The Sunday Magazine: The Beginning of The End

When I saw the trailer for Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker something hit me. 2019 will be the final year in whatever this geek pop culture renaissance comes to be called. Starting tonight with the premiere of the final season of “Game of Thrones” through to Avengers: Endgame in two weeks until The Rise of Skywalker at Christmas. Three huge properties will finish the ambitious stories they took on.

The progenitor of all of this was Star Wars in 1977; what would come to be Episode IV A New Hope. The phenomenon which would spring out of its success is the spark which lit the geek pop culture renaissance on fire. What I would also say is things didn’t really kick into high gear until we made the turn towards the new century. Studios had no idea how to transform the subject matter at the comic book shop or the sci-fi/fantasy book store. It produced mostly okay to bad attempts with the best being things which weren’t adaptations. No fans to disappoint. No material to stay faithful to. Star Wars returned in 1999 with Episode I: The Phantom Menace. George Lucas was given the complete creative control he wanted. I like Episodes I-III more than most because it always felt like Star Wars. This would become the blueprint for what came next.

If there was a consistent issue with all the adaptations prior to 2000 it was the studios didn’t trust a creative team which loved the material as much as the audience. When Peter Jackson was allowed to film the three movies adapting JRR Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” all at once; it was a huge risk for the studio. The success of those movies showed first priority, to adapting things, is to get someone who is also into it.

In 2008 a producer named Kevin Feige and director Jon Favreau took one of the biggest home run swings ever when they combined to film Iron Man. If there was something I wanted to see it was a great superhero movie. I thought Robert Downey Jr. was the right choice to play Tony Stark. I wondered whether anyone knew who Iron Man was. Shouldn’t they have gone with a more recognizable hero? The answer turned out to be no. What became even better was this added scene at the end of the credits when Nick Fury revealed the Avengers Initiative to Tony Stark. I was ecstatic that Mr. Feige was going to try and re-create the interconnectedness of the Marvel comic book universe in movies. That this first 22-chapter story will come to an end with Avengers: Endgame is all due to Mr. Feige. He has hired the right directors and writers who have hired the right actors to turn the comic book panels into movie frames. Every one of these directors respected the properties they were filming. They made it their own.

The other big change has been the rise of the premium cable channel and streaming services. Even with “The Lord of the Rings” nine hours wasn’t enough. HBO agreed. They saw the popularity of a new fantasy series by author George RR Martin. Two young producers who loved the books; see a trend, approached HBO to create a multi-season adaptation of the series. This was despite the fact the final books hadn’t been written. David Benioff and DB Weiss were given the green light. “Game of Thrones” had great source material given the time to breathe this sprawling story filled the small screen. It probably didn’t hurt that televisions were getting bigger and bigger. By the time dragons were burning things up I could watch it on my 60-inch television. The final six episodes begin tonight.

Which brings me back to Star Wars and the man who brought it back to life; JJ Abrams. It is still too far off to know more than a two-minute trailer for The Rise of Skywalker can tell me. Other than the way Mr. Abrams began his creative process on this final trilogy by asking the question “What happened to Luke Skywalker?” That’s a fan question by someone who had the chance to answer it with a movie. When I settle into my seat for The Rise of Skywalker that will be the beginning of the end.

What comes next is where you go when The Rise of Skywalker really signals the end of the beginning.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Shin Lim

I love stage magic. Ever since I was a small child, magicians who make things disappear and reappear fascinated me. I always wanted to know more. Through happenstance I met a fellow teenager who was the daughter of a magician. Ever wonder what diner is like when you’re a guest at a magician’s house? It is a lot of fun. They never revealed the secret to any magic trick I saw but they did give me a perspective on how to watch a magic trick as it is being performed. When I asked what the most difficult type of magic to perform is, they said in near unison, “Sleight of hand!”. They explained the close-up nature and the dexterity which goes with it adds many degrees of difficulty over a stage illusion. I have been a fan of that style of magic ever since. If there is a street performer doing close-up sleight of hand I always stop for a minute or two. Figuring out a specific magician’s technique is like unraveling a knitted scarf. Once you find the loose thread you can pull it until you pierce the illusion. Which is why the magician Shin Lim is so amazing. I can only pull the thread so far before it stops.

