My Foray into Carnival after 10 Years of Avoiding It

I don’t like parades, whether they be Fourth of July parades, Thanksgiving Day Parades, Gay Parades, Mummers Parades (aka gay parades), so it’s no surprise that Carnival was simply never a festival that was high on my priority list both while living in America nor when I came down here to Brazil.

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What’s Carnival without a 6 foot plus half-naked transvestite? What’s Brazil without them? (Eliseu Carnival 2018)

The most I have done in ten years here when Carnival does roll around is go to a gay club which had live sex on stage (yeah, one and done with that) and then watch a mini-parade a couple of times close to my neighborhood. The parade is short and there are enough things to do around the block which don’t involve starring at people walking, that I don’t mind it as much.

Oh, and I almost forgot. I did spend about 10 minutes at a block party. There were more people there than I was comfortable with. I was immediately approached by a crackhead while searching for my friend. He kept following me and I nearly cracked his head open with a beer bottle. When I found my friend I said I was feeling violent tendencies, and left. Unsurprisingly, city hall shut that area down for any further block parties.

Clearly, Carnival was not really my cup of tea.

But at the end of last year, I met someone who, as he puts it “is of Carnival”. What that essentially means is that I would have to immerse myself as much as ever for his sake. Ends up I had a lot of fun. Here are some of my adventures from Carnival 2020 – and perhaps a little guide for you if you ever want to enjoy Carnival in Brazil’s biggest city, São Paulo.

Rehearsals at the Escola de Samba (Samba School)

Carnival begins at the samba school and there are a lot – big and small. Preparation for the following year’s Carnival parades (called a “desfile”) pretty much starts as soon as each school finishes the current year´s parade. They have to set the theme, the costumes, float designs, and, of course, the song they will be playing as the school makes its way down the avenue.

My friend is connected with a school on the east side of the city called Né Né da Vila Matilde. It is one of the oldest and most traditional samba schools in São Paulo. It was founded in 1949 and has won 11 trophies in the Special Groups and two in the Access Groups (the schools are divided in leagues based on their performance – Special is the top league and Access a rung below), making it the holder of the title of “The School of the Century” in 2000.

Going to an actual samba school was nervewracking at first. I know they are full of tradition and I thought I would be judged if I wore the wrong clothe or said the wrong thing – plus I do not know how to samba. But, when I got there I found it to be very family-friendly and emotional. There is nothing like hearing the sounds of loud thunderous drums from only a few feet away. It´s the same organic shock I feel when I hear a live orchestra swell – my entire body vibrates with the soundwaves.

This school (as with most) had an open and closed rehearsal. The open rehearsals were free and didn´t include everyone in the school – it was more focused on the school actually getting their sound and dances right and had a few more stops and starts. The closed rehearsal had a 10 Reais entrance fee. This was more like a close to final rehearsal, as everyone pretty much has to already be on their A-game and put on more of a show for the audience in the stands and on the floor watching. Below is a short video of the closed rehearsal I went to.

Having gone to two rehearsals it was only fitting that I go watch the samba school parade at Anhembi, São Paulo´s premiere venue for Carnival Parades. But we will get to that later, first, there is ….

The Carnival Court: Crowning the King and Queen of Carnival

I had no idea this was a thing, but on January 15th they held an event at Anhembi to crown the King and Queen of Carnival. The competition joins nine women and four men who all vie for the top prize. The women presented themselves in a swimsuit competition, a small speech, and a samba dance-off for the judges. The men had to strut around in their best elegant suit, give a small speech, and then samba like their life depended on it.

I mentioned above that I really don´t like parades, well not as much as I really don´t like pageants. I thought it was all pretty stupid to start, but once the show got warmed up, I got into it. I even decided to play along, and guess what? I picked both the male and female winners correctly. I also learned a new Portuguese phrase “Pé quente” (hot feet – which is their way of saying beginner´s luck).

My friend explained to me that once the King and Queen were chosen, along with the two princesses, the Carnival season was officially on its way. Now, their job through the season was to show up at different schools and parades and smile a lot and take pictures. Not a bad gig – and the paycheck is not too shabby either.

Technical Rehearsals at Anhembi´s Sambodromo (Sambdadrome)

So, Anhembi is a huge expo center. It holds events year-round but one of the most popular is its samba parades in the sambadrome, called “desfiles”. The schools have 65 minutes to march their way down an avenue to their school´s samba tune while people watch from the stands and cheer on their favorites. This may be the Carnival image most people abroad are familiar with coming out of Rio de Janeiro. Their parade takes place in a sambadrome on Sapucaí avenue, which is an even longer strip than the one in São Paulo.

Before the official parade, schools gather to do their final run-throughs at Anhembi. The great part is that it is free to the general public. Of course, the schools aren´t dressed in all their costumes and the floats aren´t taken out either, but it is still a pretty wild time.

The night I went there were heavy rains, which led to some historic and tragic flooding throughout the city the following days, but revelers didn´t seem to care. Né Né paraded down the avenue with people shouting and sambaing along as if it were hot steamy summer night. At the end of the avenue, the drum section gathered and folks stuck around until the last beat was struck.

