Tuesday, December 29, 2020

All Your Yamadori Questions, Answered

The video below comes from Underhill Bonsai's Third Thursday program and covers every aspect of collecting deciduous trees in the wild. We begin with the basics including necessary tools and ethical collection practices. Then we go through how to lift the tree and transport it home. Finally we processed three trees, removing them from the field soil, pruning the roots, chopping the trunk and putting them into bonsai soil. If you are interested in yamadori collection, this is the best 2 hours you can spend in preparation!


Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Christmas Eve Bonfires

            The French, Spanish, German, Haitian, West African, Caribbean, Vietnamese, and other ethnic groups that have settled Louisiana in the past three hundred plus years have fused together to create a culture unique to Louisiana. In honor of the Christmas season, let's talk about a COVID-safe Louisiana tradition: Christmas Eve bonfires. 




             On Christmas Eve, and more generally in the month of December, residents of Louisiana who live along the Mississippi river, especially between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, construct bonfires on the earthen levees that surround the river. Most of the time, the levees protect the surrounding homes from flood waters. These areas of high ground also make them prime locations for the construction of bonfires. Tradition holds that the bonfires are intended to help Santa Claus—or as the Cajuns call him Papa Noel, because of course the Cajuns have their own name—find his way to the homes of residents of Southern Louisiana. Louisianans construct wooden pyramid like structures, with smaller support logs that give them the appearance of fences. This is the typical appearance for one of these structures, but over the years people have become more artistic in their creations. Many pay homage to Louisiana’s culture, taking the shape of famous plantation homes, paddleboats, or even the ubiquitous crawfish. St. James Parish, located about 30-40 miles upriver from New Orleans, has the heaviest concentration of bonfires, especially in the towns of Gramercy, Lutcher, and Paulina. Lutcher even hosts the annual Festival of the Bonfires at Lutcher Recreational Park where they feature live entertainment, food, local crafts, and of course, bonfires. 


            The origins of the Christmas Eve bonfires are not entirely clear. French and German immigrants settled in St. James Parish in the early 18th century. One theory holds that these settlers continued European traditions of holding bonfires on or around the winter and summer solstices after they established themselves in Louisiana. These original pagan practices were incorporated into Christian beliefs as a way of smoothing the way for conversion. The historical record, however, does not support the claim of a widespread practice of bonfires until the 1920s and 1930s. Groups of young men formed bonfire clubs, where they cut down trees, stripped them of their branches, and dragged them to the levees. After constructing the pyramid-like structures, people filled with rubber tires and other flammable materials. After World War 2, the bonfires grew in popularity due to the development of St. James and the surrounding river parishes. And in a rare victory for environmentalism in Louisiana, local governments banned the burning of rubber tires and other toxins—recognizing that they were bad for people’s health. Now these events serve as important cultural and communal events. As with many of Louisiana’s great traditions, they provide an opportunity to listen to music, eat delicious food, and for people to come together as a community and celebrate the holiday season.  

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Christmas in New Orleans (the Song!)

New Orleans jazz and music scene is world famous. And for good reason, it's amazing, influential, and a million other things. But when you think of New Orleans music, you don't really think of Christmas. 

But if you dig deep enough into the catalogue of NOLA legend Louis Armstrong, you'll find a New Orleans-centric song called, Christmas in New Orleans. The lyrics, listed below, speak to the fusion of city and holiday, putting a local spin on a national celebration. New Orleans is unique and that character shines through year round, not just during Mardi Gras. 

Christmas in New Orleans lyrics: 

Magnolia trees at night
Sparkling bright
Fields of cotton look wintery white
When it's Christmas time
In New Orleans

A barefoot choir in prayer
Fills the air
Mississippi folks
Are gathering there
When it's Christmas time
In New Orleans

You'll see a dixieland Santa Claus
Leading the band
To a good old Creole beat
And golly what a spirit
You can only hear it
Down on Basin Street
Your cares will disappear
When you hear
Hallelujah St. Nicholas is here
When it's Christmas time
In New Orleans

You'll see
A dixieland Santa Claus
Leading the band
To a good old Creole beat
And golly what a spirit
You can only hear it
Down on Basin Street
Your cares will disappear
When you hear
Hallelujah old St. Nicholas is here
When it's Christmas time
In New Orleans

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Christmas at the Roosevelt

 The Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans is known for many things--the famous Sazerac Bar, Domenica, the hotel's pizza and Italian restaurant, among others.


At Christmas time, the Roosevelt becomes a winter wonderland in the heart of New Orleans. Take a look at the video below to see the hotel transform itself.

 

Watch this video to see the Roosevelt in all its Christmas glory.

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Christmas in the Oaks 2020

 


            New Orleans City Park is known for its collection of live oak trees, Botanical Garden, and the New Orleans Museum of Art. The live oaks are perhaps the most famous part of the park. Some are over six hundred years old and predate the European settlement of Louisiana. The park grounds themselves have a rich and diverse history. The area started out as a dueling ground where male residents of New Orleans could settle their disputes outside of the watchful eyes of city authorities. In the 1850s, a district court created the park out of land left to the city by a deceased plantation owner. By the end of the 19thcentury, the City Park Improvement Association was founded to begin transforming the land into the park that we know today. It was not until the 1980s, however, that one of the park’s most popular and beloved traditions came into existence: Celebration in the Oaks


            In 1984, the Botanical Garden was in need of a new fundraising campaign to fuel the organization’s growth. Mary Rodgers, the chair of the Park’s PR Committee, wanted to drape lights in the Park’s oak trees. However, the idea was too expensive for the time and instead the director of the Botanical Garden, Paul Soniat created a program called “A Tribute to a Christmas Tree” where local artists decorated Christmas Trees. They were displayed in a tent at the Garden. 

            The idea of decorating the oak trees in lights never went away. For a few years, there were small light displays around the Garden. Those in charge of the park believed that a larger light display would be popular, but it took several years for a plan to come into place. In 1987, the oaks at the front of the Park finally were covered in lights. A local energy company designed a way of powering the lights and underwrote the cost of the electricity. By installing the lights at the entrance to the Park, park management had created a whole other way for visitors to experience the lights—in their cars. Before visitors had to walk around the Botanical Garden to view the displays. Now with the lights spread out through the park, guests never had to leave their cars. This meant that many more people could see the lights at any given time. More lights and more people naturally meant growing the size and scope of the event. So Charles Foti, a local sheriff, organized the construction and installation of holiday exhibits including a “Cajun Christmas Village.”       



