Monday, July 31, 2023

RIP Pee-wee Herman

Pee-wee Herman, whose real name was Paul Reubens, has passed away at the age of 70 after a six-year-long battle with cancer. Which is your favorite of his catchphrases and jokes?

  • “I know you are, but what am I?”
  • “I’m a loner, Dottie. A rebel.”
  • “I meant to do that!”
  • “Ha, ha! That’s so funny, I forgot to laugh.”
  • “I’m not crazy; my reality is just different from yours.”
  • “I’m not sure if you know this, but I love breakfast food!”
  • “Why did the scarecrow win an award? Because he was outstanding in his field!”
  • “Why was the math book sad? Because it had too many problems.”
  • “Why did the bicycle fall over? Because it was two-tired!”

Jason Isbell has released his most perfect album yet

The new Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit album Weathervanes is the former Drive-by Trucker's magnum opus. He has had great albums before but this is his best alt-country display yet; 13 songs of pure perfection.

Weathervanes, recorded over just two weeks at the legendary FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama (pictured), was written and produced by Isbell, who has done an amazing job of taking control of his life and career after some very troubled years of substance abuse.

"Weathervanes," the name of the album and the title track, is of course a metaphor for the uncertainty and change that is often a part of life. 

If 2023 ended today, my top five rock releases would be Isbell then:
  • 2. Lil Yachty: Let's Start Here. (this starts out sounding like a cross of Pink Floyd and the best Funkadelic and never releases its sonic grip. The Atlanta mumble rapper graduates from his old style into a super slick batch of jazzy, dancey, and weird pop greatness. I don't want to stop listening)
  • 3. The Lemon Twigs: Everything Harmony (the band's fourth album is its best and most consistant, with pop and yacht and a lot of mellow at the end. Not a snoozer in the bunch)
  • 4. Geese: 3D Country (Brooklynites blast onto the scene with a freak-party jam that mashes up country and blues and soul with a heaping helping that lands somewhere between Ween and Radiohead)
  • 5. Alex Lahey: The Answer is Always Yes (this is the best non-Courtney Barnett Courtney Barnett album of the year. Lahey is a rock and roll songwriter who is thoroughly modern but could also fit in any era, such as the ones with The Strokes or Blondie)
Isbell has also made my year-end album lists in 2011 with How Will I Rest (#46); in 2013 with Southwestern (#77); in 2015 with Something More Than Free ("best of the rest"); in 2017 with The Nashville Sound (#49); and, most recently, in 2021, he made my list of Biggest Disappontments with Georgia Blue. So the new album is bit of a very pleasant surprise.

Sunday, July 30, 2023

Babylon dazzles with early Hollywood excess

It took me about five nights to watch Babylon, an epic three-plus-hour 2022 film starring Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie. Barbie, this is not. It’s more like a hot mess in the best-possible way, combining Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut and Quentin Tarantino’s Gimp scene from Pulp Fiction, this movie is an entertaining ride tour de force for those who love Hollywood history.

The debauchery of early Los Angeles dreamed up here by writer and director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash and La La Land) couldn’t have possibly been this extreme in the days when the silents were morphing into moving pictures with sound. I suppose it’s possible, but while this is a lot to take for the faint-at-heart, the amount of memorable scenes, which are often like short contained films all on their own, gives viewers a pretty high rate of bang for the buck.

Babylon was scheduled to have a major theater release but then was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, which ended up losing the studio a ton of money on the flick.

Robbie, perhaps most decadent of all, plays Nellie LaRoy and is loosely based on Clara Bow, a famous silent film actress. Pitt plays Jack Conrad, loosely based on John Gilbert, a famous silent film actor who struggled to make the transition to sound films.

By the end, nearly every character has been exploited and riven by the drugs, sex, and violence of the time and place. Alongside Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, and Ryan Murphy’s Netflix show simply titled Hollywood, an argument could be made that we are in a golden era of exploring L.A.’s fascinating movie history.

5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, July 29, 2023

My TennisDC season ends with heartbreaking but encouraging loss in the tourney semis

My spring TennisDC 18+ singles league has wrapped now that I bowed out in the semifinals. After perhaps my best match of the season in the quarterfinals, a 6-3, 6-4 victory at Fort Stevens (see one rally that I lose in the video above), the semis would prove to be a more difficult and chaotic battle. 

On Wednesday night, I took the first set 6-4 and felt I was continuing to play the same steady, solid type of match as the previous one. My serve has been greatly improving this summer and I was getting everything back and not missing. I wasn't going for big winners. Rather, I noted that my opponent was making errors, so my plan was to play defensively and just keep the ball in play.

He had a 5-3 lead in the second set when his errors started happening again and I was grabbing a second wind in the brutal heat of the Turkey Thicket courts. I evened things at 5-5 and then he suggested we suspend the match. Granted, despite the heat, the after-dinner masses had transpired and people were patiently waiting for courts. The claustrophobia was made even greater by the hordes of people playing pickleball right next to our court and, of course, the Summer of '23 style heat. I agreed to pick up the match later, although in retrospect trying to win the next two games and the match might have been a wiser strategy.

Regardless, we met back up Friday morning. The courts were already scorching even though we arrived before normal work hours in an attempt to get a result as early as possible. The previous session had gone two hours and this one would prove to stretch over an hour, and although the heat no doubt affected me, his youth probably meant it was rougher on me. I definitely felt less strong and less able to always get the ball back as consistently as I had been.

We broke each others' serves after reconvening at 5-5 in the second set to make it 6-6. The tiebreaker was a neck-and-neck barnburner. In fact, it was almost like I was playing myself. His style was very similar and the overall score in points must have been completely even. He was able to sneak out the tiebreaker 8-6.

