HBO’s Perry Mason – A Few Thoughts

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I’m not going to pretend to be a fan of the 50s and 60s Perry Mason. In fact, I’m not sure I ever watched a single episode (in reruns, of course). However, something about the HBO revival of the show caught my interest–probably Robert Downey Jr.’s involvement as an executive producer.

I took in the premiere episode a few days after its debut and have kept up with it every week since. The third episode aired last night, and I believe I’m ready to share my opinion of the show.

Simply put: I like it.

I wouldn’t say I love it, but I do look forward to watching it each week. Truthfully, it’s not the story that’s captivated me. Rather, it’s the performances, the costumes, the set pieces, and the cinematography that keeps me coming back.

Set in the early 1930s, this Perry Mason is a private investigator suffering PTSD from WWI, struggling to hold on to his family’s farm, and basically down on his luck in every way possible. He’s rough around the edges, cynical, and not afraid to get his hands dirty. Yet, somewhere behind the weary exterior is a good man, a man who could have shined under different circumstances.

There are some excellent performances in Perry Mason. Matthew Rhys has truly brought Perry Mason to life. The slight expressions, the body language, the voice inflection–it’s all working to create a dynamic character that is, though incredibly flawed, deeply appealing. Tatiana Maslany is always fantastic. I haven’t seen her since Orphan Black, but she’s as potent as ever. Of course, there are other superb actors in the show as well such as Juliet Rylance, John Lithgow, Robert Patrick, Chris Chalk, Gayle Rankin, and Stephen Root.

The “look” of the show is gorgeous. Some of it is CGI, but much of it is actual reproduction of architecture, clothing, and vehicles from the 1930s. The costumes are beautiful, by the way. The suits, the hats, the leather jackets–outstanding. It’s just an interesting show to watch.

Be warned, however, there are some disturbing images from time to time. A podcast warned me to be ready regarding a dead baby during the first few moments. There’s also an intense scene taking place on the battlefield of WWI, gun violence, and regular visits to the police morgue.

Again, I can’t say that Perry Mason has connected with me at a visceral level, but I appreciate it for what it is: a very good show with beautiful costumes, exquisite set pieces, and superb acting.

Hamilton On Disney Plus – A Few Thoughts

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When Disney Plus announced that Hamilton would be coming to their service, my family got very excited. Yes, my wife and I saw the Chicago production back in 2018, but my nearly twelve-year-old daughter has never seen it and desperately wanted to for years.

Friday night, July 3rd, my wife and daughter hunkered down in the basement and watched it together–they both loved it.

Yesterday, July 4th, I put it on the main TV as we were going about our day. It wasn’t long before I found myself completely captivated by it, on the couch, abandoning my other pursuits.

Because here’s the thing: as good as the Chicago cast was back in 2018, there is something hypnotic about Lin-Manuel Miranda and the rest of the New York cast. In my opinion, Miranda is not a great singer, nor does he have a beautiful voice, yet it’s undeniable that he is a star on that stage. You simply can’t take your eyes off of him.

I also discovered something else about myself in regards to stage theater. Before I get to that though, it’s important to understand Disney Plus’ concept of Hamilton–they simply presented a version that was recorded in 2016. Someone had the forethought to record the musical on the actual stage, which results in closeups on the actors’ faces and the dancers’ movements. The camera weaves in and out of the action, but completely maintains the stage theater’s atmosphere. Hamilton has a rather unique set that is both stationary and dynamic–that is, the set pretty much remains the same but there are several moving components within that set.

Which leads me to my discovery in regards to stage theater: I feel the same way about stage theater as I do about live sporting events. If I’m not close to the front row, I much prefer just to watch it on TV. At the Chicago production, we were so high up that I couldn’t see every little detail of the actors’ expressions, and, though people were moving, the view appeared fairly static. The screen version’s quick cuts and closeups, just like with sports, made for a more intimate, exciting experience.

If you haven’t seen Hamilton, I recommend you do so. Honestly, a year’s subscription to Disney Plus is still a fraction of the cost of an actual Hamilton ticket. I think it’s amazing that seeing Hamilton is no longer an elite experience–now everyone can partake in the event.

It is, frankly, impossible to walk away from Hamilton without feeling some kind of inspiration. It will motivate you to think more, to be more politically active, to be more creative, to better appreciate diversity, and to recognize more often the astounding steps it took to construct this great nation.

