Who’s Naughty and Nice?

If the bar for presents from Santa Claus is who’s been naughty or nice why shouldn’t we also use it for all the fictional characters in our lives?   These days they seem far more alive than any number of real people we come across daily – especially those we see daily reports about on television.

Yes we, or perhaps only I, have gotten to the point where what’s out there on an hour-to-hour basis is more impossible to fathom than any extreme or even random action taken on any one of our favorite TV shows by any one of our favorite friends um, characters.

The best reason to be antisocial this season

The most overused expression of 2017 – aside from the world is ending – has to be “we live in The Golden Age of Television.” Nevertheless, we do. The choices feel infinite and, instead of what used to be 439 channels and still nothing to watch, we’ve now got so much we want to watch and so little time to do so.

Make of that last sentence what you will. And drink each time you ponder the part about time and little.

Certainly, it’d be a bit alarming to start buying actual gifts for your favorite friends characters. Or would it? I, for one, have a new bar for alarming and it’s neither nice or naughty. It’s scary.

Just call me Kenneth the Page

Which is not the case for the best of my fantasy buddies. They’re not only naughty AND nice, they never fail to disappoint me – especially in the toughest times – which in these days is every day.

THE LIST:

#5 – Hannah Baker (Thirteen Reasons Why) and Jack Pearson (This Is Us), played by Katherine Langford and Milo Ventimiglia

Just give me all the Kleenex now

Well, why NOT start with TWO DEAD PEOPLE? No, these are not spoilers. In the theme of reality IS fantasy these two characters are more alive to their friends and relatives in death than perhaps they ever were when they were actually living.

You can say both are naughty because they seemed to have ultimately caused their own deaths. For Hannah, it was a suicide. For Jack, well – the writers haven’t quite revealed it yet but the drinking and his repressed dark side are both pointing to a demise that was at least, in part, his own doing.

Which makes it all the more memorably heartbreaking to recognize that Jack and Hannah were/are both – so damn nice!

Jack Pearson is the fantasy Dad whose bon mots are timeless life lessons passed on to us, along with endless supplies of sensitivity and an eternally buoyant hairline. Oh, the hairline.

#HAIRENVY

Hannah Baker is girl that got away (literally), the girl who made you laugh, the girl who was the smartest and most infuriating in high school and the girl who you still wonder about decades later and would choose over almost any one else to have just one more final meeting with.

They both remind us that life is fleeting and every so often make us want to contact the estranged parent, friend or person we haven’t yet gotten the nerve to talk to before it’s too late. Which, in itself, is pretty damn nice, indeed.

#4 –  Dougie Jones/Agent Dale Cooper/Evil Doppelganger Cooper (Twin Peaks: The Return), played by Kyle Maclachlan

Hair is becoming a theme here

For those who didn’t tune in to this limited Showtime series to see what happened to Agent Cooper 25 years later, suffice it to say that these three people are indeed all part of one person.   No, you don’t want the explanation. Just accept it.

Dougie Jones walks and talks like a programmed robot (which he indeed may be) but all bets are off when he enables a “homeless” woman in Las Vegas to hit numerous jackpots on the slot machine and bring reams of his own winnings to his long suffering wife and kid – all while unwittingly bringing out the best of two dim-witted Mafia guys with his innate kindness.

Which doesn’t mean he’s incapable of choking a person who gets in his way. Though much of this is left to his Evil Doppelganger who shoots, bites, knives and brutally kicks his way through multiple murders. This version is the irresistible id of evil – someone we all revile because he’s the miniscule evil part of us we would never publicly admit we occasionally have to repress. Not that I just did.

Not me… all the time

As for Agent Cooper, what can you say about a guy who has barely aged a day in a quarter of a century? You admit he’s one of your faves, meet him for pie and coffee and find out his secrets – many of which are still to be revealed.   A 2042 sequel?   We’ll see. On second thought, maybe one of you will.

#3 –  Offred/June Osborne (The Handmaid’s Tale), played by Elisabeth Moss

Peggy Olson sure has changed #jonhammwhereareyou

No one expressed the naughtiness of our current reality and dystopic alternative reality than Offred. It feels reductionist to say the most famous handmaid on any plane was the precursor to the #MeToo movement and impossible to believe that she became the poster child for all of our worst fears about America in the Age of T—P.

Before Offred was an enslaved, raped and tortured handmaid she was the fun-loving, feisty and sweet June Osborne – just a gal making her way in a big city where she worked, fell in love and lived a life. It wouldn’t seem imaginable that her past could serve as prologue to her future but that’s the point – both we and June are often too busy and not observant enough to pick up the signs.

This is where Offred takes over and shows us there are times when naughty is the essential survival skill and nice is a but a mere luxury – some would say relic – of the past. If that seems applicable to the way we live now, well perhaps it is. Or soon will be.

#2 – Dustin Henderson (Stranger Things 2), played by Gaten Matarazzo

CODE RED

Twelve year-old Dustin has a lisp, unruly hair, mad crushes on two teenage girls who will prove unattainable and a look that will forever read best friend rather than star anything.

But Dustin also subverts every stereotype as we watch him not only tame his hair but prove time and time again he is the smartest, funniest and overall most charming in the room – or in town.

don’t forget that Farrah Fawcett hair product #thankssteve

This is not to say he is without his faults. Hiding a slimy and mysteriously growing little creature in your home and allowing it to eat everything you can find, including your (NO SPOILERS HERE but you can imagine) wasn’t the best of ideas. Nor is his unwavering loyalty to the bonds of childhood friendships. Or is it?

