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readyoneReady Player One author Ernest Cline probably did not select the 1980s as the nostalgia motif of his novel simply because it happened to be the era of his youth. In current pop culture, Stranger Things, IT, 24K Magic, and plenty of other manifestations keep making the ‘80s the decade that cannot be terminated. Decades foregone, do today’s Gen-Zers ever feel false-nostalgia for Marcus Welby or The Macarena? There is something specifically poignant about the ‘80s that Cline thought would resonate with multi-generational readers.

Teenage Wade spends his days and nights memorizing the dialogue of John Hughes movies, listening to New Wave song files, and, most importantly, mastering classic arcade video games like Pac Man and Tempest. The year is 2044. Teen character obsessions with ’80s pop culture in Ready Player One is more than pacifying entertainment in the age of a catastrophic global energy crisis. Their avatar identities connect to virtual reality through a visor and motion-controlling gloves and hunt for treasure in the vast network called the OASIS, where people can become anybody they want or visit any place in the imaginable universe. Hunters occupationally plunder VR worlds for currency credits, fighting skill points, magic weapons and clues to the location of a trillion dollar prize. Halliday, a genius and recluse who designed the OASIS, has died and willed its ownership to the hunter who first solves a series of puzzles leading to a final figurative Easter Egg hidden in the lore of Halliday’s own ‘80s pop culture obsessions. The contest requires intense familiarity with Halliday’s favorite books, cartoons, and videogames from own teenage years, and has led to a global ‘80s craze fifty years beyond. As Wade, isolated in his personal hideout, describes, “Spiked hair and acid washed jeans are back in style.” He means what is in style amongst his peers inside the idealized and abstract universe of the Oasis.

In the America of 2044, climate change, wars and corporatism have reduced most of the population to depressed scavengers. Teenagers like Wade have been forced to abandon most of what we might consider a normal life of school, friendships, sex, and stepping outside. He lives a lonely existence in a vertical trailer park ghetto. But in the Oasis, Wade’s anonymous avatar, Parzival, is becoming the most famous Gunter [Egg + Hunter] in the world, relying on his mastery of ’80 pop culture to pursue the trail of Halliday’s arcane clues. The bulk of the novel follows Parzival, along with his team of Gunter comrades known popularly as the High Five, solving Halliday’s posthumous challenges left inside elaborate movie and videogame recreations. Their nemesis is IOI, a greedy corporation plotting to control the Oasis with a force of avatar clone armies trained to win the contests through cheating, extortion, and real world murder.

If this plot structure – a gang of troubled but precocious young people combine their expertises to defeat the schemes of an unscrupulous adult enterprise – sounds to you like Goonies, or Whiz Kids or other ‘80s era media artifacts, say Uno!

A recent article in the blog Vulture asked in its title Why Are We Still Obsessed With The ‘80s? Some of their answers were practical, such as what we see on our screens and hear through our earbuds is coming from media creatives in their 40s and 50s who have an affinity for the pop culture of their youth. Also the time traveling powers of YouTube and Facebook have mid-lifers introducing children, younger siblings, or nieces and nephews to the pop culture that populated their childhoods. So maybe the resiliency of the ‘80s is a phenomenon of shared multi-generational touchstones more available through current technology. As Vulture commented, “When one generation influences a second (and a third) generation in this way, there’s a pop cultural ripple effect that keeps on rippling… The pop culture we grew up on? You couldn’t ignore it if you tried.”

On a more theoretical level, Vulture suggested the tendency of media creatives to delve into the ‘80s as a means to connect the “now” to an era taking first steps into a transformative technological age. Nostalgia mining always offers an escape to idealized memories of youth, but the 1980s is the last full decade before the internet became an avatar for human interaction. In other words, maybe the reason why we keep trying to relive the ‘80s is because our computers have disconnected us from an authentic shared culture.

Ab ovo, Halliday’s Easter egg hunt. The futuristic odyssey specifically revisits a past in which technology was capturing young people’s desire for adventure before the internet supplanted real human interaction. We have to remind ourselves in the midst of Cline’s story that the High Five’s swashbuckling teen teamwork is all an illusion. In real life, the High Five buddies reside in remote parts of the world and do not even know what their comrades or competitors look like. Winning inside the Oasis – just as all commerce, politics, and notoriety of the day – is just a fantasy. There are not really trillions of dollars at stake in finding Halliday’s egg, just trillions of zeros and ones. The youths of ’44 have no actual participative culture of their own. It was Halliday’s dying desire to bequeath them his antique pop culture passions in a way that would stimulate actual interaction, something the inventor of the Oasis felt personally responsibility for ruining. Halliday’s contest is his last chance at real human connection, ironically after his death.

We might also say that Halliday is Ernest Cline’s avatar. Both the Easter Egg Hunt and Cline’s dystopian aesthetic are respective expressions of loss over something the ‘80s represented, a lost era of social engagement. Halliday filled his OASIS with references and facsimiles of the ‘80s culture he loved, then willed a contest which could only be won by someone who cared enough to love his same interests. Likewise, Cline, in writing Ready Player One offers readers a chance to connect or reconnect with his ’80s fondnesses. Of science fiction, another author, William Gibson (credited with reviving the SF genre in 1980s), once said, “It doesn’t resonate back from the future, it resonates out of modern history.” Cline’s sci-fi depicts a future that still searches for something we are missing out of our modern history. Both Cline, the creator, and his creator avatar, Halliday, seek to reboot real human-to-human communication.

rp13As for the Ready Player One motion picture adaptation, despite excellent special effects, it misses the chance to visualize the vast possibilities of the Oasis so inventively depicted by Cline. Also, the game of our hero Gunters using their intellectual powers to solve Halliday’s cryptic puzzles is given secondary treatment to fighting and action sequences. Not to say the action sequences are not well executed. In particular, a recreation of the movie The Shining as the setting for one of Halliday’s challenges provides something amazing on film that a novel could never do. Still, a disappointing shortcoming is the movie’s inability to capture the literal aspects of the Oasis as simulacrum, to understand the world’s fixation with videogames in this future as a product of desolation. Overtrying to be hopeful, the movie steps around an important theme in the novel, which explores something dark about our modern society and the mass-loneliness advance technology is creating.

Social commentary in the novel is deftly weaved through exciting action challenges. The book also succeeds in making our protagonist (avatar) Wade/Parzival both socially awkward and cool. The last third of the novel avails too much deus ex machina, and an anticipated final encounter feels rushed and superficial after the novel’s earlier insightfulness (Spoiler Alert: Only reality is real). Overall, Ready Player One is an electric read, the experience of a complete future universe both exciting and tragic.

edenDo you believe everything you hear? Joss was a troubled teenager before ever telling his psychiatrist that his bicycle collision with a random car door was “meant to be.” He is the child of upper-middle class professionals who attends a private high school in multidimensional Cambridge, Massachusetts, but he also grew up angry and defiant, and he just got out of two years lock-up in juvie for setting the neighbor’s house on fire. His meeker younger brother killed himself; a tragedy over which the father has fallen into dissociation and the mother has become an irreconcilable bitch who holds Joss responsible. Yet, in the hospital, recovering from the concussion he suffered, Joss feels euphoric, spiritually renewed and he has begun to hear the OM.

