Showing posts with label Pop Diary. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Pop Diary. Show all posts

Pop Diary: 'Don't Worry Darling'! 'The Sandman'! 'Moonage Daydream'!

What I've been digging lately.

"Don't Worry Darling." I have no idea what's up between Florence Pugh and Olivia Wilde backstage, but it's a pity that their personal drama has eclipsed the one they've put on screen. 

This is a well-crafted, provocative bit of suspense/sci-fi that kept me guessing about the circumstances of its characters and world they inhabit.

Alice (Pugh) and Jack Chambers (Harry Styles) live in a shiny, happy 1950s suburb where all the men drive immaculate classic cars to work each morning to labor at something called the Victory Project, while the gals stay home cleaning house, watching the well-behaved kids and preparing dinner. Everyone on the surface seems giddy. After all, most nights include fun dinner parties and lots of cocktails. But anytime there's a surface, you know there's bound to be something nasty underneath, no matter how hard you scrub. And that's the conclusion Alice comes to, as well. 

We've seen this sort of thing before in "The Stepford Wives" and "The Truman Show," but that doesn't mean it's not interesting and fun. You know going in that something's amiss, but just what, and how, is a diverting mystery. I found the production work, Wilde's direction and, especially, Pugh's performance entrancing, and I'm surprised by the overly harsh reviews the film has received. I'm definitely glad I decided to have a look.

"The Sandman." I'm slowly making my way through this Netflix adaptation of Neil Gaiman's dark fantasy and am impressed by how faithfully it hews to the original comics. 

Barring a few minor adjustments here and there to make it play better on TV, what you see on screen is pretty much what you saw in print. Much of the dialogue is even the same. 

That's refreshing, since it means that "Sandman" the TV series is damn good, just like "Sandman" the comic was. Tom Sturridge achieves the right blend of spookiness, mysteriousness and bemusement as Morpheus and Kirby Howell-Baptiste is exceptionally good as his fun kid sister, Death. Episode Six, "The Sound of Her Wings," in which we first see them interact, is a moving highlight from what I've seen so far. 

If you haven't read the comics, or haven't done so in a while, I recommend giving them a look before watching. I did and I think doing so likely added much to my enjoyment and appreciation of this adaptation.

"Moonage Daydream." Director Brett Morgen's documentary is a sonic, visual feast that overwhelms us in a good way with everything that's weird, wonderful and amazing about David Bowie and his artistry. 

No talking heads, just concert and interview clips of Ziggy S. and all his latter incarnations casting their spells as we rollercoaster along through all the cha- cha- changes along the way. Whether you knew it beforehand or not, you'll come away realizing that Bowie was something special. 

Pop Diary: Bad Sisters, Orson Welles, Don Perlin

What I'm digging these days...

"Bad Sisters."
This dark who-done-it, set in Ireland, is hilarious,  disturbing and thought provoking all at once. Developed by the brilliantly funny Sharon Horgan ("Catastrophe" and more), it focuses on four sisters scheming to kill the husband of a fifth. 

We know from the first episode that the vile misogynist John Paul is dead, but it's not clear exactly how he died. The show's action switches back-and-forth between the past and present. Flashbacks reveal the depths of John Paul's emotional abuse of not just his own wife, but of all the Garvey sisters. The present-day scenes, meanwhile, center on the clan's desperate efforts to cover up the facts of John Paul's apparent murder from  a zealous insurance adjuster who's eager not pay out on a life insurance policy. 

The more we see of John Paul's behavior, the more we learn about all the ways in which men can diminish and mistreat women. Our sympathy for the sisters grows, even as wince at some of their foiled, Wiley E. Coyote-like attempts to kill off the bad guy. How John Paul dies is as big a mystery as who killed him. The rapport between the five actresses playing the Garvey sisters is delightful, even as their behavior grows more dastardly. 

Apple TV+ is doling out new episodes weekly and each one instantly leaves you wanting more.

Orson Welles.
Our neighborhood cinema is in the midst of a Welles retrospective, featuring 35mm screenings of several of his films. So far, we've seen the funnier-than-I-remembered "The Magnificent Ambersons" (I recalled it as pretty, but somewhat slow) and the more-bonkers-than-I-remembered "The Lady from Shanghai" (I remembered it as grim, dark and perverse, but this time I was captivated by the over-the-top, near-camp performances by Everett Sloane and Glenn Anders, not to mention Welles' hilarious Irish brogue). Repeated viewings, particularly on the big screen, can reveal new layers even to familiar films, I guess. Next up: "A Touch of Evil."

. The most recent issue of Roy Thomas' comics history mag spotlights Bronze Age great Don Perlin, co-creator of Moon Knight and Werewolf By Night, both of which are having a bit of a moment on the small screen these days. The package includes lots of nice art and long interview with the artist. There's also a fun, photo-packed feature on Marvel's ill-fated Marvelmania fan club of the 1970s, which is most famous for not sending fans stuff they paid for.

What are you digging these days?

Pop Diary: Reviews of "Pam and Tommy," "Box of Pin-Ups" and "Ladhood"

Pam & Tommy is too long (Hulu is frustratingly dealing out the episodes a week at the time and there are still three out of eight left) but otherwise extremely well done. 

We all know the story of the stolen sex tape, yadda, yadda, and it's a big joke because its stars are/were so tacky and dumb and who cares about what happens to famous people anyway. Except that the show does make us care, particularly about Anderson, who is uncannily and sensitively played by an unrecognizable Lily James. 

