Read My Stories on Wattpad

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Movie Review: Spider-Man: Homecoming – Spidey's Back Where He Belongs


What has always drawn me to the Spider-Man comics and films is that Spider-Man is a New Yorker who goes to a NYC high school just as I did. The essence of “Your Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man” is that he is of the city, of its streets, and looks out for its people – the good citizens of town while fighting its bad guys.

Director John Watts has crafted Spider-Man: Homecoming as an homage to the city that Peter Parker calls home, and the story written by Watts (and seven other writers) seems to bring us much closer to Stan Lee (who once again has a cameo) and Steve Ditko’s comic book version of the character.

In the previous films both Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield appeared to be much older than the high school kid Peter was supposed to be. Tom Holland seems much younger than his age (21) and does a terrific job of making Parker seem like a real high school kid who is nervous around the beautiful Liz (Laura Harrier) and tries to do well in his classes, but has to hide his alter ego from his friends and his Aunt May (a lovely performance by Marisa Tomei).

The story also presents a compelling villain in Adrian Toomes/Vulture (Michael Keaton) who is not all evil and has his own compelling back story. Watching Keaton inhabit this role is a true joy, and the thought of him in two Batman films becomes subsumed by his work in Birdman with that character being most compellingly similar to Vulture in this film.

Keaton’s Toomes is as much of a New Yorker as Holland’s Parker, and what compels Peter to want to protect his city is far different than what motivates Toomes to go rogue after the Department of Damage Control takes over a salvage operation involving Manhattan buildings damaged by the Avengers in battle. Toomes is enraged that the wealthy Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) can wield his power and take away work from him and his men, and this leads him to walk on the dark side.

Toomes has uncovered some powerful alien weaponry from the wreckage and decides not to give it back. He and his men start selling the weapons on the black market, and Toomes directs Phineas (Michael Chernus), one of his henchmen who has advanced technological skills, to develop the technology and create the Vulture suit that gives Toomes super strength and the ability to fly.

After Spidey stops the sale of some of these weapons, that event puts him and Vulture on a collision course throughout the rest of the film. There are some terrific battle sequences between them, and the most stunning takes place in New York harbor on the Staten Island Ferry. During this ferocious fight Toomes/Vulture shows his complete disdain for his fellow New Yorkers, while Parker/Spider-Man displays his total dedication to a mission to save human lives.

At this point we reach spoiler territory, but I have no qualms about telling you that the rest of the way is a thrilling ride. Salvatore Totino’s cinematography gives new meaning to breathtaking, and shots high above New York and atop the Washington Monument will amaze while also making those with acrophobia squirm in their seats. Michael Giacchino’s score enhances the action without ever being overwhelming, and Watts displays a fine ability of giving a scene the right amount of time to evolve without stretching it beyond dramatic intensity.

It is also welcome to see Spider-Man fully accepted into the Marvel Cinematic Universe here, so unlike in Captain America: Civil War where Holland’s Spidey is given a somewhat short end of the stick. Tony Stark/Iron Man has enough appearances throughout to make the connection stronger, but he also becomes a mentor and something of a father figure for Parker, though much to Stark's chagrin. It is also always delightful to have Jon Favreau’s Happy Hogan around for some comic relief.

What also stands out is how Watts gets the high school scenes right, with enough tension between Peter and the others like Zendaya’s acerbic Michelle and Tony Revolori’s annoying Flash questioning why Peter is always disappearing at important moments. Jacob Batalon does an outstanding job as Peter’s best friend Ned, a Lego building/tech wiz who discovers Peter’s secret identity and cannot contain his enthusiasm. Ned also has the single funniest line in the film when he gets confronted by a teacher while using a school computer to help Peter. The entire audience erupted in laughter, and I rarely see that happen anymore.

Overall, Spider-Man: Homecoming is nothing like previous Spidey films and everything that they should have been. It feels fresh, exciting, and invigorates the character, much of this having to do with Holland’s inspired performance.

This film is highly recommended to be seen on the big screen to fully appreciate its majestic panoramas and awesome battle sequences. Oh, and stay on through the credits because there is a little scene squeezed in there that you won’t want to miss.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Major League Baseball’s Homer Surge – Bats in the Belfry?


When asked about the recent power surge by hitters this season, Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred indicated that he believes that bats – baseball ones and not the vampire kind – are responsible. This was in response to the accusations of a “juiced ball” being used (the contention of MLB Players’ Association executive director Tony Clark), which always comes up as a reason in those years when balls are zipping out of the park like crazy. Since MLB is responsible for the manufacturing of those bats, it seems like an odd accusation from Manfred.

Besides, MLB has always been in love with the home run but acts like the school kid who has a crush on the little girl with freckles yet denies his feelings to his friends. Manfred (and all the commissioners who have come before him) knows this to be true but is in denial like all the rest, and now he is suggesting that it is baseball players’ bats that have caused this homer glut. Yeah, it’s the bats, Rob – bats in the belfry.

