The Kominsky Method

Sometimes actors tend to play to type.  From movie to movie, their characters seem to operate within pretty much the same emotional range and have the same basic reactions and mannerisms.  Humphrey Bogart would be an example of this type of actor, and John Wayne would be another.

kominsky1-e1567030523175I had the same general perception of Michael Douglas, viewing him as most comfortable in playing Gordon Gekko or another unlikable, bullying jerk who you hope gets his just desserts at the end of the film.  Then Kish and I watched the two seasons (so far) of the Netflix series The Kominsky Method, and my preconceptions about Michael Douglas were absolutely destroyed.  The show is a classic example of a  well-known actor playing against type, and doing so brilliantly.

The title of The Kominsky Method refers to the acting class of Sandy Kominsky, played by Douglas.  Sandy’s in his 70s, but he’s not ready to give up teaching — or acting, for that matter.  The show centers around Sandy’s relationship with Norman Newlander, Sandy’s long-time agent and best friend played by Alan Arkin.  Norman has been very successful financially and had a long-lasting marriage, whereas Sandy has gone through multiple wives, failed to pay his taxes, and hasn’t led the most responsible life — although he drives a terrific car.  Now Sandy and Norman are dealing with the kinds of problems that men in their 70s must deal with — like prostate problems, energy problems, memory problems, sexual problems, health problems, and relationship problems.

The interactions between Sandy and the dry, biting Norman as they address the issues they are confronting are often hysterical — at least, to this reviewer who isn’t all that far from his 70s — and there is a fine ensemble cast that includes Sandy’s daughter, his daughter’s aged boyfriend, Sandy’s new girlfriend, and the students in Sandy’s acting class.  The acting class scenes in particular are really interesting, as Sandy watches his students perform, teaches his approach to acting, and shows that he still has a lot of passion for trying to get people to take acting seriously as a craft.  Sandy’s got some warts, but on the whole he’s charming, vulnerable, funny, and likable.  You wouldn’t mind having a beer with him — but you might have to pick up the tab.

Michael Douglas, playing a vulnerable, likable character?  That’s a big part of the reason Kish and I binge-watched and really enjoyed The Kominsky Method, and why we’re looking forward to season three.

Soap Dope

Some shocking news came out of Hollywood yesterday:  the entire cast of the daytime soap opera Days of Our Lives were released from their contracts, and the show is going on an “indefinite hiatus.”  Things are not looking good for fans who avidly follow the comings and goings of people in the mythical town of Salem, located somewhere in the Midwest.

daysBut that’s the problem:  are there really any DOOL fans out there?  In fact, it’s a fair question to ask what was more shocking:  the producers’ decision to give the entire cast of the show the old heave-ho, or the fact that Days of Our Lives, which debuted on broadcast TV in 1965, when Lyndon Johnson was President, was still on the air 54 years later during the Trump administration.  I, for one, had no idea that, in this day and age, daytime soap operas have been carrying on to tantalize the homebound with sordid stories and dramatic pauses and egregious overacting.

There was a time, during the heyday of soaps in the ’60s and ’70s, when a kid coming home from school was likely to find his or her Mom seated in front of the TV, watching Days of Our Lives or All My Children or Guiding Light or General Hospital, waiting for the day’s routine episode-ending cliffhanger that would entice them to tune in the next day to see what happened. Soaps dominated the afternoon TV screen, and were so popular that odd efforts like Dark Shadows — which combined soap operas storylines and horror characters, with the star being a vampire — were popular for a time.  It was all pretty irritating for a kid who just wanted to come home, get control of the Philco, and watch a Three Stooges rerun on channel 43.

Soap operas seem absurdly out of touch with the modern TV world, where reality shows and talk shows and other shows can regularly deal explicitly with the cheating, scandals, and tragedies that were the grist of the mill for daytime soaps.  And, of course, the dramatic shows that are available on HBO, Netflix, Amazon, and many other content outlets are a lot more direct and graphic and ground-breaking in their treatment of murder, rape, and other shocking and controversial topics.  Soap operas seem pretty staid and conventional and old-fashioned by comparison.

