Thursday, June 29, 2017

Fargo is What Makes America Great

As our nation lurches towards another birthday, our sense of common purpose and shared vision of America no clearer than the misguided ramblings of a sleep-deprived, sugar-addled toddler, it’s comforting to know Fargo will save us.  Gathered around our communal electronic hearth, we confused, antagonized and unsettled citizens can find solace in a TV show on basic cable.  Only Fargo can unite us in our frustrations, only Fargo can lay bare our failings, and only Fargo can set things right.

Fargo has little in common with its namesake 1996 Oscar-winning film, other than upper Midwestern accents, stunning bleak vistas and a penchant for creative violence.  Its third season just concluded, and each has been a ten-episode love letter to America and all its wonders, faults, needs and desires, thirty hour-long events reminding us what’s good about America and what isn’t, and often in the most lurid ways. 

Fargo’s stories are the intertwined experiences that makes us a bundle of nerves, in love with our guns, our money and our families, dedicated to hard work, even if it’s of the nefarious kind, always looking for that big score, whether at the Bridge table, a self-help seminar or through complex money laundering schemes that’d make Bernie Madoff blush.  Immigrants, meat cutters, truck drivers, pill poppers, fitness freaks, flying saucers, hoarders, short-order cooks, orphaned book lovers, marital strife, blackmail, biblical plagues, thievery, murder, cattle prods and ice scrapers – Fargo is a tale of good versus evil and the hazy line between those opposing forces, a reminder the truth usually lies somewhere in between.

Created by Noah Hawley, Fargo’s three seasons are connected to each other in subtle ways, a character appears as an old man in one but a young dad in another, and a determined deputy in Season One is her much younger self in the second.  Each season is its own masterpiece.  So buy some beer, grab a few bags of Wavy Lay’s and pray for rain because there’s no greater tribute to this great country than watching every episode of Fargo this holiday weekend.  Here’s a guide to help you navigate the show’s layered complexities and characters:

Season One:  Billy Bob Thornton’s character, Lorne Malvo, is so malicious the devil himself would be wise to steer clear.  The series takes place in Minnesota in winter, 2006.  Martin Freeman, from the Hobbit films and Watson from the British series Sherlock, is travel agent Lester Nygaard, a man who makes one terrible decision after another until his entire world is upended, but not before he leaves a trail of mayhem behind him.  All the while, Thornton’s Malvo torments anyone who interrupts his desire to sow discord.  Amidst the carnage Malvo brings to the frozen Midwest, we meet Stavros Milos, a wealthy man wracked with guilt, and Pepper and Budge, the two incompetent FBI agents played by the comedy pair Key and Peele.  A key thread that connects Season One to the second is revealed - Deputy Molly Solverson, portrayed by Allison Tolman, helps solve the crimes at the heart of the action.  Best Episode - #6 – “Buridian’s Ass”; Best Moment - the fate of a certain Kansas City dentist.

Season Two:  It’s 1979, Molly Solverson is just a child, and her father, Minnesota State Trooper Lou Solverson, played by Patrick McCarthy, investigates three murders central to the story.  Season Two is better than the first, and the combination of the Gerhardt crime family, the young couple making a bad situation lots worse (involving a deep freezer and sharp implements), and a vengeful Native American will keep you locked inside, skipping the fireworks, your fingers greasy from the now-empty bags of potato chips.  Bokeem Woodbine is hitman Mike Milligan who says things like, “Tomorrow morning we go home to bathe in that warm champagne that is corporate praise,” giving Lorne Malvo a run as Fargo’s best worst person.  Richard Nixon makes an appearance, and the entire series is worth watching just for Karl Weathers, Nick Offerman’s take on a hard-drinking, patriotic lawyer who talks of his “sledgehammer of justice.”  Best Episode - #10 “Palindrome”; Best Moment - how hoarding comes in handy with a murderer in the house.

