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  • PODCAST: The Pattinson Stuff - Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

    Hosts Bernadette Gorman-White and Mike Burdge embark upon a brand spanking new filmography series: The Pattinson Stuff, covering the movieing of one Robert Pattinson. Up first, a dive into the actor's first three features: Vanity Fair, Ring of the Nibelungs and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Listen on....

  • Not Quite "Being the Ricardos"

    I’ve never seen much virtue in writing a negative review of anything. Making something is hard and missing the mark is the most common outcome for any of our ventures in life; but, that being said, there is some merit in trying to figure out why something doesn’t work. Aaron Sorkin’s most recent directorial effort, Being the Ricardos, is a behind the scenes look at a week in the production of an episode of I Love Lucy. The film boasts a Sorkin screenplay, an all-star cast led by Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem, as well as an interesting and largely untold story about an iconic figure in the history of tv and film. Despite all that, the film just doesn’t really work, and I’m pretty curious about how that happened. It would be going too far to say that Being the Ricardos is a bad film. I still found it engaging and watchable all the way through. But, of course, I did. I’m basically, for good and ill, the stereotypical embodiment of Sorkin’s exact demographic. Many of the key scenes and sequences hit me the way I believe they were intended to. After decades of breaking stories on stage and screen, Sorkin knows how to carry an audience along. Just the same, I can’t point to any part of the film where I had a clear handle on what the intended tone of the film was supposed to be. In the lead-up to the film’s release, there was significant backlash over the casting of the film. It turns out there was a ravenous, pent-up demand for a film about Lucille Ball, but that prospective audiences revolted at the thought of her being played by Nicole Kidman. People were generally skeptical that Kidman had the comedy chops to play the star of I Love Lucy, and, well, they were right. Kidman was fairly decently cast for the film Aaron Sorkin wrote, but that wasn’t at all the film this audience wanted to see. Sorkin has taken great pains in interviews around this film to make clear that he was telling a dramatic story about Lucille Ball, not a comedy starring her character Lucy Ricardo. Sorkin’s mistake may have been in thinking he could do one without committing fully to also do the other. The story of Being the Ricardos is: during a particular week of production of I Love Lucy, Lucille Ball is contending with three off-stage crises that are all coming to a head simultaneously: an exposé about her husband’s infidelity, a battle with the network, and sponsors of her show about being the first pregnant character on a television show, and the breaking news that she had testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee about having once registered as a member of the communist party. Sorkin takes some creative license by placing these events all in the same week, but these are all things that happened during the run of I Love Lucy. Sorkin does manage to weave these disparate elements together like they’re the A, B, and C plots of an episode of one of his shows, where each thread is highlighting the tension between Lucy’s career and her lifelong desire for some kind of stable family life. And, structurally, they do all tie together in the end. When Lucille’s real-life husband, Desi, comes through the door of the I Love Lucy set as his character Ricky, calling out, “Lucy, I’m home,” we watch Lucille struggling to respond, and we understand that all of her efforts to hold her show and family together have been for naught. Throughout the film, the growing narrative is that Desi has been coming home less and less, ostensibly staying up late playing cards on his boat with friends to blow off steam, but clearly getting up to more than just that. The irony is that the whole motivation for Lucille agreeing to do I Love Lucy in the first place is so that she and Desi would finally have a way to both have their careers and be able to spend time together. Desi’s infidelity, her pregnancy, and her growing red scare are each conspiring to destabilize the show that ties together the life the two of them have built together. They manage to save the show. They strongarm the network into letting Lucille be pregnant on television. They get the FBI to make a statement publicly clearing Lucille of any suspicion of un-American wrongdoing. But, coming off these historic wins, it feels jarring when the then-what-happened text at the end of the film tells us they would go on to get divorced anyway. The core problem of the film may be that it’s overstuffed. Sorkin ties together threads that don’t really get along well together. There’s surely something to the story of a young Lucille Ball checking the registration box for the communist party to please her grandfather, as a contrast to the story of a young Desi Arnaz fleeing Cuba because of a communist revolution. There is surely something to the contrast between the iconic housewife character of Lucy Ricardo and the trailblazing media mogul that portrayed her. There is surely something interesting to the contrast between the happy friends of the TV show I Love Lucy and behind the scenes squabbling of the actors who portrayed them. There is surely something interesting to how groundbreaking I Love Lucy was just as a technological feat that would go on to transform how tv shows would be made from then on. There is surely something to the story of the serious behind the scenes work it takes to create effortless-seeming comedy on screen. There is surely a worthwhile story to be told about anyone standing up to the House Un-American Activities Committee, and managing to come out on top. There is surely something to the story of the first pregnant mother character that American families saw on TV and how her co-star and real-life husband was cheating on her in real life the entire time. All of these stories are interesting, just not when you try to tell them all at once. A secondary problem for Being the Ricardos is a similar issue that Sorkin had with his show, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Sorkin is capable of writing comedic situations for his characters or writing enviably naturalistic witty-banter, but he gets utterly hamfisted when he tries to write a character that is trying to be funny. Studio 60 was his much-maligned show, looking at the behind the scenes of a show like Saturday Night Live. Canceled after one season, a lot of it was much better than it got credit for at the time, but the core criticism of the show was as true then as it is now: the central premise of the show demanded adept comedy writing, and Sorkin just doesn’t have that talent in his otherwise ample toolkit. There is a version of Being the Ricardos - both film and screenplay - that may actually lend itself to a stage production, something where the audience is more primed for witty speechifying, and on a platform much further removed from the medium in which the audience is most used to seeing Lucille Ball. For how many stories Sorkin is trying to tell, there may have also been an even better version of this story if it were told as a limited series. Give each story thread its own episode with its own theme, rather than try to force them all together. In its current form, I can go, so far as to say, that Being the Ricardos was a perfectly fine use of my time, but also an unsuccessful mess in that, having seen it twice now, I’m still not at all clear what it’s trying to say about anything. Damian Masterson Damian is an endothermic vertebrate with a large four-chambered heart residing in Kerhonkson, NY with his wife and two children. His dream Jeopardy categories would be: They Might Be Giants, Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, 18th and 19th Century Ethical Theory, Moral Psychology, Caffeine, Gummy Candies, and Episode-by-Episode podcasts about TV shows that have been off the air for at least 10 years.

  • Damian: My Favorite Films of 2021

    I’m not entirely sure if it was something about me, or just something about this past year, but there was a great deal of theater kid energy in the films I most connected with this year. Like with David Byrne’s American Utopia from my list last year, two of my top ten were filmed versions of stage shows. I do consider it a high bar to clear to consider a stage show on par to a traditional film, but the two I have on my list cleared that bar for me. Another is a very filmic reconceptualization of a stage show. Another three are so stagey they could probably be ported over to a theater with little to no changes. Of the remainder of my list, a common theme is that there was little to no grounded realism. With one exception, I wasn’t seeking out or connecting with, anything working with big, visceral, negative emotions. Like many, I’ve had enough cortisol in my life these last few years, so what I’ve needed more than anything was escapism and big, singing, dancing, flights of fancy. Thankfully, this year’s films delivered on that. Honorable Mention - Lapsis Noah Hutton’s Lapsis was one of the more interesting surprises of the year for me. It wasn’t a film I had heard anything about, but I was so struck by its poster that I couldn’t get it out of my head until I finally checked it out. Because of how little attention it’s gotten, I’ll be sparing in my description, but I can say that it’s a soft-touch sci-fi story about exploitation and workers' rights in the gig economy. It feels a little low budget at times, but in ways that actually make the world feel more real. It’s not slick and shiny, but that actually serves the premise by making it feel like the world of this story is not only possible, but could be just months away. #10. Dune Denis Villeneuve’s Dune appears to be the first 50% of a masterpiece. I knew going into the film that it was only going to be the first half of the book, so I didn’t have an issue with the film’s abrupt ending, but I haven’t been able to treat it like it’s a finished work, yet. It doesn’t feel like the first in a series of standalone stories, but one story that’s simply been stopped to pick up again later. If the story is eventually completed, Dune has the potential to be something like my favorite film, but, were something to stop the story from being finished, I might be too disappointed to return to this first film ever again. I was a modest fan of David Lynch’s 1984 version of Dune. It was a mess, but with more than enough in terms of ideas and visuals to be worth watching. I forgave it a lot of its shortcomings on a belief that it actually was an unfilmable story, but Villeneuve, albeit with the benefit of more running time, manages to seamlessly build the worlds and assorted intrigues of Dune without having to lean on clunky exposition, all while delivering generally more impressive visuals and much better performances. It’s master craftsmanship, and I look forward to eventually seeing the finished product. #9. The Green Knight David Lowry’s The Green Knight has a special spot on this list because it was the first film that I got to see in a theater since the start of the pandemic. In this adaptation of a 14th-century Arthurian story, Gawain is a nephew of King Arthur who accepts a challenge from The Green Knight. Gawain can deliver any blow he likes to The Green Knight, but The Green Knight can return that same blow a year hence. The focus of the film is Gawain’s quest to find The Green Knight to receive his agreed-upon blow. Dev Patel is incredible as Gawain, and the world that Lowry creates is incredibly sumptuous, dreamlike, and meditative. Taking place at two successive Christmas times, I expect this to become a holiday staple for me. #8. Psycho Goreman Steven Kostanski’s Psycho Goreman isn’t a film I’m recommending to anyone. It’s a strange little gem that seems to have been made solely for me. Maybe if you share my preference for Army of Darkness over the other Evil Dead movies, this might appeal to you. Or, if like me, you have absolutely no interest in horror movies, but a deep fondness for gory, horror-comedies, this might appeal to you, as well. Even then, I don’t know, I really think it’s just for me and the cast and crew of the film. Consider yourself warned. Psycho Goreman is in some ways the E.T. trope of young kids finding and befriending an alien, only in this case, the kids are kinda sociopaths and the alien is an imprisoned evil menace bent on destroying all life in the universe. It’s a film I was never ahead of the first time I watched it, and, on each rewatch, I’ve continued to be tickled by all of the bizarre choices it makes. #7. Come From Away One of the projects that was lost to the pandemic was a planned film adaptation of the musical Come From Away, telling the story of the 38 planes that were unexpectedly forced to land at the Gander International Airport in Newfoundland on September 11th, 2001, and how the surrounding community came together to take care of their nearly 7,000 surprise guests. Instead, what we have here is a filmed version of the Broadway show, made 14 months after Broadway was shut down by Coronavirus, and 4 months before shows would reopen again to general audiences. In recent years, we’ve gotten high-quality filmed versions of Hamilton and, one of my favorite films of last year, David Byrne’s American Utopia. This filmed version of Come From Away doesn’t have the visual flair of either of those others, but the show itself is such a feat that it more than makes up for it. In some sense, the show has the feel of being one continuous take. There’s no intermission, and everyone in the small cast plays multiple characters without costume changes and rarely even leaving the stage. Each scene feeds quickly into the other, giving the show an incredibly propulsive feel. I can imagine a more traditional filmed version of this story that would be good, but not one that could easily retain these elements of the stage show that make it so unique. I do hope that film is someday made, but I would be very surprised to see it turn out better than what has already been captured in this version. #6. Annette All hail the big swing! I don’t know for sure if I would have connected with Annette if I hadn’t seen The Sparks Brothers documentary first. Having thoroughly met musicians Ron and Russell Mael, and gotten some sense of their unique approach to the world, I started their musical, Annette, as open-minded as can be. I was enthralled with its opening number and was able to adjust when the rest of the songs in the film were serving a far less straightforward role. I was entirely on board when I discovered how the character of Annette was going to be handled and thought the final culmination of that character choice to be just breathtaking. I found it perfect from first frame to last. #5. Mass I’ve long been a fan of Fran Kranz. He’s the only figure in the one movie poster I have on my wall, from when he played Claudio in 2012’s Much Ado About Nothing. I thought he was surprisingly great in both Cabin in the Woods and the TV show, Dollhouse. I was looking forward to Mass as his writing and directorial debut, but I was in no way ready for the film he’s made. It’s possible to see this film and be unaware of its central conceit, so I’ll tread lightly. It’s a devastating film, which is not a feeling I generally seek out, especially not this year, but it’s so empathetic and open-hearted about its subject and characters as to make the devastation worth it. It would work just as well on stage as it does on film because of how stripped down it is, being almost entirely a conversation between four characters in one room, trying to help one another recover from the central catastrophe of their lives. #4. Nine Days Edson Oda’s Nine Days is a very good movie that sneaks up on you as a great one in its final scene. It’s a meditation on what it takes to cut it in the world, against what we wish the people in the world were actually like. Like an inverse of Albert Brooks’s film Defending Your Life, instead of someone defending the life they had led in order to prove themselves worthy of moving on to the next plane of existence, here we see numerous souls interviewing for a chance to be born into life for the first time. As a pitch, it feels like it could be a lower-tier Pixar movie, but in execution, it winds of being something more patient, contemplative, and wonderful than that, before blossoming into something truly electric, that will stick with you for a long time in its final scene. #3. Derek DelGuadio’s In & Of Itself I got to see In & Of Itself during its theatrical run in NYC. It was an experience that stuck with me, and I was looking forward to revisiting it when I heard there was a film being made documenting the final performances of its run. Live theater doesn’t generally translate well to recording, and magic translates particularly poorly, so I didn’t have the highest expectations for how this would turn out, but working with Director Frank Oz, Derek DelGuadio made something truly special. By working in some multimedia elements, the show was expanded beyond what was possible on stage, and by working in audience reactions and participations the way they did, sometimes including a dozen different audience members from different shows in the same set-piece, the show was expanded beyond what it could be in any one performance, creating a unique feeling of immediacy that translates wonderfully to the audience at home. Separate from its execution of documenting a live performance, the show actually does have something very interesting to say in how it interrogates notions of personal identity. Through storytelling and magical set pieces, we see DelGuadio push against the various ways he has seen himself in his own life, push the audience to examine how they see themselves and others, often bringing volunteers up on stage to either bequeath an identity or transform one. #2. & #1. Bo Burnham: Inside & tick, tick…BOOM! I grouped together my top two films because they’ve become inextricably paired in my mind, and, taken together, they almost perfectly capture my feelings about this past year. Both are about a young central protagonist, struggling with their first anxieties about growing older and feelings of failure, but with diametrically opposed messages Based on its absence from most of the year-end best-of lists that I’ve read, it seems like Bo Burnham: Inside has either been somewhat forgotten since this past spring or stopped being considered a film after Netflix submitted it for Emmy consideration. That is a shame because not only is this one of the more impressive films I’ve ever seen, that actually seemed to be the consensus view when it first came out. There are only a handful of people credited on Inside because Burnham wrote and directed it, is the only performer in it, composed and recorded all of the music for it, and handled all of the cinematography and film editing for it himself. For a film looking to capture, among other things, the feeling of being trapped inside with your own thoughts during the pandemic, it helps that no other hands were involved until post-production. That said, and for as great as I think it is, I had been very resistant to having it wind up as my top film for this year. I had started a review of Inside shortly after it came out, but could never motivate myself to finish it because of how acid and hopeless it is as a film. Somewhat like watching late-career George Carlin, you can laugh and be entertained while you're watching it, but the view of people and the world underneath it all is so caustic that it can be depressing to interrogate what is being said too closely. On quite the opposite end of the spectrum is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s directorial debut, tick, tick…BOOM! There is a light, popcorny feel to tick, tick…BOOM! that also made me briefly hesitant to give it the top spot on my list for this year, but if I’m being fully honest with myself, this is already the film from this year I’ve rewatched the most, and the one I expect to return to the most in the years ahead. tick, tick…BOOM! is about the early career struggles of Jonathan Larson, who would go on to write the phenomenally successful musical Rent, but pass away right before its off-Broadway premiere. It’s an adaptation of an autobiographical musical written by Larson, that he performed while he was still alive, and has been staged in different forms since his passing, notably in 2014 with Miranda playing the role of Larson. This version mixes together Larson performing tick, tick…BOOM! with depictions of the events being recounted in the performance. Thematically, tick, tick…BOOM! takes a lot of the opposite, and more hopeful, positions to those taken by Inside. Both films deal with the pressure to make your mark in the world, anchored on the main character turning thirty. But while Burnham jokes(?) about killing himself if he lives to see forty, Larson’s arc is to make peace with simply doing the most he can with whatever time he has left. Where Burnham attacks the value of making content at all, Larson takes the position of creating art as being one of the most important human endeavors. tick, tick…BOOM! is also helped by one of the best lead performances of the year with Andrew Garfield as Jonathan Larson. Garfield trained for a year to handle the singing in this film, and his handling of the songs is better than any other production of the show I can find, even those by Larson, himself. Along with that though, Garfield is just incredibly likable as a leading man. In some sense, that likability captures the biggest difference between Inside and tick, tick…BOOM! for me. Inside is the more impressive artistic statement, but tick, tick…BOOM! is just a more likable and enjoyable film, and this year, that’s what I’ve been seeking out more than anything else. Other films considered for this list: A Glitch in the Matrix; Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar; Benedetta; The Card Counter; Clerk; CODA; The Courier; The Dig; Finch; The French Connection; I’m Your Man; In the Heights; Judas and the Black Messiah; Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time; The Last Duel; Listening to Kenny G; The Map of Tiny Perfect Things; The Matrix Resurrection; Minari; The Mitchell’s vs The Machines; No Sudden Move; Nobody; The Paper Tigers; Pig; Quo Vadis, Aida; Riders of Justice; Small Engine Repair; The Sparks Brothers; Summer of Soul; Val; The Velvet Underground; Werewolves Within, Zola Damian Masterson Damian is an endothermic vertebrate with a large four-chambered heart residing in Kerhonkson, NY with his wife and two children. His dream Jeopardy categories would be: They Might Be Giants, Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, 18th and 19th Century Ethical Theory, Moral Psychology, Caffeine, Gummy Candies, and Episode-by-Episode podcasts about TV shows that have been off the air for at least 10 years.

