Monthly Archives: July 2018

Mary Lou Thorne Samuelsen

My Mom was my pal and my confidante. She was my friend, in addition to being my Mom. When I was younger, she was the one member of my family I felt I could really talk to. She was a school teacher, and she’d come home from a hard day at school, and get started on dinner, and there I was, pestering her. I’m sure it got awfully annoying. But she never pushed me away, never sent me off, never so much as suggested that I was bothering her, or ask me to leave her alone. She listened. She engaged. Sometimes she’d disagree, show me where my thinking about some issue had gone off the rails. What she never did, never once that I can remember, was push me away.

Mary Lou Thorne Samuelsen. She didn’t particularly like the ‘Lou.’ Preferred just Mary, unless Dad called her ‘Lou,’ teasingly. She didn’t mind that. She was the only woman in a family of rambunctious boys. Three sons, and a husband who was a boy through and through. We were outdoorsy and active, loved sports and hiking and waterskiing and wrestling. And fart jokes and terrible puns and pranks. Mom was, well, ladylike and refined. She did all the guy things we guys did, but with a feminine twist. So we’d go waterskiing. She loved waterskiing–her way. She’d slowly lower herself off the boat, careful not to muss her hair, and ski sedately behind the big boat, and then toss the tow rope aside and slowly sink into the lake, her hair still in pristine condition. We’d go camping, and she’d camp along with us, but while we were climbing trees and annoying bears, she’d find a comfy camping chair and sit there with a book.

She loved to read; still does. When she was a kid, she’d strap on her roller skates and skate down to the Provo library, and check out a half dozen books, and then at home, she’d climb out her window and onto the roof and read, where she wouldn’t be disturbed. I never saw her do that, but I believe it; she grew up in my great-grandmother’s house, and it had large gabled windows leading onto the roof. And the roof meant privacy. That’s my Mom. She was an outgoing, friendly person, but also very private, if that makes sense.

In some ways, the defining event of her life–of her family’s life–was the murder of her father, my grandfather, Harold Arthur Thorne, in 1940, when she was five. He was a traveling salesman, and he picked up a hitchhiker who killed him and stole his car. The killer was caught soon thereafter, and his trial remains my Mom’s earliest memories. The prosecutors wanted Mom and her four siblings to sit on the front row, in front of the jury, to remind everyone of a family deprived of their father. When the trial was over, my Grandmother, Lucile Thorne, moved in with her mother, Mary Markham, and Grandma Mary raised the kids, while Grandma Lucile went to work. Grandma Lucile eventually earned a PhD, and was hired on the faculty of BYU. She was a remarkable woman, and I was very close to her. But all of my aunts and my uncle were remarkable.

That generation of women, the ones born in the ’30s, raising their families in the late ’50s and early ’60s, that whole group weren’t expecting to, or expected to, work. They were to be the homemakers, while their husbands were the breadwinners. But my Mom and my fierce and smart and funny and wonderful aunts–Janice, Joyce and Sally–knew how untrustworthy that expectation could be. They all received advanced academic degrees, and they all worked professionally. (Aunt Sally also joined her Mom on the BYU faculty). Uncle Jim was also outstanding–a brilliant architect and a gentle and kind-hearted soul. The murder didn’t poison them. But it did affect them–how could it not? My Mom never particularly considered herself a feminist. But she was tough, independent, and proud; an overachiever. One Relief Society lesson too many on why women shouldn’t work outside the home and she boycotted Relief Society for years. Until a sensible bishop called her as Relief Society President.

My Mom was loyal. That’s the best word I can think of to describe her; loyalty was second nature to her. To Mom, loyalty meant that if someone she loved was fond of something, she would do whatever possible to understand it and embrace it and become fond of it too. She didn’t particularly like basketball, but then my brother Rob played on the varsity basketball team, and my Mom became an avid, knowledgeable and deeply passionate basketball fan. Same with me and theatre; same with Rolf and caving. If we were into something, she got into it too.

I’m sure that when she was growing up, she didn’t really expect to be an opera buff. But my father was an opera singer, and so she became a huge opera fan. We talked about it sometimes. You think of ‘opera,’ and you tend to think of a pastime, an art form, that is effete, precious, esoteric, refined. My father was a university professor and an opera singer; that suggests a certain aesthetic and approach. Hoity toity?

