Paul Heinz

Original Fiction, Music and Essays

A Poor Batch of Oscar Nominees

Was it just a year ago that we were discussing the merits of Lion, Hell or High Water, Arrival, Manchester by the Sea, La La Land and Fences?  I crammed in a boat-load of movies between November and February last winter and was genuinely impressed with the lot.  Prior years weren’t too shabby either, with 2015 bringing us Spotlight, Bridge of Spies and The Big Short, and the preceding year offering Birdman, Grand Budapest Hotel and Boyhood.  In short, well-done movies – some of them groundbreaking – with interesting approaches, compelling characters, and important topics.

Not so this year.  I’ve seen eight out of the nine nominees for Best Picture this Oscar season, and only one of them rises to the level that one should expect from Academy Awards nominees.

Recognizing that I don’t see more than a few dozen films a year, here are my favorites for 2017:

Get Out

Wind River

All the Money in the World

I, Tonya

Sadly, only one made it in: the incomparable Get Out, a smart, creepy, important, entertaining and well-executed movie.  It would be a contender for the top prize any given year, but when compared to the other seven entries that I’ve seen, it’s the only one that actually should win.  Which means it probably won’t.

Wind River never stood a chance since it was released by the Weinstein Company in the midst of Harvey Weinstein’s sexual abuse scandal, and Ridley Scott’s reshooting of Kevin Spacey’s scenes in All the Money in the World apparently wasn’t enough to sway voters (perhaps the salary controversy surrounding Mark Wahlberg and Michelle Williams was a factor?)  Why I, Tonya wasn’t included as a nominee is perplexing, as it was a consistently entertaining story with sharp, snappy dialogue and a lead character who achieved the difficult feat of being both unlikable and sympathetic.

Unfortunately, when compared to those four films, most of this year’s nominees fall far short, at best likable morsels and at worst laborious and flawed.

The Darkest Hour was a great performance surrounded by a poor script with unnecessary scenes and characters and a plot that lacked a compelling arc.  I liken it to The King’s Speech, except there isn’t one monumental speech but three, deflating whatever emotion the final speech was supposed to elicit. 

Better was the film Dunkirk, though this too was flawed with a dearth of urgency despite the obvious importance of the subject matter.  I kept waiting to see an aerial shot of hundreds of boats approaching the shores of France, but was instead led to believe that a dozen vessels rescued over a quarter of a million soldiers.  A missed opportunity.

Similarly, Spielberg’s The Post lacked the suspense and exigency that the real-life drama encompassed.  Coined a political thriller, it contained the politics but not the thrill.  Worse, at no time during the film did I believe that it was taking place in the 1970s.  Instead, it looked like a movie made by present-day actors dressed in 1970s garb.  Why this is the case I can’t entirely say, except that the movie looked too clean, lacking the grit and sweat that other films – Argo comes to mind – have managed to capture.  When one considers how good a newspaper drama can be – Spotlight, All the President’s Men ­– The Post is a disappointment.

My wife, son and I all saw The Shape of Water on Christmas morning, and to a man, we thought it was among the stupidest films we’d ever seen.  I’ve talked to others who’ve really enjoyed it, and it certainly has received numerous critical accolades, so perhaps there’s something seriously flawed not with the movie but with the Heinz family!  Or, perhaps we simply couldn’t accept what was – in essence – a schlocky 1950s monster movie in Oscar-buzz clothing.

Call Me By Your Name benefitted from an excellent ending (I wish Michael Stuhlbarg had been nominated), but suffered from a first half that was coy and plodding. (By the way, Stuhlbarg acted in not one, not two, but three Best Picture nominees this year.  Not bad!)

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri began as such an irreverent and funny film with completely unbelievable characters that it was impossible for me to switch gears when the film expected me to take later scenes seriously.  In short, it was disjointed, though again, I’ve talked to some people who really liked it.

And then there’s Lady Bird, an enjoyable coming-of-age story with good performances, but it covers way too much territory and has some oddly extraneous scenes (Father Leviatch’s illness, for example).  I can accept this as an Ocscar nominee as long as it isn’t seriously considered.

Does Paul Thomas Anderon’s Phantom Thread rise to the level of legitimate Oscar contender?  I don’t know.  It’s the one nominated film that I haven’t seen.  I loved Anderson’s Magnolia and really disliked There Will Be Blood and The Master, so it could go either way.

But in the meantime, I will be pulling hard for Jordan Peele and Get Out.  Throw an Oscar in for actor Daniel Kaluuya and I’ll be a happy man (though one could hardly be upset to see Oldman take the prize).