            By 1991, the Celebration in the Oaks received over 350,000 visitors. The popularity of the event led to the creation of additional garden areas and child’s play areas. Over the years, the Park has added a charity walk/run, guided tours, a miniature train, floats, and a host of other attractions. Like the rest of the city, City Park was damaged by Hurricane Katrina, but the organizers of Celebration in the Oaks managed to pull off an abbreviated version in 2005 and as the city recovered from the storm, the celebration grew once again in scope. 

            Currently, the Celebration features nearly 600,000 lights, attracting over 165,000 people per year. The fundraiser provides 13% of City Park’s yearly operating budget. It opened on the Friday after Thanksgiving and closes on January 3. It’s a New Orleans holiday tradition that is not to be missed. 

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Interview with Bonsai Potting Master

We've got a video of Evan from Underhill Bonsai interviewing Byron Myrick, a legendary bonsai potter. Enjoy! 

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Fall Book Recommendations

 Now that fall is firmly here and we're all going to spending more time inside--in Louisiana it's the perfect time to go outside--it's time for a couple of book recommendations. 

The First Family: Terror, Extortion, Revenge, Murder and the Birth of the American Mafia by Mike Dash 

Dash's book tells the story of Guiseppe "the Clutch Hand" Morello, a Sicilian immigrant who became the first "boss of bosses" in the United States. With a novelist's flair for description and rising tension, Dash entertainingly shares the story of Morello's arrival in the United States and subsequent rise in the criminal underworld before founding the first Mafia family in the US. Dash traces the unglorious rise of organized crime in the United States as newly arrived Italian immigrants blackmailed, bombed, and bludgeoned one another in the pettiest of criminal enterprises. Morello, who organized counterfeiting schemes and largely had others commit crimes under his orders, managed to avoid prosecution for years until the Secret Service set up an extensive sting operation and sent him to jail for 10 years. When Morello was finally released from prison, he became an advisor to his successor, but the world had changed around him and he died as so many of his compatriots did--at the hands of an assassin. 

Batavia's Graveyard: The True Story of the Mad Heretic Who Led History's Bloodiest Mutiny by Mike Dash 

Instead of the Mafia, Dash focuses on the story of a Dutch East India Company merchant vessel and the rebellion plotted by the ship's captain and one of the company's merchants. The merchant was a radical religious heretic who joined the Company to save himself from debt. The captain merely hated the expedition's leader and wanted to sleep with one of the passengers. In the midst of a profitable spice trading voyage, the two men plotted to kill most of the crew and passengers, steal the ship's store of gold and silver and live the rest of their lives outside the law. Everything was going to plan until the captain accidentally crashed the ship into shoals off the coast of Australia, stranding the crew and passengers hundreds of miles from help and food. The rest of the story just reminds you how often history is more crazy than fiction ever could be.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

New Orleans City Park Video Tour

Traveling to New Orleans is difficult right now. The city has lots to offer visitors besides the French Quarter and Bourbon Street. We've outlined the history of City Park in the past, but since you likely won't be visiting City Park anytime soon, how about a video tour instead? 

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Underhill Bonsai Video

For years, Doug has maintained an extensive bonsai collection. In the past few years, he has taken that passion for bonsai and opened a bonsai nursery, selling trees and sharing his expertise with the general public. 

Underhill Bonsai engages in educational programs on the third Thursday of every month for the public, that in light of the pandemic, have moved completely online. For those new to the world of bonsai, we have one of those videos for you all to enjoy. 

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Some More Pandemic TV Recommendations

 A few weeks ago, we offered some pandemic TV recommendations--well the pandemic is still raging and we still have plenty of time to watch TV, so here are a few more TV shows that could be worth your time.   

     

The Great (Hulu): Elle Fanning plays Catherine the Great, Russia's longest ruling in monarch, in this TV series that is very loosely based on Catherine's real life. In the show, a naive Catherine arrives in Russia full of inspiration and a desire to transform her new homeland into a progressive European power. Instead she meets her boorish fiancé, Peter (Nicholas Hoult) who is as stupid as he is cruel. What follows is a dark comedy of remarkable depth and pathos. Catherine struggles with coming to terms with her new life of courtly intrigue and the capriciousness of her odious husband. Hoult revels in Peter's harebrained scheming and portrays Peter as both a monster and a pathetic man-boy seeking his dead mother's approval. (He keeps her in a glass case in the hallway just so he can talk to her.) Surrounding Catherine are a sassy servant, a secretly idealistic courtier, a beaten-down general, and an aristocratic couple trying to keep their marriage intact as Peter carries on an affair with the wife. 

Battlestar Galactica (Peacock): Ronald Moore's reimagining of the campy 1970s Star Wars-knockoff premiered in 2003 as America was in the midst of navigating our post 9-11 world. The series, set after near destruction of humanity, followed a small band of survivors on the edge of the galaxy trying to avoid death from their enemies and to rebuild humanity. With towering performances from Edward James Olmos and Mary McDonnell, BSG tackled the issues at the core of humanity's never-ending search for purpose. Episodes dealt with the morality of suicide-bombing, abortion, justice, forgiveness, the emptiness of revenge, and dealing with trauma. In four seasons, BSG pushed the boundaries of science fiction to fascinating and morally ambiguous ends, but never lost of sight of the humanity of its characters. 

The Good Place (Netflix)This show, from Michael Schur (co-creator of Parks and Recreation), takes a rather high concept premise and runs with it. Kristin Bell plays a woman who is accidently sent to the “Good Place” after she dies. Only she’s not supposed to be there. Ted Danson, as a mid-level afterlife manager, reminds us why he might be the best sitcom actor ever.  Over the course of its four season, the show dealt with ethical questions about humans and what we owe one another. It also presented a murders-row of characters from "Arizona dirtbag" Eleanor to Chidi, the indecisive philosopher to Tahani, the people-pleasing, name dropping socialite, and wanna-be Jacksonville DJ Jason. The Good Place will make you laugh and cry in equal measure. 