The latter is a question we all ask and re-ask ourselves through the decades, which is why every victory this kid has and each mistake he makes feels impossibly awful and improbably life-affirming.

Dustin manages to be a piece of the young us we will always be on the inside.   That he not only brings back those awkward times but makes us simultaneously long for them and embrace him, is the ultimate achievement of both the character AND the young actor who so effortlessly embodies him. And us.

#1 – Miriam (Midge) Maisel (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel), played by Rachel Bronsnahan

Bring it, Midge!

What we all needed in 2017 and will need in the future is funny and MIDGE IS, most of all, FUNNY. Funny, funny, funny, funny. How ironic is it, then, that she exists in 1958, 1959 and 1960?

Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is a relatively new streaming series that many of you have not yet sampled but will surely do so as it gains awards and attracts critical attention, steam and an expanded audience in the near future.   This is because it is indeed FUNNY. Funny, funny, funny, funny.

Midge is an unlikely mainstream star in her time – a young, Jewish housewife/daughter/mother on the upper west side of New York who is much too smart and too witty for her own good, at least in the decade in which she lives, yet just creative enough to make it work for herself in the most unlikely of professionals – stand up comedy. Or so one hopes.

SLAY

If you’ve ever wondered if you’d have been better off being born in another decade or place (and which of us haven’t this year), Midge gives you hope. She’s the ultimate problem solver for herself and everyone else – that is until it all falls apart and she has to rethink everything and everyone she once knew for sure.

She fails, gets lucky, fails again, opens her mouth when anyone in their right mind would hold back, gets lucky once more, stumbles – and through timing and fate keeps talking back – until she begins to finally get heard. Only to lose a little more ground once more after a big gain.

Midge gets shoved onstage, performs drunk and/or stoned, bombs big time and occasionally slays – in a small club in Greenwich Village, N.Y. with sticky seats where the men tell jokes and the women sit there and laugh.   It’s hilarious watching her discover what those close to her have always known but never ever told her – that she’s the best joke teller in the room.   But it’s even better when she begins to discover what pretty much everyone else in the world knows: she too is an artist – though not quite the kind she had thought or even ever hoped for.

That Girl

I have a close female friend in my life I’ve always called a can-do gal to her face and have always made sure she knew it was the highest of compliments. That is because this is a person who, despite everything, always manages to make it happen and always does so with humor. She has fun.   Not only that, when you’re with her you get to have fun. And at least feel like you’re accomplishing something.

Midge is this kind of person. You can’t help but want to hang out with her, hoping that some of that can-do joy will eventually rub off. Not to mention, she’s…well, you know.

That’s why these days she’s my #1. Fictionally, at least.

Fred Astaire – “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town”

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Stream of Culture

What keeps us apart is, in many ways, exactly what can bring us together. Well, not all of us. Let’s face it, there are always people on each side who are a lost cause and some subjects on which the most malleable of us choose to be unbendable.

For instance, there’s nothing you can say, do, write or text that will bring me around on our current Electoral College POTUS and, yes, the people who continue to support him.

Don’t even get me started

So don’t even try it. I’m not interested in understanding them, you or him. I’m only concerned with removal whether it be impeachment or otherwise –- as long as that otherwise is painful, messy and unforgiving.

But let’s leave politics out of it and go to the movies!!

See what I did there?

You… You’re Good

I watched two very different and relatively new films at home this weekend that got me thinking about this. Contrary to what we’ve all heard, there are popular films that DO make you think and some of them are available to you without leaving your home if you have access to home streaming or at least someone else’s account number to pilfer (Note: Oh, like THAT’S not happening – as we speak).

The struggle is real #butnotreally

The films? One was Mudbound and the other The Big Sick.

What makes these very different movies special is what actually makes them so similar: How they express our perpetual culture clash here in the US and worldwide – through various generations – and what interest, if any, we have in doing anything about it.

If you believe in the movies (and which of us doesn’t), there are always a few naysayers in the bunch, usually young people, who reject the purity and isolationist adherence to the true doctrinaire cultural heritage/thinking/values any said culture requires– in other words the dogma.

More than just beards and avocado toast

But I for one refuse to believe we have gotten so cynical that we reject the movies and the fact that they are actually reflective of real life today because, well, they have to be: — they’re always made by live humans who live in a particular time and those people in that time thus choose their subject matters for very particular, nee timely, reasons – for them.

Not sure exactly what was going on in the filmmaker minds of Mudbound and The Big Sick but we can guess.

They are both made by people of color exploring their backgrounds and the isolationist philosophies of their culture partly due to the repressiveness of the dominant white society. Of course, the same can be said about many white filmmakers who also feel the need to look back and understand these very same issues not only from their POVs but through the perspective of others not like them (Note: Yes, each of these above movies did also have Whites in prominent positions that helped get them made).

But guys, Judd Apatow flies coach! #endearing

In any event, if all of the above themes and reasons sound particularly timely for 2017 they should.   There are only so many superhero franchises and studio tent poles a conglomerate can afford and audiences will go see.   All you have to do is consider the box office results for Green Lantern, Fantastic Four, John Carter and The Lone Ranger in the last few years and you’ll understand.   Not even a conglomerate likes to write off $100,000,000 per asset. (Note: Yes, that’s what they call movies these days in the big glass tower/boardrooms and yes, that’s about on average, give or take some millions, what each of those films has lost).

