The Sunday Magazine: I Care A Lot

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There are actors who do such a great job in a role I want to see them in something like it again. One of those is Rosamund Pike who starred in the 2014 movie “Gone Girl”. She plays a delightfully duplicitous character trying a unique way to end a marriage. She has done plenty of things including a great turn as Marie Curie in “Radioactive” since. I just wanted her to play another morally ambiguous badass. The new movie “I Care A Lot” delivers.

Ms. Pike plays Marla Grayson who has built a career of becoming the legal guardian of elderly people. That might sound nice, but she does it for all the wrong reasons. Once she is given her guardianship, she uses it to sell off all their belongings. She is a shark and in voiceover narration she lets the audience know it. The first act of the movie is the mechanics of how easy it is for her to do this. In cahoots with unethical physicians they can turn anyone into a mark while taking everything away from them.

The movie then asks the question, “what happens when you do this with the wrong target?”. Marla is given the head’s up on a “cherry”. Slang for an elderly person with no family. The rapid-fire sequence of how Jennifer Peterson, played by Dianne Wiest, goes from beautiful home to a room in a nursing facility is frightening. The twist that the rest of the movie will play out upon is she does have a son. A Russian Mafia kingpin who is unhappy to find out his mother has been taken from her home. The mobster is played by Peter Dinklage.

The movie is then a game of two criminals facing off in a game of survival. All three actors I mentioned are pitch perfect in their roles. The movie is full of twists and turns right up until the end. This is one of those movies where among the main characters there are no good guys. Yet just as it was in “Gone Girl” Ms. Pike plays this kind of part so well I end up rooting for her.

This is also a movie which exposes just how easily the system allows for our senior citizens to be taken advantage of. The early part of the movie as you follow Marla indicts the way the laws are set against some of the most vulnerable in our society. It becomes a different movie once it becomes Marla vs. the mobster. Which is where it spends most of its time.

If you also wanted to see Ms. Pike at her nihilistic best again “I Care A Lot” is just for you.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: The Immortal Hulk

Like many others I am in the middle of enjoying the ongoing WandaVision tv series. I will have much more to say about it once it finishes up. What makes that tv show engaging is seeing these Marvel movie characters in a wildly different environment. It turns out the same formula works on the comic book page as the “The Immortal Hulk” series proves.

This was one of those series I ignored when it first appeared in 2018. It wasn’t until they incorporated the character into the Marvel mobile game, I play that I became a little more interested. One of the cross-promotions within the game is when a new character appears, they allow you to download a few issues to familiarize yourself with them. The in-game description was more enticing than the online one for the comic. I downloaded the first six issues. Then I downloaded all the rest of them.

Al Ewing has been the writer behind the series since issue 1. He has created a version of Hulk who is probably the most powerful iteration. The same Jekyll-Hyde struggle at the core of the character as Bruce Banner and the monster are often at odds. The same being chased by a version of the military for their own purposes is another constant piece to the Hulk mythos. It is the other part which adds the new stuff.

This Hulk comes from the netherworld. The extra oomph to his power also comes from the same place. As the title suggests he can’t be killed in Hulk form. What Mr. Ewing does with this is to examine the entire history of the Hulk. As Banner or Hulk run into things from their past which have more power to bring them down than the military chasing them.

Mr. Ewing has seemingly delighted in using deep cut characters a long-time fan will smile at. But he has effectively used the major nemeses from the canon to be the main antagonists. I like my villains with a history. The ones chosen here all have that.

Of all the Marvel comic series, Hulk was the first one which I slowly stopped reading. There just wasn’t anything new under the sun. Mr. Ewing has brought me back to being a regular reader by taking it to the underworld.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Planet Earth by Duran Duran Turns 40

When I was living in South Florida at the beginning of 1981 I was fully immersed in my weird musical world. I was a punk rock kid. I was a disco dancin’ dude. You can see the conflict. S. Florida was a place where disco thrived. If that was my mood on a weekend, I had options. It was different if I wanted to go clubbing for my other half. There were two choices, The New Wave Lounge in Ft. Lauderdale, or Top of the Colony on South Beach. It was rare that my two worlds touched except for a weekend in the spring of that year.

A bunch of us drove up to The New Wave Lounge on a Friday night. It was this tiny little club in a rundown Lauderdale hotel. It was just the right vibe. The DJ was always right on the edge of any new band coming. That night this song with amazing bass, drums, and synths came out of the speakers surrounding the dance floor. As soon as it was over, I went to the booth and asked what it was. I was told it was Planet Earth from a new band, Duran Duran. It was instantly memorable, and it buzzed in my head on the drive home.

