Thursday, September 1, 2016

Do not go gentle into that Fall TV season . . .

As summer dissipates into fall, our televisions will soon fill up with crime scene romance, wise-cracking nerds, vapid hunks in need of a hug and Season 54 of The Voice.  We’ll be saturated with football from Thursday to Monday, suffer through another Kevin James laugh-track hideosity and witness so many election ads that we’ll beg for bleach and rat poison smoothies to end the misery.  But do not go gentle into that dark fall TV season – there is still time to enjoy what the summer has to offer.  Skip the sunshine and embrace two new shows that are sure to help your summer end on a high note.
Stranger Things is an eight-episode masterpiece of ‘80’s outfits and haircuts, a thoroughly entertaining series about a missing boy, a little girl with special powers, alternate dimensions and Winona Ryder in various states of panic, agony and terror.  Matthew Modine, he of such ‘80s classics as Vision Quest, Full Metal Jacket and Married to the Mob, plays a government scientist trying to keep his secrets intact before a group of meddling kids ruins everything.
Created, written and directed by the Duffer Brothers, watching Stranger Things is like slipping back into your parents’ basement in 1987 and getting that bag of new Cool Ranch Doritos scared right out of you.  From the theme music and opening graphics to the spot-on banter between the Dungeons and Dragons-playing kids to the ominous phone calls (from inside the house!), Stranger Things mixes a little Stephen King horror with ET-like wonder, then adds a dollop of afterschool special where the cool kids always ruin everything.  The end result is memorable television.
Winona Ryder is riveting as a distraught mom searching for her missing son, and the little girl at the heart of the story, Eleven, played by Millie Bobby Brown, evokes so much emotion by saying very little that you can’t help root for her escape.  By the time the last episode ended, I wanted another season to start immediately.  So as you reach for the remote to tune into that first episode of CSI Schenectady, pause and redirect yourself towards Netflix.  Stranger Things is there, waiting for you.
While Stranger Things should be watched with the whole family, the latest HBO hit series – Vice Principals – should not be viewed with spouses, partners, children, dogs, lizards, parrots, cats, siblings or other familial relations.  It should be watched alone with a cold beer in the dark with the door closed.  It’s that good.  Rarely has a show used vulgarities in such a creative, rapid-fire manner – listening to the two vice principals jaw at each other is like grabbing a front row seat at the Gutter Poetry Slam Olympics – never have adjectives been delivered with such debased grace.
Vice Principals follows two scheming colleagues at a high school in South Carolina, both devastated by losing out on the principal’s job, who team up to destroy their new boss.  Danny McBride, from HBO’s Eastbound and Down, created Vice Principals and plays Neil Gamby – divorced, lonely, angry and clinging to his role as school disciplinarian in the face of his crumbling life.  His counterpart, played by Walton Goggins, is Lee Russell, equally as awful and tortured as his co-worker Gamby.  From a nefarious friend in the TV series Justified to his turn as a plantation owner’s henchman in the Tarantino film, Django Unchained to this role, Goggins is remarkable.  He inhabits his character so completely- from his gait to his smarmy smile to the way the vitriol rolls off his tongue - Goggins makes us love Lee Russell.  Watch him handle a noisy neighbor or make a very special cup of coffee or try sabotaging the big game.   Goggins’ performance alone is worth watching Vice Principals again and again.  Never has such a terrible person been so fun to watch.
While the rest of your neighborhood says goodbye to summer with barbeques, lawn dart tournaments and yard work, you should instead hole up at home and watch Stranger Things and Vice Principals from start to finish.  You’ll feel better about the change of seasons and will learn a few new noun-adjective combinations in the process.


Stranger Things is available via streaming through Netflix.  Rated TV-14 for scenes of mild terror, telekinetic temper tantrums, lying to parents and government overreach.  Vice Principals is available on HBO and is rated TV-MA and should be viewed in a solitary manner so as to avoid embarrassment in front of church-going folk and your more decent relatives.