That’s where movies like Mudbound and The Big Sick come in. Someone, and then more than one creative talent – and then some more – get committed to an idea or script that often burns a hole into their soul because they’ve either lived it, observed it or it resonates with them for some other very personal reason.

kind of like that pizza I can’t stop thinking about… but, you know, more important

In the case of Mudbound, it’s a book about a Black and a White family in the deep rural south that are involuntarily connected through racism, patriotism and all sorts of other isms. Yet putting it in the directorial hands of a Black, out lesbian director like Dee Rees (Pariah, Bessie Smith) takes it way beyond the usual Hollywoodization of this subject and gives us something uniquely 2017 even though it principal action occurs more than three quarters of a century ago.

it’ll stay with you

For The Big Sick, well – it’s a true and very personal autobiographical love story told from the perspective of standup comic Kumail Nanjadi – a unique talent who people felt comfortable enough to not only trust writing his own story (okay, co-writing) but to also play what is essentially a decade younger version of himself convincingly.

Still – there are numerous other reasons these films succeed creatively the way that they do.

And it’s not just the addition of Holly Hunter #itdoesnthurt

The Big Sick speaks to the difficulty and irony of love and how one never seems to find it in the right time and place – except when we do but are too dumb and/or scared to fully commit to it.   However, the magic of the film lies not only in the writing and performances but the fact that the onscreen (and real) Kumail is a transplanted Muslim-raised Pakistani who essentially grew up in the US with parents that still expected him to adhere to the ways of traditional culture and marry one of his own kind.

Yes, several decades ago we had the even more comedic breakout hit My Big Fat Greek Wedding, which, yes, too, was universal. But, um – NO, it didn’t quite have this kind of timeliness of being released into the world of Muslim bans and rash Trumpist nativism that is 2017 America. Though nothing like being lucky enough to catch time in a bottle….right???

That… and millions of dollars at the box office #winwin

In writing and starring in his own love story the real Kumail gives us what feels like an open and unvarnished (though certainly partially comic – hence the studio appeal) look into the truth of HIS family life and in the process de-myths some of the ridiculous stereotypes a large segment of the US clearly feels about his culture and families like his that they have, for THEIR own reasons, never taken the time to know.

On the other hand, as the film deftly communicates, maybe Kumail’s family also has not taken enough time to truly give the adopted country THEY chose to live in enough of a chance. This is why in the end The Big Sick is not a polemic for either side, which is why it is, indeed, a film uniquely today. When small windows of opportunity are jimmied open for non white, non-binary thinking creators it’s amazing how much color, critical acclaim and yes, even box office returns on one’s money, manage to sneak in.

Not to mention newfound mainstream fame #MrSaturdayNight

Mudbound, on the other hand, is an ugly look at an ugly past that we Americans never seen able to get past – southern racism – nee slavery. It’s sad and maddening yet somehow feels compelling and current.

This is partly due to the current US Senate race in Alabama with a Republican nominee (Roy Moore), an acknowledged white separatist and accused child molester, being this week wholeheartedly endorsed by our current sitting US president. It is also not coincidental it is being released at a time where Mr. Moore is running to claim a Senate seat vacated by our current US Attorney General (Jeff Sessions), a man once wholly rejected for a federal judgeship by an actual US Senate judiciary committee because he was deemed a racist.

Thank god for Kate McKinnon

Though Mudbound takes place in nearby rural Mississippi before, during and after World War II, and though it has a literary patina due to shifting narrative voiceovers by a handful of its primary characters, it is blunt in its depiction of how ethnicity and difference was (and by reflection, is) treated in large pockets of the Deep South. The foulness, the dirtiness and ever-pervading stench of what was and sometimes still is our uniquely American sin is reflected in every frame of the film.

Just giving it a fresh polish.. you know.. just in case

There is little true or enviable about this White family except that it has all the power in the world as it reigns over a Black family that is equally unenviable despite doing its best to be true to each other. Of course, the latter is impossible given the rigged system they’re living under where there isn’t a white billionaire in sight making big speeches promising to do so. This is one more among so many reasons everything about Mudbound has a scarily somber contemporary feel – the belief of so many that not only is the system they’re living under truly rigged but the fact that the one white billionaire continually making public speeches claiming he’ll help them will not be offering their family a helping hand at all. If anything, it will be quite the opposite.

Sly & The Family Stone – “Everyday People”

Oh, Mother!

Everyone who makes movies in Hollywood these days is an artist of some kind no matter what anyone thinks. Try working in any department on a film and you will see artistry at work. Sure, it might not be to your taste but it’s there.

Still, most people in the business would privately admit there is a very, very small group of writer-directors whose every movie – consistently and with dogged resolve – are always reaching for a lot more than commercial success or to tell a simple story with skill and creativity.

ahem

These are people who understand the economics and plot elements of the business but also aspire to do go out on a limb and add elements to their work that you not only never saw before but never in your wildest dreams imagined.

They seek to tell a story that will always blow you out of the water, that often can’t help at points to confound, offend and most importantly – despite your reaction –cause you to think about what they’ve presented whether you want to or not. Whether you like it or not.

These filmmakers are our current UBER artists and Darren Aronofsky is one of them.

OK.. maybe he’s not helping himself #scarvesfordays

A lot has been written about his just released Mother!, starring Jennifer Lawrence.

