For all that I take my comic books seriously some of my favorites are decidedly not. As the potential of what comic books could be evolved throughout the 1970’s there were two series which enjoyed making fun of that. One was Marvel’s “Howard the Duck”. The other was writer Grant Morrison’s mid-70’s tenure on DC’s “Doom Patrol”. Both comics took the oh-so-serious desire of comics to be given respect and gave it no respect. Both series at their best pointed out the silliness at the foundation of superhero culture.
When I heard there was going to be a television version of “Doom Patrol” I wondered whether it could be translated. Writer Jeremy Carver has deliriously taken the no subject can’t be broached style of the comic and broadened it to all of pop culture. With an excellent cast of actors who bring these damaged characters to life it is one of the best television series out there.
The basis of the plot is Dr. Niles Caulder aka The Chief has saved a group of people who have extra normal abilities. We meet him through the story of stock car driver Cliff Steele. He has a fatal accident leaving only his brain intact. The Chief houses it in a robot body. As Cliff awakens, he meets the others. Jane a split personality of 64 each of whom has a specific power. Rita Farr movie star of the 1950’s who has an accident which provides her powers she can’t control. Larry Trainor a test pilot who survives the crash of his X-15 by taking in an extraterrestrial spirit. That is the core team.
Facing them is the villain Mr. Nobody. One of the best parts of Doom Patrol is many of the episodes are narrated by him. As portrayed by actor Alan Tudyk each of this poke fun at the tropes of voice-over narration. There is a sequence in the first ten minutes which sets the tone for the entire show.
For the rest of the first season Mr. Carver and his writing team take every crazy idea to heart. As insane as parts of it are there is a real emotion in the stories of the members of Doom Patrol. As their backstories get filled in it allows the writers opportunities to comment on over five decades of social change. It is intelligently achieved by wrapping it in absurdities.
If you haven’t heard of this show it is because up until recently it was on a fringe streaming service, DC Universe. Happily, the new HBO Max service is giving it a wider platform to be discovered. It is currently halfway through the second season and it hasn’t lost a step from the excellent first season. When you’re exploring the new streaming service give the first episode a try. You’ll know almost immediately if it is your kind of television.
When it comes to thirst quenching beverages lemonade is at the top of my list. Especially during the summer. Up until three years ago I had always just made a basic lemonade. What changed was a visit to my local lavender farm where I was encouraged to add lavender to my recipe. It immediately became a favorite. The pitcher on the top shelf of our refrigerator is as likely to be tinted purple than light yellow. That has been one of the joys of living in a farm community. I have learned a lot about new ways to use the things being harvested. A year ago I got the latest addition to the lemonade repertoire while at one of the farms.
I really enjoy the rhythm of the different harvesting seasons. Probably because they are among the first things ready to be enjoyed strawberry and rhubarb have become favorites. Last year when I was out picking strawberries I was chatting with my fellow amateur harvesters. One of them next to me said they couldn’t wait to get home and make fresh strawberry lemonade. I wasn’t excited about that. The strawberry makes it too sweet. I could never get the sugar balance right. Then another person mentioned they added rhubarb and strawberry to their lemonade. Now that sounded so interesting, I bought some extra rhubarb on my way home.
What the rhubarb does is the same thing it does in pies or preservatives made from these early harvest staples. It adds a lot of counterbalance to the sweetness of the strawberry. Instead of trying to muck with the sugar amounts I found it much easier to find the right ratio of rhubarb to strawberry.
Lemonade is an extra simple recipe, but I found getting this one right took just a little extra prep in boiling the new ingredients before adding them. Here is my recipe.
In a saucepan I add four cups of water. To that goes two cups of chopped rhubarb, and 1/2 cup of sugar. I bring that to a boil and hold it there for a short time somewhere between 6-8 minutes. I add one cup of diced strawberries and let it simmer for an additional 2-3 minutes. I remove it from the heat and let it cool. Then I strain it into a pitcher. I add one cup of freshly squeezed lemon juice and enough ice to fill the pitcher.