Since we were running out of time before we both had to get to work, we decided to settle it with a 10-point tiebreaker rather than a full third set. It looked like I was going to pull it out when I was up 6-4. But then I double faulted and he called up a couple winners out of the depths. He came back to take the tiebreaker 10-7.

Despite the loss, I was really happy with my performance. In the Spring 1 season, I wasn't even trying to win but rather I was getting back in match shape after a few years away from singles competition. But this was Spring 2 season and going 6-2 and making it to the semis was a greater jump in performance than I expected. Hopefully I can win the Fall season.


I tried a cool app with a free one-month trial this season called Swing Vision. You can see what the video looks like in the photo above. It records matches or practicing and analyzes how you're doing. I wasn't going to pay a $150 yearly subscription for it, but I may buy a monthly subscroption for $25 later down the line if I want to check in on how I'm doing. 

Here are a few screenshots of the kinds of stats it collects, from a little more than one set in that quarterfinal match win:

Friday, July 28, 2023

The Highballers light up Greenbelt on a stormy night

I haven’t seen my friend Kendall’s band The Highballers much lately (though not for lack of opportunities; they play a lot of shows around D.C.), but I went with my wife and my friends Kevin and Megan tonight to Greenbelt, a little town in Maryland envisioned by FDR as the first intentional community. Once there, and secure from the raging heat storm outside, we stepped in the see the band in a great little concert room behind the New Deal Cafe. 

As Kendall said, the place always gives him "a real good vibe," and indeed there was a good mix of newbies like us and regulars. The place felt like if there were a bar and restaurant (tasty BBQ) at the cohousing community where we used to live in Silver Spring, Eastern Village Cohousing. Funky, fun, intelligent people all around just enjoying their time on Earth.

The Highballers have consistently gotten tighter and better. The whole band really seems committed and they played a lengthy and pleasurable set of covers and mostly originals. While Kendall and Belen traded off amazing harmonizing vocals throughout the country set (the good kind of country, it should go without noting), with such highlights as “I Didn't Mean to Get Drunk Last Night But I Did,” my favorite might have been “Older Guys,” a Gram Parsons tune covered later by Teenage Fanclub and made to sound like an Uncle Tupelo country-punk rager by The Highballers.

Kendall reminded us that it had been 10 years since we celebrated the band's album release at the time at the old Iota in Arlington, Va. Here was what I wrote about that album at the time, in my Best New Albums of January 2013 column:

The Highballers - Soft Music and Hard Liquor

My son was in the process of getting married to The Highballers' showman-leader Kendall's daughter in their preschool class. That would have made this review a conflict of interest, but luckily it was clean-up time and the kids were unable to comlete the ceremony. Regardless, I saw this band live at Arlington's Artisphere and they were a force. It's easy to compare them to an offshoot of Johnny Cash and June Carter (what with the boy-girl vocals and all), but The Highballers are much funnier, have smoking and tasteful musicianship all around, have lots of songs about drinking (which is, let's admit, the point of honky tonk), and gloriously adds a modern twist ala Uncle Tupelo and The Bottle Rockets.

So they be improving (or just consumate musicianship-ers), but they are also clearly just naturals. Oh, and our kids may not be married yet, but they are still friends. 

RIP Randy Meisner

Randy Meisner was the original bass player for Eagles (please, not the Eagles) before Timothy B. Schmit joined. He, like Schmit, also played for a time in the band Poco. Meisner was obviously a key player in the yacht rock era, a time when rock music was probably at its apex of mass popularity. While he was not a lead singer in Eagles, he was on one key song, "Take It to the Limit," which became the band's first million-selling single. He died in L.A. at 77 of breathing problems.

Wildflower showcases Mad Men's Kiernan Shipka perfectly

Wildflower was by no means at the top of my must-watch list, but anything with anyone from Mad Men (still my favorite TV show of all time) can't be too bad in my book. Kiernan Shipka, who played Don and Betty Draper's daughter Sally, returns all these years later as a high-school senior in a novel twist. She takes care of her parents, who are both intellectually disabled.

Released a few months ago to Hulu, Wildflower is a coming-of-age comedy-drama in which Shipka's charachter Bea (short for Bambi), falls into a coma right as she is getting into a romance with a hot new kid at the school played by the likeable Charlie Plummer. Shipka is also trying to figure out if she should keep taking care of her parents or start taking care of herself; she's great and in general a really mesmerizing actor. The Mad Men creators really knew what they were doing in terms of casting.

She's perfectly cast for this part too. A lot of the humor comes from the differences in the two parents' extended families. And the movie is quite funny and even silly. Despite the seeming seriousness of the content (disabilities, a coma) and the relatively deep explorations of love and acceptance, it is by no means a downer.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, July 27, 2023

RIP Beatle Bob

I've now lived nearly half my life in the Washington D.C. area, but the first half of it happened in the St. Louis area. And it feels like just yesterday that I was dancing and singing along next to Beatle Bob (or at least standing there while he danced and sang). We never had any substantial conversations. The rock was enough for both of us. And he seemed to be at most shows that I attended, at least the club shows at the likes of Mississippi Nights, Cicero's, and Kennedy's. Beatle Bob announced in January on Facebook that his streak of 9,439 days in a row seeing concerts (minus 85 days during COVID when the city's ordinance shut down musical performances) was coming to an end, as he had been weakened by ALS Lou Gehrig's Disease.

Page-Turner Recommendation: Romantic Comedy is a great read, especially for fans of SNL

It seems like just yesterday I was excited to read Curtis Sittenfeld's 2020 novel Rodham. I haven't gotten to that one yet, but I have finished her new release Romantic Comedy, and it's a gem.

The author is one of our top comtemporary novelists. Her vibe and style are like the masterful Taylor Jenkins Reid, but Sittenfeld leans a little more witty, similar to Woody Allen. She usually aims for dialogue about the issues that often go unspoken in romantic relationships. It helps the story feel real and makes readers remember those early days of falling in love, when couples are learning about each other and fascinated with utmost curiosity about all the new things one learns from and about another person when getting to know that other person on a deep level. 