The early episodes play as parody and let us laugh at her and heavy metal drummer Tommy Lee (also well played by Sebastain Stan) as they go through a whirlwind I-guess-you-could-call-it-a-courtship and spontaneously get married. They seem to love each other but you can tell from the get-go that it's probably not a great idea. And neither is leaving their honeymoon tape in a safe where it can be stolen by a construction worker, (Rand Gauthier played by a funny, understated Seth Rogan) that Tommy treats like shit. 

Viewing the tape at home, a shocked Rand naturally shows it to his pal in the porn industry "Uncle Miltie" a.k.a. Ron Swanson's sleazy brother played by the always welcome Nick Offerman. These two goofballs then make use of the nascent Internet to sell copies for a massive profit and rest is tawdry history, except for what we start to see in the later episodes, which chart the horrible humiliation of this caused for  Anderson, contibuting to a miscarriage and derailing what might've been a career that involved more than her looks. 

All of it could've likely been done in two hours, but it's a well-told story, nevertheless, with a lot to say not just about the inherent sexism in our society, but the dehumanizing impact of fame and the lack of accountability afforded by online anonymity.

Box of Pin-Ups: The British Sounds of 1965 is an excellent three-CD compilation from Cherry Red Records' Grapefruit imprint that's been getting a lot of play around our house lately. The selection focuses mainly on the fuzzy, hard sounds that emerged as Merseybeat started to fade. 

As you might imagine, the Kinks, Yardbirds, Small Faces and Pretty Things are all on hand, but so are a host of others, including the Beatstalkers, Frays and Baskervilles, all providing punchy, rocking tunes that slot in well alongside those by the better-known acts. Early tracks featuring the likes of Marc Bolan, Rod "The Mod" Stewart and Elton John also feature. 

Buying it all on the original 45s would cost a fortune, but this set — all in great sound (some of it in the original mono), plus a 48-page, picture-packed booklet  — will only set you back 30 bucks or so and is well worth it.  

"Ladhood" is a British comedy that manages to blend the hilarious "Derry Girls" with "The Wonder Years." Show creator Liam Williams stars and narrates as the action switches back and forth from the present day to his teen years in mid-90s Leeds.

Young Liam and his mates lead funny but fairly aimless lives smoking dope, listening to hip hop and never getting girls, while also being harassed by a pair of sometimes friendly/sometimes hostile bullies, Rupert and Tin Head (an autodidact whose monotone holding forth on pretty much everything is a riot). 

Liam is a bright kid, interested in shaping a creative life and getting the hell out of town, but he's also got anger issues. The frustration of his daily life leads to much bin kicking and other forms of destruction. And when we shift to the present day, we see that not much has changed. 

Grown Liam is still frustrated and still kicking garbage cans when he gets pissed off. His failure to get a handle on things leads to the destruction of his relationship and causes trouble with his friends. It's sad, yet funny, and all very deftly handled. I'm glad to learn that a third season is planned.

Pop Diary: Reviews of "All of the Marvels," The Beach Boys' "Feel Flows," and "Trying"

What I've been reading, hearing, watching.

"All of the Marvels," by Douglas Wolk
, is an entertaining read that both longtime fans of the comics and those coming in fresh thanks to the Marvel movies are likely to enjoy. 

The book is essentially a summary of observations made by Wolk after he read pretty much every ding-dong comic that Marvel has published since the dawn of the Silver Age up.

Wolk's doesn't summarize every Marvel comic or series, but instead focuses on themes he sees running throughout everything that Marvel has published. He takes the stance that, given the shared universe that most of the Marvel characters inhabit, Marvel is essentially publishing One Huge Story. And it's an epic that's ever-growing and ever-changing. That's an interesting take and one that may lead you to read Marvel's comics in a different way. 

Personally, I've always viewed Marvel in terms of individual characters and series that sometimes overlap. Cynically, I think that some of these interactions — especially the large crossover events that have been such a fixture in superhero comics since the late 1980s — are used mainly as a way to make readers buy more comic books, and that these crossovers often detract from, rather than supplement, the storylines going on in individual books. More charitably, I see the shared universe as pretty cool, and agree that seeing different characters meeting up and interacting can sometimes be a lot of fun. But as to it all being One Huge Story? I'm not totally on board with that concept. I think that Marvel and its creators are making it all up as they go along. Sometimes the results are mind-blowing and impressive, sometimes they are just a way to gouge readers who fear missing out. 

Wolk, on the other hand, is an event and crossover fan, and he uses them to demonstrate the Big Story that's being told, and how they frequently are used to profoundly alter and sometimes reinvent characters.  As a result, the book spends a lot more time on these crossovers and big events than on particular comics creators and definitive runs on different series — an approach that would've been more appealing to me. Wolk also spends a surprising number of pages spent talking about Squirrel Girl. 

All that said, it's a smartly written and entertaining book. Even if I don't view Marvel's comics the same way as Wolk does, or share in all of his opinions about which are best, I found his take interesting and thought provoking. And that's what good criticism is all about.

Feel Flows: The Sunflower and Surf's Up Sessions 1969-71
by the Beach Boys.
Years ago when I first got into the Beach Boys and made my way through all the great Brian Wilson-led albums, I was, of course, left wanting more. So it came as a relief to discover that the Beach Boys continued to do some pretty great stuff after Brian became less involved. 

Sunflower and Surf's Up — presented here along with a generous heap of outtakes, session recordings and live tracks  — are great, if not perfect, Beach Boys albums that show other members of the group coming to the fore, particularly Carl Wilson as a songwriter and producer and Dennis Wilson as a singer and writer. 