It is a versatile recipe and if you are going to try it you might want to experiment with the rhubarb to strawberry ratio to find the right balance for your palate. The recipe above makes a tarter version than the typical strawberry lemonade I’ve tried.
In these current times I am more thankful for the simple pleasures right close by. Strawberry rhubarb lemonade is one of them.
Being at home for so long I have been looking for places where music can provide a respite. The beauty of having been an early iPod adopter is I have a massive music library with many custom playlists. There was a day a few months ago when I wanted to scream at the world. It felt like tiny things were piling up with little I could do about it. I decided I needed some music. When I saw my “punk” playlist I realized that was just what I was looking for. For the next three hours I vigorously bobbed my head, beat on my air drums, slashed my air guitar, and sneered the lyrics to the air. It was just what I needed. It also got me thinking about punk rock and how it has lasted for 40+ years.
One of the things about rock music in the 1970’s it was a DIY enterprise. There was an industry, but they were also still figuring things out. By the time we got into the middle of the decade it was bifurcating. One was the desire to co-opt more and more of other music. There were concerts which featured an orchestra on tour with the band. It was still rock and roll, but it felt like it was pandering to our parents. Look Mom there’s an orchestra behind the guitarist.
Sid Vicious (l.) and Johnny Rotten of The Sex Pistols
I would learn I wanted my version more stripped down. Which was what I encountered when I was given a copy of “Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols”. This was the music I wanted. It seethed with emotion. I couldn’t see Johnny Rotten, but I knew the lines were being sung with a sneer. I was hooked and began learning of the American versions in The Ramones and Patti Smith. England was the epicenter as many of the bands grew out of a disaffected youth who felt their future was stalled. The Clash, The Stranglers, Siouxsie and the Banshees sang of that world. I can’t say my middle-class American life gave me insight into the lyrics. What did get me was the energy of quick bursts of drums guitars and vocals with an edge. For about seven years, into the early 80’s, the punk rock scene found a niche. Then it faded away a bit.
It all seemed to revive for good in 1994. This time it came from Southern California and the skateboard scene. Literally playing in garages bands like Green Day and Rancid were signed to labels to make records. It would start the second age of punk featuring diverse versions like Rage Against the Machine, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Blink-182, and others. As it was with the first generation the middle-aged dude didn’t necessarily feel the lyrics personally. I did appreciate the energy behind the delivery and this time via videos I could see the sneer behind them.
There is a beauty to any artistic enterprise stripped down to its essentials. Punk Rock is that for Rock-and-Roll. It also makes a handy substitute for a primal scream during the low points of a pandemic.
I like television musicals. I like movie musicals and Broadway musicals too. It is the small screen version which connects with me. It probably started with “The Partridge Family” as a child. I liked the television version of “Fame” better than the movie. I thought “Cop Rock” was awesome. One of my favorite episodes of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” is the musical episode. Most of these shows do not last awfully long. Characters singing to the audience every week seems to wear out its welcome. It never seems to stop me from giving a new one a try. The latest television musical is Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist.
The gimmick for this show is Zoey, played by Jane Levy, hears people singing songs about their lives to her. She is the only one who hears them. Once she hears one, she feels like she needs to help. Which is the source of each episode’s plot.
Zoey is surrounded with plenty of people from whim to hear their inner music. She works at a tech firm in San Francisco. She has a busybody neighbor who is the only person to know about Zoey’s gift. Her family is going through the tragedy of watching her dad suffer through a debilitating terminal disease.
That last part is one of the things which made me really fall for the show. Creator Austin Winsberg used his own experience of losing a parent to a disease to inform that part of the writing. Many of the most beautiful moments come from Zoey hearing from her mother, brother, and sister-in-law through their songs. They sing to Zoey what they can’t speak. The most poignant is her songs from her father. He is unable to speak but to Zoey he can sing. The family dynamic is a special part of the show.
The other people sing of more normal things unrequited love, relationship issues, etc. One of the fun things is Zoey as a Millennial is not familiar with many of the older 1970’s and 80’s tunes sung to her. It makes it fun when she is trying to describe the song to her neighbor who is shocked, she doesn’t know them.
