Pop Culture Musing for a Wednesday 8/31/16

stranger things ryder
Winona Ryder in the Netflix series, “Stranger Things”

Inside the Upside Down: Called “the show of the summer” by the New York Times, Stranger Things, airing on Netfilix, is not ordinarily my type of fare, but with a window open on the binge front, and with all the plaudits it has received – and the fact that Winona Ryder is back in the spotlight in her role as a mother whose young son disappears under mysterious circumstances – well, that sealed the deal.

Pitch-perfect in its depiction of a small midwestern town in early-Eighties America, the series, created by the thirty-something Duffer Brothers (themselves born in 1984), also borrows liberally from such defining films of the era as E.T., Poltergeist, and Stand By Me, as well as assorted offerings by Stephen King. (The font for the title looks straight from a King novel.)

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Millie Bobby Brown as “Eleven”

Horror and fantasy not particularly being my cup of tea, I was most surprised by the emotional connection that Stranger Things was able to wield via the terrific child actors at the heart of the story. They wrap themselves around your psyche in all sorts of peculiar ways, none more so than the astonishing Millie Bobby Brown, the young British actress who plays the telekinetically enabled and unusually named “Eleven.” Suffice to say this little girl has quite the remarkable powers; she hooks up with the three boys searching for Winona’s missing son, and is on the lam from a laboratory where government agents used her as a guinea pig and potential weapon in the fight against the Russians (remember the Cold War?)

Anyway, her performance is really something to watch; she has limited dialogue, so expressions must convey all she feels, and every one of them cuts to the quick. Stranger Things is worth seeing just for the joy of encountering such a great new talent.

Oh, and back to Winona. How perfectly appropriate that she would be cast in a project that takes place in the decade which saw her emergence as one of the iconic actresses (Heathers, Beetlejuice) of her generation. Here, her acting has just the right amount of jitteriness required for a character who’s borderline nutso (due to the circumstances, of course). And just the necessary number of “Winona-isms” without which the occasion would not be complete.

So welcome back to Winona, goodbye to the summer…and here’s to a season two (just announced!)

Pop Culture Musing for a Tuesday 8/4/15

love storiesLove, Again: There’s a saying about true love stories never really having an ending, and I thought about that in a very literal sense when I had the chance to see a production of Love Letters, the highly successful Broadway play by A.R Gurney that recently began a national tour with Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal in the lead roles.

For those who may or may not remember, O’Neal and MacGraw starred in a rather famous movie called Love Story, from a phenomenon of a book by Erich Segal (it eventually sold 21 million copies) that came to the screen in 1970. It can be described as The Fault in Our Stars of its time, an all-out tearjerker that immediately created superstars of the two actors who played the protagonists (more due to their physical attractiveness than for their actual acting talents, it should be said).

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O’Neal and MacGraw in “Love Story” (1970), above, and reunited once more, below.

Seeing the film as a youngster, I would have been hard-pressed to believe I would be watching the pair on a theatre stage 45 years later, obviously a bit weathered for wear, but surprisingly, still with touches of the o'neal_mcgrawchemistry that contributed to Love Story’s timeless appeal. As the characters in Love Letters sit at a desk on a barren stage reading correspondence from a relationship that spanned almost 50 years – while never actually looking at each other – it was easy to imagine the Melissa and Andy of the play as senior versions of the Oliver and Jenny of Love Story.

Which proves there’s something to be said for nostalgia. Looking around at the theatregoers, it was pretty clear what the target demographic was for Love Letters, which is essentially designed as a vehicle for past-their-prime stars to pull in audiences who remember them from their heyday. But the writing has its moments (the play, after all, was a finalist for the Pulitzer in 1990) and for the veteran troupers O’Neal and MacGraw it provides some eerily reminiscent allusions that recall scenes from their career-making movie of decades ago.

If, as in the iconic line uttered by MacGraw in Love Story, “love means never having to say you’re sorry,”  sometimes it can also mean never having to say goodbye.

Pop Culture Musing for a Friday 2/20/15

best actor oscars 2015Let’s Hear it for the Boys: It says something about the depth of the male performances this Oscar season that a number of amazing portrayals could not be recognized by the Academy thanks to the five-nominee cap in the acting categories. There was justifiable uproar when David Oyelowo’s powerful reenactment of Martin Luther King in Selma was not included in the final cut for Best Actor, but he was in pretty good company, most significantly Ralph Fiennes, in his wry and wonderful turn as the concierge in Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel, as well as Timothy Spall’s iconoclastic depiction of the British landscape painter J.M.W. Turner in the beautifully shot period piece, Mr. Turner.

