The Sopranos

[spoiler free]

The Sopranos is one of those shows my husband watched but I didn’t, since he had access to HBO while spending lots of time in hotels for work. He would come home and relate divers tales from the series for me, but it didn’t sound like my cup of tea. With the exception of Lilyhammer I’ve never been a fan of mobster entertainment- The Godfather puts me to sleep faster than unisom.

Yet needing distraction, when I noticed Amazon Prime offers The Sopranos I tried it out. I had no idea the show was so good. It reminds me of Breaking Bad, so much so that I’d be surprised if The Sopranos didn’t serve as creative fodder for Vince Gilligan. Both shows possess rich character development, quirky glimpses into crime worlds, quick story pacing and goofy, brainy humor. In that respect The Sopranos was definitely cutting edge for its time, premiering in 1999. While we now expect strong character development and deft plots from TV, up to that point it was rare if unheard of for a televised series to de facto mimic feature films (interestingly, The Sopranos was originally going to be a movie).

I remained mesmerized through the first few seasons, but put the brakes on binge watching because 1) I’d like to savor it and 2) I’m worried it’s going to jump the shark as did Big Love– what a disappointment that show turned out to be! The last season of Big Love was so boring it was unwatchable.

So here are my thoughts on various and sundry characters.

I’m not sure why Tony is so likable. Is it James Gandolfini who is likable, or the character? Granted, I’m no mafia movie connoisseur but I don’t think there’s ever been a “boss” character like Tony. He’s kind of dorky, a bit of a mush, and overthinks things. You almost get the impression that, had he been born to a different life, he might have been an English professor. [The theme of being trapped by the world you’re born into- mob related or not- is an ongoing motif of the series.]

I know she’s supposed to be smart and highly educated, but she comes across as braindead during the therapy sessions with her slow, breathy comments. I’m not sure what Tony sees in her. However the psychiatric context allows a convenient narrative “in” for Tony to disclose his inner workings.

Carmela is an interesting character. I didn’t like her at first but found her ardent faith in the Catholic Church, and her never-ending patience with Tony, touching. A remarkable feature of Sopranos is that it offers likable and multidimensional characters that go against the grain of what is typically offered by Hollywood. Carmela is unabashedly a “homemaker” and she’s displayed as such in an endearing light.

I don’t know if it’s the casting or scripts but Tony’s kids were a bust for me. Both AJ and Meadow rub me the wrong way and I think they would have been better cast with different actors. I know it’s always touch and go with child actors, especially if they have to “grow up” over the series, but the scenes including the kids are the weakest points in the episodes.

Livia Soprano is one of the more amazing characters I’ve seen on screen. As with the outlier of a positive housewife in Carmela, who expects to see an astounding old lady character on TV? Nancy Marchand plays the part beautifully as a dark, scheming, brutally pragmatic fury.

Another Hollywood outlier as far as characters go. A scrawny old man with bad glasses is a dark but hilarious entity in the crime world.

Christopher is by far my favorite character. One of Tony’s goons, he initially comes across as simplistic but as the show unfolds you realize his motivations and allegiances are profoundly complex. In a way he represents the crux between “old school” mobsters and the modern world. This is another concept repeatedly brought forth in the scripts, and not only in relation to the criminal element: the decline of society from a traditional, conservative system to a politically correct quagmire lacking decency or boundaries.

I know food isn’t a character, but it may as well be on Sopranos. In addition to constant product placement, sumptuous Italian meals seem to appear in every other scene, with characters wolfing it down in between dialogue. I had to wonder- if many takes of each scene were necessary, were the actors basically eating nonstop during filming? I know during food commercials actors will spit out food in between takes, so they don’t get sick (I knew a lady who did a banana commercial. She spat out an entire bucket of bananas over the course of a day) but these guys are actually eating. No wonder poor James Gandolfini gained a ton of weight! As good as Sopranos is theatrically, it also serves readily as food porn. There had to have been culinary consultants for the show.

The Man Who Sold the World

I heard this cover of David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World” on the radio. I was never a fan of Nirvana, and don’t particularly like Bowie’s music (with the exception of “Space Oddity”) but something about this version is haunting and satisfyingly melodic, even with Cobain going off key. Poor Kurt looks terribly skinny here.

