Wednesday, January 6, 2016

TV's the New Reading

After my wife and children, I love television more than anything, and sometimes that’s debatable.  TV’s invention is the greatest achievement by humans in the last 400 years, with penicillin and Cool Ranch Doritos tied for a close second.  And now, in this the Golden Age of Television, we have more shows to watch and more ways to watch them.  Watch Breaking Bad in your boudoir?  Of course!  Master Chef Junior during Junior’s dance recital?  Certainly.  Every episode of Gilmore Girls next weekend?  No – absolutely not.  Have some self-respect for God’s sake.

 Gone are the days of Appointment Television.  I remember racing home, panicked I’d miss the first five minutes of Melrose Place.  Oh that Amanda – what a scamp!  Those days are over – with streaming channels, cable on-demand, network websites and good old-fashioned DVD rentals, you really have no excuse to miss any TV ever.

The choices are overwhelming.  On a quiet Saturday a few weeks ago, I caught an entire episode of Gunsmoke, rewatched Episode Nine from Season Three of The Walking Dead, enjoyed the tail end of The Rockford Files and ended the day with three episodes of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, a show that finally answers the question, “How can I also get Type 2 diabetes?”

As winter continues its miserable quest to make us colder, fatter and less congenial, I embrace the time I have indoors.  For Christmas, I bought the family a Roku, a device that marries my streaming subscriptions with my television.  Now I can stop walking around with my laptop like I’m checking crop reports in my living room.  Streaming TV will alter what we watch more than anything – for a fee, I can avoid ads and watch thousands of shows and movies with a few presses of my thumb or by voice remote.  Watching Guy Fieri make a nine pound waffle cheese burrito by using only verbal commands may be what historians call the human race’s Tipping Point.  But I’d do anything for good TV.

I implore you to take advantage of this cornucopia of television – buy a subscription to Netflix or Hulu or HBO On Demand, find a comfy chair and settle in. You’ve got a lot of catching up to do.  Here are some suggestions to get you started.

  • Fargo - Remember the 1996 film about Jerry Lundegaard, a botched kidnapping and a wood chipper?  Forget the movie and watch Season One of this show.  Ten episodes of Billy Bob Thornton, an ice scraper and one henpecked husband pushed a wee bit too far.  Recently-done Season Two is even better.  (Hulu and Amazon Prime)
  • Unbreakable Kimmy Schmitt – What do you get when you combine oatmeal with lima beans?  Who knows but that sounds gross – Kimmy Schmitt is the opposite of that.  These thirteen quick episodes of comedic zaniness ensure you’ll never see Times Square street characters, karate videos or bottled water in the same light again.  Even the theme song is a hoot. (Netflix original series)
  • Ray Donovan – Ray is the only guy who gets things done in LA, and his methods are fun to watch.  Almost into its fourth season, this show has great story lines, awesome South Boston accents, and both Elliot Gould AND Jon Voight.  Voight as Mickey Donovan alone is worth the price of a monthly Showtime subscription.  (Showtime On Demand)
  • Narcos – The story of Pablo Escobar, the infamous Colombian drug kingpin, politician, father, lunatic and self-proclaimed genius.  Great viewing for those hoping to learn an impressive range of Spanish curse words and the history of the War on Drugs in the ‘80s and ‘90s.  (Netflix original series)
  • The Man in the High Castle – This new series scratches that “What if Nazi Germany had won World War II?” itch.  The short answer is that an America run by Nazis is a total bummer, and the SS did not enjoy business casual Fridays.   (Amazon Prime original series)
  • The Wire – At some point, everyone figured they knew what Moby Dick was about and didn’t bother reading it.  Soon The Wire will have the same cultural significance – stop lying to your family and friends and watch The Wire’s sixty episodes.  But skip Moby Dick - reading is for losers anyway.  TV’s the new reading.  (HBO On Demand)
  • Friday Night Lights – What The Wire is to inner city America, FNL is to high school football and life in small town America.  Five seasons of football, romance, drama and relationships in Dillon, Texas.  Maybe the best network TV series ever?  I’m not saying I love Tammy Taylor, but I am saying I admire her – and not at all in a creepy way.  ( and Amazon Prime)
  • Peaky Blinders – It’s 1919 in Birmingham, England and the Peaky Blinders gang is doing its best to balance post-war blues, union organizing, Irish nationalism and really bad opium-laced nightmares.  The Great War’s over, but the battle for criminal turf is just getting started.  (Netflix original series)
  • Nathan for You – Canadian business school graduate Nathan Fielder helps small businesses find their customers in very unique ways – his idea for “Dumb Starbucks” still ranks as the most bizarre yet sensible thing anyone’s done in a long time.  (Comedy Central On Demand)
  • Sonic Highways – A must see for lovers of rock and roll.  Dave Grohl and his band, Foo Fighters, visit eight American cities and explore their music through interviews and performances.  From Buddy Guy to Alan Toussaint to Willie Nelson to “Wind me Up Chuck!” Sonic Highways is a primer in rock and roll history. (HBO On Demand)

