The Sunday Magazine: The Old Guard

By the first weekend of August I am usually sated on action movies I’ve gone to see at the theater. It is part of summertime. The very definition of popcorn movies. Find an air-conditioned dark room to watch larger than life thrills and chills. Except 2020 is not a normal summer. Black Widow, James Bond, and The Fast and Furious crew are all delayed. What am I supposed to eat my popcorn with? Netflix to the rescue with one of the best action movies I’ve seen in a while; “The Old Guard”.

As it seems almost everything is these days “The Old Guard” is based on the comic book of the same name by Greg Rucka. This is one of the rare occurrences where the movie was better than the book. The big reason for that is the director and the star. It is not that there are significant differences in the plot since Mr. Rucka wrote the screenplay. It is that Charlize Theron who plays the lead character Andy adds so much to the nuance of the character. Plus director Gina Prince-Bythewood makes the action pop.

The premise of the movie is there are a team of assassins led by Andy who are immortal, kind of. You send them on a mission they get killed only to rise and take down those who killed them before. Andy is short for Andromache of Scythia and she has been doing this for centuries. When a new immortal comes into being, they dream of him or her and are compelled to seek them out. At the beginning of the movie a new immortal arises from the fighting in Afghanistan. Having a new member allows for all the audience’s questions to be asked by the newbie. The villain is a maniacal preening pharmaceutical executive who wants the immortals’ genetic secrets to make a profit.

As I watched this, I realize how reliable an action star Ms. Theron has become. Her physical ability to lay down the stunts is impressive. She spends most of the movie with the new immortal Nile played by KiKi Layne. Ms. Layne also successfully transitions to action star.

The Old Guard has a little more on its mind than the typical action movie. There is a twist which is not in the comic book which provides a greater meaning for the lives of these immortals. It really appealed to me making a good plot better.

By the end we are left with a potential lead-in to a sequel. I really hope to see these characters again. Maybe next time in a future summer at the theater.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: The New Normal for Geek Culture

It is a given once this worldwide virus is controlled everywhere, things will be different. We won’t be going back to normal but defining a new normal. There have been too many summers where I have spent part of my life in a convention center at a Comic-Con and/or gaming con. It is the geek version of summer camp; even when you’re 60. This weekend has given a preview of what these events might look like once things become virus-free.

If you are a fan of popular culture the middle of July means San Diego Comic Con (SDCC). Writers and artists of comic books mingle with stars of our favorite television and movies. This year the organizers had no choice but to cancel the live event. In its place for the past three days has been what they call SDCC @ Home. The same panels which would have taken place in Hall H are now happening over video meeting. All the things I would have eagerly waited to hear reports about I have been to watch live from my living room.

Concurrently if you are fan of mobile gaming and specifically Pokemon Go, July means Go Fest. In the US it took place in Chicago turning the city in to the epicenter of Pokemon Trainers. This year that was also not going to happen. What the game company behind it, Niantic, chose instead was a worldwide event. One where everyone could play if you bought a ticket. It turned what was an event for a few thousand people into something global. I spoke with other players from all over the world during my playing time. I played in cooperative events that were taking place in Tokyo, Johannesburg, London, and San Francisco. No longer just Chicago.

Here is the thing that ties this all together. I never left the house. All of this came to me using current technology. If I had been on my feet crossing convention centers while doing either of these, I’d normally be leg weary and dehydrated. Instead I’ve been safe at home as the world of geek culture comes to me. I feel certain the success of events like these will be the beginning of a new way for geek culture conventions to take place. Now that I am an old man, I am happier on my own sofa.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: The Only Gaijin in the Village by Iain Maloney

I have a book genre I enjoy reading. It is a non-fiction story of a person from a different culture going to live in a faraway place with different customs. “A Year in Provence” by Peter Mayle is the best-known probably.  When done by a talented author it provides insight into both sides of the culture gap and how to build a bridge. The most recent entry in my tiny bibliography is “The Only Gaijin in the Village” by Iain Maloney.

