Thursday, July 7, 2016

Only the Popcorn is Free . . .

“It’s no secret our world is in darkness tonight.”  I heard those U2 lyrics for the first time in late 1991, Bono singing them in a static monotone over driving bass, howling guitar, and a frenetic beat.  We had ample reason to believe him.  The first Gulf War ended a few months before, the Soviet Union crumbled from within, and LA police officers beat Rodney King for the world to see. IRA bombs exploded in downtown London, and a lunatic with a grudge and two handguns killed 23 people at a Texas diner.  I’d just finished college and was teaching fifth graders about medieval England, struggling to pay my bills, wondering where I’d find the cash to buy a ring and convince my girlfriend to marry me.  Things felt precarious and unsettled, aided in no small way by the first airing of Barney and Friends in early ’92, a sure sign of societal chaos.

Twenty five years later, things are no less precarious.  The news is a steady swirl of war, upheaval, financial meltdowns and Caillou reruns.  We careen from one disaster to another, often from our own hands.  Our institutions and leaders struggle to feed our fix for immediate answers, and we’ve lost the collective patience to trust anyone who doesn’t watch our Snapchat stories within the hour.  Spend enough time watching TV or pecking at your phone, and you’d think the darkness Bono sang about over two decades ago is deeper, inkier and scarier than we’d feared.

Then along comes an artistic expression to capture this mood and reflect it back like a funhouse mirror of our collective neuroses.  Mr. Robot, a TV show like no other, hits our basic cable screens next week with its second season.  Season One was a ten-episode force of nature, taking a slice of that darkness and dissecting it through the eyes of Elliot Anderson, a troubled, drug-addicted IT worker in Manhattan who spends days working on cybersecurity and nights hacking into people’s lives in a twisted effort to make sense of his own.  He knows more about his therapist than she does and keeps secret tabs on his childhood friend and co-worker, knowing her boyfriend’s a lout, and a gullible one at that, well before she draws the same conclusion. (Note to self – always cover up your laptop camera . . .)

Elliot, played by Rami Malek (with the most expressive cinematic eyes since Marty Feldman), stumbles into a hacker collective, hidden away in an abandoned arcade in Coney Island, whose mission is to bring down the mega-bank E Corp, a symbol of all that is amiss in corporate America.  Led by an anarchistic enigma in the titular role, Mr. Robot, (played by Christian Slater, in an award-winning effort) pushes Elliot to open his eyes to the mess all around him, soliloquizing about the miserable state of society as he munches on free popcorn, manipulating his hackers into halting the gears of American finance by pulling an intricate series of intertwining, morally ambiguous levers.

As Elliot begins questioning his grasp on reality, his newfound mentor thrusts the doubt back in his face, saying, Is any of it real? I mean, look at this.  Look at it! A world built on fantasy. Synthetic emotions in the form of pills. Psychological warfare in the form of advertising. Mind-altering chemicals in the form of food! Brainwashing seminars in the form of media. Controlled isolated bubbles in the form of social networks. . . You have to dig pretty deep before you can find anything real. We live in a kingdom of bulls**t.  A kingdom you've lived in for far too long.”  The show is filled with poetic ruminations on the world around us, and as Elliot slips deeper into the darkness, I found myself hanging on every moment of each episode as they crescendoed into a riveting ending.

               Elliot’s world is in darkness, and he doesn’t embrace it as much as he seeks survival, fighting his own monsters along with the corporate demons of greed, ambition and soulless profit.  Mr. Robot is not a whimsical, laugh-track wild ride about crazy nerds and their kooky lives – it gives us one man’s desire to make sense by taking action to bring about change, regardless of the consequences.  

That song from 1991 – U2’s “The Fly,” ends with the line, “There's a lot of things if I could, I'd rearrange.”  In Mr. Robot, Elliot’s fitful, tortured desire to rearrange society into a different reality is not complete at the end of Season One, leaving him and us demanding a torch to cut through the darkness.  Season Two holds that promise, and I cannot wait to see how bright the torch burns.

Season Two of Mr. Robot premiers on the USA Network on July 13th.  Hold off watching until you’ve binged on Season One.  The show contains adult themes, like mean dog owners, odious bosses, confused sexuality, bad parenting, drug use, violence, bankers, lawyers and free popcorn. 

