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.

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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Da 5 Bloods – A Movie Review

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With Da 5 Bloods, Spike Lee has delivered a film full of incredible performances and stunning visuals, but also a film that is inconsistent.

Da 5 Bloods is a Netflix original movie. Netflix is an attractive collaborator for creators because they reportedly exert very little resistance. Spike Lee, Damien Chazelle, Martin Scorsese, Joel and Ethan Coen, Steven Soderbergh, and Alfonso Cuarón are all noteworthy directors who have opted to throw in with Netflix. Such creative freedom, though, can sometimes lead to overabundance.

At just over two and a half hours, Da 5 Bloods is simply too long for the story it chooses to depict. The plot centers around four black Vietnam veterans who have returned to Vietnam in order to locate their squad leader’s body, which they had to leave behind decades before … and also to find dozens of gold bars they hid in the wilderness.

If the film had centered on either one of those two things, it would have been far stronger. As it stands, however, it tries to do both, which results in tone shifts that are jarring to the viewer. The portions relating to their felled leader are poignant, insightful, and evocative. The parts pertaining to the lost treasure are cliched, forced, and borderline absurd.

Even so, there are some amazing performances in Da 5 Bloods. Delroy Lindo deserves nothing less than a “Best Actor” Oscar for his work. He offers a very real, very conflicted human being that we both love and hate. His trauma from Vietnam is heartbreaking. Watching Lindo act makes the film worth your time. He is mesmerizing.

Furthermore, Chadwick Boseman yet again lights up the screen. Frankly speaking, other than Delroy Lindo, no one can keep up with Boseman in Da 5 Bloods. He shines during his scenes in a way that simply overpowers everyone else. Boseman is a gifted movie star, through and through.

Jonathan Majors plays David, the son of Delroy Lindo’s character. I’m not familiar with Majors, but he also won me over. Lee keeps David a bit of an enigma in the beginning of the film–we aren’t quite sure what to think of him. Majors plays the part perfectly as David is the only character that actually shows real change throughout the duration of the movie.

That being said, I liked the other three men played by Norm Lewis, Clarke Peters, and Isiah Whitlock, Jr., just as I was supposed to like them. If I’m being honest, though, the writers didn’t give them much to do or say beyond their initial introduction. Those three men seem to essentially repeat the same lines throughout the entire film. Which leads me to my next issue …

Da 5 Bloods’ writing is erratic. I found the dialogue overly repetitive and one-dimensional which, in my opinion, gave the actors less to work with. Lee likes to sprinkle in some history throughout the film, which I enjoyed and learned from, but as the characters talk about this history it seems very wooden and pedantic–not natural to the characters at all. Though the actors are not stiff, their dialogue is.

Also, there were some outlandish coincidences in Da 5 Bloods, coincidences that, at times, stupefied me. I won’t spoil anything, but there are at least three unbelievable moments that are, shall we say, verging upon ridiculous.

Finally, as touched upon earlier, Da 5 Bloods’ tone is literally all over the place. The film starts out as a buddy story with old veterans reconnecting. (There’s a scene where they actually strut dance in a Vietnamese nightclub.) Then they go on a fun-loving treasure hunt. Then they haphazardly search for their dead friend’s body. Then things get very, very violent.

There is no doubt that Spike Lee is a brilliant filmmaker and a tremendously relevant voice. His timing with this movie is both cosmically coincidental and monumentally important. As a nation, we need to remember that black soldiers and freedom fighters have been guaranteeing our country’s ideology since the very beginning even as their own personal rights were being trampled upon. Lee also successfully portrays the PTSD not just of soldiers in general, but even more specifically of African Americans who served in the military.

I truthfully wanted to love Da 5 Bloods. I entered the movie without a shred of objectivity–I was fully prepared to write a rave review, especially because critics seem to adore it. But it would be a disservice to Spike Lee himself if I denied my criticisms. It’s still a very watchable film, however, with extremely important messages. And, like I said, Delroy Lindo’s performance alone is well worth your time.

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.

Disney’s Prop Culture Gave Me the Feels

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Disney Plus recently released an original series called Prop Culture. In this show, the host visits iconic props from seminal, sometimes historic, Disney movies.

My family and I watched the first episode this evening, which focused on Mary Poppins. I’ll be honest with you–I’m not a fan of the original Mary Poppins. I somehow missed it in childhood and, though I’ve seen it since, it just doesn’t do much for me. (Interestingly enough, I thoroughly enjoyed Mary Poppins Returns.)

So, even with that being said, this first episode about moved me to tears on at least five different occasions. (It wasn’t just me, by the way. My wife admitted as much, too.) I won’t spoil it for you, but the host doesn’t just visit iconic props, he visits iconic people relating to those props. In the case of Mary Poppins, some of these people haven’t seen these props since 1964. To see their faces light up, to see the raw emotion on their faces at the sight of the prop … it was quite moving. For many of them, Mary Poppins was their crowning achievement (and what an achievement it was!). To see that brief return to greatness, that moment of glory–incredible stuff. Keep in mind, I have no emotional attachment to the film and I literally didn’t know anyone the host visited. It was simply a visceral experience to behold.

Of course, the whole thing celebrates Disney and idolizes Uncle Walt. I can’t deny it’s an advertisement for everything Disney. But, hey, I figure if you’ve got Disney Plus you’re already among the faithful. There’s no denying that Disney deserves every ounce of fandom they’ve garnered, and these props truly are a part of cinematic history.