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Saints TV Cliche Bingo--Covid Edition

Every year we have a Bingo card filled with TV announcer cliches regarding the Saints. Well this year's edition is here, updated for COVID-19. 





Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Olive and Mabel Update

 Back in May, we shared some dog videos from UK announcer Andrew Cotter. Marshaling all of his announcing prowess to the task of gently mocking his dogs, Cotter has developed a loyal following, gotten a book deal, and reminded us all just how much we love our dogs--no matter how much grass they eat. 

Here's a few more of his videos that have come out in the ensuing weeks. Enjoy! 


Tuesday, September 22, 2020

"Some kind of" in Star Trek


We love Star Trek around here. Kirk, Spock, Picard, Riker, Data, Sisko, Dax, Worf. We love them all. Over the years, Star Trek has come to rely on a steady stable of tropes--the Holodeck goes crazy, Data takes over the Enterprise, Worf can't open doors, and the list goes on and on. 

The intrepid YouTuber Ryan's Edits, who splices bloopers into real Star Trek scenes, has created a video detailing the biggest Star Trek trope of all--describing something as "some kind of." Enjoy! 

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

New Orleans Restaurant Industry Updates

The restaurant industry is at the heart of New Orleans and Louisiana. The old joke about New Orleans was that it had a thousand restaurants and only one menu--so devoted were locals and local chefs to the same creole and cajun staples that are nearly cliches--red beans and rice, jambalaya, gumbo, and shrimp étouffée. 

In recent years, the New Orleans restaurant industry has seen a steady diversification of its restaurants. Alon Shaya at Shaya and then Saba offers some of the best Israeli food in the country. Nina Compton's Compere Lapin is true New Orleans fusion cooking, mixing the flavors of the Caribbean with old New Orleans favorites. Vietnamese cuisine has long been a prominent feature of the New Orleans culinary landscape. A banh mi is just a stone's throw away from a po'boy. 

Since the pandemic, however, the New Orleans restaurant industry is struggling to survive. We thought we'd highlight some recent articles about the goings on in the NOLA restaurant industry. 

The New Yorker had a recent piece about Compere Lapin's Nina Compton and her efforts to reopen amidst the pandemic. The article also explores Compton's rise in the context of the growing emphasis on BIPOC-owned restaurants and restauranteurs. 

Ian McNulty at the Advocate wrote an obituary for chef Leon West. West, a longtime staple of the New Orleans food scene, never had a restaurant of his own, but was tremendously influential amongst the BIPOC food community in the Crescent City. 

Eater New Orleans has been keeping track of the restaurant openings and closings due to the pandemic. The site also has a guide to helping out restaurants in need

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Saints 2020: One Last Run?

 


The New Orleans Saints begin their 2020 season Sunday September 13 in the Superdome against Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (that sounds weird doesn't it?). After last year’s division title and loss in the Wild Card round to the Vikings, expectations in the Big Easy are high. As quarterback Drew Brees enters his age-41(!) season, it’s now or never for the Saints to bring home another Super Bowl title. 

The leading projection systems are in line with fan expectations. ESPN’s Football Power Index projects New Orleans to go 10-6 with a 82.4% chance to make the playoffs. The Saints have the third-highest odds to win the Super Bowl (12.9%) behind the Kansas City Chiefs and the Baltimore Ravens.  Football Outsides gives the Saints the best chance of winning Super Bowl LIV at 15.4%. 

Rather than do a traditional preview, let’s look at the big questions confronting the Saints this season. The answers will determine whether New Orleans will have a socially distanced parade (is that a thing?) or finally close the chapter on the Brees era with another season of disappointment.


Can Brees remain Brees for one more year? 

At age 40, Brees continues to set records. He led the NFL in completion percentage last year--74.3% just a tenth of a percentage short of his career and NFL record of 74.4% set in 2018. His passing yardage was down significantly, from 3,992 to 2,979. He threw only 27 TDs compared to 32 in 2018. Yet Brees threw 4 interceptions. The Saints still have plenty of offensive talent in Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara. At this point, there's little reason to bet against Brees continuing to be his old self. 

The question facing the Saints is is this the beginning of the end? The aging curve for 41 year old quarterbacks isn’t pretty. Remember what happened to Peyton Manning in Denver or Brett Favre in Minnesota? But even a diminished Brees is still better than most other quarterbacks in the NFL. In other words, who knows how Brees will play against the ageless Brady and the Bucs, but the Saints' Super Bowl hopes ride on #9. 


How Good is the Defense? 

After years of languishing at the bottom of the league in team defense thanks to a series on inept coordinators and bad drafting, the Saints defense has gotten good again. In 2019, they finished 11th in Football Outsiders DVOA after finishing 11th in 2018. The unspoken rule of the Saints in the Brees era is that the team goes as far as the defense. With even a league average defense, the Saints are Super Bowl contenders as long as Brees is under center and Sean Payton is calling the plays. 

Over the last few years, New Orleans has invested significant draft capital on defense including first round picks on Sheldon Rankins, Marshon Lattimore, and Marcus Davenport and second round picks on Marcus Williams and Vonn Bell. 

Defensive performance, however, varies significantly from season to season. Last season the Saints finishing 17th in Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Games Lost. But injury luck also doesn’t hold over from season to season. The Saints defense may look good on paper, but if Lattimore or star pass-rusher Cameron Jordan miss time, then it will be difficult for the Saints to replicate their defensive success from past years. 


Can the Saints keep winning close games? 

In 2019, New Orleans went 6-1 in games decided by seven points or less. Performance in one score games varies from year to year because it depends on just a handful of plays to break one way or another. 

Against Houston in Week 1, Will Lutz hit a 58 yard field goal with 2 seconds left in the game to win the game for the Saints 30-28. Against Dallas in Week 4, the Saints got only 4 field goals against the Cowboys. A touchdown on either side would have determined the game. This season, those plays might not go the Saints way.  

Last season, the Saints went 13-3, but lost in the Wild Card round to the Vikings. In order to reach that point, a lot had to go right for New Orleans—a good defense, health, and luck mostly—and New Orleans will need those to happen again to give Drew Brees, Sean Payton, and the people of the Crescent City their second Super Bowl title.  

