Showing posts with label pop culture diary. Show all posts
Showing posts with label pop culture diary. Show all posts

Pop Culture Diary: February 2024 - Henry Threadgill's "Easily Slip into Another World,' 'Beef,' 'All of Us Strangers,' 'Melvin Monster'

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

"Easily Slip into Another World," by Henry Threadgill
is one of the best books I've read about music, art and being a creative person. 

Threadgill isn't a name you're likely to hear even in the hippest of households, but his distinctive blend of jazz, Western Classical and world music influences has earned him a following among more adventurous listeners and acclaim. He was awarded an NEA Jazz Master Masters Fellowship in 2021 at the Pulitzer Prize in Music in 2016.

And he's done it on his own terms. Threadgill's memoir is a collection of stories and recalled incidents, stretching from his childhood in Chicago; his musical education - both formal and in the city's jazz and blues clubs; his experiences as a Black man in Vietnam, where the forces of American racism were more oppressive and dangerous than anything the Viet Cong could dish out, and as composer committed, without compromise, to his muse.

Threadgill is as masterful a storyteller as he is a musician and composer — funny, insightful, instructive. I don't think you need to know his music to be entertained, moved and inspired by this book, but you'll likely be curious to hear it, and you're likely to hear it with open ears.

There's an undercurrent of seething hostility present in 21st century life that's unique to our time. It's fed by our toxic politics and the insidious, addictive powers of social media, which pits us all against one another in a competition over who has the best opinion, job, vacation, family, life.

The last straw is always at hand, ready to be pulled, particularly when we're behind the wheel of a car. We're already pissed off — often we don't even know why — and if a person dares to cut us off or bend our fender, look out.

This satirical streaming series nails it, forcing us to look at and laugh at ourselves as its excellent leads Steven Yeun and Ali Wong go to Spy Vs. Spy lengths to get back at one another following a parking lot altercation. Over and over again, they dish out violence, destruction and blame to the point where they can barely recollect why they hate one another so much. 

The show is so funny it hurts. We realize we're getting swept up, too, in the conflict, alternately rooting for, and sympathizing, one antagonist or another. But, it's jagged points well made, the show overstays it's welcome. At 10 episodes, it's perhaps four or so too long, which is a pity. With some edits to keep the show sharp, "Beef" might've been a mastepiece commentary on our age. But in it's current form, it's merely very, very good.

"All of Us Strangers"
is a haunting meditation on grief and vulnerability, guised as a love story. 

Andrew Scott (Moriarty on "Sherlock") stars as Adam who can't let go of the memories of his dead parents (Claire Foy ("The Crown" and Jamie Bell) even as he tries to forward in a new relationship with Harry (Paul Mescal), a neighbor in his apartment building.

To reveal more would be to spoil things, but suffice to say this is an emotional, powerful film that deals in its subject in surprising, imaginative, highly moving ways. All of the performances are outstanding, in particular Scott's. It will be exciting to see where his career takes him next.

Melvin Monster: Omnibus
. And now for something completely different: A collection of mid 1960s comics from the masterful John Stanley, best-known for his stellar work on the Little Lulu comics.

Familiar with Stanley's Little Lulu work, I went into this one expecting more of the same: Funny, expertly paced gags and plots that heartwarmingly capture and lampoon the concerns and misadventures of childhood. Melvin does some of that, but not nearly entertainingly as Lulu, I'm afraid.

Despite very much enjoying Stanley's artwork, I was disappointed with the writing here, which relies heavily on Bizarro/Addams Family "logic" for its humor. Melvin's dad is called Baddy and him mom Mummy and they are, of course, a Frankenstein-type monster and a mummy. Their expectations of Melvin is that he'll misbehave at school, blow off his homework and generally be "good" by being bad. 

While that twist is likely enough to entertain a child reader, it wears thin quickly for an adult. An adult, like me, who should recognize that, hey, these comics were written for kids. And those kids who bought the comics five decades ago probably loved them. And that's all good. But, where the charm and humor of Little Lulu carries through the ages, and can be enjoyed by grownups as well as children, Melvin, disappointingly, just doesn't.

