The Unfortunate Story of Us

Screen Shot 2019-04-10 at 9.44.19 AMOkay. I know I run the risk of being called unhip, out of touch, behind the times, or the worst and most tired insult of all: an old guy on a porch. I don’t care. Jordan Peele’s Us is one of the most overhyped films in recent memory, and in my longtime favorite genre of horror, a stunningly missed opportunity.

And this is coming from someone who found Peele’s Get Out original, funny, scary and hugely entertaining. Peele poured his heart and soul into that Oscar-winner, and the result was a cleverly conceived comment on race relations and brilliantly executed story that pays off even more with each viewing. With Us, Peele seemingly wanted to do a horror film that was more profound, on a larger scale, with metaphorical threads running throughout, with no easy answers to plenty of baffling questions. He may have succeeded in doing that, but along the way forgot to include the entertainment factor.

I found the movie to be an absolute mess, a ghoulash of influences and conceits from so many classic horror movies that they overwhelm everything you’re watching and leave the viewer artistically and emotionally detached.

For the first half hour, I was engaged with the movie big time, but as soon as the “shadow family” showed up in the Wilsons’ remote country driveway to launch a non-stop home invasion torture party, I was bored in a matter of minutes. By the time a second shadow family was breaking into the house of the Wilsons’ good friends and murdering them, I was ready to exit the theater. Without any kind of setup for the horrific “turning point”, without any explanation or even hint of what might be going on, I did not find myself caring enough about the Wilsons or to even be scared for them.

By the time the movie finally ends—at least a half hour too late—we’re subjected to some far-fetched “solution” involving an underworld of shadow figures, hundreds of rabbits, fire, and Hands Across America. Dude, this is supposed to be a horror movie; why are you obligated to give us Stanley Kubrick on a bad day? What’s sad is that Get Out’s script worked so damn well; the only excuse I can think of for this travesty was that Peele was rushed to produce another big hit on the quick and shoved the screenplay into production without running it by someone who could have suggested a few useful revisions.

I’ve always found that the best horror stories are often the simplest. An unforgettable one from last year that not enough people saw, A Quiet Place, starred Emily Blunt and real-life husband John Krasinksi in a story about a family hiding in a country house, unable to make any noise that would attract a race of killer aliens that hunt by sound. Even though we never learned why the aliens were even there, the movie was claustrophobic and gripping from start to finish.

Or take my favorite ghost story, the original version of The Haunting made by Robert Wise in 1963 and based on the Shirley Jackson novel. The first five minutes of the film show and tell you why the huge, isolated house in upper New England is haunted. Then we meet the characters, particularly emotionally vulnerable Eleanor (Julie Harris), and as she begins to have a nervous breakdown while investigating the house with her team, we find ourselves slowly drowning in her fears.

Peele should have taken a lesson from these other films rather than just borrowing elements from them—or even from Polanski’s Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby, in which the entire narrative is seen through the eyes of the main character so you’re wondering throughout if the horrors are real or a product of the protagonist’s mind. If he had stripped the story of Us down to Lupita Nyong’o’s traumatic childhood memory where she thought she saw her doppelganger on a Santa Cruz boardwalk and kept the entire story from her point of view with only her evil, “tethered” other showing up at the house, it may have been less broad a concept but the final twist would have still worked, and it would have been a far more scary and powerful movie.

There are so few great horror films now—this might be the first “serious” one since The Exorcist to earn a Best Picture nomination—that one with even a shred of originality is lauded like it’s the second demonic coming. Other than its fine directing and acting, I found Us to be a disjointed, sluggish disappointment, with stunningly poor execution of a good creepy idea that did not need to become a half-baked metaphorical statement.

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The Kiosk

mcdonalds-kioskSometimes when I’m rushing to get to work and haven’t had time for a proper breakfast at home, I’ll stop at a fast food place near the office to nab a small, improper one. But the other day I walked in a McDonald’s that had apparently been recently remodeled, and found myself staring at an “ordering kiosk”.

I instantly rebelled.

It isn’t that I’m averse to using new technologies to make my life easier. (Remember fast-forwarding to a movie scene on a VHS tape? Standing in line for fifteen minutes at a bank on your lunch hour to deposit a check?) But one of the joys of stopping at a McDonald’s at 7:45 in the morning has been ducking inside to avoid the nine cars in the drive-thru line, then purchasing and getting my to-go order in less than two minutes.