"This Whole World," "Add Some Music to Your Day," "Forever," "Cool, Cool Water," "Our Sweet Love," "Long Promised Road," "Disney Girls," and "Til I Die" are all among my favorite Beach Boys tunes, and it's great to hear them here, not just in remastered form, but in live recordings and session tapes that emphasize their intricate instrumental backings along with a capella versions that strip away the backing tracks to let us hear only the vocals. Sure, you do have to contend, also, with multiple versions of "Student Demonstration Time," the absolute worst Beach Boys song ever, but all the rest of it is a joy.

is a British comedy about a sweet, 30-something couple in London who long to have a child. When they are unable to do so on their own, they pursue adoption, which proves to be a funny, heartbreaking roller coaster ride for them and us alike. 

Esther Smith is fantastic as the lovable, goofy, Nikki, whose sense of empathy is in overdrive, and Rafe Spall is a perfect as her partner Jason, who's less certain of this whole parenting thing. There's great chemistry between the leads and they are surrounded by equally interesting and entertaining friends, all struggling/trying to work their way through marriage and parenthood in their own manner. 

In many ways — tone, setting, humor — the show struck me as a nicer, gentler "Catastrophe," another series I love. I'm looking forward to season three and watching what happens when these Nikki and Jason finally get to be parents and are confronted with a whole new set of trials.

Pop Diary: Reviews of "Asterix and the Griffin," "Hacks" and "Save Yourselves"

What I've been reading, watching.

Asterix and the Griffin
. As an Asterix fan since childhood, I always get excited about a new adventure featuring my favorite super-potioned Gauls. And new adventures is what we've been seeing pretty much annually since a new team was named to carry on the masterful, classic work of Goscinny and Uderzo. 

Those are big shoes, but new writer Jean-Yves Ferri and artist Didier Conrad have now been at it since 2011, and just turned in this, their fifth Asterix collaboration. Like the rest of the team's books, it's not bad, but it's also not classic Asterix (like I was saying, those shoes are pretty roomy...) 

Here, our heroes Asterix and his steadfast pal, Obelix, are enlisted by friends belonging to a village in the far eastern region of Barbaricum to retrieve one its members who's been kidnapped by a bunch of Romans because she supposedly knows the location of the mythical, and titular, griffin, which Caesar, being Caesar, wants to display in a circus. 

Never ones to turn down an opportunity to beat up some Romans and rescue a fair maiden, our heroes agree to the quest, which is complicated when the magic potion that provides Asterix with his superhuman strength can't be consumed because it's frozen. 

There are some funny moments - the frozen potion is a nice twist - and Conrad's art is spectacular, but overall, the laughs are lacking. Ferri likes sprinkling references to our current times into his Asterix tales and here it's a lot of joking references to Amazon and online life that aren't terribly up to date or that humorous, and will only become more dated as the years go by. That's sad when one considers that most of the original Asterix tales still hold up pretty well in terms of entertainment value. 

I hope - I guess eternally - that our Gauls' next adventure will be better.

NOTE: The translation of the book I read was published by Papercutz, which got the rights to publish Asterix in the U.S. a few years back, and I was troubled to see that they've changed the name of Asterix and Obelix's druid friend Getafix to Panoramix, as he's called in the French versions. I assume this is to avoid making a drug reference, but that's stupid. 

is a pretty much perfect limited series. In 10 episodes we learn to love two prickly people - Jean Smart as a veteran standup comic whose career is in stagnation and Hannah Einbinder is the smart, snarky young writer brought in to freshen up her act, and we're left with a perfect ending that leaves us wanting more. 

Smart's Deborah Vance isn't thrilled about having this whippersnapper thrust into her life, and resents the idea that the younger woman somehow knows funny more than she does, given her long and successful career, and Einbinder's Ava isn't crazy about having to spend time with an unhip has-been. From sparks come fire and, eventually, warmth. 

Witnessing first grudging appreciation and, ultimately, friendship develop between these two is hilarious, occasionally cringey, sometimes sad, and always engaging. 

Watching Smart's performance I kept thinking how remarkably talented, and incredibly overlooked, she is. This is a performer who really should've been making features over the past 30-plus years, not confined to TV. But TV these days is pretty great, and here she's found a part of the ages. Einbinder is one to watch, too. The daughter of SNL vet Laraine Newman, she's got great comic timing, but also real depth. 

Save Yourselves
is one of the most consistently funny comedy films I've seen in a while. Su (Sunita Mani) and Jack (John Reynolds) are hip what-we-used-to-call Yuppies who realize that phone addiction is killing their relationship and, possibly, their very souls. 

Sitting on the couch at home, they scroll mindlessly rather than communicating. When they do make eye contact it's only until the next notification dings. 

Eager to set things right, they head off to a friend's cabin in the woods with plans to completely tune out. Trouble is, that's when the aliens choose to attack. It takes them a bit to realize this, but they soon discover the entire world - including their cabin - has been invaded by surprisingly formed extraterrestrials. 

There's nothing like a crisis to bring people together, and this one does so delightfully thanks to a sharp script, originally executed plot and two extremely likable lead characters.

Pop Diary: "Don't Look Up," "Being the Ricardos," Alfredo Alcala!

What I've been watching, reading, etc.

"Don't Look Up" is an arch satire that hits its mark much in the same way as does the huge asteroid that's hurtling its way toward Earth in the film's plot. 

Despite scientific verification that, yes, a huge asteroid is on its way to wipe us all out, politicians refuse to engage in a solution because there's no percentage in it for them, the media just reports that "some people are saying this, but others say that," and the public just goes about its merry way buying stupid crap they don't need.