The culture change comes when Scotsman Mr. Maloney and his Japanese wife Minoru move from the Japanese city to the rural countryside. They had spent ten years in Japan, so the language was not a barrier. Other things would provide the differences.

Both were anomalies within the village. Mr. Maloney because he was the only Caucasian the “gaijin” from the title. His path was going to be the one of learning to fit in. More interestingly was his wife’s experience. The youth of the rural parts of Japan have mostly abandoned the country for the cities. She had some fitting in to achieve as well.

Mr. Maloney has an affable style of writing littered with amusing similes. They might be too much for some readers, but I found them endearing. He uses their life in the village to comment on the world at large. It was funny to realize there was a comment on US politics which popped up and then moved on. There is a bit of stand-up comedian timing to the way he writes. Set up and punch line. He even skewers the idea of the “this is my first year in a new culture” stories.

When I finished, I felt like I had leaned a little more about the stresses undergoing Japanese society. While also enjoying the amusing life of Iain and Minoru in this small village life.

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

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Women in Music Part III by Haim

In the half a decade I’ve been listening to popular music there are two things which have never changed. Good lyrics paired with a great hook are an equation for a great song. The test for that is always after I hear something for the first time what manages to linger with me after the sound is turned off. Is it a clever turn of phrase or a bass line to die for. One band which regularly gives me both is Haim. Their new album Women in Music Part III is full of these moments.

Musicians and the way they release new material is becoming something different. For Haim they had released six videos of the 16 songs on the album every few months starting a year ago. That first song “Summer Girl” is the three sisters who make up the group walking the streets of LA shedding their winter clothing followed by their own saxophonist. It felt like their take on Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side”. When I read they had given him a songwriting credit for the track I realized it was intentional.  I knew it was going to be an eclectic album if this was the first song.

Each new video showed a band playing with genres. I mentioned it as my favorite single of 2019 when “Hallelujah” came out at the end of the year. It is based on Alana Haim’s loss of her friend along with the bond between the sisters. The emotion of this song would be replicated in multiple tracks on the album as each sister opens up about their own personal tribulations. Each of these tracks come from a genuine place of emotion as each woman finds her voice to speak about it.

One of the best tracks is “Man From the Magazine” where in a very folky Joni Mitchell-esque way they skewer the misogyny they deal with. This album is full of tonal shifts from track to track. That they don’t come off gimmicky probably speaks to the respect the sisters have for the genres they are working in.

I know we are in a time where sitting down and listening to sixteen songs by one artist seems quaint. The beauty of queuing up Women in Music Part III is you’ll hear a self-shuffled playlist from a single artist.

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

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Doom Patrol

For all that I take my comic books seriously some of my favorites are decidedly not. As the potential of what comic books could be evolved throughout the 1970’s there were two series which enjoyed making fun of that. One was Marvel’s “Howard the Duck”. The other was writer Grant Morrison’s mid-70’s tenure on DC’s “Doom Patrol”. Both comics took the oh-so-serious desire of comics to be given respect and gave it no respect. Both series at their best pointed out the silliness at the foundation of superhero culture.

When I heard there was going to be a television version of “Doom Patrol” I wondered whether it could be translated. Writer Jeremy Carver has deliriously taken the no subject can’t be broached style of the comic and broadened it to all of pop culture. With an excellent cast of actors who bring these damaged characters to life it is one of the best television series out there.

The basis of the plot is Dr. Niles Caulder aka The Chief has saved a group of people who have extra normal abilities. We meet him through the story of stock car driver Cliff Steele. He has a fatal accident leaving only his brain intact. The Chief houses it in a robot body. As Cliff awakens, he meets the others. Jane a split personality of 64 each of whom has a specific power. Rita Farr movie star of the 1950’s who has an accident which provides her powers she can’t control. Larry Trainor a test pilot who survives the crash of his X-15 by taking in an extraterrestrial spirit. That is the core team.