The next night it was time to put on my dancing shoes and I headed to one of the larger discos in the area. It came late in the night as things were headed towards last call. I guess the DJ thought he could sneak something less popular on the turntable because that song in my head from the night before was playing again. I got up and locked into the bass line while I whirled around the dance floor. I looked like I was plugged in when I told this group of friends the name of the song.

I remember thinking what a different kind of song this was that it worked in a crowd of punks or disco dancers. Of course Duran Duran would become one of the huge bands which came out of their MTV exposure a few years later. Some of that success was finding a sweet spot where their music appealed to multiple types of fans.

While I was listening to the current alternative music station, they mentioned that it was the 40th birthday of Planet Earth at the beginning of the month. I cued up the song again and reminded myself what a nearly perfect debut single it was.

I have no idea what the band is up to these days, but I’ll always bounce around the living room when the song is on. Even though my pogo has less hop and my hustle is a little less sharp.; “This is Planet Earth”.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Hey Streamers! Can You Wait 12 Hours?

As I wrote about last week the streaming services have been releasing compelling series which are full of surprises. Unfortunately, the Internet is full of idiots hellbent on spoiling those surprises. I’ve written about the sad people who must post a key plot twist within hours of the show being released. They’re jerks but it is easy enough to avoid them by staying away from the places they thrive. Except lately there has been a new front in the rush to put out that spoiler information, the big entertainment websites.

Like many I have my favorite websites for entertainment news. Whenever I find one I like, I agree to have announcements from them as part of my news feed on my phone and iPad. I like getting the alert of a new article to see if I might be interested in reading it. I’ve never had a problem with them being the source of spoilers before. Something has changed in the last few months. Now these sites are writing stories about the same thing the trolls did within hours of them being released. The problem is I wake up to them in my news feed.

The first example came with a December episode of Star Trek: Discovery which was the second part of a two-part episode. In the first part there was a character which elicited a lot of speculation on who or what it was. I spent the week going back and forth trying to figure it out. That’s part of the fun. Except at 7:30 AM on the morning that the second part was released I picked up my phone to see the answer spoiled in a headline from an entertainment site. I made sure to go on to their comments section and explain to them that this was ridiculous. I also explained that I was removing them from my news feed and thus they lost one pair of eyeballs seeing their ads because I no longer would be regularly visiting.

The very next morning I smartened up and did not pick up my phone before watching the season finale of The Mandalorian and the huge surprise within that episode. After enjoying it I did pick up my phone only to see a different entertainment website with a headline spoiling that surprise. Again less than six hours after it was released a large advertiser driven entertainment site saw the need to start trumpeting it. I again expressed my displeasure and removed the site from my feed.

Only to have it happen again this past Friday with the most recent episode of WandaVision. There is a great surprise right at the end of this episode. Again I made sure not to look at my phone before watching. Just as before when I turned it over there was a different entertainment website happy to blow the surprise. At this rate I won’t have any left in my feed.

I have been thinking about a way to solve the desire of these sites to be jerks. I think the solution comes down to the streaming services. Almost all new content is released at 12 midnight Pacific Coast Time 3AM East Coast. It gives a window for these sites to get out in front before most of the US is awake. The solution is for them to move the release time from midnight Pacific to noon pacific. Now everyone is awake and can get ahead of the pinheads who feel the need to take away others’ fun and enjoyment.

So hey Netflix, Disney+, Hulu, Amazon Prime, CBS AllAccess/Paramount+, and Peacock could you please move the release time just twelve hours. That way the inconsiderate jerks can’t continue to ruin the fun for the rest of us.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Weekly or All at Once? How to Stream

Not so long ago how a television series was presented was on a weekly basis. You turned up at the same Bat Time on the same Bat Channel to see a new episode. The advent of the streaming services had seemingly changed that. Amazon Prime and Netflix as the old kids on the block invented the concept of binge watching as they dropped a full season’s worth of episode all at once. The more recent additions to the streaming ecosystem seem to have decided on going back to that weekly model as CBS All Access, Disney+, and HBO Max have been streaming their series in weekly installments. I’m not sure I have a preference overall but there are some things I have noticed in the two approaches.

