One of the great harbingers that the Holidays are upon us are the lights which go with them. Usually with the weekend after Thanksgiving in the US the first lights go up on homes and in cities. My fondness for Holiday lights came from a tradition as a kid growing up in the very warm South Florida. During the month of December, the large local bank had a tour of local homes with elaborate displays. In South Florida, these kinds of displays would tax the creativity of the homeowner. Depicting a wintry scene while the nighttime low was in the 70’s was not easy. One answer was to load up on the lights which was what many did. Those were always my favorites. Although the person who covered their lawn in cotton batting to simulate snow also has a soft spot in my heart.
Snowflake on 5th 1984
As my education and career drew me northward I would begin to experience Holiday lights in different ways. I remember my first NYC holiday season in 1984. There were two new holiday efforts that have endured to today but at the time had their share of detractors. One was the snowflake at 57th St and Fifth Avenue. It was designed by the man, Douglas Leigh, who did all the lighting schemes on the skyscrapers. Like those designs the controversy around the snowflake was from a distance as you walked towards it the illusion was gorgeous. Once you got underneath it all of the wires and lights seen up close lost the magic as if you were somehow seeing the trick. The other new feature in 1984 was putting floodlights on the façade of Rockefeller Center behind the Christmas tree. The complaint was it made 30 Rock look like The Rock as you expected a spotlight from a guard tower to wash over you. Both have evolved tremendously over the years. In 2002 the conceptual snowflake transformed into a giant crystalline snowflake and has become the centerpiece of the annual UNICEF Snowflake Ball. The stark flood lights at 30 Rock have become less so as they have been softened into an icy blue which complements the skating rink in front of it all.
Harvard Square "Galaxy"
When I moved to Boston I also presided over the installation of a new set of Holiday lights in Harvard Square. The large set of lights look like a version of the Milky way galaxy to me. To others a swirl of windborne snow. To others it was a secularization of Christmas. Those who felt that way would be mollified the next year when a star joined the swirl a year later. I walked past this every Holiday season going to and fro from work. One early December blizzard it was the beacon in the night to draw me towards the path home.
Poolesville, MD Lights in front of the Old Town Hall
When we moved to the Washington DC area we decided to live in a small town called Poolesville surrounded by farms. What is amusing to me is after loving these grand exhibitions of lights I have been around over the Holiday season; the ones here make me the happiest. In our sleepy little town with one main drag the Holiday lights crisscross above the road through much of the town. Each year they add a few more strings extending it further. Within a few years, they will cover the entire town. For now, what is here does the trick for me as the twinkle of many light bulbs has the ability to put me in the spirit of the Season.
I am a creature of Holiday traditions. Those of you who have been following along with me over the years have seen me write about many of them in this column. Now that we have truly begun the Holidays one of the first things I will do in the next day or two is to watch the movie “The Family Man”. To me it is a movie which unabashedly celebrates the hope the season brings.
The Family Man is not one of those universally loved Christmas movies. You won’t find it on many lists. It wasn’t well received when it was released in 2000. When I read back over those reviews I am always surprised to find that one of the more consistent flaws found in it was the happy, hopeful, ending. This is what I watch movies at this time of the year for. I think much of the reason for the tepid reception has to do with the director Brett Ratner and the star Nicolas Cage.
Mr. Ratner had been one of those who had made the leap from music video direction to feature film direction. One of his first videos was for Run DMC’s “Christmas in Hollis” in 1988. By the time, he had finished The Family Man he had a monster hit behind him with the movie “Rush Hour”.
Mr. Cage had been doing movies for nearly twenty years by the time he took on the starring role. By that point you were either a fan of Mr. Cage’s acting style or you were not. I thought casting Mr. Cage in the title role of The Family Man was a great choice because his method is to react broadly to situations which is an asset to a movie like this.