  • Deadly Male Fragility

    A Look at Lost Highway David Lynch’s Lost Highway turns 25 this year. By most measures, this was the least successful film of David Lynch’s career, struggling with audiences and critics alike, disappointing his most diehard fans, and going on to recoup less than $4 million of its $15 million budget at the box office. In his review at the time, Roger Ebert described the film as a cold and nonsensical shaggy dog story. Harsh! Despite that, I’ve long had a soft spot for Lost Highway. It was the first of Lynch’s films that I had seen, but even I have found the film hard to champion as more than an interesting, but messy, experiment with a cool Trent Reznor-produced soundtrack. That changed for me recently though, and I’ve finally come to a reading of the film that I think does tie it all together in a way that elevates the film for me to something a bit more on par with the other well-regarded films of Lynch's career, like Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive. As I see the film now, I think it does have something interesting and timely to say about the lengths a certain kind of man will go to in order to self-mythologize away their sins, trying to protect their place as the hero of their own story, and control the narrative around the women they’ve wronged. Before making the case for my take on the film, I think it will be helpful to look at where I think Lynch may have gone wrong in how he presented this film to audiences. Lynch largely avoids explaining his films, preferring for them to speak for themselves. However, one of the details that Lynch had let slip in the years since Lost Highway came out was that, at the time he and Barry Gifford were writing it, Lynch was fixated on the OJ Simpson trial - specifically how the mind of a murderer protects itself when they know they have done something truly awful, something that doesn’t fit with the more heroic image they have of themselves? What allows such a person to smilingly go about their daily life, seemingly unaffected by the terrible thing they’ve done? Co-writer Barry Gifford was more forthcoming than Lynch in interviews, but never describes this particular bit of Lynch’s inspiration. Instead, he talked about their initial idea being a story about what would happen if one person were to wake up as someone else - a story about someone experiencing some kind of psychological fugue, but told in the spirit of Kafka’s Metamorphosis. Were either of these threads more straightforwardly laid out for those initial audiences watching the film, it might have been somewhat more clear that Lost Highway is supposed to be a film about a man failing to reconcile his conception of himself with the fact that he has murdered his wife. The story of Lost Highway, at least initially, is that Bill Pullman is a jazz musician named Fred Madison, and Patricia Arquette plays his somewhat distant seeming wife, Renee. Over the course of the first act of the film, a series of videotapes show up on the doorstep of their house in unmarked envelopes. The first tape shows a slow pan across the front of their house before cutting to static. The next tape shows the same but then moves inside the house before it too cuts out. The third tape moves further inside their house, into their bedroom, showing the two of them sleeping in their bed, but from a seemingly impossible overhead angle. And the last tape, Fred finds and watches alone, seeing himself on-screen, kneeling next to his wife’s mutilated body. As he realizes what he’s watching, he stands and calls out to his wife, but the film crash cuts to his being beaten during an interrogation about her murder. This is quickly followed by Fred’s conviction and sentencing to death by electrocution. Before Fred can be executed, though, he starts experiencing a series of increasingly severe headaches; he’s found to have vanished from his death row cell one morning, and been replaced by a different person: a confused young man named Pete Dayton, who doesn’t know how he got there. From here, the film shifts to a mini-noir subplot about Pete Dayton. After being released from Death Row, Pete gets mixed up with an overtly archetypal femme fatale named Alice, also played by Patricia Arquette. Pete very quickly falls into an affair with Alice, despite his own girlfriend and the very dangerous man that Alice is involved with: Mr. Eddy, played by a menacing Robert Loggia. In order to escape from the wrath of Mr. Eddy, Alice convinces Pete that they need to rob a guy named Andy, so they can get together enough money for the two of them to run away together. Pete goes along with the plan but accidentally kills Andy during the robbery. He and Alice leave for a cabin in the desert where they will meet the man they will sell their stolen goods to. They make love outside on the ground, lit by the headlights of the car. Pete tells Alice how much he wants her. But, Alice tells Pete that he’ll never have her, then gets up off him, and walks away. When the camera comes back to Pete, we find that he has turned back into Fred. Fred takes off in the car to track down and kill Mr. Eddy. After he kills Mr. Eddy, the film ends with Fred driving down a highway at night, leading a police chase, and starting to violently convulse before the credits roll. On most interpretations, Fred’s convulsions during the chase in the car are when he is being executed in the real world. My understanding of what happens in the film is that Fred Madison murdered his wife, but is unable to accept the idea of himself as a murderer. His break doesn’t happen when he is on death row, but has actually already happened by the film’s first scene. When we first see Fred, he has already killed Renee and is trying to process it. We see him sitting by himself in the dark, smoking, withdrawn, and agitated. He’s suddenly lit as if a window curtain has been opened. Very out of focus through the doorway behind him, we faintly see a bed with a red and white coloring that does look like bloodstains. We’re in closeup on Fred Madison, but then there is a cut that jumps the line to show him from the reverse angle as their door buzzer rings, with the lighting of the scene also brightening significantly. This cut appears to be the point where we first enter the psychological fugue of the story. Considering we’re only about 45 seconds into the first scene of the film, it makes sense that audiences may not have been ready to make such a leap on their first viewing. Because the entire film occurs in the fugue state, it’s hard to know how to view Fred, because everything is mediated through how he wants to see himself, first as himself and then as Pete. There is an interesting scene in the first act after Fred and Renee received the videotape that showed them sleeping. They call the police to report what happened. When the police arrive at the house, both Fred and Renee feel different. The lighting in their bedroom is much brighter, and neither of them is dressed as stylized as they’ve been to this point - almost as if the presence of the police causes Fred to picture this scene differently. There’s also an incredibly telling exchange between Fred, Renee, and the two detectives: Detective: Do you own a video camera? Renee: No. Fred hates them. Fred: I like to remember things my own way. Detective: What do you mean by that? Fred: How I remembered them. Not necessarily the way they happened. The whole film is an expansion of this idea. We’re never getting at what happened, just at what Fred has decided for himself happened. Where the film gets really interesting for me, though, is how it contends with Patricia Arquette’s characters. On the reading that Fred is already entering a fugue state when the movie first begins, we never see a version of Renee that isn’t mediated through how Fred sees her. Her entire presence in the film is filtered through Fred’s male gaze. In Renee’s early scenes, she is distant from Fred, uninterested in the show he’s performing on that first night, preferring instead to stay home and read. But Renee seems to light up at the party they attend when she is drinking and talking to her friend, Andy. Here we can see the seeds of Fred’s jealousy. When Fred transforms into Pete, he creates for himself a new version of Renee, in Alice. Alice is aggressive and sexual in the ways Renee isn’t with Fred, falling for Pete at something like first sight. Alice is also mixed up in shady sex work with Mr. Eddy and his pornographic business. While Renee is largely withdrawn from Fred, Alice is the driving force behind coming up with the plan to rob Andy, manipulating Pete to participate by dangling herself as his reward if he follows through with the plan. Alice is also duplicitous in ways we don’t see Renee being, as we can see by Alice first going behind Mr. Eddy’s back with Pete, then setting up Andy for them to rob, and then abandoning Pete as soon as their job dealing with Andy is done. Pete appears to be a victim of manipulation, while Alice is the one pushing Pete to steal and inadvertently kill. Alice is the inverse of Renee, and, in Fred’s mind, a temptress responsible for everything that would ultimately go wrong. It’s Alice, Mr. Eddy, and Andy that are the villains of the story, not good old Fred. As he sees it, he’s a blameless angel. That Patricia Arquette is able to portray all of these facets of Renee and Alice is a wonder, considering the film never gives her any clear and objective ground to stand on. Arquette has said in interviews that Lynch, though he worked with her and created a safe place for her to do some incredibly vulnerable work, never gave her straight answers on what exactly she was playing. That actually helps the performance because the film is never giving us the reality of who Renee was. Fred has already taken that from her and us before the film begins. Something else that feeds into the energy of the film, is the presence of Robert Blake and Marilyn Manson. Neither were quite as infamous at the time of filming as they’ve gone on to become, but both would go on to be credibly accused, and even convicted, of crimes that are of a piece with the themes of Lost Highway. In his last acting credit to date, Robert Blake plays a character called Mystery Man, a malevolent character that seems to represent the murderous impulse hiding inside Fred. He would next enter the news in 2002 when he was arrested for the murder of his wife. He would be found not guilty in the criminal trial but found liable for the wrongful death of his wife in a civil trial. Marilyn Manson made his acting debut in the film, appearing briefly in a snuff film played in one of the climactic scenes, and he also featured prominently in the film's soundtrack, notably a scene where Arquette’s Alice is forced at gunpoint to strip for Mr. Eddy. Over the last 18 months, a number of women have come forward with accusations against Manson of physical and sexual abuse. The presence of both figures in the film is distasteful, but they are cut from the same cloth as the character of Fred Madison. Lost Highway isn’t a complete success. It still took me over two decades to come up with a reading of the film that worked for me, and that’s asking an awful lot of any audience. That said, I do now think it has something much more interesting to say than it’s been given credit for. It’s not especially interesting as the story of a man who killed his wife, but it is fascinating as the story of a man who would unmoor his entire reality rather than accept the fact of himself as a bad person who has done a reprehensible thing. Damian Masterson Damian is an endothermic vertebrate with a large four-chambered heart residing in Kerhonkson, NY with his wife and two children. His dream Jeopardy categories would be: They Might Be Giants, Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, 18th and 19th Century Ethical Theory, Moral Psychology, Caffeine, Gummy Candies, and Episode-by-Episode podcasts about TV shows that have been off the air for at least 10 years.