Season Three:  I’m not sure what’s better - Ewan McGregor playing the Stussy brothers locked in a battle of wits over a rare postage stamp, a cartoon alien robot named Minsky with a limited vocabulary, or the greatest character name of all time - Nikki Swango.  Taking place in 2010 in and around St. Cloud, Minnesota, Season Three has no clear threads connecting it to the previous ones, other than the reappearance of the hearing-impaired hitman, Mr. Wrench from Season One.  But what Fargo lacks in threads it makes up in storytelling, a set of ten superb interconnected visual essays about family, greed, love and power.  Where Malvo shocks with his orchestrated malevolence and Milligan makes us laugh at his murderous calm, the character of V.M. Varga takes the prize as the most mesmerizing manifestation of evil the three seasons offer.  Mr. Varga is the mastermind of this season’s misery, and his eating habits and desperate need for dental care, coupled with his narratives designed to impart wisdom on his hapless victims, make him the most riveting part of the series.  Near the season’s end, Varga says, “The problem is not that there is evil in the world.  The problem is that there is good. Because, otherwise, who would care?”  I care – I care a lot because V.M. Varga’s deeds remind me that without good versus evil, we’d have nothing to talk about.  Best Episode - #3 “The Law of Non-Contradiction”; Best Moment - Bowling Alley banter about kittens, getaway cars and past sins of Russian monsters.

(Fargo Seasons 1 and 2 are available on Amazon Prime and Hulu; Season 3 might still be available thru your cable provider via FX and is available on Amazon Prime.  Caution – Fargo’s 30 episodes are filled with each of the Seven Deadly Sins in technicolor as well as a few that didn’t make the list but should have.)

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Love at First App

I’m in love, and I’ll shout it from the highest – wait, hold on – I have a call coming in.  OK, thanks, as I was saying, we’re so happy together and – just a second – I need to respond to this text.   There, fine, done.  Now I can focus.  I’m thrilled to tell you that after almost fifteen years of furtive glances and late-night rendezvous, I can finally fess up and admit I’m in love with my phone, and I don’t care who knows.  We’re so perfect together.  We call across continents, watch movies snuggled on the couch, deposit checks, pay bills, convert currency, take photos, find constellations in the night sky, donate to charity, pay friends for rounds of golf, investigate our family’s ancestry, hail cabs, listen to Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” for the three hundred and seventeenth time, reserve dinner tables, buy pickle balls and post Facebook comments that incite normally calm people to fly into fits of rage.  Last week I watched my daughter’s high school lacrosse game in real-time while “working from home” on my phone, a fact deserving mention for Father’s Day planning purposes.  What’s not to love!

When I consider the minutes I spend on my phone, I clock at least a solid five hours a day on it.  Between multiple email accounts, myriad social media postings, non-email inboxes, texts, alerts and reminders, I’m always holding my phone.  I’ve ditched the alarm clock in my bedroom for the phone’s alarm.  It’s the last thing I see at night and the first I see in the morning.  I’m lucky my wife is too busy juggling between her iPad and iPhone in the bed next to me to raise much of a ruckus about my smart phone love affair.
There’ll come a day when all of this will end, either through neural brain implants or the demise of structured civilization, but until then, I celebrate my phone.  To help you fall in love all over again, I share a few key moments in our relationship that highlight our endless capacity for each other’s attention.  These apps only make the experience more rewarding, like a warm kiss during a soft summer – wait, wait, hold on, lemme take this and I’ll be back in a second . . .

PostSnap – take a photo and within a few seconds, a postcard is on its way to family and friends – not an InstaBook or USnapFace musing, but an actual postal-carrier-up-the-walk-to-the-mail-slot piece of mail picture postcard.  I used this recently on a trip to Shanghai, and after taking a shot of the massive TV tower in that teeming city with my iPhone 6, I sent a real-life hard-copy postcard to my parents in New York, which they promptly posted on their refrigerator.  PostSnap features other ways to stay in touch, like hard-copy invitations and thank you notes, but the photo postcards are the best, because I can include snarky comments to remind people of my self-indulgent yet thoughtful wit, all at the cost of a few well-spent dollars.  (PostSnap is free but postcards etc. cost a couple of dollars.  Pre-pay to make the experience even more seamless – and a little cheaper).

