The Sunday Magazine: Persephone Station by Stina Leicht

When it comes to reading if I can get a couple genres in one novel, I am pretty happy. In the last few years there have been a number of novels which have been a combination of Old West bank heist on a science fiction world. The latest of these to make me double my pleasure is Persephone Station by Stina Leicht.

In these types of stories instead of a one-horse town it is replaced by a planet out on the fringes of intergalactic civilization. Which is where the titular location of this novel is located. There will be a saloon for the underbelly of society. In this case it is called Monk’s Bar. Then there will be a sketchy mission. Ms. Leicht has all these elements in play.

Stina Leicht

The final piece is a cast of characters who are going to form a crew to pull off the job. One of the delightful quirks of this book is they are all women, nonbinary, or queer. It adds a different perspective to what becomes the usual banter between outlaws.

The two main characters are Rosie the owner of Monk’s who has a personal stake in the job at the heart of things. She is amoral and nonbinary which made me think about attributes I usually apply to gender when I read something like that. Rosie and the way Ms. Leicht depict her made me smile every time I paused to think about a particular phrase.

The other is a sci-fi alternate straight out of a Kurosawa movie. Angel is ex-military and all anti-establishment. Which is why she is like one of those exiled samurai of Japanese cinema. There are familiar beats to anyone who enjoys those stories. She has her own group of not exactly seven which make up the gang Rosie hires.

The story moves at a fast pace with all the typical twists, turns, double crosses, and revelations also part of this type of story. Most of my enjoyment came out of the way I considered the way I view the gender of protagonists. If you want a fun read for sitting in the sun Persephone Station is a great place to land.

Disclosure: I purchased my copy of this novel.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Chemtrails Over the Country Club by Lana Del Rey

I have been trending to music that makes me smile over the past year. Life was tough enough I didn’t need to confront it in the music I was listening to. Which has meant I have avoided some of the most recent releases from some of my favorite artists. I knew once things turned around, I could catch up when I was ready. I guess that time is now because I downloaded the new album from Lana Del Rey called “Chemtrails Over the Country Club”. While it isn’t optimistic it does remind me of what the world might be like post-pandemic.

“Chemtrails Over the Country Club” is the follow-up to 2019’s “Norman Fucking Rockwell”. That was named as one of the best albums of the year. What was interesting was the music was danceable while the lyrics were honest slices of life. I wonder how many people heard the lyrics instead of the beat. On the new album Ms. Del Rey pulls back to a sparse arrangement for the songs. This time the lyrics are inescapable. They are also unflinchingly authentic.

These are songs of the battered soul. Mostly from a female perspective. Instead of staying in her hometown of LA this time she writes about the other places in the country. Taken together it shows tough times are out there no matter where you live even “are-can-sass” as she pronounces it on “Tulsa Jesus Freak” even as she wants to return there.

“Wild at Heart” serves as the tentpole in the middle of the album. Ms. Del Rey reminds us “I left Calabasas”. At the same time she claims, “I’m not a star”. I don’t doubt she believes it. She certainly sings it with genuine feeling.

She has been compared to Joni Mitchell for her singer-songwriter abilities. This album closes with a cover of one of Ms. Mitchell’s songs, “For Free”. It is broken down into three verses each sung by a different person. Ms. Del Rey takes the middle verse which seems like it describes how she feels about her fame,

Now me I play for fortunes
And those velvet curtain calls
I got a black limousine and two gentlemen
Escorting me to the halls
And I play if you have the money
Or if you’re a friend to me
But the one-man band
By the quick lunch stand
He was playing real good for free

No she doesn’t play for free, but she does tell us the truth, which is priceless.

Disclosure: This review is based on an album I purchased.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: How “The Crown” Made Me Care

I am not one who confuses popular entertainment with documentary. Even so I enjoy the entertainments built upon historical events. I spend a lot of time after watching something “based on actual events” determining what the real story was. Most of the time more straightforward with less flamboyant characters involved in the events depicted in the adaptation.

What I have been surprised to find over the four seasons that I have watched the Netflix series “The Crown” is what it has done to my opinion. I know the series written by Peter Morgan plays fast and loose with timelines. Even faster and looser with what they extrapolate happening in the times between public facing events. Yet over four seasons it has also portrayed the members of the British Royal Family as more complex human beings than they are seen as in reality.

Matt Smith (l.) and Tobias Menzies as Prince Philip in “The Crown”

A good example is Prince Philip. If I had not watched “The Crown” I am unsure whether I would have watched his funeral as it was televised. Prior to the tv series I knew of him as a consort to Queen Elizabeth II. I knew he had pushed modernizations onto the Palace but that is where it ended.

Over the four seasons where he has been portrayed by actors Matt Smith in the first two seasons and Tobias Menzies in the last two. They have made him more of what it was always said he was to The Queen, a partner.

