Sunday, June 30, 2024

Great Newspaper Reads: Eddie Murphy makes #2 on my list of favorite Saturday Night Live players

In honor of Eddie Murphy’s upcoming Netflix movie Beverly Hills Cop: Axel F, The New York Times makes him this subject of The Interview this weekend.

Here are the highlights:

  • When Murphy joined Saturday Night Live in 1980, the show was thought to be on the verge of cancellation. His memorable characters like Mr. Robinson, Gumby, Mr. White, Buckwheat, and James Brown contributed significantly to making me a life-long SNL fan.
  • Murphy knew around age 13 or 14 that he would become famous.
  • 1987’s Eddie Murphy: Raw remains the top-grossing standup-comedy movie ever.
  • His look in that movie and also what he wore everywhere around that time was influenced by Elvis.
  • He met Richard Pryor on a plane and gave him a cassette of his first album. Sitting a few rows away, he could see the back of Pryor’s head and that he was laughing. “I could have died right there,” he says.
  • Murphy says he’s never seen a better comic than Pryor or a better actor than Charlie Chaplin.
  • Most people likely know him from his movies, although SNL is by far his high water mark for me. That said, Beverly Hills Cop and 48 Hrs. are classic comedies. 
  • After 48 Hrs., Marlon Brando called to see if Murphy would have dinner with him. Brando told him acting was bullshit and that anyone could do it, naming “that kid” Clint Eastwood - one of my all-time favorites - as someone he couldn’t stand.
  • He doesn’t drink and he turned down participating when Robin Williams and John Belushi would hang out with him while doing coke. Murphy said he smoked weed but not that much and not until his first time at age 30.
  • He thought there was plenty of racism directed against him over the years. One that he points out in the interview is when David Spade made a reference on SNL to Murphy’s career being in free fall. Murphy said hearing that from his own people at the show was a cheap shot and somewhat racist. That said, he’s cool these days with Spade and SNL mastermind Loren Michaels.
  • He calls Pluto Nash his worst movie.
  • He describes himself as so out of touch these days that he can’t even name a single Taylor Swift song.
  • His ideal day sounds a lot like mine: sit around and not do much other than play guitar and hear the kids somewhere playing around. 
Not an easy task, but I'll add my all-time 10 favorite SNL cast members (not based on what else they have done in the careers, just based off their SNL output):

10. Gilda Radner
09. Mike Myers
08. Will Ferrell
07. Steve Martin (regular guest)
06. Adam Sandler
05. Bill Murray
04. Martin Short
03. Chevy Chase (with just one season!)
02. Eddie Murphy
01. Chris Farley

Saturday, June 29, 2024

Cahokia, Illinois is a key example to how robust life was in the Americas long before Christopher Columbus

The Americas prior to Christopher Columbus were far from the untouched wilderness we have long been taught in school. They were instead a complex environment that worked because of the interplay between humans and natural forces, as I noted in my recent article about historian Charles C. Mann’s book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus.

I was particularly interested to get back to the section about Cahokia, which is now present day in Illinois just down the highway from where I grew up in Edwardsville and practically in the shadow of the St. Louis Arch (see these photos from my most recent visit to Cahokia).

I would have liked Mann to include more about Cahokia. But he colors in a bit of the amazing story of the Cahokia tribe of the Illiniwek people. Here are some of his highlights:

  • Anyone traveling up the Mississippi River in 1180 would’ve seen the 120 "Cahokia mounds" looming in the distance. 
  • Monks Mound was (and still is) the largest of the mounds and is the largest man-made mound ever built in the United States. Its base is larger than both the Pyramid of the Sun in Mexico and the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt.
  • With about 15,000 people, Cahokia was the largest concentration of people north of the Rio Grande. It was also really the only city - period - north of the Rio Grande. The population at the time was comparable in size to London, which, if you think about it, is kind of astounding.
  • It had few specialized craft workers and no middle-class merchants. The inhabitants really knew nothing about how cities worked so they had to invent everything for themselves as they progressed.
  • Much at the heart of Mann's thesis is that Cahokia's mounds weren’t always thought to be Native American. In the 19th century, various scholars believed them to be Chinese, Welsh, Phoenician, or others. In fact, there was very little serious study at all about Cahokia until the 1960s. 
  • Since then, there has been a flood and we have learned a lot, including the 270 bodies that have been found, with all of the burials occurring between 1000 and 1200, including overwhelming evidence of sacrifical burials. Mann notes that about 50 women appear to have been buried alive.
  • What eventually killed Cahokia's earliest society was the agricultural runoff created by their maize production, which got into Cahokia Creek and other waterways nearby. Cahokia's leaders were so focused on keeping a strong hold over their people that they didn’t pay enough attention to external environmental factors. 
  • By 1350, there was almost no one left. Never again would be that large of a Native American community be established north of Mexico.

Thursday, June 27, 2024

The right way and the wrong way to bring Girl Power

I just watched two very different, I suppose you could call them, "girl power" movies - one whose role in history played a major role in the advancement of women and is excellent and the other that played no role in the advancement of women and arguably almost brings them stooping down to the level of the male part of the species.

Before there was Barbie, there was Greta Gerwig's 2019 adaptation of Little Women. Based on the classic novel published in 1868 by Louisa Mae Alcott (I'm just realizing that somehow I've never read any of her other works), at first glance, this remake might seem unnecessary since the 1994 version starring Winona Ryder was so excellent.

But along with Gerwig as an awesome director who creatively plays with the story's timeline, the six-time-Oscar-nominated movie is essential because of the cast. Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet are clearly among the top talents in Hollywood today, likeably playing the roles earlier perfected by Ryder and Christian Bale. When Meryl Streep, Emma Stone, Laura Dern, Bob Odenkirk, and Florence Pugh are relegated to supporting actors, you know a film might be great. 

Little Women is set just after the Civil War, as young people finally get the chance to throw out some of their worries and focus on good times. This means, for most young women, falling in love with a suitable future husband. But Jo, played by Ronan, is conflicted about this and is committed to being alone and chasing her dream of being a novelist. The movie's release was delayed by the Covid pandemic, which ironically must have felt a lot like the time during the Civil War for young people in stunting their development.

5 out of 5 stars

Now we fall to the other end. Other than the cool ending that reveals who the new Charlie is (the old one has passed away), Charlie’s Angels: The IMAX 2-D Experience, also from 2019, is a high-glitz, low-intelligence stinker. I suppose a case could be made for the Elizabeth Banks-directed production as eye-candy entertainment, but life is a little too short. How the otherwise wise-decision-making Kristen Stewart got attached to this as one of the Angels is what offers the true suspense. Yuck. 