Per usual, there was practically no one waiting to order inside this particular McDonald’s—just me and a sketchy, possibly homeless guy in front of me wanting a coffee. The young woman working the register, in an attempt to share the wonders of modern push-button kiosk use with Sketchy Guy, had to come out from behind the counter, walk him through the dizzying amount of steps he had to go through to buy his coffee on the kiosk board, then return to her place at the register. It was absurd.

“Hey, do I have to use that thing?” I asked the woman, “Because I really prefer to talk to people.” She gave it some thought, maybe afraid of being reprimanded by her boss or an invisible but all-seeing McDonald’s board of directors, then quickly shook her head. “THANK you,” I told her, and placed my order at the register. “There’s just too much of this automated stuff in the world already.”

I mean, there really is. I tried to place a take-out order at a local Thai joint the other day on the phone, something I’d done with them numerous times, and instead was transferred to some kind of multi-eatery food ordering call center. Whenever I call a customer service number and get a friendly robot (which is basically all the time now), I hit the “O” button for an operator as quick as possible in search of human contact. While I’m waiting to talk to a living being, the robot will still try to steer me to a web site rather than keep me on hold, but many times the question or matter I have really needs to be discussed, not reduced to a handful of keyword responses. Social media has succeeded in making us less conversant than ever, and I’d rather not contribute to speeding the decline.

McDonald’s is saying that their new kiosks will “speed up” the ordering process, but I saw no evidence of this the other morning with just two of us in line. What if there were twenty people and half of them were kids or simply kiosk-challenged? Wouldn’t it become something like the cluster of confusion in front of many mass transit ticket machines that have caused me to occasionally miss trains?

No, the only benefit to McDonald’s I can see with these kiosks is finding a new way for the company to eliminate human employees. For that reason alone, I intend to fight them until they drag me away from the cold, dead counter.

The White Album, Juggled

Beatles

Back in 1968, I had a friend who was a Beatles lunatic. He owned six copies of Sgt. Pepper, three of which he never opened. And the day the Beatles’ White Album hit Springfield, Mass we were taking the bus downtown to stand outside the door of Kresge’s Department Store and purchase the very first copies.

We played the thing over and over again in his bedroom the entire weekend. Any new Beatles album at that time was a gift from above, but this double creation was so bizarre and unique and filled with tunes you couldn’t get out of your head that it seemed like a work that was beyond art.

Fifty years later, I find myself strangely unimpressed with the White Album. My current best friend who is older than me recently called it “complete shit.” I wouldn’t go that far, but in my mind it doesn’t come close to Sgt. Pepper, Abbey Road, Rubber Soul, or Revolver. As a collection of great individual songs showcasing each Beatle’s talents, it totally works. But there’s an erratic, meandering quality to the thing that gives it a show-offy quality, as if they were saying, “Concept album? Who needs a concept? Here we are just being our brilliant selves and aping every musical genre imaginable!” Even the stark, minimalist cover, though innovative, smelled of arrogance.

But I’m here to tell you I’ve now solved my biggest issue with the White Album: the order of its songs. Going from surf rock to a breathy ballad to hard blues to music hall ditty to acoustic fluff to Ringo’s whatever makes for a very disjointed and directionless experience. So I recently took the tracks and re-ordered them by tempo and intensity, going from soft and quiet to wild and deafening, and the result is an album that builds and builds and elevates your senses along with it.

Honestly, try this at home:

1. Long, Long, Long
2. Julia
3. Blackbird
4. I’m So tired
5. Mother Nature’s Soon
6. Dear Prudence
7. I Will
8. While My Guitar Gently Weeps
9. Cry Baby Cry
10. Piggies
11. Martha My Dear
12. Yer Blues
13. Honey Pie
14. Happiness is a Warm Gun
15. Rocky Raccoon
16. Revolution 1
17. Don’t Pass Me By
18. Glass Onion
19. Buffalo Bill
20. Sexy Sadie
21. Savoy Truffle
22. Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da
23. Everybody’s Got Something to Hide
24. Birthday
25. Back in the U.S.S.R.
26. Helter Skelter
27. Good Night

I nuked Why Don’t We Do It in the Road? and Revolution 9 because they’re complete shit, and left Good Night at the end because it’s still a perfect coda. Not sure how you’ll feel about the songs in this order, but I have found it makes the White Album ten times better.

Hell, if I could message George Martin about this I would.

A Perfect Movie Organism

alien1979theatricalreleNext year marks the 40th anniversary of the greatest sci-fi film ever. Or at least, the greatest one in my book.

I’ve seen 2001: A Space Odyssey a number of times, often under the influence of assorted imbibements. George Pal’s 1960 version of The Time Machine was my favorite movie growing up, and the Star Wars franchise has provided a lot of funtertainment. But the film I keep returning to again and again for aesthetic and psychological reasons that are so primal and deep they’re difficult to grasp—is Ridley Scott’s original Alien.