Nicolas Cage as Jack and Don Cheadle as Cash (r.) in The Family Man
The Family Man tells the story of Wall Street mogul Jack Campbell who, when the movie opens, is in the middle of closing a big deal which will require his staff to work through Christmas. Fairly rapidly the movie sets up Jack as the man who has taken the path to business success at the expense of family. As Jack stops at a convenience store he runs into Cash, played by Don Cheadle. Cash is trying to cash a winning lottery ticket for $238. The clerk is suspicious of the ticket causing Cash to pull a gun. Jack using his negotiating skills offers to buy the ticket off of Cash. After the confrontation, Jack offers Cash his help. Cash smiles at him and tells him he doesn’t need his help but Jack is about to be taken on a journey into the path not taken. The next morning Jack wakes up in a house in New Jersey next to the woman he left behind when he went to London to start his career. He has two kids and works at the family tire store. From here the movie is the typical redemption story as Jack gets a glimpse into a man who chose family over professional success. By the end the natural order is restored but Jack is changed.
The Family Man is a beautiful parable on the value of family and friends played against the background of the Holidays. It never fails to scrub away the last vestiges of my crusty edges leaving me smiling broadly at the possibilities of the next few weeks. If you would like to find a new movie to add to your seasonal rotation I think The Family Man is a worthy addition to this time of the year.
The genre of movies called prequels where the earlier history of a previous movie is shown have a checkered past. I could make the argument that the only truly successful prequel is one which also breaks the rule that sequels are also not as good; The Godfather Part II. That movie is simultaneously prequel and sequel which is why it not only works but it tells the entire story of which we saw the middle of in The Godfather. In the forty-plus years since most prequels suffer from the knowledge the audience has about where the story must go to mesh itself with what we previously experienced. That storytelling limitation has often been the reason why prequels fail. The element of surprise is mostly gone plus if there is a twist it can involve complicated logic sometimes making the originals less engaging. No better example exists than in the Star Wars prequels. In “The Phantom Menace” a decision was made to try and explain The Force biologically with something called “midichlorians”. In the theatre, the revelation was met with nervous giggling because it was so silly. Nearly every prequel suffers from this yet somehow I love these universes so much I want to believe I can re-enter them at an earlier point and still be entertained. This was where I was at going to see the Harry Potter prequel “Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them”.
This re-introduction to the Wizarding World does a smart thing by moving it to New York, in 1926. It is written by the author of the Harry Potter books, J.K. Rowling, and directed by David Yates who was behind the camera for the last four of the eight previous movies. Another good choice is no character from the original movies shows up. Instead the story revolves around the arrival of magizoologist Newt Scamander to New York. Inside his magical case is a menagerie of magical creatures which you will be unsurprised to find a few escape from. As Mr. Scamander must locate his missing creatures he gathers up a group of two-legged associates. These will become the same as Harry, Ron, and Hermione were in the originals. The other three are a non-magical human, called no-maj, in America named Jacob along with two witchy sisters Tina and Queenie. Much as it was in Harry Potter there is much to root for here for all of them. The overall theme of this new set of movies is why should wizards hide instead of ruling the world. On the side of taking over is Dark Wizard Gellert Grindelwald who is mostly just a presence here as Voldemort was in the first movie for Harry Potter. Our group believes differently.
(from l. to r.) Katherine Waterston, Eddie Redmayne, Alison Sudol, and Dan Fogler
I don’t know who does the casting for these movies but they are among the best. Eddie Redmayne plays Newt Scamander with a near-autistic level of introversion. He avoids eye contact while shying away from humans. Yet he will easily stand in front of a magical creature as big as a dinosaur with confidence. It is a wonderfully faceted performance. As is Katherine Waterston who plays Tina Goldstein a competent woman who was just busted from the Investigative branch. As so many women at that time she wants to prove herself. There is also a beguiling emotion underneath the tough exterior. One scene where she is facing her past while in danger of being killed is where she shines. Alison Sudol plays her sister Queenie and she can read minds. For something that could weigh you down Ms. Sudol plays Queenie as a ray of sunshine despite the worst things she knows of those around her. The last of our core quartet, Jacob, is played by Dan Fogler. As a poor non-magical human swept up in events he plays the role perfectly with incredulity and wonder at what he is seeing. Mr. Fogler easily makes it believable that Jacob is ready to let magic in to his life.
This is supposed to be the first of five movies. Based on some of what we hear in this movie and know from Harry Potter it seems likely we have an idea of where our heroes are eventually headed. What is nice is none of the things they are presumably headed towards have any ability to alter the way we see the Harry Potter part of things. Therefore, I am hoping the prequel curse might be broken by the magic of the Wizarding World of J.K. Rowling.