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Some Pandemic TV Recommendations


We all need things to watch and now there are a myriad of streaming services to cater to our every entertainment need. Come on in Netflix! You, Hulu, and Amazon Prime are old friends, so let's welcome some new guys to the group. HBO Max! Disney+! Whatever Quibi is ???? With all that in mind, let's go through some recommendations to keep you sane in this increasingly crazy world. 

What We Do in the Shadows (Hulu): Based on the 2014 mockumentary of the same name, What We Do in the Shadows follows the story of three vampires: Nandor the Relentless, a former Ottoman soldier and married vampires Laszlo and Nadja through their mundane existence in Staten Island. Originally sent to the New World to enslave humanity, the three vampires just can't be bothered. The brilliance of this FX show is that it undermines vampire tropes at every turn. Laszlo, Nadja, and Nandor are petty and stupid with petty and stupid grudges to match. Laszlo refuses to give up a hat that is clearly cursed. Their roommate and reluctant vampire friend Craig Robinson is an energy vampire, draining the energy out of humans by being boring or frustrating, perfectly suited for corporate America. Despite the length of their stay in America, Laszlo, Nadja, and Nandor remain utterly unable to interact with humans or understand how to enslave humanity. Mostly they just want to drink blood and turn themselves into bats. 

Lovecraft Country (HBO Max): This imaginative take on the writings of noted sci-fi/horror writer H.P. Lovecraft is engrossing fan fiction (in the best possible way). With an impeccable cast and production values, showrunner Misha Green has spun Lovecraft's blatant bigotry and racism into a story of black America in the 1950s where the monsters are supernatural and all too real--vigilante posses of white men, racist sheriffs, and the general awfulness of racist whites. Throw in some Lovecraftian monsters, family drama, and a mysterious silver Bentley that seems impervious to the laws of physics and you've got an intriguing and enthralling show. 

 

Schitt's Creek (Netflix): Created by comedy legend Eugene Levy (every Christopher Guest mockumentary) and his son Daniel, the show follows the fabulously wealthy Rose family after their falling victim to a Bernie Madoff-type fraudster. Forced to live in the town of Schitt's Creek, which family patriarch Johnny had purchased as a gag years before, the family shares two rooms in a rundown motel. Along the way, they deal with wife Moira's inability to adjust to small town life, son David's neuroses and inability to give up control over anything, and daughter Alexis's hilariously fraught past running from warlords and gambling for her friends' lives. Schitt's Creek thrives on the interaction between the family and their loving, if demented dynamic. Fellow mockumentary regular Catharine O'Hara shines as Moira and Annie Murphy is wonderfully chipper as the aspiring Alexis.

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Drone Tour of New Orleans

While it may be difficult to enjoy everything New Orleans has to offer right now, it is possible to see New Orleans from home--and in a way that you couldn't even if you visited. 


Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Summer Book Recommendations



As we head into the final stretch of the summer, there’s still plenty of time to read a good book or two. So here’s some recommendations for you all to enjoy. 

 

Stealing Home by Eric Nusbaum 

 

A former sports editor at Vice and a resident of Los Angeles, Nusbaum details the dislocation of native communities and political machinations that led to the construction of Dodger Stadium in Chavez Ravine. Nusbaum keeps his focus on the activists who fought the stadium’s construction and the Mexican families who were displayed in order to provide a new home for the recently relocated Dodgers. He begins the book with disparate narratives that weave together in a story of the triumph of business and political machines over the people who made Los Angeles their home. 

 

Operation Mincemeat by Ben Macintyre  

 

Ben Macintyre has carved out a career of retelling barely believable historical events with the skill of a thriller novelist. Mincemeat just might be the best of his books, telling the story of a daring operation undertaken by British intelligence during World War 2 to divert German attention away from the impending invasion of Sicily. The plan, cooked up by a small band of British officers, involved packing a dead body with intelligence documents and dropping it off the coast of Spain. There were numerous issues along the way—finding a body, producing documents to place on it, depositing it (via submarine) on the coast, and then making sure the documents made their way to the Germans. The daring plan helped change the course of World War 2. 



 

Agent Running in the Field by John Le Carré

 

While Macintyre may be the master of true-life spy stories, Le Carré remains the master of fictional spies. In his latest novel, the 88 year old author spins another eminently readable and engrossing story about a disillusioned spy, his badminton partner, and a double-agent. The story is Le Carré at his most polemical—turning his literary skill full bore against the villains of the modern era—money grubbing oligarchs, their enablers in government, and the amoral post-Cold War West. While Agent Running in the Field is no Spy who Came in from the Cold or Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy le Carré remains an essential voice for sanity in an insane world. 

 

Rebel Cinderella by Adam Hochschild 

 

Hochschild, a founder of Mother Jones magazine, has spent the second half of his career telling the stories of political and social activists who stood against injustice. Along the way, Hochschild has examined the Belgian Congo, the birth of radical abolitionism, the anti-war movement during World War 1, and Americans who fought for the Spanish republic in the Spanish-American War. Now, Hochschild has crafted a delightful biography of Rose Pastor Stokes, an immigrant cigar roller who married into one of the wealthiest families in America. Her rise was a literal Cinderella story, but Pastor Stokes remained unrepentant socialist and embarrassed her husband’s family with her activism. Hers was a remarkable life devoted to aiding the working class and reforming American society, regardless of the personal cost. 

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

The Shrine on Airline: Drone Footage

Since the New Orleans Babycakes Triple-A baseball team has moved to Wichita (and seen their season cancelled because of COVID-19), the Shrine on Airline sits empty. But in the meantime, we can all enjoy this cool drone footage. 

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

A Confederacy of Dunces


John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces is one of the great books of the modern Southern literature. Toole, died at his own hand in 1969, but thanks to the work of Walker Percy and Toole’s mother, Thelma, the book was published in 1980. Toole posthumously received the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1981. Since then the book has become one of the most widely read fiction books about New Orleans and the South. 