Personally, I found Bradley Cooper in American Sniper the weakest (though by no means undistinguished) link in a field that’s notable for a couple of performances — by Steve Carell and Michael Keaton — that go against the grain for the actors in question. An unrecognizable Carell, so familiar for his comedic talents in other venues, left me more than surprised by his haunting transformation into John du Pont in Foxcatcher, playing the troubled heir to an American fortune whose privileged life culminated in grisly tragedy. Michael Keaton was also an unexpected revelation as the washed-up, middle-aged actor seeking artistic validation in Birdman. It’s difficult to find humor in schizophrenia and desperation, but Keaton managed to balance the pathos with a deft sense of absurdity that verges on the transcendent.

The two Englishmen, Eddie Redmayne and Benedict Cumberbatch, who round out the list of Best Actor nominees, are also wonders to behold. In The Theory of Everything, Redmayne crafts a performance that is so inordinately difficult at its core: having to convey both wrenching physical disability as well as soul-stirring emotion through indelible facial expressions that serve as windows into the complex personality of the legendary physicist Stephen Hawking. And Cumberbatch, as the ingenuous computer scientist Alan Turing in The Imitation Game, brings a breathtaking intelligence to a role that, in lesser hands, may have proven distantly academic, but instead lingers by way of its human dimension.

jk simmonsAdd to this overcrowded list of brilliant male performances that of J.K. Simmons, left, nominated for Best Supporting Actor as the pathological music instructor in the stunning film, Whiplash. I don’t think there’s any doubt that Simmons was moved to the supporting category in order to ensure a win (though I’ll also issue a shout-out to Ethan Hawke in Boyhood, who probably would have won had it been any other year). There’s nothing “supporting” about Simmons’s performance, which is front and center and indescribably overpowering as a jazz professor whose idea of pushing (or shall we say, punishing) his students towards greatness leaves a lot to be desired. (And gosh, some remarkable — and not nominated — work as well by Miles Teller, as the main object of Simmons’s sadistic derision.)

So who will win on Sunday?  Doesn’t matter. There’s not a loser in this bunch.

Pop Culture Musing for a Thursday 12/18/14

broadband-dataWizards of Greed: Leave it to corporate cupidity (and I mean you, Comcast) to upset a perfectly nice weekend afternoon. This is nothing near an apocalyptic anecdote, just one of those minor aggravations that remind of the seeming inability to enjoy anything these days without some sort of money-grubbing on the part of those insatiable behemoths that control the telecommunications process.

To continue the story, we happened to check out Comcast’s “On Demand” movies on a recent Sunday and ran across The Wizard of Oz, which was listed as “Free.” With a catch, of course: no less than ten minutes into the film we’re bombarded with at least five minutes of commercials, most of them pitching Comcast’s Xfinity services. I figured it was maybe a one-time interruption, but several minutes later, same deal. (At that point, we said our goodbyes to Oz.) Then, to compound the displeasure, I saw movies like Miracle on 34th Street and Meet Me in St. Louis (old as the hills and which also happened to be broadcast elsewhere for free that day) being offered at $3.99 a pop.

content-blockedConsider this a roundabout introduction to some thoughts on the ongoing debate about “net neutrality,” and which pits that same avaricious offender, Comcast, along with other broadband giants like AT&T and Verizon, against believers in the concept that users of the Internet should have free and open access to high-speed service regardless of their usage.

Comcast is not happy with the fact that a large chunk of its resources is consumed by byte-intensive websites like Netflix and YouTube, and would prefer we pay extra for the privilege, freeing up their faster speed lanes for bigger-pocket, ostensibly business, subscribers. AT&T and the others apply the same idea in their tiered (non-Wi-Fi) data plans for mobile devices, where you are allowed a certain amount of high-speed data access and then are “throttled” down to lower speeds after you meet your cap. It’s a simplistic explanation of the issues involved, but you get the picture. Big business trying to wring that last penny out of all of us.

It will be up to the FCC to decide, but in the meantime, excuse me while I dig up that old video of Wizard of Oz. At least it’s commercial-free.