TV is an ever-changing medium, and the trends are moving decidedly away from ongoing shows that plumb the depths of the ever-intertwined lives of a few families in a Midwestern town.  In fact, to paraphrase the familiar introduction to DOOL, you might say that, for the soap opera genre, the sands in the hourglass have just about run out.

The Peaky Blinders Way

Kish and I have been enjoying the current Golden Age of Television by gradually working our way through the strong crop of binge-worthy shows that are available on Netflix, Amazon, and other sources.  It’s amazing how many high-quality productions are out there, just waiting to be discovered.  But how do you decide what to watch?  We tend to take suggestions from friends — which is how we started on Peaky Blinders.  Once we started, we couldn’t stop.

all_2Peaky Blinders tells the story of the Shelby clan, a crime family in England.  The show begins in 1919, when the Shelby brothers — haunted and jaded by their nightmarish experience as part of a tunneling crew in World War I — have just returned from the fighting.  At that time, the family runs a small-time bookie shop in the poor, rugged neighborhood of Small Heath in Birmingham, a blue-collar manufacturing town in central England.  The Shelbys run a razor gang called the Peaky Blinders — so-called because they store razors along on the edges of their peaked cloth caps and use them to cut their foes, who are blinded by the flowing blood.  Thanks to the brilliant maneuvering of Tommy Shelby and the efforts of his brothers Arthur (my favorite character) and John, their Aunt Polly, and their Romani relatives, as the show progresses through five seasons the clan thrives, knocks off opposing crime bosses and syndicates, and expands their operations.  I won’t spoil the show for those who haven’t watched it, so let’s just say that while the Shelbys achieve great success, the deep underlying troubles and threats always remain and are sometimes realized.

The show draws upon a rich vein of plot lines in post-war England.  It deals with the ever-present English class system, the interesting Romani culture and language, criminal turf wars and police corruption, violent gangs like the murderous Billy Boys, the Italian mob and later the American Mafia, and lots of ongoing political turmoil and intrigue thanks to the rise of the Communist Party, the Irish Republican Army, socialism, and ultimately British fascism.  The Shelbys somehow manage to navigate through it all.  The show’s recreation of the post-war world is totally believable, and the acting is uniformly terrific — from Cillian Murphy as Tommy, whose split personality is always torn between good impulses and extreme criminal conduct, Paul Anderson as Arthur, mentally crippled by the war and subject to fits of deranged, murderous rage, and Helen McCrory as the mystical, level-headed Aunt Polly.

The culture depicted on the show is so powerful and compelling that a viewer has to consciously resist the temptation to adopt the Peaky Blinders way, and start emulating the Shelbys, by saying “eh” or “hmm” at the end of every sentence and turning every declaration into a question, walking in slow motion with arms slightly bowed out from the body, wearing pants at flood height, getting radical bowl haircuts, and reciting the lyrics to In the Bleak Midwinter whenever something bad happens.

Peaky Blinders just completed season 5, and apparently two more seasons are planned.  We can’t wait.

Instant Recall

Let’s say that Key to the Highway by Derek and the Dominos is one of your favorite songs, as it is one of mine.  How long would it take you to hear the first few notes and recognize that it’s being played on the radio?

According to some recent research, the answer is exactly 0.1 to 0.3 seconds.  That’s virtually instantaneous.

anim_homepageThe research focused on pupil dilation and certain brain activity that was triggered by hearing a favorite, familiar song and compared it to the reaction to listening to unfamiliar tunes. The study determined that hearing even a fraction of a second of a favorite song caused pupil dilation and brain activity related to memory retrieval — which would then cause you to immediately remember every note and every lyric.  One of the researchers noted that “[t]hese findings point to very fast temporal circuitry and are consistent with the deep hold that highly familiar pieces of music have on our memory.”

Why do researchers care about the brain’s reaction to familiar music?  Because the deeply engrained neural pathways that are associated with music might be a way to reach, and ultimately treat, dementia patients who are losing other forms of brain function.