Sittenfeld has done her homework on the topic as well. She's read many of the same books, listened to the same podcasts, and watched the same TV and movies as I have about and by the stars and players of Saturday Night Live. Sally Milz writes for an SNL-like show and happens into a relationship with the featured and musical guest of one episode, Noah Brewster, who is a major pop star. She is a complex and exceptionally witty character who is the driving force behind making this an ultimate page-turner.

Romantic Comedy is every bit as good as her debut Prep, which I reviewed in 2014, and wrote that it's "a true coming-of-age story, reminiscent of Catcher in the Rye or Ethan Canin's novels, but with an even sharper microscope."

4.5 out of 5 stars

Bonus fun fact for fans of St. Louis: Sittenfeld moved to the city in 2018 because her husband got a job teaching at Washington University. She has said she likes St. Louis because of its "sense of history, its Midwestern sensibility, its vibrant arts scene, its friendly people, and its rich literary history."

Wednesday, July 26, 2023

Is Wham! possibly the second greatest pop duo of all time?

It’s easy to forget that George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley’s band Wham! was only around for about four years in the early 80s. And when you watch the Netflix documentary, simply called Wham!, it’s amazing to recall that they had a ton of unsuspectingly great pop hits.

Michael of course came to a sad end. But this new rock doc stays away from that part of the story other than to plant the seeds that were occuring under the surface in terms of Michael's fear of coming out as gay to his father and the world and the tremendous identity crisis it was causing for him. 

The movie is fascinating to watch not only because of the band's undeniable likeability, but also because of the way the colorful work takes us all back to a certain time and place whether we liked Wham! or not. Piecing it all together came quite a bit easier because of the voluminous scrapbooks Ridgeley's "mum" kept of Wham!'s rise to global superstardom. 

Definitely check it out. And here are some other interesting tidbits about Wham! that I uncovered as I dug a little deeper:

  • George Michael's real name was Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou.
  • Michael and Ridgeley met as teens at Bushey Meads School in Hertfordshire, England.
  • The band's debut single, "Wham Rap! (Enjoy What You Do)," was released in 1982 and was banned by the BBC due to its profanity.  
  • Hard to believe, but "Last Christmas," which was alleged by Michael to have been written in just one hour, was the band's biggest hit, even bigger than "Careless Whisper" and Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go."
  • Wham! were the first Western pop act to tour China.
  • The band's final concert was held at Wembley Stadium in 1986. Even after their breakup, they always remained friends. They also reunited for a one-off concert in 2009 that was a huge success and raised money for AIDS charities.
  • The band's music has appeared in films, including The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and TV, including Glee.
  • The band was inducted into the UK Music Hall of Fame in 2005.
For my money, Daryl Hall & John Oates are still the greatest duo of all time, but Wham! makes a convincing case here in this movie for the #2 spot on that list.

4.5 out of 5 stars

RIP Sinéad O'Connor

Sinéad O'Connor was never a musician I gravitated to, but put "Nothing Compares 2 U" on the old sound system and I guarantee you'll be moved and even shed a tear. Any writer who can make most of the world do that with just one song deserves to be celebrated. 

Tuesday, July 25, 2023

Don't Worry Darling is the worst movie I've seen in the past year

You may recall high drama on the set of a movie from last year that you probably vaguely remember kind of wanting to see. Off camera, actor Harry Styles, whose music I think I like a little less all of a sudden, started having an affair with actor and director Olivia Wilde, who was still married at the time to Jason Sudeikis, who is thankfully not involved in said movie and may be the only one to come out of this whole mess unscathed.

Don't Worry Darling is about a desert town (the only thing going for it is the beautiful scenery that resembles Death Valley and Palm Springs) of 100 homes or so constructed in a circular pattern and filled with teams of husbands and wives. The husbands go by day to a secret production facility, the wives stay home and do 1950s Stepford housewife things, and then they get together with their neighbors at night and on weekends for socializing and heavy drinking. We later learn that everyone has been brought to the isolated area in the past through virtual reality, presumably to forget their old miserable lives and to live without real-life cares and consequences.

Chris Pine is the big boss and his acting is not bad but he hardly has a script to work with. We learn little of his backstory (my guess is tech bro), his reasoning for bringing people to the town (they pay him money to take them back via VR to a time when America was "great?"), or why his eventual downfall occurs (his wife wants to be the powerful #1).

Florence Pugh is also not awful as the lead Alice, who discovers hints that all is not right in the desert. Her life becomes imperiled as she gets closer to ratting out Pine to the other members of what one could call a cult, but I love cult and sci-fi stuff, and this just doesn't pass mustard. Most of all, her performance is hindered by several really slow sequences hiding behind the guise of suspense.

Also, I got excited when I realized at the start of the movie that Nick Kroll is in it because he's one of my favorite comics, but he gets a next-to-nothing part. Even Wilde, who did a nice job acting in Vinyl in 2016 and directing Booksmart in 2019, doesn't have much acting space to bite into.

If the moral of this stinker is to question authority, then sign me up for a job working with the authority.

1.5 out of 5 stars

Monday, July 24, 2023

Courtney Love dishes the gossip on 90s indie rock, plus my favorite Hole songs

Courtney Love and daughter Francis Bean
Writer Jim DeRogatis doesn’t disappoint with his Courtney Love essay in his excellent book Milk It. He of course comes right out of the gates saying Love would never top her band Hole’s album Live Through This, which, in my mind, is nowhere near as accomplished as the band’s next album Celebrity Skin.

I do agree with DeRogatis that Love sounds a lot like Joan Jett. The music is a “skillful synthesis” of the formula laid out by Louie, Louie: quiet, loud, quiet, loud, big ending. 