  • The fact that it got a record low F Cinemascore
  • The fact that it had a dismal opening at the box office and has rapidly trended downwards
  • The fact that Mr. Aronofsky’s last film, Noah, was a bit of a mess, wildly expensive and made for Paramount – the same studio that backed Mother!
  • The fact that Mr. Aronofsky is in career free-fall, has lost it, and will most certainly follow in the footsteps of many of our greatest filmmakers who ___________.

Well, you can fill in the blanks.

No please Chair, go on. #mnightknows

But the problem with all of the above is that they are irrelevant and beside the point.

And most especially, particularly in the case of the latter, are a whole lot of:

HORSESHIT

Yep… that’s what I smell

I saw Mother! at a screening at the WGA Friday night and for the first two thirds of it I often didn’t quite know where I was despite being thoroughly entertained, intrigued and often second-guessing just how crazy the rest of it could get. Eventually the threads of what held together filmmaking this audacious began to unravel and what I was left with, well, I’ll spare you the details.

Good, bad, and certainly not indifferent, I’m, yes, still thinking about quite a few images in Mother! — all in the muddled spaces of Mother logic that remains in my mind. (Note: And yes, make of that what you will.)

Roughly how I felt after I left the screening

This is a film where the less you know about it the better and the more you try to focus on plot and theme the less you seem to know. That is its greatest fault or most potent calling card depending on who you are and what you prefer to see. But one thing is for certain: Mother! never shies away from its aspirations and goes for them full throttle. It is comedy, drama, horror,and epic all sewn into a patchwork of crazy. But will you like it???

Hell if I know. I don’t even know if I did.

Horror you say? No, a different kind of MOTHER! #ohNorman

Anyone who has followed Mr. Aronofsky’s career as I have (Note: Full confession, he is one of my most preferred contemporary American filmmakers – and there aren’t many) shouldn’t be surprised at what they’re seeing here.

There are certain themes that pop up in all his work:

Fame

Artistry

Love and Sex (not necessarily in that order)

Family

Is it, Darren?

Look at his most enduring movies and you’ll see a guy who leaves it all on the screen and let’s the chips fall where they may.

I can recall sitting at a 1998 Academy screening of his film Pi unable to move out of my chair at the end, wondering: what the hell was that, how did he know what I was thinking about but never dared to tell anyone, and how can I immediately get more?

Two years later he made Requiem for A Dream and gave me existential nightmares that every so often creep back into my brain uninvited and, yet, sometimes also give me the impetus to strive for something even more daring in my own work.

Plus.. I’m gonna be on television!

Six years after that he made me love Mickey Rourke as an actor for the very first time, not to mention The Wrestler, while touching on some very personal family issues I didn’t even know I still carried with me.

When Black Swan came out two years later I believed he’d jumped to a whole new level of addressing the age old question of what is the price artistry and, given its box-office success on such a relatively low budget, fully expected to see a whole raft of ballet films of all genres in its wake. (Note: Clearly I was wrong on the latter and is one of the thousands of reasons why I am not a studio executive).

The closest we got was care of Miss Swift #shakeitoff

Sure, in between there were bigger budget, rambling confusions like The Fountain and Noah but in my mind even both of those were not without their moments. Mostly because I knew each of them were stepping stones to the next film and the next one and then the film after that.

This is what it REALLY takes to consistently produce work that is mold-breaking, thought-provoking and ORIGINAL. You have to disappoint, confuse and perhaps even offend your audience with too many misfired moments in order to get to where the most JUICE is.

I realize metaphors are not my strongest suit and I’m not sure why I use them. (Perhaps because one day I know I’ll find one that works?).

Just doing my part…

But one thing I am ABSOLUTELY certain of is that to en masse roast an uber artist like Mr. Aronofsky for what you or your friends or gang of social media cronies find to be his lessest work is to guarantee that you will never, ever get his future bestest work.

In between tweeting about the Orange Buffoon’s latest tirade against Black athletes and football, many have this week seen fit to take to our virtual Town Square and quite metaphorically (and then some) stone Mother! and Mr. Aronofsky to their virtual, spiritual and financial deaths.

Though usually Ms. Lawrence – one of our current America’s Sweethearts –is spared, they manage to go doubly, triply, even sextupley hard on the one principal artist who dared make that misfired, truly disgusting, stillborn thing that sullied her.

I’m pretty sure this is just how Katniss feels about that

Without ever appreciating this fact: that one principal artist is also, in a past or future work, the same uber talented filmmaker who will help make us fall in love with her – and people like her – in the first place.

Yes, I know Mr. Aronofsky doesn’t need my help. But dismissive, over-the-top reaction to films like Mother! really pisses me off.

Cee Lo Green – “Forget You”

Peaks and Valleys

Here is what you try not to think about over a long holiday weekend:

  • It was a record 108 degrees in Los Angeles on Saturday but clearly “man-made climate change is not primarily responsible for it,” say any number of those now in power to do something about it in Washington, DC.

Me, right now

  • Massive flooding in Houston occurred some days earlier leaving more than 50 dead and counting, many thousands of others homeless and a cost for full rebuilding over the next decade estimated into the billions (that’s with a “B”).
  • ELECTORAL POTUS has NOW decided to do away with DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), thus requiring the MASS DEPORTATION of close to ONE MILLION people brought here as immigrant CHILDREN by parents who came to this country illegally.   They key world is children, or even toddlers – meaning many of these kids don’t even speak the native language of the country they will be deported back to over the next year.

I can’t…

Well, I did. For a bit. But finally it grew too much.