Thursday, December 24, 2015

It's a Krampus Miracle!

Promise me.  The moment you’re done reading this, make a mad dash for the movie theater.  Skip the crowds of hackey sack-playing Darth Vaders and loitering Yodas, avoid the wisps of Wookie dander in the air, and buy a ticket to Krampus.  Spend the next ninety minutes remembering to be good this Christmas – or Krampus will get you.

Krampus is that rare treat – a Christmas horror movie –joining other holiday hallmarks like Christmas Evil, Santa’s Slay, and Silent Night, Deadly Night One, Two and Four as well as the seminal Santa Claws – the 2000 film about a psychotic Santa who kills people with his mangled hands.  Those with Teutonic tendencies are familiar with the mythological duality of Krampus and St. Nicolas, how Krampus is the Jing to St. Nick’s Jang, a goat-like, bell-wearing horned monster with a long tongue, anger issues and no patience for ingrates.  Krampus hunts down children who’ve abandoned their love of Christmas and its spirit of giving, and he delivers not gifts but rather a one-way trip to the Underworld where sullen brats contemplate their misdeeds for eternity while the good kids awake to freshly wrapped presents and warm breakfast stollen from Krampus’s much more agreeable cousin Nick.
Our main character Max is the cause for all this ruckus.  His belief in Santa is tested by a creature almost as hideous as Krampus himself – the teenage sister - as well as by his oafish cousins, their terrible parents and his mom and dad who’re too busy with the trappings of the holiday to remember the reason for the season.  Max makes a bad decision that summons Krampus and his kinetic gang of giggling monster elves, along with angry gingerbread men, flesh-eating teddy bears and a very toothy baby angel doll.  Max’s German grandmother, Omi, is hip to Krampus’s jive and tries her best to warn the extended family that the goat hooves on the roof are not friendly goat hooves, but they only listen after kids go missing and the Christmas tree’s gone up in flames.  Sadly, it’s Krampushnacht, and things go from cynical to violent in minutes.  The ensuing mayhem in the film’s second half is infinitely worse than any eggnog hangover you’ve suffered through and makes the Christmas you spent with that weird cousin who smelled like a hamster cage and lectured everyone about how “Jesus was such a sellout” a veritable paradise compared to what Max and his family must endure.

               This film is so good I expect the word “Krampus” to take on a cultural meaning far beyond the film’s title.  In twenty years, the term “Krampus” will be used in many ways.  “Remember President Trump’s second term?  That gives me Krampus just thinking about it!” “An hour into Black Friday and my hamstrings seized up due to terrible Krampus.”  Or simply, “This relationship is over – you gave me Krampus.”  On Christmas, families will serve Krampus ‘n Cheese Yule loaves, partygoers will yell things like, “Hey bartender!  Two shots of Krampus and a martini for the lady,” and doomed, snow-bound travelers will whisper final phrases like, “Leave me here – I can’t make it.  I’ve got the Krampus.  Tell my family I love them.”