Hole’s first big American show after her husband Kurt Cobain and her bassist Kristen Plaff both died was in Chicago, “sandwiched between forgettable openers Marilyn Manson and over-hyped headliners Nine Inch Nails.” Love destroyed her guitar and amp and jumped into the crowd. The show was deemed a cathartic success and kicked off a shining time for Love and her band’s popularity.

Interesting gossip nuggets from the article include:

  • She hated Vanity Fair for writing that she did heroin while pregnant (she clarifies it was only in the first trimester). 
  • Love said Billy Corgan helped her through tough times and adds that he told her his Mellon Collie album was Gen X’s The Wall. She also claims the Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream LP is all about her.
  • She said Trent Reznor was a homophone and, like his friend MTV’s Kennedy, a Republican. 
  • She lived in Elvis Costello and his wife’s house for a while when she was 18. 
  • She said Kurt hated Eddie Vedder. 
  • She said Kurt admitted to having a crush on Kim Deal, and also possibly Juliana Hatfield. 
  • She likes to project as crazy in interviews because, she says, in business, you do that and people write you a check. 
  • She says she heard Tom Petty used to stab a knife into the table when he wanted to make a point with people.
  • She claims there was once a poll “in some women’s magazine” that said she was second most likely to go into politics behind Tom Hanks. (That didn’t pan out very accurately.)

And finally, although obviously not part of DiRogatis' essay, my top 6 favorite Hole songs are:

6. Awful (Celebrity Skin, 1999)
5. Violet (Live Through This, 1994)
4. Doll Parts (Live Throught This, 1994)
3. Celebrity Skin (Celebrity Skin, 1999)
2. Miss World (Live Through This, 1994)
1. Malibu (Celebrity Skin, 1999)

Sunday, July 23, 2023

Barbie brings patriarchal and matriarchal philosophy to the masses

Barbiemania is taking hold right in time for my daughter’s 10th birthday, and the whole family took her today to a Sunday morning showing of Barbie in Wheaton.

She loved all the pretty shades of pink and the great soundtrack that makes the movie a bit of a musical. Meanwhile, adults can love all the jokes about gynecology, masturbation, virginity, and patriarchy, which are really pretty subtle.

Will Ferrell lends an Austin Powers feel to the proceedings as the leader of the Mattel corporation. Margot Robbie is now confirmed as a Brad Pitt/Leo DiCaprio-level star as Stereotypical Barbie, leading the other Barbies through a newfound wave of sadness and depression, even being relegated to second-class citizens of Barbieland by Ken and the other Kens, and then into a path towards being able to feel. Ryan Gosling’s abs are mesmerizing while his brain is more like The Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz - mostly missing. But even he eventually comes around towards trying to feel what it’s like to not be entirely dependent on Barbie and “beach.”

Greta Gerwig makes a gargantuan (but not really gargantuan) leap from her independent film acting and directing. She takes that indie sensibility and pastes it right smack into mainstream land, in a big way, forcing us to more deeply consider the ongoing gender wars in a fun, candy-colored wrapping.

There is so much content and media for us all to process these days. But I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that this is indeed (at least this season’s) Land of Oz.

5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, July 22, 2023

10 fun things to know about Carlos Alcaraz

I'm of course tennis crazy. Crazy about playing it. Crazy about watching it. Some of my favorite men's players (I love the women too!) over the years have been John McEnroe, Jimmy Conners, Andre Agassi (look for some articles from me about him soon because I'm reading his memoir), Gustavo Kuerten, Rafael Nadal, and now, with Nadal's career in its twilight, young, 20-year-old Carlos Alcaraz is quickly assuming the status as my favorite player.

For good reason too. After winning the US Open last fall (and along the way becoming the youngest player to reach the quarterfinals there since 1990), he's added his second major victory with Sunday's classic five-set win over the the little-liked Novak Djokovic in the Wimbledon final. It was a beautiful thing to witness all five hours. 

And now, since we'll be seeing a lot more of Carlito, here are 10 things that will help you too like the kid even more.

  1. To be precise, the Wimbledon final was 4 hours and 42 minutes and was the third-longest final in Wimbledon history. 
  2. Even Djokovik was graceful in defeat. He said, "I must say, the slices, the chipping returns, the net play — it's very impressive. I didn't expect him to play so well this year on grass, but he's proven that he's the best player in the world, no doubt." 
  3. Alcaraz grew up in El Palmar, named for the palm trees oddly located in the inland Spanish village, where his once semi-pro dad ran a tennis academy.
  4. Little Carlito started playing tennis at age 3 with his three brothers, quickly becoming "spectacular," according to early coaches.
  5. Hard to believe now, since Carlos is so even tempered and courteous, but he apparently started out with a McEnroe-like hot temper. He has even said he was "a totally different person" back then and that he didn't actually enjoy tennis as much as he does now.
  6. Alcaraz is the youngest player to reach the top 10 in the ATP rankings since Nadal in 2005.
  7. His coach is Juan Carlos Ferrero, who won the French Open in 2003, the same year Alcaraz was born. He has obviously been doing a tremendous job navigating Alcaraz to the number 1 world ranking.
  8. His actual style can most succinctly be described as aggressive, with a powerful forehand, and his idol is Nadal, with whom he indeed has many similarities in style.
  9. He loves basketball and his favorite team is the Real Madrid hoops squad.
  10. With Serena Williams, Roger Federer, Nadal, and even Djokovik having retired or getting close to retirement, Alcaraz truly has a chance to assume a tennis throne for many years ahead, as the leader of a huge pack of possible contenders.

Friday, July 21, 2023

Platonic brings rom-com fun to Apple TV+, and my 13 favorite Seth Rogen movies

Platonic continues Apple TV+’s recent attempt to seemingly restart the long festering genre of rom-com TV.