Netflix and Amazon Prime trained me to binge watch what they offered. There was a sense that these series were more cinematic in scope. Like a multi-hour movie told in chapters where you can choose when to have an intermission. This is like the smorgasbord version of watching something as you take as much as you can. When I’m very engaged the dawn has broken over my watching the final installment. Things like Ozark, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, or The Queen’s Gambit are fun taken in one, or two viewing sessions.

With some of the most recent new series the choice to release new episodes weekly has reminded me of the fun of having a week to speculate. The Star Trek shows on CBS All Access. Raised by Wolves and The Flight Attendant on HBO Max. The Mandalorian and WandaVision on Disney+ are all built so that the pause builds anticipation.

This is the formula of broadcast tv transformed to a digital world. What all these weekly shows have in common is a broad mystery/mythology at their core. They provide a viewer something to talk about in the days between new episodes. I remember how much fun “Lost” was as in those early internet days each new episode fueled speculation of what was happening. All the weekly streaming shows I mentioned above are doing the same thing. But that’s because the mythology provides the space to do it.

Is one better than the other? I think there is a different way to think about it. If the show is designed as one long coherent story having it all at once seems the right choice. For those who are building a mystery the weekly format adds an extra level to those who are willing to go with it.

It is nice live in a world where both can be enjoyed.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: The Unlovable Narrator

There has been a trend in the world of prestige television of featuring an unlovable narrator. This is when you meet your main character who is not a good person. The idea is if the writers can get you to come around on rooting for them they have done their job. Especially if they haven’t redeemed themselves along the way.

One of the earliest and best examples of this is “The Sopranos”. Nearly all the featured characters were morally reprehensible people. Yet most who watched rooted for them to be able to continue their evil empire.  Writer-creator David Chase made sure to give the audience the visual evidence of what they were. In the season one episode when Tony accompanies his daughter on a college visit. While getting gas he sees a man who snitched and is now in witness protection. When he returns to kill him. Mr. Chase leaves the camera on an unflinching close-up of Tony’s unemotional shark-like indifference to the killing. Most of the audience hoped he didn’t get whacked at the dramatic fade to black at series end.

In the thirteen years since that series ended the plot device has become more widely used. Breaking Bad, Killing Eve, Ozark, Dexter, House of Cards, Fleabag all feature this. Which has caused an issue for the most recent series attempting to use it. There is a line when the character becomes unlikable to the point you don’t want them to succeed.

This came to me as I watched the new HBO Max series “The Flight Attendant”. The main character’s occupation is the title. Cassie played by Kaley Cuoco is an alcoholic party girl enjoying the fact her job feeds that personality. After one long party night she wakes up next to a dead body. The rest of the series is the unraveling of the mystery of who and how it was done.

Here was the problem I had, the writers make Cassie too big of a jerk. Worse they reveal she has always been a jerk in flashbacks. In an eight-episode series it isn’t until episode seven they decide to give her the hint of something not reprehensible. I want to stress this is on the writers. Ms. Cuoco kills this role. One of the reasons Cassie is so irritating to me is because of how good she portrays her. By the end I was happy to be rid of her. I am pretty sure I won’t be watching season 2.

If you’re going to ask me to love the unlovable narrator the writing better be good enough to make me.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: The Unspoken Name by A.K. Larkwood

One of the things I miss that our digital world has obliterated was my weekly visit to the bookstore. For most of my life there was always a part of my week where I spent some time in a bookstore. The people who worked there became familiar with me and I them. Which lead to recommendations of new books I might like. I always felt pretty clued into what was new in those days.

As I was looking at the various Best of 2020 lists for books, I came to realize how out of touch I am now. More than any other thing I enjoy I don’t have much of a clue what’s new. Which means those year-end lists have turned into reading lists. One which sounded interesting to me because it was described as steampunk and fantasy was “The Unspoken Name” by A.K. Larkwood. As I would read it, I came to realize something I had never thought of in epic fantasy.

AK Larkwood

Ms. Larkwood begins her book with a maiden of an orc-like race named Csorwe. She has lived her life to eventually ascend to becoming a sacrifice for her people’s god. On the day she is about to do this a wizard shows up and offers her life in exchange for serving him. She decides to forsake her duty and leaves with him. He trains her to become his assassin. On one of their missions they run into a young magic user Shuthmili. It is at this point the story takes off.