Not so much. In fact, if you know opera at all, you know that it’s the most melodramatic, spectacle-laden, overpowering, sensational art form ever invented. My Mom loved Verdi, Puccini, Mozart, and especially Wagner. She loved the preposterous, violent, sexy plots, and the big, bombastic music. She loved the excitement of it, the energy. She loved opera, with everything it implies. She wasn’t much into chamber music. Wanted full orchestras, and other-worldly human voices rising above all the instruments in the pit. She thought rock-and-roll was, in contrast, rather tame. All that electronically generated sound; it felt unearned, she thought. I liked rock, and she’d politely listen, and she’d try to find the good in it–she rather liked Jethro Tull, for example. Simon and Garfunkle, some. But it just was all so tame, in her view. Opera’s visceral guttiness was what she loved about it.

Her way. She wanted to sit in the theater, sedately, and politely applaud at the end. She wasn’t a demonstrative fan, particularly. She loved opera, but she was always, always lady-like about it.

And so, as a teacher, she had her students write operas. She took a workshop offered by the Met, and she’d work with her kids. They did all the work; they wrote the scripts, they composed the music–there were always a few kids who had taken piano lessons–and they performed. And Mom would supervise. It was the highlight of the school year for those kids, and Mom loved doing it. She eventually worked with Michael Ballam, director of the Utah Festival Opera, and he brought the opera program to grade schools in Utah. She’d videotape the kids’ operas, and I watched a few. They were splendid. They were operas about issues the kids themselves were concerned about–bullying, and peer pressure, and making friends. Life changing. Couldn’t happen today, with teachers all teaching to the test, and what a shame that is.

And, oh my gosh, she could be funny. You could tease her, and she’d tease right back. She was, in short, an innovator and educator, a well-read sophisticated woman with a wicked wit and a deep compassion, and she was also my best friend.

A lot of that’s now gone. She has Alzheimers, and we’re losing her.  She is moving to Utah next week, where we can move her into a memory care facility, where she can be safe and have her medical needs met. She moved with my Dad to Indiana in 1962, and now she’s coming back to Utah. I wish there was another, better answer, but I’m aware that there really isn’t. She can still remember some things, from the past. Chatting with her, I can see the ghost of my Mom. But she’s lonely, and frightened, and we need to care for her. The way she cared for us.

But she’s extraordinary. Strong and capable and courageous. I’m so amazingly lucky.


Tag: Movie Review

In 2013, the Wall Street Journal published a story about 10 close friends who, every February, played a massive, endless game of Tag. That’s Tag, the children’s game, where you, you know, tag people. A reporter named Russell Adams apparently broke the story, and included the detail that Hollywood was sniffing around.

And now, in 2018, someone greenlit the project, and someone else funded it, and a bunch of good actors signed on, and we have Tag, the movie. Hollywood being what it is, the movie is a good deal more preposterous than the actual Tag game it’s based on. That’s okay. There are ten real guys; to make the cast size manageable, the movie cuts it down to five. And to sharpen and heighten the conflict–to make sure there actually is a conflict–one of them, named “Jerry” (Jeremy Renner) has to be the all-time GOAT, the champeen, the never-once-ever-by-anyone-literally-lifetime-untagged Michael Jordan of tag. Who is also getting married and therefore retiring from the game. So the stakes are high; this will be the only chance these friends have of tagging Jerry. Who is, for all intents and purposes, untaggable.

And also, the WSJ reporter who breaks the story and follows these friends around getting details for it has to be cute, female, and blonde. Because: Hollywood. She’s given the character name Rebecca Crosby, and played by Annabelle Wallis (remember her as Jane Seymour in The Tudors? British actress, nicely affecting a ‘murrican accent for this). Sadly, her character never evolved beyond ‘character-other-characters-tell-things-to.’ Plus, ‘attractive blonde in a guy movie’. Wish they’d given her more to do: Wallis can act.

The actual tag guys all had sort of vaguely generic white-guy American names; the characters in the movie are given different generic American names. Hogan (Hoagie) Malloy (Ed Helms) is the leader of the band, the guy who especially wants to tag Jerry, for personal and private reasons of his own. The sensible (and rich) friend, is Bob Callahan (Jon Hamm), who is reluctant to commit to some of the more extreme tagging notions of his friends, but who seems happy enough to finance the finding of various clues as to Jerry’s whereabouts. Their stoner/loser/divorced pal, Randy “Chilli” Cilliano (Jake Johnson), seems to find whatever meaning in life he’s capable of mustering in their shared tag quest. And casting diversity was provided by the character, Kevin Sable (Hannibal Burress); contemplative, philosophical and eccentric. His comic timing was spot-on throughout. Best of all, though, imho, was Isla Fisher as Anna Malloy, Hogan’s wife, who is prevented from playing tag by her gender, (?) but who is invested in the game at a level the others can barely dream of. Anna is very sweet and supportive of her husband and his friends, except occasionally, when her ferocious competitive spirit just flat explodes. She’s the one, for example, who decides that waterboarding one of Jerry’s employees would be just a fine idea. Fisher basically walks off with the movie–tough to do in a guy-oriented buddy comedy, but she’s magnificent.