  • Long Live Smoochy!

    For a very long time, I didn’t know that Death to Smoochy was supposed to be bad. For me, Death to Smoochy was just a strange movie I liked, one that I never heard anyone talking about. I didn’t know it had been such a huge critical and commercial failure. And It’s interesting how much of a difference that ignorance made in my relationship to the film. It was never a guilty pleasure for me. It was just a strange little film that happened to match my sensibilities, one that I got to enjoy watching without any of the added baggage of what other people thought about it. I now get how it might have struggled to find an audience. It’s a really big swing of a film. It’s a high concept, silly, dark comedy set in a surprisingly violent world, played like an extended Mr. Show sketch, that also just so happens to be a film that is sincerely concerned with the importance of education and positive messaging in children’s television. Who is that for? Me, I guess. The funny thing about Death to Smoochy is that it’s kind of a surrealist Frank Capra movie. It follows something awfully close to the plot of 1939’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but instead of being set amongst the machinations of the U.S. Senate, Death to Smoochy is set in the dark and seedy world of children’s television production. In both films, a young idealist is unexpectedly plucked from obscurity, and installed into a position of great public importance, because the people making that decision believe someone so naive would be controllable in a way that will make it easy to protect the grift they’re engaged in. However, our hero’s idealism happens to resonate with the public far more than the backroom dealers anticipated, making this idealist more challenging to control than they would like, so his downfall is quickly orchestrated. The plan backfires, though. In the end, our hero is saved by the children who believed in him all along, and by a formerly cynical woman who had been reluctantly shepherding our hero through this new world up to now, and had her own faith and idealism restored by having met someone so sincerely noble. In the end, goodness triumphs over evil, paving the way for a brighter future for all, while the bad guys all get what they deserve. All that said, when you get into the finer details of tone and plot of these two films, they diverge about as wildly from one another as one could imagine. Spiritually, though, they’re so close to the same story that the resemblance feels like it has to be something more than an accident. Death to Smoochy opens with a very brief flash-forward to what appears to be the murder of our titular hero, Smoochy the Rhino, in his costume, backstage at his show. Then, flashes back to the beginning of the story, where we see how a different beloved children’s television host, Rainbow Randolph (Robin Williams), loses the job that will go on to become Smoochy’s. Randy is a beloved and popular host, but he gets busted in an undercover bribery sting in which he is found taking a suitcase full of cash in exchange for plum spots for children of parents desperate to see their kids on TV. To get over the scandal, the executives at his network, KidNet, need to immediately find a children’s entertainer who is, if nothing else, “Squeaky. Fucking. Clean!”; bringing them to Sheldon Mopes (Ed Norton) and his purple, foam-suit character, Smoochy the Rhino. Like Jimmy Stewart’s Jefferson Smith in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Sheldon Mopes seems like someone too good to be true, a “harmless, ethical cornball”. We meet him performing at the Coney Island Methadone Clinic, in costume and playing songs for the patients. It may seem at first that we’re seeing a struggling Sheldon, but even here Sheldon fully believes he is doing good and useful work. Nora Wells (Catherine Keener), a young executive hardened over the years from dealing with her cynical and duplicitous coworkers in the children’s entertainment industry, has been dispatched to find Sheldon and offer him his own show at KidNet. Over a dinner of organic gluten-free soy dogs, with his homemade spirulina and almond butter sauce, an elated Sheldon pitches Nora on the kind of show that he has always wanted to give kids: An educational and entertaining show, with integrity, and a positive message, but without all the overly-commercial “bells and whistles and ricketa-racketa.” Sheldon gets the job but is rudely awakened when he discovers that he and KidNet are not at all on the same page about how to educate children. What Nora and KidNet are looking for is someone who can capably fill a timeslot, but primarily they just want someone to bridge the gap between commercial breaks. Additionally, Sheldon discovers that there is an expectation from scary, local, mob-like charities, such as The Parade of Hope, that he will make himself available to perform for their charity events, which themselves are little more than vehicles for selling kids cheap toys and sugary snacks, while the organizers skim all the profits they can off the top. As the film unfolds, the story turns ever darker as agents, executives, gangsters, and former kid show hosts, are all plotting to bring Sheldon down, even fatally if necessary. But, through it all, Sheldon perseveres, guided by an unwavering mission to help educate children. It’s this last bit that is the key feature of how a film like this works as much as it does. Whether it’s Frank Capra, Aaron Sorkin, or even Death to Smoochy, an audience will only forgive a message this schmaltzy, from a fundamentally good protagonist, if they really believe that the message is of actual importance. We can forgive some of the sentimentality and idealism of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, or The American President, or Dave, because good government and selfless public service are evergreen things that people actually do want to see more of. We can forgive the uncomplicated goodness of a character like Sheldon Mopes, because we have no trouble accepting the importance of his mission to teach children in a loving way. The film also gives Sheldon more dimension than, say, a Mr. Rogers, which helps us better connect with him. We learn that Sheldon started on his path toward becoming Smoochy because of a court-ordered anger management class he had to take in college. We also see Sheldon pushed well past his breaking point, to a place where the audience could even accept him caving in to do a just but terrible thing, but he is fortunately rescued from the situation by his friends just in time. Sheldon isn’t perfect, but neither is anyone else. He’s doing his best every day and trying to teach kids how to do the same. Tonally, the movie does get incredibly dark, but that helps underscore Sheldon’s message throughout. The thing he says the most often in the film is “You can’t change the world, but you can make a dent.” It’s meant to be a bit of a joke that Sheldon is initially performing at a methadone clinic, but they double down on the idea when that is the organization he ultimately chooses to donate all the proceeds from the charity ice show he ends up putting on himself. This helps underline the idea that literally everyone is worthy of a helping hand. Also, with Rainbow Randolph, It’s way over the top with the amount of awful things that he tries to do in order to bring down Sheldon, so much so that it does strain credulity when Randolph is redeemed and forgiven by the end of the film. Even the actual portrayal of Rainbow Randolph is frequently hard to take in the film because of how Robin Williams plays him, leaning into some of the more grating parts of his schtick from that era, particularly an uncomfortable amount of gay panic jokes. But all of that helps highlight the idea that anybody who is truly sorry, and sincerely tries to do better, is actually worthy of forgiveness, even someone as deplorable as Rainbow Randolph. The core of Death to Smoochy, despite the numerous horrific people that populate its world, is about someone trying to do good in a world that can make that hard, while also advocating for something that does truly matter. In the long view, the lasting impact of a character like Smoochy, or the real world character he is meant to represent, is in teaching the next generation of children not to give in to darkness and to find a way to make their own dent in the world. Damian Masterson Damian is an endothermic vertebrate with a large four-chambered heart residing in Kerhonkson, NY with his wife and two children. His dream Jeopardy categories would be: They Might Be Giants, Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, 18th and 19th Century Ethical Theory, Moral Psychology, Caffeine, Gummy Candies, and Episode-by-Episode podcasts about TV shows that have been off the air for at least 10 years.

  • Bottle Up and Explode: Pixar's "Turning Red"