Here’s hoping 2018 births a better batch of films.

Water Shortages Could Make Illinoisans Rich

Today CNN reported on the water crisis in Capetown, where water could run out as soon as April 16th – a day coined "Day Zero" – and how the city is struggling to keep its residents from using more than the daily allotted water amount of approximately thirteen gallons a day. This isn’t a crisis that couldn’t have been predicted, and it’s certainly one we’ll see over and over again in the coming decades as ocean levels rise, severe droughts increase, snowmelt declines, populations grow, and underground aquifers are tapped out. One need only look to recent water shortages in California and Atlanta to understand that the water issue isn’t going to circumvent the United States, though the U.S. may be in a better position than many countries due to financial and natural resources.

The biggest of these natural resources is, of course, the Great Lakes, which account for about one-fifth of the fresh water on the planet, and even though Illinois is currently suffering net-population loss as its citizens flee high taxes, poor services and inept politicians, circumstances that have nothing to do with politics could in time reverse the trend and make Illinois a Destination State. According to the The Chicago Tribune, the fastest-growing state in 2017 was Idaho, followed by Nevada and Utah, with Arizona and Florida in the top five, places where the long-term access to a reliable water supply is in question, and in ten or twenty years it’s conceivable that water could become a determining factor in the migration of U.S. citizens (and also, I believe, a resource over which wars will be fought before this century concludes).

So I’m going to take the long view. I figure it’s only a matter of time before people’s eyes roam northward, and all need to do is hang onto my 1928 bungalow whose value has been stagnant for the past several years, bide my time and wait for rising temperatures to smooth out the more extreme elements of Illinoisan winters and for fresh water supplies to plummet in the south and west where populations are currently increasing.

And then I’m going to cash in, baby.

In the meantime, could we please start taking fresh water supply planning seriously?

Nah. Lower taxes and tougher immigration laws will fix everything. 

 

 

Dining at Topolobampo

It was a mere five years ago or so when my son Sam and I flipped through the TV channels and wound up tuning into PBS, where we became entranced with an enthusiastic geeky guy singing the praises of Mexican cuisine. Rick Bayless’s One Plate at a Time had us at “cochinita pibil,” whatever the hell that was. It hardly mattered. It was his passion that roped us in, infectious and encouraging, and like foot soldiers of an oddly ebullient military commander, we were ready to go wherever he led us.

Except to his flagship restaurant, apparently. Yes, about four years ago my wife and I managed to make it down to Chicago for a brunch at Frontera Grill, and twice now in the last year we’ve purchased Cubano sandwiches at Bayless’s O’Hare location, Tortas Frontera. But we’d never been to the Granddaddy of the Bayless franchise, the upscale Topolobampo, so when my son had one request for this 16th birthday – dining at Topolobampo (the name of which I didn’t master until Saturday as we were driving into Chicago) – we decided to take the plunge. 

It helped that we were a group of four instead of our usual family of five, because I’m not used to spending bookoo bucks on dining experiences. I’m simply not wired that way. Hell, my personal wine chart with a y-axis representing the price of a bottle of wine and an x-axis representing my happiness results in a straight vertical line. I like it all. When I “splurge” on a Wednesday afternoon and decide to get a lunch at Chipotle for nine dollars, I’m happy as a clam downing my sofritas, black beans and brown rice. Lovely. Until Saturday night, I believe the most I ever spent on a dinner was somewhere around $120 per person, drinks included. On Saturday we exceeded that by a considerable margin.

Our jovial yet subtle John Goodman-like waiter made the pitch for the newly introduced “Winter Beach Vacation” dinner, and all four of us took the bait (see what I did there?), enjoying seven courses ranging from crab taco (like no other taco I’ve ever had) to seared scallops to octopus, all delectable, though my favorite was probably the lobster chilpachole. Our meal was orchestrated perfectly, neither rushed nor tedious, with just enough time to enjoy our dish, let it settle for a bit, and then move on to the next course. Plates were retrieved at the right time, drinks were replenished timely (the house margarita was superb), and all four of us enjoyed a delicious, leisurely dinner in about two and a half hours.

Originally my daughter was supposed to fly up and join us for the weekend, but when she had to back out due to a school requirement, we invited my son’s friend, whose palette has expanded considerably since our camping trip in 2012 when his diet was restricted to…I think bread and Chips Ahoy. His attendance on Saturday night worked out perfectly, because what ever else you can say about Topolobampo, it isn’t obviously friendly to vegetarians; my daughter would have had to have put in a special request, and I’m not sure what the results would have been. Probably wonderful. But something to think about if you’re a veggie looking for fine Mexican dining.