This is where a show like “The Crown” probably comes closest to the truth in the broad strokes of characters. When you have decades of history to sift through the essential character of the person is there to be found. The truth they find about Prince Philip makes him one of my favorite characters within the series.

He is shown chafing at his demotion to eternal public deference as a young man. He is also shown at the same time being one of the few who will not try to manipulate Elizabeth for nefarious purposes. In the later episodes as they enter the later years of their marriage, he is the counterweight to all that she must deal with as monarch.

As I watched the service for the real Prince Philip, I shed a tear. It surprised me. I am sure it is because “The Crown” made me care.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: WandaVision

I don’t know what is in the water over at the creative part of Disney Studios. Based on what they have been doing over the last sixteen months you almost have to believe a fairy godmother, or two are involved. They used The Mandalorian to re-invigorate Star Wars. Now they are doing it again with the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). They are taking the opportunity provided by being able to tell stories in episodic fashion to add even more depth to the overall world building. With WandaVision the first of this new way of exploring the MCU they knocked it out of the park.

One of the things the movies have been a little light on is being able to delve into the consequences of the Marvel heroes’ actions. It is not ignored but it also isn’t given the depth it could be. Enter writer Jac Schaeffer who wanted to create a whole series around that theme. Together with director Matt Shakman they created WandaVision to be about one powerful person’s grief and how a person like that might express it. They use a brilliant device to achieve it.

They choose to pay homage to classic sitcoms. Many of the episodes are riffs on a popular sitcom of a decade. The first episode is based on “The Dick Van Dyke Show” of the 1950’s. To add extra authenticity to it they actually filmed it in front of a live studio audience. They also spent time with Dick Van Dyke to learn about how they approached the show back then. This attention to detail shows. Each subsequent episode takes on “Bewitched”, “The Brady Bunch”, “Full House/Family Ties”, “Malcolm in the Middle”, and “Modern Family”.

In each episode Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda and Paul Bettany as The Vision play their love story out against the backdrop of the sitcoms. As we move along, we come to realize there is something not quite right about it all. The reason for it all comes from the trauma of everything that has happened to Wanda. I am being especially obtuse because a huge part of the fun of WandaVision is figuring out what is going on. Mrs. C and I were talking back to the television through each new twist.

The one thing I want to mention is how amazing an actor Elizabeth Olsen is. She channels everyone of the sitcom moms she is asked to. The flightiness of Mary Tyler Moore as Dick Van Dyke’s wife to the documentary breaking the fourth wall of Julie Bowen’s Claire Dunphy from “Modern Family”. She has every little mannerism and way of delivering a line down to perfection. Once the sitcoms end and Wanda’s actions are revealed she is even better. As she lets us in to the towering grief which brought all of this on.

This is exactly what having the MCU on Disney+ is for. This is a story that needed to be told in this way. It could never have been shoehorned into a theatrical runtime. What is particularly exciting about this is it is clear that the Marvel executives are going to allow for this kind of very creative storytelling over and over. It just adds to the legacy of success of the last decade because WandaVision proves the vision that comes from the top is almost unerring.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: It Ain’t Easy to Create a “Universe”

I have a friend who can throw darts extremely accurately. He can explain in perfect detail and example how he does it. I can listen to every word. I can practice for hours. I am never going to be as good as my friend. The other part of this is he makes throwing darts look as easy as it can be. If I ever had a desire to be an elite darts player, it wouldn’t matter how hard I tried. I don’t think I would be better than my friend. Even thought he makes it look natural there is a special something he has which elevates him to the high level of his game.

Kevin Feige

When it comes to movies, I think the mastermind behind the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), Kevin Feige has also made it look easy. He created the concept of an interconnected set of movies leading up to even bigger movies with lots of the characters. He also has overseen the casting of some of the most iconic comic heroes with the perfect real-life representation. Over 12 years they haven’t made a bad casting decision. They’ve been so good at it you are disappointed when the character on the page doesn’t resemble the actress. The movies have grossed billions of dollars and they are now creating a legacy on Disney + in streaming television.

It looks so easy that Saturday Night Live did a parody ad where they prefaced one ludicrous idea after another with “Marvel Presents”. My favorite was “Marvel Presents Some Shopping Carts”. I have such faith in the team behind the MCU that I kind of believe they could pull that off. Mr. Feige has made it look easy.

Which is why the other franchises that wanted to create their own “universe” must wonder why they have failed. Universal wanted to take their classic monsters like Dracula, The Mummy, and The Werewolf to create the Universal Monster Universe. If that is the first time you’ve heard that you now understand its fate. Warner Brothers wanted to take the big creatures of Godzilla and King Kong and create a MonsterVerse. Godzilla v. Kong is the fourth and likely last of that experiment.