    I’m a little late to be writing about Pixar’s most recent film, Turning Red, but I worry that its straight-to-streaming release may have resulted in this extraordinary film not garnering all of the attention and praise that it deserves. Now, of course, it’s no surprise that the best stories often work for any audience, but for a film whose themes are so overtly pitched towards young teen girls, I was astounded by how much Turning Red resonated with me. Throughout, I was very clearly reminded of my own experiences contending with the bubbling cauldron of emotions that come from being that age, as well as my current experiences watching my own younger children come into their own emotions. For so specific and fantastical a story, it’s impressive how universal this film manages to feel. Meilin Lee is a thirteen-year-old girl living in Toronto with her mother and father. Her family runs the Lee Family Temple in Toronto, dedicated to honoring their family’s ancestors, especially their most revered ancestor, Sun Yee. Sun Yee was “a scholar, a poet, and defender of animals. She dedicated her life to the creatures of the forest. Especially the red panda.” As Meilin would soon discover, Sun Yee loved red pandas so much that she asked the gods to turn her into one, and they complied, giving her the ability to harness her emotions to turn into a giant red panda. And Sun Yee passed this ability on to all of her female descendants, something Meilin first discovers one morning, via a very well-worn film trope, when she looks in the bathroom mirror and finds a giant red panda staring back at her. After the initial shock at discovering her metamorphosis, Mei is a little relieved to discover that at least the change isn’t permanent. By forcing herself to calm down, she can slowly transform back into her old self - aside from her now permanently red hair. And, as long as she can keep herself from getting too emotional, she won't unexpectedly change back into the panda. Soon, she even learns that with practice, she can change back and forth between her human and panda forms at will. Now, an untold number of stories and films have tackled the changes kids go through at this particular stage of life, moving from adolescence into puberty, but what Turning Red handles so wonderfully while showing how tumultuous these new roiling emotions can be, is that this isn’t a blip in our lives we’re supposed to get past, but one stage in the lifelong emotional development everyone goes through. The story places Meilin in an intergenerational context with her mother, grandmother, and aunts, who all share having gone through this same experience and, to varying degrees, are all still contending with the constant reminder of having experienced this to the present day. In one sense, Turning Red is something like my favorite kind of X-Men origin story. Mei is a young girl who finds herself unexpectedly transformed by entering puberty. She’s going through powerful and terrifying changes that fundamentally alter her relationship with the world, her own life, and the people in it. And, to a great degree, what is unleashed by this change is shaped by having the right people in her life to support and mentor her throughout this transformation. Part of how Meilin relates to her new superpower is shaped by her family. Her mother knew this was going to happen to her someday because she had gone through it all herself, but she kept it a secret from her daughter, thinking it was something to be frightened and ashamed of. Meilin’s grandmother and aunts are on the same page: this power is something dangerous to be eliminated with a particular ritual at the first opportunity. Importantly, though, the greater part of what shapes Mei’s relationship to her power, the element that makes her experience so different from that of her relatives, is the unwavering support she gets from her friends and peers. When Meilin first transforms into the panda, she panics. Her mom hears her and comes running. Meilin manages to hide in the shower, and through the curtain, her mother wrongly intuits that what’s happened is her daughter has had her first period. It’s interesting that her mother goes immediately into crisis management mode. She has a large pile of pads and remedies and is smotheringly amped to manage the situation for her daughter. Conversely, when her friends knock on her window and discover that the reason that Mei hasn’t been to school is that she’s now a giant red panda, they aren’t the slightest bit scared, or embarrassed for her; they are thrilled. Mei’s friends so embrace this new discovery about their friend that she feels so safe with them that she changes back to her human form without even trying. When her parents later test her ability to control her emotions and control the panda, it’s thinking of the love and support of her friends that grounds Mei enough not to transform. One of the interesting quirks of human beings as a species is how helpless we start out. Unlike some creatures that are self-sufficient at birth, humans are incredibly helpless for a very long time. Part of the peril/benefit of this is that humans, though starting out with many fixed traits, are incredibly responsive and adaptable to our environment; and the biggest element of our environment is that we are each uniquely shaped by the social features of our world: our friends, our family, and our neighbors. We get to see this in how much Mei’s friends shape how she processes the things she’s discovering about herself, but we also get to infer how much the absence of that kind of support influenced how Meilin’s mother and grandmother processed going through the same experiences. The finale of the film is a fairly impressive battle that occurs when Meilin’s mother, Ming, gets so upset with her defiance about giving up the panda, that her own panda bursts free from the pendant she has it trapped inside. This is not made explicit, but her mother’s panda is vastly larger than everyone else’s, seemingly because of how tightly Ming has had to contain her own emotions. While Meilin’s panda is larger than the average adult, Ming’s panda is larger than most buildings. It also would be a bit of a mischaracterization to characterize the ending of the film as a battle, per se, as the conflict between Meilin and her mother is fairly brief, stopping when Mei realizes that what Ming needs from her is the kind of support that Meilin got from her friends. She isn’t powerful enough to handle her mother alone, so Mei's grandmother and aunts break the pendants containing their own pandas, giving them the strength to help perform the ritual that will allow Ming to transform back into her human form. The thing that most makes this a battle is that Meilin is both trying to help her mother, and fighting to also assert her new identity as something other than the perfectly obedient girl that Ming wants her to be. Part of the ritual that contains the panda involves traveling to a magical bamboo forest where they meet Sun Yee and are given the choice to relinquish their panda power, trapping it into a pendant. What first caused the conflict between Meilin and her mother is Mei's refusal to relinquish her power. After performing the ritual again to help her mother, Ming, Meilin, her aunts, and her grandmother, are all transported to the magical bamboo forest again. Once in the forest, Mei goes searching for her mother. She finds Ming, but she doesn’t find her as an adult. Instead, Mei finds her mother as a girl, the same age she was when she first went through the ritual herself. Ming is a young teen girl, laying on the ground, sobbing over getting so angry that she accidentally hurt her mother right before going through the ritual for the first time. Mei hears her mother, now a girl her own age, recounting the exact same struggles she is going through now: Feeling like she has to bottle up her emotions, that she has to be perfect to please her mother, that she’ll never be good enough for her, or anyone. It’s amazing how empathic a moment this is. Meilin gets to discover that her mother actually understands exactly what she’s going through because Ming has been struggling with the exact same feelings her entire life. Additionally, Mei gets to gain a new perspective on those emotions in herself because she sees someone else who is struggling with them and needs help right now. In a fantastic visual, Meilin takes her mother’s hand and walks her through the bamboo forest to meet Sun Ye, all while Ming slowly calms down and ages back to adulthood as they pass through the forest. The film has the most wonderfully nuanced take on emotions, understanding the important difference between managing our emotions and the dangers of simply bottling them up; and the film understands how important the people in our lives are in our figuring that out. Lastly, and most importantly, everyone leaves the bamboo forest on the terms that work for them. Meilin’s mother, aunts, and grandmother accept that Mei is going to keep her panda, while they all choose to once again relinquish theirs. Mei is proud of what she’s become, and her mother has now come to be proud of whatever makes her daughter happy. May everyone be so lucky, as to be able to find themselves, despite whatever trials they may meet, and may everyone find themselves surrounded by people in their lives who can unconditionally love and support them for who they are. Damian Masterson Damian is an endothermic vertebrate with a large four-chambered heart residing in Kerhonkson, NY with his wife and two children. His dream Jeopardy categories would be: They Might Be Giants, Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, 18th and 19th Century Ethical Theory, Moral Psychology, Caffeine, Gummy Candies, and Episode-by-Episode podcasts about TV shows that have been off the air for at least 10 years.

  • Who Are You? Severance Season 1

    With Severance, AppleTV+ is continuing to establish itself as an important platform at a time when the world of streaming entertainment is in serious flux. Netflix stock is in free fall as they are hemorrhaging subscribers they had picked up during the heights of the pandemic, and some new streaming platforms are shuttering almost as soon as they launch, yet AppleTV+ and their deep pockets are riding high on the successes of Ted Lasso, the Best Picture-winning CODA, and now adding to their offerings one of the best new dramatic series in recent memory. Created by Dan Erickson, the pilot script for Severance appeared on the 2016 Bloodlist, a Sci-Fi/Horror equivalent of The Black List that recognizes the best unproduced genre screenplays of that year, before being optioned by Ben Stiller’s production company in 2017. Stiller and Erickson would spend the next 5 years developing the show, finally coming out earlier this year at a time when the show’s look at the nature of identity, office work, and work-life balance, couldn’t be any more topical. Inspired by his own experiences working suffocating office jobs, Erickson’s pitch for the show asks what if there was a way to turn off your brain when you got to work, and then turn it back on again when it was time for you to leave for the day, allowing you to do your job without having to actually experience any of the drudgery involved? Once Erickson had this idea about his own job, he immediately recognized, both how tempting such an option might be to people, as well as how terrible his own job must be if he were actually willing to give up whole chunks of his life rather than have to live through the experience of being at his job. Erickson also wondered what must this experience be like for whatever part of him that would still have to be conscious in order to do that job? What the show he created posits is a biotechnology company called Lumon Industries that offers a procedure to employees called "severance." The severance procedure involves installing a chip into a new employee’s brain that is capable of initiating a limited dissociative state when the employee is on Lumon Industries' property. On the employees' first day of work, after their chip is implanted, they will wake up to find themselves laying on a conference room table, unable to remember their name or any of the personal details of their lives, born into a whole new life at their new job. Now, who exactly would actually sign up for such a procedure? We are introduced to a number of Lumon employees over the course of the show and are even given a little insight into their lives and motivations for joining Lumon, but our protagonist for the show is Mark Scout (Adam Scott), known only as Mark S. while inside the world of Lumon. We learn that Mark was moved to join Lumon out of grief for his deceased wife. In his old life, he had been a history professor, married to a professor of Russian literature, but when she died, Mark couldn’t bring himself to teach anymore. Needing some kind of work, though, the only thing available to him in his condition would be a job where it wouldn't be possible for him to grieve; a job where not only would he not know his wife had died, but a job where he wouldn't remember having been married at all. The show makes an effective case for how someone could talk themselves into opting for severance. It may not be the most healthy or helpful way for Mark to process his grief, but it may be the only way for him to pay his bills while he heals. The show also does a great job of exploring how terrible life would be for the part of the severed employees that still have to go to work every day. Even if we were to take away the more mysterious elements of the show, like whatever it actually is that Lumon Industries does, or whatever their long term plans actually are, or why everything at Lumon is so strikingly odd, it does still seem like life as a severed employee would be some kind of nightmare existence; an experience that not too subtly mimics the very worst feelings of working at any toxic and aimless dead end office job. In the language of the show, the part of the employee that actually experiences work is referred to as an "innie," and they know the other parts of themselves as their "outie." Interestingly, only the innie needs this kind of language, because they understand their identity as being wholly dependent upon their outer self, while the outie doesn’t have any reason to think of their innie as being in any way significant to their identity. While the outie shows up at work, blinks, and then goes home; the life of the innie happens in that blink. They finish one workday, they blink, and then start another one, without weekends, sick days, or vacations. There is only work and any thoughts of quitting would be a decision for their outie to make for them. In one sense, the innie is something like the outie’s child, brought into the world without their consent, and at the mercy of their outie for their survival. The nature of this existence informs a lot of how Lumon structures the severed employees' environment. Besides whatever nefarious motivations Lumon may have to keep employees in their positions, it would also be cruel and unproductive to let the employees know too much about the world and lives they will never get to experience for themselves. The workspaces for the severed employees have no windows, there are no televisions or phones, there is no internet, and they cannot contact their outie selves or anyone at all outside the hermetically sealed world of their job. For many of the reasons that would motivate their outie to become severed in the first place, it would be impossible to get an innie to do their work if they truly understood how much they were being deprived of by their work-life situation. Thus, life inside Lumon, specifically inside the one department where we spend most of our time, Macrodata Refinement, is incredibly regulated. All inputs and stimuli are incredibly controlled and sanitized to eliminate FOMO and maximize productivity. Like the very worst corporate environments, the only culture allowed is one that is intended to yield obedient, dutiful, and enthusiastic employees. The only book allowed is the employee manual, and the only decor is provided by the optics and design department at Lumon Industries. Where the show picks up, we meet Mark S. as a loyal cog in the Lumon cult of industry, unaware of what else there is to be, but the engine of the show is seeing what happens when outside elements begin to breach this isolated ecosystem. Now, all of this setup has been to talk about one particular part of the show. This is a minor spoiler if you haven’t seen all of the first season yet, but, to me, the most interesting of these breaches into life at Lumon is a self-help book called, The You You Are, that accidentally finds its way into the Macrodata Refinement offices. The book happens to be written by Mark Scout’s brother-in-law, Dr. Ricken Lazlo Hale (Michael Chernus). Ricken is one of the most interesting characters in the series to me. In the view of Mark in the outside world, Ricken is a pretentious buffoon. Compared to the rest of the characters in the show, it’s almost cartoonish how much of a parody of a new age self-help guru he is. As written, Ricken sometimes comes off as almost too over the top to fit in with the rest of the outer world of the show. He wouldn't be that out of place as a broadly comedic character in a Mike Schur show like Parks and Recreation or The Good Place. At the same time, because of how devoid of culture life inside Lumon is, the cliched and pretentious self-help claptrap in Ricken’s book is literally revolutionary for the workers in Macrodata Refinement. Finally given something other than empty, loyalty-focused, corporate speak, Mark and his fellow innies become sufficiently self-actualized by reading Ricken’s book for them to actually be motivated to try and better their circumstances, whatever the very real consequences for them might ultimately be. I love this contrast, that in the outside world Mark good-naturedly looks down his nose at this brother-in-law, while inside Lumon, Mark has an awed reverence for this towering intellect that has completely opened his eyes to a whole wide world of possibilities. Neither is the whole truth of the matter. Ricken is being seen in two diametrically opposed ways by two people who are actually the same person, and the show is confident enough not to hold the audience's hand telling them what to think about this. The very first words of the show come from a voice that we don’t yet know belongs to Mark S., asking a newly severed employee who is just coming to their senses on a conference room table, “Who are you?” And we learn shortly after that the correct answer to that question is, “I don’t know.” The main story of the show is interested in much bigger mysteries, but those all build off of much smaller questions about what makes someone who they are. Are Mark and Mark S. two different people sharing one body? Throughout the show, talking about an outie deciding to quit their job at Lumon is as if they were ending the life of their innie. We get one storyline of a character trying to reintegrate their severed selves to disastrous effects. It’ll be interesting to see if the show ultimately comes to a definitive answer to this question. In the case of Ricken, we get a character that isn’t severed but who is seen in numerous different ways. The audience is on outie Mark’s side that Ricken is a buffoon, but it’s not just innie Mark that sees him differently. We have a higher opinion of him from Mark’s sister, and she has her husband's back. The people who come to Mark’s book reading seem genuinely interested in what he has to say, and during a break at the book reading, we see Ricken being self-critical in a way that suggests more personal depth than had been previously suggested. Like with Mark, it’s not clear that we’re meant to take Ricken, or anyone in the show, as having a true and uncomplicated self. Or, maybe I'm overthinking this. It may not be an accident that the writer of this article is so interested in the pretentious writer character in this series. I love that this show invites these kinds of takes though, and I look forward to seeing how all of the show’s complicated characters unfold in seasons to come. Damian Masterson Damian is an endothermic vertebrate with a large four-chambered heart residing in Kerhonkson, NY with his wife and two children. His dream Jeopardy categories would be: They Might Be Giants, Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, 18th and 19th Century Ethical Theory, Moral Psychology, Caffeine, Gummy Candies, and Episode-by-Episode podcasts about TV shows that have been off the air for at least 10 years.

