Archive for ‘Uncategorized’

May 2, 2018

#140) Book review: “A Futile and Stupid Gesture: How Doug Kenney and National Lampoon Changed Comedy Forever” by Josh Karp

Most people under the age of 50 haven’t heard of Doug Kenney. Until earlier this year, I was one of them. My interest in Kenney wasn’t piqued by the new Netflix film starring Will Forte, but by learning of his rise and fall, from a childhood as an outsider in his own family and in the all-American town of Chagrin Falls, Ohio (where “[F]ew remember Doug Kenney…they remember…Tim Conway instead. He is Chagrin’s favorite son”) to his success at National Lampoon and then Hollywood to his untimely and mysterious death. When I visited the Hanapepe Lookout in Kauai, Hawaii last year I didn’t realize that at that same spot almost four decades earlier, a man who’d had a huge impact on the last half century of comedy either fell or jumped to his death at the age of 33. Learning that Kenney died not in a squalid hotel room or alley but in one of the most beautiful places I’ve had the fortune of seeing fueled my desire to learn more.

Like the exact circumstances surrounding his demise, Doug Kenney was elusive, even to those who knew him best. What is unambiguous is the influence that Kenney’s baby, National Lampoon, had on humor. Josh Karp writes that Kenney and his National Lampoon colleagues “[paved] the way for Saturday Night Live, the Onion, the Simpsons and nearly everything funny that has happened since 1975.” It’s a broad claim – but “A Futile and Stupid Gesture” makes its case convincingly.

As a piece of writing, “Futile” is not perfect. Karp has a tendency to tell more than show, often explaining punchlines after the fact and not making the supporting cast memorable. Kenney’s colleagues at the Lampoon, including Henry Beard, Michael O’Donoghue, Ed Bluestone, Sean Kelley and Ted Mann are all described as one kind or another of misunderstood, creative comic genius who found their voice through the magazine, but without much compelling detail about them, their names start to blend into one another.

Where “Futile” scores is in its getting underneath subjects that haven’t been explored all that much in print but nevertheless have had a big impact on popular culture in the latter decades of the 20th century and the first few decades of this one. If Kenney isn’t a household name among today’s generation, he was associated with many people who are. Though he died less than two years after Kenney, John Belushi’s work has been transcendental. Chevy Chase’s best days may be behind him but he is as recognizable as Clark Griswold, Fletch or Ty Webb today as he was 20 or 30 years ago. Kenney’s work on “Caddyshack” as a producer and co-writer put him in close quarters with star Bill Murray and director/co-writer Harold Ramis; he also crossed paths with Dan Aykroyd. The backlash to the recent all-female “Ghostbusters” remake proves that the three stars of the original are still in the hearts and minds of fans of all ages.

“Futile” is also strong as a study of the relationship between art and commerce; the conflict among readers and advertisers between wanting to feel edgy and dealing with the consequences when edginess becomes offensiveness. Publisher Matty Simmons is the voice of reason – an authority figure with whom his writers have a love-hate relationship. At the outset, he is excited by the dangerous, boundary-pushing humor of the magazine but he soon finds himself putting out fires with angry sponsors and the increasingly influential Christian right while also trying to handle the turnover of staff that results when bruised egos cause one twenty-something writer after another to quit in a huff.

Most poignantly, perhaps, “Futile” shows the effects of personal and cultural changes over time and the inevitable decline that follows sudden success, both generically and in ways specific to the 1970s. “Nixon’s departure would leave an enormous void,” Karp says of the effect Watergate had on the Lampoon. “He’d been a treasure, bringing with him a group of would-be civil servants and hangers-on who were unparalleled in their capacity to be parodied. And now they were gone.” By the mid 1970s, so were co-founder Henry Beard and the brilliant but volatile Michael O’Donoghue, who left to become the first head writer of Saturday Night Live. Kenney continued to drift in and out; Karp describes his relationship with the magazine at this point as “emeritus.” By the late 1970s, the Lampoon staff was “not capable of operating at the same level…[r]ather than appearing out of nowhere, they had been influenced by National Lampoon. They were National Lampoon writers, not individual voices that came to the Lampoon.”