CW’s Stargirl – A Few Thoughts

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Do I feel a little weird recommending a CW show featuring a twenty-year old actress playing a fifteen-year-old high school student? You bet. But, I’ve got my reasons …

Stargirl is a beloved character who primarily appeared in DC Comics’ Justice Society Of America. The JSA was DC’s original super team, a precursor to the Justice League of America. In the late 90s and early 2000s, they brought the team back with its original heroes from the 1940s. They were intent upon training new heroes to continue on the JSA’s legacy, and Stargirl was one of those new recruits.

As a devout JSA fan, the CW’s Stargirl is a delight because they are not shying away from the JSA’s stalwarts whatsoever. Starman, Green Lantern, Hourman, Johnny Thunder, Dr. Mid-nite, Wildcat–they are all either seen or referenced. Furthermore, due to circumstances I won’t reveal, Stargirl takes it upon herself to create a new JSA. She starts with a new Wildcat, Dr. Mid-nite, and Hourman. I have to be honest, though Hourman is a ridiculous concept and perhaps even a troubling premise, he’s always been one of my favorite characters and seeing his incredible costume on the screen is fantastic. Additionally, I loved James Robinson’s Starman, and seeing Stargirl use the cosmic rod is deeply satisfying.

For me, however, the real joy of the show is Luke Wilson. Remember him? I’m not sure what happened to Wilson’s movie career, but he is every bit as good as you remember (if not better). Whenever I see him on screen, I think, “Wow. He’s probably a little too good for this.” Another great blast from the past is Amy Smart, whom I haven’t seen in a long time but is still charming and charismatic.

Finally, the show’s villains are a fresh take compared to the other CW DC shows like Legends Of Tomorrow, Arrow, The Flash, and Batwoman. They have real motive, real depth, and are played by actors with real talent. Collectively, they call themselves the Injustice Society, and if you think that’s kind of a dumb name, you can only blame the folks from 1947 who created them. You’ll see classic villains on this team such as Icicle, Solomon Grundy, Sportsmaster, Tigress, and Brainwave. For a DC fan, this is kind of a big deal.

The show isn’t perfect–there’s quite a bit of teen drama. The action tries very hard, but still looks a little too reliant on “good enough” special effects. And, while some of the actors are quite talented, others still have room to grow.

However, I think the costumes are extraordinary from top to bottom, especially since they’ve decided to go with the more classic “tights” approach versus leather and armor.

By the way, if the name S.T.R.I.P.E. means anything to you, you’ll be very pleased with Stargirl. I suspect this is where most of their special effects budget went.

So while it’s a little awkward for this forty-something to recommend Stargirl, I have to admit that it is a real pleasure to see fan-favorite DC characters brought to life both joyfully and authentically.

 

Looking For a Local Hike? Try Merwin Nature Preserve In Central Illinois

If you’re looking for a fairly easy hike you can do in well under two hours, give the Merwin Nature Preserve a try.

My friend, Troy Marcy, recommended Merwin Nature Preserve to us after I asked him to suggest a few local hiking trails. Troy is an incredible nature photographer, so he knows all the best spots in our neck of the woods.

We’re not avid hikers, and we have two young daughters, so we weren’t looking for a day-long hike or a hike that would leave us exhausted. Merwin Nature Preserve proved perfect because while it had one uphill spot that got us breathing hard, it was otherwise a pretty simple hike with ample diversity.

For example, during our hike, we encountered prairie land, deep woods, a riverbank, several streams, and an overlook of the Mackinaw River. Best of all, we experienced all of this in just a few hours. Keep in mind that we stopped quite a bit to look at minnows, roots, tadpoles, wildflowers, and and impressive view of the river. I’m sure if someone moved at a fast pace and didn’t stop, they could hike the trail in around forty minutes.

Be aware, though, that there is quite a bit of poison ivy. We all wore hiking boots and pulled our socks up, so we were fine, but it’s definitely there from start to finish. Furthermore, the trail became so narrow and overgrown at times that I started to wonder if we somehow got onto a deer path. However, for the most part, the trail is clear and easy to follow.

If you refer to the picture below, we parked at the West Gate and hiked the trail with the nineteen station markers. We printed off the information specific to each station marker ahead of time because their website stated cell service is spotty in that area. As we came to each marker, we read what was special about that particular area. You can find all the material to print by clicking HERE.

If you’re looking for a quick hike with the kids, I highly recommend Merwin Nature Preserve. It’s got a little bit of everything that makes Central Illinois’ environment unique.

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HBO, Watchmen, and the Tulsa Massacre

Watchmen is an HBO original series based on a highly regarded graphic novel. It depicts an alternate world where super heroes are real, but most of them are psychologically damaged and ill-prepared to wield the power they utilize.

The HBO series picks up thirty years after the graphic novel ends, which I thought was a clever direction to take.