1.5 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Thurston Moore's autobiography surprisingly leaves too much off the table

I'm a big reader of rock-music books, and it's not that often that I find a rock bio about (and especially by) one of my favorite artists that I don't end up finding all that compelling. That has happened with Sonic Life: A Memoir, by Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth.

It's not that Moore didn't put his heart and soul into the book, which is a big one, but he really devotes it to the sounds and bands that influenced him throughout his life. I, on the other hand, was excited about reading it because I actually wanted to learn about his life and his awesome band (which I only got to see once, when they blew my brains out - in a great way, on the Rather Ripped tour - in Dallas).

The interesting stuff I gleaned from his book before abandoning it about a quarter of the way through:
  • Moore was not named after anyone from Gilligan’s Island. It was a family name and the future rock star was born in south Florida, where he lived his first decade before later becoming an icon of New York City along the likes of Lou Reed and The Ramones. 
  • Five-year-old Thurston heard his older brother’s single for “Louie, Louie” and loved it. Up until that point, nothing was played on the stereo in his family's house other than classical music. After that, his brother had a guitar that no amount of padlocks or other blockades could keep Thurston away from.
  • At 16, he heard Iggy Pop and the Stooges and wanted to get Iggy’s haircut. He started taking the 90-minute train ride from his hometown of Bethel, Connecticut to see bands in New York City. 
  • Thurston loved David Bowie, Roxy Music, and Sweet, unlike most kids around him who loved bands like Yes, Boston, and the Allman Brothers. His dad even worried about his sexuality because of all his glam-rock posters. 
  • After high school, his dad unexpectedly slipped into a coma and died.
  • Thurston went off to college, but once he realized that he wasn’t very good at writing gonzo articles about music in the school paper - and the only thing he enjoyed about the whole university experience was smoking cigarettes in the classrooms - he quit. At this point, Thurston needed to stop reading and writing about rock and go down much more frequently to New York to experience it.
  • His true arrival on the NYC scene was in 1976, meaning bands like Lou Reed solo, Talking Heads, Blondie, and Television were around. He loved seeing shows at CBGB, but when Thurston and his friend Harold walked into Max’s and stumbled into a Cramps and Suicide show, he became a rock n’roll goner at that point. 
  • At a Wayne County show in 1976, Thurston met Joey Ramone. They chatted and he felt pretty comfortable around the star, helped by the fact that they were both 6’6”. On his first journey to CBGB, he and Harold were able to say hi again to Joey in the entryway and, not having enough cash to get into the $2.50 Mumps and Blondie show, were lucky enough to sneak in under the auspices of being friends of Joey. 
  • At all the gigs he was seeing, he would agree to smoke weed, do acid or mescaline, and drink alcohol, but it was never really his thing. “I preferred focus. I wanted to study every move, each gesture [of the bands].” Through music, he was looking for “transcendence, devotion, sonic love.” 
  • At 19, he was becoming pretty restless to move to the city - even though Bethel was perfectly comfortable - and devote his life to rock n’roll.
I would have liked to learn more about that life, rather than the many lives that inspired him.

3 out of 5 stars

Monday, June 24, 2024

Great Magazine Reads: First impressions don’t always matter, like when it comes to Pearl Jam

I was always much more on the side of the Nirvana/Mudhoney/Screaming Trees family tree of 1990s Seattle grunge. I flat-out didn't like Pearl Jam for a long time. But over the years, I've acquired a taste for the Hall of Famers and even learned to appreciate the band's earliest, most popular work. 

I'll likely never want to read a full book about Eddie Vedder and the gang, but the legendary rock journalist David Fricke's cover feature in the May issue of MOJO Magazine is just about the right amount I need. The article celebrates 40 years since the first Green River demos. Here are the eight most interesting things I learned and my 39 favorite Pearl Jam songs.

  • Sub Pop Records called Green River the first grunge band. Mark Arm of Mudhoney was the singer/guitarist alongside future Pearl Jammers Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament. The group had all kinds of troubles, including a tour-cancelling van breakdown, almost no audience at CBGB in New York, and broken promises from label reps. I still love a handful of their songs, including “Swallow My Pride.” Goddard and Ament were soon headed to their new band Mother Love Bone.
  • Vedder moved to Seattle from San Diego and wasn’t very appreciated for a while by the tight-knit musician scene and even his new bandmates’ other friends. 
  • Chris Cornell of Soundgarden was integral to acclimating Vedder into the scene, taking him out for beers, talking, and helping the newbie in very kind ways. Of course they would go on to collaborate on the classic “Hunger Strike” in Temple of the Dog.
  • Vedder had been born in Evanston, Illinois and took his mother’s maiden name. His parents had divorced. He sang in a bunch of failed bands but a tape of Ament and Gossard’s music landed in his hands and he wrote lyrics to it, sang over the music, and sent it to them. 
  • In 1991, Ten (named after NBA star Mookie Blaylock’s uniform number) was number 2 on the album chart for a month but could never break past Billy Ray Cyrus.
  • MOJO ranks 1996’s No Code as the band’s greatest album, which is interesting because it’s the one I didn’t have in my collection until now. It’s definitely not my favorite, although “Mankind” is one of my favorite Pearl Jam songs and sounds a lot like the music I was making in bands back then.
  • Nine young men died in a mosh pit crush at Roskilde in 2000 while Pearl Jam played “Daughter.” The band eventually decided to continue on in the spirit of hoping to find solutions to the world’s problems.
  • Vedder found the experience of making and trading bracelets with his daughter when they attended a Taylor Swift concert a lot like the long-ago days of the punk community.
And, drum roll, here are my favorite 39 Pearl Jam songs. Any suggestions for a 40th are more than welcome:

39. Present Tense (No Code, 1996)
38. Seven O’Clock (Gigaton, 2020)
37. The End (Backspacer, 2009)
36. Once (Ten, 1991)
35. Off He Goes (No Code, 1996)
34. Comes Then Goes (Gigaton, 2020)
33. Retrograde (Gagarin, 2020)
32. Upper Hand (Dark Matter, 2024)
31. I Am Mine (Riot Act, 2002)
30. Light Years (Binaural, 2000)
29. Dissident (Vs., 1993)
28. Buckle Up (Gigaton, 2020)
27. Nothingman (Vitalogy, 1994)
26. Parachutes (Pearl Jam, 2006)
25. Worldwide Suicide (Pearl Jam, 2006) 
24. Wreckage (Dark Matter, 2024)
23. Just Breathe (Backspacer, 2009)
22. The Fixer (Backspacer, 2009)
21. Something Special (Dark Matter, 2024)
20. Got Some (Backspacer, 2009)
19. Wishlist (Yield, 1998)
18. Given to Fly (Yield, 1998)
17. Sirens (Lightning Bolt, 2013)
16. Yellow Ledbetter (Jeremy single, 1992)
15. Jeremy (Ten, 1991)
14. Sometimes (No Code, 1996)
13. Black (Ten, 1991)
12. Last Kiss (Last Kiss single, 1999)
11. Breath (Singles soundtrack, 1992)
10. Rearviewmirror (Vs., 1993)
09. Crazy Mary (Sweet Relief compilation, 1993)
08. Alive (Ten, 1991)
07. Even Flow (Ten, 1991)
06. Better Man (Vitalogy, 1994)
05. Daughter (Vs., 1993)
04. Corduroy (Vitalogy, 1994)
03. Mankind (No Code, 1996)
02. Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town (Vs., 1993)
01. State of Love and Trust (Singles soundtrack, 1992)

Sunday, June 23, 2024

Unfrosted tells a lovable origin story of the Pop Tart wars

The unhealthy diets and tummy aches of the Civil War-era led a drive to culinary innovation, and by baking water and graham flour, Dr. James Caleb Jackson of New York was able to create the first breakfast cereal, Granula. 

From there, a Seventh Day Adventist in Battle Creek, Michigan named John Harvey Kellogg set about making “ready-to-eat cereals widely available at grocery stores.” Kellogg called his formula Granola. Creative, eh? By 1902 there were 40 cereal manufacturers in Battle Creek, including Grape-Nuts, Grape-Nut Flakes, Shredded Wheat, and Toasted Corn Flakes.

For more on cereal history, I highly recommend The Great American Cereal Book and also T.C. Boyle’s The Road to Wellville from 1993, which I somehow haven’t read yet.

The evolution of breakfast was on my mind when I watched Jerry Seinfeld’s new movie Untoasted - an Austin Powers-like, star-studded, rapid-fire, candy-colored comedy on Netflix. Jerry plays a Mad Man-like exec at Kellogg's in 1963 in, yes, Battle Creek who is doing battle indeed with Amy Schumer's Post to be the first to land on a pastry that will take kids' minds off always eating nothing but cereal for breakfast. Which company will get what we've come to know as Pop Tarts into the hands of the most kids?

The cast of characters is not only an endless stream of stars, but Jerry equips them with really funny material. Melissa McCarthy and Jim Gaffigan shine on the Kellogg's team, as does Hugh Grant as an extremely strange Shakespearean Tony the Tiger, Christian Slater as the head of the evil milkmen syndicate, Bill Burr as a sexually debauched President Kennedy, Mikey Day as the leader of the Snap Crackle and Pops, Kyle Dunnigan as Walter Cronkite and Johnny Carson, and John Slattery and Jon Hamm as ad men.

The movie doesn't get great reviews and, while it is a lot of eye candy to handle, I really like it and think it's the kind of thing - because its bowl is so overflowing with jokes - that might actually be good to watch a few times.

4.5 out of 5 stars

BONUS: When I recorded Avalanche on Fubo, I didn't really know what I was going to get. I thought it might be a high-school movie along the lines of Porky's or Hot Dog: The Movie. But instead it's a melodramatic disaster flick from 1978. Bad as it is, I couldn't take my eyes off it because it's a Roger Corman production, which means just off-kilter and weird enough - and bad enough - to be good. Mia Farrow attends her ex-husband Rock Hudson's ski-resort opening. Robert Forster tries to warn them that the resort is in an environmentally unstable location. They get into a three-way relationship and the whole thing is a big mess. The movie, filmed in Colorado, cost a ton to create and bombed at the box office. 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Friday, June 21, 2024

Wilco continues to play rock concerts that just can't be beat for me

I've seen quite a few Wilco concerts, and it's good to know the band still has it. Last night's show at Wolftrap in Virginia was among the best ones I've seen. I wasn't sure if they would call it in on the way to the curated gathering the band puts together every summer called Solid Sound, but instead it appeared the players were in complete synchronicity with each other, and Wolftraps's sound on the lawn was very crisp.

One way to describe what I heard is the way Glen Kotche described his instrument back in 2004's The Wilco Book (which is a fun picture book about the making of the album A Ghost Is Born):

"I think drums - percussion - can be used not only as a rhythym instrument, but also for color and texture (as in an orchestra). I think that the drum kit hasn't been explored enough outside the parameters of groove-based jazz or rock and that has an exciting future."

Kotche's drums bashed in pastiches when leader Jeff Tweedy wasn't singing, and sometimes when he was. Meanwhile, Tweedy is a masterful Jerry Garcia-type figurehead, with beautiful singing to guide the path with his own ripping guitar and the iconic lead playing of Nels Cline and Pat Sansone's Nels Cline-approaching talents as well. Bassist John Stiratt quietly plays up a strorm while holding everything together tightly.

The setlist:

  1. Misunderstood
  2. Forget the Flowers
  3. Handshake Drugs
  4. At Least That's What You Said
  5. I Am My Mother
  6. Cruel Country
  7. I Am Trying to Break Your Heart
  8. Meant to Be
  9. If I Ever Was a Child
  10. Theologians
  11. Cousin
  12. Bird Without a Tail / Base of My Skull
  13. Hummingbird
  14. Evicted
  15. Box Full of Letters
  16. I'm Always in Love
  17. Jesus, Etc.
  18. Impossible Germany
  19. Heavy Metal Drummer
  20. A Shot in the Arm
  1. California Stars (Billy Bragg & Wilco cover)
  2. Falling Apart (Right Now)
  3. Via Chicago
  4. Spiders (Kidsmoke)
"Meant to Be" and "Evicted" are great new entries into the Wilco cannon from Cousin (my 9th-favorite album of 2023). Look at all those other classic entries into the set: "Misunderstood," "Handshake Drugs," "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart," "Theologians," "Hummingbird," "Box Full of Letters," "Jesus, Etc.," "Heavy Metal Drummer," "California Stars," Via Chicago," and "Spiders (Kidsmoke)." Then there's my favorite "Impossible Germany." I fear the thought of someday making a list of my favorite Wilco songs. It will not be easy.

