The Sunday Magazine: Happiest Season

As I’ve written about in this column in our house, we watch a lot of Hallmark Channel Christmas movies. They are as much a part of our Season as anything else. Part of it there is a reliable formula. There is a protagonist who isn’t that much into Christmas. They end up in a new situation where they are surrounded by others who love the Holidays. Not so much a fish out of water plotline as a genial bah humbug plotline with less mean intent. Over the course of two hours our modern humbugger will find romance and the spirit of Christmas.

For many years, these movies lacked diversity they were entirely filled with white actors in the lead roles. There was a gradual awakening to that and over the last three or four years there have been other ethnicities represented. Who also have the identical issues that their predecessors had. It’s a formula because it works. Just plug in two star-crossed lovers one who doesn’t like Christmas and fill in the blanks.

In the spirit of that diversity the streaming channel Hulu takes a shot at their own Hallmark-style Christmas movie featuring lesbian heroines. Called “Happiest Season” it is written by Clea DuVall and Mary Holland with Ms. DuVall directing. The basic setup of the story follows the formula. Abby played by Kristen Stewart is in love with Harper played by Mackenzie Davis. After a romantic pre-Christmas night in their Pittsburgh hometown Harper cajoles Abby into coming home with her. Abby lost her parents on Christmas and that is the association for which she chooses not to celebrate. When Harper convinces her to come with her Abby thinks it is also the time to propose to her. At this point this is the kind of Holiday formula I enjoy.  I expected a comedy of errors in getting the ring on Harper’s hand while Abby discovers Christmas through the effort. That is not what Ms. DuVall and Holland have in mind. The roadblock to happiness is more serious and real this time.

On the car ride home Harper tells Abby she is still closeted to her family. The reason she gives is her father is a local politician and it would cause a problem. She asks Abby to introduce herself as her orphaned roommate when they arrive. The movie then unravels this plot with much more seriousness than the typical Christmas movie.

There are times when Harper’s desire to remain closeted verges on being too mean to Abby. I grimaced a bit at a couple of the scenes. The wonderful Dan Levy as Abby and Harper’s friend John arrives just in time to take some of the sting out of those actions. The other character Riley, as portrayed by Aubrey Plaza also helps find the right tone to help Abby understand what Harper is going through. There was a part of me that wanted a movie where Riley and Abby ended up together. This is a Hallmark-style movie and after a disastrous Christmas Eve of revelations they all manage to find the requisite happy ending.

Happiest Season is a bit too serious to fit easily into the Hallmark-style Christmas movie genre. Which is okay because it never hurts to add a little bite to the egg nog.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Skipping Christmas by John Grisham

In doing seven years of these Christmas inspired columns during December I’ve left out one form of Holiday cheer. The fictional story set during the Season. It was one of the readers of this column who pointed it out to me last year. She asked me, “Don’t you have any favorite Christmas stories?”. I am a fan of many of the classics and I will read “The Tailor of Gloucester” by Beatrix Potter, O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi” and Chris Van Allsburgh’s “The Polar Express”. Those are well-known Holiday stories. There is one I also read most every year which might not be as storied, “Skipping Christmas” by John Grisham.

The reason I have a copy at all is its own Christmas story. My nephew is a pilot and back in 2001 when this came out, he was flying for a private jet company. His client at the end of the year was author John Grisham who was out promoting “Skipping Christmas”. My nephew got him to autograph some copies and handed them out on Christmas morning.

Mr. Grisham is not one of my favorite authors, so I wasn’t in a hurry to read it. In fact it wasn’t until a year later when I noticed it on the shelf with all the Christmas books that I even thought of it again. It was short enough that it felt like an evening’s reading time would see me through. By the time I closed the book I realized it was going to be on my perennial Holiday reading list.

It tells the story of the first empty nest Christmas for Luther and Nora Krank. They are finding it hard to drum up the spirit with their daughter gone. When Luther calculates how much they spend on their Holiday stuff he believes there is little to show for the money spent. After Nora insists, they still make the same charitable donations they always have she agrees to skip Christmas. They decide to put the money into a trip that leaves on the day after.

For the rest of the book it is a riff on the “It’s A Wonderful Life” what would things be like if I weren’t here. Except in this case the people who the Kranks have affected over the years let them know they don’t like their idea of skipping Christmas, not one little bit. It is all played for broadly comic effect. Until events cause the Kranks to reconsider what Christmas means.

