29 December 2019

My Top Ten Films of 2019

1. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (Tarantino)
2. Waves (Shults)
3. Parasite (Joon Ho)
4. Little Women (Gerwig)
5. The Irishman (Scorsese) 
6.  Jojo Rabbit (Waititi)
7. Uncut Gems (Safdies)
8. Queen and Slim (Matsoukas)
9. Joker (Phillips)
10. Transit (Petzold)

Honorable Mention: Hustlers (Scarfaria), Diane (Jones), Last Black Man in San Francisco (Talbot), Ms. Purple (Chon), Marriage Story (Baumbach), The Lighthouse (Eggers), La Camarista (Aviles)

Best Actress: Mary Kay Place (Diane). Runners Up - Scarlett Johansson (Marriage Story) Saoirse  Ronan (Little Women) Taylor Russell (Waves)

Best Actor: Joaquin Phoenix (Joker). Runners Up - Adam Driver (Marriage Story) Willem Dafoe (The Lighthouse) Adam Sandler (Uncut Gems)

Best Supporting Actress: Annette Bening (The Report). Runners Up - Jennifer Lopez (Hustlers) Margaret Qualley (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood)

Best Supporting Actor: Al Pacino (The Irishman). Runners Up - Joe Pesci (The Irishman) Tom Burke (The Souvenir)

16 December 2019

In My Take on Some Popular Christmas Carols I Take on Some Popular Christmas Carols

For as long as I can remember I've loved the Christmas season. One of my favorite aspects of it being the sounds. I am an unabashed fan of Christmas music. I was in elementary school so long ago that we sang carols in December during the music portion of our lessons and like many families I grew up with Christmas music in the house. Today I own a batch of Christmas CDs and once December rolls around I have Christmas music on constantly. However, I am not uncritical when it comes to Christmas songs, indeed I'm rather discerning and over the years have developed some serious issues with several yuletide classics. I think it's time I aired some of my objections.

Let’s get the big one out of the way first, the most iconic of Christmas carols, Jingle Bells. It wasn’t even written for Christmas, it was written for Thanksgiving. In fact it should be re-branded as such especially given the paucity of Thanksgiving songs. Indeed I believe the only recognized Turkey Day ditty is Over the River and Through the Woods and it’s not exactly a chart-topper. Needless to say, Jingle Bells doesn’t have a single word related to Christmas in it.

Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire (aka The Christmas Song) is one of our most beloved carols and has been a standard since the late 1940s. I love the song myself. But what I object to is this bit of business at the end:
And so, I'm offering this
Simple phrase to kids from
One to ninety-two
Altho' it's been said many times
Many ways
“Merry Christmas to you.”
It ends at 92? Come on. If I’m still around at age 93 I’m going to refuse to listen to this song and so too should anyone that age or older. Maybe we should all boycott it. Age discrimination, I hate it.

I have always had serious problems with The First Noel. Here’s what’s at issue:
The First Noel, the Angels did say
Was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay
Was what to “certain poor shepherds”? You can’t say it was something to somebody without specifying what it was to them. I call bullshit.

Baby it’s Cold Outside makes the list and not because it is supposedly about date rape (it isn’t as I established in a blog post last year). The song is trotted out every year at this time but it doesn’t make a single reference to Christmas or any other holiday. Get it out of here.

Another song that fits into this category is Frosty the Snowman. The story, the book, the televised cartoon are beloved holiday classics. But why? Again, not a single word in the song references the yuletide season. Dismissed. Maybe you can be a January thing when kids need a pick me up while suffering the post-holiday blues.

One very popular carol that sends the wrong message is Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. Please note:
All of the other reindeer
Used to laugh and call him names
They never let poor Rudolph
Join in any reindeer games
Where the hell was Santa or at least some of the senior elves when this bullying was going on? Maybe they looked on and let it happen. That’s terrible. And those bigoted reindeer only accepted someone who was a little different after he performed some heroics? So kids if you’re a little different than your schoolmates you’re going to just have to take all the ribbing they dish out and forget about playing with them on the schoolyard — unless you can pull of some heroic deed. Good luck with that.