Looking through the lens of hindsight, Karp accepts that the Lampoon’s decline was inevitable. The brand would flourish financially in the 1980s, thanks mainly to a series of successful movies, but the magazine’s days as the bad boy of American humor were long gone, a casualty both of changing times and a staff of erstwhile smart-asses who eventually became part of the establishment they hated. As staff writer and editor P.J. O’Rourke said, “We were standing in the flower garden with our noses pressed up against the window, making faces at the grown-ups eating inside. There would come a time for most of us when it would be time to go into the house, take our places and have faces made at us in return.”

Did Doug Kenney’s inability to grow up kill him? For much of the book, Kenney is portrayed as a manchild, “burdened by a desire to belong and a mistrust of the very same.” He craves success, in particular to please his straight-laced family, but doesn’t seem to know how to handle it (the scene in “Caddyshack” where Cindy Morgan discovers a large, uncashed check in Chevy Chase’s room was inspired by an incident with Kenney). Of Kenney’s move to Hollywood, Karp writes, “Though he was now the financial, commercial and artistic success he had spoken of becoming…when he was penniless and living off handouts, Doug Kenney was unfulfilled…he was a success and at the center of a hip, smart, funny social circle that adored him…yet it meant nothing. Somehow it was ill-gotten and illegitimate.”

Ultimately, Karp concludes that Kenney’s death was an “accident that was no accident.” Kenney “knew himself too well, and as a result knew himself not at all.” While those he left behind can only wonder what he might have accomplished had he lived longer, “A Futile and Stupid Gesture” is a celebration of Doug Kenney’s brief time on earth and its influence that can still be felt.

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April 17, 2018

#139) Of obstacles and pussy: remembering R. Lee Ermey

“That was great! But what’s a reacharound?”

“Use your imagination, Stanley.”

One of the memorable scenes in the latter part of Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket” features a helicopter ride in which a machine gunner sits by the door, mowing down everything in sight. “How can you shoot women and children?” he is asked.

“Easy. You just don’t lead ’em so much.”

Often forgotten is the fact that the actor playing the door gunner, Tim Colceri, was originally going to portray the gunnery sergeant who whips the recruits into shape in the first part of the movie. The actors playing the recruits were coached by the film’s technical advisor, a Vietnam veteran from Kansas named Ronald Lee Ermey. As Kubrick watched Ermey work with the recruits, he realized that he might be a better choice to play the drill sergeant. While Colceri was understandably upset with the decision, it would be hard for anyone who has seen “Full Metal Jacket” to imagine anyone except Ermey in the role. For the next three decades, Ermey would enjoy a successful film and television career, usually playing roles directly or loosely inspired by his performance as Gunnery Sgt. Hartman.

For those who don’t mind a little strong language, Ermey’s diatribe in the first part of “Full Metal Jacket” is a quotable treasure trove. Gems such as “I do not look down on niggers, kikes, wops or greasers; here you are all equally worthless”, “You will give your rifle a girl’s name because this is the only pussy you people are going to get”, “You climb obstacles like old people fuck” and “I will gouge out your eyeballs and skull-fuck you” are just a few of the quotes from Ermey (many of which were improvised) over which fans of the film have bonded. While “The Wolf of Wall Street”, “Glengarry Glen Ross” and “Scarface” may surpass “FMJ” in pure volume of profanity, they don’t come close to matching Ermey’s innovative usage.

My favorite is comparatively tame. Ermey berates the out-of-shape, inept “Private Pyle” as he struggles to climb an obstacle during basic training. “I’ll bet you if there was some pussy up there on top of that obstacle, you could get up there,” he hypothesizes. In the years since I first saw the movie, that’s the line that has resonated with me for the longest. When I find myself not motivated to take on a challenge or giving up when the going gets tough, the answer is simple: there’s no pussy on top of the obstacle. When there’s pussy on top of an obstacle, you always find a way up.

And so I say to you Mr. Gunny, thank you for serving our country, for the laughs and the motivation. May Heaven be full of Tiffany cufflinks and heads so sanitary and squared away that the Virgin Mary herself would be proud to go there and take a dump. May Heaven be a place where reacharounds are always given. And may Heaven be a place where there is always, without exception, pussy on top of the obstacle.

