Pomo Picks

What to Read, Watch, and Listen to to Take Your Mind off the Apocalypse: Week of April 8

The Portland Monthly team shares the non-pandemic content keeping us sane this week.

By Portland Monthly Staff April 8, 2020

A still from George Miller's Babe: Pig in the City (1998)

News about coronavirus is coming hard and fast, and the Portland Monthly staff is working to bring you up-to-date information about how the crisis is affecting Portlanders. It’s vital we all stay informed and figure out how to help each other through this surreal, challenging moment.

It’s also vital that we take some breaths. Every week, in lieu of a “top things to do this weekend” post, we’re going to pause and share the pandemic-free content that’s keeping us sane (or somewhere close).    

Blue Plate Special

This month I’ve been digging back into some of my favorite food memoirs, Tender to the Bone to Fresh Off the Boat. The one that jumped out at me this week was Blue Plate Special, published in 2013 by Kate Christensen. It’s one of the most iconic food memoirs of the last few decades, thanks to lurid descriptions Coney Island pelmeni, violent recollections of her abusive father, and a transportive journey from someone who has lived a full, difficult, and delicious life. –Benjamin Tepler, Senior Editor

Brooklyn Nine-Nine

After having my Hulu access restored in a streaming service password quid pro quo, my wife and I have returned to one of our favorite comfort shows, Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Co-created by Michael Schur, producer for The Office and creator of Parks and Recreation and The Good PlaceBrooklyn Nine-Nine has never enjoyed the mainstream success of those shows but features many of the same elements: an amazing ensemble cast (with Andre Braugher turning in one of the funniest sitcom performances of all time), blazing banter, and frequent cutaway gags. If you're in the market for a lighthearted binge watch, look no further. –Brian Breneman, Deputy Art Director

Double Feature: Never Rarely Sometimes Always and Babe: Pig in the City

Eliza Hittman's harrowing abortion drama and George Miller's sequel to one of the most beloved family films of the ’90s are not, shall we say, an intuitive pairing. I didn't set out to watch them back-to-back this week, but I did, and now I can't stop thinking about how well they complement one other. 

Never Rarely Sometimes Always had just hit theaters before public gatherings went the way of the dodo, so Focus Features pivoted it to home streaming (rent it on Amazon here). After falling under the spell of Hittman's last feature Beach Rats, I'd been hyped on this film for months, and it did not disappoint. Newcomer Sidney Flanigan plays Autumn, a stoic 17-year-old girl in central Pennsylvania who, after learning she's pregnant, travels to New York City with her cousin to skirt PA's strict abortion laws. Hittman is unsparing but never melodramatic: she turns her characters' trek into a sort of everyday thriller, highlighting the bureaucracy of young womanhood as Autumn and her cousin dodge unseemly men and jump through dehumanizing medical hoops in search of basic safety and comfort. It's not a cozy watch, but it's probably the best thing I've seen so far this year.

Babe: Pig in the City (streaming on HBO with its gentler predecessor) is... different. A legendary box office bomb in 1998 (it lost more than $20 million during its theatrical run), it's puzzling as a sequel to Babe and absolutely stunning as a standalone George Miller film. Mad Max: Fury Road be damned—this is the Australian auteur's masterpiece. After a brief prologue, it follows the pig and Mrs. Hoggett to a gorgeous, eye-popping every-city filled with violence and wonder and Venetian canals. Ostensibly a children's film, Pig in the City clocks a series of visual references to Nicholas Roeg's legendary erotic horror flick Don't Look Now and amounts to a treatise on urban alienation that rivals Terry Gilliam's Brazil for pure brains and visual splendor. It's genuinely scary, and genuinely sad, and it features a nightmare-inducing Mickey Rooney as a vomit-encrusted clown named Fugly (plus a pink poodle going full Blanche DuBois).