 

Set in the early 1960s in New Orleans, the novel’s main character is Ignatius J. Reilly, a slovenly 30 year old man, living with his mother, who is convinced the world is arrayed against him. Well-read but utterly delusional, Reilly wages a solitary crusade against modernity. He decries the perversity of modern movies all the while spending most of his time parked in a theater seat. He sees himself as a modern day Boethius—a martyred philosopher of the Medieval period—railing against injustice. Reilly’s pyloric valve is a modern day Cassandra, warning him of upcoming dangers in his life. 

 

Reilly does not work or drive, instead relying on his mother for support. She indulges him on account of the death of his father 21 years in the past and because of Ignatius’s intelligence. Over the course of the novel, however, Mrs. Reilly falls in love and with the support of a new best friend conspires to have Ignatius committed to a mental institution. 



 Throughout Ignatius’s adventures in the French Quarter, Uptown, and the Bywater, he frustrates, confounds, and pillories a litany of characters that you can only find in New Orleans. There’s the owner of a pants factory who briefly hires Ignatius while dealing with the manipulations of his wife and an aging employee with dementia. Then there’s Angelo Mancuso, an inept New Orleans police officer who briefly attempts to arrest Ignatius. Throughout the novel, Mancuso finds himself unwittingly transformed into Reilly’s nemesis. There’s a parade of unsavory characters who call a French Quarter strip club their home. Along the way, Reilly torments everyone he meets with the not-at-all interesting story of his one trip outside of New Orleans—a Greyhound Bus trip to Baton Rouge. 

 

According to literary critics, especially those of New Orleans, Confederacy of Dunces contains the richest depictions of the city and its dialects found in modern literature. Currently, there is a bronze statue of Reilly under the clock at the 800 block of Canal Street (the site of the Hyatt French Quarter hotel). The location was the former home of the D.H. Holmes department store and the novel’s opening scene. The statue depicts Reilly, clad in his hunting cap, flannel shirt, and scarf, studying the crowd outside the store for “signs of bad taste” while waiting for his mother. 

 

Confederacy of Dunces is a modern classic and well-worth a read from anyone who will enjoy a good laugh at its central character. 

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Star Trek: The Next Generation Honest Trailer


Now that we're done re-ranking all of the Star Trek movies. Let's take a humorous look at nearly everyone's favorite Star Trek TV series--Star Trek: The Next Generation. 

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Star Trek Movie Rankings UPDATED: Part Two


Let's pick up where we left off last week, with the less successful Star Trek films.

Star Trek Into Darkness: The second of Abrahams’ Star Trek reboot is Star Trek Growing Pains.  Kirk’s arrogance and innate belief in his own abilities and decisions finally come back to haunt him. He also learns that command means he must place the needs of others above his own. Spock’s growth as a character comes from his attempts to shield himself from pain, while recognizing that sometimes one person can and must take action regardless of the consequences. While Benedict Cumberbatch offers a fun play on Khan, the film suffers, as did Abrams' Rise of Skywalker, from being a slavish imitation of a much better film.

Star Trek: Beyond: Beyond has everything you would expect from a Star Trek movie: a dangerous threat to the Federation, the crew enjoying being in each other’s company, an alien female lead, and our heroes coming out just fine in the end. It also highlights just how much better Star Trek is suited for television. Spock is sad, Kirk doesn’t want to be in Starfleet. Yawn. The film’s other big weakness comes from its villain. Idris Elba is a superb actor buried in alien-ish makeup and a blatantly obvious back story. The cast’s chemistry alone makes for an enjoyable movie, but one that lacks that the character elements that separate a great Star Trek movie from a run of the mill summer blockbuster.

Star Trek Generations: The first film adventure for the Next Generation crew is a mixed bag. The film slogs along while the Enterprise searches for a mad scientist trying to get caught up in a magical energy ribbon. His ruthlessness and appetite for destroying solar systems means the Enterprise must stop him. Along the way Picard enlists the help of Kirk, long since thought dead, but actually caught up in the energy ribbon. The film gives the original Enterprise a nice send off, featuring a warp core breach and a crash landing of the saucer section. Where the film fails is in its treatment of Kirk’s death. Kirk and by extension the writers in charge of the Star Trek universe had always known that Kirk would die alone. The presence of Picard at Kirk’s death did not make it any more meaningful or purposeful. It did not seem to serve a clear purpose at all.



Star Trek The Motion Picture: The first film featuring the Original Series cast suffered from a distinct lack of action and from being too long. The longest of the Star Trek movies takes its sweet time investigating a mysterious object (one of the Voyager space probes) hurdling toward Earth. The costuming of the film is ridiculous to the point of distraction. The cast seems decked out in Starfleet’s line of casual lounge wear. The additional characters left over from the planned reboot of the TV series and were incorporated into the film are tacked on and it plays that way on the screen. Tellingly they are both written out of the film by the end—leaving the Original Series crew intact. 

Nemesis: Nemesis again attempted to make Picard doubt his humanity and question the course of his own life. How did it accomplish this task? Introduce a Picard clone who has risen to lead the Romulan Empire. The fact that Picard clone has killed his way to the top while Picard himself abhors such behavior and the clone’s insistence that the two are identical leads to Picard doubting his own humanity. Similarly Data must deal with the existence of another android, identical to him apart from Data having the more advanced brain. Picard’s inability to recognize the differences between his own behavior and those of his clone do not fit with the character. In this nature/nurture debate, Picard comes down firmly on the side of nature, yet his own experiences across the Star Trek films and series argue otherwise. While killing off Data tugged at the heartstrings of Trek fans, the presence of an identical Data at least gave Star Trek: Picard a plot point to play around with. 

Insurrection: A war-weary Starfleet willing to set aside its principles to ensure its longterm survival? Great idea. Bad execution. Instead Picard and the Enterprise, despite having the flagship of the Federation at their disposal, seem outmatched at every turn while helping the inhabitants of a small planet fight off those who wish to steal their secret to everlasting life. Perhaps best exhibiting the problem of the film, at a key moment in the film, the fate of Picard and his crew lies in Picard’s ability to guilt trip an alien into helping him. Plot action through a stern lecture from Jean-Luc Picard hardly seems a successful way to advance a film. Also in the film, Picard falls in love, Data befriends a little boy, Worf gets pimples, and everyone on the Enterprise gets their groove back. 