As if I needed more evidence on a fun night under the moon with friends before a major heat wave arrives in Washington, D.C., this show cemented Wilco/Uncle Tupelo/Son Volt as my fourth-favorite band of all time. And openers Cut Worms were also very good in a Buddy Holly-meets-Grateful-Dead-way.

5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, June 19, 2024

We are part of Sapiens, which is just one of the multiple human species that have existed

I've started reading Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari, and - if you're interested in people at all - it's a gripping read with each and every paragraph. It's broken into four parts, or revolutions: cognitive, agricultural, the unification of mankind, and scientific. My multi-part overview begins with Part 1 on the start of The Cognitive Revolution.

Harari's timeline at the beginning includes the most crucial of stats and puts everything nicely in context. That was what was missing in another history of humankind I recently read, A Little History of the World, by E.H. Gombrich. (Side conversation: If you’re looking for a chronological human history, Gombrich's book is a little all over the place and probably not for you. That said, his humor - and the narrator in the audiobook is very good too - is really well worth the read all by itself.) 

Back to Harari:

  • Matter and energy appeared 13.5 billion years ago - the world of physics beginning about 300,000 years later with the Big Bang. The world of chemistry began with atoms and molecules interacting.
  • Earth was formed 4.5 billion years ago. Then, about 3.8 billion years ago, the world of biology started when molecules formed organisms.
  • Fast forward to 6 million years ago, when humans and chimpanzees shared the last of their immediate relatives.
  • The genus Homo - species that evolve from a common ancestor and which are very closely related to modern humans (Homo Sapien self gratuitously means wise man) - evolved in Africa and invented the first stone tools 2.5 million years ago.
  • Humans spread from Africa to Eurasia 2 million years ago.
  • Neanderthals evolved in Europe and the Middle East 500,000 years ago.
  • After an astoudingly long time continuing to exist and evolve in the cold, fire was invented and being used daily 200,000 years ago.
Harari's narrative begins 70,000 years ago with "The Cognitive Revolution," with this being essentially the start of our history, language emerging, and Sapiens finally spreading beyond Africa (long after other types of human species did). They settled in Australia 45,000 years ago, alongside the extinction of that continent's megafauna. Neanderthals became extinct 30,000 years ago. Sapiens setted America 16,000 years ago as American megafauna went extinct. 

From about 2 million years ago to 10,000 years ago, there were several different human species roaming the world. It wasn’t exactly like the posters we see of apes slowly progressing into modern humans. It was just like how today there are many species of dogs, foxes, bears, and pigs. Someday there very likely could be multiple human species on Earth as well.

If you traveled back 150,000 years ago, most scientists agree there were humans walking around East Africa that looked pretty much like us today. 70,000 years ago they started spreading through Eurasia. There are differing theories, but it seems most likely that Sapiens somehow killed off Neanderthals and everyone alive today harkens back to that original Sapien species from East Africa. This species made its way from Africa to Europe and Asia then to Australia and North America and finally to South America. There is some evidence and ongoing research to determine if Neanderthals weren’t completely killed off but actually merged with Sapiens and still exist in some small percentages to this day.

Homo Sapiens have long viewed ourselves "as set apart from animals. But that's just not the case. Like it or not, we are members of a large and particularly noisy family called the great apes. Our closest living relatives include chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans. The chimpanzees are the closest. Just 6 million years ago, a single female ape had two daughters. One became the ancestor of all chimpanzees, the other is our own grandmother."

Humans have paid dearly for our many advantages. While being upright is nice because we can scan the landscape for threats and use our hands for things like throwing rocks at those threats, it is not easy to carry upright our heavy brains. These big-head-causing brains also have made it so we need to be born premature for mothers to survive childbirth, which is why it takes us a much longer time than animal babies, which typically start walking, eating on their own, and doing other mature things much faster than humans. 

The human place in the food chain, until recently, was right in the middle. We only jumped to the top about 100,000 years ago. While species like sharks and lions evolved over a much longer period of time to rule the food chain, humans ascended quickly, which made us “full of fears and anxieties over our position, which makes us doubly cruel and dangerous.”

Fire was huge for us to because we could chew and digest our cooked food in an hour or so while chimps would take about five hours to do the same thing with raw foods. Cooking is believed to have “opened the way to the jumbo brains of Neanderthals and Sapiens.”

RIP Willie Mays

I didn’t go baseball crazy until the late 1970s, so I missed all the hoopla by a handful of years. But anyone who knows a little about the game knows that one highlight of Willie Mays sprinting straight towards the outfield wall with the #24 on his back facing directly to home plate. The ball somehow magically drops in straight over the back of his head and into his waist-high glove.

Perhaps most pertinent here, Mays was a fixture in pop-culture commentary, by the likes of Woody Allen, Peanuts, and songs “Say Hey (the Willie Mays Song)” in 1954 by the Treniers and “Talkin’ Baseball (Willie, Mickey, and The Duke)” in 1981 by Terry Cashman.

Here’s the line on Mays, who has passed away at the age of 93 in Palo Alto, California, from heart failure:

  • He played in the Negro League as a teen and then from 1951 to 1973 for the Giants, first in New York and then when the team moved to San Francisco. He missed time from 1952 to 1954 for his stint in the Army.
  • A case can be made that he’s the greatest baseball player ever, including the full package of speed, arm strength, excellent fielding, home-run hitting, and hitting for average.
  • He was the oldest living member of the Baseball Hall of Fame.
  • His nickname, “The Say Hey Kid,” was based on his optimism and his love for the game.
  • Mays had a lifetime .301 average, with 660 homers and 3,293 hits. He was named to 24 All-Star teams and awarded 12 Gold Gloves. Ridiculous numbers.
  • He finished his career third overall in home runs at the time behind only Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron.
  • He made more than a few of those over-the-shoulder catches but that famous one was in the 1954 World Series against Cleveland, and that was his only championship.
  • Mays came along four years after color-barrier-breaking Jackie Robinson, which was fortuitous for Mays because Americans were getting TVs en masse so he became an even more massive superstar than would have been possible just a few years earlier.
  • While Robinson became an outspoken hero of civil-rights causes, Mays laid low on that front and, in a different way, did his part to bring whites and Blacks together, if only because so many white fans enjoyed watching him play so much.

Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Bottoms reaches comedy-weird deep to become the new Wet Hot American Summer

Have you ever wondered what high school might be like if everyone said out loud exactly what everyone was thinking? 

No? Me neither. But that doesn’t stop Bottoms, on Amazon Prime, from trying to tell such a story. And it's a pretty outrageous coming-of-age, high-school movie.