You probably know nothing of Mr. Lim if you aren’t a fan of the talent competition “America’s Got Talent”. I am not a regular watcher, but I saw one of his earliest performances on a YouTube clip. That made me a viewer the nights he was on. He would win the season he was on. Then he would go on and win the all-star competition “America’s Got Talent: The Champions” where they gathered all the best acts from the show over the years. Every one of his performances was flawless sleight of hand.

There are basic techniques and tools which are the foundation of typical sleight of hand magic. Mr. Lim improves the tricks with his amazing dexterity in moving the playing cards around. Along with this he works with a volunteer with whom he excels in bantering with throughout the trick. You might know how some of what he is doing is done but I think only other skilled magicians have any idea of how all of it is being done.

While I was enjoying the performances the show filled us in on Mr. Lim’s backstory. He started out as a musician studying piano until he developed carpal tunnel syndrome which cut short that career. He turned to his other passion, magic, which he had been doing at the same time. He would become more well-known in magic circles culminating in winning a 2015 World Championship in Close-Up Magic. He began to tour and then three years ago he injured the tendons in his thumb requiring surgery. He battled back from that and auditioned for “America’s Got Talent”. His ability to overcome two different injuries is magic in itself.

I’ve included two of the YouTube clips above for you to get an idea at how good he is.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Grey’s Anatomy “Silent All These Years”

When I was a teenager there was a series of shows called the ABC Afterschool Special. Each of these shows, starting in 1972, would tell an educational story. Except when they did a “Very Special” episode. That was code for this time we are taking on a controversial subject in an uplifting way. It was important because they would put on the television screen topics like divorce, child homelessness, venereal disease, teen suicide, eating disorders, and teen pregnancy. In a lot of cases this was one of the earliest depictions of many of these subjects.

The “Very Special” terminology has transitioned to primetime television. Being used, and now overused, mostly as code to do something traumatic to the characters on the show. In these days of “peak” television, shows tend to up the ante on traumatic events to get attention. It is the reason I stopped watching Grey’s Anatomy regularly. When it premiered March 27, 2005 it immediately connected with me. It became appointment television which was turned in to season-long scheduling on my DVR. I empathized for twelve seasons with Meredith Grey and her colleagues until the trauma became too much for me. Any show that survives for fifteen seasons must challenge their characters with interesting situations. With medical shows there is an unfortunate need to keep upping the level of the trauma. I left the last couple of seasons of “ER” for the same reason. The writers have made me care enough about these characters watching them suffer another devastating blow becomes too much.

The thing is the writers on Grey’s Anatomy and the creator Shonda Rhimes haven’t lost their edge. They still put interesting words in the characters’ mouths. While I couldn’t watch anymore, I read the recap of each week’s episode so I can keep up. Which was what happened this past Friday morning. I read the recap for the most recent episode “Silent All These Years” and cried. I knew I was going to go watch the episode via “on demand” as soon as I could.

“Silent All These Years” is a Very Special episode built around the subject of consent. It is told mainly through the story of a patient who comes to the hospital, Abby. One of the doctors, Jo, realizes she is suffering from more than the apparent cut on her cheek. As she examines her, she realizes Abby has been sexually assaulted. This story is juxtaposed against a flash back to a recent visit Jo had with her birth mother. Jo was left at a fire station when she was five days old. She finally tracks down her birth mother and meets her at a diner to try and understand. The trauma of sexual assault again impacts the decisions of both women. The third tiny story is when Ben has a talk with his stepson Tuck after he realizes he is dating. This was much needed tension breaking scenes from the other two stories. In a kind of ABC Afterschool Special way Ben explains to Tuck in a relatable way how the words “no” and “stop” are always to be heard, and acted upon, when a woman you are with say them.

Very rarely does episodic television get it right with an episode dealing with a subject as fraught as consent and sexual assault. “Silent All These Years” is Very Special because it does it so well.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Marvel’s Captain Marvel

I think when I’m done writing this, I will never refer to the gender or race of the central superhero again. I think with the release of Captain Marvel that has ended. The old myths about what a superhero had to look like to inspire audiences to share their journey have been shattered. When someone writes a grand dissertation of all the things Marvel Studios did correctly in their first ten years a key piece will be the inclusion of the last year or so. Captain Marvel beings the first cycle to its penultimate entry by shifting the paradigm to where being heroic is the important trait over anything else.