  • Good Luck to Us All

    A Review of Good Luck to You, Leo Grande. It’s real damn hard being a person. For everyone. Everywhere. At least, sometimes. It’s hard in its own way for everyone, and it can be unfathomably harder for some than others, but it’s always, at a minimum, hard. Even that person you may already be thinking of, who has seemingly gotten all the things they’ve ever wanted, without pain or hardship, even they have to contend with everything they hold dear being temporary; even they have to contend with, however much they may enjoy the life they have, the awareness of all the lives they didn’t get to lead, all the opportunities they’ve had to pass up, and that the idea that eventually, all things must pass. The challenge to talking about these unpleasant truths, to telling stories about the entropy of life, is to find a way to treat those things seriously and to also convey how joyful life can still be. Good Luck to You, Leo Grande is the story of an older woman that we know for most of the movie as Nancy (Emma Thompson), a name she has assumed because she has hired a male sex worker, Leo (Daryl McCormack), who is also working under an assumed name. Nancy has come to realize, since the death of her husband, how impoverished their sex life had been, and she’s looking to rectify that while she still has time. This desire for adventurous sex is sincere and serves as the engine of the story, but the film is also quite overtly about a kind of general dissatisfaction with one’s life that primarily comes just from being older, And not even older in the sense we usually mean. Nancy, assuming she’s about the same age as the actress portraying her, is in her early 60s, in good health, with seemingly full use of her mind and body. The conflict for her isn’t things she wants to do that her body won’t let her do anymore, but rather the things she wishes she could do and experience now, if only she had made different choices in her life to date. It is a story about connection and need and aging and second chances and finality, told over a series of intimate encounters in a hotel room between Nancy and Leo Leo is a fascinating character in the story, given how integral he is to Nancy’s character arc, yet also being largely inaccessible to the audience. We are given the impression of a man who greatly enjoys the work he does, trying to find ways to connect with people in order to give them the fantasies that they’ve paid for. But, because that is his job, and we can plainly see that he is quite good at it, almost everything we see of Leo is being mediated through a performance he is being paid to give. He may be being genuine with Nancy, which may be a necessity to be as good at his job as he is, but like A.I.’s Gigolo Joe, he has to transform for each of his clients to fit the needs of their particular fantasy. Leo reveals parts of his life that seem true, but the only moment we get with him where we can feel confident that we are seeing something of the real him is when Nancy reveals that she has researched him, learning his real name, and breaching his professional anonymity. At that moment, he rages at Nancy, making cutting comments that are informed by her intimacy with him, and he storms out of the hotel room, asking her not to contact him again. They will reconcile for the film's final act, but again, we can’t say that we are seeing anything more of him than his professional mask. Even if we take Leo as being wholly sincere, he doesn’t have much of an arc in the film because he is already young and self-actualized. He has lingering unresolved issues with his family around his work, but he is enthusiastically doing what he wants to do and helping others do the things that they want to do. He has a small character arc in that he does eventually confide in Nancy that he did tell his brother what he actually does for a living, but otherwise, he doesn’t change much because he doesn’t need to. He is living the life he wants and he already has that feeling that Nancy’s after, that feeling that everything is still ahead of him, because it is. Nancy comes to Leo because she is struggling with having reached her age. I could add an ‘and’ there, but at its heart, it’s really just that. All else aside, there are points when we age when we see the things that are and are not behind us, and what is or is not still ahead of us, and those realizations can be hard. Nancy, while trying to articulate to Leo what it is exactly that she’s after, says that she doesn’t want to be young again. She has enough sense to remember that being young is a trial all of its own. What she wants is the feeling of being young. The feeling of still having everything ahead of you. This is a desire we all will become ever more familiar with as we age, and the pleasure of this film is that it finds an honest and useful way to depict how we might contend with that desire in a healthy way, without ever pretending that we could ever achieve the actual feeling that Nancy is after. We would be delusional if we were to convince ourselves that we could feel that young again, but we can always feed that feeling that at least there are some things worth looking forward to that are still ahead of us. Right now, wherever we are in our lives, we are living in a comparative youth that we will one day look back upon fondly, and there are still things to do, and see, and choose that we won’t be able to later. We may see the lines and blemishes in the mirror that weren't there before, but we will one day be nostalgic for the way we look today. There are opportunities and experiences that are closed to us now, but one day, we will look back warmly at the opportunities that were still before us. There is a reductive sense in which we could say that the film's message is just one of carpe diem, but more at work here is making peace with the dwindling kinds and number of diems we have left to carpe. Emma Thompson gives us a pretty fearless performance. She’s willing to let Nancy be complicated, and we don’t always sympathize with her as she complains about her husband, and children, and students. She lets us take a long, lingering look at her 63-year-old naked body, but to see it as an alive and still sexual object. Something like Rodin’s ‘The Old Courtesan,’ a woman whose body has aged but is still part of a continuum with all the younger selves she once was. It’s not played for laughs, or drama, which would each give Thompson something to hide within. Instead, it’s something more immediate and visceral. This is simply a defenses view of what a 63-year-old woman looks like. It’s interesting that Nancy, in her old life, was a religious education teacher, in part charged with teaching children about the morality around sex and how women ought to present themselves. We now watch her experience her own re-education, and having to grapple with how she might have led her student astray. This point is brought home with the third character in the film. We spend most of the running time with just Nancy and Leo, but in the final scene, while Nancy is trying to make amends with Leo for violating his privacy, she’s waiting for him in the hotel bar, and she is unexpectedly waited on by one of her former students, Becky (Isabella Laughland). Initially, Nancy spars with Becky. Perhaps Nancy’s just being defensive, having run into someone that knows the real her while she’s waiting for her assignation with Leo. Perhaps there is something triggering for Nancy in Becky’s comparative youth, a feeling that perhaps informed her previous relationship with her students. But, Nancy has grown. Before she and Leo leave to head upstairs, she stops to tell Becky exactly what she’s come to the hotel for and that she was wrong to teach her the things she did about female sexuality. It’s not said explicitly, but while Nancy is seizing the day in regards to her own needs, staking a claim on what will make her happy, she’s also stopping to do what she can to make sure that Becky doesn’t make the same mistake with her life. The time goes quick, so whenever possible, make an effort to seize joy where you can, and don’t let anyone tell you different. Damian Masterson Damian is an endothermic vertebrate with a large four-chambered heart residing in Kerhonkson, NY with his wife and two children. His dream Jeopardy categories would be: They Might Be Giants, Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, 18th and 19th Century Ethical Theory, Moral Psychology, Caffeine, Gummy Candies, and Episode-by-Episode podcasts about TV shows that have been off the air for at least 10 years.

  • Let’s Put on a Show!