What a load of crap We Wish You a Merry Christmas is. I submit as evidence the following:
Oh, bring us some figgy pudding
And bring it right here
We won't go until we get some
What the hell kind of guests are these who make demands of their hosts and refuse to leave unless their demands are met? This is terrorism not Christmas.

Santa Baby is a lovely song, especially as preformed by Eartha Kitt. But enough with the greediness. She’s asking for a sable, a car, a yacht and that’s just for starters. She also wants a platinum mine! It’s the season of giving. Show a little class and ask for something for those less fortunate. I suppose in its way Santa Baby is really about capitalism run amok.

It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year is a jaunty little carol that truly expresses the joy many people feel during this festive season. But I take issues with certain lyrics. To wit,
There'll be scary ghost stories
And tales of the glories of
Christmases long, long ago
Scary ghost stories? At Christmas? I guess parts of Dicken’s A Christmas Carol — notably the visit by the ghost of Christmas future — are a little frightening, but I'd hardly classify the classic Christmas yarn as “scary.” And the song says “stories” what the hell other Christmas stories do you know that can put a fright in people? And why the hell are you focusing on them? I also wonder about the line regarding glories of Christmases long ago. My problem being I have no idea what you’re on about. What glories during what Christmases?

Then there’s the mystery of Here Comes Santa Claus. I make reference to the following:
Here comes Santa Claus, here comes Santa Claus right down Santa Claus Lane
Where is this Santa Claus lane you speak of? I’ve not heard nor read a word of reference to such a “lane” from any other source. Surely if there were really a “Santa Claus lane” it would much celebrated and not merely mentioned in one damn song.

Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town has been attacked for the whole business about Santa knowing when “you’re  sleeping” and “when you’re awake.” I got no problem with the big fella keeping an eyes on the kiddies to make sure everyone gets what they deserve. If you can't trust him then all is lost. But what does bother me is this:
You better watch out
You better not cry
You better not pout
You’re really going to tell small children not to cry? Why? If you take a nasty spill or someone socks you in the jaw you’re entitled to spill a few tears. Plus particularly bad news can move one to tears and so too, for that matter, can really good news. It’s a bad message to send to children that crying is a deal-breaker for getting presents, especially boys who get too much of that macho message. Lighten up.

I’m not even going to deal with Blue Christmas or any song like it that is someone’s sob story. Not what we want to hear at Christmas. Save the blues for March.

The 12 Days of Christmas is such a mess I don’t know where to begin. Whoever the shopper is has gone way overboard to the extent that I think there’s some mental issues they’re not dealing with. Perhaps obsessive compulsive disorder. The excess here staggers the imagine. Ya know what? Instead of five golden rings, how about just one, okay maybe two, having one as a spare is probably a good idea. But five? Get real. Then there are all those damn birds, French hens, calling birds, turtle doves….and not just one of each. I mean does the recipient even have an aviary? And what could a person possibly want with eight maids a-milking? You do realize that means eight cows. So this is farm? The lords a-leaping, the ladies dancing, the pipers piping, the drummer drumming I can see for a party, but is there a practical reason for keeping all these people in your house? Can the recipient afford to feed these people? Be real, buddy. Give her a ring, throw her a party and be done with it. Spend the rest of the dough on the needy.

Okay so I’ve ragged on a lot of beloved Christmas songs. Sue me. But I would like to give shout outs to some of my favorites that are not tainted by any unfortunate lyrics. They are: Deck the Halls, A White Christmas, Having a Wonderful Christmas Time, Jingle Bell Rock, Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree, So This is Christmas, I’ll Be Home for Christmas, Christmas Baby Please Come Home, It’s Beginning to Look a Lot like Christmas and Up on a Rooftop.

Please note I omitted virtually all of the holiday songs I think of as Christmas hymns such as Silent Night, Away in a Manger, Joy to the World, O Little Town of Bethlehem etc. You don’t wanna get me started on those which are strictly for your devout Christian types.

Anyway, Merry Christmas everybody! Or if you’d prefer Happy Holidays or even Season’s Greetings, whatever.