Below are some videos I recorded of the wet but extremely electrifying affair.

Following the truck down the strip

The drum section was hot

And of course, the end of the parade is the best part. This is where everyone just gathers and stays as long as their legs can stand.

And below, a picture of my favorite members of the Samba School – the old Baianas. These are the older women who have been with the school since forever.

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Going to a Bloco, a street party where you follow a truck playing music

As I had mentioned, I had been to a street party, but it was not a happy affair. I guess, that impression really tainted my idea of what a bloco could be or what it really was.

I decided that this year I would wash away those bad memories by trying to go to another one. Someone I know organizes and invites me to a Bollywood Bloco every year, so what better time than now to jump in, as I was already somewhat in the spirit of things.

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Enjoying the Indian Bollywood Bloco

Well, the first thing I learned is that I really didn´t know squat about Carnival blocos. It said that it started at 10 am and went on until 4 pm, so I decided to arrive at 1. I waited a little while for a friend and figured we would just walk right up to where I thought the bloco would be stationed. The problem was that there was no music nor any sign of the bloco. That´s when both friends (one being an American, mind you) turned to me and said, “What planet are you on? Blocos don´t stay in the same place, they move and people follow.”

“You´re kidding me!” I replied in total confusion. “Had I known, I would have arrived way earlier. How are we going to find them now?”

Fortunately, their flyer explained what I had failed to read – the trajectory of the bloco. We managed to catch up with them and as soon as I heard the first Indian rhythm I flew into the crowd and lost myself in the spirit of the party. I will post some videos below, but it is interesting to note that Carnival is all about parties and not all of them are necessarily Afro-Brazilian centered, or even Brazilian centered, for that matter. I have seen flyers for a popular Beatles Bloco and even a Goth Bloco. If you can manage to get a truck and permission to slow roll down an avenue you are good to go.

Bloco Bollywood was the best time I have ever had at a Carnival party ever. I highly recommend it, but then again, I am a sucker for Indian rhythms.

Here are some vids of the festivities:

Me joining the circle


Following the Truck

The Official Anhembi Parade

I have clear memories of falling asleep, as a child, while my parents watched long hours of these parades on television. I still think they are pretty boring, but things certainly do change when one is emotionally invested in a school.

My friend left on Sunday evening of the 23rd to parade and I was very much anxious to see how he was going to do. I also learned a few things along to way to make the whole process more captivating.

1) I didn´t realize these schools were competing against each other in the same way a sports team does. Remember, I said at the start that there are actual divisions. Depending on where a school stands division-wise determines the day that they parade (the first day is the one they show on television) or if they even get a slot at the Sambadrome. In other words, I learned that that cute family parade near my home is actually a competition to see who goes up a ranking. My friend´s school, on the other hand, was in the second division and trying to pull their way back up.

2) There are very strict rules about how one parades that start with the order in which a school comes out into the avenue. First, there is the “comissão de frente” (opening commission) which can have no less than 10 and no more than 15 visible members. Their job is to welcome the crowd and bring good cheer. Their dance and costumes are tied to the theme of the school for that year. After that there is the “abre-alas”, which is the first float: it must have the school´s mascot and name on it. From there, there are more dancers, a drum section, singers etc. If a group does not meet these requirements they lose points from the judges. And most important, they have a set time to get everyone down the avenue and across the finish line. This year it was 65 minutes, in São Paulo. Rio’s Sambadrome avenue is a bit longer so they get up to 75 minutes.

3) Perhaps most surprising for me is that they play the same damn song for over an hour – no wonder I thought it all sounded the same!!! Again, the difference this year is that I actually knew a lot of the lyrics of the song of the school I was cheering for, which made it all the more exciting to see them go down the Sambadrome. Their theme and song was the history of beer, how could I not support them!

There are a bunch of other details that I could include that could fill up an entire chapter or two of a book, such as – the number of old ladies from Bahia that can be in the parade and how their dresses need to be tailored, how the school’s flag can never touch the ground, how some of the dancers have to greet the judges on their way down … it’s a lot of regulation for what is seemingly a jovial event. But it also made me appreciate the hard work that goes into preparing these parades a whole lot more. Before, I always thought it was very random, but now I watch for the details and start judging the schools myself.

Watching the Results

The last part of Carnival, aside from the few blocos which still spill over into the next weekend and beyond is gathering the votes. It’s a long list of categories from attire to song to dancers and there are four judges for each who work on a ten-point scale. We sat around the house watching in anticipation but right from the gate Né Né was hit with a couple of 9.9s. Considering how the two schools vying for first and second were consistently getting 10s, it was clear that Vila Matilde was not going to win.


The voting in each category.

Sadly, the school not only did not win, but they came in last place!!! It was an embarrassment for a samba school with such a rich history in city of São Paulo. Everyone called foul, of course, claiming that money and politics had a lot to do with their bad results. Others are just unhappy with the president and the directors of the school. I guess some things may have to change over there before the school gets back to the same level of its glory years.

On a side note, I am beginning to think I am bad luck for this school because the year that they went to second division is actually the year I came to Brazil (I didn’t even know they existed at the time) and now that I actively cheered for them, they went a rung further into the hole.