Fans of The Bear who are sick of waiting for Season 3 later this summer will especially want to enjoy Ayo Edebiri's performance as a loser lesbian supposedly fresh out of juvie. Her comedy timing and facial gestures are every bit as strong here as in her TV smash hit.

Rachel Sennott co-stars as a wackier version of the same character she played in 2021's Shiva Baby (which isn't surprising since Emma Seligman directed both films; that one was good but this one is better)

Perhaps best of all is teacher Marshawn Lynch of pro-football fame as a lazy and porn-distracted teacher who agrees to sponsor the girls' fight club as a way to protect themselves from the nasty and unually effeminate football jocks. The girls are able to get the club going under the guise of female empowerment, but, in true dirty-teen-comedy form, all they really start it for is to have a chance at sex with cheerleaders.

I was trying to put my finger on what this film reminded me about, but then I read a Seligman quote in which she described Bottoms as a "campy queer high-school comedy in the vein of Wet Hot American Summer but more for a Gen-Z queer audience." 

Anything described to be like Wet Hot American Summer (my 34th favorite movie of all time), count me. 

4.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, June 16, 2024

Hit Man shows that Richard Linklater can straddle the line of mainstream and independent

I've long espoused the mastery of Richard Linklater, who I now place as my third-favorite movie director behind Alfred Hitchcock and Quentin Tanrantino. And while his latest, Hit Man on Netflix, is not his greatest, it's about as entertaining of a new release as you'll find, offering fun for both rom-com and action-crime fans (and it has a 97% on Rotten Tomatoes).

I just reviewed another Glen Powell movie, Anyone But You, but Hit Man (along with 2016's Everybody Wants Some!!) really proves that this man is a star. He pulls off the Fletch-like task of changing into multiple characters in order to transform as a univeristy professor into a guy who disguises himself as a hit man for the New Orleans police in order to catch people before they are able to kill. Further, Powell wrote the script with Linklater.

What I wrote about Boyhood, my favorite movie of 2014, still holds:

If you're a fan of Linklater's other classics like Dazed and Confused, School of Rock, Before Sunrise, Slacker, Fast Food Nation, and Bernie, then you will surely think this is brilliant.

The director is usually more daring than he is with Hit Man. There was the 12-year real-life span of making Boyhood, the adult-focused animation of Waking Life, and the all-in-one-day story of the "Before" trilogy. He sticks with a strong focus on dialogue, which keeps it in the "independent" realm but still makes Hit Man his most mainstream movie ever. It works.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, June 15, 2024

Bye Bye Birdie flies like a butterfly through D.C.'s Kennedy Center

I have a bit of a rule that I really don't enjoy musicals. I know, I co-wrote Wiener Sausage: The Musical! Of course there are great ones out there like Hedwig and the Angry Inch. There are movies like La La Land, Grease, Yesterday, Willy Wonka, A Star is Born, The Doors, Sing Street, and the list goes on.

So, ok, I guess I tolerate and every once in a while love musicals, which made going to the Kennedy Center Thursday night to see Bye Bye Birdie a little bit of a risky situation. But, it turns out, you would have to be a seriously hardened individual to not get carried away in the relentless joy of this story of the age-old struggles between Ed Sullivan-loving parents and their risque-pop-star-loving teens.

Despite the fact that I really want to start going to theater performances again (after a lack of doing so over the past five years, especially after letting my Woolly Mammoth season pass expire), I probably would not have gone to Bye Bye without the added incentive of seeing my wife's cousin Caroline Aaron in action. She's a renowned actor well-known to audiences from her roles in Woody Allen movies, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Edward Scissorhands, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and many more. This was the first time I've seen her on stage, and she doesn't disappoint as the curmudgeonly, racist mother of a record executive named Albert who has dreams of leaving the business, settling down with his girl Rosie, and becoming an English teacher.

With Albert's main client, Conrad Birdie, getting drafted into the military, this seems like the time for Rosie to convince Albert to make a clean break from his occupation. She comes up with a plan for Albert to immediately write a song for Conrad to sing on the Ed Sullivan Show before he leaves and to give "one last kiss" to a lucky member of Birdie's fan club. That's where the other side of the story comes in: Kim from Sweet Apple, Ohio is a member of the fan club and wins the kiss, but this causes strife with her steady boyfriend Hugo and her dad, played hilariously by Richard Kind, of Red Oaks, Scrubs, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Mad About You, and many others.

Bye Bye Birdie has a rich history. here are some interesting nuggets about the show:

  • The script was inspired by Elvis Presley getting drafted into the Army.
  • Conrad Birdie was a play on country singer Conway Twitty's name.
  • The original Broadway production starting in 1960 starred Dick Van Dyke, Chita Rivera, and Paul Lynde.
  • In this new production, Ephraim Sykes plays Birdie, and he is well known for his roles in Hamilton, Vinyl, and 30 Rock.
  • "Put On a Happy Face" is by far the song I recognized the most before seeing the show.
All of the songs are catchy in the production, the orchestra is magnificant, and the dancers are incredibly talented. My minor complaints are that I think some of the numbers are a little too long and, with such a thin story line, the fare is air light (not necessarily a bad thing in these often dark times).

4 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, June 11, 2024

The Count of Monte Cristo is a tour de force of reading adventure

1844's The Count of Monte Cristo by France's Alexandre Dumas (how cool-looking is that author? what a rock star) has stood as my favorite adventure classic novel since my days as an undergrad English lit major. It tells the history of Napoleonic times in 1800s France but wrapped in the added excitement of an action/adventure modern-era-type flick.

I highly recommend the full-length, epic novel for anyone who doesn't know the story. I also just listened to the abridged audiobook from Naxos Audiobooks, which is available to anyone with a library card in the Hoopla app. It's only two hours and suffers by losing all the excellent suspense and character development of the full experience. I listened to parts of the unabridged, 52-hour audiobook and, sure enough, it's a lot better. But it's also 52 hours!

In the story, it's 1815 and Napoleon has just escaped from his exile in Elba, off the western coast of Italy. Edmond Dantès has just been named captain of a ship that makes runs between France and Elba and agrees to deliver some packages back and forth for some Bonapartists. A crewmate is jealous that Dantès gets named captain and, just as Dantès is about to marry his fiancée Mercédès, the crewmate conspires to spread word that Dantès is a Napoleon sympathizer.