                 Krampus, like Santa, knows if you’ve been bad or good and has no time for coal.  He brings a different kind of holiday justice, one that includes pits of hellfire and wet willies.  Watch this film and you’ll rush home to get that letter to Santa in the mail, give a hug to your family, take special care wrapping gifts and enjoy every last bit of that overcooked ham.  Otherwise, there’s a whole lot of misery awaiting you.  And if a bloodthirsty, Germanic goat-beast is what you need to rekindle holiday magic in your heart, consider it a true Krampus miracle. 

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Hunger for this to End

On this Thanksgiving Day, I’m grateful we’re free from our long national nightmare.  With the release of the final Hunger Games movie, no longer are we shackled to the threat of future films based on pre-teen page turners about sullen heroines with commitment issues.  But deliverance comes only from struggle.  I saw The Hunger Games – The Mockingjay Part 2 last Sunday, and it was indeed a struggle.  This turgid, colorless exercise in Hollywood greed and contempt robbed me of a weekend afternoon, this fetid effluence of cinematic offal smeared on countless movie screens, crammed down our throats like overfed, numbed cattle awaiting their turn in the chute.  Then again, the popcorn and Milk Duds weren’t half bad!

I blame my daughter.  A few years ago she rebuffed me when I tried borrowing her copy of the third and final Hunger Games novel.  “Dads shouldn’t read books 6th grade girls are reading,” she said, even though I’d devoured the first two of Suzanne Collins’ books about Katniss Everdeen and her exploits in a dystopian America where TV reigns and the passive, ruthless President plots and schemes (think Ben Carson but less energy).  As I sat alone in the first hour of the fourth film of the three books, I blamed my daughter for denying me the chance to learn in advance this story is tired, drawn-out and exhausting.

The best line of the afternoon came during the previews when a character asked rhetorically, “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the most powerful of them all?” and a guy in the back row yelled, “I am!”  It made no sense but had more spontaneity than the ensuing two hours did.

The Mockingjay Part 2 was released to massive hype last week, our last chance to see Jennifer Lawrence in the role that launched her career.  The film picks up where Mockingjay 1 ended.  Wounded and on the mend, Katniss itches to get back in the rebels’ fight against the government.  She’s surrounded by glum cohorts who say serious things like, “I guess there are no rules anymore about what a person can do to another person,” and, “Our future starts tomorrow at dawn,” while plotting the final assault on the Capitol, the seat of power for the brutal, regal President Snow, played by Donald Sutherland.  Katniss must kill the President to end the rebellion and eliminate the chance of any future Hunger Games – these annual televised contests where unlucky citizens fight to the death until one victor emerges, a show staged by the government to ensure its downtrodden citizenry remembers who’s in charge.  “He needs to see my eyes when I kill him,” she mutters to one of her two boyfriends as she readies herself for battle.  Neither seems like a very good listener.

What the rebels lack in prospects and upbeat outerwear, they make up in personal grooming habits - who knew revolution could be so good for eyebrows and teeth?  As Katniss and both boyfriends join a squad of soldiers, including a PR team filming their every move, we’re treated to scenes of rubble, holographic maps, refugee squalor and exchanges like, “You don’t owe me anything,” and “All those deaths mean something.”  Jennifer Lawrence barely registers a pulse, whether it’s choosing between rebel hunks or enduring her new boss’s treachery.  She spends most of her time offering a look that whispers, “This franchise seemed like a good idea at the time, before I met Bradley Cooper and Bobby De Niro.  I just need to get through this.”  I feel the same way, Jennifer, I feel the same way.

The film reaches a heartbeat in the final thirty minutes as the plucky pals dodge a sludge flood to battle an underground horde of zany zombies in what looks like the Somerville, MA Red Line train station.  But just as I think the film may redeem itself, it settles into a pace slower than the action sequences in My Dinner with Andre.

The end comes mercifully, but not after a lot of violence, murder, remorse and baby-making.  Near the climax, the new president, played by Julianne Moore, says, “A thirst for blood is difficult to satisfy,” as Woody Harrelson’s character grimaces like a man with gastric distress.  I couldn’t tell if he was acting or needed a few Beano capsules.  No one on screen ever looked all that comfortable, and when Katniss finally does break down and shows some emotion, I’m shocked she’s such an ugly crier – all snot and sloppy tears and lack of facial muscle control.  Let it out, Katniss – you’re free from The Hunger Games for good, which should make all film lovers smile ear to ear.