11 December 2019

A Look Back At Television, Plus My Favorite Shows of 2019

I admit it. There have been some points in my life during which I’ve watched too much TV, mostly when I was a child. Much is made of the fact that the vast majority of what is aired on televisions sets is dross. There is no arguing with this point. It has been true since the day the first idiot box was first turned on in the first living room in America. Without question television has played a large role in the dumbing down of America although it does not bare sole responsibility. I very much doubt anyone reading this (Mrs. Eartha Kindlebrook of Muncie, Indiana for one) is unaware of how fatuous and repetitive most of TV is.

But I hasten here to point out that there are, among the mounds of trash, nuggets to be found. There are, in fact, certainly more good television shows today than there were when I was growing up in the Sixties (1960s, smart ass, not 1860s). This is not surprising considering how much more television is currently produced. When I was growing up we had the three major networks (CBS, NBC, ABC) an independent local station and PBS. Compared to today there was a pretty slim pickings. The nice thing was that if you and your friends enjoyed a particular show you could talk about it the next day because no on was going to say, “I haven’t watched it, I DVR’d it.” Of course the bad thing was that if you missed a show you couldn’t catch up with it on line, your only chance was to see it again was when it re-ran in a six to nine months. Also if you liked two shows that were on at the same time you had to choose. There was no recording one to watch later.

Of course none of us knew of the bounty that was to come with cable and then the internet; we were all happy with our TVs (in my senior year of high school we got our first color set, by this time about half the people I knew had one, also by this time a second independent station had been added to our line up). The idea that there could be literally hundreds of channels to choose from plus a lot of shows you could “stream” on your own personal computer would have sounded absolutely absurd. If anyone had further suggested that you could someday watch TV shows on your telephone we would have thought that person was a lunatic.

So yes, now there are — geez, I don’t how many channels creating new content. I was going to say dozens, then hundreds but I’ve really no clue. Many TV shows don’t even originate on TV but come to us via streaming sites such as Netflix, Hulu and Amazon. The choices are endless and even though perhaps 90% of what’s available ranges from mediocre to bad, given how much is available that leaves more good shows available than I’ve got either the time or inclination to watch. One has to be choosy.

Many shows today are able to dig deeper into character and story lines because they are not inhibited by the strictures of network television. Away from the networks, shows are also not subject to censoring and can thus let characters swear, be naked and have sex if the story calls for it (yes, sometimes this privilege is abused). Shows are also less easily classified, the boundaries between comedy and drama are not always strictly drawn as is the case with some of my favorites noted below.

Here are the TV shows (and I suppose one uses the term loosely these days as not all originate from TV channels) that I enjoyed most the past year.

1. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. It has won a slew of Emmys and has deserved every one of them. Oliver is a perfect host as he is personable, witty, clever and he keeps his ego in check (he never boasts about the Emmys and he is never self indulgent). LWT always touches upon a few of the bigger stories in the news and then delves deeply into one main issue. Many of the subjects are heavy but Oliver is a master at injecting humor when and wherever appropriate. LWT is educational and hilarious and in my opinion the best thing on television.

2. Barry. Bill Hader stars as a contract killer who wants to become an actor — in other words the usual fare. Hader has already proven to be singular impressionist and skit performer on SNL, here he displays his acting chops. Henry Winkler co stars as an acting teacher and this is his most notable role since he was the Fonz. Barry is revelatory, never predictable, often funny and occasionally sobering.

3. Better Call Saul. Okay I’m cheating here because the most recent season of BCS aired in the Fall of 2018 and the upcoming season bypassed 2019 entirely and will not air until the coming Spring. I nonetheless count it as it is an ongoing show. This spin off of Breaking Bad is, like Breaking Bad, a product of the brilliant Vince Gilligan. Bob Odenkirk is masterful as the titular character and as with Bryan Cranston in BB he has the wherewithal to be the center of a powerful drama and he also benefits from strongly defined and interesting supporting characters. Gilligan’s great gift is to make us care about so many different characters and leave us wondering at what motivates and inspires and enriches the human mind and spirit.