The first episode begins in the 1920s with an awful, awful race riot in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where black American citizens are being killed indiscriminately by their white neighbors. It is violent, heartbreaking, and potent.

I’m ashamed to confess that I thought it was a plot point for the alternate world of Watchmen. However, something about it rang true–it just felt authentic. So I Googled “Tulsa Massacre.”

Imagine my horror.

I’m embarrassed that, as a 42 year old man, I learned about the Tulsa Massacre from a TV show. I don’t ever remember hearing a word about it before that moment. I don’t remember seeing anything about it on TV, in books, in school–nothing. Perhaps I wasn’t paying attention. Or, perhaps it was overlooked by modern society.

I have to wonder what else I don’t know about. What else hasn’t made it into the history books? What else hasn’t been allowed to remain at the forefront? Have we been uninformed or misinformed about anything else?

Of course we have.

And, obviously, I could work a lot harder at trying to learn about these forgotten events.

During this weekend, HBO is allowing you to view the entire Watchmen series for free. It delves deeply into issues of race, police brutality, and the legacy of hatred. It also exists well within the realm of science fiction, though, so be prepared for that aspect of it, too. I personally love it when genres intersect; I found the series enthralling.

You can start viewing it here: https://www.hbo.com/watchmen. (Remember, it’s only free this weekend.)

You can also learn more about the Tulsa Massacre at this link that HBO provides on the Watchmen page: https://www.theatlantic.com/sponsored/hbo-2019/the-massacre-of-black-wall-street/3217/

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A Change In Public Education That Must Occur

I started my teaching career in the year 2000. This happened to also be around the time that No Child Left Behind was implemented. Generally speaking, No Child Left Behind said that every child would be prepared to enter college. Schools would be held more accountable. Students would be held more accountable. Academics would become more rigorous. Thus, every student would be academically fortified to flourish in college.

Now, that sounds wonderful on paper, but as with most things, there were unforeseen consequences. (At least, I hope the consequences were unforeseen and not actually premeditated.) Furthermore, from my own experiences in high school, I knew brilliant people who simply did not want to go to college. I also knew people who were very capable at life with no interest in college for many different reasons–primarily the debt they would accumulate. Even as a young novice teacher I knew that No Child Left Behind seemed to lack perspective because not everyone wants to go to college.

Here we are, twenty years later, and I’m witnessing the unintended effects of No Child Left Behind. In the interest of keeping this short, I’ll summarize by saying that if our students don’t play school very well, they are being left behind in a completely different way.

Imagine that you don’t particularly like English, math, history, or science. Now imagine that day after day, you have to sit through those classes for four straight years scraping by with Ds and Cs. You’ve been told college is the only option. You sign up for a local community college, and after struggling to pass your first year, you give up on post-secondary education.

Now what?

What do you do?

What skills do you have?

What sustaining opportunities exist for you?

I’ve seen this happen time and again and it breaks my heart.

The unintended consequence of No Child Left Behind is that, in an effort to meet all the rigorous requirements set forth by various bureaucratic entities, we lost a lot of classes that didn’t fall under the “core curriculum” category.  Most of these classes involved working with the hands. I’m not going to run through them all, but a few that immediately spring to mind are shop class, art, music, and automotive. These were all sacrificed in order to devote more time and teachers to the college-bound material.

I can think of dozens of students who would have thrived in classes where they got to utilize those skills related to working with their hands. And it’s true that some schools still have industrial arts and vocational classes, but I think in most cases they are not offered to just any general student. There’s a selection process involved due to limited space.

Remember that class you were super excited to attend because it addressed your specific interests? Maybe it was British literature, or physics, or chemistry. What if you didn’t like any of those subjects? What if, throughout your entire high school tenure, you didn’t take a single class that interested you? What if you never had the opportunity to discover you like the culinary arts, or fire safety, or automotive technology, or carpentry, or plumbing?

I absolutely believe that every American citizen needs a baseline understanding of the core curricula. Math, English, science, history–these are important things, for sure. However, why do we force a student who has no interest in college to sit through four years of English or math? Why not require two years of English, and then allow that student to take vocational classes related to a field they’d like to enter? They could also use that time to serve as apprentices or interns, get on-the-job training, and graduate from high school with real leads connecting them to a full-time job.

Of course, the great irony is that many of those in the trades are faring better than those with college degrees in today’s world because of scarcity. A plumber can charge whatever he or she wants because toilets have to work and not many people know how to fix them (myself included).

You’re the taxpayer. You know what your kids need. At the risk of sounding controversial, I maintain that most of the bureaucrats and politicians at the highest levels making the decisions influencing public schools neither attended public schools themselves nor send their own children to public schools. They are dictating the outcome of your child’s life with little to no vested interest in the welfare of your child.