 

February 5, 2018

#138) The Patriots dynasty will be missed

Call it the sour grapes of a disappointed Boston sports fan but on this day after our loss to the Eagles in Super Bowl LII, I say to you: someday, America will miss the New England Patriots of the Tom Brady/Bill Belichick era.

Every sport needs a villain. Tom Dorsa of Baseball Essentials writes, “[A villian] draws you into games that mean little or nothing to you.” As author Vassilis Dalakas points out in this article, “[R]esearch has shown that [villains]…make us more likely to watch – and bask in the joy of seeing them fail.”

While early indications suggest that this year’s Super Bowl numbers were lower than last year’s, it doesn’t seem like a stretch to speculate that the numbers would have been equally low, or not lower, had the Patriots not been in the game. Yes, Patriots Fatigue is real, but  would it actually have been any fun to see the Eagles beat the Jacksonville Jaguars? (Or for that matter, the Pittsburgh Steelers? The storyline of an all Pennsylvania Super Bowl notwithstanding, “Roethlisberger is a rapist” no longer seems to galvanize haters the way “Patriots are cheaters” does.)

The lower numbers may also have more to do with the NFL’s general struggles of late than with Patriots Fatigue. While the short answer to lower viewership this past season was national anthem protests, the longer answer includes the disappointing seasons of the Oakland Raiders and Dallas Cowboys – two teams that are widely hated outside their home market and have often played the role of the villain in decades past but fell short of expected returns to former glory while Brady led his charges back to the Super Bowl for a record eighth time. Granted, the NFL has survived one embarrassment after another, but when will its luck run out? When Brady retires there will be one fewer reason to watch and how many reasons to watch can the NFL afford to lose?

It could also be, even outside of New England, that positive things about the Brady/Belichick era will be missed. Sports commentator Colin Cowherd says, “I’m a fan of the Patriots because I’m a fan of business…When you watch a Patriots game, there is a trust between the fans and the team. They’ll get it right.” One of Fox Sports’ “12 reasons why there will never be another NFL dynasty like the Patriots” is: “Many teams suffer from the disease of more (success gets to people’s heads, they want more money, more credit, more passes thrown their way, whatever). The Patriots have managed to take that success and channel it ruthlessly into more success.”

All good (at least for Patriots fans) things must come to an end and even the most die hard citizens of Patriots Nation must admit that yesterday felt like the end of an era. Tomorrow’s college stars might be willing to play for a cold-weather team and they might be willing to play for a no-nonsense organization, but they probably won’t want to play for a cold weather, no-nonsense organization. In twenty years, the Patriots will be the Notre Dame of the NFL: a team revered for its past, not its present; a team that will put together a great season every now and then that gets pundits waxing nostalgic about past glory. What it won’t be seen as is a villain and thanks to increasing parity in the NFL, no team will have taken its place. With future generations less likely to let their kids play the game due to safety concerns and with exponentially increasing entertainment options for tomorrow’s viewers, lack of a compelling villain will hurt the NFL. Say what you will about spying and deflated footballs: the best that a post-Brady/Belichick NFL can hope for is survival.

 

January 16, 2018

#137) Remembering Joe Frank

In the spring of 1992, I was interning at WBUR-FM, Boston’s National Public Radio affiliate. As I was sorting through the mail, I came across one letter from a listener who was complaining about a program the station carried called “Joe Frank: Work In Progress.” “Joe Frank should be spouting his mentally disturbing drivel to a psychiatrist, not to listeners who pay to support the station,” the listener wrote. I asked my supervisor if he knew anything about Joe Frank. “Joe Frank,” he said, “is a nut.”

Fancying myself as a sort of nut in my own right, I made a point of staying up late – WBUR broadcast “Work in progress” from midnight to 1 am on Monday mornings, begging the question of why the letter writer was up so late – and tuned in. The first couple of shows didn’t make much of an impression on me so I went about my business, which back then consisted mainly of telling everyone why they should be listening to Dave Brubeck instead of Nirvana and wondering why playing jazz fusion on my portable Kawai keyboard wasn’t getting me laid.

One night I was lying awake pondering the above mentioned when I realized that Joe Frank’s program was on the air. I caught the tail end of a show called “Sleep” which intrigued me enough to come back the following week. This time, I heard a monologue from a street lunatic who threatened to kill a little girl and make sandwiches out of her. I laughed so hard it’s a wonder I didn’t wake my parents. I had seen my destiny and its name was Joe Frank.