Dark Sky – this “hyper-local” weather app is not intended for shut-ins, incarcerated felons or TV binge watchers but is a must-have for anyone who enjoys spending time outside.  It uses a combination of up-to-the-second weather data sources, translating all of it into a useful tool to help avoid those sudden downpours.  Heading out for a hike?  Check Dark Sky for any chance of rain in the next few hours.  Hitting the links?  Dark Sky gives you the scoop on wind and temperature.  Planning a “sick day” at the coast?  Give Dark Sky a wink and you’ll have the day’s UV index and temperature at your fingertips.  (Dark Sky costs $3.99 and is worth every penny.)

Headspace – I’ve never been much for the idea of meditation.  Raised Irish-Catholic, I’d always considered a rushed rosary bead run-through as the closest I should get to “different” thinking, but I stumbled upon this app, and I’m happy I did.  I’m only a few days into my 10-day “Take Ten” introduction to meditation, and I like it.  The British narrator has a voice that’s a combination of Alan Cummings and Cat Stevens, and when he says things like, “This is not about getting rid of thoughts but rather about getting comfortable with them,” and “Remember the mind is always changing,” I find myself at ease.  These ten-minute sessions are slowly introducing me to what I suspect is a new way of looking at myself and the world.  A word to the wise – don’t do a Headspace session on a crowded airplane because the initial breathing exercises will make you appear to be in the middle of a medical episode or reliving that Kathy Ireland dream sequence from your youth – either way, it’s best done alone.  (Headspace is free but who knows what the eventual cost of mental discovery will be.)

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Get into Get Out!

Name a movie that stopped your world – sitting in the dark theatre, oblivious to anything else, the images, music and dialogue on the screen speaking directly to you, a visual universe you alone inhabit.  Breaking Away was the first to do it to me.  Floral Park, Long Island in late summer, 1979 - I was twelve and remember feeling like I was floating afterwards, as if life around me was better, more vivid, realer.  Sadly, three minutes after the credits rolled, sitting in our family station wagon, my older brother Dan turned the ignition and heard from the dashboard radio, “And that wraps up over two hours of live conversation with Long Island’s own Billy Joel . . . ”  Dan howled, punching the rear view mirror off the windshield, enraged he’d missed his musical hero, the mirror bouncing off the console and at my feet.  The magic of the Cutters’ Little 500 victory disappeared into the humid Long Island parking lot sky, and we drove home in silence.  But for those two hours, only Breaking Away mattered.

               My brother’s reaction was understandable – this was a few years before “Uptown Girl” ruined Billy Joel for him and all mammals with basic auditory functions.  But still, it would have been nice to revel in my transcendent feeling at least until we reached the driveway.

               Good Will Hunting was another – I watched it alone in a theatre in Charlotte, North Carolina, away on business, missing my wife and tiny son.  As Matt Damon’s character drives west towards a chance at a new life, Elliott Smith’s music filling my head, I sat back and marveled at the mosaic of emotions I’d just endured, even if the math parts made me feel sad and confused.  Cinema Paradiso, Empire of the Sun, Platoon, Contact, At Close Range – these and a few others were so perfect – from the performances to the dialogue to the directors’ choices – I forgot about high school chemistry tests, lousy bosses, piles of bills or the daily grind that leaves us sometimes wanting more.
               Get Out, the first-ever film by Jordan Peele, is such a movie.  I saw it a few weeks back with my wife, and nothing mattered for those one hundred minutes except what unfolded on the screen.  I didn’t love it.  I didn’t even like it.  I experienced it – viscerally, emotionally and intellectually.  Get Out tells the story of Chris, a young photographer who spends the weekend at his girlfriend Rose’s family’s estate.  Chris is black and Rose is white, and immediately you’re aware race will be central to the story.  Think Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner but with heaping measures of craphouse craziness, discomfort, confusion and terror.
Jordan Peele made this movie on a relative shoestring for $4.5M.  It’s since grossed over $150M so far, making him, one-half of the comedy genius duo “Key and Peele,” the first African-American director to see a debut film break the $100M mark, one he may double when Get Out’s run ends.