Here are their 2020 Carnival song and full parade, though. I still thought it was pretty damn good and the song is catchy.

First the song:

Now the parade:

Getting Back to Business

Well, as I write this it is the beginning of March. Brazil slowly comes out of its long hibernation period which begins about a week before Christmas. The end of the year through to New Year´s and until after Carnival is one endless party. Around this time business is slow, people are lazy, and beer trucks are aplenty.  There are a lot of Brazilians that complain about this nearly two-and-a-half-month period of stoppage in the country and how terrible it is for people not directly involved in tourism or events, but good luck trying to change what is as part of Brazil as the Macy´s Thanksgiving Parade is to America. It just happens to be a veeeeery long Thanksgiving Parade – and people wear less clothing.

I am not sure I can do Carnival again like I did this year without a guide to drag me out, but it was entertaining nonetheless. There are, however, a few smaller Carnival celebrations in some cities in the interior and the Northeast that I want to see someday – so, it´s not out of the question for me to be completely out of the Carnival spirit for the rest of my stay in Brazil.

That said, not all Carnivals are the same. São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro dominate more on the Sambadrome parades that focus more on samba music. There are also plenty of blocos that play a variety of music ranging from country to The Beatles, and, as you saw earlier – Indian music.

Bahia is more bloco oriented and their preferred style is Axe Music (look it up, it is fast and frenetic). Famous singers usually set up a stage or get on top of a truck and perform to a mass of bodies. This is not a Carnival I would recommend to those who get anxious around big conglomerated swaths of people. Of course, there are more laid back events, too, but the main party is a sea of bodies.

Further North the music style is Frevo (a sort of samba meets a march) and has a lot of people parading with large puppets and umbrellas down the streets. It feels a bit more family-oriented and slightly more laid-back, but it´s Brazil – everything is laid back until suddenly it isn´t.

If you do come to Brazil, I really do recommend jumping into Carnival at least once. It may not be your cup of tea like it really isn´t mine, but it can also be a really engrossing cultural event that you will carry with you for the rest of your life. Happy festivities next year!

P. Ray

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2020 Brazilian Medical Check-up

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I went to see my doctor this morning. I was a bit nervous about getting the results of my full battery of tests I did in December because I didn’t feel I took good care of myself in 2019. I stopped running due to lack of time and not having proper shoes and was eating more junk food than I should have for lack of money. And my attempt to stop smoking didn’t quite go as planned – but it’s a work in progress. But then he smiled and rattled some stuff off:

glucose is at great levels – no sign of diabetes

cholesterol looks great – he even asked me if I do physical activity

blood pressure looks perfect

no kidney or liver problems and every other metric pretty much says I am as healthy as an ox

I was surprised by all this because of the aforementioned but also because I swear that the stress of living in Brazil sometimes makes me feel like I am about to burst an artery. But then I thought about myself for a minute and said, “You know what? I am not perfect, but I do manage to take care of myself alright!”

So, with all the authority of someone who isn’t dying next month of natural causes (can’t speak for the unnatural ones), I will share some secrets to staying healthy. They are all medically unproven and probably bullshit – but, hey, I wanted to write a blog post to start the year as I really slacked off at the end of last year.

1. Drink joyfully with friends. 

Don’t be a drunkard – that is not good for your liver.  And don’t drink alone – that is not good for your mind. But drink enough to get your spirits up and do it with friends. This lowers all stress levels and brings joy into your life. When drinking – don’t debate politics or religion – talk about the things you all love collectively and allow that love to grow collectively. Drink an expensive beer, drink cheap beer, drink foreign wine, drink wine you wouldn’t use to cook with, drink stuff that could maybe start an engine, but do drink.

If you are not a drinker than be around drinkers and have juice! Our joy is like osmosis and you will feel it, too. Just make sure the commies pay up before you leave.

2. Meditate a little (even if meditation just means shutting the fuck up and breathing deeply alone in your bathroom for five minutes).

I am a champion of meditation. I started with transcendental and moved on to mindfulness, but both work just fine. Meditation basically trains your mind to shut down and that makes you feel like a real champ. Not everything needs our commentary. Shutting up and shutting down are the two greatest gifts you can give to yourself and others – nobody wants to hear our shit all day.  Pretty soon you will be skipping social media posts that obviously trigger you just because … WHO GIVES A FUCK!!!

Meditation is not hard but if you can’t dig the whole process then just close your eyes for five minutes in your room and breathe. It will do you a world of good.

3. Don’t sweat the small stuff (hey, everyone’s balance is in the red!!! Join the party).

Debt – who doesn’t have it? A broken something or other inside the house – who doesn’t have one? A brain dead co-worker – check. Horrible traffic – yeah, we got that covered. There are so many terrible things out there that are just part of being alive on planet Earth that if we spend too much time worrying about them we will go nuts. People manage just fine in the end – some better than others but that is none of your concern.

Just realize that job changes, political regime changes, weather changes, and every other change is part of the living experience. Once you do that, then you can be prepared for the really hard stuff like natural disasters, wars, famines, terminal or chronic diseases, or even a new Fast and Furious movie. The less you sweat, the dryer you will be and you won’t stink up the place. Oh, and it will lower your blood pressure, I have heard.