While I may not enjoy his typical legal thrillers Mr. Grisham is an excellent writer. He shows a deft comic touch throughout the book. I may not spend time in the courtroom with him, but we spend a little time every Christmas together.

Disclosure: This book was received as a family gift.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: A Very Special Christmas

In 1987 an album of Christmas music was released called “A Very Special Christmas”. Produced by Jimmy Iovine he gathered some of the biggest music stars of the day for a project to benefit Special Olympics. I generally enjoy my pop star Holiday tunes to be original but all of the tracks on this are on my Xmas playlist.

The reason is Mr. Iovine got some of the most distinctive voices to provide their own spin on classic songs. Madonna’s “Santa Baby” is just what you’d expect as she slinks through it all. Bono does his part on the U2 version of “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”. Chrissie Hynde leads The Pretenders through “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”. Alison Moyet does “The Coventry Carol”.

My two favorite versions of classics done by divas are Eurythmics’ “Winter Wonderland” and Stevie Nicks doing “Silent Night”. On an album which includes Whitney Houston doing “Do You Hear What I Hear?” Annie Lennox and Ms. Nicks slay their songs. If you need some confirmation of the latter’s talent after discovering her on TikTok recently this “Silent Night” will give it to you.

The song the album is most known for is the only original on it. Run-DMC were at the height of their fame as one of the first black music stars to break through on MTV back then. They wanted to create the first rap Christmas song. “Christmas in Hollis” is what they came up with. It was built on the classic rap rhythms about spending the Holidays in Hollis, Queens. Each verse is its own story of Christmas cheer. It ends with them getting a new turntable and microphones from Santa to wish us Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

This remains one of the most popular Holiday albums of all-time as each year it makes it back on to the charts as new fans learn of it. It has earned its longevity.

Disclosure: this is based on a copy I purchased.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: The Trial of the Chicago 7

One of the best things about the number of streaming services is movies I think would have had little chance to get made are finding an audience. If a writer or director has a passion piece within them there is now a place for them to have it seen. The other great part is these are movies that only would have played art house cinemas in larger cities. Now it is available to anyone with a subscription. Netflix has been the most aggressive about giving the go ahead to these kinds of projects. “The Trial of the Chicago 7” is one of them.

I would have watched this for one reason, Aaron Sorkin. He has one of my favorite voices in movies and tv. I find the rhythm of his dialogue effortlessly captures me more than any special effect. Not only does Mr. Sorkin write it he also directs it. He then gathered a top-notch cast of actors to play it out.

The story is based on the real-life Chicago 7. They were a group of anti-Vietnam protesters who were at the Democratic National Convention in August 1968. They were arrested for rioting during their protests. Nothing happened until after Richard Nixon was sworn in after the election that year. His Attorney General John Mitchell indicted eight of the protesters with federal crimes. The movie is about that trial.

Mr. Sorkin uses this material to comment on the importance of protest at any time. As the movie plays out the forces who are against the change being pushed by the defendants do what they must to “save” the country. That’s what they think. The Chicago 7 themselves make the equally compelling case that the very act of protest is what will “save” the country. The movie lets that struggle come to a climax as the trial proceeds.

The cast is full of great performances but there are two which are the heart of the movie. Eddie Redmayne who plays Tom Hayden and Sacha Baron Cohen who is Abbie Hoffman. The latter is brilliant as the instigator who wants to make it clear who and what he is protesting. Mr. Redmayne is the intellectual face of the same argument. Mr. Sorkin gives them the words to make it clear.

I believe this movie is going to be competing for many of the year-end movie awards and I’m glad I was able to watch it from my sofa.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Set My Heart on Fire Immediately by Perfume Genius

After nearly seven years of having this blog the small community of The Sunday Magazine readers have been one of the surprises. From that group there has been a constant question, “Have you heard of Perfume Genius?”

Perfume Genius aka Michael Hadreas

It is a natural thing to ask because the writer of a perfume blog should dig a guy called Perfume Genius. Michael Hadreas is the singer songwriter behind the moniker. I hadn’t become aware of him until his second album was released in 2012 called “Put Your Back N2It”. He should have been exactly what I like. My readers weren’t wrong. Except the music didn’t connect. It was like a well-made quirky perfume that just didn’t make me want to wear it.