(The Hunger Games – The Mockingjay Part 2 is both a violent film filled with mayhem and destruction and a boring, dialogue-driven commentary on surveillance, media intrusion and governmental control.  Suitable for anyone who read the books or who’s old enough for caffeine- you’re gonna need it.  In wide release everywhere).

(Email Tim your comments and suggestions –

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Mars Needs Optimists

Begin scene:  A man in his late forties sits reading a book on a late summer afternoon, teenage girls and their parents mill about at the end of another sports practice.  The man, unassuming, educated and attractive in a, “He’s kind of pudgy but cute!” way, is a few pages into his book when a fellow parent approaches.

“Hey Tim.  How are you?  What’cha reading?” the woman asks, interested in the book he holds.  She approaches the table where Tim sits and takes a chair.

Looking up from the pages, Tim’s hazel eyes lock with the woman’s stare as he removes his fashionable glasses and smiles.  “It’s called The Martian, by Andy Weir,” Tim says.  “It’s about an astronaut who gets stranded on Mars and tries to survive,” he adds, putting his glasses back on as if to emphasize he reads books about science.

The woman hesitates, looks at the bespectacled man across from her and asks, “Hmm, sounds interesting.  Is it a true story?”

A look of stunned confusion on his face, Tim struggles for a response as the screen fades to black.  End scene.

This vignette is true, even the part about my hazel eyes and unassuming character.  What does one say to such a question?  I could only muster, “Um, er, ah – no, it’s not a true story.  But Matt Damon’s making a movie about it!”

Matt Damon did make a movie about it.  The Martian, Hollywood’s latest science fiction blockbuster directed by Ridley Scott, hit theaters in early October and continues to fill seats across the globe.  Just this week The Martian raised its total ticket sales to over $170 million with no signs of abating.  Granted, besting such future classics as The Last Witch Hunter and Paranormal 7 – The Haunted Bath Mat seems like an easy task, but America loves The Martian.  And for good reason.

Based closely on Andy Weir’s novel, originally self-published as a free eBook in 2011, the film tells the story of Astronaut Mark Watney, played by Matt Damon, and his fellow astronauts who’re on a relatively routine NASA mission to Mars, sampling the Martian soil and atmosphere, and doing lots of science stuff until a ferocious wind storm threatens to leave them all stranded – or worse.  The small team, led by Jessica Chastain’s Commander Lewis, skedaddles in an escape rocket for the safety of its orbiting space ship and a multi-month trip back to Earth, but in the mad dash for the departure, Mark has a run-in with an errant satellite dish.  He gets left behind, his colleagues assume he’s dead, and Mark must figure out how to survive – either until the unforgiving Mars environment kills him, he runs out of food or he’s rescued by NASA.
              This movie is the exact opposite of every Adam Sandler film you’ve seen.  Watching Billy Madison makes you feel like a Mensa elder, like you’re watching dimwits make a movie filled with morons, but The Martian has the reverse effect – as the movie progressed, I felt more and more like I was the clod watching geniuses solve complex, impossible problems with pencils, slide rules and coffee.  Matt Damon not only makes water from a chemical reaction involving fire but also uses a small nuclear reactor as a much-needed Mars Car seat warmer.  During this part of the movie, I ran out of napkins and used my socks to wipe the popcorn butter off my hands.
                It's also a reminder to pay attention in science and math class.  I’d survive 46 seconds on Mars if the same predicament befell me, 31 of them looking for duct tape and the last 15 wondering what songs they’ll play at my funeral, whimpering as the air seeps out of my helmet, the pressure popping my faux-scholar glasses off my rapidly swelling science-free noggin.
Of course my lousy math SAT scores and mildly sedentary lifestyle tendencies would have ruled me out of final selection for the journey to the Red Planet, but I do wonder.  Everyone on this ill-fated cinematic mission to Mars had a specific skill – botany, engineering, software, spaceship piloting – and I wonder what I’d bring to the effort.  With limited spots, chief cheesesteak maker and witty raconteur probably wouldn’t make the cut.

