KEEPING UP WITH POPULAR CULTURE

It is July 12, and my summer vacation is flying by. As I gear up for one more month of joy, freedom, relaxation, I have been reading up a storm, something that is hard to do when I’m teaching and directing. But just in case you’re imagining me to be a one-note fella, I wanted to call your attention to some other things I have enjoyed this summer. Call it further proof that I’m more than a classic mystery book reviewer. (Or just see it for what it is: further further proof that I read very slooowwly and am stalling for time until I can finish this Nigel Morland mystery.)

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MOVIES – Yesterday

For quite a number of years now, the summer movie season has not had me in mind. That’s a crying shame because, as studios are learning when “blockbusters” like Dark Phoenix and the tenth Spiderman movie underperform, the target teen audience doesn’t want to go to movie theatres; they would rather find bootlegs online and brag to their friends. Meanwhile, we mature folk who remember Saturday matinee days spent all day in the dark rather fondly would give anything to have options that allow us to grab our kettle corn and fantasize in comfortable chairs.

So I was looking forward to Yesterday, which boasted a lot of cred: it was written by Richard Curtis, who has penned many of my favorite romantic comedies (Notting Hill, Love, Actually, . . . oh fart, anything from the 90’s with Hugh Grant); it was directed by Danny Boyle, who has directed many films that I have no intention of every watching (28 Days Later, Trainspotting) but who also directed the fine Slumdog Millionaire; and the premise is delightful. It’s the one where a failed musician suffers a concussion, which causes him to miss a celestial “event” that causes the world to forget the existence of the Beatles.

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The movie was . . . fine. I guess the biggest takeaway here is that John, Paul and George wrote some really excellent songs, and the world isa better place for them. As our hapless hero (Himesh Patel) unleashes one “new” song after another to instant acclaim, the reactions of the dazzled cast members mirror our own. Kudos to Ed Sheeran for playing a fascinating fictional version of himself. This is a film you will enjoy and then forget almost immediately afterwards (whereas I still conjure up tears of joy whenever I watch Hugh lying on the bench, his head in Julia’s lap, at the end of Notting Hill). I imagine there will be a release of the soundtrack of this film on streaming sites. I can’t think of a sillier waste of your money; better to go listen to Rubber Soul over and over.

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NETFLIX – Stranger Things(Season Three)

If Season Three doesn’t quite measure up to Season One, its beats out the second season for humor and heart. Season Two made for good drama, but it wasn’t nearly as fun as the first. The third round of eight episodes brings back a lot of the joy, even as it allows the Duffer Brothers to call up new late 70’s – early 80’s cultural icons: John Carpenter’s The Thing, the San Francisco-based Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Dawn of the Dead (literally referenced here, as is Back to the Future), and every John Hughes rom com you can think of.

The Goonies have grown older, and nearly everyone is wrestling with out of control hormones. In fact, this season it’s Will Byers, the first series’ initial victim of the Upside Down, who is trying to maintain the normal social strata of D&D all-nighters and bike-riding adventures he missed so much of when he was in the thrall of the Mind Flayer. But everyone has paired up (except for Dustin, who left his heart behind at science camp – if his beloved Susie is even real!).

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The grown-ups are either ignorant of, or obsessed with, the emerging sexuality of their offspring. Sheriff Hopper is frantic over the non-stop kissing his adopted daughter Eleven engages in with Mike Wheeler, his attempts at parenting prevented by his own anger and El’s telekinetic powers. Joyce Byers is still caught up in her grief over Bob’s death at the end of Season Two and barely notices that Nancy Wheeler is practically shacking up with her son Jonathan. This pair both work as interns at the local paper, where Jonathan flourishes in the darkroom and Nancy, eager to make her mark as a cub reporter, falls prey to the vicious and constant sexual harassment of the odious journalists.

Old Hawkins is in its death throes, due to the building of an enormous mall. Everyone either hangs at the Starcourt or the local pool, where bad boy Billy, the late shift lifeguard, attracts the libidinous instincts of every cute girl and horny hausfrau.

The characters are so welcome back that we could probably all enjoy a simple period comedy about early 80’s teen hijinks. But this is Stranger Things, and while the Duffers take their time setting up the situation, it rapidly becomes good, spooky, icky (much more emphasis on the ick factor this season) fun!

And that’s all I’ll tell you, since you’ll want to experience the twists yourself. It’s sci fi thrills with a great deal of humor and heart, and I highly recommend it. (Watch Seasons One and Two first! Do I really have to tell you that?)

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TV – Big Brother (Season 21)

I came to Survivor late, and while it long ago stopped being the subject of water cooler talk (and last season was out and out mediocre), it still provides much entertainment when it’s cooking. My friend Shoshana turned me on to Survivor as something to fill in the gaps between summer seasons of Big Brother.