So I did what I usually do – escaped into media.

Just kidding… this is me, right now

There was the Twin Peaks two-hour finale on Showtime; a binge of the entire two seasons of the half-hour Netflix comedy-drama Love; and a screening of the much lauded Sundance indie flick with a confused gay, model-looking hunk protagonist called Beach Rats.

There was also food. A lot of it. A bit of frolic. And yeah, some worrying.

But what about the MEDIA????

Netflix’s Love

Talk nerdy to me

Judd Apatow co-created and produces the show but truly it is the brainchild of its male lead Paul Rust and his wife Lesley Arfin, who write many of the episodes. The reason and resonance is clear – it is loosely based on their relationship.

Of course, what writer of comedy-drama doesn’t base their work on past relationships? The correct answer is NO ONE – no matter how much they deny it in protest.  In this case, it is a twist on the archetypal nerdy, awkward but funny-smart guy in glasses and the hip, wild, partying hot girl with an even sicker sense of humor than he has. Will they get together and make it work? Or won’t they?

You may think you’ve seen it before, as I initially did, but you haven’t. One suspects that’s because the entire series is grounded in the realities that Rust and Arfin experienced themselves. No, not literally. It’s not as if what happened in Annie Hall four decades prior onscreen exactly mirrored the Diane Keaton-Woody Allen relationship or even recreated it. But there’s a reason why certain contemporary rom-com stories are great and addictive and usually it’s because they are real – at least thematically.

Realistically — I bet that sandwich was that good.

Love is all of this and more. Give it a chance and don’t roll your eyes at the initial tropes, which I did – only to then get quickly addicted for 22 episodes in less than a week. God, I love a good binge – of so many things.

Beach Rats 

Where to begin…

Beach Rats centers on a working class teenager struggling with his attraction to men – particularly middle aged men he meets online – but it might as well be set in 1957 instead of 2017. Masquerading as real and unflinching it is instead a skewed portrait of working class life that so tilts the deck towards gay panic and hopelessness that one almost expects its characters to be sporting ducktails and cigarettes rolled up in t-shirt sleeves rather than lean muscled bodies, random tattoos and endless thirsts to get high.

Like a modern day Kenickie! #exceptnot

Of course, they do share “smokes” and often speak like something out of an old Nicholas Ray film or a low budget indie Sundance version of Rumble Fish if those movies contained too many lingering shots of fireworks, arcade games and indecipherable male torsos.

It is certainly fine to depict a group of homophobic or homo-indifferent teenagers in contemporary life. What is not fine (nor real) is to so isolate them and every gay man depicted in the film into clichés last seen in films like Frank Sinatra’s The Detective – that movie from 1968 where a self loathing homosexual hits a lover over the head with a candle or ashtray or something heavy and kills him because he can’t bear the idea of not being straight.

Kind of like what I wish I did instead of watching Beach Rats

If we are to believe director-writer Eliza Hittman’s entire narrative we also have to buy it all leads to a ludicrous third act where an out, smart Manhattan boy drives to Brooklyn after meeting the film’s sexy leading teen-man online and does something TWICE no gay man even vaguely close to the character depicted would do. EVER. Let’s leave it at that unless you’re tempted to find out what happens some snowy night by the Brooklyn version of the Village docks circa 1968. But don’t say I didn’t warn you before you get into your time tunnel and then try to throw it at your screen of choice.

Not content to leave it there, the film also paints lonely pathetic lives for all the homosexual males we meet over the age of 40 –desperate creatures prowling online for boys they can have in the bushes or in seedy motels without having shaved, showered, deodorized or, no doubt, even brushed their teeth. Though somehow our sexy leading teen/man always manages to do so for his sex dates with them. But of course he’s young and not totally gay. Yet. Hmm, what or whom to root for?

At this point I would have preferred this old gay stereotype

Sadly, there is a stinking, rotting quality to everything here – perhaps on purpose for “mood” – but ultimately landing with the great weight of phony pretension. Still, the director seems to have gotten away with this pose in the eyes of films festivals and critics galore. Check out the reviews from Sundance or this one from The New Yorker.

As a kid from the boroughs myself, who grew up loving the fireworks, arcade games and bumper cars depicted in Beach Rats, I began to dread each lingering faux magical shot of the milieu as its endless minutes marched into what seemed like many endless hours. Repetitive visual imagery is no substitute for depth of story and character, no matter how many random lights in the sky or ocean waves one’s camera relentlessly aims to capture.

The Beach Rats audience

There is a great movie to be made on exactly this subject but that’s about the only thing most gay people will feel once this film comes to its retro torturous end – other than anger.

And NO, I didn’t like it. No one bit.

Twin Peaks: The Return 

Paging Agent Cooper…

It’s like the person you dated in college or in your twenties who was a glorious irresistible mess and yet you couldn’t get enough of them. Smart, confounding, funny without trying to be so, obtuse and more than a handful of times just downright f-ckg brilliant.

Often you don’t officially break up with this person. Something circumstantial happens or an unexpected situational event occurs that inevitably puts an end to the whole thing. But it’s never totally voluntary on your part no matter how many times your friends, family or even you feel like you were f-ckd over. This is because there truly was something so unique, so individual about the experience that can never be duplicated and you wouldn’t give that up for the world despite how much turmoil it might have put you through.

When’s the honeymoon?