The OM is the primordial vibration of the universe. It sounds like a cosmic choir chanting and could anciently be heard by all humans, before the mythical fall of creation. To this point Michael Sussman’s novel Crashing Eden is still a fairly phenomenological YA drama. We are not sure yet if this is a journey into myth and the supernatural, or the story of a depressed kid having a psychotic break.

The psychiatrists seem to have a clinical grasp of what’s wrong (or too right) with Joss. They explain that the OM is an auditory hallucination brought on by Joss’s state of manic bliss. Euphoria and delusions of grandiosity are common to mental patients Joss’s age. Joss’s belief that he has developed special powers, coinciding with the anniversary of his brother’s suicide, is likely a function of Joss’s mind protecting itself from sadness and guilt. Is Joss’s life changing experience of the OM going to be real within the context of the novel, or a maddness through which Joss will exercise his grief? The author will make a choice for the reader about what kind of novel this is going to be – a story about mental illness and family discord, or a sci-fi, superpowers fantasy that will suspend all physical rules to deliver readers beyond the universe to the feet of God. Because Joss believes that something universally significant is happening, and his conviction is about to be substantiated by a series of stupefying narrative events:

Event: Earth is hurtling toward intersection with a vast black hole in outer space, portending the end of the world.

Event: Joss encounters a pair of grad school scientists who have built a wearable device that amplifies the OM. They also enlist Joss in distributing the devices to young people everywhere, in the hope of saving the world by re-syncing it with the primordial vibration of the universe.

Event: the human mission to restore honestly and goodness to the world angers God Himself, who irrationally rains down catastrophic blizzards, earthquakes, and plagues.

Final Event: Joss teams up with the grad students, the ghost of his dead brother, and other friends who have developed supernatural abilities. Joss and company fly as spirit bodies through the black hole to confront God and talk-therapy Him through his attachment disorder related to his own mother abandoning him thirteen billion years before.

Anyone who took a high school English class is probably familiar with Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s concept of poetic faith, described as the willing suspension of disbelief. This refers to a reader’s willingness to accept a fictional imagining of the world (or world’s) on the author’s terms. Crashing Eden raises a question about the point at which fantasticism in speculative fiction breaks the readers willing suspension of disbelief. Sci-fi and fantasy stories freight a lot willingness before the cover page is ever turned, and, of course, suspension depends entirely on the individual reader’s cooperation.

There are a couple common ways the fantasy in a genre story gets broken. 1.) The RULES of the Impossible World are implausible in the real world, e.g. the wizard about to cast his death curse conveniently has a heart attack and dies. 2.) The RULES of the Impossible World are inconsistent, e.g. only a wizard can do magic until a non-wizard steals the magic wand. Despite other weaknesses, Crashing Eden actually passes both of these tests. After the on the level looking early chapters, Sussman wends a fairytale path, but there are no early conceits, no limits on the contrived reality that prevent the story from traveling beyond the beyond. So why does Cashing Eden not entirely work? In the druthers of your humble reviewer, its gradually elaborate fantasy simply gets too far out.

If the issue is not broken disbelief, perhaps we could call it cognitive estrangement from the breadth of Sussman’s fantasy world. We can still give up on a story if at some intangible juncture its fantasy proposal feels pointless. Too fantastic. Too weird. There are no doubt other readers for whom legends given authenticity, superpowers employed to punch-out God, and the undisputed existence of God at all, is an exhilarating reading experience. And Sussman deserves credit for giving young readers a positive parable about redemption, healthy self-forgiveness, and celebrating ethics of peace while never ennobling a particular religion. The book is also slyly funny and the teen hero is complex. To my taste, I would have liked the novel to continue in the direction of teen-with-a-mental-problem, and the fantastic parts to be something Joss subconsciously invented as a recovery tool. A little more science and not so much fiction, please. In words attributed to sci-fi author Damon Knight: “Alice In Wonderland, good. Weird Alice In Wonderland, good. Weird Alice In Weird Wonderland, not good.”

 

simonSimon has a millennial age secret. He is gay and he is not ashamed of it. A 17-year-old suburban white kid with close friends and a chummy, functional family, Simon is not so fearful about being socially ostracized. His Gen Z size worry seems to be that people he already trusts to accept homosexuality will make his coming out a “big deal.” What is at stake for gay Simon in a post-acceptance era is that his differentness from the hetero default will eclipse the adult identity he is still in the process of constructing, and that people who would otherwise completely approve of his sexual preference, will appropriate their associations with him for their personal agendas.

As a coming-out novel, Simon Vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda, written with soaring emotional intelligence by Becky Albertalli, approaches the subject rather different than the kind of young adult material of my 1980’s teen years. If there were coming-out stories, I did not read them. What I remember is clunky afterschool TV specials like What If I’m Gay? and The Truth About Alex. In both of those stories, which intended to present an affirming message about homosexuality, a high school jock’s closetedness is exposed through accidental circumstances, unleashing havoc on girlfriends, families, and sympathetic friends. In subtext, coming-out was audacious and reckless. Were teenagers of the era ready for The Truth? Where I grew up the only thing these specials produced were homophobic punchlines in the locker room.

Closeted Simon, growing up in present-day suburban Atlanta, has been engaging in an anonymous online romance with a mysterious boy from the same high school, going by the faceless moniker Blue. Simon is not a jock but a theater kid with a popular personality. A less popular and more awkward classmate, Martin, happens upon a school library computer display of Simon and Blue’s private homosexually revealing emails, which Simon accidentally forgot to close. Martin is not even homophobic, but he is a conniver and he threatens to abuse the secret unless Simon helps Martin get the attention of a female friend who is way out of Martin’s league. When the girlfriend does not show romantic interest, Martin posts a vulgar, fake coming-out confession on behalf of Simon to the high school’s gossip blog, and also hints at outing Blue. Simon might try to deny the gay truth, but instead our Twenty-first Century hero reluctantly accepts it an opportunity to start coming-out publicly. Some taunting and humiliation comes down from the jock clan at school, but mostly what is unleashed on Simon is a series of embarrassing endorsements. A dozen straight kids make a point of saying they support him. His BFF’s pick out guys they think are boyfriend prospects and squabble over who got to be first told. Teachers stand on guard for bullies. A lesbian couple hugs Simon and hands him their phone numbers. One girl reassures him that Jesus still loves him. Simon tolerates the undue attention, but he worries that the hullaballoo will somehow collaterally uncloset Blue. Will he lose Blue after his own carelessness with the library computer has set off a chain of events that might include schoolmate’s being so determined to embrace gay people, they will shortcut Blue coming-out on his own terms?

In Simon’s generally enlightened middle-class suburbs, one coming to terms with one’s identity can be just as scary, or risky, or embarrassing as it ever was. Albertalli has released a version of the coming-out story that updates the order of consequences. Simon is not ashamed of being gay, but he anticipates the unfairness of people coming to know him as that one thing. Before he has even had any real sexual experience, he will be redefined as his sexual preference. As Simon writes to Blue, “Do you ever feel locked into yourself? …Sometimes it feels like everyone knows who I am except me.” If Simon comes out, will his would-be allies receive him as he truly is, or will they impose some new version of himself he does not even know yet? Simon, version 2.gay ?