The Strange Case of John Cantlie

Some people may recall John Cantlie as the British war correspondent kidnapped with the doomed James Foley in 2012. He is still being held by ISIS (or ISIL, or IS… that group is worse than Prince) but by all appearances has switched sides and is now in support of his captors.

This struck me as odd because Theo Padnos, in his highly readable account of being held captive by militants in Syria for nearly two years, describes the contempt his captors held for kidnapped westerners who convert to Islam in an effort to spare their own lives. And the bid to join Islam is no guarantee of escaping execution, as was seen by the sad fate of James Foley. Cantlie has appeared in numerous ISIS created videos and has even penned articles for Dabiq, which is kind of the jihad version of The Economist. Here he is taking viewers on a cheery tour of Mosul:

Now, my opinion in watching Cantlie in this video is that he is clearly operating under duress yet has resigned himself to his plight. How much he really believes of what he says is unclear. He may not even be so sure himself- he looks dazed and a little loopy.

I often read about the ISIS propaganda machine yet have had difficulty finding original sources. Does ISIS have a youtube channel? If they do, I can’t find it. Dabiq has been archived by The Clarion Project, but it only comes up in google if you search for PDFs. I did find some of the articles attributed to Cantlie, and while they do read as authentically British, I noticed some small usage errors that would be common for someone not natively fluent in English. So perhaps they are heavily edited before reaching publication.

The funny thing about Dabiq is that it proudly proclaims all the grisly features of radicalized Islam as true Islam- a sentiment that, if uttered in the west by westerners, make progressives freak out and accuse you of intolerance. You can read an edition here if you’re curious, which contains gems like “Islam is the Religion of the Sword, Not Pacifism,” and “The Burning of the Murtadd [Apostate] Pilot.”

Townes Van Zandt

Has anyone ever heard of this guy? Yet another obscure (at least I think so) singer with beautiful music. I guess this music would be categorized somewhere between bluegrass and country. As usual, these are finds from the ancient contraption known as “the radio.”

Mr. Van Zandt, by all appearances, led a rather tortured life before succumbing to alcoholism and drug addiction at the tender age of 52.

Big Love

[spoiler free]

Some years ago my husband, who was spending a lot of time in hotels for business, told me about the series Big Love. We didn’t subscribe to HBO at home but he was free to enjoy an array of cable shows. I didn’t exactly feel deprived though, because a dramedy about polygamy sounded, well, stupid.

But when I noticed the series on amazon prime recently I decided to give it a try. I was quickly surprised by the brainy, dark humor and addictive intrigue that develops both in plot and characterization. In that respect it reminds me of AMC’s wonderful Breaking Bad. In fact the two shows share an actor- Aaron Paul, who in Breaking Bad plays the dopey Jesse Pinkman, and in Big Love plays ex-Mormon Scott Quittman.

This is a weird show. I’m up to season 4 and I still can’t figure out if the central message is anti-polygamy or pro-polygamy; moreover I can’t figure out if it’s even pro-christian or anti-christian. Most of the characters are deeply conflicted on some level and their motivations remain ambiguous. And while I’m sure some marriages, either monogamous or polygamous, can keep the pace, the constant passionate sex between Bill and his three wives seems implausible. On a similar note, why are Bill’s wives so beautiful and well dressed, while the other polygamists we encounter have frumpy, badly dressed wives?

For a large household with small children the three wives and Bill manage to find inordinate private time to have deep, lengthy conversations. There is occasional mention of “Ben and Sarah” (the two teenagers in the household) watching the kids, but these are magical hollywood teenagers. Having a wide age range of children myself, procuring even ten minutes of attention from one of the teens to watch the little ones is like squeezing blood from a turnip, and is usually accompanied by shouted complaints from the next room. However, the show does occasionally manage an accurate portrait of the struggles of running a huge household. Our family size here matches the Henrickson’s season 1 head count, though there’s just one of me, another facet that piqued my interest: you don’t often see huge families on television these days, unless it’s reality TV.

The Henrickson homes are immaculately clean though we never see anyone cleaning. Occasionally the wives carry laundry baskets or lackadaisically wipe an already clean surface with a rag. In one episode Margie works through emotional issues by vacuuming a lot. But otherwise the Henrickson clan is somehow impervious to mess and clutter.

There’s a lot of product placement in this series, which surprises me because I thought polygamy was generally frowned upon. The Henrickson wives spend a great deal of time grocery shopping, unpacking groceries, and there are ongoing references to how wonderful orange juice is (while pouring Minute Maid). Many of the food products “advertised” by the series are junk, yet the Henricksons remain slim and fit. Barb and Bill look heavier in Season 3, but appear to have lost it all by season 4.