4. Keep busy with something you actually enjoy doing

If your job sucks then get a hobby. Find something that you really enjoy and do it. It doesn’t matter if it’s playing tennis or watching Star Trek for hours on end (I do both) but you got to find something you love to occupy some of your time.

Now, if you are young enough or were smart enough, you, of course, should marry some of what you love into the work that you do. I work in education and with music. Work doesn’t feel like work – most of the time. When you get up in the morning, after you have cursed the heavens for having to leave the bed again, you won’t feel as shitty realizing that you are going to go make money doing something that actually stimulates you on some level. I have met enough ex-big-shot-something-or-others here in Brazil to know that money definitely does not trump finding your place in the sun with the people you enjoy. Try it, it works. Oh, and don’t forget to have sex and if you are too ugly to get laid, watch porn.

5. Shit passes eventually and if it doesn’t, well, drink even more joyfully.

Well, nothing lasts forever – unless you live in North Korea – then it sure as hell feels like it. But, for the most part, we here in the Western world are pretty blessed to have oscillating political systems, oscillating economic times, oscillating trends in music and entertainment, and oscillating lives! People move in and out of your “friends circle”. Work gets tough then it gets easy. Money comes fast and then it comes hard. The best you can do is hold on to that happy medium and extend the positives as far as you can.

Of course, if all else fails and you are stuck in the mud for longer than you had imagined you would be – drink even more joyfully with even more friends. Accentuate the positives, and revel in knowing that you aren’t the only one who has had or is having a shitty time. There is nothing that special about your experience unless an M.D. says so – then you shouldn’t be out of the house drinking anyway!!! Good cheer is essential to keeping up a healthy lifestyle.

6. Oh yeah, and eat healthily and exercise and shit.

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SP sidewalk in Vila Madalena – P. Ray

Brazil is a good place to eat a lot of fresh fruit and veggies – just wash them well before popping them in your mouth. There are also a lot of parks and beaches for you to go running, hiking and jogging. Gyms are a dime a dozen and the crazy sidewalks will give you all the ass-muscle you had ever wanted in your life. So, yeah, don’t forget to do the “right stuff”, too and consult your doctor for the best way to do said “right stuff”.

Well, that concludes that. I hope you all have a happy new year. If you aren’t as healthy as me right now (yes, I am going to rub this shit in) then get healthy!!! It’s not that hard. Walk around your block after dinner for 30 minutes – eat half a portion of what you usually have! Take care of you cause there has to be at least one sorry mother fucker that cares if you stay alive or not.
Peace and love. 

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What I am Watching: Match Point, Crawl, and Midsommer

I had a bit of time to watch some movie this weekend. Below you can read some quick reviews or you can click on the link below and listen on YouTube where I go a little more in-depth.

Thanks for all your support and don’t forget to share with your friends.

Match Point (2005)

I am a huge Woody Allen fan, but for whatever reason, I skipped this movie when it came out. This weekend I was invited to a talk on the movie, so decided that it would be a good time to catch up on a film that many have raved about over the years.

A young tennis-instructor falls in love with his soon-to-be brother-in-law’s wife. He then must decide how to manage this crisis in the best way he knows how – is he feeling lucky?

Match Point is certainly an entertaining flick, and I could definitely see where it got its mass audience appeal – it’s very streamlined, it doesn’t have the usual Allen wordy dialogue, and it replaces Allen with a cast of young beautiful people, most notably,  Scarlett Johansson.

I enjoyed the movie throughout, but my main issue with it is that it does tread on a lot of usual Allen ground, thematically. He mainly plays with his two main themes, one, that life is a fluke and that all is left to luck and chance, and, two, dealing with falling in love/lust with someone the male protagonist either should not or cannot have. Allen has made dozens of movies that rely heavily on these two notions, going as far back as Play it Again, Sam.

Perhaps, for those who are not as familiar with Allen’s work (and given his drop in the box office and quality in the years preceding this film, it is quite possible) this movie stands out as something new and fresh. For those who are already fans, it may come as a bit of a retread on old themes – it just happens to be an exceedingly well put together retread.

Match Point is worth a watch for anyone, like me, who had been putting it off.


Crawl (2019)

A heavy storm brings a bunch of alligators to shore in Florida but a daughter decides she wants to stay back and find her missing father.

This movie was two steps removed from Sharknado, except that I think it would not have known how to balance the “it’s so bad it’s good formula” as well as those movies do. What keeps Crawl a neck’s length above water is its two leads, Kaya Scodelario, and Barry Pepper. Together they form a father and daughter dynamic duo.  There is an attempt at adding a bit of “daddy-issues” drama in their relationship, but I am glad that that took all but 5 lines of dialogue to resolve before letting them go into survival mode together.

I only wish the movie had been a bit gorier. Its last act actually amps up the intensity level to the point where it should have been at the start. Still, the pacing is pretty great and the actors manage to play well in the absurdity of it all. This is not Jaws, but it is a decent summer popcorn flick that has a lot more fun with itself than last year’s mega-water-predator movie, Meg.