What is so fresh about the Simon character is that as he experiences typical teen rites of passage, he is also emotionally mature enough to recognize sexual preference as one part of himself. “I’m tired of coming out. All I ever do is come out. I try not to change, but I keep changing, in all these tiny ways. I get a girlfriend. I have a beer. And every freaking time, I have to reintroduce myself to the universe all over again.” Albertalli is suggesting that all teenagers reach a stage at which the adult they are struggling to find within feels like a secret identity. That every teen feels like the person they are perceived to be is a disguise over the person they actually are. That it is a universal experience to come-out as someone other than who family and peers recognize. “I don’t know how to tell them something like this and still come out feeling like Simon. Because if they don’t recognize me, I don’t recognize myself anymore.” Albertalli’s suburbs are progressive, but imperfect.

Progress has another modern consequence, as demonstrated by people in Simon’s orbit who use his sexual identity like an invisible token that can be invested into some other enterprise. As when Simon describes his coming-out to his family on Christmas morning:  “I guess it’s about what I expected. My mom’s asking about my feelings and my dad’s trying to turn it into a joke. Alice is getting political…” What Simon intuitively fears is that his differentness is something other people will treat as an object that may be taken from his hands. And it is. Martin, a kid who cares about his own gay brother and marches in a Pride parade, selfishly outs Simon on the gossip blog thinking that while it might be embarrassing it would be relatively inconsequential. Simon has to chew out Martin: “You don’t get to say it’s not a big thing. This was supposed to be mine. I’m supposed to decide when and where and who knows and how I want to say it… You took that from me.”

Recalling the good old 80’s again, I am reminded of a friend who was forced out of the closet at age fourteen when his father caught him messing around with another boy in a tent. Not only did the father make the remainder of his teen years a torment, he became a pariah among his classmates and community. No doubt ostracization still happens to gay and genderqueer kids, but the queer stigma in most American places is fortunately becoming relic. Simon is less concerned with people disliking him or being violent towards him, than he is in being defined by his society in a way that is both narrow and manipulable.

My initial reaction to the Simon novel and its adjacent movie adaptation was: Hasn’t the teen coming-out thing been done enough? But, in fact, I am hardpressed to find a story about a teenage protagonist coming-out actually made into a major studio film. Even if the accomplishment is tardy, teenagers will love Love Simon’s thoughtful humor. The screenplay is a loose adaptation of the book, and cleverly executed given that the source material is about 1/3 epistolary (those email exchanges). It successfully regenerates most of the same dramatic beats with excellent young actors. It does not quite arrive at the post-acceptance angle portrayed in the novel. Instead of peers looking out for Simon, the movie’s drama leans on alienation, misconception, and, like the old days, making the gay teen seem responsible for his own victimization. Although, at the end Simon’s classmates rally around him. And Simon’s relationships with his parents are more fully realized. The movie was emotionally touching and I recommend it.

Simon Vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda is a radical coming out novel. Because what is more salient now in our culture is not gay-or-straight, but the lingering requirement of a person to have a static sexual identity at all, or the requirement that one should have to articulate one’s sex life to the whole homo sapien demos. These issues are still confusing at a time when people are, for the most part, accepting of homosexuality, and people who are publicly unaccepting often become social pariahs themselves. Tolerance, fortunately came to sound too patronizing, and today in America acceptance might be said to imply cis-chauvinism, even when the accepting party’s intentions are good. Because knowing what sort of sex partner another person prefers, or knowing whether the person considers them self only male or female, is no longer an acceptable method of knowing the person. As it reads in one of Blue’s emails to Simon, “You can memorize someone’s gestures but you can never know their thoughts… people are like houses with vast rooms and tiny windows.”

 

 

 

 

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7567On the occasion of a major motion picture adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time 56 years after its publication, I decided to tesser through the fifth dimension back to 1962 to learn about the novel’s apparent durability among middle-grade literati. What I discovered is a mid-generational artifact wedged right between the 60’s feminist movement and McCarthy era preoccupations.

Meg is a twelve-year-old science nerd and bullied weirdo at school. However, at home she is the fulcrum of her weirdo science nerd family, including her unusual five-year-old brother, Charles Wallace, who hides his amazing intellectual gifts from other children. After Meg’s father, a physicist, mysteriously vanishes during a top secret experiment, a trio of intergalactic ferry-like women – Mrs. Who, Mrs. Which, and Mrs. Whatsit – arrive offering to help find him. They lead Meg, Charles Wallace, and a teenage friend, Calvin, on a dangerous mission to rescue the father, and introduce the children to the Tesseract, a method of space travel that involves folding (or wrinkling) time. From a luminous spot in the cosmos, the children are shown Camazotz, a dark planet shrouded by a malevolent cloud called The Black Thing and inhabited by people whose minds are controlled by IT. The authoritarian IT, is a disfleshed, mechanical brain, imposing total social conformity among Camazotz population. IT also holds Meg’s father prisoner. Meg and the other children are the only beings capable of traveling through The Black Thing to Camazotz, and risk being indoctrinated into ITs ethos of homogeneity. Through Meg’s journey two major themes emerge, the indicated one, appointing a young girl as progressive protagonist and hero of individualism, the other a subtextual bulwark of anti-communist zealotry and prevailing conservative values.

Meg begins the story as a hesitater and social outcast among her peers. Because she does not fit it, she is considered stupid, (a missummation also applied to Charles Wallace). Although, the three missuses celebrate Meg’s differentness and individual gifts, ultimately saving her family and the world from galactic evil is something she accomplishes alone. They provide the vehicle of the Tesseract, the mission, and the encouragement, but Meg’s strongest tool is her inner ability to overcome self-doubt. That is the novel’s timely, broad-minded wrinkle.

Within the same pages a second, less forward-looking theme lurks. The nebulous Black Thing is slowly encompassing planet Earth, as it has to completion the less resistant planet Camazotz, a name which happens to rhyme obliquely with communist. Citizens of Camazotz live in identical suburban houses, where all children play games in unison and parents fearfully obey an average routine. The Black Thing suppresses individuality itself, replacing its importance with the false bliss of social equality. Camazotzians are not starved, or deprived of civil rights. Sameness, civic efficiency and the provision of equal economic resources are depicted as worse deprivations. “[Meg] held on to her moment of revelation. Like and equal are two entirely different things.” Children of Camazotz are bereft because they have been absorbed philosophically by IT. The literal brain IT takes over independent thought making a person not just part of IT but turning them into an IT, and IT takes over Charles Wallace’s mind. Depriving Charles Wallace of self-determination is described as an act hate, so Meg resolves to give Charles Wallace what ITs vacuous equality cannot – love. That is, nonsectarian Christian love, which is moderately referenced throughout novel.