Anyone who knows me understands I love my science-fiction full of epic space battles and starships. Those are sprawling entertainments which are satisfying for the running time of the movie. Then there are the few and far between science-fiction movies where nary a blaster is fired or alien attack fended off. These are the movies where the plot is like its own plasma rifle which embeds itself deep into your thought processes for days afterward. The new movie Arrival is one of those kinds of movies.
Arrival is based on a short story by author Ted Chiang. Mr. Chiang is a science-fiction author who almost exclusively works in the compacter literary forms of short stories or novellas. His stories have always stimulated my thinking. The one on which Arrival is based upon “Story of Your Life” is one ripe for this kind of analysis. When reading Mr. Chiang’s stories I never imagined any of them would be made into a movie. It is not that they were particularly unadaptable but that these are stories of huge ideas and concepts. Not amenable to the typical movie audience. Recent years have shown there is a limited appetite for these kinds of movies but I imagine the studios take a cautious approach to green lighting them.
Director Denis Villeneuve (r.) and Amy Adams on set in Arrival
It helped that director Denis Villeneuve is one of the rising directorial stars in Hollywood. He was casting about for a science-fiction property which also had a significant psychological component. When he saw Mr. Chiang’s short story he knew he had found his vehicle.
The story is told from the perspective of linguistics professor Louise Banks. Her life changes when twelve extraterrestrial monolithic ships set themselves up all over Earth. In the one in the US she is asked to lead up the communication effort with the inhabitants of the ships. Working closely with a theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly they begin the long process to being able to understand each other. The movie ramps up the tension as the countries first cooperate in sharing information then one-by-one begin dropping out of the cooperative. This sets up the equivalent of a long fuse as Louise and Ian feverishly try to confirm their understanding of the visitors’ intentions. The last act is where most of the thought-provoking material is revealed. By the time the final credits rolled it was achieved brilliantly. I have not stopped thinking about the ideas within Arrival in almost 48 hours since seeing it.
Amy Adams as Louise Banks in Arrival
For a movie which is relying on ideas instead of effect it falls disproportionately on the shoulders of the actors to draw the audience in. In this case the performance of Amy Adams as Louise is as good as I’ve seen this entire year. Mr. Villeneuve made an interesting directorial choice to spend a lot of time with Ms. Adams’ face front and center in the frame. There is a saying that great actors can emote with their eyes. In Arrival, there are three key scenes in which the critical information is delivered solely by watching Ms. Adams’ eyes. As much as this is Ms. Adams’ movie Jeremy Renner’s portrayal of Ian provides the necessary grounding for Ms. Adams’ performance to have the right amount of resistance to deliver a great performance. When they hug at the end of the movie it is another moment which delivers an emotional wallop without a word being said.
One word of warning Arrival is a movie which requires a modicum of attention by the moviegoer. Mr. Villeneuve does not explain things twice and there is much here to understand. If you are looking for a thoughtful science-fiction film you cannot go wrong with Arrival. If you do see the movie and want some supplemental homework; in conjunction with the movie release there is a collection of Mr. Chiang’s short stories also out. It contains my favorite story by him “Division by Zero”.
Arrival is one of those two-for-one opportunities. It will introduce Mr.Chiang’s stories to a much broader audience which I hope will mean a few others will make it on screen. It also makes me look forward to Mr. Villeneuve’s next project even more eagerly. That next project is Blade Runner 2049 the sequel to one of the greatest science-fiction movies which also required your mind to be as engaged as your eyes. Everyone involved with Arrival is working near the top of their respective games.
All forms of art live on imitation. When someone does something interesting others will take that technique and employ it. When it comes to episodic television the thing which has worn out its welcome with me is the cliffhanger ending.
The idea of watching television is to allow yourself to be manipulated by the actors and the continuing story they are telling. As of late the manipulation is happening with a capital M. The recent example which I think was the straw that broke this couch camel’s back was the season 7 premiere of The Walking Dead. At the end of season 6 almost all the major characters were seen kneeling in front of a villain who was going to kill one of them. The way the director shot the final scene was for us as audience to see the death blow from the perspective of the one receiving it. Leaving us a few months to speculate on who it would be. For a show about a zombie apocalypse The Walking Dead began to fall in love with the idea of cliffhangers throughout season 6. It became so common it reduced the stakes of the conflict because you wondered if they were just going to find a way to wriggle their way out of the dire situation.