So what makes it good? Unlike so much family fare, it earns its message: in pulling no punches about the harshness of its world, Babe's commitment to kindness rings with real courage. He bands downtrodden urban-dwellers together by insisting that their lives aren’t in competition—a potentially hackneyed "stronger together" message that Miller infuses with genuine heft. That's the link to Never Rarely Sometimes Always: in her film, Hittman never lets us forget how much worse everything would be if her protagonists weren't side by side. Her New York, like Miller's Metropolis, is baffling and full of threats; at several points, Autumn dares her cousin to retreat home, but she never does. The girls' silent partnership is the soul of the movie.

Hittman's film is certainly more urgent, and its message should stir the kind of righteous anger that galvanizes viewers to change the world—Miller's is mostly just pretty and surprising. Both, though, offer a balm for the moment. They stare unsparingly into hardship and say, in no uncertain terms: Join hands. It's the only way through. –Conner Reed, Arts & Culture Editor

Murder, She Wrote

I should preface this by saying I don’t like violent things. I watched one episode of Game of Thrones and they hurt a wolf and I never watched another second. You can’t pay me to go to horror movies. I recall getting so scared about Chucky in Child’s Play as a child that I’ve carried a healthy fear of dolls with me for three decades. 

So. Indulge me when I say the greatest thing to binge and forget life with is Murder, She Wrote. The show was so loved in its heyday that the reliable formula whodunit ran for twelve freaking years. Yes, each episode there is a “murder.” And I use quotes because sometimes there’s just a shadow and a noise; sometimes a dead body that still is clearly breathing gets rolled over. If I, a person who was worried the Twilight films would be too scary for a nighttime viewing, can handle it, you can. Plus, all is leveled out when the genius of Angela Lansbury, an international treasure, takes over. As Jessica Fletcher, a widowed famous novelist who reminds every one she doesn’t need a man (feminist icon?), she turns down romantic advances, travels the word, relies on her smarts, and regularly stands up for things she believes are right and true without ever judging anyone. 

The steady stream of guest stars is an entire category of joy to itself. See young Joaquin Phoenix, Jerry Orbach (or as comedian John Mulaney calls him, “the man who put Baby in a corner”), Tippi Hedren, Cynthia Nixon, and on and on. Hell, there was even a crossover episode with Magnum P.I. where Lansbury’s character helps clear Magnum’s (and Tom Selleck’s mustache) name of murder charges!

In summary, the next Knives Out won’t be here for a couple of years. You’ve got hundreds of episodes of the original Knives Out to keep you entertained until then. You’re welcome. –Eden Dawn, Style Editor

Fleabag: Live Onstage

Forget the hot priest. Ha! As if! Nobody who has watched Season 2 of Fleabag will be doing that in a hurry. But pause for a second and recall that before there was a Season 2 of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s banger of a comedy Fleabag, before even those first deep breaths and “you know that feeling?” opening lines of Season 1, there was a one-woman theater show. Reviews of its 2013 debut at the Edinburgh were mixed: the Guardian’s Lyn Gardner appeared mildly dismayed; the Daily Telegraph’s Laura Barnett said it grew wearisome. But then it morphed into what is arguably the best television series of all time (ahem, “not for everyone,” per my colleague Ben Tepler), and the critics had a different reaction. 

Waller-Bridge’s stage show has since been drowning in accolades—see the New York Times’s Ben Brantley declaring last year’s the Off-Broadway production as throbbing “with a concentrated, combustible vitality.” And now those of us chagrined at having to wade through corona times without Fleabag to look forward to have a chance to take in the stage version. For two weeks from this Friday, we’ll be able to watch the OG production stateside via Amazon Prime, with all proceeds going to charity. With 48 hours still to go, take this wasteland of time to binge its 12 glorious TV episodes all over again. And if by some grace of the furies you still haven’t watched it at all, know that I am consumed with envy and wish you a grudging godspeed. To recap: Hair is everything. –Fiona McCann, Senior Editor-at-Large

Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

Up until now, we’ve been calling these roundups “Things We Love that Have Nothing to Do with Coronavirus,” but, hell, if it ain’t hard thinking about things that are not within the context of coronavirus. Every cough (is that the ’rona?), every article, every late-night talk show, every bird that greets me on an afternoon walk—coo-coo coo-coorona, they say. But we try nonetheless, binging our favorite television shows, streaming movies we’ve never seen, or returning to classic books, as I and my partner have been doing, namely J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. And right now, we’re still on The Fellowship of the Ring, struggling through these ridiculous names with an insane amount of consonants. (Yes, we’re reading the book to each other, typically over some wine or a gin and tonic—truly to take our minds off the apocalypse.)
And as we read the book, there have been little gems that bring us back to the present and offer perhaps a little bit of hope for this decidedly dark and uncertain time. Take a moment early on in the book: Gandalf the Grey explains to Frodo, who has been keeping the One Ring in an envelope after his uncle Bilbo bestowed it to him and left the Shire, how Sauron the Great, the Dark Lord, has risen, and how the Shadow of Mordor grows again:
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

We’ve been reading the physical book, which you can order here. But if you’re looking to skip the embarrassment from not knowing how to pronounce certain names and locales, try listening to the audiobook:
–Gabriel Granillo, Digital Editor

LEGO Masters

Look, four weeks into this, I think we've established that I'm probably the most basic PoMo staffer in terms of artistic taste. Not from me will you get a recommendation for the latest film noir from a previously unknown Japanese auteur who blends anime and horror in a... oh, shoot, now I've lost the thread. No, I'm the staffer who recommended This American Life, for god's sake.

And so, continuing that grand tradition, my pick this week is LEGO Masters, the super-cheesy yet somehow awe-inspiring reality competition show that's airing its final episode on FOX this week (but catch up on demand or via Hulu), hosted by LEGO Batman himself, Will Arnett. My kids have lost a lot over the past few weeks—fifth grade field trips and continuation ceremonies and Little League seasons and drama performances, and I'm scared to tell them that our carefully plotted-out summer camp season could be next. When it's all too much to bear, we snuggle up and watch teams of grown-ups spend hours constructing flights of fancy out of every imaginable shade of the iconic LEGO brick.

Of course we're rooting for Boone and Mark, the bearded, flannel-clad homegrown team by way of Troutdale and Oregon City, whose origin story is that they met at a local used LEGO store (which I can only imagine is Bricks and Minifigs, locally famous among the elementary school set). Over the weeks of the competition, they've constructed a giant city made entirely of food truck, a lumberjack-themed amusement park, and an elegant bridge that held 1,000 pounds without a single crack. Bring home the title, fellas—we'll follow you down any yellow brick road you care to build next. –Julia Silverman, News Editor

Better Call Saul

No one saw this coming: a prequel to the legendary neo-crime drama Breaking Bad, minus the show's two iconic characters—meek chemistry teacher/secret meth kingpin Walter White and his endearing, slacker sidekick Jesse Pinkman—would emerge, slowly and brilliantly, over five lovingly detailed seasons, as one of life's essential bon bons. Turns out, the backstory of Breaking Bad's other characters (and the lead-up to how all their paths will all cross in that show) is as rich as the original tale. 

 That includes the transformation of White's fast-quipping lawyer from a happy-go-lucky guy named Jimmy McGill into the scammer known as Saul Goodman. I loved the pulse-pounding scenes that reveal how Breaking Bad's fearsome “Don Hector” became the bell-ringing, wheelchair-bound, speech-impaired cartel boss whose can't speak but expresses his rage through wild nostril flares. All in all, this is master world-building, each episode as detailed, character-rich and darkly humorous as a Coen brothers film. Here, in Saul's' sun-parched Albuquerque, as cotton-candy clouds drift in blue skies over fast-food chicken joints and soulless law firms, the cinematography is a character with its own voice, revealing visual secrets and tell-tale character traits in ways you're unlikely to forget. –Karen Brooks, Food Editor & Critic

Why Buddhism Is True

There's a hard limit to how many existential answers Instagram can offer—and at some point this week I butted up against it. So instead I'm turning to a book whose title I once found obnoxious and preachy... Why Buddhism Is True by Robert Wright is not only fueling my now-daily meditation sessions (highly recommended no matter what you're reading) but it's also offering wisdom on mortality, self, and fear that I desperately need. I can't be the only one. –Marty Patail, Editor in Chief
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