So was it worth it? I’ve written before about how haphazard we humans value things. We’ll drive three blocks further to save a few cents on gas or spend weeks pricing out the best deal on a grill or refrigerator, and then think nothing of shelling out $12 on a martini or $100 plus on a concert ticket. In short, we are inconsistent, and we’re all a bit different on where we’re willing to spend money. For me, the value I get out of watching a good movie for $10 exceeds that of seeing a musical for $125. For others, it’s just the reverse.

An experience at a place like Topolobampo is a once a year or every other year event for me. Mind you, I have three kids in college and a new sewer coming this spring. There may come a time when our disposable income is such that we can enjoy a high-end restaurant more regularly, but I think it has much more to do with my mindset and my upbringing. My German-Lutheran Midwestern roots taught me to watch my wallet and choose carefully, a practice that has served me well in life, but I still pick my spots and manage to spend money on life experiences where appropriate.

Last Saturday was one of them, one plate at a time. Seven of them. And three margaritas. Say it with me: muy beuno.

What Genesis Should Have Become

In 1997, while my wife and I tried to figure out how to take care of a pair of week-old infants, a little album by a big band was released: Calling All Stations by Genesis. Phil Collins had announced a year earlier that he was leaving the band, and upon hearing the news I was as excited as I was surprised. I was, and still am, an unabashed fan of the Collins-era Genesis – you’ll get no “there is no Genesis without Peter Gabriel” rant from me – but I also felt like Collins’s absence provided an opportunity for keyboardist Tony Banks to really shine again the way he had from the mid-70s to the early 80s. Banks was the glue that held the whole band together anyhow in my opinion, so it mattered little if a different singer joined the group, and I felt that Genesis had taken the pure pop element of its journey about as far as it could go. It was time to redirect, not only musically, but as a live act. Time to go back to mid-sized theaters and reinvent a set list that had become somewhat stale.

I had reason to be optimistic, as just five years earlier Banks had released a solo album that – predictably – went nowhere, but was so damn good that I couldn’t wait for him to release similar material under the Genesis moniker. His 1992 release, Still, is a gem, and I was practically giddy when I found a used vinyl copy for six dollars last summer.  

(note: many websites state that Still was released in 1991, and the album itself is copyrighted that year, but I stand by Amazon’s April 14, 1992 release date as I distinctly remember listening to the album while working at Musicland in Brookfield, Wisconsin that spring. Then again, my memory has been known to fail me.)

Still may not be a perfect album – it has an unfortunate sax solo in the opening track – but for a project that recruited five different singers it’s unexpectedly consistent, all the while accommodating Banks’s flare for unpredictable harmonic changes within songs that are largely “pop” in essence. Take tracks like “Red Day on Blue Street” or “I Wanna Change the Score," both co-written by Nik Kershaw of “Wouldn’t It Be Good” fame. Both songs have a pop feel to them, but their chord changes are worlds away from simple I, IV, V progressions. Making the complex accessible is a gift that Banks had been cultivating for twenty years – ever try learning the song “Me and Sarah Jane”? How he came up with those changes boggles the mind – and Still is a great addition to that trend, as he combines pop elements, darker themes (“Angel Face”) complex ballads (“Still It Takes Me By Surprise”) and a touch of prog rock (“Another Murder of a Day”) into one surprisingly strong album.

Four years later, Banks and fellow Genesis alum Mike Rutherford were in need of a new singer, and since Kershaw had made such a great contribution both vocally and compositionally to Still, I wonder now if he was ever considered. It would have been an interesting call. Instead, they recruited Ray Wilson, who did a fine job with the material on Calling All Stations, but the material was unfortunately week. By the time Wilson joined the band, Rutherford and Banks had already co-written an entire album’s worth of music, and the songs are light-years away from what Banks had recorded just a half a decade earlier. It’s a dark, plodding, lifeless mess with embarrassing lyrics and nary a hook to be found. It’s also a whopping sixty-seven minutes long! Why Banks and Rutherford thought that after hiring a new singer their fans would enjoy being overwhelmed with over an hour’s worth of music is a question for the ages.

To make matters worse, Genesis planned a massive tour of large venues as if nothing had changed in the intervening years since the last tour. Banks later said in the book, Genesis: Chapter and Verse, “We started downsizing the venues. We were getting sales in places like Columbus, Ohio…of twenty tickets. We had to cancel the US leg of the tour.”