My favorite episode of the season was when Zoey sang her truth out loud in real life. While we have always seen choreographed backing instrumental versions of other singing when Zoey does it the rest of the world sees her singing for no reason. The episode forces her to face up to some uncomfortable truths she has been hiding from herself. The writers do not let her off easy. The glitch becomes the pivot point at the midway point of the season.
If you are looking for a fun show to watch and you also like tv musicals Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist lives up to its name.
One part of my non-perfume life I haven’t spent a lot of time talking about in this column is my time as a gamer. I was one of the original Dungeons & Dragons players in the early 1970’s. I have continued to play for the rest of my life. Being a gamer it also led to my spending more than a little time every summer at a gaming convention where I would participate in tournaments. I loved these experiences. I almost always attended with other local gamers and we would road trip to the tournament. They remain great memories. The new novel Conventionally Yours by Annabeth Albert tells a story of gamers and gaming.
Ms. Albert has been the successful writer of several series. She has touched on gaming culture in some of them. Conventionally Yours is a classic road trip plot. Two NYC rivals who play a trading card game called Odyssey are thrown together in the same car to travel to big tournament in LA. Conrad Stewart and Alden Roth then begin their trip across the country.
As they travel they learn more about each other. They both have interesting stories to tell. The common ground which is reached is expected. By the time they reach LA rivalry has turned to something else. They both still desperately need to win. Can they vanquish the other on their way to victory?
Ms. Albert captures much of the nuance of gamer culture. Odyssey is loosely based on the Magic: The Gathering card game. As one who played that game and attended many tournaments Ms. Albert depicts that with an accuracy that leads me to believe she has played a tournament game or two of Magic.
She also must have done a cross-country road trip because that is also accurate in the telling. It is also the opening up of Conrad and Alden which gives the book its emotion. With nothing else to do you talk about yourself. Once you know your rival better that relationship changes. As it does here.
It has been a few years since I spent a weekend in a convention center playing games. Conventionally yours captures why I miss it.
Disclosure: Review based on a copy I purchased.
Ever since we lost live sports it has been illuminating how important they are to my well-being. I realize even when the teams I root for lose I get a lot of joy out of watching. As much as anything I’ve felt that loss. I couldn’t quite bring myself to watch S. Korean baseball. I did watch an excellent documentary series called “The Last Dance” which helped fill in that sports shaped hole.
The advent of the streaming services has given form to the long-form documentary. I have enjoyed many of these because of the ability to go into greater depth on the subject. “The Last Dance” is all about the 1997-1998 Chicago Bulls NBA season. It is built around the film of an all-access production team which followed the team from pre-season to the championship victory parade. That the footage existed was an audacious bet by current commissioner Adam Silver who in 1997 was the head of NBA Entertainment. That is the equivalent of NFL Films where they make short videos of the sport. This was something entirely different. This was going to be hundreds of hours of footage. There were no streaming platforms back then. This story couldn’t be told in an hour. And there was one other thing. Mr. Silver got permission to film all this because he agreed never to release it without Michael Jordan’s permission. This turned out to be a good thing because it allowed for time to move along. For streaming services to be a thing.
Two years ago they approached Mr. Jordan with the pitch of making a long-form episodic documentary out of the footage. They made a convincing argument because he agreed. They would add current interviews with the players into the documentary footage. That would become “The Last Dance”
I am a sucker for behind the scenes authenticity. This footage is revealing in the effort it takes to mount a championship run. The personalities that it takes. Throughout the ten episodes it covers the entire span of Mr. Jordan’s Chicago Bulls career. That coincides with the moment the NBA exploded into an international phenomenon mostly on the shoulders of Mr. Jordan.
Just that footage is worth the time spent watching. But the real attraction is listening to the key personalities on the team talk about the season from a twenty years on perspective. The director Jason Hehir finds a way to give them the room to talk about those days with candor. It is fun to watch them hand one of the players an iPad with footage of what someone else has said. The looks on their face as they hear these things are priceless. It usually is followed with one of the more memorable quotes from that person.
