Will Rock,” the classic Depression-era (1930s) musical by Marc Blitzstein (who wrote music, lyrics and book). 

Blitzstein was a complicated fellow with decidedly left-wing economic views, and “The Cradle Will Rock” was controversial from the get-go, as it depicts the abuses of capitalism through a caricature of a dominating business-owner in a small city, Mr. Mister, who seems to own every important institution, dominate the local goverment, and be strongly dedicated to prevent unionization of his industrial business – the steel mill.  Larry Foreman is working on organizing a union, Editor Daily is put in her place when Mr. Mister, who owns the newspaper, orders some censorship about the union demonstrations, President Prexy of the local university, financially supported by Mr. Mister, is summoned to provide professorial support for Mr. Mister’s projects…. you get the picture.  The entire thing is a bit heavy-handed, but very effective.  Blitzstein’s music sounds very much like the music of the group of fellow gay composers with whom he socialized – Copland, Bernstein, Diamond – but also with a big dollop of Kurt Weill. 

Chris Fenwick conducted a fast-paced performance with a highly proficient on-stage orchestra.  The starry cast sat in a row of chairs in front of the orchestra, working without sets and costumed in formal wear, adapted to some of the situations, getting up and moving around (yes, Chase Brock, was credited as choreographer and did a fine job).  The entire thing was run through ten scenes with no intermission.  Were it done with a piano instead of the orchestra, it could well resemble the original Broadway performance, which was held in defiance of a shut-down order by frightened federal bureaucrats in an empty theater with no orchestra, composer at the piano, and cast seated in the hall and standing to deliver their lines.  Sam Gold, the director, brought a real flare to the event, transcending the bare-bones presentation to create moving drama.

The entire cast was spectacularly good.  Danny Burstein as Mr. Mister, Raul Esparza as Larry Foreman, Judy Kuhn as Editor Daily, David Margulies as President Prexy, Matthew Saldivar as Reverend Salvation, and Michael Park as several characters were the standouts among the adults, but the one child in the cast – Aidan Gemme – stole every scene he was in, whether playing a policeman or a professor.  

Saturday evening I decided to throw over the idea of going to the office and instead went to see the new movie, “The Lone Ranger.”  I had been holding off on this, especially in light of the lousy reviews and the underwhelming box office from the opening weekend, but the pull of seeing Johnny Depp as “Tonto” could not be denied, and I was also curious about how Armie Hammer would do as the masked stranger, having so enjoyed his double performance in “The Social Network.” 

So, here’s the problem with “The Lone Ranger” – at least, my diagnosis.  I think they couldn’t make up their mind whether they were presenting a serious western drama, a spoof of western drama, or an outright comedy.  The original radio series and TV show were played straight as drama.  But this movie is full of self-conciously droll lines, ridiculous plot developments, and a rather absurd depiction of the Lone Ranger as a sort of all-purpose shlemiel who is constantly being bailed out by Tonto, the wierd Indian who knows all but manages to be both transparent and inscrutable at the same time.  The framing conceit is that this is a tall tale told by an elderly Indian in a circus exhibit to a credulous young boy who comes into the exhibit wearing the Lone Ranger mask and white hat.  The elderly Indian (c. 1933) purports to be Tonto, telling the tall tale of how he hooked up with the Lone Ranger and went through various adventures.  In some ways, this reminded me of the Hungarian fables of Hary Janos (memorably set to music by Zoltan Kodaly), telling his tall tales of derring do, which all listeners know to be fabrications because he sneezes loudly before telling them.  No sneeze here from Tonto, but the result is the same.

Armie Hammer’s character is only incidentally and briefly a Texas Ranger.  He is presented as a newly-minted lawyer, a Texan schooled back east, who has returned to his home state to be the county prosecutor, deputized by his brother, the local sheriff, when they set out after some no-goodniks who held up the railroad.  During the course of his adventures he meets Tonto and they become a team, albeit reluctantly at times.  Depp actually plays the character of Tonto pretty straight most of the time, while Hammer is responsible for most of the pratfalls.  The other central character, played by Tom Wilkinson, is the unscrupulous capitalist (shades of Blitzstein!) who turns out, naturally, to be the villain of the piece.

Bottom line – I found it entertaining for its two hours, but not an inspired film.  There was one of those musical anachronisms that I love to criticize: in one scene where they are purportedly re-enacting the ceremony at which the westbound and eastbound workers on the transcontinental railroad meet at Promontory Point, Utah, for the driving of the “golden spike” that will unite the span from coast to coast.  There is a band playing “Stars and Stripes Forever” at the ceremony.  Problem: Sousa didn’t write that march until several decades after the historical ceremony took place, so it couldn’t have been played at that time.  Solution: the story is a tall tale told by a circus Indian in 1933, so there is no need for authenticity as to anything in it, and any inaccuracies can be put down to his faulty memory and vivid imagination.  “Stars and Stripes Forever” is the greatest American march, so it should have been played at that event, even if it hadn’t been written yet.  Oh, and for the curious, repeated use is made of the final segment from the William Tell Overture by Rossini, invoking memories of the old TV and radio shows, but composer Hans Zimmer can’t keep his hands off of it, of course, so it gets stretched out with unnecessary repetitions.  Of course, Rossini’s copyright, if any, long since ran out, so they can do what they want…

It looks like Disney is going to lose money on this one, but it’s not a complete turkey.  If they could have made it less expensively, it might have been a modestly lucrative summer movie, but I suspect this one won’t make back its investment any time soon..  As it is, I doubt it will merit a sequel, and that’s where the real money would be on this kind of film – an investment in a “franchise” that would keep the studio in funds for years.  I don’t think that is going to happen.