I have heard all these kinds of things before whenever there is a surge in home runs. Just think of the 1990s when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa looked like two Michelin men swatting all those homers. MLB knew the fans loved it and thus loved it too, even though it was obvious that these guys had done something way beyond hitting the gym every day to get more pumped up than Hans and Franz from SNLAccusations of juiced balls or enhanced bats were brought up, but the truth about steroids wouldn’t be addressed until much later.

In the past homer surges always aroused suspicions that the baseball itself was the culprit for a so many homers. One thing is for certain, when you see that ball hit today it seems as if it is out of the park faster than a kid who hears the three o’clock bell runs out of school. When a batter hits a ball to the warning track it bounces high over that outfield wall, lending credence to the juiced ball stories.

The history of the baseball has seen it change over the years since the ones made of melted shoe rubber in the 1840s; however, those many changes have taken us all the way from the so called “dead ball” era to the current extremely lively ball.

If you are looking for other reasons for copious home run balls, consider the prevailing conditions in the ballpark and its location (like Denver where hit balls seem as light as the air itself). Even when we were kids we knew hot weather seemed to make the ball go farther; it was just a given. Conversely, on extremely cold days like those that can be experienced in April and October, the ball sometimes seems weighed down and not going anywhere. It should all even out, right? Or does it?

Of course, despite the Manfred’s zany bats reference, the importance of baseball bats cannot be discounted either. Just like baseballs, the history of bats has seen many different designs over the years. Bats can be extremely diverse, but must adhere to the MLB rulebook standard – not more than 2.61 inches in diameter at the thickest part and not more than 42 inches in length. What Manfred is concerned about is the concept of bats manufactured to enhance the hitter’s prowess to the maximum. Those of us of a certain age can remember the “corked bat” incidents of not too long ago, so bats may be indeed part of the problem here.

What problem, you may ask? Did you watch the All-Star Home Run Derby – which is still infinitely more exciting to watch than the actual All-Star Game. New York Yankee Aaron Judge (admittedly a big guy) was banging them off the roof at Marlins Park in Miami like they were ping-pong balls. But he wasn’t the only one – many others were knocking that ball way out of the park (if there were no roof on that stadium some of those balls would have been hitting the International Space Station).

But, you say, come on, the balls are being soft pitched to these guys during the Home Run Derby. Okay, fair enough, but this is happening in regular season games across the sport. According to the ESPN, as of today 3,342 home runs have been hit (2.52 per game) this year. That puts MLB on pace to shatter the record of 5,693 home runs (2.34 per game) set in 2000, so the numbers indicate that something big is happening.

So, if you don’t like the idea of juiced balls or enhanced bats, we can turn to look at the players like Judge (who is like Paul Bunyan) and others who are larger and incredibly stronger than players from the past. The conditioning (some would say over-conditioning) has reached incredible levels, and it could just be that these players are in the best shape any generation of baseball players has ever been in. If you take that into account, perhaps we have another answer and maybe it is more palatable for those who keep scratching their heads as each homer leaves the ballpark like a comet.

Baseball fans love the home run as much or even more than MLB secretly does. Baseball’s love affair with the homer goes way back to Babe Ruth who became famous hitting them and made the game even bigger because of it. The home run will always be the big attraction, and right now it is bigger than ever.

Manfred can blame the bats and Clark can blame the balls, but the fans are not complaining, so as long as the customer is satisfied things will continue as they are going. The players themselves seem to be enjoying being sultans of swat, perhaps only to the chagrin of the pitchers who are stuck serving up these dingers.

The 2017 season will no doubt go down as the year of the homer, but all indications are that 2018 will be an even better year for the long ball. Bigger, stronger, faster players are just going to keep hitting more homers no matter what kinds of balls or bats they are using.

The day of the 100-homer season is just around the corner, and record after record will be shattered. We should all embrace this exciting new era rather than fear it. After all, aren’t records made to be broken?

Saturday, July 8, 2017

The New York City Stoop – An Old-Fashioned Kind of Social Networking

When I think back to my days growing up in the borough of Queens in New York City, some of my fondest memories are about time spent outside. The street was our playground and, when we weren’t running around, we invariably would hang out on the stoop. Stoop comes from the Dutch word stoep and is a holdover from the days when my city was called New Amsterdam.

The stoop had multiple purposes besides being the stairway in and out of a building. It was a meeting place, a resting place, a game room, a bar, an al fresco dining area and, when unoccupied, also was where we played “stoop ball.”

Since stoops were so important, they had to be constantly maintained. I can recall the German women in my neighborhood coming out with a bucket of soapy water and a brush to scrub the stoops each morning. The men would paint the steps and the railings, and each stoop was like an individual work of art due to the details in the stone and the intricacies of the wrought iron. Stoops gave a block a distinctive look and added a great deal of character to the neighborhood.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, no one I knew had an air conditioner except my school principal in her office. During the hot summer months, windows in apartments and houses were pushed as far open as possible, and people would hang out them to get some air or to engage in conversation. If the window was adjacent to the stoop, that arrangement increased the chances for engagement.