Pop Culture Diary: January 2024

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

Linked items available via Amazon.


My wife last holiday season kindly gifted me with "Swallows and Amazons," the first of Arthur Ransome's charming adventure stories about the four Walker siblings and their friends the Blacketts, and this year she followed up with the second. 

In this one, the kids are back at the unnamed lake where they spend their summers, sailing, camping and playing pirates, excited to get back to their hideaway on Wild Horse Island.

As in the first book, Ransome perfectly captures how kids "work" — how they think, act and interact, and imagine, superimposing their creative fictions over humdrum reality to make everything more interesting. He captures what childhood is like with such humor and charm. These books were published nearly 100 years old, but they are as funny and true as ever.

Just as amazingly, Ransome manages to keep your interest over the course of the book without manufacturing some outside menace to gin up excitement and drama. Here, he does it with a "shipwreck," a hidden cave, a hike through the fog and a plot to evade the Blackett's stern Great Aunt, who seemingly doesn't want anyone to have any fun. 

I'm hoping that the Ransome books become a holiday tradition. There's no better escape than reading about these summer adventures of long a go when it's cold and dreary outdoors.

Avengers: War Across Time

This stand-alone, throw-back tale, the first-ever Marvel Comic penned by DC mainstay Paul Levitz, and illustrated by the great Alan Davis, should've been much better than it is.

The problem, sadly, is with Levitz's script. which is unforgivably dull. He does a nice job, starting out, capturing the patter and feel of early Avengers comics by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Don Heck, but the action amounts to a troll stealing Thor's hammer and Kang the Conquerer standing around making a lot of empty threats. 

The Avengers don't do any time traveling until the final pages, when they glimpse versions of themselves and other members of their super team but, even then, there's precious little action. 

This story originally was published as a five-issue mini-series and I'm not sure I would've continued past the first issue if I'd read it in that format. Each of Levitz's issue-ending cliffhangers lands like a soft, fluffy pillow. There's no drama or threat to hook you.

Davis, on the other hand, is in fine form. His artwork and visual flow throughout the book is a pleasure to behold, and the book is worth a look for that alone. 

I'm always up for self-contained superhero stories like this, and I'd love to see a sequel, but one with a much more engaging story to hang it all on. 


I went into this one not expecting much other than a couple hours of holiday diversion, but ended up enjoying it quite a bit. Rather than spoil the magic of the original by picking apart and subjecting its elements to the cruel, ironic gaze of the present, "Wonka" instead relishes in what makes Road Dahl's sweet maker so fun. 

In the lead role, Timothée Chalamet is sly, mysterious and charming — and a surprisingly good singer (yes, it's a musical). There also are fun performances by Olivia Coleman, Paterson Joseph, Rowan Atkinson and Matt Lucas as some of the not-so-scary baddies, and a scene-stealing Hugh Grant as an oompa loompa.

The film, which I somehow didn't know, was produced by the team behind the recent "Paddington" films, which I also enjoyed, and it has the same humor and humanity as those. 

"American Fiction"

This excellent light satire targets the literary marketplace and notions of "Blackness" while exploding the self-deceptions common to us all.

I say "light" because the film treats its characters gently. Jeffrey Wright, as frustrated novelist Thelonious "Monk" Ellison, is silly, ridiculous, but real, and that humanity helps the film land its punches with more sting — we can relate to Monk and, as a result, see his flawed qualities within ourselves.

This smart, very funny film also incudes fine performances by the wonderful Issa Rae, Tracee Ellis Ross and Leslie Uggams. 

"Poor Things"

I'm still puzzling over this very weird, very raunchy, Frankenstein-inspired, coming-of-age tale. That says something, since memories of most other movies tend to fizzle away within the trivia-saturated confines of my fuzzy brain.

I'm not certain what director Yorgos Lanthimos and his accomplices are trying to say, but they say it in such a unique way, and with such imaginative imagery, that their story is unforgettable. "Poor Thing" exists in its own world, unlike anything we've seen before. 