The Walking Dead #100 Cover
The interesting contrast is Robert Kirkman who is the writer and creator of the comic book by the same name as well as a writer on the TV show chose a different tack on the printed page. The same event shown in the show was the centerpiece of issue #100. Except on the final page of that comic we saw who was killed. We saw the consequence. I remember reading that issue and heading to the internet to commiserate and predict what that event would do to our other heroes. It was much more satisfying on the page than on the TV screen for me. It felt like the difference between being respected as a reader and made to feel a sucker as a viewer.
One of the things shows like The Sopranos, Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones get absolutely right is they ended their seasons showing the consequences of the characters’ actions. I spent countless months in between speculating on what those consequences would be. If you’re going to manipulate me then give me some release.
The other thing The Walking Dead got wrong with this cliffhanger is they diminished what Mr. Kirkman wrote in the comic book. By turning what is a harsh pivotal act in to some kind of macabre guessing game it lessened the impact of that selfsame death. After there was widespread discontent on social media with the cliffhanger ending the executive producer of The Walking Dead, Scott M. Gimple, he said he knew they had to “earn” the choice. That ability to make a bold choice like this means the resolution needs to be something unexpected. Unfortunately, it was one of the low points of the entire series. For the first time since I started watching I am skeptical of all that I see. The cast and crew of The Walking Dead has a lot of work left to do this season to “earn” my trust back. That’s a consequence of their overuse of cliffhangers.
When I was a young man summer always meant time to read for fun. I would inevitably binge read within a genre. In the summer of 1980 the topic was horror fiction. I devoured the Stephen King catalogue. I finally journeyed to H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulu. Revisited the classics of the genre by Shirley Jackson, Daphne DuMaurier, and Oscar Wilde. Throughout that long summer full of suspense and my screaming “don’t do that!” in my head just before someone on the page “did that” I was asked which book was the scariest. The answer I gave that summer is the same answer I would give to the question in 2016; Ghost Story by Peter Straub.
In 1980 when there was no such thing as the internet I relied on the clerk at my favorite bookstore to guide me to something I might like. As I was running out of possibilities I asked the guy who was working at the Grove Bookstore if there was a horror book I was overlooking. He smiled and told me it had just come out in paperback and pointed at Ghost Story. Most of my book buying at that time was driven by what was on the back cover describing the contents. The people who wrote the one for Ghost Story completely buried the lede in their description. I looked skeptically at my guide but trusted his taste more than the description on the back cover.
Peter Straub was an author in search of mainstream success throughout the 1970’s. At first he wanted to be a literary writer of novels of concept. After writing two of those his agent suggested Gothic might be a better genre choice which produced “Julia” with some horror elements. His fourth book “If You Could See Me Now” completely embraced the style which would set the stage for his fifth novel “Ghost Story”.
“Ghost Story” is the tale of five men from the town of Milburn, NY a small community where five young scions christened themselves “The Chowder Society”. As the book opens the members of The Chowder Society are old men drawn back to Milburn by the death of one of them who was found dead on the floor with a look of terror on his face. Another character is the nephew of one of The Chowder Society who has seemingly kidnapped a young girl and is also headed to Milburn. As the story reveals through the perspectives of each character the secrets we hold can sometimes transform themselves into actual monsters. As the town of Milburn slowly becomes enveloped in a winter storm the monster begins to kill.
“Ghost Story” is considered a classic of the horror fiction genre because Mr. Straub’s literary prose leant a formal air to the horrific proceedings taking place on the page. There were many times I re-read a passage because Mr. Straub would gut punch me with a shock related in beautifully connected words. There is a passage within the climax of the book where Mr. Straub sent delicious shivers throughout my body with the coming together of the plot and the imagery depicted on the page.
I stupidly finished reading Ghost Story around ten o’clock in the evening and then thought I might be able to go to sleep. Instead I called some friends to go to a midnight movie where I made sure we did not go to the screen with “Night of the Living Dead” on it.
If you need a scary story for this Halloween; Ghost Story is the scariest one I know of.