A guess the million dollar question for any woman watching this series is, could I live in an polygamous arrangement? I can only tell you that around kid #5 I was just so exhausted all the time that another pair of motherly hands would have been a boon, though the long term psychological price of sharing one’s only sexual partner probably wouldn’t be worth it.

Strangely Big Love was created by two gay men, Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer. More than once corollaries are made between homosexuality and polygamy, including a hilarious scene where “prophet” Roman Grant lectures a group of reporters.

lots of kids, polygamy style

While Big Love isn’t nearly as good as Breaking Bad, it does have its moments of comedic brilliance and emotional poignancy, and for that is well worth watching if you’re in the mood to binge watch an entire series.

Staten Island Summer

When I first noticed Staten Island Summer on Netflix I was delighted. A movie about Staten Island! Since when does that happen? I mean there was Copland which I believe was a thinly disguised version of Staten Island, but generally this island, despite its proximity to the cultural mecca of Manhhatan, has been left out of the cinematic universe. I eagerly clicked PLAY.

Sixty seconds in I knew I was in serious trouble. A “cartoon New Jersey” copulates with a “cartoon Brooklyn” to give birth to Staten Island. Yuck! Could they have been more crass? Technically this is true as Staten Island accents are a blend of Brooklyn and New Jersey- but animate it as porn? Blech. This was only the beginning.  From that initial point vulgarity, vapidity, and aimlessness only increased. Dick jokes, cleavage jokes, masturbation jokes. No, no, no!

I decided to lie back and think of England, enduring the whole damned 108 minutes of this monstrosity.

Let me state it bluntly: this is a horrible movie. Horribly written, horribly acted (with allowance for the disgusting, pointless script) horribly edited, there’s no significant plot, the characterization is abysmal and I’m pretty sure most of the scenes shot in “Great Kills” were in fact shot on the dreaded North Shore. Mysteriously no one in this film has a Staten Island accent except for the token guido, mafia boss, and extras. That’s right folks: the major players in a film about Staten Island sound like Julliard trained actors. I should have expected as much.

Et tu, Brute?

There were a few funny scenes, or at least I found myself laughing once or twice through this sorrowful adventure. The scene where John DeLuca- the token guido- struggles with basic math on his Navy exam was funny. The animated scene where creepy pool manager (Michael Patrick O’Brien) births Satan’s spawn was humorous. The scene where the cops, mafia, African American drug dealers, and the crazed Hispanic maintenance worker all pull guns on each other was vaguely funny. But otherwise this was a giant waste of time and hardly emblematic of the city’s most verdant borough. Maybe writer Colin Jost spent too much time in Hollywood, but this was a useless, worthless, unavailing cinematic effort no matter which vantage point you approach it from. Don’t squander your life watching this film! Or at least fast-forward to the sparse scenes that might make you laugh.

Bluegrass Gangnam Style

About a year ago I finally brought myself to watch the much hyped “Gangnam Style” video by South Korean musician Psy. Yes I was behind the times, and all I could wonder was what the North Koreans would make of this? I wasn’t sure what to make of it either, and forgot about it until I happened upon this bluegrass version yesterday.

This version is better than the original, IMO. I love the absolute deadpan expression on the musicians’ faces; is that part of fiddle culture? And the goofy dances mid-song. Somehow it all works.

Years ago when I was still homeschooling I befriended a lady from Arkansas who became an online penpal of sorts. Her daughters were award winning fiddlers so I gained some insight into the deep south world of fiddling, that I wouldn’t have discovered otherwise.

Dance Moms

I’m ashamed to say I’ve been watching Dance Moms on netflix. I tried watching it upon first airing, but found it painfully boring and mind-numbingly shallow. So why I can stomach it now, I’m unsure. Perhaps, armed with the power of streaming, I can skip the worst parts. As my daughter Amadea intoned: it’s so horrible it’s mesmerizing.

For those who don’t know, Dance Moms is a reality show revolving around The Abby Lee Dance Company, her lead team of dancers, and those dancers’ mothers. Here are my thoughts.

