Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Purple Rain Will Set You Free

            In the late summer of 1984 I was lovesick and broke.  I’d spent the summer at a boys camp, my first as a counselor after seven seasons as a camper, an enviable transition for any camp lifer – that first summer you get dibs on the better breakfast cereals, are asked to call balls and strikes, and earn money for something you’d do for free if anyone had suggested it.

I’d just finished my junior year in high school– confident, thin-ish, tan and oblivious to life’s complications waiting for me in the years to come.  I coached tennis, hiked mountains, swam in the lake and managed a 10-year old baseball team.  It was a great summer, but I’d made one mistake – I left Long Island in late June, convinced my girlfriend Beth and I would stay together, the two of us apart for ten weeks but connected by the good people at AT&T long distance.  I was sure our “love” would transcend time and space.  We promised to write letters, and I dedicated myself to calling her as often as possible.

This being 1984, the idea that I could text Beth before video-chatting her was like a scene from an absurd science fiction film.  Instead, I had a pay phone on the wall of the Counselor Shack, a tiny cabin in the woods where we’d listen to music, drink beer, play air guitar, drink more beer and sing along to every cut on Joe Jackson’s Look Sharp album.  I’d stand next to the weathered door, its hole-filled screen no match for New Hampshire’s mosquitoes, and talk to Beth whenever I could.

I don’t remember the substance of a single call but do recall things slipping away as the dog days of July arrived.  Beth had her job, her friends and college to prepare for, and any experience I shared meant little to her.  I’m sure we talked about how much we cared for each other, but the calls became less frequent, and Beth ended it at some point in early August.  When the season ended, I was sad not only because Beth and I were on the outs, but I also knew I’d squandered so much time on that pay phone in the middle of the woods.

To make matters worse, I learned I’d just spent my entire paycheck for the summer’s efforts on my dad’s long distance calling card.  Four hundred dollars gone, spent minute by minute on that wall phone as I swatted away bugs, clutched a can of beer and begged my friends to stop singing “Is She Really Going Out With Him” as loud as they could in the background.

Once the summer ended, I was at our family cottage a few miles from the camp, trying in vain to defend to my mom how I wasted every penny of my salary. “All for a girl?  How dumb was that?” my mom asked, in a somewhat rhetorical way.  Feeling lonely, sad and sorry for myself, I was convinced I was the biggest teenage loser in the history of teenage losers.  And that’s when I was rescued by Purple Rain.

My sister Molly, a few years older, measured my misery and suggested we take a drive.  “Let’s go see that Prince movie in Meredith.”  My only exposure to Prince to that point was my 1999 cassette I’d hid from my friends.  We were music snobs, and in high school we only listened to New Wave – Elvis Costello, Squeeze, The Clash, The Pretenders.  No one could know I kinda dug this guy from Minneapolis - admitting I’d memorized the lyrics to “Lady Cab Driver” or “Delirious” was as close to social suicide as getting the “Flock of Seagulls cut” from my local barber, Mr. Snips.  

Purple Rain was like nothing I’d seen before.  With no internet or YouTube, I might have caught a video on MTV or maybe a Saturday Night Live performance, but this was two hours of music, major drama and Apollonia.  I was mesmerized.  Sure, the story’s a little predictable, and no one ever confused Morris Day with Sidney Poitier, but the scenes of Prince and his band on stage were magic – Prince’s singing, his gyrations and his eyes – even the little cookie duster mustache – all of it was spectacular.  Wendy and Lisa?  A guy in surgical scrubs on the keyboard?  A purple motorcycle?  The dude from The Mod Squad?  Pirate shirts and high heel boots?  What was this?  I could have watched the six-hour version of Purple Rain if it had been playing.

I remember heading home in the pouring rain as my sister drove.  I felt alive, confident, renewed.  If Prince could put himself out there and get the girl, maybe my future wasn’t so bleak.  So what if I blew my entire salary on long distance calls?  Who cares I told Beth I loved her to have her cast it aside?  Purple Rain wasn’t even that great of a movie, but Prince’s pure dedication to his music and his performances were enough for me to start accepting that emotion is a good thing, that feeling my own passion for something enough to make me hurt inside was okay.  When I hear “I Would Die 4U” or “Let’s Go Crazy,” even these 32 years later, I think back to that wide smile on my face in the passenger seat, the rain beating against the windshield, my entire life ahead of me somewhere down that road.

(Purple Rain is available for online rental, in select theaters nationwide in tribute to Prince’s death – including Red River in Concord -  and airing on MTV tonight in all its purple glory.)

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Macro and Micro Misery

I met Harry the Mortgage Guy through Sarah, my sister-in-law.  It was 2003, and I was ready to buy my first house.  “I’ll hook you right up,” Harry said, his voice so gravelly I was sure I smelled the Camel No Filters through the phone.  Sarah told me Harry wore gold chains and strong cologne, and I kept a mental image of the man in my mind whenever we talked on the phone.  I pictured him in his smoke-filled office at the Saugus Federal Credit Union, a half-filled bottle of Drakkar Noir on his desk, next to piles of financial reports as he scoured the internet for the best mortgage he could find for me.  I knew absolutely nothing about buying a house.