Do not go gentle into that dark fall TV season . . .

As summer dissipates into fall, our televisions will soon fill up with crime scene romance, wise-cracking nerds, vapid hunks in need of a hug and Season 54 of The Voice.  We’ll be saturated with football from Thursday to Monday, suffer through another Kevin James laugh-track hideosity and witness so many election ads that we’ll beg for bleach and rat poison smoothies to end the misery.  But do not go gentle into that dark fall TV season – there is still time to enjoy what the summer has to offer.  Skip the sunshine and embrace two new shows that are sure to help your summer end on a high note.
Stranger Things is an eight-episode masterpiece of ‘80’s outfits and haircuts, a thoroughly entertaining series about a missing boy, a little girl with special powers, alternate dimensions and Winona Ryder in various states of panic, agony and terror.  Matthew Modine, he of such ‘80s classics as Vision Quest, Full Metal Jacket and Married to the Mob, plays a government scientist trying to keep his secrets intact before a group of meddling kids ruins everything.
Created, written and directed by the Duffer Brothers, watching Stranger Things is like slipping back into your parents’ basement in 1987 and getting that bag of new Cool Ranch Doritos scared right out of you.  From the theme music and opening graphics to the spot-on banter between the Dungeons and Dragons-playing kids to the ominous phone calls (from inside the house!), Stranger Things mixes a little Stephen King horror with ET-like wonder, then adds a dollop of afterschool special where the cool kids always ruin everything.  The end result is memorable television.
Winona Ryder is riveting as a distraught mom searching for her missing son, and the little girl at the heart of the story, Eleven, played by Millie Bobby Brown, evokes so much emotion by saying very little that you can’t help root for her escape.  By the time the last episode ended, I wanted another season to start immediately.  So as you reach for the remote to tune into that first episode of CSI Schenectady, pause and redirect yourself towards Netflix.  Stranger Things is there, waiting for you.
While Stranger Things should be watched with the whole family, the latest HBO hit series – Vice Principals – should not be viewed with spouses, partners, children, dogs, lizards, parrots, cats, siblings or other familial relations.  It should be watched alone with a cold beer in the dark with the door closed.  It’s that good.  Rarely has a show used vulgarities in such a creative, rapid-fire manner – listening to the two vice principals jaw at each other is like grabbing a front row seat at the Gutter Poetry Slam Olympics – never have adjectives been delivered with such debased grace.
Vice Principals follows two scheming colleagues at a high school in South Carolina, both devastated by losing out on the principal’s job, who team up to destroy their new boss.  Danny McBride, from HBO’s Eastbound and Down, created Vice Principals and plays Neil Gamby – divorced, lonely, angry and clinging to his role as school disciplinarian in the face of his crumbling life.  His counterpart, played by Walton Goggins, is Lee Russell, equally as awful and tortured as his co-worker Gamby.  From a nefarious friend in the TV series Justified to his turn as a plantation owner’s henchman in the Tarantino film, Django Unchained to this role, Goggins is remarkable.  He inhabits his character so completely- from his gait to his smarmy smile to the way the vitriol rolls off his tongue - Goggins makes us love Lee Russell.  Watch him handle a noisy neighbor or make a very special cup of coffee or try sabotaging the big game.   Goggins’ performance alone is worth watching Vice Principals again and again.  Never has such a terrible person been so fun to watch.
While the rest of your neighborhood says goodbye to summer with barbeques, lawn dart tournaments and yard work, you should instead hole up at home and watch Stranger Things and Vice Principals from start to finish.  You’ll feel better about the change of seasons and will learn a few new noun-adjective combinations in the process.


Stranger Things is available via streaming through Netflix.  Rated TV-14 for scenes of mild terror, telekinetic temper tantrums, lying to parents and government overreach.  Vice Principals is available on HBO and is rated TV-MA and should be viewed in a solitary manner so as to avoid embarrassment in front of church-going folk and your more decent relatives.

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.)