    The Muppet Movie is a consciously meta work of art. It’s the story of how a bunch of weirdos found their people, and came together to make a film; being told by a bunch of weirdos who found their people, and came together to make a film; being told by a bunch of weirdos who found their people and came together to make a film. The framing device of the film is that The Muppets we all know and love are settling into a theater to watch the movie they’ve just made - their first, which tells something like the story of how they found one another and came to Hollywood to become ‘rich and famous.’ That film within a film, begins with Kermit the Frog sitting on a log in a swamp, strumming his banjo and singing one of the better songs to ever open a film, “Rainbow Connection;” and concludes, with Kermit having collected his troupe, the Muppets signing their rich and famous contract, and, now on their very own soundstage, proceeding to create the story we’ve just watched. All of this culminates in a musical finale, being sung while, in typically anarchic Muppet fashion, their film sets collapse all around them, leaving the audience with this final message: “Life’s like a movie Write your own ending Keep believing, Keep pretending. We’ve done just what we set out to do. Thanks to the lovers, the dreamers, and you” The film is so knowingly self-aware that, more than once, part of what moves the plot forward is the characters in the film reading the screenplay of the film that they are currently living through in order to figure out what to do next. Beyond The Muppets themselves, though, we can delve even one layer further, because of how much the story of Kermit and friends also doubles as the story of Jim Henson and his friends, and how Jim started out as a kid in Mississippi, and went on to collect his own bunch of weirdos to create the world and characters and stories that we’ve been enjoying all of these years. This idea is highlighted a bit by that chaotic musical finale mentioned above. The scene winds up being a bit of a mid-career capstone to everything Henson had done up to that point. As the final song swells, we pull back to see more Muppets than had ever been on screen before - not just the characters from the film we’ve been watching, but also characters from most of the projects Jim and company had done to date. By one account, 250 Muppet characters appear in the scene, from projects like Sesame Street, Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas, and even the Muppets from The Land of Gorch sketches that Jim did for the first season of Saturday Night Live. Much of the Muppet production family is on screen, or at least their Muppet clad arms, because of just how many capable puppeteers Jim needed in order to pull this scene off. In the film, we’re seeing something of Kermit’s dream come true, as he is surrounded by everyone that helped get him there, while in reality we’re also seeing something of Jim Henson’s own Hollywood dream come true, as he too is surrounded by everyone that helped him get there. The Muppet Movie was made on the heels of the breakthrough success of The Muppet Show, the TV program that ran for five seasons starting in 1976. The show was an unexpected phenomenon when it launched, but hardly an overnight success for Jim Henson, as it debuted over 20 years after his first tv performance as an 18 year old puppeteer on The Junior Morning Show in 1954. It’s interesting to go back to watch Jim’s earliest work because you can see how much of his voice and sense of humor were already present, along with the novel look and feel of his expressive fabric hand puppets. But you can also see how much had yet to be filled in, too. His wife, Jane Henson, was already working with him early on, but it was a while before Jim collected other familiar voices like Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, Richard Hunt, or Dave Goelz to bounce off of; Or someone like Jerry Juhl to write with; Or a master craftsman like Don Sahlin to build Muppets and creatures for him; Or someone like Paul Williams to write songs for him; and so on, and so on. It took decades of collecting and playing with these kinds of weirdos, working with them all, over and over again, before Jim evolved The Muppets into the cultural institution they would become; An outcome that would have been impossible for Jim working alone. The actual plot of The Muppet Movie is a bit of a curiosity in how besides the point it ends up being. The film is built from scenes and songs that are strung together to get the audience from Kermit’s swamp to that Hollywood soundstage, but the film’s priority is always having fun and being entertaining in the moment, as opposed to obsessing over how those scenes tie together. Paul Williams has even commented on how Jim didn’t even want to hear the songs he was writing while they were still in progress, trusting that Williams would do his best work without needless interference, and that it wouldn’t be a problem to find a way to make whatever he came up with work within the film. Jim’s underlying idea seemed to be that, if all the pieces worked and were entertaining on their own, then the whole film would work, regardless of any minor mismatches and inconsistencies. That bears out, as the film does hang together just fine, but it’s interesting to actually break down those pieces to see some of the fraying at the edges. The points I’m going to make may wind up sounding like criticisms, but I do think everything in the film works like gangbusters independent of these quibbles, and I only bring them up to make a larger point about why I think the film works anyway. At the beginning of the film, Kermit is singing his ‘I want’ song, “Rainbow Connection,” in his swamp, however, based on that song, Kermit isn’t really thinking about anything like going to Hollywood until the Hollywood agent inexplicably rowing through his swamp happens upon him and tells Kermit about the upcoming auditions for frogs interested in being rich and famous. There’s even some hesitancy on Kermit’s part, as the idea of being ‘rich and famous’ doesn’t get him to jump, but the idea of making millions of people happy does. So, he sets out for Hollywood. Kermit interrupts his trip almost immediately to stop at a dive bar - ostensibly to eat, although he never gets around to doing that - where he comes upon Fozzie Bear bombing in front of an increasingly angry audience. Kermit jumps on stage to help him out, but fails spectacularly, making the audience even angrier. The new duo flee the bar to climb into Fozzie’s Studebaker, and hit the road together. Fozzie even makes a joke about how little reflection it takes him to decide to join up with Kermit. It’s what the plot demands, though, so on we go. Now Kermit and the troupe aren’t just traveling to Hollywood; They’re being pursued. Early in the story, shortly after beginning his journey, Kermit is spotted by Doc Hopper, the owner of a chain of restaurants specializing in deep fried frog’s legs. Over the course of the film, Doc Hopper becomes increasingly obsessed with the idea that if Kermit was his restaurant’s mascot, he could grow his business into a nationwide chain. It’s not exactly a coherent plan, but it is an effective plot engine to lend some stakes and urgency to Kermit’s quest, while also being overtly silly enough to make clear that neither this device, nor anything in the film really, ought to be taken all that seriously. After connecting with Fozzie, the two of them come across the all Muppet band, The Electric Mayhem, who are practicing in an abandoned seeming church. In lieu of bringing the band members up to speed on what they’ve been through so far, Kermit and Fozzie give the band a copy of the screenplay to the movie, which they read while Kermit and Fozzie nap. The band learns that Kermit and Fozzie are being pursued by Doc Hopper. To help the duo evade Doc Hopper, the band decides to give Fozzie’s car a psychedelic makeover, accompanied by a music montage with the song, “Can You Picture That.” Like Kermit’s plan to rescue Fozzie from the angry crowd, this plan also fails spectacularly as immediately after leaving the Electric Mayhem behind to continue their journey, they are instantaneously spotted by Doc Hopper. All of the scenes of the film have this kind of self-contained consequence-free vibe. Kermit and Fozzie meet Gonzo by crashing their car into his, only for his car to flip perfectly on top of theirs. Gonzo climbs down from his car into theirs and immediately joins up with them on their journey. They go on to meet Miss Piggy by seeing her winning a beauty pageant at a local fair, but it’s never mentioned why they’re interrupting their trip to stop at the fair in the first place. Miss Piggy and Kermit go out for a date that night, just the two of them. Piggy leaves to take a phone call, seemingly abandoning Kermit, which allows him to meet piano playing Rowlf the Dog, who will also go on to join their troupe with little discussion. Miss Piggy didn’t ditch Kermit, she was actually kidnapped by Doc Hopper. Kermit goes to rescue Piggy and is captured himself. The pair are tied up, and Kermit is doomed to have his brain scrambled by the Nazi-seeming doctor that Doc Hopper has secured to force Kermit to be his mascot. When Kermit is being taken to the machine that will scramble his brains, Piggy gets a surge a emotion that allows her to break free of her bonds and single handedly defeats all of Doc Hopper’s henchman, raising the question of why she couldn’t have just done that sooner. The moment the two of them are free, Piggy gets another call from her agent, and she unceremoniously takes off to film a commercial to end the scene on a laugh. Their separation is very short, as they’re reunited only moments later, when Kermit and the troupe see her unexpectedly hitchhiking on the side of the road. What’s happened in the interim is not explained, but she gets in the car and immediately rejoins the troop. They’re on the last leg of their trip, seemingly with a clear path to Hollywood, when Fozzie’s car breaks down, stranding the troupe. They build a campfire, feeling forlorn that they’re going to miss the auditions, Kermit in particular struggles with the idea that he’s let himself and everyone down. Structurally and tonally, it’s a scene that makes sense going into the final act of the film, but its resolution is The Electric Mayhem showing up to rescue them, having read the script from earlier. Again, everyone takes to the road, but we still need to wrap up the storyline with Doc Hopper. Kermit agrees to face him in a conveniently located old west ghost town. Before Doc Hopper and his gang arrive, Kermit and company meet Beaker and Bunson Honeydew, who have set up a laboratory in this old west town to work on inventions. Kermit goes out to stand up to Doc Hopper, and he makes a fine speech illuminating the importance of having friends and following your dreams, and that if Doc Hopper is going to stand in the way of Kermit following his dreams, he might as well just kill him. And, again, like most everything Kermit has set out to do in the film, his plan fails. Doc Hopper orders his men to kill Kermit, but Kermit is rescued by a last minute Deus ex Muppet as Animal, who has gotten into Bunson’s insta-grow pills, briefly grows taller than the buildings of the ghost town, scaring Doc Hopper and his men away. Unencumbered, the group heads off again, finally making it to Hollywood. I go through all of this, not in a nitpicking way, to say that nothing that happens in the film matters to the story. Because there is one decisive choice that Kermit and the characters make again and again throughout the course of the film that is very important. Every time Kermit encounters a new character that wants to join him, however odd they might be, he welcomes them with open arms. In that sense, the decision that friends are the family that you get to choose, he chooses these weirdos over and over again. And they choose one another. They all sign onto Kermit’s dream, and it becomes their dream. They’re all heading to this place where they’ll get to make things together that they hope will make other people happy. In many ways, despite some occasional creakiness, The Muppet Movie, winds up being the purest and most successfully executed project of Jim Henson’s career because of how well it understands the themes it’s working with, and so, it perfectly reflects the sensibilities of both Jim Henson and The Muppets. A big part of what has made The Muppet Movie so relatable and loveable, for so many, for so long, is how strongly the themes of the film echo the very same motivations that animated the lives of the people behind the scenes: finding and accepting your people, chasing your dreams while helping others chase theirs, and reveling in any opportunity to put on a show. Damian Masterson Damian is an endothermic vertebrate with a large four-chambered heart residing in Kerhonkson, NY with his wife and two children. His dream Jeopardy categories would be: They Might Be Giants, Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, 18th and 19th Century Ethical Theory, Moral Psychology, Caffeine, Gummy Candies, and Episode-by-Episode podcasts about TV shows that have been off the air for at least 10 years.

  • "Bluey" is the Best Show on Right Now

    One of my family’s most pleasant surprises last December was that, unexpectedly, for about a week or so, you could find iffy quality uploads of a few scattered episodes from the newest season of the Australian children’s show, Bluey, on YouTube. The deliberately odd formatting of these videos made them a little annoying to watch, but that also likely helped keep them from being immediately found and taken down by an algorithm. I warned my kids before I let them watch any of the episodes that this was probably a very short-term occurrence and that they shouldn’t get too attached to these because they were sure to be taken down in a few days, if not hours. Just the same, we burned through all of the episodes we could find that night before bed and kept rotating through them over the next few days until they were finally taken down. If you haven’t seen Bluey, I could imagine this behavior seeming odd, but I’m pretty sure anyone who has seen the show would understand. Unexpectedly, these 8-minute episodes about an anthropomorphic family of Australian cattle dogs named The Heelers, make up one of the best shows on TV. Not one of the best kid’s shows, but one of the best shows, full stop. Like an all-ages Ted Lasso, Bluey is a genuinely funny and emotionally-intelligent show that works for audiences from preschool age and up. It’s hard to overstate just how much of a creative feat that is. How good is Bluey? The morning the new season finally dropped on Disney+, I didn’t wait for my kids to wake up before I started watching the new episodes on my own. There are three episodes from season 3 that I want to take a close look at to tease out some of the elements of this show that I think help explain why I think it’s the best show on at the moment. In the episode, “Omelette,” Mum, Bluey, and Bingo are planning to make breakfast in bed for Dad’s birthday. Mum has everything for the morning planned, with each of the children having a task to keep themselves busy, while she takes care of making breakfast. Bluey will take care of preparing the tray for the food, and Bingo will make Dad a birthday card. Where things go awry is that Bingo already has the card ready and wants to help mom make breakfast. One of the more real and regular challenges of parenting is in navigating children that want to do things they aren’t able to yet. On one hand, as a parent, you want to be there to help teach your child how to do things, but often working against that desire is just how much easier and faster it would be to do the thing yourself without making it a teaching moment. If you envision how this scene would go down on some PBS KIDS' show, like Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, the beats of the story would be something like: (1) Daniel would like to help mom; (2) Unflustered mom would happily let him help; (3) Daniel would make some small mistake, which mom would correct, teaching him a lesson about mistakes being a part of learning; and then (4) mom and Daniel would finish the task together without further incident. And there is a place for that kind of lesson, but Bluey opts to do something different. The show doesn’t hide that Mum isn’t thrilled that Bingo wants to help, but she’s game to let Bingo try. Bingo drops half the eggs while getting them from the fridge, and lets another one roll off the table. She scatters most of the bowls over the kitchen floor, getting the one they need to mix the eggs, and then, after pleading to help crack the eggs, she covers herself and mum in yolk. At this point, Mum kindly tells Bingo that it would be best if she finished up on her own. Bingo’s a little sad, but understands, and Mum knows this is the best way to finish quickly. Bingo moves over to play with the breakfast tray, to which Mum is half listening to while she works on quickly whipping together breakfast. The game Bingo is playing is with a pair of knight salt and pepper shakers on dad’s breakfast tray with a glass of orange juice playing the role of the queen. The scene is a heartbreaking reinterpretation of what just transpired for Bingo while trying to help make breakfast. One knight wants to come with the other knight to help guard the queen, but the second knight explains to the first that they aren’t really a proper guard, and it would be best if they stayed behind, and the second knight accepts this. Bingo isn’t especially emoting while playing the game, but this kind of play is how kids actually process their feelings and frustrations. Bingo isn’t sniffling back tears, because she understands the lesson: she may want to help, but she’ll just slow Mum down, so it’s better if she keeps out of Mum’s way. Mum sees all of this play out and recognizes she can’t let that lesson stand. She sets aside the breakfast she just finished making, and tells Bingo that it isn’t quite right and that she needs her help. We get a quick montage of Bingo helping and all of the disasters repeat again: dropped food, egg yolk everywhere, two separate trips over to neighbors to borrow more eggs, and the final product is a shell-ridden mess. But, it’s a success. A completely believable success. Unlike with our hypothetical Daniel Tiger episode, you get an ending that actually makes you feel something because the outcome actually feels more true to life; the kid that wants to help probably isn’t going to do a great job, and it’ll take more time and resources than planned, and the final result is going to be far from perfect, but it’s the kind of experience every kid needs, and every parent is fated to endure. The second episode I want to look at is called “Sheepdog.” In it, we get a parenting moment more real than anything I’ve ever seen on a kid's show. Mum is in the kitchen, cleaning and solo parenting, while Dad is out getting a haircut. Bluey wants Mum to listen to her loudly play a song on her recorder, while Bingo is telling Mum an endless string of incoherent knock-knock jokes. This is already pretty true to life, but it takes an unexpected step when Bandit arrives home, and through almost gritted teeth an overwhelmed Mum tells Dad in front of the kids, “I need twenty minutes where no one comes near me.” I don’t know a set of parents that haven’t had this exchange, and I don’t know another children’s show that could get away with depicting it. The rest of the episode is Dad doing everything he can to keep the kids occupied so that they will leave Mum alone, and failing repeatedly, while Bluey is trying to wrap her head around the idea of Mum sometimes needing a break from them, and that it doesn't mean that Mum doesn’t love them. Parenting is relentless. Even if most days are great, it’s a grind, and it’s impossible to keep kids from ever seeing the strain. But, you’re never going to see Daniel Tiger’s parents have to apologize to him for losing their temper, or need to walk away from him for a few minutes to regroup. Bluey can do that though because their crazy tonal alchemy lets them have a story beat like this without it having to be a very special moment, or something traumatizing to young kids. They are able to surround a moment like this with jokes and a good enough payoff to the episode to let the lesson being told go down smoothly. The last episode I want to talk about is “Rain.” This is an almost entirely silent episode. Bluey and Mum are on the porch saying goodbye to Dad and Bingo as they pull out of the driveway. There’s a rumble of thunder and rain, and the score is all we hear for the rest of the episode. A core feature of a lot of children’s shows is they usually have a fairly rigid structure. Sometimes, the structure is just that all of the episodes unfold in kind of the same way, with the same catchphrases, but in the case of a show like Bubble Guppies, every episode is rigidly broken down into smaller segments that recur every week, in the same order, to help hold a kid’s attention. It’s a comparatively big swing for Bluey to attempt a silent episode, but they manage to put together something funny, joyful, and beautiful, that plays for a preschool audience, and they pull it all off in just 7 minutes. When the rain comes, Mum runs to gather the laundry that’s outside drying, while Bluey runs to play in the rain. We watch a stream of water start to form that runs down the side of the front walk, and Bluey invents for herself a game of trying to block the stream from going down the walk. A typical children’s game, thought of on a whim, with no real stakes other than the deathly serious end of keeping the game going. On Bluey’s end, she keeps coming up with things to try to stop the water, while Mum progresses from the parent mode of trying to keep Bluey from tracking water into the house, to becoming bemused, and then becoming invested in watching Bluey’s game unfold. There are two kickers to this episode. The first is the one you might expect, Bluey can’t actually block the water on her own. She’s stretched out herself and every toy and towel she has, and the stream of water is swelling up to pass her, but just in the knick of time Mum comes out with an umbrella to help her block the rest of the walkway. Mum even sets down her umbrella to use her hands to block the parts that her feet can’t reach. They’ve done it. The rain stops. The water’s receding and they watch a double rainbow form in the newly clear sky. They move to make their way inside, but the sky starts to darken again. The sky opens up, and the episode ends with them exchanging a look before running back to their spot to reform their dam. The thing that this episode captures beautifully is seeing the parent all but disappear, leaving viewers watching a kid and a "kid at heart" play together. No parent ever truly feels as old as they are, and you can see that best when they lose themselves playing with their kid. Mum isn’t running back to their dam out of some sense of obligation to play with her kid, she is bought in entirely on the game she and her playmate were playing and she can’t wait to get back to it. Part of why Bluey works so smashingly for parents as well as kids is because of how well it recognizes how parents often are, in so very many ways, just really big kids themselves. It’s this spirit of play that ties together everything Bluey does. A small criticism that the show has received is that the parents, especially Dad, set an impossibly high bar for their willingness to throw themselves entirely into child-directed play, but the show plays with that idea in a healthy way, too. They do often show dad so wholeheartedly committed to some activity that it makes you want to up your own game as a parent, but it also shows Dad feeling too tired to play, or too embarrassed to go all out because another dad can see him, or sometimes he is just screwing around on his phone while the kids amuse themselves. One episode is even built around the conceit of Mum and Dad being too wiped out to play because they played a little too hard at a New Year's Eve party the night before. Mum and Dad are world-class playmates, but the show doesn’t hide that even for them, it’s sometimes a grind to keep up with their kids. The show just gets play in a deep way. It largely avoids the kind of magical realism other shows employ, where the main action is taking place in some kind of imagined world. The games being played are in the real world, and can all be replicated by the audience at home if they are so inclined. The show also gets the role that play holds in our lives, not just for kids and parents, but for everybody. Play is something kids do to amuse themselves and fill time, but it’s also the best way for them to learn something, process ideas and emotions they are struggling with, make friends outside their family, and, maybe most importantly, play is something that we never outgrow whether we recognize it or not. What makes Bluey so special is that it’s not merely a kid’s show that parents can watch too, but a funny show for literally everyone, that reflects both the kind of play kids want, and the kind of play that grownups may have forgotten that they often still want, too. Damian Masterson Staff Writer Damian is an endothermic vertebrate with a large four-chambered heart residing in Kerhonkson, NY with his wife and two children. His dream Jeopardy categories would be: They Might Be Giants, Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, 18th and 19th-Century Ethical Theory, Moral Psychology, Caffeine, Gummy Candies, and Episode-by-Episode podcasts about TV shows that have been off the air for at least 10 years.