I have little evidence to back that up other than the exceptional recent season 1 of Shrinking. But Platonic’s opening season has recently wrapped and it’s almost as good.

Created by Francesca Delbanco and Nicholas Stoller (who has worked on an excellent string of productions that include Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Get Him to the Greek, Neighbors, and The Muppets), the show is about former best friends played by the hard-not-to-love pair Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne, who reconnect in mid life. They aren’t particularly good for each other, as each episode brings new high jinx that don’t exactly help their progression into mature adulthood.

Rogen is what drew me to Platonic, but I really like Byrne too. 

4 out of 5 stars

On a tangent, here’s my 13 favorite Seth Rogen movies:

13. This is the End (2013)

12. The Interview (2014)

11. Pineapple Express (2008)

10. Funny People (2009)

09. You, Me, and Dupree (2006)

08. Sausage Party (2016)

07. Neighbors (2014)

06. Superbad (2007)

05. Step Brothers (2008)

04. Knocked Up (2007)

03. The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005)

02. Donnie Darko (2001)

01. Anchorman (2004)

Pretty impressive resume!

Thursday, July 20, 2023

M3GAN mostly succeeds at being creepy and fantastical, with a little horror and suspense sprinkled in

M3GAN, which stands for Model 3 generative android, was probably the top horror movie on my list to watch over the past several months. And while it's an interesting sci-fi tale, with several gory scenes, it's pretty tame in terms of horror. That said, while a little creepy, it's a movie I think most people would enjoy checking out on Amazon Prime.

Here are some interesting things about the production:

  1. I was wondering if the doll was an actual actor or CGI. But M3GAN was played by two actors: Amie Donald, who provided the doll's body movements, and Jenna Davis, who provided the doll's voice. 
  2. Donald is a 12-year-old professional dancer who represented New Zealand at the Dance World Cup in 2019. This explains some of the wild dance and gymnastic-like moves by the doll.
  3. M3GAN continues a nice turn for Girls' actor Allison Williams, known as the daughter of former NBC News anchor Brian Williams and who previously starred in Get Out, another movie that dabbles in horror but leans more towards making a statement on the human condition, in ways very similar to M3GAN actually. 
  4. The movie was filmed in Auckland, New Zealand. The producers wanted to go there because of the tax breaks, the government support, the highly qualified film crew in place there, the beautiful scenery, and also becuase the producers admired the country's excellent COVID-19 response.
  5. The filmmakers definitely have powerhouse resumes.
    1. Director Gerard Johnstone is known for his work on the horror comedies Housebound, which looks like it's worth watching, and What We Do in the Shadows (I thought the TV show was pretty good but haven't seen the movie; incidentally, I's currently watching season 1 of True Blood, which is goofy great, but I may only have the headspace for one form of vampire entertainment at the moment).
    2. Producer Jason Blum is the founder of Blumhouse Productions, which is known for producing really good horror movies such as the before-mentioned Get Out and The Babadook.
    3. The script was written by James Wan and Ingrid Bisu. Wan is a well-known horror director who has directed movies such as Saw and The Conjuring. Bisu is an actress who has appeared in movies such as The Quiet Place Part II and Malignant.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, July 19, 2023

Toy movie mania hits Hollywood. What toy movies do you want to see?

OK, I got my Barbie tickets for a showing this upcoming Sunday. The whole family is going as an early birthday present for my daughter's 10th. And it's now being announced that there are a ton of other toy-based movies in the works.

I'm not a big car-chase movie person, but a J.J. Abrams-produced Hot Wheels flick sounds promising.

If I'm going to a Barbie movie, I may as well sign up early for the inevitable American Girl one.

I really can't wait to see what MGM has in the works for a View-Master film! Sounds like it could be tiring on the eyes, as too many hours with that toy always was.

Lena Dunham, the Girls mastermind, is working on a Polly Pocket movie. I think it has something to do with a girl who has another girl stashed in her pocket, but correct me if I'm spreading fake news there. :-)

I don't know how the planned Magic 8 Ball movie could possibly be any good.

Jason Bateman's film based on the dolls Chatty Cathy and Betsy Wetsy sounds like something I won't dare miss. Oscar contender anyone?

Masters of the Universe sounds cool. 

I don't know what Major Matt Mason is but there's a flick planned for it.

Ryan Reynolds is going to be in a new Clue movie. That is still one of my favorite board games.

Rock 'Em Sock 'Em robots is a pretty cool idea. It's got Vin Diesel onboard.

I can think of a few more movies that should be made. Tops on my list is Stretch Monster. I'm always partial to him over Stretch Armstrong. But lots more people seem to remember Armstrong, a blonde muscleman. The two stretchy gel playthings that would inevitably break and ooze jelly fluid could be great in a movie together, but if the producers insist on breaking it into two different movies, I wouldn't object.

Something football themed could be great. I collected those little plastic helmets of all the teams, and I also had the big electric football game. I don't know how either of those could make a movie, but Hollywood apparently has greenlit that View-Master movie, so anything's possible at this point. There's always paper football and the Mattel handheld football games if more ideas are needed.

The great possibilities really never end. All the figures (the Six-Million Dollar Man and Star Wars come to mind). Wuppets (which is what we called them while collecting every color imaginable, but the Internet seems to call them Weepuls). Atari. The Fisher Price castle and other toys. Simple Simon.

Those are my ideas for today. What ideas do you have? Post them in the comments.

Tuesday, July 18, 2023

Experimenting with yellow chartreuse, one of my favorite new cocktail ingredients

La Valencia
For the past year or so, one of my new hobbies has become mixology. It happened because I had been buying more and more middle- to higher-shelf liquors and enjoying them increasingly on the rocks, with nothing else other than maybe some fizzy water. Eventually I started to feel my tastebuds were demanding more complexities. So then I thought about all the great looking drinks I was increasingly seeing out at bars and restaurants.