The man whose radio programs spoke of street loonies eating girls, who once put himself on trial for misogyny, who told of a plane ride where the evening movie was a Walt Disney children’s adventure set in Berlin in 1936, who once did an entire hour-long monologue about why he had no show prepared and who set a story in a dystopian city where people line up to commit suicide by jumping into a vat of acid died yesterday at age 79 following a lengthy illness.

Joe Frank was born Joseph Langermann in Strasbourg, France in 1938. His family fled to the U.S. the following year and he grew up in New York. His radio career began in the 1970s on WBAI in New York where his proteges included a young Ira Glass. The future host of “This American Life” said of Joe Frank, “Before I saw Joe put together a show, I had never thought about radio as a place where you could tell a certain kind of story.” In the 1980s he moved to California, where he became a mainstay on KCRW in Santa Monica.

After getting hooked on Joe Frank, his voice and those of his collaborators became the soundtrack to the summer between my junior and senior years of high school. I would tape the shows and play them for anyone who would listen. I had been grappling with whether to make music or writing my career and for a good while, Joe Frank swung the needle toward writing. Much of what I wrote was hopelessly derivative, pale imitations of the master, but in my blissful ignorance I was convinced I was the new, cutting edge voice from the mean streets of Brookline, MA, going so far as to call myself Brookline High’s best kept secret. When, in one of his programs, I heard Joe decry “people who send me their Joe Frank style monologues with hopes that I might read them on the air” I enthusiastically refused to get the hint. (I soon checked myself and abstained from sending him anything, but I did submit some stories to magazines, surely providing the editors with unintentional laughter.)

Then, as many summer romances do, this one came to an end. September brought the tragic news that Joe Frank’s “Work in Progress” was going to be discontinued. The show that aired on the last day was part one of a three part program, giving me hope for a few more weeks, but it proved to be an Indian summer. Joe Frank was no longer on WBUR. The World Wide Web was still a few years from ubiquity and the people who invented I Heart Radio were likely prepubescent. In late 1992 the only cure for my Joe fix was to purchase cassettes from KCRW with my limited budget. I bought a few, cherishing them and the programs I’d taped like letters from a departed lover.

The following spring, the needle of my professional goals began its permanent swing back toward music. I started college, began my first long term relationships, moved from one job to another and even had a degree of success with some of my bands. Joe Frank gradually began to fade, although I still revisited those old cassettes from time to time. My new life experiences gave me appreciation for details in Frank’s programs that I missed the first time around, such as a dream sequence in which the character finds himself strapped to two giant gourds, one on each side of his body, and then finds his entire body stiffening and having an acrid white liquid shoot out of his mouth. Once, perusing the personals in the Boston Phoenix (Craigslist before there was Craigslist) I came across one that read, “Help me unravel this knot and find my way back to the place where I first saw you, where all this started, this thirst.” Most would-be suitors probably would have dismissed it as the rantings of a lonely housewife but I frantically called her, convinced that my recognition of this Joe Frank monologue from his program “The Dictator” would be my golden ticket. (In keeping with my luck with women, she turned out to be 17 years older than me, and this was before cougars became a thing.)

Seven years after the Summer of Joe, I packed my bags for Los Angeles. My fascination with California, in particular my craving of the hard-partying L.A. lifestyle – temptation of the highest order for a nerd trapped in cold, proper Boston – predated my interest in Joe Frank, but his presence in Santa Monica was more proof that the Golden State was the promised land. That the L.A. of Joe Frank’s programs was one of wildfires, mudslides and characters by turns lost in the urban sprawl and burned out from one excessive party after another (not far from the truth, as I would learn) didn’t deter me; at least they didn’t have to shovel 40 stairs every time it snowed.

In California, I checked in with Joe Frank every so often. Thanks to Youtube, streaming and social media, I had unlimited access to him, although like many things that were once unattainable that become attainable, the novelty had worn off. I did enjoy bragging that, thanks to Joe Frank, I knew what KCRW was long before it became cool, but that fact didn’t play as impressively as I hoped it would.