I am in no way here to tell you to watch BB. It is very much a guilty pleasure. Unlike Survivor, where contestants have to brave the elements and most turn skeletal before the final Tribal Council, in Big Brother, contestants sit around a house waiting to perform certain competitions and vote each other out. Clearly, the air filter system is not good, because most of the young, pretty houseguests wear as little as possible.

Lately, BB has taken on a sameness, where a large contingent forms an alliance and wipes out the smaller fry one by one. This isn’t always bad, as many of the hangers on are non-entities and clueless from start to finish about what’s going on – but it’s boring. Things are always more interesting when someone plays a great social game and manipulates the others.

We’re only a couple of weeks into Season 21, and it doesn’t look like a stellar time will be had by all. An alliance of eight (called “Gr8ful”) formed early on, and as long as they dominate, things seem to be moving along at a predictable – and dull – rate. I do like Julie Chen Moonves, who stands outside the house on elimination nights and gives the audience sidelong looks when a houseguest behaves in an especially stupid manner. (That is happening a lot this season.)

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There is a token older guy who managed to survive the first week on the goodwill of the house, but his poor gameplay looks to mark him an early casualty. There’s a heavyset Latina feminist who seems to expect to survive merely to represent heavyset Latina feminists everywhere; the problem is she plays poorly. The first person evicted was the black guy, which is a sad routine about this show. (The black woman was the third evictee, and the only other guy of color was the second.)

I’m not accusing the show of racism or sexism, per se, but halfway through every season the houseguests all start to look the same (young and white), and you wonder if this has anything to do with the way the they socialize with each other offscreen. Every season, the contestants of color and those who are older are quickly marginalized and eliminated.

Every season also has its twists, and this year, which is designed to make the whole experience seem like summer camp, includes Camp Comeback, a nasty room upstairs where the first four evictees are forced to sleep, but they are allowed to remain in the house and play a social game. There are other new games and special powers, but so far nothing has landed, and I fear this summer’s Big Brother will come and go and be forgotten.

Okay, back to Nigel Morland . . .

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4 thoughts on “KEEPING UP WITH POPULAR CULTURE

  1. Glad you’re enjoying your respite summer break, Brad. And it sounds as though you’ve been having the chance to relax, even if the viewing hasn’t been breathtaking and awe-inspiring… And now I have this strange urge to listen to Rubber Soul. In all seriousness, there’s something to be said for turning off the brain to something on TV, even if it’s not exactly edifying. Enjoy your last few weeks before it’s time to gear up for the new school year.

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  2. Coincidentally, I’m also quite a large Big Brother/Survivor fan, though I lean more towards the latter than the former. The recent season has been very bad, lots of idiotic gameplay and most of the contestants have basically turned into unlikable caricatures. Even some of my favorites from early on have become much disliked and everything shaping up to be very predictable. I miss seasons such as 6 and 10 were everything was not defined by one singular alliance dominating everything and instead had much more fluid and therefore interesting gameplay. Of course, I’ll continue watching as I’m still a sucker for BB, but I won’t be as invested as I was in previous years ( excluding the dreaded 19! )

    On the flip side, Survivor will be premiering an All Winners season for S40, so at the very least I’ll be getting one season from the duo that’ll be enjoyable – because, c’mon? How do you mess up a season like that! 😄

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    1. My memory of these things is poor, but I do love a good reversal or an underdog story. There was a Survivor a few seasons back where EVERYONE was gunning for this big, dark-haired guy, but he kept winning comps and ultimately won the game – not as a Superman, but through sheer force of gameplay. Or the great BB season where Dan turned everything around by holding his own funeral and turned the house around. Or when Paul (who made my flesh crawl both seasons) made it to the end BOTH times by dint of a great social game . . . . . and lost! It’s too soon to see how long this latest big alliance will last, but for the sake of good TV, I hope it doesn’t!

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  3. I stopped watching reality TV years ago when I realized it’s the new version of old 1970s game shows that were designed to unleash the hidden base impulses like greed and selfishness in their contestants (Lets Make a Deal and Press Your Luck were the worst examples and now we have new incarnations of both!) Survivor was interesting for about four seasons then it started to attract all the sociopaths of the United States and I couldn’t stand it. Through sheer chance I had my TV on ABC leftover from the news before and accidentally started watching The Bachelorette. I became fascinated with one of the men who to me is a textbook psychopath. It was astonishing to watch this guy lie then lie about lying every single episode and also to watch his delusions become more and more grandiose. I tuned in for three consecutive weeks before it all became boring as I realized the woman was just as manipulative as the psycho. And having to endure being a voyeur to all the teenage making out is truly the worst kind of TV.

    Thanks for the pop culture insights. Enjoy whatever Palmyra Pym book you’re reading. Oh! Is it even a Morland with badass Palmyra? Maybe it’s one of his non series. Anyway looking forward to your thoughts on good ol Nigel and his rip roaring action oriented books.

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