The Sunday Magazine: Lovecraft Country

I enjoy horror movies, all kinds. If pressed to name a preference I like the “Twilight Zone” style of a horrific twist on something normal. Large parts of my bookshelf are filled with these kinds of books. The thing that goes bump in the night that will kill you is delightful to me. The new series on HBO Lovecraft Country has made this Halloween season fun for me.

Since the release of Get Out in 2017 the horror genre has been spearheaded by Jordan Peele adding an African American perspective to it. In Lovecraft Country Mr. Peele gives young writer Misha Green the opportunity to take this to a larger canvas. Over 10 episodes set in the 1950’s a cast of black actors use the genre of horror to dig underneath the horror of racism.

What I particularly enjoyed was each episode was a classic horror movie trope. The “cabin in the woods” or “mystical treasure hunt” or “haunted house” or “shapeshifting”. It was all represented through an episode. While that was happening it was also encompassing a mythology which tied it all together. Each piece added to the final puzzle.

The basic story is Atticus “Tic” Freeman has returned from his stint as a GI in Korea to find his estranged father is missing. Tic has been fed a steady stream of pulp horror influences through his Uncle George. The first scene of the series is him dreaming a lurid pastiche of pulp icons. Those first moments let me know Ms. Green was a fan. That this was going to be done from someone who respected the material.

Tic’s search and its aftermath is what this first season is made up of. It weaves in real life racial justice moments from the murder of Emmett Till to the Tulsa massacre of 1921. Entwined is a set of suspenseful confrontations which had me leaning in to my tv screen.

The casting is fantastic and Jonathan Majors who plays Tic and Jurnee Smollett who plays Leti Lewis are the twin stories which come together in the end.

I am not sure if there will be a second season because the ending does tie up most of the important plot threads. I would be fine if it ends here.

If you are looking for some scary thrills this Halloween week, I think you can find them in Lovecraft Country.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: The Boys

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There are times when I hear something is going to be adapted for television that I think will fail because it will never go as far as the source material. Even something as successful as “Game of Thrones” I had concerns because I expected them to not be as brutal as the novels. It was unfounded as the television team stayed true to that aspect faithfully. As I thought of this for getting ready to write this column, I realized in the days of streaming a series can go where it couldn’t if it was being broadcast. It has opened new chances for more extreme visions to find audiences. The one which was my most recent unnecessary worry was “The Boys”.

The comic inspiration ran from 2006-2012 written by Garth Ennis. It was a hysterical premise of what if superheroes were a commodity overseen by a corporation. In the books we meet that corporation Vought. They fund the superheroes in the world and use them to create content. They also send them out on exclusive contracts to be a specific city’s protector. The apex team is called “The Seven” which is run by a hero called Homelander who wears a red, white and blue costume with a star-spangled cape. He is not Captain America. Which is the anarchic fun of the premise. The heroes are marketed to the world, but they live and act way different than their public personas. The comic was packed full of biting social commentary about commercialism and hero worship.

The book follows the titular group as the counterbalance to this. They spend their time trying to expose the hypocrisy and rot underneath the shiny happy façade. As a reader we root for their success.

Now when I heard it was going to be a series on Amazon Prime I thought they will streamline this to its most basic story leaving out the insane things which happen in the margins. It turns out show creator and writer Eric Kripke not only want to include those margins he wanted to write in them too.

The series has been as gloriously unhinged as the comic. Mr. Kripke has shifted some story elements around not because of necessity or making it more accessible. It seems he just want to tell a slightly different story with the same sensibility. Which makes it fun for me as a watcher because the differences are enough that I am never 100% sure where the story is heading even though I generally have a hint or two.

Both comic and tv series are well worth spending some time with.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: The Doors of Eden by Adrian Tchaikovsky

When it comes to the Dr. Who universe I am a bigger fan of the “Torchwood” spinoff than the main series. The idea of a team of agents investigating the unexplained happening on Earth appeals to me. Because I am a vocal fan on the sci-fi forums, I post on I received a book recommendation. I was told I might like “The Doors of Eden” by Adrian Tchaikovsky.

I had heard of Mr. Tchaikovsky through his award-winning novel “Children of Time” although the description didn’t draw me to wanting to download it. When I went to see the description for “The Doors of Eden” I was immediately enticed to press buy.