Some of my earliest memories are of my grandfather sitting on the stoop smoking his Italian cigars. He would take a pillow that he stored in the vestibule and put it on the top step and then sit down and “smoke a stogie.” Usually he would watch us kids playing until someone came along to stop and “shoot the breeze.” Pop called this “looking for a hit,” meaning waiting for a person to start a conversation.

Since so many people kept their windows open at this time, as I would walk down the street I would have to say good morning numerous times on the way to school or the store. I would be frequently asked “How are your parents?” or told “Give my regards to your folks.” It did provide an opportunity not only to update information but to express greetings.

Pop was a master communicator, while his wife would sit there with her legs crossed and hands clasped around her knee in silence. She would say “Hello” to someone, but Nana let Pop do the talking – and boy could he talk. All sorts of subjects would be covered including cars, sports, politics, weather, and the events happening in the neighborhood.

My sister and I would bring our toys out and play on the stoop. On the top step was a Renken’s milk box where the milkman would leave our bottles of milk each morning. The box was a perfect place to set up my soldiers for battle or my Matchbox cars for a race. My sister would play with her dolls on the top step too in the shade of the awning.

Sometimes our friends would come by and then every step was filled with toys and kids. If Pop wanted to come out and go down the stairs, we would have to move everything. And, as for safety, Mom could easily check on us by looking out the window.

Dad would sit out there on warm evenings with a Pilsner glass filled with beer. I would sit next to him and we would take turns noting the make and model of the cars going by. I got so good I could name almost any car that passed our house. We also would talk about many other things, and those conversations seem so precious now.

In those days, I knew the name of every person on the block. This was also a safety mechanism because if we were getting in trouble (or causing it) at least one neighbor would be calling my mother within seconds to advise her of the situation. I used to feel like a thousand eyes were watching us all the time, but now I appreciate how fortunate we were to have so many people caring about us.

When not in possession of a bat, the stoop served as a replacement. We would make bases with chalk in the gutter and teams would alternate batting and fielding. The most important element of stoop ball was to use a rubber ball – in our time being either a Pensy Pinky or the more desirable Spaldeen – and throw it against the steps to create a hit. The ball would travel into the field area and the thrower of the ball would run to base. Managing to get the ball to hit off the edge of the step would make it travel way over the heads of the fielders. What fun we had playing this game.

As teenagers we would sit there with our boomboxes blasting everything from Led Zeppelin to Aerosmith as we watched the world go by. If one of our friends who now had a car drove up and parked, we would have a conversation. We would see how someone was doing, exchange news, and maintain our relationships in a personal way.

The stoop was the social network for us back then. Here we connected with people, shared stories, and made lasting memories. While its scope and reach was nothing compared to what we have online today, it seemed effective at that and became an ideal way to deeply know people who were truly friends. Today we have large numbers of online “friends,” many of whom we have never met. There is interaction but nothing close to being meaningful the way it used to be when you could shake someone’s hand or give him or her a kiss and a hug. Now we use emojis in order for our connections to know our feelings, and something is definitely lost in the process.

Going back to the old neighborhood now saddens me. The street where we made bases and played stickball used to be filled with kids, but now there isn’t one in sight. The sound of the yelling and the stickball bat clanking against the asphalt after the hitter dropped it to round the bases has been replaced by the loud buzz of air conditioners. Because of them no one is sitting outside anymore and the windows are all closed tight. Everyone is inside using devices or watching TV and the human connections we used to make now seem lost.

I miss those days on the stoop and the people I shared time with on those steps. My grandparents and parents are gone, and even some of my childhood friends who once played with me there have passed on. All these years later their memories forever linger in my mind as do the conversations we once had there.

The hardest thing for me to accept now is that the stoop has been relegated to one function – being the steps to get into the building – instead of the vibrant place it had once been. Alas, only spirits sit there now and their conversations waft through the air unheard as people walk past them texting and talking on their phones, oblivious to what had been and will never be again. Although their loss is not understood it is sadly forevermore.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Flash Fiction: America the Beautiful

After the torrential rain ends, they come out from under the cover of the station awning. He looks down the tracks for the train that is almost an hour late. She feels woozy in the heat and retreats to the shaded sitting area.

He sits next to the girl. “This is the only train today. We can’t miss it.”

She wraps her dark fingers around his pale hand. “Don’t worry. It’ll be here soon.”

“We only have two days until the Fourth, and I want to make it home.”

“You will,” she says.

We will,” he says.

“Maybe you should tell them first before I meet them.”

“Oh, yeah,” he says lifting his phone, “Mom and Dad, I got married, and, oh yeah, she is Iraqi. Bye.”

Farida slaps his arm. “You are so silly, Jerry.”

“Yes, I am – usually when I’m nervous.”

“I should be nervous meeting them but I’m not.”

Jerry puts his arm around her. “Mom is a piece of cake, but Dad…”

“He was in the Army too?”

“No, Navy, so he has that against me too.”

“But you served your country and…”

“It’s a long story.”