The inept flailing of DC to create their own counterpart to the MCU has become like the sibling who is the screw-up next to the Ivy League level MCU. The DC Extended Universe’s best attempt is to go turn a 2-hour movie into a 4-hour movie with a bunch of cliffhangers they will never resolve. Zach Snyder’s Justice League encapsulates all the difficulty DC is having.

It makes me appreciate what Marvel has achieved even more. Because it ain’t easy to build a movie “universe”.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Bridgerton and the Hazard of Representing a Genre

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One of my jobs while I was in college was working at a local independent newsstand/bookstore. It was a place where I had a wonderful seat to observe the world from. The store attracted all kinds and I enjoyed talking with them if they were interested in that. One group of customers fascinated me.

At the beginning of every week we got a new shipment of Harlequin Romance novels. By the end of the week this rack was usually empty. There was an audience that just couldn’t get enough. My curiosity was piqued enough that I took one of the damaged books we were going to return and read it. There was a lot of emotional foreplay which would lead up to a crescendo of clothes being ripped off. The industry name for these types of books in the 1980’s was “bodice rippers”. I found my very casual foray didn’t make me interested in reading more.

Over the next few years there was an expansion of this style of writing into larger popular fiction. Many television adaptations were made of these. The general impression was this was what romance novels were all about. I haven’t really thought about this at all until I watched the Netflix series “Bridgerton”.

Bridgerton is the first series by producer Shonda Rhimes in her huge Netflix deal. It is based on a series of books by Julia Quinn. What Ms. Rhimes does is to take her source material and expand it into a multi-racial cast. She uses the idea that Queen Charlotte was descended from Moors and had darker skin. As such the series allows her to use her position as Mad King George remains out of sight to create a more diverse court. It is this which got many, including me, to watch.

I found the overall story more engaging than my reading of decades ago. Yet there were still many of the same conventions even with a less uniform skin tone present. I finished it feeling like it was a nice step forward. Thinking it was representative. Until I asked my friend who writes in the genre about it. She and many of her colleagues are less happy about it because they feel it is not representing the current state of romance fiction.

This was something I knew well. When Star Wars came out in 1977 there was a popular perception that was science-fiction. It was but it mostly was not. Even George Lucas called it “Wagon Train to the stars” after the popular Western themed TV series. When friends asked me for books to read, I made the mistake of giving them the science fiction of ideas over action. Philp K. Dick, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, etc. were not Star Wars they were what the genre really was. But now the world saw Star Wars as science fiction. I found I could give my friends something which was a little bit the heroism of Star Wars and retained some of the core of what the genre really was about. Frank Herbert’s “Dune” became one of my most loaned books in these days.

It didn’t take too long for things to start to change as movies like “Blade Runner” would follow. Over time the idea of “hard” science fiction found its place even while the “space opera” genre also thrived.

I asked my friend for someplace to look to find the type of romance novel of today which was not represented by “Bridgerton”. She pointed me to author Eloisa James. I downloaded the first book in her most recent series “Wilde in Love”.

It has several similarities with “Bridgerton” in broad strokes. The hero is returning home on a wave of reputation. He is reluctant to find a woman yet one catches his eye. They begin a typical back and forth over whether they can be who they want to be while living up to what others expect them to be. Except Ms. James’ has a different idea of romance which doesn’t entail the ripping off of clothes but the opening up of one’s heart and emotions. Both end up in bed, but the novel makes it feel different.

Unlike the one-off of the Harlequin Romance, I’ve read the additional three books currently in the series. This is why having anything representing any genre through popularity is problematic. Bridgerton is fun but it doesn’t represent the current evolution of romance fiction.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: The Crown Season 4

One of the series I discovered during quarantine is “The Crown”. It is streaming on Netflix telling the story of Queen Elizabeth II. The earlier seasons have covered her early days from 1947 moving a few years at a time in each successive set of episodes. The early seasons were that kind of historical narrative which was fascinating to watch. Creator and writer Peter Morgan does an entertaining job of filling in the blank spaces between the historical events we can see. The first three seasons took us up to 1977. This most recent season has been the most controversial because it covers a time when the British monarchy was much more visible. It also involves historical figures who have been well-covered as the media landscape changed during these years, too.

Season 4 covers the eleven years Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister, 1979-1990. Gillian Anderson plays Mrs. Thatcher subsuming herself under hair, make-up, and an uncanny imitation of her speaking style. Olivia Colman returns as Queen Elizabeth. Much of the season concerns a world where women were taking on more power as personified by these two. The actresses capture the prickly relationship between the two.