As I was reading, I was expecting the classic trope of wizard and apprentice on a quest. Which is a good trope I have happily read in the past. The reason the story takes off when Shuthmili arrives on the scene is that she and Csorwe begin to fall in love. Which is when everything that lays before them now has emotional stakes. Before this everyone was trying to “save the world” but the characters were just the implements to do that. Once Csorwe and Shuthmili connect it is what gives every subsequent decision something to lose more precious than “the world”. It is also seemingly where Ms. Larkwood is the most comfortable chronicling.

The early parts of the book moves along but it was a bit perfunctory. Introducing the rules of the setting and so on. Once it moves past that it becomes something more engaging. As the plights of one of our heroines deepened, I was flipping pages to make sure they were going to be all right.

Which turned a light bulb on in my head. The best epic fantasy has a love story at its core. There are always two characters who will live for the other. Once this was in place in this book, I was all in on seeing it out. I look forward to where Ms. Larkwood is taking these characters.

Disclosure: this review is based on a copy I borrowed from the library.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: The Mandalorian Season 2

I’ve often written about how the best results for geek franchises is when you put a true believer in charge. I’ve also mentioned with a bit of a sneer how I am not a supporter of fan service in search of a plot. The entire movie “Solo: A Star Wars Story” is an example of the worst of those impulses. I hadn’t considered what could happen if you allowed true believers the chance to apply their sense of fan service. The Mandalorian Season 2 is what happens.

One bit of warning. I usually stay away from spoilers and major plot twists when I write about these things. This time I will be breaking that rule. Much of what I want to talk about requires me to reveal some of the best parts of the season. After the end of the next paragraph there will be spoilers.

The Mandalorian picks up where we ended the first season. A lone exiled Mandalorian bounty hunter has been tasked with returning a child to its own kind. Because that child looks like Yoda, we as an audience know where this should lead. A lot of the fun of the first season was writers Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni enjoying translating classic movie Western tropes into a Star Wars setting. There was also a kind of lone samurai or ronin feel to the title character as well. As the season begins The Mandalorian is looking for how he can return the child to where he should be. Spoilers From Here, Last Warning.

Jon Favreau (l.) and Dave Filoni

Right from the start we end up on Tatooine meeting a lawman wearing very familiar armor to any Star Wars fan. As this Mandalorian sees it he practices his code of only one of his race can wear it. In a saloon standoff an alternate option is offered. This is what I mean by fan service that assists the story. Only the audience knows the wider history of the armor belonging to Boba Fett. The characters are only interested in it for what it is not who owned it. In lesser hands the actors would have been saying “Boba Fett’s armor” twenty times in five minutes. It isn’t necessary to do that. Favreau and Filoni just let it be armor which one man wants and the other doesn’t want to give up.

This leads into a season of the return of many characters previously seen in the Star Wars saga. Yes, Boba Fett does show up because he wants his armor back. The ex-Jedi Ahsoka Tano is given an entire episode in which The Mandalorian believes she is a person he can leave the child with. By the time we are done Baby Yoda/ The Child has a name, Grogu. The other Mandalorian sect we know from the animated series comes to life as Bo-Katan and our Mandalorian work together. Every bit of this is fan service. Every bit of it works because they are characters given story.

The reason is Favreau and Filoni care about Star Wars. This isn’t corporate storytelling. It is creative people who grew up with this in their DNA. And it shows. They don’t want to see these characters devalued through hackneyed plots designed to get people to point at the screen. They do something much more difficult they get us to point at the screen in joy because these characters are being shown in the most relevant way.

Which leads to the very end of the season and the appearance of Luke Skywalker. Because these guys get it his return is fantastic. It has wonderful echoes to his father as Darth Vader in the way he moves towards rescuing Grogu. But here is where Favreau and Filoni get the gold star. The most iconic Star Wars character shows up and yet the emotional weight of the scene is on The Mandalorian and Grogu. This is the way.

The best part of it all at the end is we now know this is the beginning of wider exploration of this time and place in the Star Wars timeline. Because Masters Favreau and Filoni are here it looks like a new saga has begun.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Jackson Year 4

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It was four years ago on January 2 when we adopted Jackson from a rescue organization. Ever since the first post of the year in this column has been about his last year. I’ve also realized this post is a little bit about my last year, too. Plus Jackson is probably the second most asked about subject in e-mails.