It's funny and too absurd to be true, right? But then you look around and realize that there are wildfires in January and we're STILL in a pandemic. Ouch.

Adam McKay and David Sirota's story isn't preachy because it doesn't preach. It simply, cooly holds up a funhouse mirror to our stupid faces. It's painful, but also very funny. The cast, which includes Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence as the scientists who discover we're all doomed and, especially, Meryl Streep as the President, is excellent. Stay for the mid-credits scene.

"Being the Ricardos" is also very smart, but is unfortunately too detached to capture one's emotions. 

It's canny for a biopic to zero in one a pivotal period of its subject's life, as this film does, rather than to cover it cradle to grave. The story about how Lucille Ball came under the scrutiny of the House Un-American Activities Committee at exactly the same time she discovers Desi Arnez is cheating on her and, oh yeah, she's pregnant and has a live TV show to perform, is compelling to be sure. 

But despite Nicole Kidman disappearing into the lead role and Javier Bardem banging Desi's bongos to beat the band, I never got that attached to the characters. Kidman looks and talks like Lucy, but there's no real warmth and surprisingly little humor in the scenes and dialogue she's been provided. Some laughs would've made this a much better picture. I would, however, love to see J.K. Simmons in "The William Frawley Story" as a sort of sequel.

Alter Ego #172 shines a much-deserved spotlight on the brilliant Filipino comics artist Alfredo Alcala, who penciled and/or inked reams of comics for Marvel and DC during the Bronze Age, when mainstream comics, according to me, were at their best. 

I remember gawking at Alcala's amazing embellishments to John Buscema's pencils on all of those long, black-and-white Conan stories during the early 80s and was tantalized anew seeing all the Alcala art packed into this issue. Long interviews with the artist's sons, plus lots of family photos, give us a decent biography. 

Apart from the art, which is a triumph, Alcala's life wasn't easy. Moving to the States when the Phillipines were under the control of the Marcos regime meant that he couldn't return home. As a result, he didn't see the family he left behind for many years, But, even though some of the details are sad, it was nice to learn more about this remarkable creator, whose work was a big part of my comics-reading youth. Order a copy here.

Pop Diary: "Pen15" and "The Electrical Life of Louis Wain"

What I've been watching, lately

Pen15. I'm sorry to see this comic cringefest go, but, on the other hand, its two short seasons were absolutely perfect. 

Thirty-something co-creators and actresses Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle masterfully captured the awkward misery of junior high and, somehow, managed to be completely believable playing middle schoolers.  It shouldn't have worked, but did. 

Playing characters who share their real-life first names, the duo reminded us of the sometimes jarring confusion of moving from childhood into young adulthood. Maya and Anna are making the transition a little more slowly than most of their peers, which makes things even more challenging. Body changes, sexual feelings, shifting social orders and norms - they bumble their way through it all. It's all very real, very funny and very sad. 

They could've gone on mining this territory for a few more seasons to come, but there's also a lot said to quitting while you're on top. I see this show becoming a beloved cult classic, much like "Freaks and Geeks," another show that ended in its prime.

Electrical Life of Louis Wain. The trailers are completely misleading for this Benedict Cumberbatch-starring, based-on-a-true-story film about an eccentric 19th Century artist who specialized in surrealistic depictions of cats. 

We went in expecting something offbeat and zany and left bored and depressed. In short: Wain's wife, played by the excellent Claire Foy of "The Crown" fame, dies far too young and Wain goes slowly off the rails with grief, although his weird art is ultimately held in high esteem. There's nothing wrong with a sad story, but this one seems pretty pointless, there's just not enough story to the story to make it effective. A big letdown, considering the power of the cast.

Pop Diary: "Succession" and "The Beatles: Get Back"

What I'm watching, drinking...

The Beatles: Get Back. For civilians, maybe nine hours of the Fab Four getting their act together for a concert/TV special/album (they weren't quite sure which) in the course of less than a month might be a slog. I wouldn't know. I don't understand how anyone can be anything less than obsessed with the Beatles. After finishing, I'm eager to watch the whole works again.

Peter Jackson and team have managed to take the dim, grainy footage initially shot for the "Let it Be" film and bring it vividly to life. But most of what he's done is add context. Having all of those hours to play with helps. Whereas before, the "Let it Be" film, subsequent interviews with the Beatles, and a number of books have led us to believe the band was on the verge of break-up at this time, they weren't quite on the ledge. Yes, there were arguments and some tension (George quits the band for a couple of days), but there's also a lot of joking, smiles and genuinely enthusiastic collaboration.

I was among the skeptics thinking that Jackson was going to whitewash things (the film was authorized by the Beatles' camp, after all), but I don't think that's the case. He just present the footage, including either end of the snippet of Paul and George arguing that was such a high/low light of "Let it Be." Seeing the full thing makes you feel entirely different about it.

I also was surprised at home participatory John Lennon was in the sessions, given how much we've heard about him not wanting to be there, and his being under the influence of heroin at the time. Bar one day of the sessions where it's been fairly well substantiated that he had used the substance and he certainly appears strung out, for the rest of the sessions he's very much engaged. My take is that the various accounts of the sessions, including those provided by Lennon himself, greatly exaggerated how tense they were and how disinterested he was. The John we see in most of this film is funny, patient, communicative and creative.

There are tons of highlights, especially after the sessions move from the cavernous Twickenham Studios to the comparatively tiny basement in the Beatles' London Apple Corps headquarters. Billy Preston shows up, giving the group a musical kick in the pants and there's also an entertaining visit by Paul McCartney's soon-to-be stepdaughter, age 6 at the time, during which she plays drums with Ringo and imitates Yoko Ono's screaming vocal style. It's all a blast, and by the time they venture up to the roof to play a few of the songs live, you are sharing almost fully in the Beatles' sense or triumph.