Mark Watney puts his botany skills to good use as well as his chemistry, physics, pre-calculus and navigation capabilities, solving every problem he confronts.  His dual mantras of, “Do the math,” and “Work the problem” carry him through his many travails, and really are the thrust of the film, the stranded astronaut walking us through his tasks as he keeps a video diary of his time on Mars, applying copious amounts of duct tape and gumption to hurdle most obstacles in his way.  I can identify with his use of duct tape.  My dad used so much of it that my friends referred to any brand of it as “O’Shea Tape,” a fitting testament to a family that unspooled one massive roll of silver tape after another in a shared desire to always repair, never replace.

The Martian’s been so successful because we Americans would much rather watch someone else do the science stuff than actually do it ourselves.  Who cares that we rank just behind Burundi and a garden rake in math scores?  We make kick-ass movies about smart people who do amazing things, all the while looking awesome and saying cool stuff like, “I’m not gonna die here,” while the disco classic “Turn the Beat Around” plays in the background.  Cogitate on that, Equatorial Guinea!

Another reason we love this movie is because it has no villains.  Even the soulless bureaucrats who usually ruin everything relent and join hands with the sweaty brainacs at the Jet Propulsion Lab, NASA headquarters and Mission Control in Houston.  The bad guys aren’t Nazis, zombies, angry dinosaurs or a creepy doll with missing eyes and voice like a lifetime smoker – it’s the lack of the things we need to live that Mark fights against – not enough air, water, food or shelter – kind of like a family camping trip but on Mars.

In this age of pervasive cynicism and needless rancor, any movie that combines Matt Damon, a can-do spirit, stylish astronaut sweatshirt designs, groovy music, genuine teamwork, Fonzie, friendly Chinese nerds and a race against the clock to survive into a story that makes you feel like a winner will hit its mark.   The Martian made me feel good about humanity and reminded me that you can never have enough duct tape or optimism.  Mars needs optimists, and so do we.

The Martian remains in wide release and can be seen in regular or 3D versions; it’s rated PG-13 for intense action scenes, the use of one’s fecal matter as fertilizer, one or two obscene exclamations and a vigorous defense of a STEM-based education.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Straight Outta Memory, or "I Was a Pre-Teen Racist"

I was a pre-teen racist.  Okay, maybe “racist” is a bit harsh, the term implying a proactive, energetic nastiness.  Instead, I might describe my 13-year old self as a “casual bigot,” spending all my time with kids like me, watching TV shows and movies about people like me, and listening to music made by people I identified with.  Heavy rotations of classic rock, new wave and punk music spun on the record and cassette players in my room in my family’s spacious home in a comfortable slice of Long Island, New York. 
I grew up happy and advantaged, my biggest fears whether I’d score tickets to The Who at Shea Stadium or worried just how bad the Mets would be that summer.  Music was for me a constant, my family’s massive record collection spurring me to build my own.  Most conversations with my friends came back to music – Moon or Bonham, Boy George or Adam Ant, Hot Rocks or Hot Rocks II – these were the topics we cared about.  And we’d judge kids by what they listened to – “He likes Black Sabbath?  He seemed so normal,” or “I’d love to date her, but a guy can endure only so much Madonna,” were regular threads as we rode our ten-speeds around town.  And we grew up judging people in other ways too.

The Long Island I remember was more tribal than racist – few people ever went out of their way to make trouble, just as long as everyone kept to their own.  My tribe - the Irish/Italian Catholics of Garden City - was known for its manicured hedges, robust backhands, hefty bank accounts, Izod shirts, madras shorts and a proud rejection of anything different than what we knew as our tribe’s way of life.  Long Island was more fondue than melting pot – stick to your own sauces and let that eternal flame of “What Are You Looking At?” burn equally for everyone.  I had no other frame of reference and figured the jokes we’d tell each other were just what you did, like campfire stories of our identity.  I later realized you didn’t say certain things in public, but back then, my sense of race relations could be best described as, “Adolescent ignoramus with a hint of condescension.”  We had our part of Long Island, and other people had theirs, and it was best if everyone left it that way.