There are points made here about the agency of women in a world, like ours, where men try to define, and even "create," their lives for them, but I think there's a lot more to discover here, too.

Emma Stone's performance is astounding. She brings Bella Baxter alive in ways that mad scientist Dr. Goodwin Baxter (played by an unhinged, yet tender, Willem DaFoe) could've never imagined. Mark Ruffalo and Ramy Yousef also are excellent as the baffled men in Bella's life.

"The Crown"

Netflix's charting of the historical course of Britain's modern royals wrapped up its run in the same tacky/classy manner in which it started out. 

The fact that this season covers a period so close to the one we're living in made it even more of a guilty pleasure. Some commentators wonder why we just can't let Lady Di rest in peace, and they make a good point. Yet, having started, and it's hard to stop watching now.

In my view, the writing and performances in the "The Crown" have been great throughout, and it was a pleasure to see previous Queens Claire Foy and Olivia Coleman join the older Elizabeth, played by Imelda Staunton, in flashbacks and fantasy sequences in the finale.

As a whole, "The Crown" provided a compelling commentary on post-war British events while make us feel sorry for a crew of eccentrics and malcontents born into privilege (and responsibility). Like many viewers, I suppose, I came away thinking that the monarchy is really weird. And, also, sort of impressive and cool.

The Beatles "Red" and "Blue" Albums: 2023 Editions

I've been playing these new versions of 1973's classic compilations a bunch and am enjoying them in this new form.

Not a straight remaster of the originals (that's already been done) these versions include remixes by Giles Martin, son of Beatles producer, George. Some of these remixes have shown up already on the Super Deluxe editions of Revolver, Sgt. Pepper, "The White Album," Let it Be and Abbey Road but there are plenty of new ones here, particularly on the Red album, which covers the band's output up through 1966.

Martin, on these new versions employs the same machine-learning tech developed by director Peter Jackson's team for "The Beatles: Get Back" documentary. The system is capable if identifying different voices and instruments and separating those elements into their own "tracks." 

In Jackson's film, the tech was use to extract dialogue from music and background noise so we could hear it more clearly. Martin, meanwhile, has used it to "demix" recordings so he can remix the elements again. As a result, each part in a Beatles recording can be isolated — vocals, guitars, bass, even the individual parts of Ringo's drum kit: snare, toms, cymbals, etc. — and put back together.

As a result, the remixes bring us familiar tunes in stunning clarity. Turn up the volume, and you feel like you're standing next to John, Paul, George and Ringo doing their collective thing in the studio. 

Too put it mildly, I'm a bit of a Beatlemanic. I'm an associate editor at Beatlefan mag and run a Fabs blog as a sister site to this one. And I'm a purist about the Beatles' original masters being "canon." But I also enjoy hearing the tunes in different ways, and these releases provide a wonderful opportunity to do that. 

For the most part, I appreciate, and often very much enjoy, what Martin has done. The remixes of "We Can Work it Out" and "I Am the Walrus" stand out as a couple that I really, really like. But, for me, they'll never replace the mono and stereo versions the band originally released. 

And that's what makes these new releases a little odd. Back in the 1970s, they served as an introduction to the Beatles' music for a new generation of fans (my generation, as it turns out). But I'm not so sure how I feel about these new versions playing that role. 

Part of me — a weird, controlling, dictatorial part — thinks that newcomers should start with the original masters. The more rational part of me, however, thinks that anyone, listening to any of the Beatles recordings, can only be a good thing. 

Ambrose Akinmusire - Owl Song

Two of my favorite jazz musicians, trumpeter Akinmusire and guitarist Bill Frisell, abetted by drummer Herlin Riley, come together on this gorgeous collection of original tunes. 

The songs aren't merely vehicles for improvisation. The melodies are captivating and carefully structured, very much composed, yet open to the on-the-fly melodic and rhythmic contributions of the players. 

The results are understated and quiet — perfect listening for a dark winter night.