The human brain is a pretty amazing thing, and its immediate recall of music is one compelling aspect of its functioning.  But here’s the thing the researchers didn’t consider:  immediate recall isn’t limited to favorite music.  In fact, it’s provoked by familiar music, whether it’s a tune you’d happily binge listen to or whether its a piece of music that you wish you could carve out of your synapses.  If I mention the Green Acres theme song, and you then think of the first few guitar notes for that song, I guarantee that every bit of the song will promptly come to mind, whether you want it to or not.  (Sorry about that!)  And isn’t it a bit disturbing to think that, if you eventually lose your marbles some day far in the future, one of the last things to go will be the tale of the Douglases and their “land, spreading out so far and wide”?

Stuart Smalley Sign

Our anonymous Third Street Bridge sign artist has struck again.  When I walked by yesterday morning, I saw that the latest hand-lettered sign channels an inner Stuart Smalley, the fictional character played by Al Franken on Saturday Night Live years ago.  You may recall that the mild-mannered, sweater-wearing Stuart gave a Daily Affirmation with a positive message that always concluded:  “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!”

I’d say that “You are worthy” falls squarely into the Stuart Smalley mindset.  (Those of us who don’t share Stuart Smalley’s hopeful and constructive world view might ask, in response, “Worthy of what?”  But never mind that.)

It’s nice to know that some unknown person cares enough about the well-being of their fellow Columbusites to create inspirational messages to help us feel good about ourselves and spur us forward on our days.  I’m looking forward to the next sign that helps to put a spring in my step on the way to work.

From Early Bird To Night Owl

For as long as I can remember, I’ve  been an early riser.  When I was a kid, I was the first member of the family who was up in the morning.  In college, I was never able to sleep in like my friends could.  And once I started working, I established the “early to bed, early to rise” regimen that would have made Poor Richard proud.

tumblr_n0gk0hqryh1qmw1oho1_1280But here’s the thing:  as time passed, I found myself waking up, and going to bed, earlier and earlier.  When it got to the point this summer where I was opening my eyes at 4:30 a.m., with no hope of going back to sleep, I knew I needed to do something.  Those hours might be ideal for a farmer, but they seemed a bit out of whack for me.

So lately I’ve been trying to change from an early bird to more of a night owl.  It isn’t easy.  Working to modify ingrained daily habits that have prevailed for decades is a challenge.  The effort for now focuses on the back end of the day, where I’ve been striving to stay up later than usual.  This means no night-time reading, which will always cause me to doze off, and trying to find some really riveting TV shows — like Peaky Blinders, which Kish and I have just started watching.  Through concentrated effort, I’ve actually been up past 10 p.m. every day this week.  This may not seem like anything to those people who regularly catch the late show on TV, but it’s a significant step for me.

And this morning, I slept in until 5:30.  5:30!  I feel like a slugabed, but progress is being made.

Rewatching The Best Documentary Ever Made

The other night I was searching for something to watch on TV.  I flipped over to our Roku option, clicked on Netflix, and started to flip through the Netflix offerings.  When I saw to my delight that Ken Burns’ The Civil War was available for free as part of my Netflix subscription, my choice was made.

arthjtf-show-poster2x3-q87qozzFirst broadcast in 1990 — 29 years ago! — The Civil War is, in my book, the best documentary ever made.  And while Ken Burns has made many fine documentaries since then, The Civil War remains his masterpiece.  From the first strains of Ashokan Farewell that began playing at the beginning of Part One, to the lovely footage of cannons at sunset and the sun-dappled pastoral scenes and shimmering rivers on the battlefields that were drenched in American blood long ago, to the historic photographs of generals, privates, politicians, battle scenes, and the dead and the voice-over readings of speeches, letters, and diary entries of the participants, The Civil War is note-perfect from stem to stern.

Of course, Ken Burns had some great material to work with, but his great achievement was sifting through the enormous historical record and capturing the essence of the titanic, nation-defining struggle in an accessible way.  The result is as riveting, as fresh, and as deeply moving now as it was when a nation first watched it, enthralled, during the George H.W. Bush administration.  The Civil War tells a powerful story, and as I’ve watched the early episodes this week I’ve found myself rooting for Lincoln and the Union, and bemoaning the inept and egotistical Union generals and all of the early Confederate victories, just as I did almost three decades ago.

Sometimes TV is better the second — or even the third — time around.  If you’ve got Netflix, The Civil War is well worth a second look.