Besides Economic Liberalism and Christianity, there are other quaint ideological convictions touted. Intellectualism is a bogeyman as demonstrated when Charles Wallace, the most erudite of the children, falls into ITs mind control most easily because he has the arrogance to think he can defeat IT with logic alone. Meg’s father admits to irresponsible scientific exploration of the Tesseract – “we’re children playing with dynamite” – a reference to nuclear weapons. Also, L’Engle’s composition has a formal, fairy tale cadence that was perhaps the culture of children’s books in 1962 – a lot of dears and darlings and Faaathers.

This brings me, in brief, to the 2018 movie version. The adaptation is successful in imagining a fantastic special effects vision of the novel, distinguishing the characters, and abandoning some of L’Engle’s passé ideology. The movie seizes on the spirit of Meg learning to take pride in being an individual and turning her anger, stubbornness and impatience into strengths. And the filmmakers grow L’Engle’s feminist seed into an inclusive and multicultural universe. There are some deficiencies. The acting is broadly terrible, and L’Engle’s Christian sentiment has morphed into New Agey child-of-the-universe-summon-your-inner-light platitudes that feel drippy. But the best parts of the movie would not exist without the best parts of the original novel.

On the whole, A Wrinkle In Time is a novel from which young people will still draw relevant positivity. It is a story about a girl possessing the ability to solve problems with interior powers even the immortal, interstellar traveling women do not have. Maybe its 1962 first-world triumphalism does not hold up, but the message of children, particularly female children, learning to respect themselves is enduring.

atswimAt-Swim-Two Birds is simply Flann O’Brien’s novel about an Irish student novelist writing a novel about an unfinished novel. Do you twig? The student’s spare-time literary activity includes spontaneous composition of the story of a lazy novelist who’s misused characters, drawn largely from Irish folk legends, animate and conspire to write their own novel in which their creator is tortured and tried for his abuses. In between the folk legend sections, O’Brien’s young author is browbeaten by his middle-class uncle who criticizes the student for his seeming disinterest in studying.

Metafiction may be a particular taste, as is toiling through O’Brien’s long adaptations of Irish verse and writing styles. I confess I wanted give up on this book early on, it was so bewildering. But sticking with O’Brien’s mythical fantasies and stream-of-conscious writing came to feel rewarding. Once I gave up on my inclination to understand every reference to Irish myth or modern Dublin slang term, I was able to absorb that O’Brien created something of epic imagination and wit, even while abandoning all writerly responsibilities toward character and plot. I’ve never been able to slog through the impenetrable language of James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, the style of which O’Brien appears to imitate or parody. Maybe At-Swim is Finnegan’s Wake lite. I know I’ve never before successfully read an Irish novel like this, or finished one feeling as edified. O’Brien’s humor is wicked, and his gifts for description and prose are extraordinary.

[short story first published in Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature, XXXII:1, Fall 2014/Winter 2015]

In my estimation, Oz Feldman, may he rot in Hell, is a tall asshole and an over-ranked yutz. Can I beat him in this match? In my judgment, yes, should I be blessed to survive all three sets. The Lord, may he guard my end of the court, knows I’ve beaten every other boy at Chazak Tennis Camp. So, today it’s Oz versus Benji, the last survivors of the sweaty summer’s end tournament. Also the last day of Chazak for me or Oz, ever. The old men don’t allow you back after summer of 11th grade. Why? I don’t know.

People are watching from benches outside the fence, my father and the other camp coaches, all the camp boys. Even Mama, may God protect her, got the afternoon and is standing along the opposite fence in her TJ Maxx uniform. Under her headcovering she’s smiling at me. I can’t remember the last time I saw her doing that. She’s as far away in the park as she can be from Father, may a tree fall on him.

Oz looms over my opposite baseline, the destroying angel with a black kippah and colorless eyes. He has a one hundred-ten foot arm span and a one hundred-ten mile an hour serve. It’s true, because Father measured. As Oz and I warm up the ball the humidity makes wet mittens of my hands around the racket. I’m remembering what Father, may he choke on his tongue, instructs me on how to play Oz. The ugly giant’s all serve. Don’t allow this dull nephilim Oz to drag me at his advantage into set tiebreakers. Prove to Father I’m not afraid of a big-serving bully.

Some camp boy’s gray-bearded grandfather just climbed up into the seat of the chair-umpire.

“Maysters ready? Play!”

May God murder my enemy.

 

I didn’t wake up this morning with a plan to rely on God to win. I heard it raining and I waited awake with my eyes closed willing the rain to stop. Guess what? It worked. Then I listened for an alarm of rap music from my computer tablet. I had a plan to beat Oz. I repeated the plan in my head.

Estimate the course of his serve at first racket contact. Position myself far behind the baseline. Bounce on my sneakers a little. Shift my weight to the incoming ball side. Don’t try too much on his firsts, just block the ball back. Judge the weight of his over-ranked serve. Attempt a short slice to his backhand, low. Imagine hitting it to the serpents Oz has for shoelaces.

I toggled snooze on my tablet when rap came on and listened for my older sister turning off the shower. I told myself to stop plotting the match because too much would make me meshugah in the head. Instead I thought about Jazmine, the girl on the bus and her big pair of black-girl kishkas. I started to jerk off. For a moment, I thought of how Rabbi back in B’nei Mitzvah class used to say, “Zis iz a zin!” I stopped touching myself when I heard my sister, may she broil from rug burn, close her bedroom door. After I got up from bed I made sure the hallway was clear between my bedroom door and our bathroom for getting there only in my underwear. I skipped shaving because Oz Feldman has a narrow line of a beard that outlines his donkey face. It’s a line that makes him look like he’s passing for twenty. When I went back to my bedroom I put on tallit kattan, which is Hebrew for a Gentile undershirt with tzittzit tassels hanging off the corners. I picked a t-shirt to wear over with a design of Drake. Who is Drake? He’s the black-Jewish rapper and someone I hoped black girls on the bus would think under-ranked. I tied on the coolest sneakers there are from TJ Maxx and I sprayed on Midnight Rooster men’s body spray, which Mama agreed to get me for Hanukkah if I promised don’t wear it on Shabbat.

When I went to the kitchen I discovered that Mama left a skillet of blintzes stuffed with quark. What is quark? It’s kosher type cheese in which we Jews leave out any flavor. In my judgment, Mama should have been in the kitchen on the day of my championship match to make me something better, like she used to. I left all the cold blintzes on a plate for my sister, in case she’s just wicked enough to love the taste of dreck. Only then did I find Mama’s Post-it note left on our kitchen doorpost – May G_d help my boychik hit the yellow ball with all his heart today. Attaboy-chik! Upon review, I ruled I’d been a mean judge toward Mama. Long live Mama! She’s under-ranked.

I knocked on my sister’s bedroom and asked through the door if she could give me money. She said, “Fuck no, Benji,” and I said, “May God be as sweet to you, Bitch!” Back in my bedroom I put a kippah on my head, one with a Red Sox ‘B’ in back, and clipped it to a clump of my curls. In the mirror I judged how much the day’s humidity was making my bristly hair platz out around the kippah. I considered Oz Feldman, may he shake hands with a vise, and how he could probably wrap his long fingers all the way around my skinny neck. Then I wondered if girls think boys who play tennis are sexy, followed by realizing I couldn’t name any famous Jewish tennis stars.