There are people who will tell you the best part of a movie are the previews. There is a big reason for that. They don’t operate under the same rules. They can put all the best jokes in it. They can scramble the narrative to the point that it becomes deceptive advertising. Yet there are sometimes where a preview, or a trailer as they are called, can just make me want to see a movie right now. That the most disappointing thing about it is the future date before I will be able to see the actual full movie. This past week the teaser trailer for the May 5, 2017 release of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 achieved that.
In 2014 the original Guardians of the Galaxy was a surprise hit. It grossed over $750 million dollars which was incredible for a movie based on comic book characters that few had heard of. Director James Gunn had not only heard of them but he clearly had an affection for them. He assembled a cast who inhabited these roles making them their own. The people at Marvel Studios knew they had a hit on their hands before they even released it. Which allowed them at add to the end of the movie “The Guardians of the Galaxy will return”. Next May that will come true with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.
For big anticipated movies like this the advertising campaign starts about six months out. The first phase is the release of a teaser trailer. A short set of images meant to whet your appetite. The teaser is usually followed up rather quickly by a full trailer which runs for 2-3 minutes revealing plot details meant to draw you further in. The final long trailer usually arrives 60 days or so prior to the release. The bigger the anticipation the more these clips will be examined and broken down. A Star Wars trailer will be combed over with forensic detail looking for clues. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 just released the teaser trailer and it is one of the best examples of how to re-engage your audience in one minute and thirty seconds.
For a sequel of a big movie the director doesn’t need to introduce the viewer to what they are seeing. The job of a teaser is to remind you why you loved the original while promising more of the same. Mr. Gunn pulls this off by first using one of the 1970’s songs which made up the soundtrack of the first movie; Hooked on a Feeling by Blue Suede. That immediately reminds you of the fun of the music. Then over the first half of the trailer we see shots of all our returning heroes. Which leads to a scene between Star-Lord, played by Chris Pratt, and Drax, played by Dave Bautista. It captures all the fun of the way these characters interact in 30 seconds. The final shot shows us the only Guardian we hadn’t seen previously in a way much different than last we saw that character at the end of the first movie.
Kudos to Mr. Gunn for this kind of detail it raises my hopes for the sequel and it makes me look forward to the longer trailer which should be here in a few weeks.
When it comes to storytelling I am a fan of the kind which respects my intelligence by just tossing me inside their reality and letting me figure it out as I go along. Even more I like it when there are things for me to notice which have nothing to do with anything but go by in a flash for a laugh. I know this is not the preferred choice for many but for those who share my enthusiasm for this kind of storytelling I have a new TV show for you.
When I was at New York Comic-Con they previewed the first episode of the new BBC America series Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. The story comes from the universe created in the two novels by author Douglas Adams of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fame. Mr. Adams books are notoriously difficult to bring to life visually because on the printed page they careen around throwing off plot and whimsy simultaneously. It takes a special talent to do this correctly and Max Landis who wrote all eight episodes seemingly has done it; based on the evidence of the first episode.
If you are a fan of Mr. Adams’ Dirk Gently books you’ll be pleased to know that Mr. Landis isn’t adapting either. Instead he has crafted an entirely new third adventure for the Holistic Detective. In the first episode Mr. Landis’ script gets the spirit of the manic fun of the novels spot on. Emphasis on manic as the plot moves fast. This is not a television show to watch while doing something else. There is so much to see that taking your eyes off of the screen means you will miss something.
The first episode opens with a crazy tableau in a hotel room of carnage from something not quite natural. As the camera tracks through the scene it is one of those moments when you see lots of things which will eventually be explained but not right away. After the credits have rolled we meet Todd Brotzman, played by Elijah Wood, who wakes up to someone using a hammer to bash up his car. From there his day spirals into lunacy as Dirk Gently shows up to make sure that degeneration accelerates. Dirk Gently is played by Samuel Barnett who finds all of the nuances of the character. He can be a stream of consciousness but when it chooses to form an eddy for a moment it calms into real tenderness. There is a scene where he meets Todd’s sister Amanda where this momentary island of serene perception is at its best. Another standout is actress Fiona Dourif who plays a Holistic Assassin. She is the dark to Dirk Gently’s light. Ms. Dourif alternates really menacing with comedy extremely well.