When my numbers came back from the bank, Harry was exuberant.  “You could buy something over $600k!  Live a little.  You’re good for it,” he told me.  “We’ll set you up in something we call an ‘adjustable rate mortgage.’  It’s perfect for you.”  No one ever confused me with Milton Friedman, and for years I thought a Laffer Curve was the perfect pitch on a 1 and 2 count, so when Harry explained it didn’t matter that my wife would lose her job when we moved, I trusted him.  “Just as long as she works now, you’re fine.  The bank won’t bother checking once you move.”  I reasoned Harry had no reason to sell me a lousy mortgage, and we bought a house and moved to New Hampshire.  We didn’t listen to him about what we could buy, choosing a home far cheaper than what he told me we could afford.  In hindsight, it was one of the best decisions we ever made.

Midway through watching the film 99 Homes, I felt sick.  Homeowner after homeowner gets evicted, and as Michael Shannon, the bank’s hatchet man, and his key henchman, played by Andrew Garfield, talk to the families getting tossed from homes they no longer own, I hear over and over how no one knew what they were signing, not comprehending their mortgages would adjust to unaffordable levels.  If not for a few gut instinct decisions a few years after buying our house, I could have been in that exact situation, ducking the Sherriff, pleading for one more day, blaming the bank and, of course, Harry, for putting me and my family in this mess.

               Two recent films, 99 Homes and The Big Short, are an excellent view into this nation’s worst financial mess since the 1930s, capturing the causes and effects of America’s Great Recession, a societal, economic and political monsoon of ignorance, greed and blame.  The films use micro and macro perspectives of the housing crisis at the root of the entire mess.  The Big Short looks at the macro forces at work, telling the story of a handful of investment bankers and fund managers who realize before anyone else that America’s housing market and the big banks’ aggressive decisions to invest in mortgages are built on soggy ground.  The movie tackles very complex topics (mortgage-backed securities, credit default swaps, synthetic collaterized debt obligations) and compares them to things we simpletons can grasp, like fish stew and blackjack.  Halfway through the film I couldn’t help but think of Harry trying to sell me a mortgage I didn’t qualify for and could never afford.  The Florida real estate brokers in The Big Short are portrayed as a notch below seagull guano, and when they brag about how they earn only $2k on a fixed rate mortgage but $10k on an adjustable mortgage, Harry’s friendly coaxing seemed less so in retrospect.

               99 Homes takes the up-close, micro stance of the housing crisis.  The depiction of evictions is so visceral you can’t help feel anger, sadness and resignation.  Rick Carver, the film’s chief antagonist played by Shannon, says things like, “I know this is a very painful time,” and “I didn’t kick you out – the bank did,” as he, together with sheriffs and his crew of day laborers, give families two minutes to gather their things before they’re told to move to the other side of the sidewalk because they’re now trespassing on the bank’s property.  The film paints a dark picture of the human side of the Great Recession, and it’s one that’s tough to forget.  When Carver says, “America doesn’t  bail out the losers – America was built by bailing out winners,” I realized the same line could have been used at the end of The Big Short when Ryan Gosling’s narration explains that even after 6 million families lost their homes to foreclosure, and over 8 million jobs were lost, leading to a loss of $5 trillion from everyday people’s savings, retirement account and investments, very few systemic changes were made to help avoid the same mistakes in the future.
My generation grew up with “Greed is Good” at the movie theater and “Poverty Sucks” posters on our dorm room walls, and maybe that’s why the bankers, brokers and government officials lost their collective minds more than a decade ago, making one bad bet after another, ignoring the reality that millions of lives were at stake in their gambit for profit.

A few months after I’d fixed everything, just as the rest of the housing market was cratering, I called the bank where Harry worked.  I wanted to connect and see what his perspective was on what was happening.  They told me he was long gone, only the smell of cologne and cigarette smoke lingering over all the bad deals he made for would-be suckers like me.

(The Big Short and 99 Homes are available through online rental or on-demand through your cable provider; both are rated R for language, adult situations and terrible decision-making by said adults regarding grand financial schemes built on fantasy or borrowing money they could never pay back.)

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Kevin James Must Be Stopped

The Golden Raspberries, or “Razzies,” are given annually to the worst that Hollywood has to offer.  Awarded the day before the Oscars, the 36th annual Razzies will be presented this Saturday evening, given to a handful of deserving actors, directors and screen writers, each of whom I’d imagine won’t show up to receive their fist-sized golden trophies for a special place in cinema ignominy.

With this year’s Oscars apparently devoid of racial equality, I embrace the Razzies for welcoming cinematic efforts of all hues, from turgid movies to terrible performances to laughable screenplays to onsite couples with zero chemistry.  Nominees compete in nine categories, and with a handful of truly cruddy movies released in 2015, there are sixteen films that divided all forty five nominations between them.  Watching all sixteen could have plunged me into the bowels of insanity, so I first narrowed down my choices to any film with multiple nominations (sorry, Human Centipede 3 –Worst Picture only isn’t good enough), leaving seven films with at least three Razzie nominations each.  I took Mordecai, a Johnny Depp-Gwyneth Paltrow turd of a film and Alvin and the Chipmunks 9 – Into the Wood Chipper off the list and landed on five Razzie-nominated films, two with five nominations (Pixels and Fantastic 4) and three with six total nods (Paul Blart Mall Cop 2, Jupiter Ascending and 50 Shades of Grey).  I then braced myself and watched every second of these non-masterpieces.