I never became the mad genius I was convinced Joe Frank would inspire me to be, but I am still glad that I happened to tune in to his show that night and that WBUR didn’t give into the demands of the irate letter writer. He may be gone now but his dark humor will continue to be a touchstone for those who have shared in the experience.

January 2, 2018

#136) Language court 2018: the D-Theory verdicts on the LSSU 43rd annual list of banished words

Let me ask you this: was 2017 an impactful year or was it a big nothingburger? Hopefully you didn’t spill your covfefe while you were drilling down the tons of fake news stories over the hot water heater at the office – if so, you might have quickly learned about your company’s offboarding process. Let that sink in.

Truthfully, I was a little perplexed and disappointed by this year’s edition of Lake Superior State University’s Banished Words List. Did over use of “pre-owned” really come to that much of a head in 2017? How is it more annoying than the words and phrases that didn’t make the list? Am I really the only one who has to hold back violent impulses when confronted by the terms “Fri-yay”, “Sunday Funday”, “Adulting” and “Fam Bam?”

Oh well, I guess lists are meant to be debated, so debate we will. Because of the tepidity of this year’s list – several items did get me nodding my head but still fell short of making me say, “Thank GOD it’s not just me!” – a new level has been introduced: guilty parties will be divided into misdemeanors (annoying but not as severe) and felonies.

Court is in session. Time to unpack this list!

UNPACK

Charges: “Misused word for analyze, consider, assess.”

Verdict: Guilty (misdemeanor). The charges are valid but this word will soon run its course and will be as obscure to future generations as “real gone” is to millennials.

TONS

Charges: Refers to an exaggerated quantity…”Lots” would surely suffice

Verdict: Not guilty. Maybe I’m just hopelessly out of touch but I didn’t feel over-saturated by the word “tons” in 2017. Is “Lots” really that much more eloquent?

DISH

Charges: Let’s go back to “talk about” and leave the dishes in the cupboard.

Verdict: Not guilty.

PRE-OWNED

Charges: “What’s so disgraceful about owning a new car now and then?”

Verdict: Not guilty. Like “Tons”, this one has been around and at the same level for a while; sure, it could be retired but it’s harmless enough.

ONBOARDING/OFFBOARDING

Charges: Being a creature from the Human Resources lagoon.

Verdict: Guilty (misdemeanor). If Mike Judge decided to remake “Office Space” he would surely have some fun with this one – but like “Unpack” it will probably just soon fade into obscurity – especially as the gig economy takes over.

NOTHINGBURGER

Charges: Says nothing that “nothing” doesn’t already.

Verdict: Guilty (misdemeanor).

LET THAT SINK IN

Charges: “One could say, shocking, profound or important.”

Verdict: Not guilty. Yes, it’s a little preachy and ponderous, but there tons of far more preachy and ponderous things out there than this nothingburger.

LET ME ASK YOU THIS

Charges: “Just ask the question already.”

Verdict: Not guilty. These days people are jumping to conclusions without asking enough questions. Questions are important – even if they are wordier than necessary.

IMPACTFUL

Charges: A frivolous word groping for something “effective” or “influential.”

Verdict: Guilty (misdemeanor). When people realize they will no longer sound hip by using this word, it will fade.

COVFEFE

Charges: Self-explanatory.

Verdict: Guilty (felony). If you reward the two year old with a poopy diaper when he has a temper tantrum, you can’t get upset when it happens again.

DRILL DOWN

Charges: “Instead of expanding on a statement, we drill down on it.”

Verdict: Not guilty.

FAKE NEWS

Charges: “Fake news” is any story you disagree with.

Verdict: Guilty (felony).

HOT WATER HEATER

Charges: “Hot water does not need to be heated.”

Verdict: Not guilty; let’s stay away from this slippery slope. Do we want the court docket clogged every time someone says “ATM Machine” and “PIN Number?”

GIG ECONOMY

Charges: “Gigs are for musicians and stand up comedians.”

Verdict: Guilty (misdemeanor). The court hopes that a slap on the wrist will prevent this (so far) minor offender from becoming gratuitously overused and making anyone old enough to remember the first Bush presidency embarrass themselves by misusing it.

What say you?

January 2, 2018

#135) No, Steve Harvey doesn’t hate white people

Maybe you’re right, @bvega02: if a white person said it, all hell probably would break loose. Maybe you’re right. Let’s move on.