The other big part of this time was the courtship and marriage of Prince Charles and Princes Diana. This is the part of the show where Mr. Morgan does a lot of extrapolating to fill in the blanks between public knowledge. It is the part of the show which has caused the most controversy because it is hard not to watch “The Crown” without thinking you are watching something more authentic than it is. This is especially true in the fractured fairy tale that is Charles and Diana. Josh O’Connor and Emma Corrin play their parts brilliantly. Which might be why they have an outsized impact. Even though the blank spaces come from the pen of Mr. Morgan they seem plausible.

My favorite episode of the season is the fourth one titles “Favourites”. Ms. Thatcher’s son has gone missing while racing the Paris-Dakar Rally. She is distraught because he is her favorite child. Throughout the episode it is made clear that his twin sister is second best in their mother’s eyes. The Queen is surprised to hear a mother has a favorite child until Prince Philip tells her that she does have one. The Queen spends one-on-one time with each of her children to try and figure it out. This part shows all four of the Royal children are having their issues which the Queen has been unaware of. This shared experience between the two political protagonists of this season helps to give them a humanity beyond what their public personas presented.

This dynamic runs through the entire season as it ends with Mrs. Thatcher losing her position while Charles and Diana are on the verge of divorce. I am looking forward to the next season because that also should cover an equally tumultuous time. Even though it is pure speculation I am looking forward to what Mr. Morgan fills the blanks in with.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: RC Cola

If there was a red-headed stepchild to the great Cola Wars it was RC Cola. RC stands for Royal Crown but hardly anyone uses that. When I was a child in the 1960’s RC was as prevalent as Coke or Pepsi. In those days I had preferences based on the food I ate them with. Coke was the choice for a hamburger or a hot dog. Pepsi and pizza were perfect. For RC it was peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

RC began its life in the early 20th century as the creation of a store owner who felt Coca-Cola wasn’t giving him a fair shake. He decided to develop his own syrup. RC would command a nearly equivalent number of sales through the 60’s. I was as likely to be offered a can of any of the three when visiting my friends’ houses.

If I was going to describe the taste it was not as sweet as Pepsi but sweeter than Coke. Which says something about the food I want to drink it with I guess.

Once the 70’s began there was an advertising war between Pepsi and Coke which was dubbed the Cola Wars. It would go on for thirty years before an uneasy truce was declared. It was fought in high profile commercials across the television era when you couldn’t fast forward through the ads. I found myself immune to it all. Which one I drank was down to what I was eating it with. It wasn’t “red is for beef white is for fish” level but I had my own pairings.

A consequence of Coke and Pepsi slugging it out was that RC found their shelf space in the market getting shrunk down. I only found they were still on sale when I was at my local store and saw them delivering cases. I walked back to the soda aisle to find it on the bottom shelf. I asked the store manager how it sold. She told me they sell a fair amount of it. Now that I know it is there, I’ll be one of those customers.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Alex Trebek

I have always been a fan of game shows. The ability to play along at home creates a lot of the appeal. The other part is the host of each game show. The best hosts eventually find the right game which fits their demeanor. If this happens, they usually become as much a part of the success and enjoyment of things.

When I was a child there were three gameshow pairings which fell in this category. Alan Ludden on “Password”, Hugh Downs on “Concentration”, and Art Fleming on “Jeopardy!”. Not only did they keep things moving it seemed like they genuinely enjoyed the game they were the moderators for.

That original incarnation of “Jeopardy!” ran for fifteen years from 1964-1979. It was always a personal barometer for how much I knew about a subject. When I got Final Jeopardy right it was a big moment.

Alex Trebek

Five years after it went off the air, they decided to bring it back in syndication to play in the early evening after the local and national news in most markets. I was happy to have it back but when I heard who the host was, I wasn’t that excited. They had asked Alex Trebek to take over from Art Fleming with Mr. Fleming’s blessings. I didn’t think this guy was a great host. He was on the game show “High Rollers” which was not one of my favorites. I also felt he kind of went through the motions. It felt like it was a job for him.

From almost the first moments I saw him as host of “Jeopardy!” in 1984 I realized this was entirely different. He like Mr. Fleming prior to him was much more engaged with the rhythm of the game and the players. By the end of the first year it was his show.

What I always appreciated about the way he approached “Jeopardy!” was he knew how important it was to the players to show off their smarts. He commiserated with them when they were close. Rooted for them to get an answer in on a Daily Double. Like the audience he genuinely enjoyed emceeing a close back and forth game. All of this came through the television screen.

When he passed away last November it was hard to think of a world where he wasn’t going to be there every evening. Because of the taping schedule he didn’t leave my television screen until January. I still watch the show but through just a couple of guest hosts it doesn’t feel like they have found the right successor.

I hope there is someone out there as genuinely interested in giving smart people a chance to shine for a half-hour five days a week.

Mark Behnke

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