That's when it hit me that I could do that too! Maybe not always quite as well. But by this point, I'm getting to a point where I've been confident enough to make cocktails more often for gatherings of friends and family.

So when I come across particularly good creations, or at least interestings ones, I hope to share them with you all. My latest curiosity has been to start playing around with yellow chartreuse, which costs around $60 to $70 a bottle, but is well worth it since the path it takes to that bottle is extensive. According to, "To make Chartreuse, monks of the Carthusian order macerate a blend of more than 130 botanicals (herbs, spices, roots, barks, and flowers) in either a sugar-beet spirit base (for green chartreuse) or a grape spirit base (for yellow chartreuse)." This happens in the French Alps and the monks recently made headlines for announcing they would not increase the supply despite the growing demand.

I have focused on the yellow version because it pairs with bourbon, run, mezcal, and tequila (which are my areas of burgeoning talent), whereas green pairs better with vodka and gin cocktails. It has a vibrant yellow color and a complex herbal and aromatic honey and spice flavor, with the exact ingredients and proportions remaining a closely guarded secret by the monks.

Anyway, here are the four recipes I've been working with for yellow chartreuse that I'm happy to share with you:


  • 2 parts rye whiskey
  • 1/2 part yellow chartreuse
  • 1/2 part sweet vermouth
  • 1 dash angustura bitters
  • 1 dash orange bitters
  • lemon garnish
  • drink in a coupe glass
Naked and Famous
  • 3/4 parts mezcal
  • 3/4 parts aperol
  • 3/4 parts lime juice
  • 3/4 parts yellow chartreuse
The Last Word (Variation)
  • 3/4 parts lime juice
  • 1 part bourbon
  • 3/4 parts yellow chartreuse (it’s supposed to be green chartreuse but yellow is delicious)
  • cherry (I use cherry concentrate and little agave syrup for sweetness)
  • lime garnish
And the one I tried for the first time last night is La Valencia
  • 1 part whiskey
  • 1 1/2 parts manzanilla sherry
  • 1/2 part yellow chartreuse
  • 3/4 parts lemon juice
  • 1/2 part simple syrup
  • 1 dash angustura bitters
  • serve in a coupe glass
I had to substitute manzanilla sherry with dry vermouth and simple syrup with the jalepeno simple syrup I made earlier this week. Both substitutions worked really well, but I'm looking forward to the exact recipe one of these days.

If you have any yellow chartreuse recipes, please share them in the comments, and check out my second part of this blog, with more recipes.

Monday, July 17, 2023 is now!

Now I’m really a non-profit, independent organization. The .org proves it!

Actually, this site has always been non-profit, literally. But some of you may have recently noticed a “not secure” notice next to the URL. I’m not sure anyone actually ever needed to be worried, but I fixed that today by changing to a different domain.

Now back to our regularly scheduled information …

At year's end, Alex Lahey will be in the running for my favorite album

I don't use sneak preview what my year-end "best of" music lists will be, but as Saddam Hussein said in the South Park movie, "I can change."

Alex Lahey has been one of my favorite musical artists of the past decade, and the Australian's third album, The Answer is Always Yes, released early in the year, may be her best yet.

At the moment, she has albums by Geese, The Lemon Twigs, and Lil Yachty to contend with at the top.

Lahey debuted in my lists in 2017 with her first album, I Love You Like a Brother, at a moderate spot of #101. Knowing what I know now, I think I better revist that release.

In 2019, she took a great leap, finishing fourth on my list. The Best of Luck Club, I noted, was "post-Courtney Barnett awesome rock doing better than Courtney Barnett at Courtney Barnett." The same can be said about her latest. If you love Barnett, definitely check this out.

For more about Lahey, here are some interesting tidbits:
  • She started playing guitar and saxophone when she was 13 years old.
  • She studied art and jazz in college, but dropped out to release her debut EP, B-Grade University, in 2016, which I actually haven't heard yet and which includes a song called "Wes Anderson."
  • She has toured with artists such as The 1975, The Killers, and Chvrches.
  • She has been nominated for several awards, including Australian Album of the Year.
  • She is known for her witty lyrics and her energetic live performances.
  • She is a self-described "slacker" and has said that she doesn't like to take herself too seriously.
  • She is a fan of 90s alternative rock and has said that her musical influences include bands like Nirvana, The Smashing Pumpkins, and Garbage.
  • She is also a visual artist and has said that she enjoys using her music to explore themes of gender and identity.
  • She is a vocal advocate for mental health awareness and has spoken out about her own experiences with anxiety and depression.

Sunday, July 16, 2023

Finding an entryway into the challenging and rewarding writing of William Faulkner

William Faulkner was always a tricky writer for me growing up as a lit major in college. I loved the more direct, journalistic storytelling styles of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Truman Capote, and Tom Wolfe the most. Authors like Faulkner, James Joyce, and Joseph Heller were always much more difficult to decipher. And can you blame me for gravitating to entertaining reads over ones that sometimes take a lot of mental power to comprehend? 

But knowing that, despite digging pretty deeply into Faulkner's classic Absolom, Absolom! during college and loving The Sound and the Fury (my 49th favorite novel of all time), I feel I never gave the iconic Southern writer enough of my time. So I thought it would be good to give a few short stories my attention.

“A Rose for Emily” (1930): His first published short story is a Southern Gothic powerhouse with similarities to Hitchcock’s Psycho. Miss Emily Grierson lived with her father in their Confederate home in a fictional town called Jefferson, Mississippi, and when he dies, the mayor forgives her property taxes so she can afford to stay in the house. But the next generation on the city council comes along and wants her to pay taxes. She refuses and continues living there without ever going out. She eventually invites a Northern sidewalk contractor into her home to marry her. After her death, those going in to clean up the house discover his skeleton in her bed alongside strands of her own hair. 