4. Brockmire. A recent discovery of mine. A lot of people type LOL (God, I hate that) to indicate something was funny or amusing but rarely do they actually “laugh out loud.” Well I do indeed laugh out loud at the antics of Hank Azaria’s baseball radio broadcaster. The word irreverent only begins to describe the character the famous voice actor (Simpsons). It’s good dirty, raunchy fun with enough drugs and sex for the whole family.

5. Schitt’s Creek. While Eugene Levy along with his long time professional partner Catherine O’Hara are two of the stars and the marquee names behind this Canadian-based comedy, it is Eugene’s son, Daniel who created the show and co stars along with Annie Murphy. An excellent supporting cast is headed by veteran funnyman Chris Elliott. Schitt’s Creek has romance and a hint of drama but there is no shortage of laughter. A cast this great guarantees that.

6. After Life. This is one of the best things Ricky Gervais has ever done and I’m referring to the man responsible for Extras, the original Office, many great stand up specials and the best hosting job of the Golden Globes one will ever witness. This is also a rare case of melodrama and comedy mixing to good effect. It takes someone of Gervais’ genius to pull that off. There is pathos aplenty as he plays a small town newspaperman who is mourning the death of his long time love.

7. The Deuce. Sadly it’s run ended this year after three seasons. It was produced by David Simon the genius behind The Wire (one of the greatest TV shows of all time). The Deuce was entertaining and educational exploring New York in the Seventies and early Eighties, particularly the area around Times Square and the then burgeoning porn industry, prostitution, the rackets and eventually the AIDS crisis. James Franco played twin brothers and Maggie Gyllenhaal co-starred as a hooker turned porn director. As typical of a Simon production, realism was key to the show which meant it could be at times heart-breaking, infuriating, frightening and always illuminating.

8. Orange is the New Black. After seven wonderful seasons it’s over. It was sad to see it go but also it was time. Like many of the best TV shows they knew when to close shop. It is amazing to think that a show centered around women in a federal prison could even be made let alone be popular. But credit creator Jenji Kohan and the show’s writing staff for developing so many compelling story lines and characters. There was always so much going on in every episode and there were so many clearly-drawn characters to root for or against.

9. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. The show is indeed marvelous. As I write this the missus and I are enjoying the third season. Racheal Brosnahan stars as Mrs. Maisel a housewife turned comic in the early 1960s. Like every good show it has a strong lead character and a terrific supporting cast, in this case Tony Shaloub and Alex Borstein foremost among the latter group. Mrs. Maisel the show and Mrs. Maisel the character are both hilarious. The costumes, set designs, musical scores are all top notch and the writing is superb.

10. Brooklyn Nine-Nine. This is the one network TV sitcom and only one of two network shows to be included. The day of the great network sitcom seems gone forever and there were some really good ones in days of yore ranging from The Honeymooners to the Mary Tyler Moore Show to Seinfeld to 30 Rock. But Brooklyn maintains the tradition having a great ensemble cast (an eclectic one at that), sharp writers and a strong emphasis on comedy without the dramatic story arcs that have bogged down some sit coms.

11. The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Colbert’s geeking out over the Lord of the Rings, Star Wars and the Marvel Universe has gotten tired and his ego is still out-sized but his monologues are right up there with talk show legends and he is salve to the psychological wounds our current president is inflicting. Colbert will likely never be another Carson, Cavett or Letterman, but he’s the best of the rest and the show keeps getting better.

12. Russian Doll. Natasha Lyonne stars in this story of a woman who — ala Groundhog Day — keeps re-living the same day. In her case it is the day she dies. Weird. Sad. Funny. Interesting. Endlessly entertaining. Lyonne, who featured in OITNB (see above) proves here that she can carry a show. I’m excited for season two as there is no telling where the story line is headed.

13. The Last O.G. Any show that stars Tracy Morgan and has Cedric the Entertainer and Tiffany Haddish in the supporting cast is off to a terrific start. The show is as funny as one would expect but it also explores the life of a someone recently released from federal prison and the challenges such a person faces. The Last OG mixes drama among the chuckles but is never maudlin or sentimental.