Adrian Tchaikovsky

The basic set-up comes through when a pair of monster hunters who are also lovers go hunting for the Birdmen on Bodmain Moor. When the night is done Lee is left looking for Mal who has disappeared. Four years later Mal returns. This sets up the events of the rest of the book. Lee must decide whether the Mal which has returned is the woman she fell in love with or something else. Mal’s return brings in a team of people interested in her. They are the other POV that the story is told through. MI5 agent Julian, scientist Dr. Khan and mercenary Lucas. There are a couple of other POV but those arise out of the story. The main team charged with figuring out what happened to Mal is the one described above. Their interaction does have a Torchwood-y feel but Mr. Tchaikovsky has a different tale in mind.

The story takes us to parallel earths through cracks which are forming causing overlaps. These parallel earths are not necessarily places where humans are the ascendant species. It is much of the fun of this novel when the heroes are faced with a world where something non-human is in charge.

Mr. Tchaikovsky intersperses the story of the book with sections written by a fictional professor who explains some of the scientific concepts which will come into play over the next pages. These felt like the distillation of the real-world research Mr. Tchaikovsky must have done to write this. As a scientist these were as enjoyable as the story.

It all coalesces into a satisfying conclusion. If you are a Torchwood fan, I can add my thumbs up to the idea you will enjoy this. After reading this I can see why Mr. Tchaikovsky has won awards he writes compelling passages which pulled me through the tale. I will probably go back and give some of his previous books a try.

Disclosure: This review is based on a copy I purchased.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Ozark

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I don’t know what they call it when you psychologically root for the criminal in a movie or tv series. I know the first time I became aware of it was while watching the movie “GoodFellas”. As the Feds close in on Ray Liotta’s wiseguy, he is trying to frantically flush a stash of cocaine down the toilet. As I watched in my head I was saying “C’mon, c’mon, get it flushed”. I’ve gone through this with many series “The Sopranos” or “Breaking Bad” are other examples. The latest version of this is “Ozark”.

Ozark is a hybrid of both series I mentioned. We are presented with Marty Byrde who we quickly learn is a money launderer for a drug cartel. His partner skims some money and they are all about to be killed. Only Marty has a far-fetched plan which is accepted before they pull the trigger. He must pack up his entire family and move them from Chicago to Lake of the Ozarks Missouri to try and pull off this tenuous idea to save their lives. A lot of shows spend time having the criminal try and hide his behavior from the family. In Ozark, the entire family knows the truth and the danger. It increases the risk, but the writing makes it work as each family member knows a mistake leads to them all being killed.

The first season is premised on the tension of whether Marty can launder the amount of money he promised in the short amount of time he promised. The interaction with the locals brings him up against two local families; the Langmores and Snells. They are also criminals, but these are the ones I want to not succeed. It is the beauty of the story being told that the Byrdes I want to see “win” while these others I want to see “lose”. The entire first run of ten episodes builds one tension-filled brick atop another. By the end Marty has another wild plan to offer. Which leads to seasons two and three.

The writing on this show is impeccable. Over the course of the first three seasons it has shown Marty’s wife Wendy Byrde evolve from scared for her life wife to embracing and expanding the criminal enterprise. When there is a moment when they might possibly make a run for it and leave it all behind, she chooses to stay. Actress Laura Linney plays Wendy and she has shown a spectrum of emotions throughout the three seasons. She has become the reason I watch the show.

That is not to say the other main players are not great as well. Jason Bateman as Marty and Julia Garner as Ruth Langmore complete the trio of criminals I just keep rooting for. Their performances have made me sympathize with all three of them.

This isn’t uplifting fare for these uncertain times, but I enjoy great acting and writing no matter the subject matter. Ozark has all of that.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Rolling Stone’s The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time

I am one of those who enjoys lists. I have come to enjoy making my own list of the best perfumes of the year annually. Whether it is me or others the process of judging different genres of anything is guaranteed to generate conversation. This week one of the biggest lists was updated.