I recorded the slightly longer Director’s Cut version of the 1979 film on my DVR recently, and weirdly, have watched it a half dozen times in the last two months. Needless to say, it gets better with every viewing. But what is its pull? On the surface, it’s a bare bones concept that barely qualifies as science fiction: space mining crew investigates signal on distant planet, accidentally allows monstrous alien creature to board their ship and kill nearly everyone. Dan O’Bannon and Ron Shusett had a scary B-picture in mind when they sold their script to producers Walter Hill, David Giler, and Gordon Carroll at Fox. But with Ridley Scott’s masterful direction entwined with the late H. R. Giger’s creepy-beyond-belief concept art, a haunting, gorgeous score from Jerry Goldsmith and one of the best casting jobs ever, the film is a gripping, endlessly fascinating nightmare that puts its sinewy arms around you and won’t let go. Still more frightening than any space film ever made, it’s also UNLIKE any space film ever made.

The tag line the Fox publicists finally settled on was an instant classic: “In space, no one can hear you scream.” In its womb-like art direction and quiet, measured approach, the sense of isolation in space permeates every moment—beginning with this dialogue-free introduction to the towing ship Nostromo:

The seven crew members emerge from their cryogenic cocoons to enjoy a communal breakfast before learning they’re not even close to Earth, and it’s in this scene where the true genius of Alien is on display. These are not the zombied astronauts from 2001, the cartoony heroes from Star Wars, or even the obnoxious jarheads from subsequent Alien sequels. These are genuine blue collar people who happen to be working their daily jobs in outer space. Watch this clip and check out the concerns and attitudes of Harry Dean Stanton and Yaphet Kotto. They could just as easily be on a graveyard shift at a Monsanto plant.

Stanton later said that Scott wrote out a biographical sketch for his character that ran five to six pages, including how many missions he’d been on, how he got along with his parents, etc. None of that info was used in the film, of course, but it gave Stanton embedded feelings that infused his smart-alecky character. Sigourney Weaver, in a later interview, praised Scott’s vision, which is that “space is a real place: filthy, greasy, and grimy.” Hardly the cold, antiseptic environments present in many a science fiction film. In the first ten minutes, we feel like we know every one of these characters, and like spending time with virtually all of them. Which makes the subsequent horrors all the more affecting.

The now-famous scene of the alien creature birth-bursting out of John Hurt’s stomach while at dinner is not just a thoroughly shocking moment that caused audience members at a Dallas preview to flee to the lobby and bathrooms to vomit, but a simple, dynamic plot point that sends the entire story smashing into a wall. Oddly, while it’s the absolute definition of the “first turning point” in dramaturgy terms that normally occurs a half hour in, this one falls dead center in the middle of the film. The second half basically becomes a “ticking clock”, as the crew tries to find and eliminate the creature while it’s gradually hunting them. Scott’s decision to show as little of the alien creature as possible adds to the characters’ terror and sense of isolation, and makes the experience very scary for us. What little we do see of the alien is so ghastly it lets our darkest imaginations run wild. And as the tension mounts, as they are throughout the film, the performances are pitch perfect:

After a brilliant plot twist that reveals Ian Holm’s Ash character to be a company-embedded robot with a hidden agenda to bring the alien home at all costs, the final third of the movie goes into complete overdrive, a breathless hide-and-seek game between Weaver’s Ripley character and the beast, with the imminent self-destruction of the ship providing a second ticking clock. Add to that sped-up camera work, shooting steam machines and strobe lights, and the finale comes as close to a mix of terror and sexuality as you’re likely to experience. After the climax and post-climax, we’re left with heroine Ripley back in her cryo-chamber, drifting back to sleep with her cat, the audience finally safe again.

On every single level, Alien works, even with models and miniatures employed instead of CGI, even with computer interfaces no more advanced than early Commodores. As Ash’s robot head utters before it’s blow-torched, the alien is a “perfect organism…I admire its purity.” I’ll say the same for this incredible, timeless film.