Midsommer (2019)

A group of college students and “the girlfriend” are invited to go to their friend’s village in Sweden for the Midsommer festival. Bad things happen, because why wouldn’t they?

I liked this movie a lot more than Hereditary, which made me want to scratch my eyeballs out in absolute boredom. Ari Astor has proved that he knows how to play behind the camera. He sets up beautiful shots and knows how to drive us along in his spiraly visions like a master. His main issue for me is that he is an idea-guy, and idea-guys don’t always know how to create tension and a great story.

Midsommer, at its core, is a pretty simple tale, yet Mr. Astor insists in dragging it out for two-and-a-half hours.  While his better focus on the central idea made it easier to get through this movie than the jumbled bunch of ideas in Hereditary, it still left me sort of empty at the end. All of these characters were mere caricatures. I did not care if any lived or died, nor did finding out any of them had died carry any meaning for me after the film finished. In short, Ari should watch more Woody Allen and learn that plot alone is not what drives a film.

In short, idea-people are great – George Lucas is a great example of an idea-man. The problem with idea-people is that they often need a good editor or story-person alongside them to show them what makes good drama – internal and external conflict, character developments and arcs, and the tension built from those elements. Only the main character has a bit of a cathartic awakening at the end of this movie, and even then it is mostly drug and cult-induced – so does it really count?

Midsommer could have lost 40 minutes of its runtime and still have managed to tell exactly the same story, but then perhaps it would not have been considered an “artsy masterpiece” for its long lingering shots of Swedes standing and sitting and sitting and standing and then standing and sitting again.

I am happy guys like Ari are around, though. As much as I did not like Hereditary, I saw enough in it to appreciate that the guy has talent, and this movie was certainly an improvement. Him, along with Jordan Peele, are pushing the bounds of horror and drama and doing interesting work regardless of whether they hit or miss.

Midsommer is worth the watch. It may even leave a mark on you, it left me with nothing, but at least I stuck through it to the end relatively intrigued by what I was watching. I can only see this young writer/director improving and honing his craft in the next few years.

Despite enjoying this movie a bit more, I will give this guy a plug, as I really thought his views on the movie were pretty funny.

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Ranking the Rambo Movies: Peter and I take a look at one of Hollywood’s bloodiest franchises

Rambo is a series that has legs. It is probably tied with Rocky as Stallone’s most iconic role, and he has found creative ways to milk a lot of money (nearly 800 million dollars worth) out of the simple formula of a guy who just wants to live a peaceful life and is inevitably drawn into bloodier and bloodier conflicts.

In our latest podcast, we go in-depth into all five films in the franchise. Neither Peter nor I had actually sat to watch many of these films from start to finish, and we had a lot of fun with the ridiculous plots and the increasingly bloody and gory nature of the films.

You can click and listen right here:


Here is a quick summary of our picks:

Number Five


Rocky III (1988) – This movie got low marks because Rambo sides with what would become the future Al-Qaeda. It does have some great Colonel Sam Trautman action, however.


Rambo: Last Blood (2019) – While the ending is gloriously gory, it does take a while to get going. The set up is pretty boring, though, especially since we see it coming from a mile away.

Number Four

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Rambo III (1988) – This movie has a lot of great Trautman and Rambo action scenes and is paced a bit better than Rambo: Last Blood. The tank versus helicopter scene is awesome as is the destruction of the Afghan village.


Rambo: Last Blood (2019) – The beginning was very slow and it gives this movie a fast-forward to the action feeling to it. The ending does involve some of the bloodies and goriest Rambo action in any of the movies.

Number Three

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Rambo: First Blood (1982) – This movie starts out pretty great and takes a serious look at the struggles of a war veteran. Unfortunately, it goes bonkers mid-way through as Rambo goes on a rampage in Hope, Washington. The silliness detracts from the original depth of the movie.


Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) – While this movie is really entertaining and extremely quotable, it gets dwarfed by the amped-up violence and better story of my number two and one picks.

Number Two

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Phil and Peter

Rambo (2008) – We both ranked this movie at number two. It is bloody, gory, and relentlessly violent. This is the Rambo movie fans didn’t know they needed. It’s short on story but is super well-paced. Its level of violence has given it a cult appeal even within horror movie fans who enjoy a lot of blood on screen. This movie does not disappoint on that end.

Number One

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Rambo: Last Blood Part II (1985) – This movie marks the genesis of the Vietnam-esque action movie rage of the 80s. Rambo kills everyone on-site and is truly transformed into the iconic character that we all know and love today. This is the true first Rambo movie.


Rambo: First Blood (1982) – The first movie in this franchise surprised me with its level of depth. The bonkers ending made sense in that the movie sets up how he eventually snaps and thinks he is back in the war. The final monologue after being told that “It’s over Johnny,” is one of my favorite movie monologues of all time.


We both had a lot of fun watching this series, it is both entertaining and bonkers. I recommend it to anyone who wants some escapist fun as there aren’t any unwatchably bad movies in the series.

Thanks for reading and listening to our podcast.

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Do you like werewolf movies? Check out my rundown of some I have watched by clicking here.

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What I am Watching: IT Chapter 2 – and comparing it to the original.