The approaching train horn alerts them and they stand. Jerry looks at her and brushes the hair from her eyes. Farida smiles and says, “It will be okay.”

“We have to do this, but you don’t know my Dad.”

*

The next day as they wait in another station for the train to New York City, Jerry looks at his watch. “It’s another hour. Let’s take a walk.”

They cross the road and walk along a path into the woods, passing a pond where frogs croak in the grass and birds sing in the trees. They hold hands as they walk. “America is really more beautiful than I ever imagined.”

“Yes, I think so.”

“It is so vast and diverse. Since we left Phoenix I’ve seen deserts, mountains, forests, farms, and there is so much water.”

“Sometimes I think Americans take things for granted. I know I did, but after Iraq I never will again.”

“Despite some people in my country, my family always thought America was a good place. 
My Uncle Hasan drives a taxi in Manhattan and sends letters. He tells of America the beautiful not anything ugly.”

“But some Americans can be ugly in their attitudes toward people especially since 9/11. That horrible day messed up this country.”

“Mine too,” Farida whispers.

They come across the ruins of a house. Farida steps over broken dishes on the floor and stares at what remains of the fireplace. “This was someone’s home?”

Jerry touches an old washboard hanging from a hook. “A long time ago from the look of things.”

“Some whole villages are like this back home.”

Jerry touches her cheek. “But because of the war not abandonment.”

“Yes, that’s true.” Farida lifts a child’s rattle from the debris. “Either way it’s such sadness to see a place once happy lost like this.”

“Yes, it is. Hey, we better go; can’t miss that train.”

Farida drops the rattle. “Yes, of course.”

*

After getting off the train from Penn Station, they take a taxi to Jerry’s parent’s house. He asks the driver to drop them off at the end of the street and pays him. Farida smiles as she looks across the sand and sees the water. “Oh, Jerry, I have never seen an ocean before.”

He lifts her bag and his and says, “Come on.”
Farida follows him towards the surf. “I’ve only known the rough sand of the desert. This sand is so white and soft.” They get near the water and Jerry puts their bags down flat and sits on his. Farida kicks off her shoes and runs toward the water until it hits her ankles. “Oh, my, it is so cold.”

Jerry laughs. “Doesn’t usually warm up until early August.”

“Oh, and the smell is wonderful.”

Jerry plays with a shell in the sand. “Farida, about my Dad…”

“Just look at those ships out there,” she gushes, “and these big birds!” A few seagulls swoop down towards the water and one comes up with a fish.

He leans his elbows back in the sand and watches as she dances in the surf. She turns and runs to him with a glowing smile. Farida sits next to him as the wind blows her long dark hair in her face, and he brushes it away and kisses her. “Listen, I’m worried about my Dad.”

“It will all be okay,” Farida says leaning against him. “He loves you and will see I love you.”
Jerry puts his arm around her. “It’s not that easy.”

“But he hasn’t seen you in two years,” Farida says. “You could have died in the war.”

There are people on blankets or in chairs under umbrellas on either side of them. Children squeal as the waves crash around them, and the lifeguard blows a whistle and signals to man on a raft who is too far out. Jerry takes a deep breath and says, “Tonight, there will be bonfires all over this beach and big barges will be out there in the water shooting off fireworks.”

“Oh, I want to see that.”

He stands up and extends his hand. “Let’s go meet them.”

As they walk up the path to the house Jerry says, “There’s the old flagpole.”

Farida smiles, “It’s my flag now too.” He holds Farida’s hand and rings the bell.

His father opens the door and looks at them both. Dad has tears in his eyes as he throws his arms around Jerry and pounds his back. “Oh, son, I’m so glad you’re home.”

Jerry says, “Dad, this is my wife Farida.”

“Wife?” Dad looks at her and hugs her gently. “Welcome to the family.” Farida glances at 
Jerry and smiles as Dad takes her hand and leads her into the house.

Jerry thinks, “Way to go, Dad.” He salutes the flag, lifts the bags, and follows them.

Friday, June 30, 2017

TV Review: Twin Peaks: The Return Episode 8 – ‘Gotta Light?’


*This review contains spoilers.

If you have not watched episode 8 as of yet, you owe it to yourself to stop reading this and go watch it!

Having just finished watching episode 8 of Twin Peaks: The Return for the third time since seeing it last Sunday evening, I have certainty about one thing about this series – I am not sure what the hell director David Lynch is going to do next in a way that frightens and delights me. Make no mistake, I understand a good deal of what is going on here and have tried make sense of it, but even after multiple viewings I remain so completely mesmerized by it that perhaps I will fail in my attempt to do justice to the art, the craft, and vision that is on full display in this episode.

Whatever L ynch and his co-writer and conspirator Mark Frost are doing here is unprecedented on television, though it features elements from Lynch’s film oeuvre (Eraserhead and Blue Velvet). For most of the viewing public conditioned by watching the formulaic Pablum that is generated by weekly episodic TV series, they can sit comfortably with remote in hand and another device (tablet or phone) in the other. You cannot do that with Lynch – his work, especially this episode, demands attention and deserves it.
Lynch lulls us into thinking this will be a mostly standard episode when the first scene features Evil Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) and Ray Monroe (George Griffith) in an excruciatingly tense car ride after leaving Lankton Prison in South Dakota. The tension builds as the anger is obviously simmering in Evil Cooper who wants some kind of information from Ray, who announces he thinks he should be paid big for it.