Dantès is arrested and sentenced without a trial to life imprisonment at the Château d'If in Marseille. After six years in the dank place, Dantès is preparing to commit suicide when the Abbé Faria, an Italian priest, pops into his cell after digging a wayward escape tunnel. The Abbé helps Dantès figure out the many people who were involved in the constructed conspiracy to lock him up. Additionally, he turns Dantès into a complete intellectual over the next eight years and also informs him of a treasure on the island of Monte Cristo south of Elba.

That's all I really want to tell you. The tale takes off on an extended jam in revenge adventure. His kindness to those who have helped him through life stand in stark contrast to the subtle manipulations which he uses to slowly torture those who have betrayed him - and each are traits that are a joy to see as they unfold. Which way will he go with Fernand Mondego (his old best friend), Danglars (his former ship crewmate), Villefort (the crafty magistrate), Mercédès (his former fiancee), and others?

If I were recommending one ancient classic piece of literature, it might very well be The Count of Monte Cristo.

  • Reading the full book: 5 out of 5 stars
  • Listening to the full audiobook: 4 out of 5 stars
  • Listening to the abridged audiobook: 3 out of 5 stars

Monday, June 10, 2024

Joaquin Phoenix's depiction of Napoleon is one for the ages

While there is plenty of great stuff to see on Apple TV, there is also a lifetime’s worth elsewhere. So I cancelled my subscription upon completing 2023's Napoleon - a great way to go out with a bang.

Joaquin Phoenix has built a legend with some of the greatest performances in modern film, including The Joker, Her, Walk the Line, Quills, and The Master. He is the perfect Napoleon Bonaparte and this movie touches nicely on the French leader's major war battles and personal conflicts. It could have equally been a 10-episode TV series to fill in many more of the endlessly interesting details of his life.

Here are some of the things depicted in the movie that everyone high-school age and over should know about Napoeon Bonaparte:

  • The film's story opens in 1789, with Marie Antoinette getting beheaded for her sympathies to the supposed enemies of France. This welcomed in the famed Reign of Terror. 
  • Napoleon Bonaparte is in the crowd to witness the beheading. He is a young ambitious soldier from Corsica who is promoted after an impressive raid of the British at Toulon.
  • He marries Joséphine de Beauharnais, who had been locked up as part of the Reign, and they have a robust sex life but can't conceive children. They also are not faithful to each other. (More than 41,000 prisoners were released at the end of The Reign of Terror.)
  • As the tables turn and the French Royalists are rounded up, the former prisoners and people like Napoleon move into the mansions of Paris.
  • The Battle of Austerlitz is a key exhibit of Napoleon's strategic genius, as he lures the Austrian emenies into a trap that backs them onto a frozen lake where Napoleon annihilates them.
  • In 1812, Napoleon invaded Russia, only to find Moscow vacated in the dead of winter. Moscow burns, but France retreats, having lost an astouding amount of its military - estimated at more than half a million French dead.
  • The failure in Russia causes the first of his exiles, with the powers that be shipping him off to the island of Elba. 
  • After he sweet talks his way back into leadership, an epic Battle of Waterloo scene unfolds, which is actually the beginning of the end for Napoleon. After Joséphine has already succumbed to pneumonia (after their divorce), he also dies in another exile on the island of Saint Helena in 1821 - soon after witnessing an ominous fly in his drink.
  • The movie notes that nearly 3 million people died in Napoleon's wars.
Whether he was a great man or something else, it seems difficult to tell - certainly from this movie. But it is great cinema. I loved it, and if you want some historical fiction with love, war, and more, you should watch it. Napoleon left me wanting to know lots more than I currently do about this wildly fascinating time in human history.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, June 8, 2024

"Winning ugly" in tennis is all about finding your opponent's weaknesses

Since I've whole-heartedly gotten back into competitive tennis, former pro Brad Gilbert's classic Winning Ugly: Mental Warfare in Tennis and Lessons from a Master has been a book at the top of my list to read. I'm going to sum up the most interesting bits in this three-part series. Here's part 1. 

First published in 1992, when Jim Courier and Monica Seles were each number one in the world, I'm finding the advice to be timeless, even through the Nadal/Federer/Djokovic era and into the modern Alcaraz/Sinner/Zverev one.

Gilbert was a winner when he played on the pro tour not because he was a better athlete than his competitors but because he thought a lot between points and matches. Timothy Gallwey’s philosophies, which I recently wrote about, are on the intuitive processes while Gilbert’s is on the analytical processes. Gallwey focuses on the inner game while Gilbert focuses on seeing what’s in front of you and doing something about it.

He says that by using the advice given in Winning Ugly, tennis players’ chances of winning each match will go up by 20 percent. 

Gilbert prepares for 10 minutes on his way to matches by trying to answer what weaknesses of his opponent to exploit. This will determine how he will serve, what parts of his own game he should rely upon, and where he wants to place himself most often on the court.

Exploiting opportunities is key, and Gilbert says it's even easier at the recreational level than the pro level. Only once or twice out of every 10 matches will you encounter another player who isn’t lazy and is actually thinking about a game plan before the match. Players usually just show up to play, but you can get a step up on them if you review your notes on that player (if you have played them before), arrive at the courts early and stretch to loosen up, hit around with anyone else who might be there for some light warm-up, and work on your serve before the match. That should almost be an assurance to win the match over your opponent, Gilbert writes. "Recreational players are usually long on running and short on thinking." 

I sometimes play guys who, two hours into the match, ask if I have any extra water. That should be a sign that they aren’t too serious, Gilbert claims. Therefore, the tennis bag checklist is crucial:

  • Why do some people have seemingly way too many rackets? There’s good reason. If control is proving to be a problem on any given day (or even just over the course of the past three or four games), go to a more tightly strung racket (which will be a higher number). If I’m getting overpowered and need more power myself, I can go with a racket strung looser (which will be a lower number). I've always found stringing confusing. Go here for how it's done.
  • Take tape and band aids. I could have used some in my last match when a toenail got crunched halfway through. 
  • Along these lines, take two Advil or Tylenol or whatever pain medicine before and after a match and bring some in your bag. And bring pain rubs. 
  • Even just a few minutes of stretching before a match will pay off. Opponents often just warm up their arms and hands. Focus on your legs. Running in tennis movements back and forth and up and back in the court, and kicking your butt as you run, will get the legs ready. "Gradual, gentle, smooth stretching, never strain," and especially stretch the groin. Finally, don't forget to stretch after matches before cooling down. 

In the warmup with the other player: 

  • Continue stretching. 
  • Get your eyes and body working together. 
  • Begin to assess your opponent. 
  • For defrosting your strokes in the short warmup, volley for a few minutes and stay on the balls of your feet, work on hitting deep with your baseline strokes and try to work on your weaker stroke (typically the backhand), hit a few overheads to help practice your serve, and practice tossing the ball 4 or 5 times before actually warming up your serve.