Final Frontier: God is an evil space alien who looks like Karl Marx and needs a spaceship to leave his prison in the middle of the Galaxy. Along the way, Spock’s half brother brainwashes people by helping them confront and let go of their pain. Kirk, naturally refuses, arguing that he needs his pain. By the end of the film, Spock, McCoy, and Kirk agree that maybe there is no sentient creature known as God, but rather the spark of the divine lies in the hearts of mankind or alienkind or whatever. It is an overtly touchy-feely ending to a dreadful film. The less said about Uhura doing a seductive fan dance the better. 

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Star Trek Movie Rankings UPDATED: Part One


As we did a few weeks ago with the Star Wars movies, it's time to update our rankings of the Star Trek movie pantheon. Last time, we did rankings by Rotten Tomatoes score, but not this time. This is our personal rankings. Here we go from best to worst. Engage.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan: Wrath of Khan remains the best of all of the Star Trek films. Installing Khan as the villain gave the audience a preexisting and antagonistic relationship with the highest of stakes. The film features strong action and character moments. The Battle of the Mutara Nebula between the Enterprise and the Reliant plays like an old submarine movie as each captain must rely on his skill to survive. Kirk and Spock’s philosophical discussion about the needs of the many and the needs of the few highlights the core of their respective characters. Kirk always acted in the manner he thought best, regardless of the rules, and refused to accept the inevitability of death. Spock measured his actions carefully with the broader situation and when the situation called for it, sacrificed himself to save the rest of the crew. The film provided a strong blend of action and character moments that represented the best a Star Trek film could be.

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country: The final voyage of the Original Cast rebounded nicely from the debacle of the Final Frontier. The film, made at the end of the Cold War, pondered the cost of the overcoming the hatred and fear that defined the longstanding conflict between the Federation and the Klingons. With Spock instigating a reconciliation between the two sides, the film provides some nice character moments for Kirk as he must put aside his prejudices and accept Spock’s humane reaction to the Klingons’ plight. Indeed many of the humans in the film advocate letting the Klingons’ die, while logical and calculating characters like Spock propose a humanitarian approach. The film presages the work of Deep Space Nine by questioning the high morals that the Star Trek franchise had set to embody. Uglying up the reputation of Starfleet gave the franchise some much needed breathing room as its high minded moralism threatened to develop into merely lectures about contemporary soceity’s inability to overcome its own parochialism. Christopher Plummer delights as the Shakespeare quoting Klingon General Chang.  

Star Trek: First Contact: Like Khan, this film relied on a pre-existing villain known to fans of Next Generation: the Borg. Also like Khan, the film succeeded by balancing action with explorations of its central characters. The opening space battle and the fight with the Borg during a spacewalk are well-executed action pieces. Meanwhile, Picard must grapple with his guilt about his assimilation by the Borg and his almost blind desire to prevent their assimilation of his ship and Earth. Data, meanwhile, struggles with his duties and loyalty to his friends as the Borg Queen offers him what he desires most of all: a chance to be human. Ultimately, Picard offers to sacrifice himself to save Data, while Data rejects the offer of the Borg Queen and Earth is saved.




Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home: The Voyage Home completed the Enterprise’s journey back to Earth following Spock’s resurrection. But no journey home would be complete without time travelling back to the 1980s and hammering home, in classic Star Trek fashion, an overtly environmentalist message: Save the Whales! The notion that a giant black cigar would come to Earth after not hearing from whales for two hundred plus years is an incredibly stupid conceit. Yet some parts of the movie work remarkably well. Watching Kirk and Spock interact in the 1980s produces some very funny moments, including when Spock gives the Vulcan nerve pinch to a man playing his boom box too loudly on a public bus. Chekov asking for the location of the “nuclear whessels” remains amusing to this day. Even Dr. McCoy got in on the action by chewing out the antiquated medicine of the 1980s or as he called it the “Dark Ages.” The film manages to be preachy, but immensely fun. 

Star Trek (Reboot): J.J. Abrams’ reboot of the Star Trek franchise understands the core relationships that defined Star Trek and employed them to create a summer blockbluster. The cast largely embody the traits of their characters without falling into slavish impersonations. Chris Pine portrays Kirk’s brashness well. Zachary Quinto manages to demonstrate Spock’s relentless logic while also providing a window into his struggles with his own humanity. The film also plays with key themes from the previous films, but spins them in interesting ways, suggesting that no matter what changes in the timeline, these relationships and themes recur. By the end of the film, the characters are in place where they need to be for future films. Additionally, Abrams never forgets to imbibe the film with a sense of humor and fun that attracted so many fans to Star Trek in the first place. Karl Urban’s McCoy and Simon Pegg’s Scotty carry much of the humor in the films to great effect.

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock: The Search for Spock struggled to balance the devotion of Kirk and the rest of the crew to Spock and incorporate other elements to the plot. The film begins well with Kirk and crew orchestrating the theft of the Enterprise to go and retrieve Spock’s body from the Genesis planet and reunite it with his consciousness (fittingly left in the brain of Dr. McCoy). The film drags with Christopher Lloyd’s Klingon villain. He appears out of nowhere and decides to kill Kirk and steal the Genesis device. Why? It’s never really made clear other than that he’s an evil Klingon. Most of the time spent on the Genesis planet seems to drag down the plot of the film. Even after retrieving Spock’s body and killing the villain the crew must still restore his soul. The film features the destruction of the original Enterprise and the death of Kirk’s son David at the hands of the Klingons. 

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Strangers in their Own Land: Book Review


In Louisiana, the pollution from the industrial plants that line the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans has created “Cancer Alley.” Yet in election after election, Louisiana voters elect politicians who promise to protect the oil and chemical companies. As these companies ravage Louisiana’s environment, politicians decry the EPA and the Federal government. They espouse their love of the free market and small government while relying on the Federal government to supply over 40% of the state’s budget. As the state has given millions in tax breaks to industrial conglomerates, its residents suffer from staggering poverty, high obesity rates, underfunded educational systems, and low life expectancies. Arlie Russell Hochschild has termed this phenomenon “The Great Paradox.” From 2011-2016, Hochschild embedded herself among members of Louisiana’s Tea Party to better understand “The Great Paradox.” Her explanation brilliantly describes the feelings of alienation and cultural decline amongst those on the American right. 