Yesterday, driving me home from tennis camp, Father, may he steer off a cliff, said at seventeen he was horny for Steffi Graf and Chrisy Evert-Lloyd. Being seventeen myself I named Father several girls in pro-tennis I’ve seen on tv who are beautiful. But the girls I named happen to be black girls and Father ignored me like I didn’t say any names at all. I judged right there in the car that Father has chutzpah. In my estimation, only a man with chutzpah would go to the honor of nicknaming himself Great Jewish Philosopher of Tennis, especially if all he knows about tennis is instructing high school boys to play. Said the Great Jewish Philosopher of Tennis, may a yellow ball get lodged in his throat, that when two good tennis players are fairly paired, not strength wins, but reflexive instinct. Father said at Benji versus Oz in the Chazak camp championship I should play like a fox versus a bear in a cage. Do you know what he meant? I didn’t. Then he asked me if I thought my instinct for the subtleties of tennis were strong enough. He asked if I thought I had practiced the right things. But he didn’t wait for me to answer either of those questions. Instead Father kept talking. Said the Great Jewish Philosopher of Tennis, may a bee sting him on the tonsils, that a true tennis champion is master of reflexes, learning to repeat the correct techniques correctly time after time. I wondered if it’s honest for me to love the advice and hate the advisor. Then Father said what works in tennis is the same as in life with our religious rituals, that repetition itself defeats distractions.

This morning I looked on my dresser at the blue, velvet bag containing my tefillin – tiny handwritten pieces of Torah in two small, black boxes. I’m expected to tie the boxes to my arm and forehead every day. Tefillah were a gift from my parents, both of them, on my Bar Mitzvah. Guess what? I skipped strapping on black boxes and reciting Shema this morning, just like most mornings this summer. I didn’t do tefillin, which is bullshit, just to make parents happy, like I did when Father still lived at home. Instead I ruled that repeating an over-ranked blessing doesn’t do bubkes. God, like a chair-umpire in tennis, takes no side between me and my enemies. I decided instead to keep calling my own shots. When my sister went back into the bathroom, I went into her bedroom. On her bureau was a pink charity box she made when she was little in Hebrew school. I stole change for McDonald’s breakfast and left our apartment.

 

I shoved an empty sausage McGriddle box in my tennis bag. Yes, every Jew already knows that McGriddle is forbidden treyf, but this morning I called it good. I then used the tennis bag to block the aisle side of my bus bench. I pulled out my tablet on which I had an email that the new issue of Black-lete Sports Magazine was up for me to read during the bus ride.

Everyday this summer my bus to Chazak stopped at West Boston Boulevard where a facacta lady named Cynthia got on. All of us on the bus had to wait the rest of our lives while Cynthia paid her bus fare in small change.

“Hello, Benny!” Cynthia said, excited like she hadn’t seen me for ten years instead of a day. Her crazy hand wiggled like her plastic rain bonnet in the wind. Have I made it clear that I had previously ruled there would be no more rain today? I waved back barely in Cynthia’s direction making it clear to her I was concentrating on a post in Black-lete. Cynthia sat her fat tochis in an empty bench across from me and pulled out her leather-bound Bible. “I like that you’ve been riding my bus every day, Benny.” A couple weeks earlier she introduced herself, without me ever asking. That day I felt sorry for her and surrendered Benji, but she heard it wrong. No point in ever trying to fix her. She took off her rain bonnet and wrapped gray hair pigtails around her craggy neck. “A boy at the T-stop stole my bus pass, Benny. He looked Chinese.” As I’ve mentioned, I judged Cynthia to have been facacta and weird. She smelled moldy, like the boiler room of my apartment building. She had a thin nose like a butter knife and she wore big, lepish glasses that made it look like I was seeing her eyes through a microscope. “My daddy gave me a roll of nickels to pay the bus driver, Benny. Last night I prayed to Jesus to forgive the Chinese boy.”

“So, good for you.” Why did I say anything at all? I don’t know.

“You’re a sweet-pea, Benny. In my prayers I told God you stare at big-booby black girls on your computer. My daddy says white boys should only date white girls. I like that smell of perfume you wear everyday, Benny.”

I happened to be studying a picture of black women volleyball athletes in sexy sports-bras. “My parents instruct me only date Jewish girls,” I said.

“Jesus was Jewish,” Cynthia said.

“So, good for Jesus.”

The bus stopped in front of the pawnshop on Washington Avenue. Beautiful Jazmine and her two girlfriends stepped on, all of them black, and making a head-turning racket down the middle of the bus. The three of them wore matching, red, collared-shirt uniforms everyday, some office supply store logo on their left tits. I had never overheard names of the other two, just Jazmine. I judged the girls to be loud, mean and fucking gorgeous. Two of them bounced down in the bench behind Cynthia. In the bench behind me, Jazmine put her sneakers up and lounged against the window. Her red shirt collar stood up to her gold hoop earrings and she held her phone so close to her face she swabbed the surface with her long eyelashes.

“Hey, Skinny Jewish Boy,” one of twosome called out. She could only have been asking me, “Don’t your mother feed you? You look like my toothbrush is wearing a yamaha.”

“What do you know about wearing Drake on your shirt, Boy?” the other girl teased. “Hasn’t nobody told Jewish people yet that Drake is gay? You must be gay!” Her benchmate almost toyted-over it was so hilarious.

“Don’t be mean, girl,” the second one laughed. “Maybe Jewish Boy’s not gay. I mean, everyday he sits in the seat across from his retarded girlfriend.” Cynthia just sat smiling and pressing her gigantic eyeglasses against the words of her Bible.

“Hey, Old White Lady, have you and your Jewish boyfriend done the nasty yet?”

“Girl, I bet these two want to have a threesome with Drake in between!”

Maybe Cynthia was happy being an oblivious, Bible memorizing idiot, but the two sexy anti-Semitic girls pissed me off. I turned around in my bench at them and shouted back, “May you both fall in the ocean and float away on your big, black tits!” This riled those two girls up, but not Jazmine.

Never looking up from her phone, Jazmine said her first indirect words to me, ever. “You three all just shut up, please. Let’s not have a race riot here on the freaking city bus.” Jazmine’s friends followed her orders and made less loud gossip of people. Then Jazmine said to me, “If it matters, I doubt Drake is gay, McGriddle.” She estimated me confused and pointed over the back of my bench at the empty breakfast box, which was poking out of my tennis bag. “Just ignore those two hookers, but be careful what you say about a black girl’s boobs. We take them seriously.”

I judged Jazmine’s advice to be good, but couldn’t think of what to say back. Was it a miracle of God that she kept talking to me?

“I’ve seen you before on the bus with your tennis racket. You play every day?”

“Everyday in summer,” I answered. “Camp Chazak.”

“Oh, boy, I could never learn to play tennis there because I could never learn to pronounce it.”

I laughed a little. “You could never play tennis at Chazak because they only allow boys.”

“Excuse me on your religion, but that’s old fashioned and fucked up.”