IT – Chapter 2

For a more in-depth review and first reaction click on the link – otherwise keep reading


I finally got around to watching IT: Chapter 2 and I did not think it was as good as the first movie. This is not to say that this installment was not entertaining. In fact, it is very entertaining and even funny in parts. The issue I have with it is that it was supposed to be a horror movie and I think I laughed more than I jumped.

Another big problem with IT: Chapter 2  is that it tried to stuff a lot of narrative into its runtime, which was already very long. At nearly three hours, there was a lot of movie to take in. But in all that stuffing, it seemed the writers forgot to add in important character setups and development.

The first Avengers movie managed to get all our heroes together in one place but there was reasonable build up until the time that they realized that they had to work together or fail. Here, our heroes got the message to be back in Derry and ready to kick butt in short order. There was a little bit of resistance to start, but that was quickly thwarted after a bit of Native American magic. I did not feel their trauma or the weight of the task ahead of them, defeating the creature that had stolen a chunk of their childhood.

After everyone was quickly on board, this movie sort of went by the numbers. Each character had to face their fear of Pennywise as adults while remembering a piece of their past. It all culminated in an overly long CGI-infested finale that added little suspense and had me checking my cell phone for the time (I really needed to pee again at that point).

Incredibly, despite all these flaws, the movie managed to entertain because the pacing was decent and the acting and direction were adequate.

The weakest link was actually Pennywise. Bill Skarsgård was not given a lot to do in this movie other than shaky-walk towards the camera. It’s not really scary the first time he does it nor after the fifth time. In other moments, the adults were attacked by some weird monsters that could have taken a cue from the imaginative creations from Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. These monsters also seemed to really enjoy a good jump-scare – hope you do, too, as there are many.

To sum up, IT: Chapter Two certainly has its moments. It’s worth a watch if you have already seen the first movie. The only problem is that while the first movie also played a lot more for entertainment rather than scares, it managed to be a bit more cohesive and gory version of Stand By Me. This movie, however, really feels soulless and jumbled about halfway through.


Unfortunately, there were lulls in this movie that took me out of IT: Chapter Two and when that happens, my mind begins to wonder about who did it better – the 1990s cast or this cast.

The Children






The 90s cast was incredibly versatile and managed to show their fear in a relatable way. This new cast did the same. They did feel a bit like the B-cast for Stranger Things (well, minus one A-cast member) but I was happy to go along with them on their summer adventure. It’s a tie between these two talented casts of young actors. 

The Adults






This one is harder to say. I think these new actors were stronger but there was a better setup for the trauma that the adults were suffering in the original mini-series. The problem with that earlier version of IT is that it really falls apart story-wise midway through. While this new movie did feel a bit bloated, at least I was entertained more throughout. Still, I got to give it to the original cast. I felt their pain in a much deeper way than with these new gang, who made me laugh more than anything.


Related image

If we were going solely off the first movie it would be a tie, but this second movie really watered down Pennywise. He became a jump-scare, CGI, beast. Tim Curry’s version got into my head even during the less than stellar second half of the 90s mini-series. His dialogue was pertinent and frightening and his delivery was pitch-perfect. I give Skarsgård credit for giving it his all, but the script left him with little to do. Winner – the legendary Tim Curry.

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Ten Reasons to Love São Paulo – plus one


Most foreigners have an image of Brazil which includes the beaches of Rio, thick forest of the Amazon, or the Carnivals of Salvador. But Brazil´s 3.3. million mi² makes it nearly the size of the United States and big enough to fit most of Europe inside of it. It´s only logical that an array of different landscapes are spread across this vast country.

When I came down in 2009, I ended up in the mammoth metropolis which is São Paulo City.  Stretching over 580 mi² and with a population of over 12 million, it is one of Brazil´s and Latin America´s most important cities. It may not have the street parties of Salvador, the endless beaches of Rio, or the exotic wildlife of the Amazon, but São Paulo has a lot to offer. It´s also my favorite place I´ve been in, thus far, in this enormous country.

Below are ten reasons to love São Paulo (plus an added nugget). However, I am sure you can come up with more, so feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.

Cultural Center of Brazil

Brazil has a lot of unique locations that are filled with their own distinct types of music, food, talking, and drink, but São Paulo is the city which reunites them all. Surely there is nothing like actually visiting Minas for its cheeses, Salvador for its Samba, or heading to Rio Grande do Sul for their churrasco; however, there are so many migrants in São Paulo from all those places, and more, that one can get a slice of the entire country´s culture in nearly every neighborhood.

São Paulo also has more than 70 theaters that hold 100 people or more, major sports arenas, a plethora of museums (all free to enter on Tuesdays), and innumerable venues for music concerts and festivals. It is impossible to go a day of the week without finding something going on in this city, even if it´s an erotic poetry reading in one of its more bohemian neighborhoods.

There are other cities in Brazil which can boast about their cultural prowess but don´t sleep on São Paulo as being one of the powerhouses in the country when it comes to getting one´s culture on.

Economic Center of Brazil

Although the city offers cultural events which range from free to very expensive, one must have some money to go and enjoy the sights. Luckily, São Paulo happens to be the richest city in the nation with a lot of jobs to go around. For the foreigner who either wants a traditional job or works with English as a teacher or consultant, it is a gold mine.