During her research, Hochschild, a UC-Berkely sociologist, interviewed dozens of people, attended church services and Tea Party meetings. She divided her interviewees into different groups. There’s Janice the Team Loyalist—she attached herself to the values of the Republican party and credits them with all her successes in life. If the Republican Party supports oil and chemical companies, then she does too—even as she builds her new house as far away from the chemical factories as she can. There’s Jackie the Worshipper—she thinks that “Pollution is the sacrifice we make for capitalism” (179). She believes this because in her own life she’s subordinated her personal ambitions to God and her husband. Like her wish for a new and better house, we cannot have anything we want. There’s Donny the Cowboy—the daring, individualist. He stoically endures all of life’s challenges including pollution. In the words of Tony Soprano, Donny’s “Gary Cooper, the strong silent type.” 

Hochschild describes the anxieties, fears, and emotions expressed by those on the American right as their “Deep Story.” Her interviewees see themselves in the middle of a line heading up a hill. On the other side of the hill is the American dream. They’re waiting patiently alongside people who look like them—white, Christian, some with college degrees. There are many people in line behind them. They’re poor, black, Mexican, women, immigrants, or not-Christian. As Hochschild explains, “It’s scary to look back; there are so many behind you, and in principle you wish them well. Still, you’ve waited a long time, worked hard, and the line is barely moving. You deserve to move forward a little faster. You’re patient but weary. You focus ahead, especially on those at the very top of the hill” (136). Then the line stops moving at all and even starts moving backwards. 


Worst of all, the same people from the back of the line—the women, immigrants, people of color—begin cutting the line. That’s not fair, Hochschild’s interviewees think. How are they cutting the line ahead of us? It’s the government helping them with affirmative action. How did President Obama cut ahead? He was poor and black, so he must’ve gotten help or worse, he cheated. Now he’s helping others do the same. Those on the American right see themselves as compassionate and caring, but that doesn’t extend to line-cutters. They’ve faced their own problems, but they’re not complaining about it. There’s no government program helping them get ahead. So those on the right feel betrayed. They look at the president and wonder why does he dress that way? Why does he always talk about America’s problems? Can’t he see what a great nation America is? Why is it wrong to be proud of America? Why do I feel like a stranger in my own land? 

The believers of the “Deep Story” practice some deeply un-American beliefs. As Hochschild explains, her interviewees spoke often about Mexicans and Muslims, statistically small percentages of Louisiana’s population. They rarely spoke of African-Americans in their midst. Mostly they felt that they lashed out at Northerners for accusing them of racism. They believed that racism meant using the N-word or hating African-Americans. Yet they only saw African-Americans as the lenses of celebrity, athletics, criminals, or welfare queens. As Hochschild wrote, “Missing from the image of blacks in most of the minds of those I came to know was a man or woman standing patiently in line next to them waiting for a well-deserved reward” (147). This view of African-Americans reveals the systemic racism at the heart of this “Deep Story.” 

Some of Hochschild’s interviewees deeply believe in inequality. Janice the Team Loyalist wants to put people to work on highway construction projects with shovels and wheelbarrows. That way: “When people got home at night, they’d be tired and wouldn’t be out drinking or doing drugs” (159). Americans should repatriate the graves of American soldiers in France back to the United States. Then we could employ American boys to mow the graveyards. She supposes that war isn’t such a bad thing, especially since it would put people to work making missiles and uniforms. Handing out guns and ammunition to everyone in the Middle East is the best way to spread democracy. If poor women want to receive government support, she contends, then the government should sterilize them. The rest of America’s problems, she contends, could be solved by better “churching.” As Hochschild explains, “Underlying Janice’s reasoning is her idea about inequality. Some people may just be destined to remain at the end of the line for the American Dream” (160) and it’s not the job of the government or anyone else to help them to the front of the line. 

Hochschild's illumination of the American Right's Deep Story is a necessary first step in understanding and even attempting to bridge the political and social gap in the United States. 

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Revisiting the Independence Day Movies

In honor of July 4 (coming up this Saturday), it's a good time to revisit one the great blockbuster disaster movies of the 1990s and it's largely unnecessary sequel that tried to launch another Hollywood franchise.

The original Independence Day was a smashing financial success in the summer of 1996. It starred Will Smith (at the height of his popularity) as a brash fighter pilot out to save the world. Bill Pullman played a beleaguered American president who spawned the film's iconic moment--a speech delivered to a rag-tag group of Americans before their final stand against the aliens. Then there was Jeff Goldblum as a satellite repair technician/genius inventor who using a MacBook uploaded a computer virus into the alien mothership ensuring humanity's survival. The movie is both silly and a ridiculous spectacle, as outlined in the Honest Trailer below.



Then there was the 2016 sequel, Independence Day Resurgence. We reviewed the movie here shortly after it came out and there's some of it that's worth revisiting.

Resurgence starts out promisingly enough. Twenty years later, there's moon bases, a scarred African warlord who led an insurgency against the remaining aliens on Earth. Bill Pullman is battling psychological demons. Jeff Goldblum is there doing Jeff Goldblum things. When the movie focuses on Earth and the aftermath of the alien invasion, it hums along nicely. When the aliens show up, it goes off the rails.

There's a surfeit of characters who have precious little to do. There's a predictable veneration of China to appeal to Chinese government censors. There's a bus full of children driving around the Bonneville Salt Flats. And by the end, there's a second alien species who arrive with super-amazing technology to ally with humanity and take the fight to the aliens across the Galaxy. The only winner here is Will Smith, who wins because he refused to be in the movie in the first place.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Star Wars Film Rankings UPDATED: Part Two


Last week we started our updated look at the Star Wars movies now that the sequel trilogy is complete.

Return of the Jedi: Jedi loses some points for the middle portion of the movie, which is slowly paced and spends way too much time on the Ewoks. The opening and closing acts (freeing Han from Jabba’s palace and the Battle of Endor), however, are quintessential Star Wars. At the beginning, we see Luke putting his Jedi skills into action. (The film also suffers from sexually objectifying Carrie Fisher in her slave outfit.) The end effectively balances the space battle above Endor, the fighting on the surface, and Luke’s confrontation with Vader and the emperor. It is a fitting emotional end to Luke’s journey and his father’s redemption. 