Ironically enough, David Lynch and Mark Frost did put us through the Twin Peaks wringer again 25 years later thanks to Showtime and those of us who stayed are all the better for it. We got some hope for the saga of Laura Palmer, time traveled back to the 1950s, tried to learn some new, never heard before languages and began to realize that a good deal of the key wisdom of the world can be learned via a giant tea kettle, barren potato head tree or discovered in a Tilt-A-Whirl room with comfortable green velvet chairs.

You know I’m not gonna pass up posting a pop culture chair #takeaseat

OK, some of it made no sense at all, but have you checked the news lately? Nothing in this Twin Peaks was literal but, then again, Lynch and co. were bold enough to linger on so many scenes in real time elongated minutes that perhaps everything was. Twin Peaks is the opposite of anything pretentious – it is filmmaking/TV making (Note: Just what is the difference anymore?) with a purpose. And that purpose is to take us to a place we can believe in despite how extreme, absurd or hateful it is. It is and always has been what the books tell us great storytelling is – a seamless dream.

And with that – good night.

Muddy Magnolias – “American Woman (Slowed David Lynch version)

Motor City Mayhem

Detroit is a movie you won’t forget. Or at least I won’t. It is brilliantly infuriating, difficult to watch and necessary to experience. If we as a country – or really as a people – are to begin to figure out how to move forward with the remnants of 2017 life, it’s a starting point. Not the only one but a possible one.

Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal are both white and yet have chosen to tell a historical story that can be read as part of the ongoing story of the White patriarchal repression of Blacks. This has already created a side controversy that one realizes, after seeing the film, provides endless intellectual fodder but is sort of beside the point.

More to the issue is that if the arts can play some small part in bridging the gap between where we were, where we are and where we hope to be, Detroit should become a potent and powerful conversation starter. It’s that unrelenting and uncompromising.

…. but this time, the hype is real

Watching the film at a Writers Guild screening of people of all sorts of colors, ages, shapes, and sizes, it was clear the entire audience was emotionally gutted and awake. This was a Hollywood film made by whites where no white savior came in to save the day or even the score for the poor, put upon downtrodden.   We will never know what any other filmmaker of any other color would do with the same material – for better or worse – but at the moment Detroit is what we have of one hideous incident in one particularly hideous moment in our past.

This, by the way, is not meant to be congratulatory in any sort of way. There are no congratulations to be had in any discussion of this debacle.

Fifty years ago a racist patrolman in Detroit led a small group of law enforcers to alternately beat, torture and murder a small group of innocent Black men hanging out at the local Algiers Motel.

Detroit burns in July 1967

It was an explosive, ugly time of race riots and social injustice in big cities all across the country, but most especially in in the Motor City where an almost all White police force (93%) were tasked with holding the line on the residents of a fast-growing Black city (30%).

The unfolding story of the movie Detroit uses the ever-growing popular method of plopping its audience directly into the dramatic center of its narrative and trusting that in the age of web surfing, iPhone clicking and incessantly intense game-playing it will be able to play catch up.

Recent films like Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk do this and go for the big overall visceral reaction at the expense of individual character development and emotional nuance. Others like Atomic Blonde provide a couple of Irving the Explainer scenes of incoherent exposition and then have us settle down so we can watch the real entertainment – some larger than life extended violence where an unlikely hero/heroine (and who better than Charlize Theron) beats the crap out of everyone in slight we’d like to pulverize if were we six feet tall and had the benefit of hair, makeup and extensive martial arts training by stunt coordinator experts.

Charlize looking a little different from her Mad Max days  #oliviapopejacket

Detroit, however, is not about sensationalized hollow victories or a dramatic retelling of heroism under the thematic banner that War is Hell. It only starts out as a generalized expression of the Big Idea and a pastiche of characters one never gets to really know yet follows along into over-the-top battles. Its power is that it does all of this and then, at some unsuspecting point once this is all established, gets real specific, real fast. And stays there and unfolds for the essential body of the work – a kind of American horror movie gone wrong in a period motel hallway. And then goes on from there to show something about how we lived then. And ask the question if, at the end of the day, it’s really all that different than the way we live now – or is now just a cleaned up version?

Suffice it to say that at the end your visceral nerve endings are not only more than met but you also didn’t need chunks of exposition or violently musical YouTube-like video sequences to do it for you. There are actually real people to watch doing unfortunately all too human things that prompt all too human reactions that go on and on and on. As we say in screenwriting class, in science and in psychotherapy – cause and effect, real cause and effect. For every action is there is a reaction – one that is logical and one, in the movie Detroit, anyway, that you can follow.

… and countless other movies used for the exact opposite purpose

When asked the often-dreaded question of how he approached the material in a talkback afterwards, screenwriter Mark Boal said that he essentially saw this as a movie about an artist whose life was derailed. That, and a good deal of research, and talent, is probably a large part of the reason that the script for Detroit works so well. Call me old-fashioned but if you don’t know or care about the people (in this real-life case an aspiring young Motown-type singer) what do you really have? As a writer you need to find a way in. You can’t effectively write an issue or a historical event.

Sure, you can film it and use all sorts of technique, CGI and camera tricks to forge effective mass entertainment. But at the end of the day, what do you really have? What are you telling us that we didn’t already know, or need to be reminded of?

Certainly, movies can succeed solely on mass entertainment value, escapism, cheap thrills and recycled messages. Many of these films are highly watchable and superbly executed. But we’ve reached a point in the business where we have gotten used to the former and forgotten films like Detroit. Go see it and consider this a reminder.