Facing them is the villain Mr. Nobody. One of the best parts of Doom Patrol is many of the episodes are narrated by him. As portrayed by actor Alan Tudyk each of this poke fun at the tropes of voice-over narration. There is a sequence in the first ten minutes which sets the tone for the entire show.

For the rest of the first season Mr. Carver and his writing team take every crazy idea to heart. As insane as parts of it are there is a real emotion in the stories of the members of Doom Patrol. As their backstories get filled in it allows the writers opportunities to comment on over five decades of social change. It is intelligently achieved by wrapping it in absurdities.

If you haven’t heard of this show it is because up until recently it was on a fringe streaming service, DC Universe. Happily, the new HBO Max service is giving it a wider platform to be discovered. It is currently halfway through the second season and it hasn’t lost a step from the excellent first season. When you’re exploring the new streaming service give the first episode a try. You’ll know almost immediately if it is your kind of television.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Strawberry Rhubarb Lemonade

When it comes to thirst quenching beverages lemonade is at the top of my list. Especially during the summer. Up until three years ago I had always just made a basic lemonade. What changed was a visit to my local lavender farm where I was encouraged to add lavender to my recipe. It immediately became a favorite. The pitcher on the top shelf of our refrigerator is as likely to be tinted purple than light yellow. That has been one of the joys of living in a farm community. I have learned a lot about new ways to use the things being harvested. A year ago I got the latest addition to the lemonade repertoire while at one of the farms.

I really enjoy the rhythm of the different harvesting seasons. Probably because they are among the first things ready to be enjoyed strawberry and rhubarb have become favorites. Last year when I was out picking strawberries I was chatting with my fellow amateur harvesters. One of them next to me said they couldn’t wait to get home and make fresh strawberry lemonade. I wasn’t excited about that. The strawberry makes it too sweet. I could never get the sugar balance right. Then another person mentioned they added rhubarb and strawberry to their lemonade. Now that sounded so interesting, I bought some extra rhubarb on my way home.

What the rhubarb does is the same thing it does in pies or preservatives made from these early harvest staples. It adds a lot of counterbalance to the sweetness of the strawberry. Instead of trying to muck with the sugar amounts I found it much easier to find the right ratio of rhubarb to strawberry.

Lemonade is an extra simple recipe, but I found getting this one right took just a little extra prep in boiling the new ingredients before adding them. Here is my recipe.

In a saucepan I add four cups of water. To that goes two cups of chopped rhubarb, and 1/2 cup of sugar. I bring that to a boil and hold it there for a short time somewhere between 6-8 minutes. I add one cup of diced strawberries and let it simmer for an additional 2-3 minutes. I remove it from the heat and let it cool. Then I strain it into a pitcher. I add one cup of freshly squeezed lemon juice and enough ice to fill the pitcher.

It is a versatile recipe and if you are going to try it you might want to experiment with the rhubarb to strawberry ratio to find the right balance for your palate. The recipe above makes a tarter version than the typical strawberry lemonade I’ve tried.

In these current times I am more thankful for the simple pleasures right close by. Strawberry rhubarb lemonade is one of them.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: P is for Pandemic and Punk

Being at home for so long I have been looking for places where music can provide a respite. The beauty of having been an early iPod adopter is I have a massive music library with many custom playlists. There was a day a few months ago when I wanted to scream at the world. It felt like tiny things were piling up with little I could do about it. I decided I needed some music. When I saw my “punk” playlist I realized that was just what I was looking for. For the next three hours I vigorously bobbed my head, beat on my air drums, slashed my air guitar, and sneered the lyrics to the air. It was just what I needed. It also got me thinking about punk rock and how it has lasted for 40+ years.