Going off the road and into the darkness – isn’t that what Twin Peaks has always been really all about? – Ray gets out of the car to take a leak, and Evil Cooper gets out with a gun ready to kill him. The twist here is that Ray has not only disabled Evil Cooper’s gun but has one of his own and shoots him twice. Almost immediately the smoky men we have been seeing (in the jail and police station at Buckhorn) come out of the woods and do a dance of death (or is that life?) around Evil Cooper, jabbing his body with their hands and rubbing blood from his wounds all over him until a blob emerges with the face of Laura Palmer’s killer Bob (the late Frank Silva) within it.

Ray watches in horror-amazement-fear as this happens until he comes to his senses and runs to the car and drives away. This is when he calls Phillip Jeffries (the late David Bowie) to let him know what happened. He tells him he realizes that he has seen something important, the “key” to everything. This makes it clear that Ray not only knows about Bob but understands that this is connected to something even bigger than anyone can possibly comprehend.

We head back to The Bang Bang Bar in Twin Peaks where “the” Nine Inch Nails (according to the announcer) perform “She’s Gone Away” for what seems like a long time. In previous episodes Lynch ends the hour with a band performance, but here it seems interminable (actually around six minutes). While the performance is amazing – and seems to allude to the now long dead Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) – it really stops things dramatically until the song is over. We switch back to Evil Cooper who – like Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees after being shot – springs up a bloody mess, making it certain that Ray (and countless others) is in for the killer’s wrath.

The scene then shifts to the past and the atomic bomb test in White Sands, New Mexico, in 1945 (beautifully frightening black and white CGI). At first the perspective is from a distance, almost like being observed from space, and then what follows is a surreal array of images and fire and smoke that fills the screen and draws the viewer deeper into the metaphorical explosion that seems to be at the heart of the series (new and old). If you doubt this, remember that FBI Director Gordon Cole (played by Lynch himself) has a huge poster of this event on the wall in his office.

To the chaotic sound of “Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima” by Krzysztof Penderecki, this horrific human act of detonating a devastating weapon and unleashing all its collateral fury – revealing human desire to be daringly close to acting like an evil god – is depicted as shaking the world literally as well as figuratively, as an obviously female creature floating in outer space spews forth a stream of vomit that includes protoplasm, eggs, and orbs, including one orb that contains killer Bob’s face (similar to the one the smoky men had earlier removed from wounded Evil Cooper). The connection is clear that Bob’s evil (and perhaps many other Bobs) was the progeny of this cataclysmic event.

While the sequence is long, it is completely fascinating, alternating between billowing smoke and fire and static and a sort of nuclear winter snowstorm. We get an idea that time has almost stopped and restarted on the ground, as witnessed at a convenience store where the smoky men wander back and forth as smoke billows out of the place and gets sucked back in. Lynch intends for us to understand that the atomic test not only shook the world but the heavens as well, forcing them to respond in kind to send the Bob-blob.

Afterwards away from the smoke we move across a distant sea to a fortress of some kind on top of a mountain. Here a woman, (Joy Nash) listed as Señorita Dido in the credits, listens to a gramophone record in the black and white room where the Giant (Carel Struycken) spoke with Good Cooper in the first episode. He enters the frame and stands next to a huge electronic bell that is sounding an alarm. The slow-paced movement of this scene is deliberate (as is everything Lynchian) as the Giant turns off the alarm and then proceeds upstairs to a movie theater (that is very reminiscent of the one in Lynch’s film Mullholland Drive).

He watches the atomic test on the movie screen and the space creature giving birth to the Bob-blob, and the Giant’s reaction is to levitate and begin a process that spews light from his head. Señorita Dido enters the room and watches as this unfolds until the Giant gives “birth” to his own entity, a golden ball that drops down into Dido’s hands. She stares at it lovingly and inside the ball we see the image of Laura Palmer. Dido releases the ball and it moves up toward the movie screen, goes inside of it, and drops down to an image of the earth.

What seems to be happening here is that Lynch lets us know that for every action there is a reaction. The atomic test causes the space creature to spew her progeny, and then her action inspires the Giant to release the golden orb. Since we know that this is 1945, it is impossible for the Laura Palmer globe to go down to earth and immediately produce her (Laura was 18 during the original series making her year of birth 1972); however, the implication is some sort of balance to the Bob-blob.

The clock ticks forward to 1956 and then we see one of those eggs spewed from the space creature 11 years before on the desert floor. After all this time it suddenly hatches, and the creature that emerges is sort of mutant amphibian-insect. This creepy looking thing starts crawling along and we know it is heading to cause trouble somewhere.