In response to a performance of “Auld Lang Syne” by three young African American boys on New Years Eve in New York, Fox host Steve Harvey said that they had sung “the song better than all the white people I know.” I was tipped off to this by a friend who posted an outraged rant on Facebook, upset not only with Harvey’s comments but also  that social media wasn’t collectively losing its mind over it.

To his point, when I googled Steve Harvey and New Years’ Eve (God forbid I actually start off 2018 by doing something productive) there was far more attention given to his outfit (which, I must say, he wore better than all the white people I know would have – and besides, give the guy a break – it’s cold in NYC) than to his comments about white people. That being said, maybe the fact that the Twitterverse is relatively quiet about this is a good thing.

Everyone – black, white, brown, beige, yellow, red, taupe, chartreuse – can do their race proud by having a sense of humor about it or at least by understanding context and not over-reacting to every tiny thing. Gray area is your friend. A buddy of mine says that he can tell how good a Mexican restaurant is by how many gardening trucks are in the parking lot. Some might be ready to fit him with a white hood for such a remark; I see it as a useful tip. As a Jew, I appreciate that there is a difference between “Why do Jews watch porn backward? So they can see the guy get his money back” and “What’s the difference between a Jew and a pizza? The pizza comes out of the oven.” (Though personally I find them both pretty funny). I’m here to tell you that on scale of backward porn to ovens, Harvey’s comments are closer to backward porn.

Yes, it’s fun to be right. Yes, it’s exciting to have your righteous indignation validated by algorithms that are coded to do just that. Let’s unclench that fist. Steve Harvey made an offhand comment that might not have been terribly funny but doesn’t require the Justine Sacco treatment. He handled his brush with infamy a few years back with humor; let’s give him some slack on this one. You will have plenty of other opportunities to be offended before 2018 is through.

And besides, those boys probably did sing it better than any white people Steve knows.

 

November 20, 2017

#134) How well do you know social media’s newest whipping boy? Take this quiz and find out!

“He deserves to be beaten up in a strip club parking lot, while Bukowski rolls by in a limo and does not notice.”

So went one of many comments about the poetry of 26-year old Collin Andrew Yost, “the most hated poet in Portland.” Since August, when a Twitter user went viral by shaming Yost (“this guy is a PUBLISHED author”) the poet has become a scapegoat for all things hipster. But is the backlash deserved?

To help answer that question, D-Theory presents this interactive quiz. In the spirit of  “Heavy Metal Lyric or Bible Verse” or “Florida, Not Florida” we ask you: are the following the words of the “laureate of American lowlife” Charles Bukowski or Collin Andrew Yost, the literary Rebecca Black of the PNW?

#1)

I am a broken

banjo

I am a telephone wire

strung up in

Toledo, Ohio

#2)

I remember when

I thought sleeping away

half of the day

was a waste of living.

Now I roll out of bed

at a quarter after one

glad I killed

some time

dying.

#3)

Poetry is decaying.

We have slaughtered it.

You are not poetry.

If more than four lines

Loses your attention

Then you are not deserving

Of these thoughts.

#4)

She gave me a lipstick diary

of all her past lovers and

I can’t seem to shake the taste

from my tongue.

#5)

we are always asked

to understand the other person’s

view point

no matter how

out-dated

foolish or

obnoxious.

#6)

the family stinks of Christ

and the American Stock Exchange.

#7)

She’s the pills you’re not supposed

to mix with alcohol.

I’d dodge a bullet for her.

#8)

Van Gogh cut off his ear

gave it to

a prostitute

who flung it away in

extreme

disgust.

Van, whores don’t want

ears

they want

money.

#9)

Our education system tells us

that we can all be

big-ass winners.

it hasn’t told us

about the gutters

or the suicides.

#10)

She plants lipstick stains on my skin like

C-4 ready to blow open my ribcage and

free my heart.

September 15, 2017

#133) Movie review: “mother!”

“mother!”, starring Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem and directed by Darren Aronofsky (“Black Swan”), opening in wide release today, is a horror film that is not a sequel, remake, reboot or origin story. That’s the good news. Whether or not there is bad news depends on the expectations of the viewer.