  • La, La, LaaAAHHHHHHHH!!!

    The Gory Joy of the Horror Musical I rarely watch traditional horror films. I’m a poor audience for a lot of what they’re aiming for. Perhaps at its most oversimplified, a horror film is thought to be looking to scare its audience, to really frighten people, and, honestly, sometimes even traumatize them. There can be value in that. The phrase ‘emotional roller coaster’ is a cliche, particularly when applied to films, but it’s still a good way to capture something of what’s going on when someone is watching a scary movie. Rollercoasters and horror films are a safe way to take your brain for a ride, to play with feelings and experiences you wouldn’t ever want as part of your day-to-day life. Horror as a genre can be more than just scares, though, and some rides can still be fun without being extreme. Recognizing that I am hypersensitive to people in realistic pain or distress, a lot of horror films are just off the table for me altogether. Not all of them though. Unless you’re the hardest-core horror purest, there is still plenty of room to play with the experiences of the horror genre without dialing up that visceral discomfort up to eleven. A pretty good example of this is the horror comedy, which I will discuss briefly in a moment, but an even better example for me would be one of my very favorite horror sub-genres which I’ll be discussing at greater length: the horror musical. Genre can get pretty fuzzy at its boundaries. Looking at a film like Young Frankenstein, it’s pretty clear that it’s a straight comedy and not a horror comedy. It’s playing with horror elements, but it’s an unambiguous spoof of horror films themselves, without playing with any of the feelings that horror movies are trying to evoke. Cabin in the Woods, on the other hand, is more straightforwardly a horror comedy because, besides being funny, it’s also genuinely scary in parts, and it is deliberately playing with ideas and images that make people uncomfortable. Perhaps the most well-known horror musical is The Rocky Horror Picture Show, but it is also a case, like with Young Frankenstein, where it is not entirely clear whether it should be considered a horror musical or just a musical sendup of classic horror and sci-fi films. While much of the film is silly and camp, there are a few sequences that are disturbing in a way that would otherwise derail a straight comedy. We’re aiming to be light on spoilers here, but, besides the bleak ending, there is a gory ax murder and a somewhat infamous dinner sequence, that are each disturbing enough to signal that the film is pursuing something more than just straight comedy. This seems like a useful benchmark for identifying what distinguishes a horror musical from a more traditional musical: that it’s deliberately playing with ideas and images that would be likely to turn off all but a horror-friendly audience. There can also be a reductive impulse to think of all horror musicals as being horror comedies, but that doesn’t have to be the case. You might laugh at some moments in Tim Burton’s adaptation of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, but it’s largely a nasty and brutal piece of work. Adding music is generally antithetical to realism, but in Sweeney Todd, there are moments that hit all the harder because of how much they stand in contrast to the songs. Of particular note is the juxtaposition of Johnny Depp’s Todd singing as he slices a passive customer’s throat and fluidly slides their body from his barber chair down a trapdoor in his floor, set against the extremely realistic sound of that 200 lb body hitting the hard basement floor below. That sickly squelching thump of human meat and bone hitting the ground sticks with me as much as anything I’ve seen in any traditional horror film. Sweeney Todd is a lot of things, but what scenes like this make clear is that it is most certainly not a comedy. It’s these sorts of ideas I’ll have in the back of my head as I’m examining what I think some of the most effective horror musicals are. I’m looking at musicals with good songs, but that also have some demented bend to the stories they’re trying to tell. The importance of the music being solid throughout can’t be underestimated. Interrupting the narrative is risky, and to do so for a song that falls flat is riskier still. It doesn’t take much to lose an audience altogether. Think of the fairly baffling song, “Cheer Up, Charlie,” from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (not a horror musical, but my goodness would it not take much to recut it into one), a slow maudlin song that all but brings the film to a standstill as it’s simply underlining for the audience an idea that the narrative has already made more effectively. As mentioned above, The Rocky Horror Picture Show may be the most well-known horror musical. In it, a recently engaged couple gets a flat tire on a rainy night and picks the wrong house to go to for help. Adapted from a highly successful stage show, the film is famous for having been a flop upon its release before developing the cultiest of cult followings. Around the country, as Halloween approaches, theaters make plans to show the film, sometimes with shadow cast on hand to act out the film at the same time, with the more adventurous theaters also providing props to the audience for their participation. Lots of other culty films have developed lesser versions of this kind of following, but they’re all following a template first laid out by the Rocky Horror fandom. I’ve written about The Rocky Horror Picture Show twice before. Once as part of a career retrospective article on the film’s star, Tim Curry, and again in an article noting similarities between it and Sunset Boulevard. It’s a film I have a lot of fondness for, coming back to it every Fall. Few people have been as good at anything as Tim Curry is here as Dr. Frank-n-furter, and few experiences feel more like Halloween to me than seeing this film with a live cast. Though perhaps a little less well-known, what may actually be the best horror musical is another film I’ve written about before, 1986’s Little Shop of Horrors. Continuing a theme, this was also adapted from a stage production, written by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken. Adapted from the ultra-low budget (and unexpectedly great) 1960 Roger Corman film of the same name, where a stock boy, named Seymour Krelborn, working at a Skid Row florist, finds a strange and unusual plant with strange and unusual appetites. Things start to go right for Seymour when he starts giving the plant what it wants but starts to unravel as he has to go to ever greater lengths to satisfy the plant's hunger. Ashman and Menken are both musical and musical theater royalty due to their collaborations here, as well as on The Little Mermaid, Beauty & The Beast, and Aladdin; and it’s the quality of the music that most sets Little Shop of Horrors apart from other horror musicals, working in numerous musical styles and delivering lyrics that can swing widely between, poignant, funny, sweet, and sinister. The standout of the otherwise star-studded cast is Ellen Greene, reprising the role of Audrey that she had originated on stage. Also working in the film’s favor is Frank Oz as the perfect director for the practical effects and puppetry the film required, in his first non-Muppet project, along with supporting appearances from the likes of Steve Martin, Bill Murray, and John Candy. My favorite horror musical, and a significant motivation for writing this article, is the criminally under-seen, Reefer Madness: The Musical. Again, a stage adaptation, this time loosely riffing on the anti-drug propaganda film from 1936, Reefer Madness. Starring Alan Cumming, Kristen Bell, and Christian Campbell, part of the film being somewhat lost to time is that it premiered on cable on Showtime, and had an extremely limited theatrical run. The original Reefer Madness has itself long become a cult film because of how hyperbolic of a morality play it is about the dangers of marijuana use. This musical adaptation raises those extremes to even more absurdist heights. Where the original saw weed turning kids into zonked-out zombies, the opening number of this film sees kids in the grip of marijuana being turned into literal bloodthirsty zombies out to eat their parents. Christian Campbell and Kristen Bell play Jimmy Harper and Mary Lane, two all-American high school kids whose budding romance crumbles as Jimmy falls into a depraved marijuana addiction that captures Mary Lane as well when she tries to save him. Tony award-winning Cumming is unbelievable in multiple roles here, and it will never get old hearing Bell’s Princess Anna voice sing about sadomasochism in a reefer den. An unusual touchstone for musical theater is Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel, The Phantom of the Opera, about a mysterious figure haunting a Parisian opera house, who becomes obsessed with a female performer there. Three films that have tackled versions of the story are: Joel Schumacher’s 2004 adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s smash hit Broadway musical Phantom of the Opera, Brian De Palma’s 1974 Phantom of the Paradise, and 2014’s Stage Fright. Webber and Schumacher produce a fairly faithful adaptation of the novel, yielding something of a gothic horror. De Palma relocates the story to a more modern setting, mashes it up with the story of Faust, and sets it in a rock club. Stage Fright turns the story into more of a summer camp slasher film and sets it at a youth theater camp. The 2004 Schumacher film earned back double its budget at the box office and enjoys a very strong fan base, but was savaged by critics at the time. What is without question though is that it has some of the most spectacular art direction and set design you’ll ever see. What’s the best way to create the effect of the opera house burning down? To actually build and burn down an opera house. It is the least of a horror movie of these three films, though Phantom of the Paradise is a wild film. In many ways, it shares a lot of the same DNA as The Rocky Horror Picture Show, wallowing in 70's excess and pretty overtly wearing all of its earlier film influences on its sleeve, but leaning a bit more into the psychedelia of the era. Here, the phantom of the title is a songwriter named Winslow Leach, who was screwed over by a record producer and club owner named Swan, played perfectly by the film’s actual songwriter Paul Williams. The phantom comes to haunt Swan’s rock club, which is preparing to open with a performance of music that Swan has stolen from Leach. This musical is a little unusual in its structure in that so much of the music from early in the film is more sketchy and underplayed because what we’re seeing is songs being written, and rehearsed by performers still figuring their parts out. This does serve to somewhat mute the impact of the music early on, but the delayed gratification more than pays off when we finally hear everything fully developed in the climactic performance at the end of the film. This stylistic choice may have contributed a bit to the film having trouble finding an audience when it was initially released, but it also serves to make the finale something incredibly explosive. Stage Fright is a little shaggy compared to most of the other films that I’m discussing here, with an ending that only kind of works, but it gets major bonus points for its infectious theater kid energy. Meat Loaf plays a theater camp owner who used to be a major theater producer, having fallen on hard times when, after the opening night of a production ‘The Haunting of the Opera’ that his wife was staring in, she was murdered, leaving him the widowed father of two. Now, ten years later, he is trying to stage another production of that work, this time possibly starring his daughter, only for further bloodshed to follow. Another figure who features prominently in this world of horror musicals is Tim Burton, who has made three films in the genre: his two stop-motion animation films, The Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride, along with his adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Being PG-rated animated films, The Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride are both fairly family-friendly. There might be some temptation not to consider either of them horror films, but I think it’s more helpful to think of them as starter horrors, films pitched to younger audiences that give them a point of entry to the genre, with scares geared toward what they can handle at their age without being overwhelmed. A marvel of The Nightmare Before Christmas is the degree to which it follows the story arc of a more traditional Christmas story. Something happens to disrupt Christmas, but at the last minute, the characters we’ve been following work with Santa Clause to restore everything to how it’s supposed to be, thus saving Christmas in the St. Nick of time. In this case, Jack Skellington, the most important figure in Halloween Town, who has come to be bored by his many frightful annual accomplishments, discovers a portal to a different holiday world that gives him some new ideas. Burton makes an interesting choice to split up the role of Jack Skellington between Chris Sarandon, taking on all of Jake’s spoken dialogue, and Danny Elfman, who wrote the music for the film, doing all of the singing. The two performances blend together seamlessly, combining to make for one of the better voice performances you’ll hear. Corpse Bride tells the story of a young man and woman who meet on the eve of their arranged marriage, but, while the man is outside practicing his vows for the ceremony, he accidentally proposes to and weds the corpse of a bride that was murdered and buried by her husband the night of their wedding. Helena Bonham Carter, Emily Watson, and Johnny Depp play the three parts of the love triangle that are trying to navigate the world and underworld as they untangle the mess. Stephen Sondheim had said once that Burton’s Sweeney Todd is the only adaptation of one of his shows that he’s fond of. What Sondheim appreciated was Burton’s dedication to trying to faithfully transpose to show from stage to screen, without being pointlessly beholden to choices Sondheim only had to make in order for the show to work on a stage in front of a live audience. What Sondheim loved is how Burton found a way to stay faithful to the show, while having the confidence to also excise and change whatever needed to be changed for the show to work as a film and finding a visual language that only ever adds to what Sondheim was going for. The story is of a once-young married barber, who is falsely imprisoned by a judge who is after his wife. After many years in prison, the barber is finally released and returns to London with eyes on revenge. Johnny Depp plays the barber, and Helena Bonham Carter plays the woman who rents him space above her meat pie shop, a shop that also happens to provide them with a lucrative means of disposal for the bodies that start to accumulate. This last section is comprised of films that don’t form a tidy group, or that I might not rate quite as highly as all of the ones I’ve listed above, but they are still films that I think are great examples of this sub-genre and well worth your time. Anna & The Apocalypse is a musical teen drama set in and around a high school at Christmastime, during what turns out to be a zombie apocalypse. Tonally it feels like it owes its biggest debts to TV shows Glee and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as well as the film Shaun of the Dead. The cliche of being a teenager is how much it can feel like the end of the world when things go wrong, and that proves to be no less true when it’s the actual end of the world. The film manages to pack in the high school experiences of how it feels being disconnected from others, how it feels to find that friend group that makes you feel like you can take on anything, and how it feels when that friend group starts to break apart as people move on, all into one heightened bloody two day period. Suck is an incredibly odd artifact of a film. The elevator pitch for the film is, what is it like being on the road with a struggling rock band when one of your bandmates has a substance abuse problem, and what if that substance is human blood? With unlikely cameos from Alice Cooper, Henry Rollins, Iggy Pop, and Moby, this film does a good job capturing the sense of being in a band that is just successful enough that nobody involved can admit to themselves that they should move on. Dave Foley is a scene stealer as the amoral agent with a surprisingly accepting attitude towards vampires. Cannibal! The Musical was a student film Trey Parker wrote and directed while at the University of Colorado at Boulder. The film purports to tell the story of Alferd Packer, who was accused and convicted of murdering and cannibalizing a party he was leading through the mountains of Colorado during winter. The scenes of murder and cannibalism that bookend the film do get a little gory, but this is otherwise mostly a comedy in the spirit of other musical comedies that Parker would go on to do like South Park: Bigger, Longer, & Uncut, and his Broadway show, The Book of Mormon. Being a student film, it’s pretty rough around the edges a lot of the time, but even early on, Parker shows a great ear for musical comedy. Repo! The Genetic Opera has a strong following, some fascinating casting choices, and an interestingly maximalist visual style. I would highly recommend it if you wish the musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “Once More with Feeling,” had a sequel. The film takes place in a future where anyone can buy replacement organs from a company called GeneCo, but if you can’t keep up with your payments, a repo man will find you and take those organs back. The story itself is rather operatic with the incredibly violent family that runs the company squabbling amongst itself over who will take over the company when the patriarch dies, entangled with the story of a man who is being blackmailed to work as a repo man, and the daughter he is trying to keep that a secret from. At the outset of this, what I said of horror films is that they were a way to play with feelings and experiences that we wouldn’t want as part of our day-to-day lives, playing with the images and ideas that frighten and disconcert us. What horror musicals nail more than anything else is that spirit of play while engaging with the ideas at work in horror. There’s a place for extreme and traumatizing horror, and I won’t argue too hard against someone that wants to insist that’s all horror is, but I love that there is a room somewhere for films that can also play with the things that scare us with a spirit of gory joy. Damian Masterson Staff Writer Damian is an endothermic vertebrate with a large four-chambered heart residing in Kerhonkson, NY with his wife and two children. His dream Jeopardy categories would be: They Might Be Giants, Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, 18th and 19th-Century Ethical Theory, Moral Psychology, Caffeine, Gummy Candies, and Episode-by-Episode podcasts about TV shows that have been off the air for at least 10 years.