Succession. I guess my wife and I are among the throngs of people arriving late to the party to watch this show. We're mid-way through season two, I think, and still pretty darned entertained by all the family intrigue. Who knew how hard it was to be filthy rich? Lots of problems I guess I'll never have. There were a couple of eps early in the second season that stretched credulity a bit (I'm still not sure why the Roy family goes EVERYWHERE and does EVERYTHING together, but it does explain why they all hate each other), but it seems to mostly back on track now. 

The highlights for me are Kieran Culkin as sick puppy brother Roman, who I'd pretty much watch reading the phone book as he laces obscenities and insults through all the names and numbers, and Nicholas Braun as is-he-dumb-or-not Cousin Greg, one of my favorite fictional people ever. The rest of the cast is pretty damned good, too. We'll see how things progress (no spoilers!)

What I'm drinking:

Pop Diary: "Red Notice," "White Lotus," "Velvet Underground" and more!

Watching so much stuff lately...

"Red Notice." Big, dumb, fun that totally hit the spot at the end of a gray, chilly day. This is pure escapism - a funny heist flick set that trots Bond-like around the globe. You can see the twists coming from a mile away, but the charming cast - Gal Gadot, Ryan Reynolds and Dwayne Johnson - save it, as does the witty dialogue, which occasionally hammers against the third wall, as when Reynolds calls out "look for the box labeled MacGuffin" when he and Johnson search a crypt for bejeweled egg, around which the plot revolves.

"The Velvet Underground." Todd Haynes' documentary on the 1960s' most neglected/loved band is a gem and, somewhat surprisingly for a band with an output and a history so dark, has real heart. Yes, the Velvets sang about, and struggled with, heroin and members Lou Reed and Nico were plagued not just by this drug, but by other problems besides.  But the film doesn't condemn or glorify any of that. Instead, it celebrates art, and the risks and alienation it entails. 

The reason why (as Brian Eno [or somebody]) once famously said, everyone who heard the Velvets started a band, and why indy bands from the 80s through carried/carry their influence, is because the group never compromised or tried to fit in. Their lyrics told the truth in plain, gritty language and were matched by music that wasn't always pretty ("Sister Ray") except it sometimes was ("Sunday Morning," "Pale Blue Eyes").  The prize for that sacrifice is a handful of albums that still sound fresh, and still inspire, today.

The interviews here with surviving members John Cale and Mo Tucker, Reed's sister, and superfan Jonathan Richman (himself an uncompromising original), plus some great period footage, remind and instruct us to appreciate and listen, and listen again.

"The Many Saints of Newark." Sort of unbelievably, given how much I enjoyed "The Sopranos," this prequel film was a "meh." Putting the central focus on anyone but young Tony (uncannily portrayed by James Gandolfini's son, Michael) was a big mistake. It's Tony's troubled conscience that made the series not-just-another mob story. But, I'm afraid, that's what this is: another look at the twisted, but somehow admirable, codes observed by crime families and what happens when, predictably, people break them. I've seen mention of a potential prequel series, which I'm sorta hoping happens, providing that Tony isn't made a side character, as he essentially is in this film.

"White Lotus." This social satire, a mini-series on HBO Max, is funny and brilliant. A Hawaiian resort serves as a sort of "Fantasy Island" for the rich and dysfunctional. The visitors' "problems" are contrasted to those experienced by the resort staff in a sort of "Upstairs, Downstairs" and "Downton"-ish way, but with way more cussing, sex, drug use and shock male nudity. And that's just the first episode. If you're like me, you'll be watching eps 2 through 6 soon after and be left hankering for more. Murray Bartlett delivers a standout performance as the likable, and likably devious, resort host Armond, complete with Basil Fawlty vibes and mustache.

Pop Diary: Jennifer's Body, Lord Huron, Beatles Get Back

What I'm watching, hearing, reading, drinking, etc.

"Jennifer's Body" (2009). This is a cult movie, I guess. Or at least I've seen it presented as one. Once you get to be a certain age, there are only old cult movies and the idea that a later generation might have landed upon a new cult movie seems weird.

At any rate... I never saw this when it came out (and I understand there's now a TV series based on it), because I'm of a certain age. But we did watch it last weekend, and it's pretty fun. It eviscerates (sometimes literally) high school culture in a way that "Heathers" (now there's a cult movie) did and has some witty dialogue and use of invented slang that reminded me of (cult reference ahead!) "Buffy." The script is by Diablo Cody, of "Juno" fame.

It's a good Halloween watch, more funny than scary and only slightly gory. Megan Fox is good and relatively ominous in the title role and Amanda Seyfried, as Jennifer's plainer/saner friend, is always great. Also nice to see J.K. Simmons as a high school teacher with fun hair. We're not sure why Amy Sedaris was aboard, though, as she was given nothing funny to say or do.

Lord Huron - Long LostSome albums are collections of songs. Others - like this one - are gorgeous sound worlds. 

Lord Huron isn't a guy, but a Los Angeles-based band with, now, four albums under its belt. The less I know about the group, though, the better, because the sonic environment it creates is full of mystery. 

There are soaring melodies, rich arrangements, reverbed guitar twang aplenty, and lovely vocals that put me in mind of Jim James of My Morning Jacket. The tunes range from Roy Orbison-ish balladry to elements of classic country and folk. These are melodic, well-crafted tunes that sound like they've been around forever, but are brand new. 