How do you get vocational classes that are widely available to all students back into the public schools? I honestly don’t know. It probably starts with contacting your local representative or school administrator.

But a student exited to go to school in order to learn about things tied to the vocations that will have a positive impact on his or her professional life? I think it’s time for that change to occur.

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HBO’s The Outsider – A Few Thoughts

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I have heard a lot of rave reviews about The Outsider, so once I caved in and subscribed to HBO Max, I made sure that it was among the first shows that I watched.

Honestly, I don’t want to tell you too much about the plot because it would be a shame to spoil even the slightest aspect of the series. It’s based on a Stephen King book, so that probably informs you quite a bit.

My wife and I watched this show together, and even though it is gruesome, unsettling, and even sometimes scary, we loved it for several reasons.

First of all, the pacing is superb. When each episode is nearly an hour long, ten episode seasons can get lost around the midway point and become a chore to watch. The Outsider did not. Every single episode added to the overall story, moved at a quick clip, and just kept building the suspense moment after moment after moment. It was incredible.

This leads to something else that I appreciated about the series–the writing. There are no wasted scenes in this show. Everything is important. They kept the big picture in mind at all times, which is very, very rare. The dialogue is crisp, the plot is tight–it just doesn’t get much better than The Outsider in terms of execution.

Furthermore, the locations are astounding. For the most part, nothing about the show’s environments are particularly special, which is what makes them incredible. The scenery in this show is real. The Outsider very much takes place in the world most of us see on a daily basis, and that does a great deal in grounding the show and, as a result, making it all the more creepy.

Finally, the acting is simply superb. You’ll recognize some of the talent in The Outsider, but some of the faces will likely be new to you. It doesn’t matter. Everyone is top-notch. From the main players to the small roles, everyone is stellar, which, again, makes The Outsider feel so rooted in reality. Every character in the show feels like a real person.

Be warned, The Outsider is violent, disturbing, and frightening, but it’s also extremely well made and wildly entertaining. I highly recommend it.

ESPN’s The Last Dance – A Few Thoughts

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I was born in 1977, so I got to experience the Bulls’ championships while in high school and college, which was pretty cool. I loved the NBA during those years. I remember staying up late on school nights every season during the playoffs to take it all in.

When The Last Dance debuted on ESPN, I felt disappointed because we don’t have cable–we’re cord cutters. I kept hearing it was on Netflix as well, but I came to find out that was just for the international market.

However, last week I learned that the ESPN app is free on smart TVs and that The Last Dance is available to stream via that app. Guess what my wife and I have done for the last few nights? That’s right–we binged The Last Dance after the kids went to bed, and we loved it!

I have to be honest–I know Michael Jordan is the greatest player to have ever picked up a basketball, but I forgot just how damn good he actually was. Seeing those years compressed into ten hours … wow. Amazing, amazing stuff.

The documentary played with time in an interesting fashion. It kept bouncing back and forth between the first championship run and the second. This juxtaposition made for some interesting viewing as you compared the “young” Michael Jordan to the “old” Michael Jordan.

Plus, it was fantastic to see those players I loved to watch so much back in the day. Not just the Bulls players, either. Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Isiah Thomas, John Stockton, Reggie Miller, Karl Malone, Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp, Charles Oakley, John Starks, and very young versions of Shaq and Kobe.

If you enjoyed 90s basketball, The Last Dance is extremely fulfilling. Keep in mind, though, that this is pretty much Michael Jordan propaganda. There are no hard questions for the man, no controversies, no awkward moments for him to tackle. This is purely reliving his glory years, and I’m absolutely okay with that.

Here are a few things I learned from The Last Dance that I didn’t know back then …

  1. Michael Jordan tormented every teammate and opponent he encountered.
  2. Scottie Pippen was a little more selfish than I thought, but, even so, he wasn’t very selfish at all under the circumstances.
  3. Dennis Rodman’s shenanigans were far more calculated than I imagined.
  4. Phil Jackson cursed pretty hardcore for a zen master.
  5. Steve Kerr has always been hilarious and really, really smart.
  6. Scott Burrell was on the team.
  7. Horace Grant was a bit of a whiner.
  8. Jordan had a security guard who could have been a member of Lynyrd Skynyrd.
  9. Before Jordan joined the Bulls, they were a traveling cocaine circus.
  10. Michael Jordan had a very special relationship with his dad.

The Last Dance proved incredibly fun. I still enjoy the NBA, but nothing will ever replace those formative years spent watching the League and Jordan.