And the tour they did perform in Europe included the foolhardy decision to perform tracks that were inextricably linked to the band's former singer: songs like “Land of Confusion,” “Hold on my Heart,” “Mama” and “Follow You, Follow Me.” This was a missed opportunity, as a better call would have been to perform songs that hadn’t been performed before or hadn’t been in years. I believe that Wilson would have sounded great on tracks like “Blood on the Rooftops,” “Deep in the Motherlode” and “Man of Our Times.” Instead he had to sing “Invisible Touch.” What were they thinking?

Rutherford has admitted that the new lineup needed time to cultivate. In 2007 he said to Innerviews, "I'm aware of how we could have improved the next album. I would have brought in someone else to co-write with us. I think Calling All Stations was lacking in some areas, so I think the second album would have been much better."

That may be so, but the reality is that Genesis already had the tools needed to make a good album. They had Banks. And Banks should have been the driving force with the possible aid of a singer with a pop sensibility like Nik Kershaw. Unfortunately, the new lineup never got a chance for a sophomore effort. By the late 90s Rutherford and Banks weren’t so keen on releasing an album every other year and touring in between. They were well into their forties with families and it was time to pull the plug.

But Still is “still” in my regular rotation, and one can only wonder what might have been had Banks and Rutherford gone a different direction back in 1997.

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

I’ve written before about the multitude of “must-see” TV shows recommended to me over the past decade and a half during which the Heinz household has been cable-free. It didn’t matter what show we tried to catch up on: Six Feet Under, Weeds, The Sopranos, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Downton Abbey, Mozart in the Jungle, Newsroom…without fail, my wife and I watched no more than a season and a half and moved onto other endeavors, like attempting to stay awake long enough to say, “Well, at least I made it to 9:30 before hitting the sack.” And maybe our not watching TV is more telling about where we are in our lives than in the actual quality of entertainment, but as I wrote before, so much of television today is so mean-spirited – the meaner the show, the better the critiques, when all I really want is a few compelling characters and a couple of laughs – that I’ve been watching more of Bob’s Burgers than anything else these days (and if you haven’t seen this animated masterpiece, consider it – I laugh out loud as much at this show as I did with The Simpsons in its heyday).

Mozart in the Jungle showed promise. A show about musicians? Sign me up! But as so often happens with TV, the part of the show that I found interesting (music and musicians) took a backseat to other plot points (the conductor's unappealing and completely unbelievable ex-wife). Like a corporation that forgets its core competencies, this show forgot its essence in the span of one season.

NBC’s This Is Us started off with a terrific first episode, spanning decades and tying it all together perfectly with a fantastic plot twist that I never saw coming, but dang, they sure like to pour the saccharine on thick, don’t they? It’s a day-time soap showing in prime time. No thanks.

Alas, my wife and I may have finally found our show. Yes, we’re only three episodes into Amazon's The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, but it had me from the first scene, when there was finally – FINALLY – a character who I liked from the word go. Rachel Brosnahan’s portrayal of a recently abandoned Jewish housewife and mother of two who unexpectedly finds herself pursuing the life of a stand-up comedienne is so compelling, as a viewer you’re rooting for her immediately. Add actor Luke Kirby playing real-life comedian Lenny Bruce and excellent veteran actors like Kevin Pollak and Tony Shalhoub (whose series Monk also interested me, except my wife didn’t dig it), and you’ve got a show with some serious promise.

Like some of Aaron Sorkin’s material, the dialogue in Mrs. Maisel is sometimes too smart for its own good. In episode 2 the character of Susie Myerson speaks so quickly and eloquently (and incessantly) that it’s hard to keep up (and it’s also not very believable), but at least it isn’t dumb like – for example – The Big Bang Theory. The number of historical references in a short scene in episode 3 are difficult to keep track of if you’re not already up on your history, but I fortunately watched the film Trumbo last year and already knew of Joel and Ethel Rosenberg. And some of the colloquialisms are anachronistic. The third episode has Midge Maisel remarking, “It is what it is.” That’s not just out of place in a 1958 conversation, it’s lazy writing. But perhaps that’s the price you pay for creating a comedy set sixty years ago that’s expected to entertain 21st Century audiences. After all, comedy can be tough to appeal over time, though oddly, the real material from Bob Newhart and Lenny Bruce that's highlighted in the show is as funny and innovated today as when it first debuted.

After watching the first episode, I thought that Mrs. Maisel had no chance of attracting a mainstream audience, but earlier this week both Brosnahan and the series itself won Golden Globes, virtually guaranteeing another season. Unless the writers really go off the rails and have Kevin Pollak and Tony Shalhoub starting a meth lab in an RV, I’ll be watching.

Copyright, 2017, Paul Heinz, All Right Reserved