This may be one of the greatest sports documentaries ever. I have kept thinking about much of it since I finished watching it. It also appeals to non-sports fans because Mrs. C at first ignored it before she was drawn in. Once the episode of Dennis Rodman leaving on a 48-hour vacation within the season ended she asked me to cue up the next episode. She isn’t a sports fan, so she didn’t know the way the story ends. She enjoyed it as much as any scripted show we watch.
If you need a bit of sports to watch “The Last Dance” can help fill the time until we see a real game.
In normal times Memorial Day would signal the beginning of the summer movie season. These are the weeks where blockbuster movies have come to ask for our money. These are the days when we go to an air-conditioned room to be thrilled with heroics and derring-do. Most will trace this back to the summer of 1975 with “Jaws” or two years later with “Star Wars”. Those were the undoubtedly the two movies which showed studios there was money to be made with summer spectacles. What I believe is it was a movie which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this week which was the game changer; “The Empire Strikes Back”.
First impact is the date of release. The Empire Strikes Back was released on Memorial Day weekend 1980 the same weekend as Star Wars three years earlier. From then on Memorial Day was the date for the ambitious summer movie. This year it was supposed to be the ninth in the Fast and Furious series, F9. Indiana Jones, Mission:Impossible, X-Men, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Beverly Hills Cop would all start their respective summers out. The Empire Strikes Back solidified the date as opening day.
Movie series were created with The Empire Strikes Back. Before 1980 there were no sets of films. Nobody talked about trilogies. Sure there was Superman II but that came a month after Empire was released. That audiences would wait for three years and flock back into the theatre to see the next episode of a movie series was unheard of, until Empire. Now a movie without a number after its title seems quaint in 2020.
The ancillary toy and collectible market also became a thing because of Empire. Star Wars had a toy deal and it was successful. The marketing for Empire was much more aggressive now that the toy company, Kenner, knew there was a market. When you see a current movie tie-in of any kind it was Empire which started it all. If you are curious about any of this there is an excellent Netflix series called “The Toys that Made Us”. Episode 1 tells the story of Star Wars merchandising.
Finally the movie itself ushered in the serialized story telling we take for granted. There would be no Marvel Cinematic Universe without the climactic showdown between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker at the end of Empire. That scene would leave moviegoers talking for three years until “Return of the Jedi” answered the questions. If a movie creates memorable characters and stories a summer audience will be happy to spend time with them.
I definitely miss being unable to see Dominic Toretto and family tear up another quarter mile this year. I can give thanks to Empire Strikes Back for making me feel that way.
For the audience who only comes to Colognoisseur for this column I am in the midst of the Pierre Benard Challenge where I am spending ten days on fragrance inspired posts. I decided I would alter that effort for this week’s column picking geek influences which mean something to me. I’m going to do it in roughly chronological order.
At the beginning there were comic books. Specifically Marvel comic books. Even though it was my father’s Batman and Superman comics which got me interested it was reading Spider-Man which hooked me. I’ve read Marvel comics for almost 55 years now. I was always asked when I was going to stop reading “funny books”; never.
Then came a television series like nothing else called Star Trek in 1966. Even as a child it fired my imagination. As we were taking our first steps toward the moon Star Trek extrapolated that to something grand. One of the things I was grateful for the show was the way it displayed all races and nationalities working together as explorers and scientists. I am happy to say it continues in 2020 with Star Trek: Picard.
The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien was one of the first epic fantasy books I read while in high school. In those days Sci-Fi/ Fantasy took up a few shelves in our local Walden Books store. Now it fills our movie screens with whole entire bookstores devoted to the genre. When I start reading the first book in a new series I always inwardly wonder if it will be the next Lord of the Rings. Only rarely is the answer yes.
At the end of my senior year in high school my two friends and I went to see this movie called Star Wars on opening night. I would spend the ensuing summer seeing it over 50 times. George Lucas tapped into a desire for adventure among the stars that has created an amazing amount of pleasure for me. Little did I know the explosion of the Death Star was just the beginning.
In 1984 I was introduced to William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer. It created the genre of sci-fi called cyberpunk. I have been jacked in form the beginning. More than any other style of speculative fiction this one has been the most prescient. Back then it was fiction in 2020 it is becoming reality.