Of all of the new things I saw at this year’s New York Comic-Con this is the one I am most excited to see more of. It premieres October 22, 2016 on BBC America.
When I’ve written about perfume brands which I have known since their earliest days I refer to them as “mine”. As in they will always belong to me because I knew them before everyone else. This attitude did not start with fragrance. It started with music. One of the first popular artists who I considered “mine” was Billy Joel.
When Mr. Joel had released his first big studio album “Piano Man” he had modest success mostly based on the title track. In the mid to late 1970’s the storyteller singer-songwriter was in vogue. The song Piano Man was one of the better examples of the form.
Where I became possessive of Mr. Joel came during the next few years as he worked hard putting out two more albums “Streetlife Serenade” and “Turnstiles”. During this time period he toured but there were two sections of the country which fully embraced him. His home town of New York City and Long Island along with South Florida. Because he was so beloved in South Florida I saw him often. Most of the time when he played in Miami he did so in a beautifully intimate Art Deco theatre called Gusman Hall which had been transformed from an old single-screen movie theatre called The Olympia. The hall has been renamed after that theatre these days. Gusman Hall was a perfectly attuned concert hall with the best acoustics in South Florida at the time. Seeing any act there was a treat. Mr. Joel turned it in to his home away from home.
Throughout the 1970’s I attended many shows there as he refined his sound and stage presence. Slowly adding in the members who would become part of the permanent band who still play with him today. What I remember seeing was a musician who loved being a musician. Even back then a sense of jadedness was creeping in to the music business; not for Mr. Joel. His concerts were parties which felt private in the small confines of Gusman Hall and I was one of the attendees. This made him “mine”.
It would all take off in 1977 when he released the album “The Stranger”. Now everyone knew and loved Mr. Joel. As his fame grew he never forgot the support he received from his fans in Florida. As he began his tour supporting “The Stranger” and was selling out arenas everywhere he did something different when he came back to Miami. Instead of playing the local arena he played a string of shows at Gusman Hall over a few consecutive nights. I was there for one of those shows and it was a wonderfully sincere thank you to this group of fans. Before he launched in to his final encore he said as much to the audience.
I own every album he has released and his music has always been special to me mainly because I knew him when he was starting out. Now he is “mine” and many other’s one and only Piano Man.
As I have related in many versions of this column I am fond of the late-night talk show. I have also stated previously that I believe we are in a Golden Age of these shows. There is one for everyone which should provide you a smile to take with you to bed. There is one host who I think does not get enough credit for the longevity of his late-night career, Bill Maher.
I remember discovering this weird show on Comedy Central back in 1993 called Politically Incorrect. The host was a comedic actor who I’d seen in a few movies and TV shows but nothing that memorable; that was Mr. Maher. The concept of the show was simple Mr. Maher would spend his time discussing the topics of the day with a diverse panel of four guests. From the very early days he would have experts from all over the political spectrum into which he would add celebrities. One of the more famous pairings on the show was that of Florence Henderson and Marilyn Manson. What took place was a substantial discussion beyond their surface images. It is something the show excelled at. In 1997 it would move to ABC where it would run until 2002. ABC would cancel it because of remarks by Mr. Maher about 9/11 which were judged insensitive.
One year later HBO gave him one hour per week to do Real Time with Bill Maher and he has been there ever since. In many ways the freer atmosphere HBO offers for the kind of discussion Mr. Maher encourages on the show has been freeing. Plus, nobody has to be concerned about language on HBO. To be informed you need to hear both sides talk about their ideas. Real Time is one of the few places where this interaction takes place. Mr. Maher has gotten very good at guiding the action over the 20-plus years of doing this. The panels are the centerpiece of each episode of Real Time but it is not my favorite part.
That comes at the very end when Mr. Maher does “New Rules”. In this segment he starts off with a series of topical jokes which lead up to a longer commentary on the final “New Rule”. It is in that longer soliloquy that I find Mr. Maher challenges my notion of the way I think. It provokes me to consider his perspective see if there is something there I want to take in more seriously.
I think Mr. Maher is underrated considering he was one of the earliest practitioners of this “news as comedy” format. There have been many great examples since Politically Incorrect but Real Time with Bill Maher reminds me that one of the originals is still going as strong as ever.