TV Review: Murphy Brown (2018; CBS)

I’m surprised to find that I am enjoying the CBS comedy Murphy Brown. Say what you will to criticize the show, which is a so-called re-boot of the top-rated 1988-1998 CBS comedy starring Candice Bergen (The Wind and the Lion). Laughter is canned. Plots are simple. Some of the jokes are lame. Yet, with a few exceptions, the comedy is topical, interesting and thoughtful.

The very light, amusing show leans left, of course, as it did when it originally aired 20 years ago. However, with the title character’s son Avery having grown up to become a broadcast journalist like his single mother, whose decision to have a child out of wedlock was a controversial flashpoint in the so-called culture wars (triggering then-Vice-President Dan Quayle), Murphy Brown is less strident now than it was back then.

Consider the context of my interest in the 2018 show, which has neither been cancelled nor renewed for a second season by CBS. I’ve always thought that Ms. Bergen is a talented actress and comedienne, though I was not a fan of her TV show. Bergen as Brown was too biting for my tastes; too self-centered to be likable. The show was bombastic and showy. Once her single motherhood became a political rallying cry, I lost interest. The original Murphy Brown was too often a whiny call and response with shrill, flimsy feminist preaching.

This fall’s Murphy Brown isn’t. Even when she’s editorializing, as the character recently did about immigration during a Thanksgiving-themed episode, she’s more interesting to watch. This owes chiefly to creator Diane English’s new focus on the contrast with her son Avery (Jake McDorman, Live Free or Die Hard, American Sniper). Avery Brown, who initially appears to have no life outside of his new job hosting a show that airs against his mother’s new show, works for a Fox News Channel clone.

This makes for Murphy Brown‘s best moments. Most of the show takes place at her home, the same one she lived in for the original 10-year run. Avery comes back to Manhattan to live with his mother when he gets the rival TV job and their mother-son chemistry clicks. She’s still an activist, but she’s been seasoned by the tectonic shifts in the press, her age and her role as a mother. Murphy Brown seems more mindful of her son’s life now. The character’s more realistic for this reason.

She still wisecracks, she’s still a recovering alcoholic and she’s still an icon in the media. She’s also still competitive, which leads to some sparring with her son, whom she needles about working for a conservative cable channel. But she’s also a better parent that she was in her heyday. Murphy Brown listens to her son. She tries to understand his perspective. Not that he’s a conservative. In fact, his politics are neither left-wing nor right-wing, which makes Avery Brown less explicitly political and therefore more compelling, which puts pressure on his mother to be sharper.

This makes Avery and Murphy more dimensional. Their relationship makes her character, her work (same cast has returned and some new cast members, too) and her journey more aligned with reality and less contingent on topical agendas. And, while Murphy Brown lacks bite, which is not a criticism, some of the funniest moments involve her clashes with President Trump.

For example, her fascination with Twitter, which her son Avery warns her against misusing due to her hot-headed personality, foreshadows her striking resemblance to the childishly ranting president of the United States. Indeed, that Murphy Brown’s just as shallow and vapid, though not quite because she becomes self-aware of her deficiency, as the 45th president is one of the more hilariously written episode arcs.

This is a character that, thanks to her having made mistakes and raised a child, has grown out her self-centeredness to some degree. The beleaguered career woman still oversimplifies certain issues, such as sexual misconduct, which comes up during an episode on the Me, Too movement, and she can still be as cutting as ever, though she appreciates the role of idealism, too, as she does in a good exchange with Faith Ford’s character.

Candice Bergen plays Murphy Brown straight up. The TV news hostess is fiercely independent, wiser and older (in the pilot, she’s depicted as having fallen asleep during the 2016 presidential election TV coverage), which gives her character, and the new show, an opportunity to depict a fuller, clearer perspective with a sense of humor, grace and, at its best, harmony.

Christmas Commercialism

Now and again, an advertisement comes along that tells a magical tale. Years ago, a short ad which aired during the Super Bowl featured a cancer patient whose husband supports her while a song capturing the emotion of such a connection plays (watch it here). The Coca-Cola ad featuring Pittsburgh Steeler Joe Greene tossing his jersey to a hero-worshipping boy made an impact in 1979 (watch it here).

Though I think advertising is elevated in stature by today’s mixed, partly state-sponsored economy, ads can have value. Apple‘s strikingly anti-totalitarian “1984” ad comes to mind (watch it here).