04 December 2019

A Visit to a Doctor and Waiting Rooms Inspires a Light-Hearted Post

Photo from my visit to the doctor's office today.
Went to a medical specialist today for the first time and had to fill out forms before I was seen. I’ve always liked filling out forms and telling sheets of paper all about myself. It feeds my ego, centers me and reminds me of who I am. Like that I’m a male, married, no allergies, no history of heart trouble, have an address and a phone number and my missus is my emergency contact.

All three forms asked me for today’s date and on two of them I had to write it twice. According to my rudimentary math that’s a total of five times that I wrote 12/04/19. The weird thing is that after I proudly turned in the forms and collected my just copied health insurance card and photo ID I had a seat (the doctor would be with me in just a minute) and my first thought was: what’s today’s date? Oh yeah, the fourth. Maybe that’s not so much weird as it is a sign of early senility.

As I pondered the mysteries of my brain I was summoned by the nurse and directed to a room where — and stop me if you’ve heard this one before — my blood pressure was taken. You walk into a doctor’s office to settle a bill and they’ll take your blood pressure. People in white frocks really get their jollies from taking blood pressure. Hell I could tell them what mine is. They trusted me on my height and weight but blood pressure, no sir, they need to see that for themselves.

I did not have an interminable wait for the doctor. This is not the usual state of affairs. This specialist was an older, shorter gentlemen who looked for all the world like a retired accountant. Looks aren't everything. He took a look at the area of my body that was afflicted, probed, examined, speculated, asked questions and diagnosed. I go back in three weeks to see how things are going. So it goes.

I’d originally gone to my primary care physician two weeks ago to have this seen about. My appointment was right after lunch, 1:30. Despite the fact that I was the first appointment after lunch I was not led to a room until five minutes had passed and despite the fact that I was the first appointment after lunch I waited another fiver in the little room. What’s up with that? Are they required by law to make you wait? I was the first appointment of the day a few months back and had to wait. One gets used to it, but still. It would be nice just once to be whisked right in and have the doc waiting for me.

Here’s a question I’ve pondered.  Doctor sees you and — irrespective of your particular issue — asks you that friendly, how are you? Do you just give them a, “fine” and then when prompted give the reason for your visit which will reveal that you are not in fact “fine?”  Is the how-are-you just an extension of, hello, or is it meant to be taken seriously? For the many years I visited psychiatrists I noted that they never started with the how-are -you because the point of the whole session was to talk about how you were. They would usually just nod. I don't mean to sound all Holden Caulfiedly but shrinks are great goddamn nodders, lemme tell ya.

Speaking of waiting (which we just in fact were) I had a doozy of a wait at the dermatologist’s office a few months back. They were instituting a brand new check-in system and a new way to store patient information that was going to make your every visit so much more efficient. Hah! People of all ages were struggling with the iPads we were issued as we checked in. Making heads and tails of each section of our medical history and insurance information was like a five year old learning excel. Staff had to come out into the waiting room and give tutorials and trouble shoot and lend CPR to patients having heart attacks over the damn things. Meanwhile the receptionists were struggling with their own computers and there were two tech people working their asses off to help them. Isn't it great when people modernize?

By the time I was seen it was 45 minutes past my scheduled time. The nurse said, “thank you for waiting.” I tried not to sound snarky as I replied, “I didn’t have much choice.”

Frankly, I’m sick and — you guessed it — tired of being thanked for waiting or for being patient — especially when I haven’t been the least bit patient at all. As long time readers of this blog (I’m looking at you Mrs. Manicotti of Seacaucus, New Jersey) know I’m semi-retired and teach one morning class at an ESL school a short walk from my abode. One morning a colleague and I arrived before either of the school administrators so we had to cool our heels outside the building for a few minutes. When the school director arrived with the keys he said, “thanks for waiting.” What? Did he think it would have been reasonable for us to have turned around and gone home? What the hell else were we going to do but wait? I’d have preferred a “sorry I’m late.” But, hey, that’s me.

As I write these words I’m typing on my computer (but you knew that) and I’d just like to thank anyone who bothered to read this all the way to the end. I’m about to read it but I have an excuse: I’ll be proofreading this and with a fine tooth comb extracting any and all typos.

By the way, what the hell is fine tooth comb?