Revenge of the Sith: Revenge of the Sith may be the best of the prequels, but that’s like saying Sbarro is the best airport pizza option. In the end, it still sucks. The film’s opening space battle is enjoyable enough, but it still suffers from plodding dialogue and incredibly poor pacing. The sequel trilogy reduced Natalie Portman’s Padme from gun wielding intergalactic badass to weeping pregnant woman in three short movies. Her delivery of the line, “Anakin, you’re breaking my heart” is still painful to listen to The film’s emotion comes solely from Ewan McGregor’s ability to convey his distress at his friend's betrayal of the entire Galaxy.

Phantom Menace: This isn’t an argument that Phantom Menace is a good movie, just that it’s better than Attack of the ClonesPhantom Menace has a fun podracing scene—ripped off from Ben-Hur, but still fun. There’s also Liam Neeson doing his best with some truly clunky George Lucas dialogue (also another Lucas weakness). Yes, Jar-Jar Binks is terrible and a racist stereotype (one of several in the film). And if you watch the film in the Machete Order (4, 5, 2, 3, 6) you can skip Phantom Menace entirely and not miss a beat. The film’s climatic duel with Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon, and Darth Maul is far and above anything in Attack of the Clones.  




Rise of Skywalker: Rise of Skywalker is bad. It's a jumbled mess of fan-service moments from a filmmaker disinterested in anything but reminding you of other better moments in other better films. It also goes out of its way to trash The Last Jedi. Rise of Skywalker packs so much fan-service into a nonsensical plot that it's downright insulting. Look a cell-block escape! Chewie gets a medal! The emperor is alive (?)! Luke lifts an X-wing out of the water! C-3PO and Chewie sort of die but not really! Let's give Poe a love interest and a super-duper extra evil villain armed with a fleet of planet destroying star destroyers! 

Solo: A Star Wars Story: Like the far-superior Rogue One, Solo tries to answer questions about the original trilogy that didn't need answering. Who cares where Han Solo got his name? Or how he got the Millennium Falcon? And why did we need a movie to show us that everything awesome that happened in his life came on one action-packed weekend? By the time--chronologically speaking--we get to Han Solo in a New Hope, he's less a galactic rogue and more a guy desperately trying to recreate his high school glory days. 

Attack of the Clones:  Clones drags on interminably (sensing a theme? George Lucas has pacing problems in his movies). The middle sections where Padme and Anakin escape back to her home planet are some of the worst written romance sequences ever put to film. Throw in a murderous side trip to Anakin’s home planet where he rescues his mom and murders an entire village of sand-people and you’ve got a disaster on your hands. Then there’s the inclusion of Jango Fett—because Boba Fett, the galaxy’s lamest bounty hunter, needed a tragic backstory?—who promptly gets his ass handed to him by a bunch of Jedi. The film’s battle scenes are simply a collection of CGI mumbo-jumbo as one giant CGI army fights another one. 

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Star Wars Film Rankings UPDATED: Part One


A few years ago, we offered a ranking of the best Star Wars movies. Now that the sequel trilogy is complete--along with two standalone movies. It's time to update those rankings. Here we go.

1. The Empire Strikes Back: Embracing a darker tone, Empire pushes deeper into the emotional core of its characters. There’s more Han-Leia banter as the two grow to realize that they can’t stand one another but also love each other. Luke starts training to be a Jedi and risks turning to the dark side to save his imperiled friends. Darth Vader is back and more determined than ever to crush the rebellion. The Battle of Hoth rivals the destruction of both Death Stars for its scale and staging. Then there’s the famous, “No, I am your father” scene. And Han’s “I know” response to Leia’s declaration of love as he’s about to be frozen in carbonite. Sci-fi doesn’t get much better than this. 

2. The Last Jedi: Rian Johnson's revisionist take on the Star Wars universe dared viewers to leave the past behind and kill it if they had to. Toxic fanboy objections aside, Johnson created a visually daring film that is so stuffed with ideas that it is both too long and too short at the same time. The brave and foolhardy actions of reckless and selfish men find themselves under examination as a gallery's worth of prominent women show their male counterparts just what leadership really looks like. And it's not sulking in exile for 20 years or jumping in the seat of an X-Wing and getting half your fleet killed. It's a story of sacrifice and passing down hard-earned lessons to a new generation of heroes. 

3. A New Hope: All these years later, A New Hope remains an enjoyable viewing experience with Luke Skywalker’s heroes’ journey from farm boy to galactic savior. Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher shine as Han and Leia. Alec Guinness lends his considerable gravitas to his role of Obi-Wan giving the film an air of seriousness and depth. As was shown in the prequel trilogy, George Lucas’s clumsy dialogue sounds a lot worse in the hands of lesser talented actors. The climactic attack on the Death Star remains one of Lucas’s best directed set pieces of the entire series. There are a lot worse ways to spent two hours than revisiting this classic movie.



4. Rogue One: Director Gareth Edwards has an impressive grasp of scale. He frames a Star Destroyer in the foreground with the installation of the Death Star’s super-weapon in the background. Rebel fighters crash into the front of a Star Destroyer exiting hyperspace. The film’s climatic hour succeeds where Force Awakens failed, by creating clear stakes for each part of the battle to retrieve the Death Star plans. Unfortunately, the film’s first half suffers from underdeveloped characters and a grueling slog from anonymous planet to anonymous planet that reeks of reshoots and a desire to make a film where everyone dies at the end into a family friendly adventure.

5. Force Awakens: The Force Awakens benefits from strong casting and character work as well as being competently entertaining following the under-baked prequel trilogy. Tasked with introducing a new cast to go alongside the old veterans, director J.J Abrams more or less made a carbon copy of a A New Hope, which isn’t the worst thing in the world, but limits the film’s upside. The plot of the last hour or so takes a backseat to character work as there’s another bigger, badder Death Star but without any of the tension or stakes that came from blowing up the first two Death Stars. Abrams, however, moved the franchise in a positive direction by creating likeable and relatable main characters like Rey, Finn, and Poe.