               The film’s become a “thing” of sorts, and you don’t have to look far to see memes, fan-inspired art work and lots of commentary.  Spend a few minutes online and scan the scores of erudite think pieces about Get Out – its cultural and political relevance for a divided nation, hidden visual meanings, a damning indictment of America’s inability to move beyond our history of institutionalized racism, and an exploration of the societal significance of the Transportation Safety Administration (OK, I made that one up, but you’ll see what I mean).
Skip all of that and see Get Out for what it was to me – a great movie with great acting, a mesmerizing plot, perfect dialogue, excellent casting and the right amount of creepiness to keep me riveted.  The performance by Rose’s brother, Jeremy Armitage, played by Caleb Landry Jones, will haunt you in the best way.  His barely-restrained monstrous nature is fun to watch as it slithers out slowly, and Chris’s expressions, played by British actor Daniel Kaluuya, warrant never looking away from the screen.  By the time Rose sits down for a neat breakfast cereal snack, Allison Williams’ character will make you question the sweet smiles you’ve ever received from a loved one.
               Life paused as I watched Get Out.  As the planet again began its rotation while my wife and I drove home, I remembered the best films are those that halt everything and capture us completely.  True joy is using a little of that suspension to take a deep breath and gain a better perspective on the spinning world around us, knowing those moments of stillness help strengthen us for whatever lies ahead.

Get Out is rated R for all sorts of stuff and is in theatres for a few weeks more, soon to come out online and via DVD.  See this on the big screen – you won’t be disappointed.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Keep Black Mirror to Yourself

The three unspoken rules of dinner party etiquette have always been Don’t Talk Politics, Don’t Mention Religion, and Don’t Laugh at the Vegans Eating Parsnips.  It’s time to add a fourth - Don’t Talk TV.  In this era of streaming and binge watching, everyone’s always asking, “What are you watching?” Responses can dictate future friendships or fallings out - your love of Two Broke Girls means you’d hate me for never missing a moment of Master Chef Toddler.  I also now know it’s never a good idea to discuss Black Mirror with dinner guests.  

If you’re familiar with this British TV import, you understand.  Created by Charlie Brooker, Black Mirror is mesmerizing, each episode a self-contained film, with accomplished actors, taut writing and riveting storylines.  The plots occur in the near future, the common thread a complicated view of technology set against the backdrop of human nature’s best and worst instincts.  The series is a modern-day version of The Twilight Zone, but instead of pig noses, broken eye glasses and aliens hoping to serve humans, Black Mirror shows us how technology has so permeated our lives that we’re only steps away from a rapid disintegration into losing our freedoms, our memories and our dignity because of what our technical advances have wrought.

What’s most chilling are the plots’ plausibility.  An implant that lets you record your entire life and rewind at your own peril; mechanical drone bees to help save the real ones from extinction; artificial intelligence so advanced you’d buy it a beer and a sandwich.  Watch this season’s premier, a world where social media rating means everything.  In “Nosedive,” the main character, Bryce Dallas Howard, tries improving her social standing to experience the finer things in life until things go awry.   Every interaction earns her a rating - friends, co-workers and strangers swipe away on their phones after exchanging greetings in the coffee shop, the elevator or the airline ticket counter.  Fast forward to real life in China, 2016.  The Chinese government recently announced plans to assign ratings to its citizens that will impact their ability to apply for loans and jobs and to gain access to higher-end hotels and faster government service.  The plan, already in place in a few cities, uses credit histories, tax records and criminal records and will expand nationwide in 2020, incorporating social media and online shopping patterns into what is known as a “social credit system.”  In a few years, Howard’s nosedive may seem quaint by comparison in downtown Shenzhen.