But you can still go see Jon Hamm and this terrible haircut in Baby Driver #iunderstand

That might be a good way to end but it would be an oversight not to single out the mammoth filmmaking skills of Kathryn Bigelow here.   A two-year DGA study at the end of 2015 noted women account for 6.4% of film directors and just 3% of major box office films.  But let’s be kind and say the numbers have gone up slightly in the last year and a half. Still, that’s pretty piss poor.

When you watch Detroit you don’t so much ask yourself, how did she do that shot but in what world was she able to integrate all those disparate scenes and themes so convincingly, recreate an often botched decade of American history (the sixties) on film so convincingly and get those performances out of those actors so effortlessly? Heck if I know.

That girl #shesgotit #sheknowsit

It makes you wonder how many hundreds of other potential Kathryn Bigelows there are out there. Filmmakers who are female, or perhaps non-white, non-heterosexual or non gender binary, who might never get the chance. And how many of those stories are yet to be told. Not only through the entertainment industry but in any other American industry.

That would be one way to truly Make America Great again.

The Dramatics – “All Because of You” 

OOOOHH BABY (DRIVER)!

Baby Driver is the sleeper box-office hit of the summer and a movie not without its charms.

It has pretty much redefined movie music for the future by creating a title character so enmeshed in what’s coming through his headphones that the song choices become not only an essential part of the narrative but, at times, the narrative itself.

It also creates a space for its lead, Ansel Elgort, to step forward and assume true movie star status – not merely in box-office dollars but in presence. It’s hard to imagine any other young actor with the charisma, dramatic heft and self-effacing charm to anchor the mind-boggling acts of passion going on around him done in the name of money, speed and most importantly, love.

Meanwhile… “What’s an Ansel Elgort?”

But chiefly, it arrives at a time where as a country – and world – we all need two hours of escape from reality through an imaginary city where, in the end, justice is served in an untraditional yet somewhat believable fashion given the context of what’s come before.

The latter is key in both a positive and negative way. For although Baby Driver delivers on so many levels it also falls short in several key departments – realism. And…realism.

Wait.. people aren’t this good looking in real life?

Of course, reality these days feels a bit unreal so perhaps that isn’t necessarily a fault. Unless, of course, one attends movies to see some reflection of life as one has experienced it, or even hopes to experience it.

It’s hard these days to be an audience member who prefers the more human musings of 2017 cinema like The Book of Henry and Dean. That statement in itself might feel oxymoronic since one of those films takes place in a pushed reality fantasy and the other follows the angsty life of a Brooklyn cartoonist whose drawings push the narrative at least one third of its 87 minute running time.

Still, neither of those films depends on relentless violence and over-the-top action sequences. Nor do their stories throw human logic out the window and halfway through turn into a Road Runner cartoon, a comic book or a horror fantasy.

Plus.. this Jon Hamm haircut #youareforgiven

I mention the last three examples because if one looks at movies in terms of box-office returns/deliverable profits it’s easy to see the issue with people like myself – those of us who wish Francois Truffaut were still alive and active on the film scene, or that at least Paul Thomas Anderson and Kimberly Pierce made more movies.

WWFTD?

Here are the top 10 top grossing 2017 films domestically:

  1. Beauty and the Beast – $503,940,432
  2. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 – $384,949,006
  3. Wonder Woman – $361,591,191
  4. Logan – $226, 275, 826
  5. Fate of the Furious – $225,587,340
  6. The Lego Batman Movie – $175,750,384
  7. Get Out – $175,484,140
  8. The Boss Baby – $173,782,946
  9. Kong Skull Island – $168,052, 812
  10. Pirates of the Caribbean: Vol. 623 – $167,980,297

Oh, and the list is almost exactly the same for worldwide grosses, except Get Out and Pirates move down to the top 20 and Transformers: The Last Knight and Fifty Shades Darker move up from #15 and #14 to #9 and #10.

More like FIFTY SHADES MORE BORING #nochemistry  #snooooze

Not to mention — the worldwide box-office grosses for the top 10 range from $1,259,744,572 (that’s Billion, with a B), down to a measly $378.8 million.

Obviously realism, or as I call it in my more bitter moviegoer moods – basic logic – doesn’t count for very much anymore.

I can’t even go there

What is logical in a capitalistic society – especially in business – is profit. Money. Though the type of movies at the tops of the chart on the whole cost a lot more than the smaller ones down towards the bottom, their international markets and ancillary revenue streams have increased so much that studios need merely one or two massive tentpoles every few years in order to justify all of the other risks.

That is, if this is merely a numbers game.

… and some numbers are not so great #sorrytommy

Having begun my career as a bit of a reluctant box-office guru when I was a reporter at Daily Variety in 1979, I can’t help but feel disheartened. I started the weekly national box-office story at the paper then out of sheer confusion over the scattershot press releases we would receive about how “outstanding” every big film opening was doing.   Decades later it’s turned into pretty much almost anything anyone in the movie business – and that includes too many movie fans – thinks about. And in the case of most every decision maker at the studios, cares about.

Not to say it was not always mostly this way for the studio suits in the old days or recent past. But at least there was a bit more of a balance.

As evidenced by Feud’s Jack Warner #ohhediditagain #moneytalks

The Hurt Locker was released in June. Forrest Gump (not my fave, but still…) came out in July. Heck, even All the President’s Men first appeared in April.

Where are their 2017 equivalents?

Don’t write in with a list of foreign films, limited releases, bomb studio 2017 movies or tell me to stream Netflix, Amazon or _____________. I get it and I do. We’re talking Movies here.