Rolling Stone magazine released their new list of the 500 greatest albums which was last released in 2003. It is a mammoth project where they asked 300 people throughout the music industry to send in a list of their top 50 albums. Once it was all compiled, they debuted the new list at the beginning of last week. There have been a lot of discussions on the music boards but what I find most interesting is not that anything was left out. It is more on the placement of an album. Even then it isn’t that it is wildly overrated just that in one person’s opinion the albums under the one in question are better. Which is why this list works so well for me because they had 300 someones decide what the top is.

I don’t really feel too exercised about positioning because within the top 50 are Ramones (#47), The Clash (#16) and Talking Heads (#39). What I think is the greatest hip-hop jazz fusion album “The Low End Theory” by A Tribe Called Quest checked in at #43. The biggest surprise of the top ten percenters for me.

I own all the top 100 albums which was not the case in 2003. The ability to download and stream has allowed me to create my own reference library. After seeing the list I spent some time renewing my acquaintance with the top three.

I forget what a brave album Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” was when it was released in 1971. As the accompanying text to the entry says it was a singer-songwriter putting her life on vinyl for the world to hear. The authenticity of it rings true almost fifty years later. Ms. Mitchell was one of the few women who stood with the mostly boys of the early days of rock. The list reminded me why that was so.

I was a late convert to the Beach Boys “Pet Sounds”. I wasn’t a fan of the whole surfer style pop which caused me to dismiss them while I was listening in the early 1970’s. It wasn’t until I started into the NYC music scene in the mid 1980’s when I kept reading about “Pet Sounds” influencing this sound or that sound I finally gave it a chance. I understand the high placement, but this is the one which seems like the foundational album which is difficult for me to embrace. Relistening to it this week it reminds me of what it inspired more than what it is.

There were two albums in the 1970’s which constituted my introduction to soul. Curtis Mayfield’s soundtrack to “SuperFly” which is #76 on the list and Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”. This was part of a window into a world a young white teenager couldn’t experience or understand. Music has always been one of the ways to communicate to an audience the life of a person of color. That “What’s Going On” still sounds like it belongs in 2020 is testament to its vision and commentary on society.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Streets of Fire

When I got my first VCR in 1984, I used to have what I called “Bad Movie Wednesday”. I would pick a critically panned movie off the shelf and see what I thought. That exercise has created a list of movies I enjoy because of their flaws.

Being housebound because of quarantine I have been revisiting some of my favorites from back then when something reminds me of them. A couple of weeks ago I was listening to my playlist of all the Meat Loaf songs when something not by him shuffled to the top. It was a song called “Tonight is What it Means to be Young”. It is on the list because it was written my Meat Loaf’s longtime collaborator Jim Steinman for the 1984 movie “Streets of Fire”. I re-watched the movie and caught up on some of what I didn’t know about how it came to be.

The movie was the idea of director Walter Hill who wanted to make a comic-book movie, but he wanted to write his own hero. He had just come off the huge success of directing the Eddie Murphy/Nick Nolte buddy film, 48 Hrs. That meant he could pretty much do anything he wanted. Once he showed studios the script, he has said it was the quickest a movie was given the go-ahead in his career.

“Streets of Fire” was meant to be the beginning of a trilogy of films featuring Tom Cody as played by actor Michael Pare. It didn’t work out that way. The movie was a huge flop at the box office not even making back half of its budget. I don’t care about any of that. This is a movie that lived up to Billy Crystal’s SNL impersonation of Fernando Llamas, it was better to look good that to feel good.

The movie takes place in a stylized city that never existed. It has similarities to Chicago, LA, and NYC. Tom Cody returns to town after the war to rescue his old flame Ellen Aim who is kidnapped by the head of the city’s motorcycle gang. It all leads up to a final act showdown where the protagonists battle with sledgehammers.

The movie is full of colors which represent the different parts of the city. The cars are all 1950’s era styles while the music is 1980’s power pop. Mr. Hill wanted an unidentifiable landscape where he could impart his sense of style. He gets all of that.

What he also got was a kind of wooden lead actor. Michael Pare plays the hero so low key he is outshone by his sidekick and the villain. What makes the movie fun is an actor who has about two or three emotional gears working against others who have hundreds. In every scene he looks like he is in over his head. When reading about the production they were trying to interest Tom Cruise, Eric Roberts, or Patrick Swayze to play Tom Cody. They took a risk on a relative newcomer and paid the price.