One of the things about rock music in the 1970’s it was a DIY enterprise. There was an industry, but they were also still figuring things out. By the time we got into the middle of the decade it was bifurcating. One was the desire to co-opt more and more of other music. There were concerts which featured an orchestra on tour with the band. It was still rock and roll, but it felt like it was pandering to our parents. Look Mom there’s an orchestra behind the guitarist.

Sid Vicious (l.) and Johnny Rotten of The Sex Pistols

I would learn I wanted my version more stripped down. Which was what I encountered when I was given a copy of “Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols”. This was the music I wanted. It seethed with emotion. I couldn’t see Johnny Rotten, but I knew the lines were being sung with a sneer. I was hooked and began learning of the American versions in The Ramones and Patti Smith. England was the epicenter as many of the bands grew out of a disaffected youth who felt their future was stalled. The Clash, The Stranglers, Siouxsie and the Banshees sang of that world. I can’t say my middle-class American life gave me insight into the lyrics. What did get me was the energy of quick bursts of drums guitars and vocals with an edge. For about seven years, into the early 80’s, the punk rock scene found a niche. Then it faded away a bit.

It all seemed to revive for good in 1994. This time it came from Southern California and the skateboard scene. Literally playing in garages bands like Green Day and Rancid were signed to labels to make records. It would start the second age of punk featuring diverse versions like Rage Against the Machine, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Blink-182, and others. As it was with the first generation the middle-aged dude didn’t necessarily feel the lyrics personally. I did appreciate the energy behind the delivery and this time via videos I could see the sneer behind them.

There is a beauty to any artistic enterprise stripped down to its essentials. Punk Rock is that for Rock-and-Roll. It also makes a handy substitute for a primal scream during the low points of a pandemic.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist

I like television musicals. I like movie musicals and Broadway musicals too. It is the small screen version which connects with me. It probably started with “The Partridge Family” as a child. I liked the television version of “Fame” better than the movie. I thought “Cop Rock” was awesome. One of my favorite episodes of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” is the musical episode. Most of these shows do not last awfully long. Characters singing to the audience every week seems to wear out its welcome. It never seems to stop me from giving a new one a try. The latest television musical is Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist.

The gimmick for this show is Zoey, played by Jane Levy, hears people singing songs about their lives to her. She is the only one who hears them. Once she hears one, she feels like she needs to help. Which is the source of each episode’s plot.

Zoey is surrounded with plenty of people from whim to hear their inner music. She works at a tech firm in San Francisco. She has a busybody neighbor who is the only person to know about Zoey’s gift. Her family is going through the tragedy of watching her dad suffer through a debilitating terminal disease.

That last part is one of the things which made me really fall for the show. Creator Austin Winsberg used his own experience of losing a parent to a disease to inform that part of the writing. Many of the most beautiful moments come from Zoey hearing from her mother, brother, and sister-in-law through their songs. They sing to Zoey what they can’t speak. The most poignant is her songs from her father. He is unable to speak but to Zoey he can sing. The family dynamic is a special part of the show.

The other people sing of more normal things unrequited love, relationship issues, etc. One of the fun things is Zoey as a Millennial is not familiar with many of the older 1970’s and 80’s tunes sung to her. It makes it fun when she is trying to describe the song to her neighbor who is shocked, she doesn’t know them.

My favorite episode of the season was when Zoey sang her truth out loud in real life. While we have always seen choreographed backing instrumental versions of other singing when Zoey does it the rest of the world sees her singing for no reason. The episode forces her to face up to some uncomfortable truths she has been hiding from herself. The writers do not let her off easy. The glitch becomes the pivot point at the midway point of the season.

If you are looking for a fun show to watch and you also like tv musicals Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist lives up to its name.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Conventionally Yours by Annabeth Albert

One part of my non-perfume life I haven’t spent a lot of time talking about in this column is my time as a gamer. I was one of the original Dungeons & Dragons players in the early 1970’s. I have continued to play for the rest of my life. Being a gamer it also led to my spending more than a little time every summer at a gaming convention where I would participate in tournaments. I loved these experiences. I almost always attended with other local gamers and we would road trip to the tournament. They remain great memories. The new novel Conventionally Yours by Annabeth Albert tells a story of gamers and gaming.