What to watch for when warming up with your opponent, especially if you’ve never played them before:

  • When he's at the net warming up his volley, hit a surprise lob to see whether his footwork is quick or clumsy.
  • When he's at the net, hit a ball near his feet to see if he bends his knees or drops his racket with the lazy man’s volley.
  • When warming up at the baseline, hit the ball down the middle to see whether he favors the forehand or backhand. And does he hit slices or other unusual shots, does he have big looping strokes or compact ones? The strokes that are the prettiest in warmup are ugly in a match, so never be impressed in the warmup.

To deal with pre-match nerves: 

  • Practice taking deep breaths, like you have asthma.
  • To avoid heavy feet, stay on the balls of your feet, not only in warmups but in the important parts of a match. Tell yourself “toes not heels.” This works on your opponent's mind too. 
  • Try to read the label on the ball as it comes to you. This will take your mind off your nerves and onto a pleasant distraction, even if you can't truly tell whether the ball says Penn or Wilson.
  • Sing a song.
That should be enough for a while. I'll report back with more of Gilbert's advice after I've read another third of his classic.

Thursday, June 6, 2024

Elvis turned in a strong acting performance in Flaming Star, a Western set in the 1800s

I was listening to a podcast recently with Quentin Tarantino discussing the films that had influenced him at an early age and I was surprised to hear him speak so glowingly about a movie starring Elvis Presley.

Of course I love "Suspicious Minds," "In the Ghetto," Don't Be Cruel," and many other Elvis songs, but I never found his movies much worth discussing. I recently switched my streaming live TV from Sling to Fubo and I was excited that Tarantino's suggestion, Flaming Star, from 1960, is available there. I really enjoyed it and it's easy to see the similarities with Tarantino's work (incidentally, he's my favorite director behind Alfred Hitchcock).

It may be a little nonsensical, but, in the movie, you never want to utter the sentence “I saw the flaming star of death.” That apparently means you are dying and need to crawl off into the wilderness to do so. Elvis plays a mixed-blood character named Pacer Burton who lives with his white father and brother and Kiowa Native American mother in the open hill country of Texas. He is torn between staying with his peaceful ranching family or siding with the Kiowa to avenge the racism by many of the other nearby white people.

Elvis is noted by many critics and fans for turning in one of his best acting performances. Another reason I really enjoyed the movie is that the acting overall is better than most Westerns, including strong performances from I Dream of Jeannie's Barbara Eden and John McIntire as the dad, who also famously played Sheriff Al Chambers in my favorite movie Psycho, also released in 1960.

Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando had been pegged to play the brothers in Flaming Star, but Elvis ended up getting the lead role as he was seeking more parts with less singing (he does sing and play a little guitar early on in the movie).  

Oh, and Elvis's song "Flaming Star" as part of the soundtrack is a really good galloping number that I had somehow never heard before.

4 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, June 5, 2024

Sherman Alexie's Part-Time Indian can help pre-teens understand and empathize with a world that is cruel to many people

Since my daughter is now 10, it occurs to me that there won't necessarily be a whole slew of nights left when I get the chance to read to and with her before bedtime. Back in March, I wrote about one of my favorite authors, Sherman Alexie, and how he has a modern classic book that is nearly perfect for pre-teens:

Next on my list from Alexie is his young-adult novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, from 2007. It’s listed in 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die, which notes its revered status as a favorite on banned-book lists by school boards. It’s “controversial in the way life itself is controversial: unsettled, uneasy … devastating one day and comic the next.” Alexie also won the 2009 Odyssey Award for his reading of it as the year’s best audiobook.

We finished it tonight and the novel gets two major thumbs-ups from me and my daughter. Although most people will be attracted by the banned-book designation, there will be a handful of racists and prudes who will consider it a badge of honor towards their U.S. patriotism to not approve of this book. (There are a couple of sections about masturbation and other teen tomfoolery that I kind of mumbled through, but certainly nothing that is bannable and the tale itself is never less than page-turning.)

We read the 10th-anniversary edition and Alexie added details in a postscript about how the narrator, Arnold Spirit Jr., also known as "Junior," was more-than-a-little based off his own early-teen years. Junior is an aspiring cartoonist and good basketball player who decides to leave his Spokane reservation to attend a white high school. This irritates many on the rez, especially his best friend Rowdy, who is based off Alexie's best friend growing up named Randy, who would later die as an adult when he wasn't wearing his seat belt in a car crash.

Because of Junior's balancing act between the worlds of Native Americans and whites, I've never read a better description of the many ways it must feel alienating to live in the U.S. as members of reservation communities. The descriptions of alcohol abuse, violence and bullying, and abject poverty are harrowing.

Alexie began writing it as a memoir but then was convinced by an editor to turn it into a young-adult novel. Still, he noted that it's "about 78 percent" a true story. From the first sentence, when Junior informs us he was "born with water on the brain," Alexie opens up an entire world of a poor person with a disability and all kinds of other issues to deal with that, in my mind, can help prepare a pre-teen for the world and all the empathy that is needed to survive healthily within it.

5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, June 4, 2024

Great Newspaper Reads: The legend of "Cannonball" and The Breeders keeps growing 30 years later

I've seen Kim Deal twice in her role as bassist for the Pixies - in New York and in Washington D.C. - but I've never seen The Breeders, which is often considered her "other band." But I would consider them both among the greatest rock bands ever, and an argument could be made that The Breeders' album Last Splash is better than any of the Pixies' records.

As The Breeders toured last fall, celebrating the 30th anniversary of Last Splash and the mega-hit "Cannonball," I missed the show in Silver Spring, Maryland, but The Washington Post had a great feature. Here are 10 interesting nuggets from that article and my 25 favorite songs by the band.