Lawrence and Bardem live in a Gothic mansion in the middle of nowhere. Lawrence, who is known to the viewer simply as “mother”, is renovating the place while Bardem’s character, “Him”, is a writer who is searching for inspiration in the peace and quiet of the countryside. Of course, in the horror canon, peace and quiet usually portend approaching peril and the early scenes of the film are filled with awkward silence. We are waiting for disaster, but when the couple receives a visitor who turns out to be a sickly doctor (Ed Harris) who mistakenly thought their house was a bed and breakfast, we think, surely this can’t be the villain, can he?

The plot thickens the next morning when the doctor’s wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) shows up. She is an overbearing harpy who makes Larry David look charming. But she’s too awkward and unlikable to be the villain – after all the scariest villains are the ones who know how to get in our good graces. So who, exactly, is the villain and who is the victim?

“mother!” is a battle between plot and style. The suspense is there: most of the information is withheld and the little pieces we get only beg more questions. We sense that not everything is right with the marriage but that feeling comes less from the few tense exchanges between them than it does from long, uncomfortable close-ups of Lawrence’s placid eyes and Bardem’s brooding face and from seemingly mundane dialogue that is mixed to sound as if it is echoing from far away.

Where the movie may lose some viewers however is when it becomes excessive. Yes, Aronofsky has set the stage for horror and he must deliver, but the supernatural elements seem more like an exercise, disconnected from the characters and their circumstances. One is left asking, “What’s the point?” No, not all horror films have to have a point, but by its climax, “mother!” has become more about showing off its own weird universe than providing thrills and chills or provoking thought. We could analyze possible interpretations – but we just don’t care enough.

Ultimately, “mother!” is like a buffet at a high end casino: it offers a variety of delicacies that will keep you engaged, but when you’re done it’s not very satisfying or memorable.

 

August 18, 2017

#132) Book review: “Getting Stoned with the Savages” by J. Maarten Troost

Having enjoyed “The Sex Lives of Cannibals” by J. Maarten Troost, when I found its sequel, “Getting Stoned with Savages” at a thrift store, I felt confident the book would be a good return on a one dollar investment, especially since I had a long plane trip coming up. Indeed, my investment was returned – but not by as much as I would have liked. Despite some good moments, like many sequels, “Savages” is basically a less potent rehashing of the original. Upon returning from my trip, still twenty pages from the end, having forgotten that I’d placed the book in a different pocket of my suitcase from where I usually store reading material, thought that I’d left it at the hotel. When I found it, I was mildly relieved, but certainly wouldn’t have been heartbroken about missing the last twenty pages.

At the beginning of “Savages” Troost and his wife Sylvia find themselves leaving the U.S. for the South Pacific. The Troost of “Savages”, however, is a different protagonist from that of “Cannibals”: while his Kiribati voyage was basically done on a whim, born from lack of direction, his trip to Vanuatu (changed from Fiji after the coup of 2000) was a conscious decision. After having lived in utter deprivation for two years in Kiribati, the Troosts found that despite its material comforts, life in Washington, D.C. was pretty much empty. “Savages” is at its best when it describes that disconnect in a way that is alternately poignant (“I couldn’t recall the last time I had really savored something–a book, a sunset, a fine meal. It was as if the sensory overload that is American life had somehow lead to a sensory deprivation, a gilded weariness, where everything is permitted and nothing is appreciated…”) and humorous (“While…finding a decomposing pig in your yard is not an ideal way to begin one’s day, I found that beginning each new day in Washington, as I did, with the shocking blast of an alarm clock buzzer, shortly to be followed by a frantic race to the office, where I would be greeted by…ninety-two new messages, of which thirty-seven were alleged to be urgent…well, I found that such a day stinks too.”)

Within twenty-four hours of the Troosts’ arrival on Vanuatu, their island nostalgia is shattered as a seemingly care-free drive along country roads turns into an ordeal when their jeep gets stuck in the mud. But while this would seem to be a set-up for a humorous “the grass isn’t always greener” story, “Savages” soon runs out of gas, sorely missing the fish out of water element that made “Cannibals” work. That’s not to say that life on Vanuatu (and later Fiji, where the Troosts move after the dust settles from the coup) is all fun and games – they endure a cyclone and lose their backyard to a mudslide – but Troost fails to give these incidents much bite. Yes, we are rooting for him, but only because he’s the Good Guy in some abstract sense, not because he’s particularly interesting or charismatic. While the Troost of “Cannibals” had to fight a daily battle for survival, the Troost of “Savages” has time to explore and delve into the history of the area, but fails to make it very interesting. Maybe I’m just one of the typical, non-intellectually-curious Americans that made Troost glad to leave the U.S. but this book didn’t make me want to frantically google information about the history of relations between India and Fiji or the impact that French colonists from New Caledonia have had on Vanuatu.