Brie Larson as Captain Marvel

Directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck have made a movie where their hero stands for something by simply standing up. I don’t know who it is who finds the actors to fill these roles for Marvel Studios, but Brie Larson is an ideal choice to play Carol Danvers who over the course of the movie we learn how she became Captain Marvel. The story is told in a non-linear narrative. Starting with Captain Marvel already an intergalactic force to be reckoned with as part of the Kree Starforce. Through various plot machinations she crashes to Earth in 1995. She meets Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) when he still had both eyes and was just an agent of SHIELD and not its head.

Like Black Panther did a year ago the genders are inverted as Captain Marvel and Fury spend the movie together. The woman hero knows what is happening and spends lots of time explaining it to limited understanding human Fury. What ever the opposite of mansplaining is that is the dynamic of Marvel to Fury. Fury is the one who does reckless things which she has to rescue him from. At the end Fury holds the cat while she takes down the villains.

As she spends more time back on Earth she comes to realize this is where she was born and had a life before becoming Captain Marvel. When she regains enough memory to re-connect with her old wingwoman that is when Captain Marvel finds the heart underneath the power. Towards the end as Carol begins to understand she hasn’t claimed all the power she has access to there is a montage of her being knocked down throughout her life. Internally she tells herself to, “Stand up!”. As a man I am never going to realize what that means to women who get knocked down regularly. In the full theatre where Mrs. C and I saw the movie I got a hint. When she seizes her power with one final “Stand up!” there was an audible set of women in the auditorium who shouted “Yes!”

This is the part of why this kind of film matters. It doesn’t spend time battering you with a message. It allows you to engage with a hero who is taking a journey many can empathize with.

I don’t know what will happen after next month’s Avengers: Endgame finishes this first 22-film story. I do know that if the decision is to build the next 22-films on the cornerstones of Captain Marvel, Black Panther, and Doctor Strange; I’m all in for that.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: The Art of the Trailer; Game of Thrones and Avengers: Endgame

In the next five weeks the end of two of the greatest pop culture stories will begin their endings. On April 14 the first of the final six episodes of HBO’s Game of Thrones will be followed two weeks later by the Marvel Studios movie Avengers: Endgame finishing the story told over the first ten years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Not that either of these events require any promotion to have everyone who has been invested in them to show up they have still released short trailers over the last week or so. Both are good examples of how to build even more anticipation without giving anything away that we already didn’t know what was coming. I thought this was good opportunity to mention why I think they work so well.

The Game of Thrones trailer uses its first moments to confirm the battle we know is coming takes place. We see one of the biggest toughest characters breathing heavily with what looks like dirt, could be blood, running in a rivulet down her face. She seems to be hiding as she then runs at full speed away from something. To see Arya in this state is an ideal scene setter. They juxtapose her headlong run with words of her saying how she looks forward to the battle.

Over the next minute or so we see quick glimpses of all the characters we have been following as they gather where the story began; at Winterfell for the battle. The final shot is of our heroes lined up outside the walls. As the camera pans back and we see the undead leg of a horse for the army of the dead.

This is effective for me as a viewer because the opening piece lets me know something goes enough wrong to put Arya into that state. By showing her confidence with the voice-over pre-battle bravado as she pelts down the halls. It is all I need to know this is not going to be a clean resolution. For our heroes to win they will have to sacrifice and overcome much. I really know little more than I did at the end of last season which makes it the right amount of enticement.

Avengers: Endgame also reminds us where it all began. Instead of location the first half of the trailer are the three core Avengers Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor reflecting in voice-over about how they ended up where they are. The old footage used is in black and white except for the color red which is still there. I thought it was a nice visual cue because in between the old footage are new scenes which are in full color. Natasha says “even if there is a small chance” followed by many of the characters responding “whatever it takes”. This leads to a beauty shot as the Avengers clad in matching white suits head toward that “small chance”. Then we see the logo followed by a funny moment as Thor meets Captain Marvel for the first time.