Pop Culture Musings for a Tuesday 9/16/14

joan rivers art
A Piece of Work:
Finally caught up with the documentary about Joan Rivers that was first released in 2010, an insightful, behind-the-scenes look at the comic legend whose recent death sparked an outpouring of accolades from colleagues and audiences alike. I was long a fan of the gutsy comedienne, one of the few whose incisive humor could literally reduce me to tears. The film captures many candid – and humanizing – moments, revealing an indomitable spirit that refused to be marginalized despite advancing age or changing times. Rivers had a habit of cataloging all her jokes Rolodex-style, and here’s hoping that some of the best will eventually make it into a book.

housekeeping olympics logoSweeping Towards Gold: Rev up those brooms. In the anything-can-become-an-Olympic-event department, last week marked the 10th annual Housekeeping Olympics, where teams competed in such riveting endeavors as bed stripping, linen folding, and laundry stacking. And shower scrubbing. And toilet cleaning. “It’s really funny,” said the founder of the festivities. Uh-huh. (Bet Joan would have loved this one.)

u2 appleBite of the Apple: So I really don’t get the backlash against Apple for offering the new U2 album as a freebie to its customers. Talk about biting the hand that feeds you. Actually, I found the whole concept sort of groundbreaking, as well as a clever move on the band’s part to generate sales for the rest of the U2 collection. Don’t like it? Don’t want it? For heaven’s sake, just delete it. (And stop whining.)

Where Broken Hearts Go

broekn heart

What about a place, a museum actually, where you can leave the memento that most captures your feelings about a failed relationship on public display? The Museum of Broken Relationships, in Zagreb, Croatia, named “Most Innovative Museum” at the European Museum Awards in 2011 is, believe it or not, just such a venue.

Pieces from its collection are currently part of a traveling exhibition on view at the Southbank Centre’s “Festival of Love” in London through the end of August. The museum itself was founded by a couple, Olinka Vištica and Drazen Grubišić, after their own breakup in 2006. (The two obviously remained friends.) The idea was to preserve personal stories about love’s end, symbolized by items of special significance and the roles they played in the arc of those rocky romantic journeys. More are added as the exhibit tours the world, as all can feel free to make their own (anonymous) contributions.

gnomeThose bequests can encompass both the weird (the “Divorce Day Mad Dwarf,” shown left, a scruffy gnome thrown at the windshield of an errant husband’s car) and the predictable (a teddy bear with an “I Love You” heart). And the poignant: a bottle filled with tears shed after a break-up. All are remnants of that most exalted of emotions gone sour.

One of the oddest is the “Ex Axe” (below), which a spurned lover used to systematically destroy an ex’s furniture after her departure. “The more her room filled with chopped furniture, acquiring the look of my soul, the better I felt,” reads the accompanying note. And when she came back for her effects, they were “neatly arranged into small heaps andaxe broken fragments of wood. She took that trash and left my apartment for good. The axe was promoted to a therapy instrument.”

Therapeutic relief is among the main motivations for these emotional cast-offs (as is, sometimes, revenge), and all are shaped by varying degrees of irony, humor, and of course, a bit of rage.

“I believe people embraced the idea of exhibiting their legacies as a sort of a ritual, a solemn ceremony,” wrote Vištica in the book (or “Love Pictionary”) that documents the museum.

As the song goes, don’t go breakin’ my heart.

(Image/top: via Catchsmile Love Image Collections)

Pop Culture Musing for a Thursday 6/26/14

playing house life once removed

Family to Go: If you can’t beat ‘em, you might as well make ‘em up. Such was the case with Suzanne Heintz, a Colorado-based art director who got fed up with the when-are-you-going-to-get-married question 14 years ago, and opted for a ready-made family of her own. Voila! Two mannequins — a husband she named “Chauncey” and a daughter she dubbed “Mary Margaret” — fit the bill, and one of the quirkier artistic endeavors I’ve run across was born.

Heintz’s photo series, Life Once Removed, which kind of evokes Cindy Sherman landing in Stepford territory, is still going strong: Chauncey and Suzanne “renewed” their wedding vows earlier this month (though with a twist) and their adventures have traversed the globe, as Heintz schleps the dolls along for photographs taken around the world. Theplaying house wedding whole point is to satirize images of what we’ve all come to view as “perfect lives” and women’s stereotypical roles within that framework, as well as documenting the everyday routines of familial relationships, fake or not.

Is this taking the pursuit of art a bit too far? Perhaps, but actually, some might be a little jealous. Chauncey’s not bad-looking (and he’ll never develop a paunch), and many parents would probably be delighted to have a kid who can’t talk back at them. (Of course, Mary Margaret won’t ever grow up and leave the nest, either.)

Somewhere, there’s an unreality show in the making.

(Photos: © Suzanne Heintz)