The cast is rounded out by Rashida Jones, playing Cheryl, a high school friend who Callahan and Chilli both still have massive crushes on, a fact that Jerry ruthlessly exploits. I think Jones is a terrific actress and comedic screen presence, but she’s given much too little to do here, and her part fell flat. Far more effective was Leslie Bibb, who plays Susie, Jerry’s fiancee. When we meet her, she’s a generic pretty blonde ditz, happy to be engaged, thrilled with Jerry, and just delighted to meet his old friends with their silly game. That’s all pose: Susie, it turns out, is actually a far more cold-blooded and effective gamester than any of them, a formidable foe of the first order, and Bibb has a lot of fun with the part.

So we have a guy comedy, a male-oriented ensemble piece about a bunch of grown men who have been playing the silliest of children’s games seriously for 30 years. And yet four women round out the cast, and two of the women end up taking over the movie. (Of course, one of them was Isla Fisher, who genuinely is one of the funniest women alive). That’s promising. That could portend a really funny comedy.

Sadly, it’s my duty to report that the movie is maybe 20% less good than it ought to be–20% less funny, and 20% less satisfying. There are a lot of scenes that work really well. Every thing Fisher does works, and pretty much everything involving Bibb. And since it’s about a game of Tag, there’s plenty of opportunity for physical comedy, for slap-sticky extended sequences in which guys dive to tag someone and miss, or dive to avoid being tagged and crash into things. One such sequence involved a golf cart chase scene, which worked because, hey, golf carts. Even that scene, though, was less funny than it should have been, because it insufficiently exploited the inherent tension between the sedate lack of exertion involved in golfing, and the conventions of madcap chase scenes. This director–first-timer Jeff Tomsic–doesn’t seem to know yet how to build an extended comedy sequence, how to top this joke with a funnier one. Compare it to Game Night, a much much funnier movie on a similarly thin premise. This movie is funny, but it’s not, you know, funny.

Plus there was the script. Not the story, the script–the verbal humor. Which is only occasionally funny, despite having actors–Jon Hamm, Ed Helms, Hannibal Burress–perfectly capable of making verbal wit just sing.

Here’s the thing. I’m not generally troubled by crude, R-rated, sexually explicit humor. In the right hands, that kind of humor can be very effective and very funny. Ask Aristophanes. Or, Moliere, or Shakespeare, or Congreve. But sexually oriented humor only works when it rises organically from the characters and situation. You have to buy these guys, in that situation, talking that way. You have to buy that that’s how they talk–that their relationship as guys involves, you know, dick jokes. Great example is the HBO workplace comedy series Silicon Valley. You buy it–that’s how those guys talk. And I just didn’t, in this movie. It felt off.

There’s one extended sequence, for example, in which they’re trying to find Jerry, and ask one of his employees, Dave (Thomas Middleditch, speaking of Silicon Valley). Dave’s every line is crudely sexual. And it just doesn’t play. You don’t buy guys like Hoagie, or Callahan, or Sable in that situation. The only thing that saves the scene is when Anna decides to waterboard him. Isla Fisher to the rescue, in an otherwise flat sequence. The movie wastes a lot of time in scenes like that one, where the crudity falls flat.

And there are also a few montage sequences where the action is cut to rap songs. I have no objections to rap music, and no objection to cutting action sequences with rap. That’s all just fine. But it’s not the music these guys would listen to. We know that, because there are scenes in which the guys do listen to their kind of music, and it’s ’80s rock. I darkly suspect that director Tomsic likes rap, and likes rap-based montage sequences, and that’s why those scenes are in the movie. And they detract. They pull you out of the picture.

So Tag is a moderately funny movie, in spots, instead of hilarious. And, not wanted to asperse, but I think the director is to blame. It’s a less funny movie than it ought to have been. Not a bad movie, not a failure, not a flop. Just not as good as the premise could have allowed for. My wife and I enjoyed it. Dinner and a movie–we made a nice night of it. But our basic reaction is pretty ‘meh.’ Isla Fisher got some work in, and was stunning. Jon Hamm refined his comedic chops, and Ed Helms had some serious moments, and Leslie Bibb and Hannibal Burress did some really nice work too. But Game Night went ‘tag, you’re it,’ and Tag promptly fumbled the chance away. Shame when that happens.