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Mockument This!

Popstar, the new film by the comedy trio Lonely Island, wont’ make much money.  It won’t be in theaters for long, has zero chance of winning awards, and I’ll bet you’ll never see it, at least on purpose.  But as Teresa Giudice is my witness, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is the greatest mockumentary about our nation’s vapid obsession with fame for fame’s sake ever made, eighty-six minutes of inappropriate songs, celebrity cameos, turtle funerals and Michael Bolton.  I implore you to see it – my son and I were two of seven people in the theater last Sunday, so there are plenty of tickets left!

 Andy Samberg is Connor4Real, a dim yet enthusiastic popstar whose rapid ascent to fame is followed by an equally speedy decline.  After leaving his best friends and their rap group, Style Boyz, behind to chase solo success, Connor’s first album, Thriller Also, goes platinum.  But his follow-up effort is a dud, and after hitting rock bottom, Connor slowly pieces things back together through horse-drawing therapy and his former bandmates, although his mom appears to be a lost cause, as is Seal, although he has angry wolves to blame – it’s a long story.  With Taylor Swift’s arrest for murder, Connor finds the opportunity for redemption.  The Donkey Roll makes a comeback, the caterer dons a fish costume and everyone except Seal goes home happy.

Popstar is not high art – the Citizen Kane of mockumentaries it’s not – it’s not even The Amazing Mr. Limpet of pretend documentaries, but it’s good enough to keep you entertained and serves as a reminder that we have no one to blame for the Real Housewives of Kenosha, Justin Bieber and TMZ except ourselves.  Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is worth seeing – consider it a reminder that sometimes a good book is the best solution for quality entertainment. 

In the spirit of equally fantastic mockumentaries, here are a few worth watching:
This is Spinal Tap (1984) – this remains the standard by which all mockumentaries are judged, and one of the top five funniest films of all time.  The dialogue has worked its way into our culture (“This one goes to 11”), and the film helped launch a series of almost as equally great films from Christopher Guest and his kooky pals, like Best in Show, Waiting for Guffman and A Mighty Wind.  I’ve seen Spinal Tap at least 75 times from start to finish, and it never gets old.  Just remember that a cricket bat can be both totemistic and rather handy in the topsy-turvy world of rock and roll.

What We Do in the Shadows (2014) – a documentary film crew follows three New Zealand vampires for a year as they try living together without driving each other batty.  Jermaine Clement, from the landmark HBO comedy series, “Flight of the Conchords,” portrays Vlad the Vampire, and he and his cohorts battle the modern world and a murderous but polite gang of werewolves (“Remember – we’re werewolves, not swearwolves”).  This movie is brilliant – the best vampire documentary you’ll ever see.

Real Life (1979) – comedian and filmmaker Albert Brooks plays himself making a documentary about an ordinary family in Phoenix, and he manages to put himself the center of every scene.  Between the crew wearing space-age camera helmets on their heads to the veterinarian dad, played by Charles Grodin, losing a rather large patient on the operating table to Brooks dressed as a clown as he plumbs the depths of a nervous breakdown, Real Life is priceless comedy.  The statement uttered near the end, “Reality sucks – the audience loves fake,” captures the essence of this late ‘70’s masterpiece.

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006) – If you watch only one scene in this film, catch the moment when the bear greets the children hoping for ice cream.  Or the scene when Borat’s producer runs through a crowded hotel in his birthday suit or when Borat sings the national anthem at a rodeo or when he takes driving lessons or . . .  Good lord this film is insane.

Documentary Now! (2015) - SNL alums Bill Hader, Fred Armisen and Seth Meyers created a TV series both mocking and paying homage to legendary documentaries.  Watch Hader and Armisen as the two old women in “Sandy Passage,” based on the famous documentary Grey Gardens, and witness things go terribly wrong for the film crew.  The episode spoofing the in-your-face style of Vice’s HBO documentaries, called “The Search for El Chingon,” does not have a happy ending but is riveting nonetheless. 

(Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is in theatres for probably another nine days; all other films are available for online rental or on-demand; Documentary Now! is available on IFC on-demand)

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.