Or consider the “The Waldo Moment”  - the scariest forty three minutes of television I’ve seen in a long time.  Waldo’s a snarky cartoon bear, a regular guest on a late night TV talk show, voiced by a young man who’s desperately trying to find happiness and companionship in his life.  Things change quickly for Waldo as he becomes a national political phenomenon.  Viewing this episode is like watching the recent campaign with Trump playing the role of Waldo, substituting his papery orange skin for Waldo’s blue cartoon flesh.  Waldo’s disdain for the normal order of things, his impatience, his desire to foment fisticuffs and his ability to give a voice to those who’ve been unheard for too long are very familiar.  Waldo is our future – and our present.

And then there’s Black Mirror’s first-ever episode, “The National Anthem.”  This taught me the Don’t Talk TV rule while enjoying a lovely meal with friends.  After fun chats about holiday plans and gardening tips, I felt the sudden urge to ask the question, “So what are you guys watching?”  I listened and then began to recount the story of my experience with Black Mirror.  I explained how I’d never heard of the show until my boss mentioned it to me months ago.  “I won’t even describe it – just see the first episode and you’ll know what I’m talking about,” he said to me.  So I watched and was so enthralled I begged my wife to catch it with me.  

We’re always exhausting shows we can watch together – Big LoveSix Feet UnderLast Man on Earth – the list we’ve enjoyed together is small.  For every Real Housewives of Mordor for her, there’s a Better Call Saul I can’t miss, and rarely do we agree on the same show.  When she let me make her breakfast on Mother’s Day and watch “The National Anthem,” together, I was giddy, forgetting, apparently, what the next sixty minutes held for her viewing pleasure. 

We sat on the couch as “The National Anthem” began.  A few moments into it, between mouthfuls of eggs and sips of coffee, I spied my wife engrossed, and I figured I’d nailed it – good food, better TV and quality time together.  But as the plot revealed itself, she recoiled in horror.  “You watched this already?  Are you sick?  Your boss told you to watch this?  What kind of freak is he?  My God, this is terrible!”  She watched for another twenty minutes, and as her coffee went cold, so did her interest in my Black Mirrorexperiment.  As she stood to leave, she said, “You’re sick.  Who would make a show like this?  Nice Mother’s Day,” leaving her unfinished breakfast on the table.

When she and I recounted the story of the Mother’s Day Miscue to the table of dinner guests, there were initial chuckles, but when I described episode’s plot, in some detail, one guest, a local physician, dropped his jaw down below his knees.  Another stood up, thanked the host and walked out, breaking into a slight jog as she reached the door, appalled I lacked the good sense to resist telling my story.  The words of William Shatner came to mind as she sped away – “It’s just a TV show!”  But I swallowed my words with my final bites of dessert.  Lesson learned.  

As for the actual plot of “The National Anthem,” it involves the British Prime Minister, a kidnapped member of the royal family and themes of immoral newscasters, swelled political egos and an obsession with public humiliation.  And a rather large pig.  Come to think of it, we were eating pork tenderloin at the dinner party – maybe that’s what did it.  Either way, I encourage you to watch Black Mirror and judge on your own.  Just keep it to yourself.

(Black Mirror is available on Netflix in all its twisted, prescient glory.)

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Give Thanks for Great TV

It’s Thanksgiving, a day to pause, breathe deeply and reflect on the good things in your life.  The usual stuff makes my list – comfortable shoes, dental insurance, lite mayonnaise.  But this year, I find myself thinking about the visual cornucopia of glorious TV at my fingertips.  I’m thankful for that more than anything.  The amount of high-quality television programming a remote control or touch screen away is stupefying, in a good way – like that third long sip of fortified wine.  At some point you just give in and let the images and sounds dance around your head as you lie on the couch, staring at the screen in the basement, hoping there’s more Mad Dog in the screw-top bottle and extra batteries for the remote.
As you look to celebrate all you’re thankful for, I suggest thanking television.  TV won’t talk politics over giblet stew, TV doesn’t judge one’s decision to wear Crocs, and TV would never make snide comments about one’s thinning hair, expanding waistline and a semi-rational fear of monkeys and dolphins (just wait until they start communicating – no one will be safe).
To help cultivate your own appreciation of how good television programming can change your life – and a few programs to actively avoid like a creepy neighbor with turnip stains on his Jets sweatshirt – here’s a short list of some of the best – and worst -  that makes me thankful I have TV.