Jackson Pre-Quarantine and Pre-Pooch

At the beginning of the year Jackson was an only poodle. Henry passed away the previous November. Mrs. C is the word on if or when we adopt another dog. I knew Jackson was going to have company when she started looking online to see what was available. By the end of February she had found a seven-year-old black poodle, Pooch, who’s owner was unable to take care of him anymore. We went and got him the first week of March just before everything shut down, including Poodlesville.

Just like most everyone else Jackson has spent the year in quarantine with us. Mrs. C and I made the decision early on to minimize contact with the outside world. Which meant that my two-year long process of acclimating him to the world outside the yard was also paused. Jackson was left entirely alone in the year before we got him. Which means he is very cautious at any new experience. Except other dogs.

Jackson (r.) providing Pooch with a resting place

When we brought Pooch home the two of them spent an hour in the back yard. I held an imaginary conversation in my head as Jackson gave him all the 411 on Poodlesville. One funny thing that happened is in our big back yard we have a stand of trees and shrubs we call “the island”. Every dog we have had has run around it without going into it. Pooch dove right in that first hour, bursting out the other side. Jackson stood there as if he had discovered a new thing. Which of course he had. When I look out in the backyard these days and can’t see them. I am likely to see two black dogs leap out of the island in a breakneck run to the porch.

Both dogs but especially Jackson have become my surrogate for human contact. I am pretty sure I have hugged him more this year than the previous three combined. He also has an ability to make us laugh which has been invaluable.

It looks like it will be a few months before Jackson and I can get back out beyond the confines of our yard. For now we walk the perimeter every day. Pooch has also taught Jackson to nip at the back of my heel to encourage me to play. This is the first set of poodles that have coordinated their play. I am often throwing a toy while the other one is bringing back “his” toy that I threw before. It has been funny to see both dogs choose to collaborate like this. My throwing shoulder is getting stronger as a result.

Like I said this is about Jackson but it is also a little about everyone else in Poodlesville. We are all looking forward to the day, soon, when we can be back out in the world.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: My Favorite Non-Perfume Things of 2020

I’ll be spending the next week going into all the good smelling reasons 2020 didn’t entirely stink. But for the readers of this column I also like doing a list of my favorite non-perfume things of the year. This year the list is heavy on that which helped me deal with my quarantine more enjoyably.

Favorite Book: Long Bright River by Liz Moore– I read a lot this year but this was the first new book I finished in 2020. It still resonates with me emotionally. The story of two sisters whose paths have diverged and the Philadelphia neighborhood they grew up in is amazing. It isn’t an easy read, but it is an honest one with a mystery which drives the narrative.

Favorite Comic Book: Swords of X– I used to spend too many summers tied up in a months-long story across all the X-Men titles thirty years ago. I didn’t realize how much I missed that until Jonathan Hickman followed up his reboot of the franchise last year with Swords of X. An old-fashioned throw down as the mutants must battle for the fate of the earth with their own special swords. Great escapist fun.

Favorite Album: Women in Music Part III by Haim– The sisters gave me an album I’ve listened to a lot. They are continually evolving their sound and subject. This album seemed more personal than the previous ones. That’s from a band that didn’t shy away from that in the past. Here it felt like we reached the soul of the matter.

Favorite Single: Rain on Me by Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande– When I needed to dance it out this year it was this track I queued up. When pop divas are confident enough to give each other the room to do what they do best you get a single like this.

Co-Favorite TV Show of the Year: The Queen’s Gambit– I didn’t sit in a movie theatre this entire year. What it meant was the streaming networks gave me the main source of my visual entertainment. The Queen’s Gambit followed the trend of unlikeable protagonists who seek redemption. Actor Anya Taylor-Joy sells the story of a chess prodigy’s climb up the ladder in the 1960’s. This has incredible acting, authentic chess, and the best fashion of any show on television.

Co-Favorite TV Show of the Year: The Mandalorian– I already wrote about what a perfect piece of Star Wars the first season was. Inexplicably Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni oversaw an even more meaningful and better second season. Each episode fed into the next one with no slow teases or slow fuses to what we knew had to happen. They knew a better story was to be had when you just go to the punchlines quickly. This series is becoming the hub which unites every Star Wars fan across generations. I can’t overstate what a gift that is.

I’m going to touch on this when I get down to the perfume things of 2020. This blog and the readers of it also kept me going this year. Especially the small group of readers I think only visit to read this specific column. I just like to write about the things I enjoy. That there is an audience who also enjoys it makes it satisfying. Thank you for reading.

Mark Behnke