May God bless Jazmine. She’s so pretty. “You’re judgment is accurate on that,” I said.

“You any good at tennis?” she asked me, also texting on her phone.

“Playing the summer championship today. I’m best at it.”

“Okay, Boy,” she said, “don’t be too all that, now.”

Don’t misjudge me. I meant to tell Jazmine that tennis is the best thing I can do. It’s the one thing I judge myself to be opposite a klutz. I’m told that back in the good old days my father was a teenage tennis champion as well as the top student in his class at Greater Boston Modern Orthodox Day School. Who did I hear that from? My father, of course, and he doesn’t let people forget. In the worse new days, at the exact same school, I’m not on the top of anything. But, at tennis camp? Almost no one can beat me, and I’m not letting you forget either. Tennis is the thing about which I give a shit that certain people such as my father are impressed.

Jazmine stared out the bus window and I stared at her soft looking neck, perfect as the pumpernickel my Mama used to make.

“So, where do go in your life to meet Jewish girls, McGriddle?”

“Oh, they allow girls in Post B’nei Mitzvah Club. We meet on Kosher Taco Tuesdays.”

“That’s the girls you date?” Jazmine’s huge brown eyes stared straight at me. “Which ever ones show up on Taco Tuesday?”

Was Jazmine making fun of me in a more professional way?

“Come on now, McGriddle.” Her fingers summoned me. “This bus is moving slower than my grandma walks. I need some boring conversation. Talk to me.”

“So far I haven’t been on many dates.” Don’t ask me why I volunteered such an embarrassing fact to Jazmine because I don’t know. Upon review, I suppose she made me feel okay telling her anything, instead of feeling like an asshole. “I’ve never been on a date with an African-American girl.”

“You don’t like black girls?”

“No, that’s not what I mean,” I said. “I don’t judge. Like when my Father was backhand drilling me yesterday, he’s also one of our tennis camp coaches, a couple of really pretty African-American girls were walking through the park along the court. My father noticed me noticing them instead of paying attention to his drills. He said his son should forget coming to like svartza girls.”

“Svartsa? That word sounds like I don’t want to hear what it means.”

“My Father said he thinks it’s okay to friends with you, but he’ll never give blessing to marry one.”

“Excuse me. If you want to marry a black girl, how are your parents going to stop you?”

“It’s just not done. Which I rule ridiculous, because my Father’s the most over-ranked role model of halahkah.”

“Okay, beg your pardon?”

“Halahkah means, like, religious way of life,” I explained. “In addition to being all knowing about tennis, my father talks like he’s a professional on the practice of all religious rituals. Meanwhile, last year he moved to a different house and he has his own blonde lady now, who he says is half-Jewish.”

“You got a mom?”

“I got one. She used to stay home. Do you know a guy named TJ Maxx? Now she takes care of him all day. Mama says my father met his blonde half-shiksa when he was still living with us. My father tells me and my sister, no, he didn’t meet her until after he moved out. He says he tried to get my Mama to stay on her medicine and stop being negative all the time. He says sure, a man honors his wife by keeping her happy, but not so much that he has to always be depressed. And, under halahkah, the wife’s not divorced until the husband is nice enough to give her a piece of paper that says You are hereby free of me. Father says he already gives Mama all his his money and she just wants to take away his children, to punish him for wanting to end their marriage in which she refused to be happy. In my judgment, Mama is sadder now. She says my father’s being a bully. She’s taking him to religious court, but in my estimation the odds are against whatever she wants, Jewish law seems like an even bigger bully. I say mazel tov to my father’s new happiness and his over-ranked half-shiksa. May they be buried alive together.

Jazmine nodded her head. “If we’re keeping it real, McGriddle, I’d say the same thing to my mom. Mine used to beat up on me every time she was drinking. Then, when I got big enough to kick her ass back, she started beating up on my little brother. Finally, I was just like, bye, we’re leaving. I took my brother and we went to my grandma’s house for good. The other day my mom text me, ‘You have to come back, Jazmine, because I say.’ I told her, ‘Hell no.’ She can’t make me do anything. You know, last Sunday in my grandma’s church, the pastor was talking about David and Goliath. I heard that story about a million times growing up, but I realized Sunday they’ve been telling it wrong.”

“What’s to get wrong? The kid kills the giant with one smooth rock served out of his sling. Then David cuts Goliath’s head off, and all the Jews learn God will always protect them from their enemies.”

“That’s like what they always taught me in Sunday School too, McGriddle, but I started thinking David and Goliath means something else.”

“The Bible says it right here in First Samuel,” Cynthia chimed in across the aisle. She was already on the exact page. Maybe I was wrong and Cynthia was hearing everything people were saying. She followed the scripture with her pointy witch nose and read it loud enough for the whole busful to hear. “The Lord, who delivered me out of the paw of the lion and out of the paw of the bear, will deliver me out of the hand of this Philistine, Goliath.”

“I guess your girlfriend knows her Bible,” Jazmine said.

“Then you should guess again,” I argued, “because she’s not my girlfriend,”

“Come on, McGriddle, I’m just joking with you.” Jazmine’s smile was so sweet, but I untrusted her a little. “Besides, we’re friends now.”

“What do you mean David and Goliath means something else?” This was me defending Jewish tradition. Imagine.

“I’m just saying, when you think about it, why was David so gung-ho to step up and take on Goliath?”

Cynthia read aloud, “I will go and fight with this uncircumcised Philistine, who hath taunted and defied the armies of the living God. Then, Benny, To the man who kills this giant, the king will give his daughter in marriage and make his house free of taxes in Israel. That’s what the white Bible says.”

Jazmine rolled her priceless eyes. “There aint no white Bible and black Bible, Lady.” Then she turned back to me. “Goliath was talking trash about the Israelite’s army, right? He’s all – Come try it David, I’ll tear you up and feed you to chickens. But then it turns out Goliath’s really just slow and stupid. I mean, he stands there while David kills him with one rock. Sitting there, bored, in church I started thinking maybe David was the only one who saw something about Goliath that wasn’t so scary. Same as I saw with my mom. She drinks and beats up my brother, but beating on her children doesn’t make her strong. It’s her weakness. I’m not going to let her hit us anymore. Once you take away her beating people up, she’s got no powers left.”

“I think I know what you mean,” I said, my faith in Jazmine returning, “but say it again, maybe.”

“What I’m saying is maybe David was so freaking brave because he figured out the giant wasn’t really all that. Maybe he figured out Goliath was all talk and David was going to get the girl and the money. Maybe Goliaths are only Goliath because people keep thinking they are.” Then Jazmine’s nose wrinkled up. “Boy, somebody on this bus smells like a lot of rachet perfume.”

Our bus crossed over the three girl’s last intersection with me. On repetitive reflex Jazmine reached up and pulled the overhead cord for the bell. “This is our stop, hookers. See you tomorrow, McGriddle.”

The three girls stood up and tussled off the bus. I wanted to ask Jazmine exactly how she planned to see me tomorrow. There wasn’t time left to tell her I don’t usually ride the bus on Saturdays, on Shabbat. Also, today was last day of tennis camp. Yes, I’d like her to see me again, but couldn’t think so fast of where or when. See her again? I’d like to will that to happen. Maybe then I’d tell her she’s sexy. I also would tell her how I underestimated how many brilliant things she has to say. Long live Jazmine!