This is another effective trailer because it does move me a little bit further on from the ending of Avengers: Infinity War. I have an idea of who will take that “small chance” without knowing what it is. I assume it is the one path Dr. Strange mentioned in Avengers: Infinity War where they had the chance to beat Thanos.

I am left at the same place the Game of Thrones trailer left me; battle lines clearly drawn a whole movie in front of me to resolve it. This is how trailers used to be. I am shown just enough to excite me without ruining any of the major plot points.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts by Bob Dylan

In the mid 1970’s the state of popular music was going in all directions. There were the bands which were adding in symphonic orchestras. Synthesizers were creating the first steps of computerized music making. Punk rock was a repudiation of all of that. I recently ran across a box of the cassette mix tapes I had made during these years. While I found representatives of all that I mentioned above there was another segment of songs which took up a lot of space on my 90-minute tapes; story songs.

Story songs were pop music’s version of setting a narrative to music. These were usually done by the most talented of the singer-songwriters of the day. As radio stations became more flexible these five to ten-minute musical tales found radio airplay. For about ten years these songs all found some success. From Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue” through to Barry Manilow’s “Copacabana” I could see these people the same way I did when reading a book. I know what Sue, Lola, and Tony look like. Which makes my favorite story song quite different because the first time I heard it wasn’t on the radio. It was in a bedroom sitting with my best friends; my family by choice.

I have three great friends who have known me since I was fourteen. I call them my family by choice. One of them was a guitar player. One of our favorite things to do was to ask him to play songs for us. Eventually we all came to know the lyrics that these would become a sing-along. Although it was only my guitar playing friend who had the singing voice. One of his favorite artists was Bob Dylan. Outside of the songs played on the radio it was he who introduced me to most of Mr. Dylan’s music. Which was what happened the night when my friend played “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts”. I was spellbound by the story being told. I would borrow the album it was on, “Blood on the Tracks”, so I could listen to the song over and over.

The song tells the story of the three people in the title plus one more; Big Jim. Rosemary is married to Big Jim, the diamond mine owner, who is having an affair with Lily who he has given his ring to. In to this step the mysterious Jack of Hearts one night at the cabaret where Lily performs. Over fifteen verses the story of all four people come together in tragedy. Oh yeah, there is a bank robbery going on which is what brought the Jack of Hearts to town.

On the recorded track it is Mr. Dylan and his guitar singing each verse which ends with the Jack of Hearts as part of the last line. He finishes the song by playing the music of each verse on a harmonica. For a song which I came to love because of the live playing of my friend Mr. Dylan only played it live one time, in 1976.

It is also a song which seemingly begs to be made into a visual form of some kind. It has gotten as far as screenplays being written a couple of times but no further. One apocryphal story about the song says Mr. Dylan read the lyrics to Joni Mitchell which then became her song “Diamonds and Rust”. I am not sure I believe it, but I have both back-to-back on my playlist. Because even though there are some modern things like telephones in “Diamonds and Rust” I imagine it as Lily and the Jack of Hearts meeting after many years.

Most of all even though it is Mr. Dylan’s voice in my headphones it really is my family by choice singing together in a bedroom about Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James

There are many people who will flip to the last page of a book and read it. I don’t do that. I like having a book get me to the destination on its own pace. The new book Black Leopard, Red Wolf by author Marlon James has the protagonist tell you the ending in the very first line of this first volume of an epic fantasy trilogy.

Mr. James has chosen to follow up his 2014 Man-Booker award winning “A Brief History of Seven Killings” with Black Leopard, Red Wolf. The narrative flow of that book carries over to this one. The space moves from Jamaica to a fantasy version of Africa. This is the second epic fantasy series which has taken Africa as a seed upon which to grow a fantasy landscape. It allows Mr. James to employ much less known cultural fantasy tropes. Which means for a Caucasian reader it has surprises which spring from my lack of knowledge. Unlike when there are fantasy realms based on European foundations.