Ms. Albert has been the successful writer of several series. She has touched on gaming culture in some of them. Conventionally Yours is a classic road trip plot. Two NYC rivals who play a trading card game called Odyssey are thrown together in the same car to travel to big tournament in LA. Conrad Stewart and Alden Roth then begin their trip across the country.

Annabeth Albert

As they travel they learn more about each other. They both have interesting stories to tell. The common ground which is reached is expected. By the time they reach LA rivalry has turned to something else. They both still desperately need to win. Can they vanquish the other on their way to victory?

Ms. Albert captures much of the nuance of gamer culture. Odyssey is loosely based on the Magic: The Gathering card game. As one who played that game and attended many tournaments Ms. Albert depicts that with an accuracy that leads me to believe she has played a tournament game or two of Magic.

She also must have done a cross-country road trip because that is also accurate in the telling. It is also the opening up of Conrad and Alden which gives the book its emotion. With nothing else to do you talk about yourself. Once you know your rival better that relationship changes. As it does here.

It has been a few years since I spent a weekend in a convention center playing games. Conventionally yours captures why I miss it.

Disclosure: Review based on a copy I purchased.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: The Last Dance

Ever since we lost live sports it has been illuminating how important they are to my well-being. I realize even when the teams I root for lose I get a lot of joy out of watching. As much as anything I’ve felt that loss. I couldn’t quite bring myself to watch S. Korean baseball. I did watch an excellent documentary series called “The Last Dance” which helped fill in that sports shaped hole.

The advent of the streaming services has given form to the long-form documentary. I have enjoyed many of these because of the ability to go into greater depth on the subject. “The Last Dance” is all about the 1997-1998 Chicago Bulls NBA season. It is built around the film of an all-access production team which followed the team from pre-season to the championship victory parade. That the footage existed was an audacious bet by current commissioner Adam Silver who in 1997 was the head of NBA Entertainment. That is the equivalent of NFL Films where they make short videos of the sport. This was something entirely different. This was going to be hundreds of hours of footage. There were no streaming platforms back then. This story couldn’t be told in an hour. And there was one other thing. Mr. Silver got permission to film all this because he agreed never to release it without Michael Jordan’s permission. This turned out to be a good thing because it allowed for time to move along. For streaming services to be a thing.

Two years ago they approached Mr. Jordan with the pitch of making a long-form episodic documentary out of the footage. They made a convincing argument because he agreed. They would add current interviews with the players into the documentary footage. That would become “The Last Dance”

I am a sucker for behind the scenes authenticity. This footage is revealing in the effort it takes to mount a championship run. The personalities that it takes. Throughout the ten episodes it covers the entire span of Mr. Jordan’s Chicago Bulls career. That coincides with the moment the NBA exploded into an international phenomenon mostly on the shoulders of Mr. Jordan.

Just that footage is worth the time spent watching. But the real attraction is listening to the key personalities on the team talk about the season from a twenty years on perspective. The director Jason Hehir finds a way to give them the room to talk about those days with candor. It is fun to watch them hand one of the players an iPad with footage of what someone else has said. The looks on their face as they hear these things are priceless. It usually is followed with one of the more memorable quotes from that person.

This may be one of the greatest sports documentaries ever. I have kept thinking about much of it since I finished watching it. It also appeals to non-sports fans because Mrs. C at first ignored it before she was drawn in. Once the episode of Dennis Rodman leaving on a 48-hour vacation within the season ended she asked me to cue up the next episode. She isn’t a sports fan, so she didn’t know the way the story ends. She enjoyed it as much as any scripted show we watch.

If you need a bit of sports to watch “The Last Dance” can help fill the time until we see a real game.

Mark Behnke