There are some snippets between songs that I don't really understand or mind, and a 14-minute closing tracks that sounds like the soundtrack to a David Lynch film. Not sure I understand why, but it's ok, in that you can switch it off early if you like, although there's a liner note encouraging you to listen to the LP front to back. That something I'll, mostly, do many times, I think.

"The Beatles: Get Back" (book). This is a photo-packed companion/teaser to Peter Jackson's upcoming documentary series on Disney+, and is required reading for all serious Fabs fans, especially those intrigued about the band's late career and break-up. 

The whole book, minus a too-long introduction, is made up of transcripts from the Nagra sound tapes made during the filming of "Let it Be," and anyone who's slogged through the many bootlegs of those sessions will recognize bits and pieces of Beatle talk, including arguments, George's temporarily walking out, and frank discussions about possibly breaking up. 

It's nice to have all of this presented in print, since some of the tapes are very hard to hear. And reading through them provides added context. We see that John wasn't as disengaged from the project as he's been made out to be, for one thing. In fact, in a few spots, he seems more upbeat about the project and its progress than Paul, its instigator. It's probably more fun to read ahead of Jackson's film instead of behind it, as it will likely get you excited to see it all play out on screen. Can't wait!


Pop Diary: The Specials - Protest Songs, The Graduate, more!

What I've been hearing, watching, drinking, etc.

The Specials - Protest Songs 1924-2012. The remnants of the Specials (we're down to Terry, Lynval and Horace, now, it appears) can still stir up some spiky sounds of dissent, and do so here on tunes by others, some dating back more than a century. Interestingly, there's nary a skanking beat heard on any of the tunes, but they are all, even so, delivered with energy, imagination and passion. 

Terry Hall is lead vocalist on nearly all the selections, launching the LP with the Staple Singers' "Freedom Highway," and then dropping his voice down low for Leonard Cohen's sardonic "Everybody Knows." He's especially great with his deadpan delivery of Chip Taylor's "Fuck all the Perfect People," demonstrating that protest can be personal, as well as political. 

Guest vocalist Hannah Hu is featured on Talking Heads' haunting "Listening Wind," while Lynval Hall sings over stripped down versions of Big Bill Broonzy's "Black, Brown and White" and Bob Marley's "Get Up, Stand Up." There are also two wickedly funny and true tunes penned by Malvina Reynolds (famous for "Little Boxes") and, perhaps most unexpectedly of all, a great cover of Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention's "Trouble Everyday." Who could've predicted something like that back in the Specials' early 80s prime? 

As latter day albums go, this one is worth a go.

The Graduate. It's been a long time since I've seen this one and it holds it up. Our high school-age daughter watched along with us and liked it, too, so I know it's not just me. Part of the reason is likely Dustin Hoffman's great performance. From today's vantage point, he may've been anticipating the Millenials moreso than lampooning the Baby Boomers, with his portrayal of an aimless, dejected recently graduated undergrad. At least his folks had a swimming pool to laze around in, not just a basement and video games.

Anne Bancroft is great, of course, as the iconic Mrs. Robinson and we enjoyed William Daniels' brief turn as Dustin's dad, having enjoyed his performances recently as we continue marathoning our way through "St. Elsewhere." But the performance I enjoyed the most on this viewing was Hal Holbrook as MR. Robinson. He's amusingly drunken and detached, consistently pouring Dustin a Scotch when he's asked for Bourbon, and cluelessly encouraging the cad/grad to ask out his daughter, unaware that the youngster is sleeping with his wife. And, oh yeah, there are some great tunes on the soundtrack, too.

Pop Diary: Maid, Natalie Bergman, Meet Me at the Hop

What I'm watching, hearing, drinking, etc.

Maid (Netflix). Margaret Qualley's performance in the title role is the best thing about this limited seres about a young mother's desperate efforts to make a home for her daughter and a new life for herself after becoming trapped in an emotionally abusive relationship with her alcoholic boyfriend. Fleeing for safety, Alex has no money, no job, no home and no one to help her.

As Alex, Qualley is frustrated, angry and lost, but also smart, warm and surprisingly funny. I was ready for this show to be a long, grim slog that highlights all the ways in which our so-called safety net fails to help people while ensnaring them in bureaucracy that prevents them from moving forward. Yes, the show is all of that, but it's also richly human and humorous.

When Alex loses a job, or a place to live, or when the housing she does find is contaminated with black mold that so sickens her daughter that she can't go to daycare, meaning that Alex can't go to work to pay for housing (or daycare), we feel her distress, but also share in her appreciation of the absurdity of it all.  How much more f-ed up can things get? Quite a bit more, actually.

On top of her own challenges, Alex's mom (played a little too much by Qualley's real-life mom, Andie MacDowell) is mentally ill, off her meds and in need of care. Her estranged dad is no help, and the ex-boyfriend keeps turning up to make things that much more difficult. Portions of the series enter more conventional TV territory via some of these side dramas, but improve whenever Alex is the focus. 

Through the course of the show, we're thoroughly caught up in her many challenges, rooting for her success and more sympathetic to others going through challenges like this. It's an important show for that last reason, and a richly moving one thanks to Qualley's portrayal of Alex, who seems completely real. How could you not want her to succeed?

Natalie Bergman - Mercy.  Jesus rock on Jack White's Third Man label? I guess so. Bergman's LP is unashamedly spiritual and full of praise for the divinity she sees as having led her out of depression following the deaths of her dad and stepmother, who were killed by a drunk driver in 2019.