Marlon James

The story is told by Tracker who at the beginning of the story tells the reader that “The child is dead. There is nothing left to know.” That child is who Tracker is asked to find. Tracker also warns you he is maybe an unreliable narrator, or one who moves between worlds, when he tells the story of how he left his family and name behind to become Tracker. There are two different versions. That is the narrative quirk which keeps a reader guessing exactly what is going on as Tracker circles around different narrative beats. Mr. James delights in telling this fractured narrative similar to the way a Tarantino movie unspools.

Another similarity to Tarantino is the quantity of the violence. The battles are bloody and bone-crunching. The sex is also unflinchingly portrayed. Mr. James seems to have a fascination with the scents of sex. You can be sure all of that was interesting to me. He writes it so vividly I knew I could add a smell-track if I wanted to from my box of essential oils.

Tracker is joined on his task by a typical coterie of epic fantasy characters. Witches, giants, werecreatures, and almost anything else you can think of is here. Mr. James uses the African legends in place of the European ones.

This is the first volume and we are left with many questions. I have read the succeeding books will tell the same events from one of the other characters points of view. Considering how uncertain I am of the truth of Tracker’s narration if another book gave a different perspective, I think that would be a fun way to fill in the blanks. Black Leopard, Red Wolf is only the beginning.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Strong Women Make Weak Geeks Freak

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I have always embraced being a geek; even when it wasn’t a great thing to be called. The wonder of time is if you live long enough sometimes things change. Over the last 15-20 years it has become a good thing to be a geek. Pop culture has reflected that. It has also dramatically expanded from the early days of convention rooms of a couple hundred white guys to the 150,000 at New York Comic-Con. I am amazed, and gratified, at the diversity of the attendees representing something much closer to real-life demographics.

I’ve written in the past what a golden age it is for representation in the geek world with heroes that look like any race or gender. Nothing has made me smile more than seeing little girls wearing Wonder Woman or Rey from Star Wars costumes. As they make sound effects with their mouths to represent their strength. With another candidate coming in a few weeks with the release of “Captain Marvel” it is the best of times. Except from one small corner of the internet; there the cries of week geeks threatened by seeing strong women are heard.

It started with the weeks prior to the release of “Wonder Woman”. There were multiple online campaigns about how the movie was going to fail because it featured a woman hero. This tiny minority bombed the review aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes with derisive comments prior to and after the release of the film. Sadly it was covered as if this was representative of the geek community. Box office don’t lie and $821 million later that they were spitballs off a battleship.

Nothing breeds sticktoitiveness like failure and so these idiots turned their eyes to the addition of a female Asian character to Star Wars: The Last Jedi. This time not content to just try and use Rotten Tomatoes they harassed the young actress, Kelly Marie Tran. Causing her to delete her social media accounts. Ms. Tran’s character, Rose Tico, was a classic Star Wars hero type who proves her worth over and over. Along with Rey as the central protagonist this was double trouble for the weak geeks. This time they were as effective as tissue versus a lightsaber. Star Wars: The Last Jedi would rake in $1.3 billion at the box office. I want to point out that these trolls were covered as if they were representative of something other than flawed thinking. There were many articles that wanted to use them as a device to speak about the direction of Star Wars instead of treating them as drunk hecklers who should be ignored.

Now they’re back in these days before the release of “Captain Marvel”. They’re also being covered as if their opinion again represents a large group of fans. They’re criticizing Marvel for casting, wait for it “a feminist” in the role of what was one of the first feminist superheroes. She was Ms. Marvel before she became Captain Marvel. Then the star Brie Larson asked for more female and people of color to be included in her press tour promoting the film. Not at the expense of the white critics but in addition to them. As in add a few more rows of folding chairs for some new blood. Now the jerks are at it again working overtime on Rotten Tomatoes and blasting Brie Larson for being a “feminist”.

If there was any description of me which got under my skin, it was being called a “fanboy”. I always felt it indicated a lack of ability to be critical of the geeky things I enjoyed. I now realize I want to use it to describe this small group of weak geeks because they are immature boys who purport to be fans.