What propels the story into the acclaimed spot of Faulkner’s best short story (that I’ve read) is the character of Miss Emily herself. She is complex and fascinating, both proud and fairly pathetic, and both admired and mocked by the townspeople. She is unable to come to terms with a society rapidly changing from the way things were before and during the Civil War.

5 out of 5 stars

“That Evening Sun” (1931): Also taking place in Jefferson, this is about a white family that has a nearby Black woman named Nancy wash their clothes and prepare breakfasts. She has suffered all kinds of indignities in her life, including the town’s banker kicking out her teeth and her madman husband running out on her. She is scared of her husband, Jesus, and wants to sleep at the white family’s house and play with their three children, one of whom is the story’s narrator (a rare instance of a young boy being the narrator in a Faulkner story). The text is a bit jarring because of extensive use of racist language, but it’s also a powerful vignette of how white and Black people coexisted, somewhat, 100 years ago in the U.S. South.

It’s also very sad and a tragic glimpse into the offhanded violent racism and lack of basic human caring during that era. Faulkner’s typically cryptic language makes it a little difficult to understand that Jesus has apparently returned and killed Nancy at the end. About the only clue is little Quintin the narrator’s question to his dad asking who will do their laundry now after they all hear the sounds of Nancy supposedly being murdered. It’s heartbreaking to witness the white adults acting with such little empathy while Quintin and the kids can’t quite figure out why the adults act they ways they do.

Perhaps most notable of all about this story is that it’s a prequel to The Sound and the Fury, as the three kids are same Compson family children who go on to narrate much of that classic novel’s further falling, 20 some years later, of this once prominent family.

4.5 out of 5 stars

"Dry September" (1931)

This story begins in a town barbershop, where a debate ensues about whether a young Black man named Will Mayes "attacked, insulted, frightened" a 40-year-old white bachelorette named Minnie Cooper. Without anyone having any idea what may have happened, a barber is convinced Will couldn't have done anything while several others get more and more heated in their beliefs that he did do "it." This comes to a head when McLendon, a World War I veteran with a gun, bursts through the doors and gathers people to help him find Will. The barber tries to stop them before eventually getting thrown out of their moving vehicle. Meanwhile, Minnie is out with friends at the movies where she appears to break down and, seemingly too late for Will, appears to suggest that nothing happened.

The again typical suggestiveness (Faulkner doesn't tend to spell things out easily for readers) leaves the whole tale as a bit of a mystery, which is probably why people either love the author or don't understand his writing. What is clear is that Faulkner is dropping a serious and very accurate account of the power of rumor and the dangers of mob mentality in the lynch mob-happy culture of the American South in the early 1900s. He does a good job of starting the story showing that (at least most of these) people are not evil but can get swayed into violently taking the law into their own hands via groupthink.

If you're unsure where to start with William Faulkner, before getting to his novels, "A Rose for Emily" and "Dry September" are accessible and beautifully written, and are my recommendations as the top entry points.

4.5 out of 5 stars

"Spotted Horses" (1931): This is the one story here I would not recommend as a starting spot. Although not set in Jefferson - it takes place in Frenchman's Bend, Mississippi - many of the usual themes of Faulkner's recur, namely a place struggling to escape the shadow of the Civil War. The story follows the events that take place after a group of men are tricked into buying a herd of wild horses from traveling salesman Flem Snopes. The horses run wild, and they cause all sorts of havoc in the town. 

This may be the funniest, most slaptick tale of this batch, which contrasts a bit with the downtrodden characters. While it is my least favorite of these five stories, it is still well worth reading if you enjoy the other four beforehand.

4 out of 5 stars

“That Will Be Fine” (1935): This is the story of a boy named Georgie who is involved in helping his Uncle Rodney carry out criminal schemes that his uncle will likely never compensate him for, while he is hoping to make a little money to buy his grandpa a Christmas present. He spends so much time working with his uncle that he runs out of time to get the present so, by the end, he tries to chase a possum to give to his grandpa.

This story comes along a few years after his first published stories, and it shows the development of his distinctive style. The story is told in a stream-of-consciousness style, which allows Faulkner to explore the inner thoughts and feelings of his characters in much detail. Set again in Jefferson, the story provides a glimpse into the lives of the people who live there and how they are being affected by the social and economic changes occuring rapidly in the early 1900s.

4 out of 5 stars

Overall, Faulkner is clearly one of the masters and his work remains powerful, relevant, and entertaining, not to mention challenging.

Friday, July 14, 2023

Daisy Jones & the Six can rock out in a book, and the band is maybe even better on the screen

You've seen me rave here before about the entertaining novels of Taylor Jenkins Reid. Well, my wife and I finally just got through the TV adaption on Amazon Prime of Daisy Jones & the Six, which I consider my third-favorite TJR novel behind The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo and Malibu Rising.

We loved this adaptation. In fact, it may be the relatively rare case of the show being better than the book. Even if the story is possibly less suspenseful than the real-life story of Fleetwood Mac (there are seemingly winking and frequent parallels between DJ6 and FM), TJR's hallmark twists, the built-in cliffhangers that make it work so well for TV, and exceptional acting top the highlights for this production.

It's a very cool element that TJR actually wrote the show's music and the cast actually sings and plays it. I need to listen more to the songs, but while they definitely work well in propelling the story and capturing a 1970s arena-rock vibe, the songs also don't jump out at me as truly great upon hearing them throughout the 10-episode show.

Riley Keough, Elvis Presley's granddaughter, is particularly good as Daisy Jones, and she brings a lot of charisma and energy to the role. Sam Claflin is also great as Billy Dunne, and he has sizzling chemistry with Keough. The supporting cast is also very good, and they all bring their own unique personalities.