The scene shifts to a young couple walking along on a road after attending a dance or party. The boy (Xolo Mariduen) and the girl (Tikaeni Faircrest) share innocent banter until the girl finds a penny heads up (meaning supposed good luck). They proceed to finish their walk home, and the boy asks if he can kiss her, and she shyly allows him to do so. The girl then goes into her house and the boy smiles. All of this chaste young love seems out of place and frightening in its innocence – I was expecting the smoky men to pop up any second.

Some of the smoky men do descend into a desert. They terrorize motorists on a secluded road and one of them, listed as the Woodsman, (Robert Broski looking eerily like a burnt Abraham Lincoln) holds up a cigarette and keeps asking, “Gotta light?” After the motorists drive away, the Woodsman wanders across the desert to a desolate radio station where he repeats the same question to the receptionist before crushing her skull with one hand. He then enters the radio booth and murders the DJ, all the while holding the microphone in the other hand and repeating, “This is the water, and this is the well. Drink deep and descend.” It is a sort of mantra that we see starts making the people in the town fall asleep, including the sweet young girl who is in her room listening to the radio.

The final sequence is most terrifying – the mutant creature crawls toward the girl’s house, employs its convenient wings (as if manufactured specifically for this purpose), and flies into her room through an open window. On cue the girl opens her mouth and this mutant creature promptly crawls all the way in and disappears. She closes her mouth and with a slight smile resumes sleep, but she (and we) will obviously never be the same.

Thus, the episode ends with startling questions. Doing the math, the girl couldn’t be Bob’s mother because Leland Palmer (Ray Wise) said that he saw Bob when he was a boy. If Palmer was about 40 in the original series, that would mean he was born in 1950. Another thought is perhaps the girl is Sarah Palmer (Grace Zabriske), because the girl is around 15, but that would make Sarah 49 during the original series, which is too old for that character.

Whoever this girl is we know that she now has a bun – a pretty disgusting one at that – in the oven. Evil Cooper is out for vengeance, and the Woodsman probably is still wandering around looking for some poor schelp to light his cigarette.

Now that this episode is in the books, the biggest question most people keep asking is when are we going to see the Good Cooper emerge from Dougie Jones? I think the answer may not please everyone, but Lynch seems in no rush to bring him back or even sink us into the town of Twin Peaks and let us see all the old faces more than for a few seconds. He and Frost have a new story to tell, and old characters are seemingly incidental in it at this point.

This weekend there is no episode, so there is plenty to contemplate as we await the next installment. With only ten episodes left, I can honestly say I do not know what to expect from the next one, and what a wonderful feeling that is.

Friday, June 23, 2017

TV Review: The Putin Interviews – Revealing a Man Instead of a Monster


During the fourth hour of The Putin Interviews, a four-hour Showtime documentary directed by Academy Award winning film director Oliver Stone, there is an extremely salient moment that encapsulates the dynamic of what is actually happening during these interviews with the Russian president. Stone tries to set up an entrance shot of Vladimir Putin coming into a room. He asks Putin to go all the way down the hall, and the man willingly complies. When ready for him to enter, consummate filmmaker Stone repeatedly shouts, “Action,” but Putin doesn’t come into the room.

Slightly frustrated, Stone enlists the assistance of interpreter Sergei Chudinov, who calls out to the president in Russian. A shot from another camera shows Putin grinning slightly and then looking at the camera and winking. After Stone shouts “Action” one more time, Putin comes strolling down the hallway baring two cups of coffee – one for Stone and one for him. The scene plays out perhaps not as Stone had hoped, but does more to establish the characterization of his protagonist than even the director could have imagined.

Yes, Putin is the protagonist of this film, and it is best to watch this astounding Showtime production as we would watch Stone’s Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, or JFK – as a film that is a work of art. From the opening credits depicting the former Soviet Union turning into Russia, we get stark visuals accompanied by Jeff Beal’s powerful musical score, and that sends a signal of portent of what is to come. This feeling of being dropped into a different, perhaps even an unusual, world is more than upheld as Stone has made this a documentary that is a chronicle of a man and the country that he obviously loves.

Splicing in archival photos and news footage of various world events and leaders appropriate to the conversation of the moment, Stone more than keeps the four hours interesting. Of course, as a director Stone has always known the secret that keeps us watching – establish your protagonist and have the audience become invested in the action – just watch Charlie Sheen as Chris Taylor in Platoon or Tom Cruise as Ron Kovic in Born on the Fourth of July to understand what I mean. These characters are underdogs who have the deck stacked against them, but we root for them to succeed because we realize that the world around them is unfair and out of control.

Hard to imagine Vladimir Putin as a protagonist or an underdog? Let alone one we can root for? Perhaps the greatest strength of film is it cannot only change hearts but also minds. If you were expecting Putin to come across as an arrogant, ruthless dictator as he has been often depicted, you are in for a rude awakening. Either Putin is the best actor to be the president of a country since Ronald Reagan, or he is genuinely a person with feelings and opinions and they are worthwhile to understand and process.