These are the pillars of my favorite geeky things. As I wrote this, I realized all of them were ridiculed to some degree when they first appeared. Now they all are revered without having changed. I lived long enough to see it happen. Ain’t life wonderful?
At last year’s San Diego Comic Con the best thing I heard was there was going to be a new Star Trek series featuring Jean-Luc Picard. Actor Patrick Stewart portrayed the captain of the Enterprise in a wonderfully different way in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Capt. Picard was the antithesis to Capt. Kirk from the original series. Mr. Stewart was given more episodes and movies to add to his Captain. That resulted in a deeper characterization. The new series called Star Trek: Picard picks up the story twenty years after the last movie featuring The Next Generation crew; Star Trek Nemesis.
Along with watching Mr. Stewart play Picard again there was another reason I was excited about this new show. It was when I found out author Michael Chabon was going to be involved. Mr. Chabon’s novel “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Klay” is the best book about comic books ever written. I expected he might have some interesting ideas for Star Trek.
The first season extends themes which ran throughout the Next Generation series and movies. Using the android Data’s search to be more human. This was in juxtaposition to whether mechanical beings should be considered part of society or as a tool to be used. The idea was returned to often always taking the high road. Where Star Trek: Picard takes this is what happens when artificial lifeforms commit a terroristic act? Do good intentions disappear when lives are lost? These are the first questions asked which are evolved upon throughout the first season.
When we meet M. Picard he has left Starfleet to run his family winery. Over the first three episodes we learn the circumstances which lead him to life in the vineyard. Something happens which causes him to return to space. The remainder of the season is the resolution of that.
There is a new crew to meet, most of who I enjoyed getting to know. One of the biggest surprises was the return of a character I did not like previously; Seven of Nine. Seven was part of the crew on Star Trek: Voyager. Like so much of that series the character was poorly served by the writing. In Star Trek Picard her character is given more depth in much less screen time. The episode which features her “Stardust City Rag” is one of my favorites of the season.
There are callbacks to characters we have seen before. I thought they found the correct balance of nostalgia and forward motion. By the time two castmates from Next Generation appear in episode 7 it felt natural. Producing another high point in the season.
The only slight quarrel I have is the pace of the plotting over the final three episodes. Where the first three episodes felt like things were moving at impulse power. The final three had plot on warp 10. It took some of the power of important events down a bit because it happened so rapidly.
They slow back down for the final few minutes to hit one final, very important, moment. By the end Picard is on a new ship with a new crew heading to new adventures. I am ready to follow them.
There are movies I watch over and over because I feel better when they are over. In these days of quarantine I’ve been visiting some of my favorites for a necessary dose of happiness. I watched the 1986 movie “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” earlier this week. It is an ideal pick-me-up if you’re feeling the walls starting to close in on you.
Writer-director John Hughes was on a roll during 1984-1986. He was the man who was bringing the life of the American teenager to film. His movies were all comedic with clever truths about growing up hidden amongst the laughs. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off was the next to last of these films. It also captured the joy of a perfect day skipping school.
The story is simple Ferris Bueller is the most popular kid in school. He knows that his time with his best friend Cameron is coming to an end. He wants to take his very uptight friend on one last joy ride of a day. The movie is the realization of that plan. It is the kind of last day we all would like to have with our high school friends before we graduate.
Mr. Hughes cast Matthew Broderick as Ferris. I am not sure there are too many actors that can tread the line of charming con man with a plan without becoming icky. Mr. Broderick navigates it brilliantly. As an audience you root for every scheme to work. The other thing Mr. Hughes does is to have Ferris speak directly to the audience, called breaking the fourth wall. At times throughout the movie he looks at the screen and tells us what is going on. That is one of the secrets to the charm of the performance. It co-opts the audience into being a member of the crew. If you know what’s happening, you are part of the day off.
The movie moves through one set piece after the other. All of them iconic in one way or another. They can be described in a couple words. “Danke Schoen” “Sausage King” “Ferrari”. I can just watch any scene from the movie and instantly lift my spirits.
If you need a break from the world for a couple hours let me prescribe “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”. I think it is almost impossible not to have a smile on your face by the end.