You know you’ve been isolated when Vermont’s the most diverse place you’ve ever been.  But it was there, in college in the late ‘80’s, where I discovered it wasn’t cool to tell jokes like we did back home.  For the first time, I was surrounded by people who were different.  A Methodist, a Jew, a Catholic and an African-American at the same party?  Is this the United Nations?  I learned quickly to keep the inane bigotry to myself and did my best to get educated.

I dove into the Black American experience more than any and read book after book – James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man, The Autobiography of Malcom X – these were the guideposts to this journey I’d stumbled into.  Above all, music opened my world.  In the mid ‘80’s in New York, rap music started to take shape.  If I dared, I’d nudge the radio dial past the Springsteen A to Z Weekend and hear snippets of “Rappers Delight” or Run DMC’s “Rock Box,” but I’d usually get confused and head for the safety of what I knew back down the dial.

By the time I finished my freshman year in college, I was far more aware of a broader world, and rap music was my private passport.  The Beastie Boys, KRS-One, Kool Moe Dee, Public Enemy and reruns of “Yo! MTV Raps” on cable became a constant, this music a way to fend off my past perspectives.  I held those cassettes close to me, not like a sinner’s hair shirt but as a celebration of my unplanned, uneven and meandering pilgrimage to make myself comfortable with me.

So many of these memories flooded back to me a few weeks ago as I watched the film, Straight Outta Compton.  This movie depicts the rise, rage and revolution in rap music launched by the group NWA in the late ‘80’s in Los Angeles.  If you were a sentient being back then, you saw the news reports of this rap group inciting violence against the police, its most popular song an exclamation against what it saw as racial profiling and unprovoked police brutality.  You remember how the FBI sent NWA a letter warning the group not to sing certain songs, and you might have a vague recollection of how this unvarnished, raw music provoked lengthy debate among politicians, police and pundits about the limits of free speech – you may even remember Tipper Gore in front of Congress asking for warning labels on record albums.  To think the phrase, “Black Lives Matter” is considered incendiary speech today – America’s wimp factor may be at an all-time high when you listen to what NWA rapped about almost three decades ago.

Early on in the film, we see NWA hassled by cops for being the wrong color in the wrong neighborhood, sparking its members to create a masterpiece of rap music that remains just as divisive today as it was in the fall of 1988.  The music explodes on the screen, and it’s impossible not to get swept away into the cultural and societal events NWA unleashed on America.  Hearing Ice Cube sing, “They think they have the authority to kill a minority” felt like the whack of a truncheon to my head – in a good way. 
Straight Outta Compton captures much of NWA’s rise to fame and infamy as it chronicles the beginning, ascendancy and eventual collapse of the group, its five members sparking creative genius in each other before collapsing under the weight of their success.  The film is twenty minutes too long, gets overly maudlin for its own good, and no doubt sanitizes certain events (I can only imagine when a scene involving automatic weapons, drugs, unclad female fans and creative use of adjectives is a “sanitized” version of what really happened . . .), but I found it riveting and relevant.

I can implore you to see Straight Outta Compton, but chances are you won’t.  It’s filled with enough cursing for a lifetime of sailor bar crawls, and the misogyny might scare off the more sensitive, and I understand that.  But to skip it is to ignore an important cultural movement in America’s recent history that gave a voice to millions of Americans who’ve been marginalized for generations.  NWA doesn’t sing about tomorrow’s math test or unrequited teen love. They spit out lyrics that speak to their rage at the way their world was, and, sadly remains today.  At one point, as their manager waves the FBI’s warning letter in the air, the group insists it won’t back down, adding, “Our art is a reflection of our reality.”  For me, this film reminds me how someone else’s reality can prod me to change for the better, one beat at a time.

Straight Outta Compton, directed by F. Gary Gray, is rated R for all sorts of R-related things, including bad words, bad decisions, bad business deals and bad behavior; still in theaters and not to be missed.