Leave it to the ingenious Elton John (The Diving Board, Made in England, The Union) to create such an ad. With the John Lewis ad agency, he’s made an indelible Christmas advertisement for his final Yellow Brick Road tour which at once combines virtues with the commercialism of Christmas.

Watch Elton John’s Christmas video

Typical of Elton John, whose triumphant, inspiring life story was the subject of one of my first chosen writing assignments, the video (watch the ad by clicking on the image at left) bucks the status quo. Elton John’s video glorifies the life-changing power of a material possession as a Christmas present. Indeed, the advertisement depicts the bestowing of a gift of extravagance. The gift, shown as both the climax and origin of an unforgettable story and larger than life career, nested in the music of one of Elton John’s most haunting and romantic songs, is exactly the type of Christmas present the anti-capitalist preachers denounce and rail against every holiday season.

Elton John’s ad goes deeper than superficial notions of commercialism. In powerful sound, melody and motion pictures, the ad dramatizes virtues such as pride and productiveness and examines introspection, proper parenting and the selfish pursuit of happiness. That Elton John’s promotional clip also echoes the season’s uniquely solitary moments, when the person who values the wholeness of a lifetime tends to ponder the memory and legacy of loved ones who are gone, speaks to its stark emotional power.

As Elton John embarks on his farewell tour, his Christmas-themed ad depicts the reflection, contemplation and thought about the meaning, value and intimacy of a life well lived and that which makes it possible … including the sacred commitment to achieving one’s values here on earth which, thanks only to capitalism, can culminate in the giving of something manmade, wanted and wonderful.

Movie Review: Green Book

Mahershala Ali (Moonlight, Hidden Figures) and Viggo Mortensen (A Most Violent Year, Hidalgo) deliver the year’s best cinematic performances as a duo in the unerringly precise, refined and rational Green Book. This outstanding picture, one of 2018’s best three movies with Won’t You Be My Neighbor? and Love, Simon, pierces today’s worst and most damaging illusions.

The first third of Green Book focuses on one man, whose name is Tony (Mortensen). He’s a hardworking bouncer from the Bronx with a shady past, rough exterior and a wife and kids at home.

The year is 1962. As with all of these naturalistic movies, context is crucial.

The context of the early Sixties, before the darkness of the late Sixties looms (with one, brief shining moment of man’s greatness in 1969), permeates the movie in subtle ways. Race, sex and class emerge in various scenes as factors for Tony; who he is and who he chooses to be. As a worker, he struggles to makes ends meet. As someone who happens to be white, Tony is also by choice ignorant, prejudiced and partially racist.

Working among cigarette girls, gangsters and mostly people just like him, which is to say people within an extremely insular ethnic subculture (he’s of Italian ancestry), Tony disdains the Negro workers his wife welcomes into their home. He doesn’t question why and how many Kent cigarettes  he smokes. He doesn’t challenge a Catholic prayer before dinner, let alone the heavy deployment of religious paraphernalia, from crucifix to church calendar, in his home. He doesn’t doubt the constant speaking of a foreign language in his home and in the presence of his children either. Tony is a byproduct of his chosen means and ways, prejudices and traditions; he is 100 percent submissive to the status quo.

As a man, however, and this is why Green Book like Won’t You Be My Neighbor? and Love, Simon  is (very much against the predominant feminist trend) a movie about what being a man means, Tony wants to improve. He may choose to dispense with glass specimens because they are tainted in his deformed mind by Negroes. But he also chose as his lifelong mate a woman who corrects his mistakes and scorns her husband’s ignorance.

Enter a man who lives above a grand and enlightened place, as the movie demonstrates, “created by Andrew Carnegie.”

In this new and worldly home, where muscled Tony’s solid bouncer reputation yields the reason he’s there for a job prospect not to be taken on faith, Tony meets the first man to actively engage and challenge his mind. This man, Don Shirley, portrayed by Ali in another superior performance, is uncompromising in applying his high standards. Don Shirley asks Tony what he does for a living and, when Tony gives the stock answer, ups the ante with: “In what capacity?”

That Tony steals a pen on the way out of the wealthy Negro musician’s exotic, lavish home suggests that the job he’s seeking bodyguard and driver to the artist and his band as they tour the American South may itself pose a character challenge. Mortensen is excellent in the role.

But his performance is matched by Ali’s, which is the more restrained performance. What begins to bridge the gap as the pair travel in one car (with bandmates in another) from Pittsburgh to Ohio and Indiana, where, predictably if you’ve been there, outward signs of racism start showing. Things worsen in Kentucky. They get worse down South.

So why go there?

