Anna Conkle (left) and Maya Ershkine in season two of Hulu's Pen15

There’s a lot going on right now. Maybe you’re protesting, maybe you’re donating to wildfire victims, maybe you’re keeping tabs on the way your representatives are responding to the present moment. Keep doing that!

Our lives are not one thing, though, and you’re also probably looking to escape, however briefly, into a show or a book or an album that might help you shut out the world or understand it a little better. To get the wheels turning, here’s the stuff filling our queues at Portland Monthly this week, from Pedro Infante to presidential body doubles. 

Dave

An adulterous president rushed to the hospital. A White House doctor who might not be the sharpest tool in the shed. A sinister bald man who sees the president as a puppet for another agenda. An icy, impeccably dressed First Lady who detests her husband. A White House eager to put a positive spin on a scary medical situation. And lies, lies, so many lies.

No, this isn’t October 2020 real life; it’s the fictional DC of 1993 comedy Dave, directed by Ivan Reitman (Ghostbusters, Stripes, Meatballs) and currently streaming on HBO. Kevin Kline plays both President Bill Mitchell and a softhearted guy named Dave Kovic, who runs an employment agency and moonlights as a Mitchell impersonator at community events. When he gets called in to play the prez for real, he’s at first most interested in keeping some pens and towels as souvenirs before realizing he might actually be able to do some good.

Frank Langella is dripping with evil as the White House chief of staff (currently Mark Meadows, but there’s a real Stephen Miller Svengali vibe). Ving Rhames plays a terse Secret Service agent with a heart of gold (the character talks about the pledge to take a bullet for the president, but do they also sign on to catch his diseases?). There’s also Sigourney Weaver, Kevin Dunn, Charles Grodin, Faith Prince, Sir Ben Kingsley, a quick dash of Laura Linney, and a hilarious jolt of Bonnie Hunt, as well as as-themselves cameos from politicians and journalists of the day, from former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill and Sen. Paul Simon to Helen Thomas and the ageless Nina Totenberg.

An Arnold Schwarzenegger appearance might feel bizarre until you remember Reitman also directed him in Kindergarten Cop, Twins, and Junior, and the bodybuilder was just then starting to dabble in politics, having been appointed by George H. W. Bush in 1990 to the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. Like all Reitman films, no matter when they were made, it’s straight out of the ’80s. Dave has aged well, though, and its charms were never more needed. —Margaret Seiler, managing editor

The Great Believers

Shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, and a mainstay on “staff pick” bookstore displays the world over, Rebecca Makkai's The Great Believers is the first thing I've read since Normal People that hooked me from square one and totally colonized my brain. 300 pages in and I'm delivering my own thoughts in Makkai's voice. 

The narrative is split between Chicago in 1985-86 and Paris in 2015. In Chicago, Yale Tishman works at a Northwestern University gallery while AIDS ramps up around him; his friends are dying and a golden age is ending, and he may or may not have stumbled on a career-making haul of 20th century art. In Paris, Fiona Marcus is searching for her daughter who's recently defected from a cult, and she stays with an old friend—one of the few artists to survive AIDS  in the Chicago of her youth.

I almost have nothing professional or illuminating to say about this book. I just fucking love it. It's incredibly transporting, an absolute page-turner, and it radiates warmth. Makkai's settings (especially her Chicago) are so vivid that they stick in your vision for hours after you set the book down, and any capital-L Literary plot machinations feel more like accidents of history than the work of a heavy authorial hand. I've made it my mission to stock up on gay books while I hunker down for the fall and winter (watch this space for future recs), but I honestly cannot imagine reading anything that means more to me this year. Or for a long time after. The Great Believers is one of the most affecting reflections on legacy and time that I have ever read, and it's an especially poignant rallying cry to young queers like me, who might have a hard time conceptualizing the America of 35 years ago and placing it in the context of news from the Supreme Court this week. —Conner Reed, arts & culture editor

Pedro Infante

I was in an Uber in Mérida, Mexico when I fell in love with a dead man. My (live) husband and I were on our way to a record shop when the driver told us about the one and only Pedro Infante, who had died right in the spot we were passing when his plane crashed in 1957. At the time of his death, he was a superstar of epic proportions whose closest American equivalent I can come up with is Frank Sinatra. He acted, he wooed women, and oh did he sing. I started listening to the Infante catalog at once, and in the three years since the discovery have repeatedly succumbed to his dreamy ranchera style voice over “Amorcito Corazón” and “Cien Años.” It works for everything. You need some yard time? That could be Pedro Time! You need something pleasant at night to cook dinner to? Can I suggest for you some Pedro Time?
This alone is a helluva pop culture tip, but there is more. Last week I discovered Netflix's Como Caído del Cielo. In the 2019 film, Pedro Infante has been trapped in purgatory for decades because he doesn’t quite fit in heaven (too much sexy carousing) and he doesn’t quite belong in hell (what with the bringing joy to millions and all), so some angels decide to send him back to Earth in the body of a Pedro Infante impersonator. There, he is Pedro Ramos (played by the incredibly charming Omar Chaparro), and needs to save his marriage and end his philandering ways or off to hell he goes. So, he does his best to learn about feminism, hard work, and, of course manages to still show off his voice. The music is lovely, the scenes of Mexico make your heart ache to visit, and you won’t even notice the subtitles. Hop to it and then hit that Pedro Infante Spotify channel the next time you’re cooking and see if you don’t also fall in love with a dead man. —Eden Dawn, style editor

Pen15

Hulu's Pen15 was one of my favorite new shows of 2019, and the release of the show’s second season has been exactly what I needed during this pandemic fall. What better way to stop doomscrolling than to immerse yourself in the hilarious yet cringeworthy happenings of two 30-somethings playing fictionalized versions of their 13-year-old 1990s selves?

Through sleepovers, AOL Instant Messenger, pool parties, gym class, and school dances, best friends Maya and Anna deal with rejection from crushes and slut-shaming. They try their hands at witchcraft, nearly bite one another’s heads off while working on the school play, and nearly have their friendship destroyed by a malicious third party. Maya’s got her mom to get her through all of this—there’s a sweet scene where the two take a bath together, inspired by actress Maya Erskine’s real-life relationship with her mom—but Anna, meanwhile, is dealing with her parents’ divorce and turning against her mom. At least Maya and Anna have each other, because ultimately, the show feels like a testament to the power of friendship to get us through terrible times. —Katherine Chew Hamilton, food editor

The Thing

We all have our movie-rituals. Some people watch Groundhog Day on … Groundhog Day. Some people watch Mean Girls on October 3. Some people watch V for Vendetta on November 5. For me, sometime during October (I don’t hold myself to a specific date because I am kind and forgiving), I watch The Thing, an absolutely repulsive movie by John Carpenter about a group of researchers in Antarctica who encounter an alien life-form that assimilates and imitates other organisms, like dogs or, you know, people.
Based on the 1938 novella Who Goes There?, the 1982 film features incredibly graphic, disgustingly detailed practical effects and animatronics of shape-shifting dogs with outstretched eyes and tentacles and severed human heads that grow spider legs. (It also features a beautifully robust Kurt Russell beard—but that’s beside the point.) So much of this movie is good and bad and dated and confusing and engaging and terrifying. It lives in suspense—the ominous dun dun from a soundtrack Carpenter helped make himself, the long and lingering shots of an isolated Antarctica, covered in mounds of deep white snow, the sinking suspicion that someone isn’t who they say they are—and then suddenly the thing is right there, transforming into some of the most grotesque displays of creativity I’ve ever seen. It’s so gross it’s kind of beautiful. —Gabriel Granillo, digital editor