Atlanta – I’m thankful for this 10-episode new series on the FXX network.  The show follows two cousins trying to get ahead in Atlanta. Earn and Paper Boi live their lives at what one might call a “casual” pace, and their decisions may be rooted in what Red Staters may describe as “clouded” judgement.  This makes for 30-minute episodes that careen from angst and emotion to guffaws and snickers.  These guys are funny – even when participating in the less savory aspects of life in and around Atlanta.  Keep an eye out for the 10-year old pizza boy and look for Darius, one of the best characters to arrive in a long time. (On demand on FXNow app and SlingTV)

Stan Against Evil – Something is very wrong in Willard’s Mill, New Hampshire.  John C. McGinley plays a crank former sheriff dealing with a nasty curse that ends up in dead law enforcement officers and lots and lots of blood.  This 8-episode series premiered a few weeks ago on IFC and is worth every second.  Where else can you hear the line, “I’m supposed to kill my wife because Hitler told me to do it on TV?”?  From demonic pigs to satanic priests to lazy coworkers and Bobby Orr’s hockey stick, “Stan Against Evil” is so much better than any creamed pearl onions served at your sister’s. (On demand on IFC)

Westworld – Cowboys?  Check.  Corporate greed?  Check.   Suppressed memories and violent fantasies?  Check and Check.  Robots – oh hell yes!  This new HBO series builds upon the 1973 Michael Chrichton film starring Yul Brenner where wealthy customers come to a western theme park populated with life-like robots who provide all means of escape.  But instead of riding the tea cups and eating churros, the park’s patrons murder, defile, steal, maim and terrorize the programmable inhabitants.  Watching the androids, one by one, remember their past encounters will send chills down your stuffing-laden bellies. (Sunday nights at 9 PM on HBO and online at HBO Go)

But just as too much turkey, candied yams and Uncle Coot’s prison yarns will surely dampen your Thanksgiving spirit, so too will a few TV shows that are nothing to give thanks for.  Avoid indigestion, put down the gravy boat and skip these:

Kevin Can Wait – In the distant future, the monkey-dolphin-human hybrid inhabitants of planet earth will uncover troves of Kevin James films and TV programs, and in their high-pitched squealing and repetitive clicks, they’ll wonder what type of god this Kevin James was.  Top-rated TV shows, hit films, photos with Adam Sandler – they’ll be convinced Kevin James was the greatest TV and film star of our sad, laugh track-inebriated culture.  Do not contribute to this charade.  Avoid CBS Mondays at 8:30 PM. I beg you.  Our survival as the dominant species may depend on it.

Pro Football – Pro football is boring.  Neutral Zone Infraction.  Holding.  Twelve Men on the Field.  More Holding.  Offsides.  Personal Foul.  Extra Holding.  Punt after punt after punt.  When you can record a three-hour football game and distill the entirety of excitement into seven minutes, you know that’s bad TV.  Of the three games on today, I’ll bet you a fistful of Jell-O mold that none warrants more than an, “Oh, he should have fielded that kick” level of excitement.  But then again, Tom Brady isn’t playing today so he’s exempt from this entire conversation.  Tom Brady is better than the whole bunch of those losers.  Tom Brady just gets it.

Local TV News Promos – “Have vultures taken control of a local school?”  “Are your house plants trying to kill you?”  “Do monkeys plan on ruling the world?”  Watching the local news is an exercise in panic, suspense and dashed imaginations.  The deep, gravelly voice suggests the world itself may indeed be ending, but as the 7 News Night Team begins its broadcast, you learn that no, local carrion-starved birds haven’t seized control of PS 218 and that Ficus plants make a terrible pork loin garnish.  As for monkeys’ plan for world domination, that’s no joking matter.  In fact, burn this newspaper after reading, just in case.

Enjoy Thanksgiving and be grateful we have so many entertainment options to choose from.  It’s important to give thanks for the nice things we have – who knows when or our monkey-dolphin overlords make us read books instead.  Can you imagine?