Cynthia’s nose ran across her Bible page and she read out loud, “Do not be slothful in zeal, Benny.”

Maybe Cynthia’s was under-ranked too. Jazmine was already gone.

Do you know Brookline Park? That’s where I got off the bus, where Chazak is. Sure, the sun was hot as Hell but the tennis courts were still wet from overnight rain. Father and another coach got there early with battery-powered puddle blowers. We camp boys followed after them with long squeegees. Soon the gray-bearded amateur umpire proclaimed our green, hard surfaces looked dry enough for play. A bunch of bearded father and grandfather types took positions as shot judges on the court lines. Then the gray umpire clambered up behind the stirrups of the tall chair.

 

Oz Feldman, may he be struck by lightning, and I are now hitting the little yellow ball back and forth, the mandatory ten-minute warm up. More people are here today watching me play than ever before. What’s more nervous making than possibly losing is going down the drain while all the world watches, coaches, other boys, parents, my parents. I’d still like to beat this white-eyed creep Oz, but the watchers make me feel suddenly less sure. By all sense Oz is a better tennis player. I can’t hit the ball over him, he’s too tall. I can’t hit the ball past him, he only needs one or two steps to cover the whole court. His giant serve helps him win a lot of free points. Plus he has a better angle and can fire the ball flat over the net, direct past me.

I hate to pray to God for help, and, as much as I hate listening to my father, his damn advice is the best. Don’t be intimidated, Oz is over-ranked. Serve into his body to jam him up. Remember Oz is better at overwhelming opponents with speed on the ball than he is at placing the ball. He lacks precision for the lines. I must use topspin to make the ball dip down to his feet. Wrong-foot him. He’s slower than sour cream. Trap him into changing direction, against momentum. Move him up the court with drop shots. Slice him. Reduce him to what he really is, a big yutz clomping after my sexy, short angles. Sure, I’m not as tall, but I have my own moves.

And, said the Great Jewish Philosopher of Tennis, don’t lose to the watchers. Father’s accurate about that. I estimate fifty percent of these people are praying I flop. Ignore such distractions. Ignore strangers walking dogs through the park, a noisy lawnmower, a helicopter, bugs, little kids roller skating on empty courts, the sun, humidity, shvits dripping into my eyes, hunger, thirst, white lines still slippery after the rain. Still, what Father never taught me is how to turn off the biggest distraction, the voice of a man inside my head always judging, always asking, What if you can’t get to Oz’s serves? What if you choke on every one of your own serves and keep double faulting? Have you ever tried to not think about something? Part of me has to think about what not to think of in order to remember what not to think about. Maybe a true tennis champion knows how, under pressure, to not think at all.

Off the old chair-umpire’s coin toss, Oz gets first service privilege. Of course his first serve is a mortar, and not where anyone else would put it, to my forehand! Plus there’s a crazy inside slice. Probably over a hundred miles per hour. My feet don’t think that fast. I jump left while planting my right sneaker at the same time, and my foot slides on the wet, white line. Then my right knee cocks in and twists as I go down. Where did I land? On the green asphalt, where else, with the inside of my knee.

I roll onto my back and grab my God damn knee. Lying there I cry for the worst pain in the history suffering. For a moment I want to ask God for mercy, but remember how I didn’t tefellin this morning? That’s right, I didn’t say Shema because tefellin is supposed be bullshit. This twisting of my knee is God’s kareth, his penalty for thinking I can do it myself when it was made clear I should reflexively repeat. Today I have underestimated the conditions of God and slippery white lines. When I close my eyes I see nothing but pain. I Shema outloud, “Love the Lord your God with all your soul and might! These words I command you today shall be upon your heart!”

Praying with my eyes shut, I sense a shadow between me and the sun, a shadow dark as the ninth plague of Egypt. When I open my eyes I see the shadow is cast by a leaning skyscraper who has a forehead broad as the Wailing Wall, and a gargoyle face with the thin beard of young rabbi. His dangling shirt tzittzits point towards me on ground. Oz Feldman has rushed to my side from the other end of court, his white, devil eyes full of me. He got over here before the alterkocker umpire, may his dry-court proclaiming bones crumble, and before Father or even Mama.

I can’t stand up on my twisted knee, but Oz bends over like a drawbridge, stretching one giant arm under my neck, the other under my knees, and holds them safe together. Then he lifts my whole body in his arms and carries me like the smooth stone in David’s sling. Yes, Oz Feldman, may no shame come to him, carries me from the green asphalt to outside the fence. There he lies me down across the sideline bench, out of harm’s way. Long live Oz! Today it’s God who is my enemy. Oz Feldman is such a big asshole, he’s been easy to underestimate.

faceIn 2017 there were at least 800 feature-length, English-language movies released, of which I screened 63. Having seen only of fraction of what came out, I can hardly claim to know which were the “best” movies of 2017. Making a list of my favorites might be fair to the movies I didn’t see, but the expression lacks specificity. Instead I’ve generated a list of movies exceeding my expectations to which any artistic work should aspire:

Art should seek to edify understanding of the human experience, improve intellectual or moral knowledge, and expand contours of the form.

Thus, in order of release date, my list of the most personally edifying movies I saw in 2017.*  This is followed by a list of nine films I thought in some notable way failed to achieve my precept.

 

TWELVE PERSONALLY EDIFYING MOVIES IN 2017

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST

BB2

A live-action musical fairy tale. Belle, a self-reliant young woman taken captive in a castle by a hideous half man-half beast, looks beyond his ugliness and transforms him into a kind prince. I wouldn’t say this film is a feminist revision, but Belle is an enjoyable, smart heroine. The mosaic of live actors, motion capture and CGI is fascinating, and the musical experience is spectacular.

 

IT COMES AT NIGHT

In the aftermath of a near-future apocalyptic plague, a survivalist family hazards on allowing desperate strangers inside their remote cabin. Mistrust and paranoia intrudes, itcomesand heat between the families detonates into barbaric violence. The monsters residing in the human mind are mysterious and terrifying.

 

 

 

WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APESwarapes

Roger Ebert once wrote that sequels are marketing decisions yoked to creative ideas somewhere farther down the food chain. It is evidential that, as the objective of profit precludes substance, the quality of the cinematic experience decreases (For empirical proof, try watching the progressively depreciative first POTA pentology,1968-1973). Somehow the current Planet Of The Apes series defies this rule. Each film has improved over the last in creating compelling stories, intense action, and emotional appeal for the ape heroes.

 

 

ATOMIC BLONDEAtomic Blonde (2017)

A British secret agent assigned to recover stolen documents in Cold War era Berlin, uncovers a cauldron full of double crossing international spies. Charlize Theron playing a bisexual, badass, James Bond is just fucking cool. So are the amazing Kung Fu sequences.