For the same reasons Don Shirley did, which become clear as Green Book turns its touring pages and chugs along, driving deeper and deeper into the belly of the beast. Through it all, the focal point for Tony is that his boss hired him for his ability, not merely for his muscles. This is new for Tony. Also new is that his new two-month boss does so as a trade  not as a favor, an Italian blood tie or an act of intimidation. The mob muscle, whose financial trouble leads him into a pawn shop, comes to expect something of himself, for a change. As he does, he realizes, as Tony puts it: “Geniuses think.”

The smallest scenes and subtleties of Green Book diverge and converge in fresh and surprising turns and twists. Multilingual Mr. Shirley, whom Tony favorably reports to his wife is as good as Liberace, instructs and tutors his newest and roughest employee.

But he performs on his own terms. Insisting on playing piano on the Steinway brand, with a bottle of whiskey in his room every night, Ali’s Don Shirley is cultured, dark, reserved, remote and mysterious. Like any sophisticated black man (arguably, then and now), Don Shirley gains a sense of mission and empowerment from his burgeoning relationship with the ignorant thug from the Bronx. By the time he plays “Happy Talk” from Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific, an interestingly, thematically infused song for Green Book, his overdrinking and Tony’s oversmoking overlap for the stuff of a real, complex and combustible friendship.

Co-writer and director Peter Farrelly (Dumb and Dumber, There’s Something About Mary) has a knack for comedy. This is apparent. But this is not what powers Green Book and, notably, the comedy sometimes gets in the way of the film’s best moments. What Farrelly does best is provide the script, cast and photography with an ideal canvas. For example, in one scene, field workers gape in wonder at the black man who emerges from a car being serviced by a white manservant.

The astonished Negroes in the field mark a key and swift transition that unfolds into an emotionally powerful disclosure about Don Shirley. It comes after a visit to Stuckey’s, another act of persecution in Georgia and Tony rambling (as Tony tends to do) about Willie Mays and Joe DiMaggio. It comes before references to composers Liszt, Brahms and Chopin, Attorney General Robert Kennedy and Christmastime in Alabama and the plot pivot makes a salient point within an already sharp point about the invisibility of man’s sexuality; how people tend to see too narrowly what they wish to see.

With a vodka toast over the legacy of Nat King Cole, courage and incontrovertible either-or of moral choices, Green Book culminates in a two-factor authentication of each man’s pride in his work and the virtue of productiveness. With classical piano, jazz, rock, pop and blues, snow storms, guns, fists and a Christmas miracle, Green Book (executive produced by Ali’s Hidden Figures co-star actress Octavia Spencer) closes with a scene which captures the benevolence of Christmas, making this the perfect Thanksgiving movie. Like Won’t You Be My Neighbor? and Love, Simon, Green Book, co-starring Linda Cardellini (Brokeback Mountain, Avengers: Age of Ultron) as Tony’s wife, renders a stirring depiction of the reward of being the rational man and the loneliness of being ahead of one’s time.

Product Review: AirPods

On a product page, Apple promises that its AirPods, a product the company introduced in 2016, are: “Wireless. Effortless. Magical.” After deciding to buy AirPods a couple of weeks ago, I can attest that there’s truth in Apple’s advertising.

I ordered the AirPods through Apple for $159. When they arrived (a day early), I opened the box with two AirPods, which were ready to use, inside their glossy, white magnetized charging case. Pulling one at a time out of the case, I put the two AirPods in my ears. As I prepared for my morning walk, they instantly sounded a chime indicating they were ready to pair. I went to my iPhone’s Bluetooth setting and selected ‘AirPods’. That was all the pairing took. They also automatically connect with my other Apple devices, such as the tablet and laptop.

Buy AirPods

Using AirPods is easy. They fit into my ears and stay anchored without any problems during my low-key fitness routine, though I wouldn’t advise using them during high-intensity, heavy perspiration workouts. AirPods sense when they’re in my ears. The devices pause audio whenever I remove one, take a call or perform another task.

AirPods are amazing in multiple ways. I summon Siri, Apple’s digital voice assistant, when I want to skip a song in my playlist or execute a command. I just double-tap either of the AirPods to activate voice commands, without needing to take my iPhone out of my pocket. I am also impressed by AirPods’ range, which is wider than I anticipated, thanks to Apple’s W1 microchip, which the Cupertino, California-based company claims produces “extremely efficient wireless for better connection and improved sound”.