What sets this film apart from some of Stone’s greatest works is that Stone himself is a character in this film. Clutching his yellow legal pad of notes, looking a bit rumpled at times like Detective Columbo, Stone huffs and sometimes puffs as he tries to make sense of the low whispering voice of Chudinov, who talks lowly as Putin answers questions in order to convey a translation to keep things moving. Credit should be given to this young man for his tenacity in a difficult situation. However, it is Stone’s facial expressions and reactions to Putin that are most telling – we get a sense of exasperation and at times admiration – but we must remember that Stone’s day job is director and interviewing may not be his greatest strength, but he manages to push and prod but as respectfully as possible.

I have heard some complaints that Stone did not ask Putin difficult questions about human rights violations, Ukraine, Crimea, lack of viable opposition candidates during his long reign (Putin has been in office since Bill Clinton’s presidency), and treatment of the gay community in Russia. Stone does touch on some of these things, but Putin is masterful in his manner of formulating a quick (and some would say elusive) response.

When asked about gays in the military, Putin somehow veers into a story about not showering with a guy on a submarine – even though he is a judo master and implies he can protect himself. The bizarre response (perhaps something is lost in translation or not) borders on homophobic, but then Putin tries to save himself by saying, “We have to reinforce family values. But that doesn’t mean there should be persecutions of anyone.” Stone lets this go – as he does other things that people might find a particular weakness of the interviewer – but it does seem as if Putin feels he is coming off well even when he does not.

These interviews were conducted over a two-year period (June 2015 – February 2017) – in the Kremlin, Putin’s plane, at a hockey game, in a car with Putin driving, and outdoor locations. While one could expect a film interview to be rather static, Stone manages to keep things flowing and Putin seems a willing participant in the choreography throughout. Even when Stone mentions the film Dr. Strangelove and Putin indicates no familiarity with the work, the scene shifts to Stone and Putin actually watching the film. Although it is hard to judge Putin’s reaction to the movie (his expression changes very little throughout four hours), the fact that he is willing to sit through the film to understand Stone’s feelings about the Cold War says more about his personality than some of us might be willing to admit.

When Stone attends a hockey game where Putin will be a player, Stone playfully asks Putin if the opponents are going to play hard against him and even check him. Putin seems amazed by this question and wonders why the other players wouldn’t treat him as just another guy – maybe because they could end up cracking boulders in Siberia? We do get the character development Stone (and I’m sure the clever Putin) intends – hey, the president is just one of the guys.

Occasionally, Putin’s cleverness gets him in trouble. When Stone asks him if he ever has bad days, Putin dryly replies, “I’m not a woman, so I don’t have bad days.” Stone immediately calls him out for insulting “50 percent of the American public,” but Putin seems unruffled. He responds, “I’m not trying to insult anyone. That’s just the nature of things.” Honesty? Without a doubt, but concerning nonetheless for its implications for women living in Russia, but once again Stone lets it go.

Despite these stumbles, there is a feeling that Putin is human and far from the monster people like Senator John McCain have painted him to be. Even when Stone brings up the senator from Arizona and the derogatory things he has said about Putin, the Russian leader reveals that he likes McCain and respects him for being a war hero and dedicated to his country. It is not the answer we are expecting, and most of the interview seems to be full of surprises as to how Putin reacts to events in the U.S.A. and around the world.

The interview gets most interesting to me when Stone asks Putin about his personal life. Putin talks fondly about his parents and seems to hold them in high regard, but the most moving moment is when Putin discusses his children and his grandchildren. Paternal pride gleams in his eyes, and it is obvious that he loves them and wants the world to be safe for them. I came away from these moments thinking not only that this man is no monster, but that he seems like he wants his progeny to have a bright future, so it appears even more unlikely that he wants his country to have any kind of war that would threaten that possibility.

Sitting back and evaluating the four hours of interviews, my impression is that Putin is a complicated man to understand but also someone who speaks bluntly and honestly. Putin also comes across as intelligent, cunning, and acutely aware of the impact interviews with someone like Oliver Stone will have on the American public. Even though he knows he will always have his critics, Putin seems to be betting that these interviews will open the American people’s eyes and make them rethink their feelings about him.

I feel that these four hours are essential for their historical significance as well as for what is happening in the world today. Imagine if Harry Truman had four hours of an interview with Josef Stalin and what a valuable tool that would have been. I am assuming that everyone in Washington will be studying these interviews for a long time to come, and if they are not they should be.

Oliver Stone has given us a memorable documentary film experience that, though highly orchestrated and carefully edited, should be appreciated as a work of art right up there with his greatest works like Platoon and JFK. In doing so he has also opened a window into the mind of one of the most important people on the world stage. I highly recommend peering through that window for an experience that is as enjoyable as it is unforgettable.

*For information about The Putin Interviews episode times click here.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Why Mother’s Day Is Like Christmas While Father’s Day Is More Like Arbor Day


Okay, fellow dads out there, let’s just admit something straightaway – the kids are not making you breakfast today. In fact, if you are like I am, you are making the kids breakfast while mom has her usual “sleepy Sunday.” Sure, we understand Mommy had a hard week, and it is nice to get to spend time with the kids since you don’t get to do so on school days – even if it entails standing over the stove flipping flapjacks, scrambling eggs, and cooking up some bacon.