I Miss Hockey Player’s Heads

1972-walt-tkaczuk-bobby-orr-gerry-cheevers-079114223For about five years in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, I went to see NHL games at the old Montreal Forum. I was living about two hours south in Burlington, VT. One of my roommates was a huge fan of the Canadiens, so often assembled mini-caravans over the border so he could cheer on the Habs. I was and still am a devout Boston Bruins fan, so our fandom was rarely in sync, but there was one visual I associated with those trips that has always stayed with me: Guy Lafleur, Montreal’s dashing, legendary right wing, streaking down the ice toward the enemy net. Even from high up in the smoke-filled rafters—which through brilliant arena design had sight lines directly over the rink—you could see Lafleur’s slightly balding dome, his sideburns, and his sandy, longish hair flying behind him over his classic red jersey as he skated. When he made his signature move it literally put the home crowd into a frenzy.

lafleur-hockey.jpg.size.custom.crop.520x650Earlier in the 70s, the Philadelphia Flyers, also known as the Broad Street Bullies, had a bunch of guys with crazy curly hair and few teeth. Bob Nystrom of the New York islanders had Lafleurian hair and a snappy moustache to go with it. Ron Dugauy of the New York Rangers had a rock star mane. Watching on lousy Magnavox TVs back then, you could identify most of the hockey players on the ice even when you had issues seeing the puck. You could see their faces and expressions. You knew their character.

Today? On 62-inch hi-def LG screens, it’s ten times easier to follow the puck, yet watching an entire NHL game is much more of a chore than it used to be. And the reason seem very obvious to me:

THOSE STUPID HELMETS!

Now I’m not one to clamor for unsafe sports, and asking the NHL to get rid of helmets is akin to asking baseball to remove the netting behind home plate. It will never, ever happen, so shut the hell up, Jeff. No, the purpose of this piece is to just wistfully long for the days when you could actually tell hockey players apart, and had a clear sense of who they were as people.

bobby-nystrom-52242329Whether at the arena or on television, hockey is often viewed from center ice, a few sections up, allowing you to take in the speed and grace and circular movement of the players’ lines. With ten combined goals in one game considered a “slugfest”, the sport lends itself to drowsiness at times, especially in low-scoring contests. And with the helmets obscuring every player’s hair and face and the camera usually too far away from reading the names on the backs of the jerseys, I find it very difficult to differentiate them, and the action can lull me to sleep much faster.

I realize I’m being an old hockey fan yelling on my porch here, but think about it a second. Would you like it if actors in a movie or play all wore headgear to obscure their faces? How enjoyable would that be? Granted, football players have helmets, but there are TV close-up shots of faces between every play on the field. And one of the greatest things about baseball are the individual pitching windups and batting stances affixed to every player. Joe Morgan’s flapping elbow. Willie Stargell’s windmill swing. Juan Marichal’s high leg kick. Carl Yastrzemski high hands.

Now I seem to recall Wayne Gretzky being the first great hockey star to wear a helmet, but he was so good that he transcended the issue, and his penchant for parking himself in his “office” behind the net to whistle perfect passes to onrushing scorers was a a signature visual in itself.

But few hockey players from now to forever will ever be Wayne Gretzky.

Here’s over two hours of a 1974 Stanley Cup Final game between the Flyers and Bruins. Watch two minutes of it and then tell me you prefer seeing guys in helmets. Then I’ll go away.

 

The Joy of Tracks

TearsOne of my favorite things about the New Era of Downloading is the freedom you suddenly have to be your own record producer. Remember the days when you liked one or two songs on a new release and were forced to spring for the entire album if you wanted them? That was almost as annoying as having to fast-forward and rewind your cassette for five minutes just to find a particular track!

Anyway, like most people, I have a playlist of “desert island” songs I would gladly be shipwrecked with as long as I had them on my magic smart phone that never needed charging. But why dream about such a scenario when you can turn your favorite songs into downright celebrations any time?

SummerFrank Sinatra’s “Summer Wind” was my favorite tune of his for a long time but I never had a copy of it, so one day I went on iTunes and typed it in the search window. Lo and behold, there were well over 100 versions of the song available from various artists—everyone from Julio Iglesias to Madeleine Peyroux to the Swingin’ Fireballs. It took a little time and cost me around $25, but I downloaded the best two dozen or so versions of the tune from that initial list of 100 and made myself a fun, swanky playlist called Summer Winds that runs for an hour and a half.

 

VinesI have since done this same thing with Marvin’s Vineyard (50 different versions of “Heard it through the Grapevine” by Marvin Gaye), 24 versions of Irving Berlin’s “Cheek to Cheek”, and just recently, 25 awesome versions of “96 Tears” by Question Mark and the Mysterians.

A few years ago, I even burned a mix CD for my dad called Can’t Get My 26 Sets of Eyes Off of You, a tribute to the Frankie Valli classic that also happened to be my dad’s favorite song. He liked the thing so much he asked for another CD after he lost the first one!