Fittingly, the show is full of sex, drugs, and rock and roll, and the power that music holds, but it also shows the darker side of the lifestyle, such as the accompanying problems of addiction and the euphoric feelings of love and loss sometimes heightened by drug use. 

Some reviews (while offering near-universal praise) have groused about the documentary format because it hints that the whole band has lived to reflect 20 years later on those wild 1970s. But simply put, Daisy Jones & the Six, in my book, beats out Vinyl as the best fictional rock and roll TV show of all time.

5 out of 5 stars

Monday, July 3, 2023

TV Snide: June 2023

TV Show of the Month: It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia - Season 1 (Hulu): I started watching this hilarious show in Season 2 all those years ago and just now got back to the opening season. The Gang really hits their stride by the time the classic Episode 6 (The Gang Finds a Body) comes along and we learn that Dee can’t stomach old people and thet Dee and Dennis’s grandfather was a Nazi. 5 out of 5 stars

Barry - Season 1 (HBO Max): SNL’s Bill Hader finds his Walter White-like role of a lifetime, and he’s won two Emmys to prove it, as a former Marine hitman who stumbles upon Henry Winkler’s acting studio and falls a bit in love with acting as well as the actress played by Sarah Goldberg. Funny and moving. 5 out of 5 stars

Movies of the Month: Spider-Man: Inside the Spider-Verse (Amazon): This 2018 is a masterpiece of cartooning. Although I had already seen it, I watched it again so I would be prepped for the new sequel, Spider-Man: Across the Spider Verse, which I also saw this month and it's just as good. Miles Morales is a young Brooklynite who enters a world of many Spider-Mans, including himself, with the typical battles against villains ensuing, but with the aforementioned perfect and mind-boggling production values. 5 out of 5 stars

Piranha (Sling TV): There remained nowhere safe left to swim after 1977’s Jaws and then this one in 1978. The titular fish are accidentally released from a science center high above a series of rivers and lakes that lead to the ocean. The cinematography and character studies are downright excellent and this is definitely a hidden gem of the 70s. The depictions of children at camp getting devoured by the fish is, as Quentin Tarantino recently noted in his excellent podcast Video Archives, undertaken almost with unrequited glee. 5 out of 5 stars

Short Stories of the Month: Chinua Achebe, “Civil Peace” and “Dead Men’s Path:” This classic Nigerian writer taught at the University of Massachusetts - Amherst and once gave a speech about the racism inherent in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Today we might lean towards calling it inherent bias, but his points were made and they were made strongly, much more so because it was a speech made in 1974. “Civil Peace” from 1971 tells the story of Jonathan Iwegbu, who has made it through the constant Nigerian war with most of his house and family intact. Even still, in peace, there are thieves looking to gather any cent he earns. Better yet is 1953’s “Dead Men’s Path.” Michael Obi takes over as schoolmaster of a run-down and “progressive” school. When he and his wife beautify the grounds and block a path that villagers believe their “dead relatives depart by it and ancestors visit by it.” When Michael does not relent to the priest, saying that old way of thinking is exactly what the school’s new way of thinking is trying to replace, nearly the entire school grounds are destroyed in the night, with the supervisor arriving the next day to give damning remarks about Michael’s efforts. 4.5 out of 5 stars and 5 out of 5 stars respectively

Novel of the Month: The Swell, by Allie Reynolds: This novel kept me interested all the way through in the story of three men and three women who claim an isolated beach in a national forest of Australia all to themselves. But the place is far from a paradise. Blending Keanu Reeves’ Point Break with Lost, the premise is the biggest star of this story about how facing your fears can have deadly consequences. 4 out of 5 stars.

The Late Americans by Brandon Taylor: This is a captivating read especially since there was a strong chance I was once headed to the University of Iowa for grad school. I picked Georgetown in the end, but I love coming-of-age stories like this one of grad students from the dance, poetry, and fiction departments and their interactions between themselves and the townies of Iowa City. It loses steam a little at the end but is still a solid read about the choices young people make in shaping their lives. 4 out of 5 stars

I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson - Season 1 (Netflix): This wackball comedy is definitely not to everyone's taste, but I like it quite a bit. From the old weirdo who has held a lifetime grudge towards a baby that cried on an airplane to the recurring bit about the shirt that has a knob to help dudes pull it away from their bellies, this very short season has lots to enjoy. 4 out of 5 stars

“The Real Thing,” by Henry James (1891): This short story is representative of the author’s work. He would take an idea, a small slice of life and expand upon it (mainly for however many words were required by the magazine editors who might accept it). This is a simple, yet engaging, piece about an artist who likes “sitters,” or subjects, that his friends don’t think to be compelling. 4 out of 5 stars

You People (Netflix): Excellent performances from Jonah Hill and Lauren London as well as Eddie Murphy and Julia Louis-Dreyfus save a little bit of a sappy rom-com that tackles race relations between a Jewish man and a Black woman who want to get married but have a lot of family and cultural issues standing in the way. Light fun on a tough topic. 3.5 out of 5 stars 

Katherine Ann Porter, “Thief,” “The Cracked Looking-Glass,” and “Maria Concepcion”: “Thief” is a small snapshot that seems it could be of its publication date of 1935 or from anytime. It tells a one-night journey of a women and her purse. She drinks with three different men in New York City to find her purse stolen by the “janitoress” after she returns home. The two share heated words about who needs or deserves the purse more. “The Cracked Looking-Glass" from 1933 is better. It’s about an Irish immigrant couple that have made their way after a while outside Boston, even though their style still fights against their more reserved neighbors. “Maria Concepcion” is Porter’s first published short story, from 1922. The tale of a Mexican peasant woman who murders her husband’s lover and is then protected from the police by her husband is my least favorite of this sampling from Porter and seems fairly half baked. 3.5 out of 5 stars, 4 out of 5 stars, and 2.5 out of 5 stars respectively