Usually on what we call in this house “Mother’s Day Eve,” I am making certain the kids have prepared their homemade cards (Mommy prefers those) and have gifts purchased for them to give Mom in the morning. If they have created something in school (this year my son made a small flower pot and planted seeds for a flower), this is also put aside. My card is already written and my gift is wrapped.

In the morning, I will run out really early to get flowers because fresh ones are always best and stop at Starbucks to get Mommy her favorite java. When I get home, I will get the kids up, tell them to be quiet, and let Mommy have her “sleepy Sunday.” When Mommy awakes, breakfast will be made and presented to her in bed (if she desires that) or in the breakfast nook, where presents will then be laden upon her Highness. Yes, she is Queen that morning and we her subjects bow accordingly. Oh, come to think of it, she’s royalty every other day as well, but I am okay with that too.

I have always told myself that this is just the way of things. I recall as a kid that Mother’s Day was all marching bands and fireworks, while Father’s Day was more a few sparklers and a whistle. My Dad never seemed to mind, and he appreciated getting the new tie and the shaving cream and the screwdriver with changeable tips. Dad always smiled and took it like a champ, so why wouldn’t I follow his lead when I became a father? Well, of course, I did.

Today I am not expecting much, and that in itself makes things go better. Every year a week before Father’s Day I will get, “Do you need anything at Home Depot?” as Queenie is walking out the door. I could, if given the time, probably make a long list, but I might blurt out, “No, I’m good” because I don’t want to have to return anything and that is usually what happens when I get something from Home Depot, if I’m lucky enough to get a gift receipt.

Oh, and there is no such thing as Father’s Day Eve here. No preparations were underfoot last night. I am certain I will just get homemade cards from the kids (which I love and will keep forever), but I don’t get gifts. I am not certain if Her Majesty got me anything (last year I got a Mets cap which was fine), but I figure keeping my expectations low is best.

The kids did ask me a few days ago what I wanted, and I should have said, “To sleep late, have brunch made for me, and then be able to watch the Mets game and switch channels to check out the U.S. Open.” Of course, none of that is going to happen. My son thinks it is a day when we should go to the park and play catch and for me to pitch to him so that he can hit baseballs and have me run all around the field fetching them. But, hey, I did that with my Dad as a kid so I guess this is my payback.

If you think I am exaggerating the situation here, let’s look at some numbers. According to an article on Today.com, Americans will spend $7.4 billion less on Father’s Day than they did on Mother’s Day. Mostly, Dad gets a card – 61% of consumers will buy the old guy one; however, 81% get Mom a card. I would guess that the other 19% accounts for kids making them for Mommy. I am not sure if 39% are making them for Dad, but you never know.

While we would like to think this is not a contest, a national survey reveals that if it were Dad would lose handily – kind of like Wonder Woman vs. Batman – and the numbers are gruesome. 78% of the respondents indicated that they would choose celebrating with Mom over Dad if the holidays fell on the same day. While citing many reasons, the most glaring one is “Mom is the favorite parent.” That, fellow dads, is the coup de grace. Ouch!

Of course, we dads are complicit in all this because of a most salient reason – we not only accept this as the way it is but we encourage it. We were all kids once too, and at least I know for sure that I pampered Mom and showered her with attention and love and gifts because I wanted to do that. I think it was less that I felt she needed it but more that I needed to do it. My father never seemed to mind and, come to think of it, I got this way of thinking by observing him with his mother.

The truth is that I was in the room when my wife gave birth to my kids. Any dad who has witnessed this miracle one or more times can attest to the fact that he would never be able to handle it. Just giving my wife ice chips while she lay there in labor made me shiver. I saw the almost incalculable pain that she endured, and the amazing thing is even after giving birth to our first child she wanted to go through the ordeal again, while I would have been running out the door.

The pain of childbirth alone gives Mom the right to be celebrated and be the royalty in the house, but that is not the only reason. As I saw growing up and now as a married man, it is the Mom who keeps a household together; she manages to be the loving glue that binds all, and through her dedication, strength, tenacity, and love a house becomes a home.
When I am with the kids and my wife is not home, well something tangible is missing. We are still a family, but we are like a boat with a hole in it. When she comes home, it is as if all the water gets bailed out immediately and smooth seas are ahead. That is just the way it is and I appreciate that.
So today is not going to be a big celebration but a quiet one. As I was writing this, my son already came into my office and gave me his card. He told me the teacher had to help him with the front, but I understand that. I love the card anyway, and I too think the homemade ones are the best.

But I must end now because he is up and hungry. The others will be up and hungry too soon enough. I have to go make breakfast, but I’m okay with that. It’s Father’s Day and I am going to perform my usual Sunday routine as if it were any other Sunday.
Come to think of it, that is a happy Father’s Day. No contest there at all.