If you love movies, movie history, movie props, or if you simply love seeing pure joy on people’s faces, Prop Culture is a must-watch.

Upload – A Few Initial Thoughts About The Amazon Original Series

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Generally speaking, I tend to like Amazon Original content. When I saw a new series debut created by the man who brought us The Office, I had to give it a chance.

I am currently three episodes in, and I really like Upload.

If you’re unfamiliar with the premise, Upload takes place in 2033. It’s a very recognizable world, but it’s also got some technical upgrades we might expect such as constant drone traffic, self-driving cars, and rating systems for basically everything. One major advancement, however, is the ability to have your consciousness uploaded into a virtual reality program upon death. As the slogan says, “Live your best digital afterlife.” Unfortunately, there are degrees as to the quality of the digital afterlife, and those variances are determined by how much you are willing to pay.

Our main character is Nathan Brown, played by Robbie Amell. Nathan is a young, handsome, charismatic software developer who finds himself uploaded to the digital afterlife. His personal assistant is Nora Antony, played by Andy Allo. Nora is basically a customer service agent tasked with making sure residents in her company’s afterlife program are well attended.

So far–like I said, I’m only three episodes in–Nathan and Nora have developed an unlikely friendship, and they both have begun to suspect that Nathan really and truly doesn’t belong in the digital afterlife.

Which brings us to something I greatly admire about Upload. It defies any labels regarding genre. It has comedic moments, to be sure, but it’s also pretty evocative in terms of science fiction. It’s taking a grounded, realistic approach in many ways as to what our technology will probably bring us in 13 years. Furthermore, a true mystery is in development pertaining to Nathan’s death. Comedy, realistic sci-fi, mystery? Perfect!

I’ve written about Robbie Amell before, but Andy Allo is new to me. Both of these actors shine in Upload. They are charming, beautiful, yet also strangely relatable. Allo pulls off the “common person” role convincingly despite her star quality, and Amell utilizes an early Tom Cruise level of lovable cockiness that is undeniable.

I’m not sure this show is for everyone, but it definitely appeals to my tastes. Though the first episode is about an hour, most of the subsequent episodes are only about 30 minutes, so I believe it would be well worth your time to give it a try.

Let me know what you think of it.

What the NBA G League Means For Businesses and Colleges

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The NBA’s G League is kind of a like a minor league for the NBA. Players in the G League are considered professionals, and they are paid. However, something very interesting has happened over the last several weeks. Top college prospects are electing to enter the G League rather than going to college for a year before entering the NBA draft.

Up until now, it was common for elite high school  basketball players to go to a top-tier basketball school for one year. In doing so, they raised their own stock and gained a national spotlight, but they also made a lot of other people very, very rich while not being allowed to legally earn a cent for themselves.

Jalen Green, who is largely considered to be the best of the best among high school seniors, is reported to earn $500,000 his first year in the G League. After that first year, he’ll be allowed to enter the NBA draft for, presumably, quite a bit more.

You probably have an opinion about the basketball angle of all this, but that’s not really what I want to talk to you about. No, I want to talk about why kids bother going to college at all.

Now, obviously, college is the only path for many professions–teachers, doctors, lawyers, etc.

However, quite a few of us land jobs that have virtually nothing to do with our degrees–it’s just the fact that we have a degree that allow us to obtain a job.

According to The Street, who got their information from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American makes an annual income of around $48,672. The average annual college tuition is somewhere around $15,000. Keep in mind, that’s just the tuition. If you need room and board, that’s another $10,000. In other words, an average American can expect to pay somewhere around $100,000 total for an average public university’s undergraduate degree.

I teach at a local high school, and the idea of paying $100,000 for college is a crippling one, especially if a student has no idea what they want to do with their lives. Most of my students just want to live comfortably. Most want to earn a decent living. Taking on $100,000 worth of debt, plus interest, to earn somewhere around $50,000 a year doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to them.

If given the choice, I think most would opt for the Jalen Green route. Go right into the work force with the opportunity to earn lots more while learning valuable skills.

Frankly, I’m surprised corporations don’t offer their own in-house universities. Almost all of the large corporations have some kind of a learning and development department, and almost all of them offer ongoing training for certificates and advancements. Imagine if a corporation hired an eighteen-year-old at an entry-level position, then offered free courses specific to that corporation’s field of interest that the new employee could take at their own pace. After so many hours, the employee would have the equivalent of a college degree, and they could then use that degree to go find other jobs in the same field (if they chose to do so). Consequently, I’m guessing most would stay with the corporation that groomed them.

I’m going to be honest with you–I paid for a lot of classes at college that had no bearing on my career as a teacher nor did they particularly interest me. (Geology comes immediately to mind. My apologies to all of the geologists out there.)

I personally believe in the power of education. I also appreciate that college is intended for the student to receive a well-rounded education on a variety of topics. I know that education is the path to greater success and ultimately provides an easier life for nearly everyone. However, I also admit that college has become far too expensive for the average American, and that college is not particularly appealing to the average American because much of it seems unnecessary.

Education and college should not have to be one and the same when it comes to a high school graduate’s earning potential.

So why aren’t corporations following the NBA’s model? Why aren’t they creating their own “G League?” And if they do, what will be the colleges’ response?