 

SHOT CALLER

shotcaller

A white-collar family man botches his life and earns a prison sentence. Through violent rites of passage, he becomes the leader of a high-stakes criminal gang. The film is adept at presenting the protagonist’s identity transformation, as well as sustaining his long strategy of self-sacrifice, played against other gangsters, in order to protect his family outside of prison. It’s too bad SHOT CALLER was a sleeper in 2017, its business is thrilling and smart.

 

ANNABELLE CREATIONannabelle

Attempting to overcome the undying grief of their daughter’s tragic death, an aging and weird farm couple take five orphan girls into their care. The presence of young girls in the house rouses the resentful ghost of the dead child inhabiting a homemade doll. This sounds like the kind of goofy plot that would inhabit an over-ambitious, under-funded freshman effort, but between the solid children’s acting and the filmmaker’s command of the haunted house space, this mid-budge horror succeeds. It is genuinely freaky and well-crafted.

 

GOOD TIME

Good-Time-585x390

A small-time crook goes to spectacular extremes trying break his handicapped brother out of police custody. What at first seems like a boilerplate heist story, veers into epic Sisyphean failure for the skilled, if unrecognizable, actor Robert Pattinson.

 

BRAD’S STATUSBrads-Status

A middle-aged dad touring New England colleges with his teenage son declines into a distressed state of existential underachievement. While not a particular achievement in filmmaking (I think the subject matter would be better suited to the stage), BRAD’S STATUS is well-acted, funny, and genuine. One of the most profound screenplays of the year.

 

BLADE RUNNER 20492049.jpg

The futuristic story of a policeman assigned to kill renegade, autonomy-seeking androids. It is bigger in universality, special effects, and plot complexity than its 1982 antecedent, although it does not achieve the predecessor’s bleak, emotional allure. BR49 is among the most stunning visual achievements of the film year and deserving of more accolades.

 

BEACH RATS

beachratsFrankie, a Brooklyn teenager, spends his summer getting high with his hooligan friends, meeting girls on the Coney Island boardwalk, and experimenting with clandestine gay sex escapades. Lacking confidence and direction, Frankie’s life is muddled by his attraction to men, his straddling of blue and white collar culture, and the creeping expectations of adulthood versus the lingering indolence of his youth. All of this is presented with a spare and sullen indie cinema vibe. BEACH RATS, with its frequently bare chested male actors, may look like a highly-sexed Abercrombie & Fitch catalog adapted for film, but there is also an interesting, inconspicuous story and a beguiling minimalist aesthetic.

 

THE POSTthe-post-2

Journalism drama drawn from true events and key players surrounding publication of the infamous Pentagon Papers. I’m usually uncomfortable with movies mounted on political bias, even when the bias accords with my own sentiments. However, what the U.S. requires right this second is an elementary refresher on the necessity of an independent press to investigate tyranny, and for reluctant influencers like the late Katherine Graham to be bold. Most impressive in THE POST is Meryl Streep’s ability to employ the shortcomings of her character so genuinely in an otherwise heavy-handed chronicle. THE POST isn’t made with a sense of environment like the great, paranoid ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, but it earns its credentials being both exciting and apropos.

 

THE STRANGE ONESstrange ones.jpg

An adult man and a teenage boy pretending to be brothers on a road vacation, are revealed to be running from a bizarre secret past. Viewers familiar with the dream motifs of Russian fillmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky may discover themselves on a similar metaphysical plane, questioning the certainty of what’s real or imagination. The surrealistic atmosphere, furthered by disturbing subject matter, gets progressively darker as does the performance of James Freedson-Jackson, playing the adrift teenager. He is an overlooked prodigy. THE STRANGE ONES is an overlooked prodigy.

Worth mentioning that the creepy tension is enhanced by an excellent electronic score by same composer of the similarly excellent IT COMES AT NIGHT.

 

Honorable mentions: GET OUT, BEFORE I FALL, CREEP 2, CALL ME BY YOUR NAME, SHAPE OF WATER, MOLLY’S GAME

 

 

and now… NINE DISAPPOINTING MOVIES OF 2017

BABY DRIVER

Speeding toward you, BABY DRIVER looks like a stellar cast and a unusual take on heist genre (the getaway driver’s POV). Going away you might realize you raced pass any substance to see a lot of faux-hipsterism, overacting, and improbable robberies.

 

DUNKIRK

Certainly the task of creating an epic experience out of the WWII British evacuation of Dunkirk by land, sea and air looked worthy in writing. The raw elements of any of these three coterminous stories as a stand alone project would have made for a good movie (except for the air one). Unfortunately, what came out the other end of this massive endeavor was a dull, meandering, emotionally dry, muddle.

 

IT

I was told by I had to read the novel to get IT, which I tried and found IT, like the movie, both incomprehensible and lightweight, except protracted over hundreds of tedious pages. So to you ITidots, who love this thing, mazel tov. I’m bored.

 

MOTHER!

I dig surrealism as much as the next avant-gardiste, and I thought act one of Mother was intriguingly weird. What happens in the second act is an absurd abandonment of aesthetics that serves the filmmaker’s desire to shock, not to edify.

 

KINGSMAN: THE GOLDEN CIRCLE

The first KINGSMAN movie was a successful James Bond for millennials. GOLDEN CIRCLE is Kingsman for people who are shallow and easy to amuse.

 

BETTER WATCH OUT

The Home Alone movies of 1990’s, specifically the casual, cartoonish violence appear to be the object of critique in this dark comedy. What they have produced here is something simply trashy, sadistic and unfunny.

 

JEEPERS CREEPERS III

Like other Creeps, I waited fourteen eager years for the next chapter of this literate, idiosyncratic horror series. JCIII is not just a let down – it’s insulting, uncreative junk.

 

I, TONYA

Maybe there is retrospective humor to be found in the imbroglio of the 1993 Nancy/Tonya figure skating incident. I don’t see what’s funny in 2017 about a man smashing a woman’s head into the wall to the beat of a Dire Straits ballad. Such video collages with music from the period seem to fill-in for the filmmaker’s lack of figure skating i.q. Also, I would like to mention that the athlete to whom this movie gives disadvantaged bonafides was sent to the Olympics twice by the elites that were supposed to be discriminating against her, and yet she still conspired to maim Nancy Kerrigan. I TONYA is a skewed, irresponsible, alteration of Harding’s story. It is also not a particularly creative movie.

 

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI

The intent of dark comedy is to create humor out of non-humorous subject matter, such as ridiculous and ironic human behavior in the wake of young woman being raped and murdered in fictional Ebbing, MO. It is a big ask for the audience to empathize with these flawed characters, but we are also are expected to give a humor license to policemen’s racism, homophobia, brutality, willful neglect, and incompetence. We are asked to tolerate all these offenses for the final justice of a racist policeman being given a mulligan by the surviving mother and the two together beginning a vigilante roadtrip as if they were Hope and Crosby. THREE BILLBOARDS produces some fine acting and dramatic poignancy, but at a time when America is perhaps starting to listen to the voices from embedded cultural oppressions, this movie is dreadfully tone deaf.

 

 

* Arbitrarily all selections are feature length. Also, 12 and 9 is of no significance. These were movies that stood out to me most positively or negatively.