I know the answer to this kind of behavior is the continued success of movies with strong women in the lead roles. Eventually there will be enough female fans who will drown out the weak geeks. I know I’ll be standing with them.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Netflix’s Sex Education

If there is anything which shows there is a large part of me which refuses to accept my age it is my love of the teen drama. Well past my teens the movies of John Hughes showed there was a part of me which always enjoyed the goings on of teenagers looking for love. Now in this era of peak television a series on Netflix called Sex Education is a new way to tell an old story.

Sex Education is an eight-episode series created by Laurie Nunn who wrote five of the episodes. The series is a long form version of all the classic tropes. A group of three protagonists; the virgin, the gay man, and the misunderstood girl form the central triangle at the heart of the series. Ms. Nunn does a delightful job taking these story devices into the current day.

The basic set up is Otis is a virgin who can’t even masturbate because his single mother is a famous sex therapist. His best friend Eric is one of only two out gay students at their private high school who lives in a strict religious family. Maeve is the girl who lives in the trailer park with the bad reputation. Maeve realizes Otis has absorbed a lot from listening to his mother talk about sex. Maeve gets the idea for him to be the therapist to the school’s lovelorn. Eric is there as the best friend who supports and warns of the pitfalls. Over the eight episodes these three stories are told cleverly even though they are familiar.

The young actors are fantastic. Asa Butterfield as Otis is just the right mixture of awkward frustration having to talk about sex while not having any. Ncuti Gatwa is allowed to take the best friend’s story arc into much broader places as we see him coping with his father’s disapproval. Emma Mackey plays Maeve with a balance of I don’t care/ I care which provides a sympathetic spin on her choices. The final part of the acting I must mention is Gillian Anderson who plays Otis’ mother, Jean. Ms. Anderson shines as one of the few adults with something to do.

Ms. Nunn keeps the plot moving along and by the end our characters haven’t exactly found happily ever after; because there is a season 2 coming. By the end of Season 1 things have changed enough for all three that they won’t be retreading the same problems.

If you’re looking for a fun binge watch in your Netflix queue give Sex Education a try.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: The Cookie Rookie

I think you can tell I enjoy cooking. It is a kind of chemistry on its own. I also like to be able to improvise a bit while following recipes. Which means the more complicated the recipe the less freedom I have to do that. About three years ago I discovered a website which fits my style because of its ability to improvise on the recipes. The website is The Cookie Rookie.

The discovery is all from Mrs. C as she received a link to this recipe for oven baked chicken tacos. When I went to the website I looked to see who The Cookie Rookie was. Her name is Rebecca Hardin or just Becky when she’s writing on the website. She was newly married in her early-30’s and had never cooked at home. The early posts are Becky figuring it out. The later posts are an intuitive synthesis of what she learned by doing, combined with an ability to make delicious meals quickly and easily. Which brings me back to those tacos.

Rebecca "Becky" Hardin

When Mrs. C sent me the recipe, I didn’t realize it was going to become the foundation for dozens of meals over the last three years. It is the kind of recipe which has been so flexible I have been able to use it in so many ways it never seems the same. For the original post here is the link. It is the most popular recipe on the site.

If you want specifics click on the link but the basics are these. Take any cooked meat; chicken in the original. I’ve used almost any leftover meat you can imagine. To some sautéed onions in a pan I add the meat, diced tomatoes, and some diced jalapenos. Spice it up with taco powder. Stir for a few minutes. Then line the bottom of a taco shell with a layer of refried beans followed by a scoop of the mixture from the pan. Cover with cheese; lots of cheese. Cook in the oven for ten minutes and you’re done.

These have become the only way I want tacos now. The variations are I’ve added a bit of yellow rice to the pan to provide a kind of fried rice texture. I’ve added whole beans to the skillet mixture instead of using refried beans. I think I’ve tried every kind of bean on the shelf by now. My favorite bean to use in this way are Cuban pink beans. I’ve coated them in guacamole and enchilada sauce after baking. I think you can see how it can be used often without becoming boring.

The Cookie Rookie is full of recipes like this. My current new obsession is the ravioli lasagna recipe. I’ve only made it three times but just like the tacos I’m having a lot of fun changing it up as I go.

If you’re looking for a down-to-earth cooking website you should give The Cookie Rookie a click.

Mark Behnke