For the past six-plus years my answer to the readers who ask me about Perfume Genius is I like him, but he isn’t one of my faves. One of the things about Perfume Genius is the sound changes from album to album. I always had in the back of my head that he would find a sound which would connect. His latest “Set My Heart on Fire Immediately” is it.

I have always admired his vocal range. He can hit the high notes, but it was always in the moments when he found his lowest octave voice that seemed most intimate. A masculine version of vocal fry imparting genuine feelings. On the new album there are more instances of that.

While he can add that emotion through the timbre of his voice, he is a songwriter. His lyrics have never been more affecting. “Your Body Changes Everything” tells the story of two lovers who are in different places. One needs to rely on the other to hold them up. It is the poignancy of asking for help and receiving it. It has become one of my favorite songs this year.

To my dear readers who show up every Sunday I have finally found Perfume Genius to be just what I needed him to be.

Disclosure: This review is based on music I purchased.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: The Queen’s Gambit

I was blessed with a small bookstore in the town I had mt first job in. I would stop by every Monday after work and buy something new. The owner of the store would make many great recommendations to me over the years. One of his earliest was a novel called “The Queen’s Gambit” by Walter Tevis. I blew through it thoroughly enjoying it and leant it out to many friends over the years. I was surprised a few weeks ago to open Netflix and to see “The Queen’s Gambit” as a new choice. It turns out the book had been adapted into a seven-episode miniseries. Just like the book I binged it over twenty-four hours.

The story in both is essentially the same with minor differences. It begins when Beth Harmon is orphaned when her mother dies in a car accident. She is sent to an orphanage. The story starts in the 1950’s. In those days they would tranquilize the children to make them more docile. Beth slowly becomes addicted to the pills at about the same time she discovers chess. Cleaning erasers in the basement she finds the school janitor playing himself. She asks him to teach her the game. She discovers when she takes the tranquilizers it allows her to visualize the chess board and pieces on the ceiling of her dormitory. She can play hundreds of moves in her head this way. The story follows her ascent to the highest levels of international chess. It also chronicles her issues with drugs and alcohol which threaten to derail her talent.

That might sound like a familiar story, but it goes in different directions. Writer/director Scott Frank expertly shifts the action from the personal to the thrill of competition. At every turn actress Anya Taylor-Joy who plays Beth inhabits her character. Ms. Taylor-Joy speaks volumes with her expressions. I have not considered the placement of an actor’s hands until watching Ms. Taylor-Joy use them to illustrate her emotions.

I also think you might worry this is a downer kind of story. In both book and series version I found it an exhilarating story of eventual acceptance of who Beth discovers she is. If you are looking for a fantastically well-made distraction this should be in your queue.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Chosen Ones by Veronica Roth

I read a lot of books with an innocent who is thrust into a battle between good and evil. It is the very essence of an elevator pitch for lots of fantasy sci-fi novels. There is nothing wrong with a formula like that because the best authors can add their own inspiration. One of the pieces of this is generally our innocent hero gets the heck kicked out of them before their final victory. As an example think of all the torturous things which happen to Harry Potter. All the stories usually do an epilogue which lets you know our protagonist is okay. But does that make sense? Shouldn’t they carry the scars of the battle? The novel “Chosen Ones” by Veronica Roth asks that question.

Ms. Roth is the author of the very popular Young Adult series, Divergent. Chosen Ones is her first “adult” novel. There are definitely more mature themes in this latest work but the plot springs from asking what happens after you save the world.

In the case of Chosen Ones a team of five superpowered heroes defeated the Dark One ten years ago. How the members of the team have fared with the attendant celebrity and emotional traumas is where the novel takes off.

Ms. Roth uses flashbacks, news clippings, and e-mails between their handlers to help the reader understand the threat they took down as well as where they are now. The first section of the book is centered on how you even try to live a normal life after your experiences. Most of the story comes through the perspective of Sloane. She lives with another of the Chosen Ones. It moves slowly at the pace of normalcy as each cope with daily life.

When they gather to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the defeat of the Dark One things begin to move in a more traditional direction as they face a new villain. I was sorry to see it go this way so quickly because I really enjoyed the way each of the five Chosen Ones had dealt with their situation. For the final half of the book it is another lower stakes battle.

Ms. Roth has said this is the beginning of a series so I’m hopeful we get more of the mundane and less of the supernatural. It is when things are situated in coping with the day-to-day that the specialness of the Chosen Ones really shines.

Disclosure: I purchased a copy of this book.

Mark Behnke

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


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