Oh, and I’ll finally admit that Jordan was better than LeBron, but I still like LeBron more and I always will.

A Teacher’s Thanks To District 87

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As many of you know, I teach high school English. (Yes, I am the epitome of the clichéd  English teacher who thinks he’s also a writer. It’s true that I even have sports coats with elbow patches.)

I wanted to take a moment and thank my employer–District 87.

It’s been a long ride with District 87. I started teaching with them in 2002. Other than a two year sabbatical when my first child was born, I’ve been in the same building in the same hallway–and almost every room in that hallway–for sixteen years. We’ve been through a lot together.

In fact, I didn’t think there was much that could surprise me anymore when it came to teaching, and then the Covid-19 pandemic arrived.

The weeks leading up to the official “shelter in place” were confusing. Like you, we heard all kinds of contradictory reports. When the order issued to stay home, none of us knew exactly what to expect.

District 87 did two things that I find exemplary.

First of all, they implored us to “do no harm” to students. They reminded us that maintaining positive relationships and assuring students’ well-being took top priority. They encouraged us to error on the side of caution, to be gentle, to have an open mind, and to emphasize kindness. In my opinion, District 87 recognized that trauma takes all kinds of different forms, and no matter how well individuals were dealing with the situation, it was nonetheless somewhere on the trauma scale for all of us.

Which leads me to my next point. District 87 treated its teachers just as compassionately as they urged us to treat our students. District 87 goes above and beyond in fulfilling the various needs of our students. We are not just an educational institution. I feel that we are also very much a social services entity. As a result, I personally think that sometimes we want to do so much good for the kids that teachers become physically, emotionally, and mentally exhausted. One of the first things that District 87 did after we were all sent home was to alleviate our fears as much as possible. District 87 demanded that we take care of ourselves and our families. They acknowledged that there is no way we can teach like we did in the classroom. They made a point to let us know we would all continue to be paid and that they wanted us as safe as possible.

I have not once felt pressured, judged, or stressed by District 87’s leadership during this pandemic, and for that I am deeply grateful.

To my employers, I say “thank you.”

 

Netflix’s The Eddy – A Few Thoughts

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Though I was skeptical at first, the name Damien Chazelle initially drew me to The Eddy. You may know him from movies he directed like La La Land and First Man, which are two films I very much enjoyed.

If you’re unfamiliar with the show’s premise, it features Elliot Udo, a formerly famous American jazz musician. Udo has taken refuge in Paris and opened a club called The Eddy with this best friend, Farid. Though he doesn’t play music anymore, Udo manages The Eddy’s house band as Farid oversees the club’s operations. Before long, Udo’s estranged sixteen-year-old American daughter comes to live him him. Soon after that, Farid is murdered on the street right outside The Eddy. Keep in mind, this is just the first episode. From there on things get very complicated on many fronts very quickly.

The Eddy is grimy, claustrophobic, and mostly spoken in French. Again, these are not aspects I typically find appealing.

However, the show does many things so well, so perfectly, that I couldn’t help getting hooked on it.

First of all, the characters are captivating. All of them are fallible. Many of them make mistake after mistake, yet, because they are so realistically depicted and utterly likable, we become mesmerized by them.

In fact, the word “realistic” is a great way to describe The Eddy. They show you the real side of Paris–not the tourist areas. They show you just how difficult relationships between children and parents can get. They show you what real Parisians look like. they show you the conflict that can arise among creative people who both love and hate each other. Furthermore, it looks like the actors are really playing their instruments! That detail truly increases the level of authenticity. Sure, The Eddy has some far-fetched moments, but, overall, you’ll feel like you know these people on a personal level. You become invested in them.

Also, the pacing is perfect. As you probably guessed, there are three major plots occurring. The first revolves around Udo’s contentious relationship with his daughter. The second involves Farid’s murder. The third centers on Udo trying to break out his band. Of course, several other plot points arise, and each of them converge into one of the overarching three by the season’s finale. It’s excellent story telling unfolding at a gripping rate.

Finally, the music. Oh, my–the music. I’m not even a jazz fan, but the music truly won me over. It’s fantastic.

By the way, I feel embarrassed that I had no idea who André Holland was before watching The Eddy. Holland made me believe there’s actually a guy named Elliot Udo living over in Paris. He made Udo into a living, breathing, stubborn, charming, infuriating man that I would very much like to be friends with. If you search Holland at IMDB, he’s had a wonderful career in some high profile works. My failure to appreciate him until this point is my own error.

Even if jazz, Paris, and the French language are not your thing, I hope you’ll give The Eddy on Netflix a try. I wasn’t particularly interested in any of those things, either, yet the show easily won me over.