Cheeks

 

It goes without saying, but the key to making a successful song tribute mix is arranging the tracks very carefully to prevent you or another listener from getting bored with the tune. It all starts with selecting as many different musical styles as possible. In the Marvin’s Vineyard mix, for instance, there are soul versions, funk versions, a reggae version, an a capella version, vocals by men or women or both. I even found a punk version for the Frankie Valli mix. The Vineyard collection runs a good three hours, and it took forever to get the songs in the right order, but if you do this right with one of your fave tunes, you can have yourself a sweet little tribute concert that will resonate for an entire long car drive or ear-budded hike.

Thanks, digital age!

By the Time I Got to Woodstock (Again)

Joe_cocker_-_woodstock_1969_2

My friend Lou is the only person I know who was at Woodstock in 1969—or at least, the only person who told me they were. He says he remembered seeing Richie Havens open the festival, and Jimi Hendrix closing it, when the soggy hill overlooking the stage had more trash on it than people. In between, thanks to taking “too much acid”, everything except the swarm of humanity was a total blur.

I was still in junior high school at the time, a state away from the festival, and was not old or inclined enough to attend. Among those of us who read morning newspapers or watched the Huntley-Brinkley Report on NBC, though, the “happening” quickly became the number one topic of conversation in the school halls.  I became a huge fan of the subsequent concert movie and double album that helped the promoters recover some of their losses, mythologize the three days for eternity and propel a handful of the musicians into lucrative careers. I saw the marathon movie at least three times in a theater, including once with my dad (a very big Santana and Sha-Na-Na fan), bought the four-hour director’s cut when it was released on DVD, but hadn’t watched it again until early this week, when Turner Classic Movies aired it in its entirety, complete with the very brief “Interfuckingmission.”

And you know what? This time I appreciated the film and actual event more than ever, but for entirely different reasons that I’ll get to.

3.1wmFor starters, Michael Wadleigh’s document of the festival is still an amazing technical achievement. Using a dozen cameras, his multi-angle and split-screen views of the best performances capture every moment of their excitement, particularly the raw, unbridled power of Joe Cocker’s “With a Little Help From My Friends,” the Latin rock ecstacy of Santana’s “Soul Sacrifice”, and Sly Stone’s funky epic version of “Wanna Take You Higher”. The interviews with concertgoers, town residents, snippets of dialogue from some of the artists, even words from a port-a-potty cleaner create a fascinating mosaic of Woodstock’s populace, and there is so much more Wadleigh shows without using even one second of narration. Forget the skinny-dipping and mud-sliding; the shots of gridlocked back roads and endless lines of young attendees trying to call their parents at a small bank of pay telephones are staggering. (“How did they ever pull this thing off without cell phones?” I asked my wife.)

Of course, some of the music is also forgettable, and due to length restrictions, there was a mountain of tuneage that was never featured in the movie or on the album. Tim Hardin, the Incredible String Band, Ravi Shankar, Bert Sommer, Sweetwater, Keef Hartley, Quill, the Jeff Beck Group, The Band, Iron Butterfly, and Johnny Winter were all on the original concert poster, and Creedence Clearwater Revival apparently showed up and played. The Jefferson Airplane and Janis Joplin numbers wedged into the director’s cut are nothing special, but it’s sure good to see them all alive.

Still, watching the film in 2018 was a very different experience, because it brought on a brand new feeling of bittersweetness. It had nothing to do with nostalgia. No longing for Wavy Gravy, or funny announcements about bad acid, or Pete Townsend tossing his guitar in the crowd. Dripping over every hippie cliche and cultural milestone about Woodstock was a focused purpose: stopping the Vietnam War.

Nearly fifty years after the festival (good god, really?), so many horrible things are happening in this country now, so little has been learned, that I long for that same concentrated protest. Where do you even start? With the daily subverting of our Constitution? The insane gun laws? Voter suppression? Immigration nightmares? Rampant sexual harassment? The dismantling of environmental protections? The tax scam? The daily bald-face lying? Whatever tomorrow’s new outrage will be?

One thing is pretty clear, though: Aside from giving future generations a cultural icon to hang the hippie movement on, Woodstock changed virtually nothing. You can argue that it may have fueled subsequent anti-Vietnam demonstrations and helped end that war, but with the daily tsunami of horrors now submerging us, I’m not confident a massive poltical-themed rock festival these days would be little more than another mass selfie opportunity. Barring further Russian hacking, filling ballot boxes seems the best way to move back to the light.

“The New York State Thruway’s closed, man!” said Arlo Guthrie to one of the Woodstock promoters early in the film, with an almost triumphant glee in his voice. It was an innocent time, indeed.

Yasgur's

49 years after…