  1. "Cannonball" was called the 22nd greatest indie anthem by New Musical Express, the 83rd greatest song of the 1990s by VH1, and one of the 500 best songs ever by Rolling Stone.
  2. The band had already been through a handful of lineups, but the true magic happened when Tanya Donelly left to start Belly and Kim's sister Kelley Deal joined on guitar, even though she barely knew how to play the thing. That lack of knowledge made for some highly creative riffs unimaginable to any virtuoso - "more guitar strategy than technique" - and her vocal harmonies with her twin sister were from another universe.
  3. When Kelley joined the band, she was working for a defense contractor in their hometown of Dayton, Ohio.
  4. Kelley called Neil Young's guitar solo on "Down by the River," consisting of one note 38 times over and over, "the best f___ing solo ever."
  5. Kim never explains any of her lyrics, and most of them are really tough to even attempt deciphering.
  6. The whole myth that Kim was trapped in Pixies is false, she says, and that it was Charles Thompson/Black Francis/Frank Black's band all along.
  7. The band broke up after Last Splash, but it was never anaything intentional. The whole thing just kind of collapsed via lack of communication, much of which led to a heroin addiction for Kelley, drugs and alcohol for Kim, a general retreat from the exhaustion of it all by bassist Josephine Wiggs, and a fight between Kim and alcoholic drummer Jim Macpherson that resulted in the two not speaking for 15 years.
  8. The Breeders have recently opened some dates on pop superstar Olivia Rodrigo's tour, including at Madison Square Garden.
  9. The Deal sisters still live in Dayton. Macpherson also lives there and is a carpenter.
  10. The three of them, plus Wiggs, still regularly practice together.

My favorite Breeders songs (including the album and year)

25. Freed Pig (Head to Toe EP, 1994, Sebadoh cover)
24. Divine Mascis (Last Splash 30th Annoversary, 2023)
23. Little Fury (Title TK, 2002)
22. London Song (Title TK, 2002)
21. I Can't Help It (If I'm Still in Love With You) (Divine Hammer single, 1993)
20. Lime House (Pod, 1991)
19. Happiness is a Warm Gun (Pod, 1991, Beatles cover)
18. Huffer (Title TK, 2002)
17. Saints (Last Splash, 1993)
16. Shocker in Gloomtown (Head to Toe EP, 1994, Guided by Voices cover)
15. Hellbound (Pod, 1991)
14. Invisible Man (Last Splash, 1993)
13. New Year (Last Splash, 1993)
12. Safari (Safari EP, 1992)
11. Do You Love Me Now Jr? (Divine Hammer single, 1993)
10. So Sad About Us (Safari EP, 1992, The Who cover)
09. When I Was a Painter (Pod, 1991)
08. Fortunately Gone (Pod, 1991)
07. Off You (Title TK, 2002)
06. Full On Idle (Title TK, 2002)
05. Do You Love Me Now? (Last Splash, 1993)
04. Drivin' on 9 (Last Splash, 1993)
03. No Aloha (Last Splash, 1993)
02. Divine Hammer (Last Splash, 1993)
01. Cannonball (Last Splash, 1993)

Monday, June 3, 2024

Chuck Paluhniak's Survivor takes a disturbed journey through the mind of the last member of a suicide cult

For obsessives about cults and Chuck Paluhniak's Fight Club, his 1999 novel Survivor is just what the doctor ordered. 

The story starts with a bang, as Tender Branson, the last surviving member of the suicide Creedish Church cult, has forced an entire plane of people out on an island and made the pilot take him back up before forcing him out the hatch because Tender has to pee so badly and can't see any other way to make it happen. With everyone gone, he figures he has two hours or so to tell his story on the black box before the autopilot and gas run out.

The start is classic. And even if the rest of the book isn't quite as good, it is an entertaining take on how mass murderers and other unusual characters take on the roles of celebrity in our culture. Survivor is also memorable for how the story is told, with the last chapter occuring first and then working all the way down to chapter one as the conclusion.

Tender's life story is kind of a mishmash, but in a mentally disturbed, disturbing, and again entertaining way. He has a job as a house cleaner and often rattles off lists of basic chores he performs like a how-to YouTube video playlist. Making lobsters for the home owners one night, he steals one for himself then realizes he's eating it while it's still alive. He also has a job answering calls on a crisis hotline and always instructs people simply to kill themselves. 

Growing up in his cult community, Tender had 13 siblings. All his family is dead, reportedly in a mass suicide - at least for the children who hadn't already been eaten by the adults. Several had not died; however, by the time Tender is telling his story, he is the last one, as a murderer may have been stalking his other remaining siblings.

Being the sole survivor, he had become famous, gone on a book tour, and appeared on the cover of People. Part of his fame came from his girlfriend-groupie-prostitute Fertility helping him predict the disasters of the future. And even though they attempt to get married in a huge ceremony during halftime at the Super Bowl (it doesn't happen because he screams out that the Colts will beat the Cardinals 27-24 and pandemonium breaks out across the stadium), his talent waned pretty quickly and a planned TV spinoff fell through. He considered how committing suicide would keep him in the spotlight for a bit. 

Like Fight Club, the whole thing is pretty discombobulating because of the scattered timeline but also because the narrator has a multitude of personalities he himself can't quite figure out. Partly for those reasons (and also because of 9/11), a planned film adaptation was postponed and still has yet to happen. But for telling narratives about what a celebrity-obsessed and depraved society we live in, Paluhniak is about as great as it gets.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, June 1, 2024

Palm Royale season 1 has Kristen Wiig comedically busting into country-club society

Kristen Wiig has had a disastrous run since her wildly hilarious days at Saturday Night Live. OK, Bridesmaids is a classic. And granted, she played strong bit parts in Anchorman 2, Extract, Adventureland, and MacGruber. But super stinkers have included The Skeleton Twins, Date Night, and Friends with Kids.

The lowest of lows arrived with her last production, which I was initially pretty excited about. Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar was excrement stinkier than whatever would be considered the worst of Adam Sandler (who I love of course).

But Wiig's got a winner with the 10-episode first season of Palm Royale on Apple TV. I thought I would give it a try for a couple episodes but ended up binging the period piece, which bursts with color straight out of 1969 Florida. 

Looking like somewhat of a grown-up Marcia Brady. Wiig grifts her way into country-club society in elite Palm Beach, battling the strong forces of Ricky Martin, Josh Lucas (who I fondly recall hot tubbing with at his sister's wedding), Allison Janney, Bruce and Laura Dern, and many others (including Natalie of Facts of Life).

The story is totally wacky but has several strong Agatha Christy-ish storylines, not least the one involving a mostly comatose Carol Burnett. The show's design is as strong as that of Mad Men, which is saying a lot.

The final episode ends on a major cliffhanger, which would suggest a season 2 is on the way. Critics were not super kind to the show, but I think it's one of the better comedies I've seen over the past year (perhaps an admittedly low bar). The zany plotlines about a beached whale, Richard Nixon, a prince, an astronaut, and Wiig's Maxine being stranded in the middle of the ocean are creative and entertaining.

3.5 out of 5 stars