Of the multinationals which do business in Brazil, 63% are headquartered in São Paulo and 44% of the registered national companies have their base in the city also. In short, São Paulo is the place to be to make money – and there is a lot of it to be made.

Though the cost of living can range from high to medium, depending on where you choose to live, it´s a safe bet that if you know how to network and have a clear vision of where you want to be economically, you´ll do pretty well for yourself in São Paulo.

World Class Parks and Reserves

Ibirapuera Park was chosen by The Guardian as one of the top parks in the world. This is a well-deserved honor for the sprawling 546-acre park, but it is only one of the many beautiful green areas spread across the great city of São Paulo.

In total there are 113 parks in São Paulo (2017 figures) maintained by either the city or the state government. São Paulo simply excels when it puts its mind to constructing beautiful green recreational areas as mini oases inside the concrete mayhem. A lot of the larger parks also hold food and national and international music festivals on the weekends.

Besides the parks, almost 1/3 of the city is covered in Atlantic Forest, which gives a sharp contrast to the endless sea of buildings in much of the city´s central region. Some of those areas are designated as reserves for hiking, biking, and other outdoor activities. The Cantareira Park, alone, on the north side of São Paulo, takes up around 19,500 acres of land.

You can read about my favorite park, Agua Branca, by clicking here. This particular park is very quaint and almost feels as if someone took a piece of the quiet interior and planted it in the middle of the city. You may also want to take a hike up to the top of Jaraguá Peak and see the entire city from above. You can read about that here.

Mix of People

America owns the moniker “The Great Melting Pot” but Brazil could easily borrow it. This is a country of immigrants from all over the world and São Paulo is where many of the progeny of those immigrants reside.

The different mix of people one sees from neighborhood to neighborhood and even from block to block never ceases to amaze me. And with each shifting landscape comes the cultural differences from food, architecture, music, and festivals.

As I mentioned earlier, the capital also has migrants from around the country, primarily the northeast. The great rush to the city began in the early 20th century but really boomed in the 1930s and later in the 60s and 70s. Because of these large waves of migration, which at times reached the hundreds of thousands per year, São Paulo is a city where you can literally get a taste and feel for the rest of Brazil.

Finally, São Paulo boasts a pretty varied crowd when it comes to lifestyle, music, likes, and dislikes. The contrasts are many and often time jarring. For example, the annual Gay Pride Parade, which is the biggest in the world, takes place on the same day as the March for Jesus, which is one of the largest faith gatherings in the world, and both boast attendance numbers in the millions.

If one takes a walk down Avenida Paulista (São Paulo´s main strip) and some of its side streets, it is not uncommon to see rockers and funkeiros (fans of Brazilian-style funk music), business people and hippies, skaters and nerds, all rubbing shoulders with one another. If you want variety, this is the place to find it.

Distinct Neighborhoods

We talked about the mix of people. Their greatest contribution to the city, in my eyes, is their ability to transform each neighborhood into its own mini-city. It´s possible for two people to live in separate (yet not extremely distant) neighborhoods in São Paulo and feel as if they are in different cities.

São Paulo has old traditional Italian and Portuguese neighborhoods, like Belenzinho or Bixiga, but it also has modern multi-national skyscraped wonders like Berrini and Avenida Paulista. There are Japanese and Korean areas. There are also places like Largo 13 that make you feel like you just took a trip to Bahia or Ceara in the north. And of course, downtown is its own special blend of old-world architecture and new world style.

I, for one, live in a part of São Paulo which feels like the suburbs of New Jersey at times. Houses, little parks, and squares are sprinkled throughout my neighborhood. I am only about 30 minutes from the main business hubs with their modern buildings and endless traffic, but I feel like I actually live outside of the city. There are even horses near my house.

São Paulo really thrives on its diversity and neighborhood pride is strong. Discovering the different styles from rich to poor, to very Brazilian to cosmopolitan, and from traditional to progressive is one of the reasons to visit the city and stick around for a while.

Relatively Safe

Brazil is not the safest country in the world, but thankfully a lot of the very serious crime is not located in São Paulo. In fact, the capital is not in the top 50 out of the most dangerous cities in the state of São Paulo and is not in the top 100 out of the entire country. This is not to say that crime can´t and doesn´t happen here, but it is very predictable and is more localized than in other places in Brazil.

Homicides have also been on a steady drop in São Paulo, so chances are that even in an armed robbery, most bandits will just want your stuff and then run off. Pretty much, if you don´t act like someone who has never walked around in any large city around the world, chances are that you will be fine in São Paulo.

Nearly everyone I know that has visited the city has had a great time without incident. Bars stay open until the wee hours and revelers can be seen walking home at dawn without a care in the world. Be smart and you shouldn´t have a constant worry or threat of crime riding your shoulder.

For those who do want some safety tips, read an article I wrote on staying safe in São Paulo by clicking here.