  • Abby Lee. I actually like her. She’s tough and no-nonsense. It’s not unusual for her to tell a crying child to suck it up and deal with it. We need more adults like this in the world, because children these days are coddled. I often think my worst mistake as a parent has been being too easy on my kids. Abby is also really fat, which is weird for a dance coach presiding over stick-thin little girls. But it doesn’t seem to bother her; she dresses well for her weight and has success with speed dating.
  • The moms. The “dance moms” provide the bulk of drama in the series.These women are so unbelievably brassy, catty, shallow, back stabbing and emotionally vicious that I had to wonder if it was all scripted. But I honestly don’t think it is, at least not entirely; these ladies are genuinely horrid. They wear thick layers of makeup such that they appear to be sporting masks, and while not fat, they’re all chunky and dumpy. They drink loads of alcohol. The moms remind of Kate from Kate Plus 8. In fact many of them look like her. Is this a Pennsylvania thing? Nasty personalities, and harshly dyed hair?
  • The girls. The dancers are sweet, hard working little kids. I felt bad for them being caught up in this web of vicarious living at the hands of their crazed mothers.
  • The dancing. The dancing and dance techniques are subpar. They would be laughed out of town by a real dance school such as ABT or the Kirov. Their dance style is best described as stripper routines plus gymnastics, and even the best dancers are not that good. Which leads us to:
  • Hypersexualization. The costumes they put these little kids in are insane. I think every pedophile on earth must be glued to this series. A typical costume looks like underwear with a sprinkle of sequins. What the heck? I can’t imagine putting my girls in these outfits. What is everyone thinking? And it’s not just the costumes; the dances contain more bumping, grinding, and booty shaking than an evening in Atlantic City would provide. Except these kids are nine years old.

you thought I was exaggerating

However, in watching this series I got the same feeling I derived from Toddlers in Tiaras. As crazed as the parents might be, they’re deeply involved with their kids’ lives and make sure the children are always busy with life outside the home. Again, if I were to fault myself as a parent it’s that I’m entirely too checked out. I feed them, I bathe them (the younger ones anyway) but beyond that they do their thing and I do my thing. Am I supposed to be ferrying them around town to a myriad of extracurricular experiences, watching their every developmental move? Maybe, but I don’t. I’m not nearly the helicopter parent these dance moms are. The closest I come is doling advice out to the the overachiever, who practically begs for it. Quite frankly I feel I deserve a medal for getting them to school on time for three years in a row. I do deserve that, don’t I?

Hot Girls Wanted

When I noticed the documentary Hot Girls Wanted on netflix I knew I had to watch it. Of course I love documentaries- I could happily watch a documentary about mold- plus I have a longstanding fascination with sex workers. What makes a woman cross the line to engage in the oldest profession known to man?

Hot Girls Wanted focuses on the internet-spawned “amateur” industry of very young women, most only 18 or 19 years old, trying to forge their way into online porn. Answering an ad in craigslist they are invited to the home of a “talent agent” who rents out bedrooms, and assists the girls in getting shoots. The girls advertise themselves on twitter (which does not censor pornographic content) and most have lofty plans to make it big in the industry.

As for their motivations, most express a desire for a quick escape from their parents; at upward to $1000 per shoot they amass sums of money that, from their teenage vantage point, appear vast. Some express a desire to feel “liberated” or “free.” Miriam Weeks, aka Belle Knox, the Duke University student who famously financed her tuition by working in porn, waxes poetic about the feminist empowerment she experiences on the set.

However all that glitters is ultimately not gold for these women. While the docu does not necessarily have an anti-porn bent, it starkly illustrates the paradox of supposed female empowerment against the degradation they are subjected to at work, including abusive fetish acts, and uncertainty about their contractual obligations if they’re not comfortable with a particular request by a producer. The film also exposes the heartrending conflicts of young women trying to come to grips with their choices, while remaining loyal to the values of family and loved ones.

In terms of raunchiness the film is relatively tame, at least considering the subject matter. There is some brief topless female nudity, and non-nude clips from disturbing “abuse” videos. So if you’re looking for titillation you’ll come away disappointed, as the film focuses on the psychological and logistical factors in the lives of fledgling porn actresses.

One thing that amazed me is that none of these women seem to be on birth control, and, filming in Miami, they don’t use condoms (which are mandatory in films executed in Los Angeles). One girl blithely describes getting “paid extra” for Plan B at Walgreens! This makes me think porn stars are not the most forward-thinking bunch, and are probably not considering the long term implications of their career choice.