The songs exhort us to talk to the Lord in times of need, ask Jesus to shine His light on us, and shower Him with praise, and it all works fantastically as contemporary indie pop. Whether you enjoy it or not likely varies on how open you are to Bergman's message, but I like it quite a bit. It's melodic, different, thoughtful and it has heart. Test here:

Meet Me at the Hop (Bear Family). Another big bang for the buck from Germany's excellent reissue label. So much to like here: R&B from Lavern Baker and Hank Ballard, doo-wop from the Flamingos and the Three Pennis, teen rock from Fabian and Ricky Nelson, and instrumental grit from the Viscounts. It's like having a stack of nickels and access to a great jukebox. It'll send you, even if you were never there.


Pop Diary: Brandon Eder Ensemble, Bogie and Bacall, St. Elsewhere

What I'm hearing, watching, reading, drinking, etc.

Brandon Eder Ensemble - Cape Cod Cottage (Bandcamp). Eder's work was a Spotify epiphany for me early in lockdown and I've been keeping up with him ever since. 

His compositions are unique - pastel-hued with lovely melodies set to precise, evolving rhythms. The pieces sound almost electronic, yet are played by live musicians on mainly acoustic instruments. Some of it reminds me of Zappa's lightest and most melodic instrumental compositions, but there also are elements of 1970s jazz and soundtrack music. Some of it sounds like something you might've heard backing one of those short films of birds or plants they included in early episodes of "Sesame Street." 

This latest release comes along with a backstory: It's supposedly made up of lost compositions by Edward Blankman, "a retired dentist who wrote elegant, minimalist jazz in obscurity circa 1970." But all the titles carry Eder's name, indicating that he's just having a little fun pretending to be someone else. It does sound minimal and elegant, though. Have a listen:

Bogie and Bacall (HBO Max). We've been enjoying old movie nights the past couple of weeks. Must be fall. Tucked away in the TCM area on HBO Max (which is really hard to find), we landed on first "Key Largo" and, the following week, "To Have and to Have Not." My wife and I'd seen these movies before, of course, but it was the first time for our daughter, who enjoyed both. Both are briskly paced, well directed (by John Houston and Howard Hawks, respectively) and sharply scripted. The chemistry between the leads is undeniable and, in the famed "whistle" scene in "To Have and To Have Not," smoldering. If you're looking for something classic to watch on a dark, crisp evening, either of the would be a great choice. 

St. Elsewhere (Hulu). Meanwhile, my wife and I went down another wormhole, binging this 80s classic. I was a big fan during the original run, but she'd never watched it. 

So edgy and innovative at the time, the show now can seem clunky, cheesy and sometimes laughably bad. But when you keep the context in mind - how different from, and more realistic than - this show and "Hill Street Blues" were from other series at the time, it's hard not, still, be impressed. 

The series did take risks, and did a lot of things differently from shows that had come before, paving the way for things with "E.R.," "N.Y.P.D. Blue" and "Homicide" and, ultimately, series like "The Sopranos," "The Wire" and "Breaking Bad," but it also frequently relied conventional, predictable TV plots. It was a creature of it time, standing on familiar ground, while also breaking it.

Going back to the source as been fun. Although there's some stiff acting here and there, the excellent performances of Ed Flanders, William Daniels (stealing every scene he's in as the acerbic Dr. Craig), David Morse, Ed Begley, Jr., and a young Denzel Washington all hold up. And, damn!, Howie Mandel was great as Wayne Fiscus - a completely natural and very funny actor. It's a pity he hasn't done more series work, apart from bad game shows and talent contests.

We're late in season 2 right now, I think, and it's addictive. We've been watching an episode most nights. Next up "Hill Street Blues"!


Pop Diary: Reservation Dogs, Only Murders in the Building, Catenary Wires

What I'm hearing, reading, watching, drinking, etc.

Reservation Dogs (FX).
This is my household's new favorite show and right now it feels like the Best Show Ever.

Created by Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi, and reflecting the gentle absurdity and fundamental kindness of Waititi's best work ("Boy," "Jojo Rabbit"), it focuses on four Native teens living in Oklahoma and the adults around them.

Getting out and going to California is the sole aim of the teens. They want to get away from poverty, away from rival "gangs" (actually, just other kids as mixed as they are), and away from the sadness of a friend's suicide. But with each episode, we see how California is just a phony dream. It's not as human, real and funny as where they are right now. 

The mystical mixes with the mundane. A deer lady kills male chauvinists in their muscle cars. Kids steal a chip truck. A cowardly warriors materializes to offer advice. There's a paintball shootout and a creature in the woods with glowing eyes. A girl takes her drivers' test and winds up in a shootout accompanied by her former basketball coach. The world developed here and the characters that inhabit it are unlike any other we've seen on television and we want to see more and more. A beautiful, moving and hilarious show.

Only Murders in the Building (Hulu).
Another one we're loving watch unfold. As a kid who grew up in the 70s and early 80s, I'm wired to love anything that has Steve Martin in it. Even more so with Martin Short included. But my high school-age daughter, who knows third key cast member Selena Gomez better than either of the Martins, is liking it, too. And why not? It's light. It's funny. It's charming and a bit unpredictable (I won't spoil an early superstar guest appearance). 

Selena and the Martins are occupants of a luxurious but fading Manhattan apartment building called the Arconia who join forces to solve the murder of a fellow tenant. Each of the three is hooked on a true crime podcast, so they kinda know what they're doing, or so they think. Hi-jinks ensue, but they're witty more than silly, although there's some great physical comedy on display, too, proving that Steve still has his chops, as when he juggles a frozen cat that falls out of a neighbor's freezer. How can you not want to watch now?