The same risk paid off for the female lead Ellen Aim who was played by Diane Lane. She showed she could deliver outsized exposition with emotion and belief. The scenes between Ms. Page and Mr. Pare are great indicators of who was going to have the larger career.

Finally the music was the fun part. Written by Mr. Steinman the two original songs were part of his rock operatic style of rock and roll. One of the funny things I learned was Mr. Hill had no experience staging musical numbers and the two big set pieces within the film were him learning on the job. It would have been interesting to bring in one of the early music video directors to have provided a hand. But then it wouldn’t be the kind of bad movie I love.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Cobra Kai

One of the great things about the current state of television is there is a platform for most any creative effort to find an audience. There are exceptions even among the largest names in the tech business. Back in 2018 YouTube started a series of original programming. The centerpiece of that was to be a series called “Cobra Kai”. A sequel to the 1984 movie “The Karate Kid”. The first season garnered positive press, but YouTube just couldn’t get eyes on their service. They would give it one last try a year later with a second season. In the crowded world of streaming services they were getting edged out. Earlier this year they decided to sell off their programming to other providers. Netflix picked up Cobra Kai and immediately approved a third season. Which is when I finally had the opportunity to see it.

I liked the original movie fine as it was the classic sports underdog story told with martial arts. It leads up to the big match where our hero wins. Cobra Kai picks up the story 34 years later. Where the underdog has become a successful car dealer and the guy he beat has been much less so. The actors Ralph Macchio as Daniel LaRusso and William Zabka as johnny Lawrence reprise their roles now as grown middle-aged men. I was surprised to be drawn into the story as it is told mainly from Johnny’s perspective. You get the chance to see how the villain of the movie sees his actions. The Cobra Kai series is about how he tries to rebuild his life through rebuilding the karate dojo he trained in, Cobra Kai. As Daniel finds out it has been reborn his antagonism towards it resurfaces. Causing the men to clash.

Both eventually take in students. The show focuses on a group of them who go to the local high school. The writers have just enough fun with the analogy of karate as the big spectator sport instead of something else. At the end of Season 1 it comes to the same tournament the movie ended on with the dojos facing off. The success of the series is I wasn’t sure who I wanted to win. The characters were all sympathetic enough that it was tough watching one lose. This was the opposite of the sports underdog story as there weren’t cartoonish villains to hiss. The writers created a set of characters we rooted for on both sides. Season 2 follows up the aftermath of the first season ending on a cliffhanger.

The team of Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz, and Hayden Schlossberg are to be commended for finding new ways to tell the story of the ability of sports to elevate. That they do it without turning their players into cartoons is why I am glad Cobra Kai has found a place to be seen.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: X-Men Comics a Year Later

If there has been a consistent disappointment in my life of reading superhero comics it is the follow through on big events. Every hero has had giant big climactic things happen only for a reset button to be pushed. This happens a lot of the time before we can even explore the ramifications of said big change. It is why it has been so refreshing to see that the Marvel X-Men series have not been doing that over the past year.

My favorite comic series of last year was the complete shuffling of the X-Men universe in House of X/Power of X by writer Jonathan Hickman. I expected to get a few issues of pleasure before things began to decay back to baseline. A year later I am here to say that hasn’t happened. The template Mr. Hickman laid down has been picked up in six series which have hit issue 12 in the last month. I have continued to read the new books because there hasn’t been any attempt to backtrack on what was done. I don’t think I’ve read as many X-Men books in a row in many years.

The series I am enjoying most is the Marauders written by Gerry Duggan. One of my favorite pieces of the X-Men comic universe is the Hellfire Club. With Emma Frost as one of the main characters the now renamed Hellfire Trading Company has Kate (not Kitty) Pryde leading a team of mutants into the machinations of the Hellfire world. I have enjoyed everything Mr. Duggan has done on this series.

One of the interesting offshoots of the House of X was the integration of the mutant villains into the fold. Mister Sinister has always been a favorite one I’ve loved to hate. In the six-issue limited Fallen Angels he pulled the strings in the background for Psylocke, Cable, and X-23. That segued into Hellions where he oversees the more ethically challenged mutants. Psylocke is again with him and it is this story which has drawn me in. Over the past year he has been feeding Psylocke what she needs but whether it is with good intentions is still TBD.