  • The Stupid and the Sublime

    Weird: The Al Yankovic Story What I thought of when I first heard about Weird: The Al Yankovic Story, was Milos Forman’s 1999 film, Man on the Moon, about stand-up comedian and performance artist, Andy Kaufman. I grew up loving Andy as a form-breaking comic talent and I remember being incredibly excited by the idea of someone like Forman making an Andy Kaufman movie. What I was disappointed to discover when I sat down in the theater, though, is that isn’t quite what Man on the Moon was. It was a movie about Andy Kaufman’s life, but aside from a somewhat daring opening sequence, it wasn’t anything like what I realized I actually wanted: a movie in the subversive spirit of what Andy himself would have made. That was kind of a lightbulb moment for me when it came to biopics, and how big a difference there is between a biopic being an accurate representation of the events of someone’s life versus being an authentic representation of what that person was all about. Man on the Moon succeeds on that first measure, but it couldn’t help but fall short on the second because it was core to who Andy Kaufman was that he never let the audience in on a bit. A just-the-facts account of his life is about as antithetical to who he was as you can get. “Weird Al” Yankovic has been a pop culture fixture for almost 40 years, and the theme of his work throughout has been bringing craftsmanship and a relentless silliness, even self-described stupidity, to his song parodies and other projects. The concern with a “Weird Al” movie is that stuck within the confines of a biopic, it would either be unwilling to be as silly and stupid as it needed to be authentic to “Weird Al” as an artist, or that it might go so far towards the opposite extremes of silliness that it wasn’t sufficiently rooted in anything real to give an audience something to care about. As it turns out, though, I needn’t have worried. In many ways, this film, for all its absurdity, is the most authentic expression in his career of who “Weird Al” Yankovic is. Rather than wade too far into spoilers for a film that’s only been out for a little bit, I wanted to try and talk about Weird, by discussing how it relates to some other films that are working in this same kind of space. Given how directly Weird is attacking the tropes of musical biopics, the film it might most easily be compared to is 2007’s, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. That film picks and chooses from a number of biopics about musicians to invent its titular Dewey Cox, blending together some of the most hackneyed tropes of those films with some of the assorted artist’s most outrageous stories, to create something wonderfully absurdist that amounts to a retelling of the previous 50 years of popular music. What seems so much more subversive about Weird, though, is the idea of a real person like Weird Al, using his own life to create something similarly absurd. Weird isn’t entirely fiction, using funhouse mirror versions of the events from Al’s life to tell this story, but what starts out as a sendup of musical biopics winds up being something a bit more abstract like a Charlie Kaufman film about a famous parody artist with nothing left to parody but himself. Another film very much in this spirit is George Clooney’s 2002 adaptation of Chuck Barris’s “unauthorized autobiography,” Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, which purports to tell the story of Barris’s life as the tv host and producer that created The Gong Show, as well as his supposed secret double life as a CIA assassin. In both films, it’s someone presenting their own fabricated autobiography. Still, Barris’s story is a bit more performance art as he has never been willing to acknowledge his story as being made up. Clooney and the film are aware they are making a comedy, but doing so by taking Barris’s story seriously. In Weird, conversely, the performances are played straight for maximum comedic effect, but never to the point that the audience needs to take any of the events depicted in the film at all seriously. “Weird Al” has always been fairly overt in his work. Part of his mass appeal is that he wants everyone to be in on the joke. He famously asks permission from artists before parodying their work because he’s looking to be inclusive and to work with people that are in on the joke. The vibe of the film throughout is, “isn’t it wild that we get to make this.” And lastly, there’s something I see in Weird that I also saw in David Wain’s 2018’s film, A Futile and Stupid Gesture, about Doug Kenney, the co-founded National Lampoon magazine. It would be a spoiler for that underseen film to say too much about it here, but A Futile and Stupid Gesture is more straightforwardly a biopic that makes some incredibly bold choices with its narrative framing and with a twist of the ending that makes the film something much more interesting than the standard fare. Weird does something like this in that, in the beginning the film is loosely telling something like “Weird Al”’s story. He really did start to learn to play the accordion because of a door-to-door accordion salesman that came to his house - though in real life his dad didn’t nearly beat that salesman to death for bringing such a devil instrument into his house. There really is such a thing as the Yankovic Bump, where recording artists saw a surge in their sales after he parodies their work, but it wasn’t exactly the kind of thing that “Weird Al” had to worry about being stalked and murdered over. Narratively though, each of these jokes starts to add up, such that you end up in a narrative space very far afield conceptually from where the film begins. In both cases, the ending isn’t real, but it’s the one most satisfying for the story being told. The biggest factor in how successful the film is, though, is how committed Daniel Radcliffe is. He can do a thing in this film that “Weird Al” can’t, which is, deliver on the comedy while playing this heightened reality completely straight. “Weird Al” is a charismatic presence and can sell his own brand of humor in his songs and music videos, but there is always a very overt wink to the audience with everything he does. Because a part of the target of this film is Oscar bait biopics, what was needed was someone who could throw themselves entirely into the wig and mustache and Hawaiian shirt of it all of the ridiculous “Weird Al” character, but also be able to play the scene where he puts out a cigarette in the hand of a record executive with enough menace and over-seriousness for the absurdity of the moment to hit, yet not so real that it pulls people out of the movie. Radcliffe balances this perfectly throughout. Comedy roles never get the consideration they deserve when award season rolls around, but Radcliffe really is doing some wonderful work here. Everyone surrounding Radcliffe is wonderful as well. Toby Huss is superb as “Weird Al”’s weirdly angry father. Evan Rachel Wood is so good as bizarro Madonna that I kinda wish she were the one cast in that biopic about herself that Madonna currently has in development. Part of the bending of reality of the film is how many of his famous friends and fans “Weird Al” has appeared in cameos throughout the film. Many of them are surprises that ought not be spoiled, in particular an especially star-studded pool party. Everyone in the film understood the assignment and to a person seems to be having the time of their life. There is something that just makes sense about this being the film that “Weird Al” would make. It’s so fitting that someone who has made his career parodying other people’s work would find the perfect capstone to his career parodying himself. Even more fitting, though, is how well it turned out. For an idea that began its life as a fake movie trailer, there’s every reason to think there wouldn’t ultimately be enough there to stretch that short skit of a joke into a film, but boy is there nobody in the world better at wringing every joke there is to be found out of a funny premise. There has never been anyone better at turning the silly and stupid into the sublime. Here’s hoping this isn’t the last film we get from him. Damian Masterson Staff Writer Damian is an endothermic vertebrate with a large four-chambered heart residing in Kerhonkson, NY with his wife and two children. His dream Jeopardy categories would be: They Might Be Giants, Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, 18th and 19th-Century Ethical Theory, Moral Psychology, Caffeine, Gummy Candies, and Episode-by-Episode podcasts about TV shows that have been off the air for at least 10 years.

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