The Catenary Wires - Birling Gap. I love the vocal blend of co-singers Amelia Fletcher and Rob Pursey in this band, which specializes in a sort of classic British pop that includes elements of folk and light psychedelia with a dollop of 80s indy here and there. Nothing particularly groundbreaking, but good, solid songs with strong melodies and lyrics. Highlights include Fletcher and Pursey's delightful traded vocals on "Mirrorball" (her: wispy and tuneful; him: baritone-ish and dark); the bouncy sing-song sunshine pop of "Always On My Mind," and the baroque pop of "Cantenbury Lanes." Anglophiles with a love of Beatles, Kinks, XTC, Stone Roses and such will dig this. Here's a sample:


Pop Diary: 1971; Everything's Gonna Be Okay; Alter Ego

What I'm watching, hearing, reading, etc.

1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything. The assemblage of period clips here and the absence of talking head interviews interrupting them all is the plus of this look-back at when, according to the series' thesis, the Sixties became the Seventies. The minus is the jumbled, unfocused narrative and detours—such as an inordinate amount of time spent recounting PBS' early reality TV series, "An American Family'—that take us away from the musicians and their works. Still, it's worth a look if just for the performance footage alone, featuring the Stones (both Sly and Rolling), the Laurel Canyon crew, Marvin, Aretha and much more. Also, while there's no denying David Bowie's impact in the U.K. during this period, I think the series overstates his overall influence; it took the U.S. several more years to catch on to him. He only cracked the upper reaches of the American charts in 1975. 

Everything's Gonna Be Okay. You'd think it'd be impossible for Australian comic to top "Please Like Me," but here he is back again with another tremendously profound, hilarious and human series, which places him as an older step-brother care for two teen step-sisters, one of whom is autistic, after his father dies. There's nothing cheesy for feel-good about the situations or interactions in this comedy. It's very real: People being snide, petty, funny and loving—generally all a once.

Alter Ego #170. The newest issue of Roy Thomas' fanzine takes a deep dive into the career and influence of Jack Kirby—territory generally left to TwoMorrows' sister mag, The Jack Kirby Collector. There's a look at Kirby's role in the creation and look of Iron Man, Kirby's contributions to 1960s fanzines, the artist's horror comics work and an examination of Stan Lee's comments about collaborating with Kirby. Thomas, who had a sometimes uneasy relationship with the King (he was parodied as Stan's sycophant in Kirby's Mister Miracle series, where Lee way portrayed as the self-aggrandizing con-man, Funky Flashman) discusses his mixed feelings candidly while coming to the same conclusion as most of us: Kirby was the best of the best and the Marvel Universe as we know it wouldn't have been here without him.

Pop Diary: WandaVision, Summer of Soul, Jack Kirby's Fourth World

What I'm watching, reading, hearing, etc.

"WandaVision." Yes, I know I'm late the the party, but what a wonderfully weird and surprisingly moving series this is. It's the most thoughtful and creative Marvel has produced for the big or small screen to date, using parodies of American sitcoms from the 1950s to the present day as a way to dig into how avoidance of grief makes us all a little crazy. Many of us escape harsh reality by entering into the stories of people on TV. Wanda, however, has the ability to do what many of us would love to do ourselves: She goes straight through the screen, making her life a TV series, where the mood is light, the lame jokes funny and tragedy non-existent. And when reality does, inevitably, intrude, she responds with anger and a refusal to accept the truth, struggling to adapt to the way things now are. The series is brilliant, and a stunning showcase for Elizabeth Olsen's near-magical acting talents, demonstrating her ability to do just about anything, from light comedy and biting satire, to superhero action to tragic drama.

"The Summer of Soul." How could anyone forget about "The Black Woodstock"? Watching the amazing musical performances from Sly and the Family Stone, the Staples Singers, the Fifth Dimension and more, it seems improbable that anyone interested in pop music could be unaware of what went down at the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival. This was an event on par, or maybe better than, Woodstock or the Monterey Pop Festival. Yet, an intended public TV film showcasing the music never aired and the event faded into memory. In this new documentary, Questlove explores why. The answers are as predictable as they are shameful and disappointing: Ignorance of Black culture and disregard for what's meaningful to Black audiences by our media gatekeepers and the implicit racism that remains a cancer within American society. Interspersed among the mind-blowing musical performances are contemporary news clips and new interviews that demonstrate how rapidly everything was changing—musically, politically, culturally—then, but how little has changed, sadly, today. This is an important, rousing and affirmative film that makes its point while entertaining us and inspiring us with its music. The only thing that could improve it would be more complete musical performances. My hope is that we'll see those, too, and sometime soon. How about also giving us the concert film that nobody saw, in addition to this fine documentary about the event?

Jack Kirby's New Gods Epic. In celebration of the series' debut 50 years ago, I've made a summer reading project out of DC Comics' Omnibus collections of the King's Fourth World titles. I'm deep into volume 1 or 4 right now and am thoroughly swept up in Kirby's powerful art and relentless tide of incredible concepts and ideas. Yes, Kirby's often odd dialogue and "random use of quotation marks" requires the usual adaptation, but it all matters not at all after a dozen pages or so. He was, and remains, a master storyteller. People will be reading this in 50 more years, too, I believe. TwoMorrows Publishing's new "Old Gods and New: A Companion to Jack Kirby's Fourth World," which I just received as part of my subscription to the Jack Kirby Collector (but also available separately) will make this current re-reading that much more fun.