One of the best things about the original 70’s resurrection of X-Men by Claremont and Byrne were these huge cross-over events involving all the titles. Mr. Hickman is getting ready to take his turn as he starts the X of Swords from mid-September through November. For many years these have just been giant unfocused disasters. I am looking forward to what Mr. Hickman and the other writers on the other titles can do here. If you need any more evidence of how I feel about X-Men a year later that excitement should provide a clue.

Disclosure: I have purchased all the comics mentioned.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Chadwick Boseman

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One of the things I’ve written about before is how important representation is in geek culture. The ability for anybody to look on the movie screen and see a hero that looks like them. Two years ago “Black Panther” gave that to the African American community and the world. The person who lived that beyond the movies was star Chadwick Boseman who died on Friday. There are few movie stars who took on the extra responsibility more graciously than he.

Chadwick Boseman

We live in the Washington DC area and Mr. Boseman is an alumnus of Howard University. As a result we got to see a lot more of him. What always struck me is he knew what an impact he had made in his portrayal of an African king of a nation that was technologically advanced populated with fierce warriors. He knew this was a new way for people who looked like him to see themselves. That meant once the cameras were off and the movie long gone from the multiplex Mr. Boseman still had to represent Black Panther.

Most actors would shy away from that responsibility. I watched Mr. Boseman lean into it time and again. Whenever anyone crossed their hands across their chest in the “Wakanda Forever” salute he returned it. I know this because Mrs. C and I were out walking around DC over a year after the film was released. I saw these kids making the arm gesture wondering what was going on until I turned around. Mr. Boseman was a few yards behind me with a big smile on his face as he returned the salute. There were no cameras or anyone to notice yet he lived the responsibility of his movie role in his life.

When I read that all of this came after he had been diagnosed with Stage III colon cancer it makes it even more beautiful. He was one of the few who knew he wasn’t going to be around to watch Black Panther grow old. He seized every opportunity to make sure it didn’t go by without notice.

He was a talented actor in so many roles. Yet it will be this portrayal of a comic book superhero that will allow him to live on for decades. He will inspire for as long as people watch. Truly living up to “Wakanda Forever”.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: The Umbrella Academy

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Ever since the success of The X-Men there has been a place for angst filled superheroes. There is an appeal in watching characters who aren’t heroic but who just want to get through the day. The latest iteration of this is the Netflix series The Umbrella Academy.

The series is based on the comic book series by Gerard Way and Gabriel Ba. It just released its second season at the end of last month. The premise is on October 1, 1989 43 women gave birth without having been pregnant until they began the birth. A billionaire, Sir Reginald Hargreeves, adopts seven of them. He realizes there is something special about them. He learns they have superpowers and trains them to be a force for good known as The Umbrella Academy. As teenagers they are a part of pop culture until something happens to cause them to separate. When Season 1 begins they are drawn back to the mansion they grew up in for Sir Hargreeves funeral. While there they learn they are responsible for a future event which will end the world.

The entire first season is all about learning the backstory of the characters as they try to avert the coming disaster. The story strikes a balance between the interpersonal and the heroics. As adults each member carries the effects of an upbringing from a man who saw them as a tool for good rather than the children they were. Those psychological scars lead to an explosive climax.

The second season picks up after that, where the members of The Umbrella Academy have been scattered through years in the early 1960’s in Dallas Texas. Each of them finds their own way to cope with their new circumstances until they all find their way back to each other in November of 1963 just prior to JFK’s tragic trip. This time left on their own each of them finds a measure of happiness in their respective time in 1960’s America. To avert disaster they must give up something that was missing from their previous life.

The show is marvelously cast with an ensemble cast which shines in their respective roles. There really isn’t a single stand out as they are all excellent. Even though I have described a serious plot above there is a lot of fun in between. The writers have a particularly good time having our 2019 heroes assimilate in the 1960’s. The early moments of each of them and how they make their way in the past are a lot of fun.

The Umbrella Academy is the kind of superhero fun that feels exactly right these days.

Mark Behnke