By my account, this is true. I’ve had no problem with AirPods’ battery, either, though I haven’t used it beyond Apple’s asserted five hours on a single battery charge. AirPods need just 15 minutes in the recharging case for three hours of listening time. And, because AirPods simultaneously connect to Apple devices, and I am admittedly a 100 percent Apple customer, I can shuttle between listening to an audiobook, album or podcast episode on my iPhone and an Apple Watch or iPad Pro; sound switches between devices. The same goes for listening on my laptop or iMac. I simply choose AirPods on each machine.

AirPods contain what Apple calls accelerometers and other sensors to gauge when the devices, which fit snugly but not too tightly, are inserted or removed from my ears. Apple says this saves time and energy. For instance, when I was listening to a song during my walk and had to remove an AirPod to talk with someone or pause for some reason, the music automatically paused upon device removal. When I re-inserted the AirPod, music or podcast automatically resumed, picking up where the sound left off. Sound stops when both AirPods are removed, saving battery life.

By employing simple, easy to use technology, AirPods significantly enhance my life. I look forward to using them. The sound is clear, the fit is superior compared to EarBuds and the convenience is marvelous. I still use headphones for certain contexts. But AirPods are a valued new addition and another reason why Apple is a favorite brand.

Movie Review: The Nutcracker and the Four Realms

Any movie directed by two of Hollywood’s most able directors, Lasse Hallstrom (The Hundred-Foot Journey, CasanovaAn Unfinished Life, Chocolat, A Dog’s Purpose) and Joe Johnston (Captain AmericaJumanji, The Wolfman), is bound to be good, right? Disney’s The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, based on the famous Christmas ballet, isn’t a bad movie at all. Parts of it are wonderfully isolated and restrained. Parts of it are breathtaking and beautiful. Johnston’s arresting visuals and Hallstrom’s gilded storytelling and sense of musical-pictorial grace seamlessly blend at times into a magical movie.

And a movie which begins with a reference to Isaac Newton’s third law of physics promises to be distinctive. With Keira Knightley (Collateral Beauty, a magical Christmas movie in itself) looking like Faye Dunaway and evoking Marilyn Monroe as the Sugar Plum Fairy, The Nutcracker adds an eccentric streak. Indeed, this 90-minute movie tucks in everything from a theme to “trust yourself”, a leading girl (Mackenzie Foy, Interstellar) who’s a budding mechanical engineer, men wearing makeup and Morgan Freeman (Feast of Love) as an eye-patched wise man.

All that and more is stuffed into yet another Disney picture in which the mother has died. Stuffing these parts into the movie somehow puts this otherwise enchanting film into the category of overproduced fantasy (though not nearly as dull as John Carter, The Golden Compass or those godawful Narnia films). The Nutcracker is predictable and strangely chaste. For example, the girl, when she enters this other world at a Christmas party, meets a handsome captain (Jayden Fowora-Knight). Their relationship, which serves as a major plot point, curiously goes flat.

As a story partly depicted in ballet, which comes about in The Nutcracker‘s most striking visual scenes, the storybook style can be both inviting and marvelous. Early scenes of the girl in the new fantasy land depict long, magnificent icicles in a Christmas tree forest where the mystery of a gift from the girl’s late mother deepens and is stolen away. If you know The Nutcracker ballet, and it’s hard to imagine that there’s anyone left who’s never been exposed to this classic score, characters and tale in some way, you know the characters and essential story.

But screenwriter Ashleigh Powell adds an engine, mice attacks, battle scenes, and the grieving father (Matthew Macfadyen). There’s frankly too much of everything and not enough character development for the girl, who climbs rocks in a skirt and never gets the depth to seem anything but distant, detached and really intelligent. The kitchen sink quality creeps in, making the climax and resolution less effective.

“Discipline, order, control” prominently turn out to be the cues for The Nutcracker‘s child-friendly warning against authoritarianism. But the public service announcement-like sensibility in which the STEM-ready girl’s intelligence is sewn into The Nutcracker and the Four Realms undercuts the sense that she’s really present and invested in solving the puzzle. It’s not that Foy makes the girl’s voyage look too easy. The problem is that she looks too often like she doesn’t learn or gain life-changing insights, as Alice purposefully does in Alice in Wonderland or breathless Dorothy does when going home in The Wizard of Oz. There’s music and a mirror but this girl seems to be biding her time.

Still, you get to see Helen Mirren (The Hundred-Foot Journey, White Nights, Collateral Beauty, The Queen, Hitchcock) brandishing a whip amid parts of a beloved ballet remade with the stylized panache of two masterful filmmakers.