Viewing ten-plus hours of celluloid dreck wasn’t easy, the saving grace being able to watch them from home where I clutched my therapy pillow and wept for this nation’s future.  Here are my impressions of each and my prediction for who’ll be Saturday night’s big loser.

Paul Blart Mall Cop 2 – when ruminating upon this, I recall the words of Chinese philosopher Confucius, who wrote, “Why a second bag of dog poop when the first has ruined your sandal?”  PBMC2 stars Kevin James, he this year’s thrice-nominated Razzie actor (Paul Blart, the President in Pixels and Channing Tatum’s left bicep in Jupiter Ascending), doing his mustachioed Segway-riding mall cop routine who gets tangled in the middle of a Las Vegas art heist.  I’d feared Kevin James from afar for a decade, avoiding his nine-season run on The King of Queens like I’ve avoided cottage cheese and ground hornets.  Sadly, Mr. James was unavoidable in this movie, rolling on the floor, eating with a vibrating fork, hiding in luggage and uttering the line, “Always bet on Blart.”  You know a movie’s beyond redemption when its best line is stolen from an equally bad movie from 1992 starring tax-dodger Wesley Snipes.  This film’s finest performance was given by a peacock trying to peck Kevin James’ eyes out.  I’d like to think the large, flightless bird wasn’t acting.

50 Shades of Grey – let me get this straight – it’s OK for a member of the 1%, a billionaire with a helicopter and chauffeur, to say things to a woman like, “I exercise control in all things,” and “I enjoy various physical pursuits,” as he ties her up, whips her and demands she sign a weird sex contract to be his bondage slave/roommate?  We men in the remaining 99% who drive 2003 Honda Accords and lust for Pizza Night at Planet Fitness would be arrested as malingering perverts the moment we mentioned zip ties and duct tape in the same sentence.  Thanks Trump.  I saw this alone in my basement on Valentine’s Day, qualifying me for the Paul Blart Loser of the Year Award.  Even the supposed scintillating moments were tedious - I’ve watched better sex scenes on Meet the Press

Fantastic Four – Just stop it.  For God’s sake, stop.

Jupiter Ascending – When the brother-sister director team of Lana and Andy Wachowksi said, “Let’s make a movie about a maid from Chicago and a wolf-hybrid man soldier from outer space with jet-powered roller blades and anger issues,” I bet the Key Grip asked for his cash up front.  The Jupiter-based royal family at the center of this drama is named after a Santana album (“Abraxas”), and I now realize “Oye Como Va” really means “crap movie” in Spanish.  Mila Kunis and Channing Tatum struggle with boilerplate dialogue like, “We’re not getting off this planet without a fight,” and “We all do things we can’t explain,” which is what the cast of this rancid dreck will be saying for years to come.

Pixels – Growing up on Long Island I watched a lot of movies on TV – the Million Dollar Movie on Channel 9, the 4:30 Movie on ABC and the Sunday movies on WPIX, Channel 11 – and I never understood the appeal of Jerry Lewis.  The Nutty Professor, Cinderfella, The Bellboy – I’d see these films over and over, wondering why people loved Jerry so much.  The movies were silly, in a forced, annoying way, but I’d heard the French just loved him so I let it go – maybe there was a deeper meaning to Jerry’s goofball antics I was too young to understand.  I’ve often wondered what the obsession is with Adam Sandler as well.  Is he this generation’s Jerry Lewis?  Inane movies with thin plots, lots of bad dialogue and terrible acting are Adam’s trademark.  Maybe there’s a secret film appreciation society in the basement of le Bibliotheque de la Sorbonne, where beret-wearing scholars debate the religious subtext of Happy Gilmore’s plot or the subtle socio-political messages of You Don’t Mess with the Zohan.  After watching the two-hour kidney stone of a movie that was Pixels, I’m convinced Adam Sandler is no Jerry Lewis and should be encouraged to take up pig farming.  Pixels has a compelling popcorn-movie premise – aliens interpret ‘80s video game transmissions as hostile acts and send real-life versions of Pac Man, Frogger, Centipede and other arcade favorites to conquer earth.  And then Kevin James shows up and the movie descends into disconnected chaos, breaks in plot logic, predictable dialogue (“See you on the other side”?) and Peter Dinklage of Game of Thrones fame reminding us that buckets of money will always convince good actors to make bad decisions.

               I predict a huge night for Kevin James – if he doesn’t win Worst Supporting Actor for his turn as a hapless President in Pixels, he’ll take home the Golden Raspberry for his best actor efforts as an equally inept mall cop in Paul Blart 2.  Perhaps Kevin will stride onto the stage, accept his trophy and promise to join his buddy Adam on a pig farm somewhere far away from Hollywood.  Only then will we be free.

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.