That’s not to say that “Savages” doesn’t have its flashes of brilliance. Troost’s send-up of the writing style of Captain James Cook rivals the funniest bits from “Cannibals” and when he plays the “silly Americans” card he at least does it with some humor: “Apparently, while we had been living abroad, someone had sent a missive to all Western women under the age of twenty-five: Put a large tattoo above your butt.” Other times he shrewdly backs out, allowing unintentional American humor to speak for itself: “So that works out to about $415 a square foot. We’re roughly at $375 where we live. I bought a house last month that I plan on flipping when it gets to $400.” Ironically, the book also delves a lot more into cannibalism than “Sex Lives of Cannibals”: Troost devotes a chapter to a trek to one of Vanuatu’s remote “kastom” (“custom” – where traditions remain unchanged over millennia) islands where the locals still “eat the man.”

Sadly, its bright spots notwithstanding, I took about twice as long to get through “Savages” as I did the 40-pages longer “Cannibals.” My copy’s fate will likely see it re-donated to a thrift store where someone else can decide if they want to make a one dollar investment.

 

 

July 13, 2017

#131) Movie review: “Don’t Think Twice”

“Don’t Think Twice” takes its name both from one of the rules of improv comedy and from the Bob Dylan song “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” Just as Dylan’s success caused feelings of both happiness and resentment among his contemporaries in the New York City folk music scene, “Don’t Think Twice” explores the changes of dynamics, both on and off the stage, when one of the members of a closely knit improv comedy troupe hits the big time.

The six members of “The Commune” – Miles (Mike Birbiglia, who also directed); Allison (Kate Micucci), Jack (Keegan-Michael Key), Jack’s girlfriend Sam (Gillian Jacobs), Bill (Chris Gethard) and Lindsay (Tami Sagher) plod through their jobs by day and perform improv comedy at night. Though the theater is on its last legs financially, it is still frequented by talent scouts from a Saturday Night Live-style show and each of the six actors hopes that they will be discovered. Miles was “inches away” from having made the show back in 2003 but is still stuck teaching beginning improv classes as he waits for his big break. Meanwhile Jack, an alumnus of one of Miles’ classes and who has a reputation as a showboat, launches into an Obama impersonation that is spot-on but doesn’t fit in with the sketch that is being performed. His grandstanding pays off, however, as he is given an audition. He gets the call from the studio heads right after Bill finds out his father has been in a near-fatal motorcycle accident. Upon returning to the rest of the group to find them quiet and somber after absorbing the news about Bill’s father, Jack tells them about his audition anyways.

Like “Funny People”, the Adam Sandler/Seth Rogen movie of a few years back, “Don’t Think Twice” is a drama about comedy, but it doesn’t try too hard for hand wringing or laughs. It avoids the “all comics are miserable off stage” trope, showing us that the members of the Commune are less than thrilled with their day jobs but not belaboring the point. The film also doesn’t rely on one-liners (though there are a few good ones), instead drawing on the subtle and not so subtle jabs among people who still like (maybe even love) each other but have been stuck together for too long. It comes off like an extended episode of a high quality TV show that feels complete without having to wrap everything up nice and neatly a la Hollywood. The story lines don’t resolve the way they’re “supposed” to.

“Don’t Think Twice” may be about comedians, but it also is about anyone who has chased a dream and about anyone who has been part of a tight social circle that gradually starts drifting apart. The film’s not perfect – side plots about Miles’ high school girlfriend showing up in New York and Allison’s interest in graphic novels don’t add to the story and indeed Allison’s character isn’t developed much beyond her thousand yard stare while watching Jack on TV – but “Don’t Think Twice” still shows how far believable performances and dialogue can stretch a $3 million budget.