That said, the new Spiderman (Homecoming) has soared past $100,000,000 domestically in its 3-day opening this weekend.

As John Oliver would say, “Good work, Spider Twerp”

That’s the sixth Spiderman film in 15 years even though this one is considered to be NEW – meaning it’s a SECOND reboot of the franchise with a new director and star.

I haven’t seen it yet but I do know when it comes to 2017 realities one could do a lot worse.

Though seriously, that’s a pretty lame excuse. Isn’t it?

Boga – “Nowhere to Run”

Truth! Justice! and the American Way?

As a very little boy I remember watching black and white Superman reruns on syndicated TV where each week a booming male voice announced over the credits that a muscly hunk in tights would fight for truth, justice and the American way.

Like many little boys I became obsessed with Superman, tied a towel around my neck and ran around the house imagining I could fly out the window and…

Just imagine a Judy Miller sketch #gilda4ever

Well, I’m not quite sure what I wanted to do. Certainly, it wasn’t to fight – for justice or anything else. It was more about the journey, the outfit and the power of a muscly hunk via the deep male voice.

Feel free to fill in the rest of the blanks about me from there if you haven’t already – or if indeed there are any. But don’t for a moment imagine for one millisecond the vast array of the rest of us are much different than the slightly fey mini-me.

Don’t hate me ’cause you ain’t me!

In the last year America has clearly chosen fantasy, muscular masculinity over truth. Time will tell whether in the end we will indeed choose justice or instead continue running around our homes in imagined worlds where we truly believe items like towels and TV dialogue will guide us to a better world.

And don’t forget those nosy, listening microwaves!

A pop culture shift in the last week signals a scintilla of hope. Wonder Woman has emerged as THE #1 movie blockbuster of 2017- marking not only the first breakout FEMALE MOVIE superhero but the first time a female director (Patty Jenkins) is at the helm of a major studio tentpole film achieving blockbuster status.

At more than $200 million domestically and $350 million worldwide (in less than two weeks), Ms. Jenkins and her movie have broken a long-standing glass ceiling.

SLAY GIRL SLAY!

Six months ago Hillary Clinton’s campaign rented New York’s Javits Center hoping to literally demolish its glass ceiling in victory but instead found itself unimaginably conceding the following day to an inexperienced male who sold the trappings of masculinity in order to prove he could make America great again.

The electoral college public went for the salesmanship and words rather than deep-seated personal beliefs about us all being part of one fabric of world humanity that is united by doing all the good you can, for all the people you can, for as long as you can.

That message, and Stronger Together, were the key mantras of the Clinton campaign and are offshoots of the Methodist faith she was raised in. For the record, the real quote is:

“Do all the good you can, for all the people you can, in all the ways you can, as long as ever you can.’”

One could easily read the Methodist faith and the Clinton mantra into the psyche of Diana/Wonder Woman through not only the way she was raised by the other Amazonian women but by her guiding principles in every decision she makes and each action she takes.

When she finds herself enmeshed behind WWI’s western front and sees the years long death and suffering of the innocent villagers all around her she is appalled and can only simply and boldly ask Why isn’t anyone doing anything? 

Damn right!

Her cohorts argue quite forcefully that they need to ignore the carnage and keep going for the greater good of the big victory and to leave these people as simple casualties of war.   But that doesn’t fit her core principles so instead she climbs out of her foxhole, weaponizes her superpowers and smashes through enemy lines where, eventually, even her doubters aid her in vanquishing the enemy and saving this small, but in her eyes, more than worthy swath of townspeople.

In an even more climactic third act moment later on, when the notion is raised that mass humanity might not deserve to be saved, she has an even simpler retort:

It’s not about deserve, it’s about what you believe! And I believe in love. 

Cue my best Oprah empowerment ugly cry

Now see, taken out of context this might seem….well, conclude what you will, once again. No one ever accused comic books or movie superheroes of speaking Edward Albee-esque dialogue. Yet within the context of what we’re watching, it has all the best resonance of the Hillary campaign’s aspirational message and of Methodism.

  • We have an obligation to help each other – even strangers.
  • One always first errs on the side of love and compassion rather than indifference, hate and fear.
  • There is no greater good. There is only doing good. That will result in the greater good.

If this doesn’t sound Trumpian – well, it isn’t. It’s exactly the opposite

America’s unique place in the world has always been as an experimental, imperfect democracy. There is a reason why for centuries we’ve been lauded as a nation of immigrants where everything seems possible even if – in reality – it’s not.

In the actual world, one can’t achieve everything. But what is also true is that one will achieve nothing unless they believe what they’re trying to achieve is possible.

JUST KIDDING! REACH FOR THE STARS!

To have no overriding principle other than the betterment of one’s self or one’s immediate family to the detriment of all others is a recipe for perhaps temporary success but ultimate abject failure.

This is exactly the opposite message of Wonder Woman’s more compassionate one and that is why it is currently cleaning up at the global box-office and leaving all the naysaying, mummified macho men in the dust.

IF ONLY!

It is the 360-degree counter to Make America Great Again – which is fast being recognized as nothing more than a bloated, synthetic phantom cudgel through which to reject multiculturalism, the global community and social change.

Or, to put it in more movie specific terms we might all understand —

No superpower EVER emerges victorious unless they’re fighting for the greater good.

Think about it.

Florence + The Machine – “Kiss with a Fist”