Food Choices

Brazil´s culinary options can rightfully be described as pretty bland and boring. Its base is rice, beans, and a piece of meat. One can end up eating that every day of the week if they don´t look hard enough for alternatives, or if they live in areas that are perfectly fine with switching the chicken for a piece of beef and calling that a mixture. Luckily, São Paulo manages to evade that sameness, somewhat.

I believe one of the city´s saving graces, as far as food is concerned, is that Italians make up the bulk of its immigration roots and they brought their cuisine with them. São Paulo is where one can find delicious plates of pasta, Mediterranean salads, and even decent pizza – the latter not being a Brazilian strong suit.

Of course, Italians weren´t the only ones to make São Paulo their home. There are Portuguese and Middle Eastern influences in every bakery and restaurant item you can think of. Sfiha and Kibbeh, for example, are treated like national foods though their origins are Levantine. Codfish is also served in little dumplings or as dinner item almost as readily as any traditional Brazilian dish.

In the last ten years, I have also seen the growth of food choices from places like Mexico, India, Syria, and Thailand. There has been an increase and vegetarian options across the city, as well. Brazilian pallets are evolving and São Paulo is doing a great job to evolve along with them to meet the demand.

Finally, due to the huge migration of people from the rest of the country, Paulistanos have the luxury of eating the best of each region. There are Bahian and Mineiro restaurants all over the city, and Gauchos have made São Paulo a second home for their famous churrasco from the South.

In short, food is a very subjective matter, but I doubt one will go hungry in São Paulo. With restaurant options galore and a weekly feira (food fair) where one can purchase fresh meats and produce, São Paulo truly stands out above the rest when it comes to eating well.

Proximity to Many Cities


São Jose dos Campos in the Vale de Paraiba

São Paulo is not only a metropolis, but it can also be considered part of a megalopolis for its proximity to a number of very large cities. This not only creates an economic and cultural hub but gives one plenty to see and do around a roughly 50-mile radius from the capital. Some of these places include modern-industrial cities like Campinas and São Jose dos Campos in the western interior and the port cities of Santos and Guaruja to the south. If you add in Rio de Janeiro, which is a mere 270 mi to the north, the population of São Paulo´s surrounding area amounts to more than 30 million people – or close to 20% of the entire population of Brazil. Together these regions fuel a lot of what Brazil present to the world.

Although some will choose to live in less populous locations, so as to get away from the madness and mayhem of metropolitan life, São Paulo is a perfect alternative for those who want to have quick access to an assorted number of regions. And remember what I said about neighborhoods in the city, not every place is a sea of skyscrapers. There are quiet little corners in São Paulo which disguise themselves as quaint little suburbs. So, being in the city does not necessarily equate to being part of all its freneticism – only a connection to it.

Free (or very cheap) Stuff To Do

Living in São Paulo can be expensive but to counter that, the city has free events galore. Every night of the week I can go online or in a Facebook group and find live music, poetry readings, athletic events, and even some food fairs. This city is full of free (or very very cheap) options for leisure and entertainment.

One such example of the free-for-all is Avenida Paulista, which closes on Sunday to car traffic and allows pedestrians to wander about. There are live bands and musicians on every corner. These artists replace the usual honking horns and roaring engines with the sweet sound of music, which ranges from hard rock to light bossa nova and even some drag queens and an Elvis impersonator. Pedestrians use this time to wander about as if they were in a mega-sized outdoor picnic.

São Paulo is also home to many SESCs. These are cultural centers which not only have sporting facilities, pools, and gyms but also hold expos and theatrical pieces. If the events at SESC aren´t free, they usually cost very little to attend. If you don´t know about SESC, read my blog post about one of the most famous ones in the city by clicking here.

Another great advantage to the city are the amount of neighborhood cultural centers which hold dance festivals, indie groups, art fairs and a host of other events. One needs simply to look and find.

The best site for being up to date on cultural events in São Paulo is CatracaLivre or Oba Oba. I, however, find that writing keywords on Facebook´s search bar will help you key in on a bit more on lesser-known local events. Happy hunting.

Very Active Expat Community

São Paulo has a super vibrant expat community. There are a bunch of Facebook groups which cater to the needs and questions of this ever-growing group of people. I am an administrator on an expat page of over 3000 people, and we here in São Paulo get out to meet each other a lot to either drink or drink or drink …

In all seriousness, leaving your home country to face a new one is not easy. Having a support community online is helpful, but having a support community on the ground can be even more essential. I wrote a recent blog post about that very subject, which you can read here. The expats I have met in São Paulo have given me real-life experience and advice because they have been in my shoes. I only hope that now I can return the favor.

The city also hosts parties from a variety of expat networks like Internations, The Polyglot Club, MeetUps, Couch Surfing, among others. Chances are that you will be able to find at least one person from your neck of the woods (or other places around the globe) to have fun and network with in the city of São Paulo. And while it´s good to soak in local culture – there´s no place like home.

ONE More ThingSão Paulo has Amazing Street Art!!!

While putting this article together and gathering pictures I have taken over the years, I was reminded of one last special thing I love about São Paulo, the amazing street art. Below are just some of the incredible artwork, which speaks for itself. You can see more on my Instagram page: saopaulotours.


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What I am Watching: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, The Lion King (2019), and John Wick … finally

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019) (NO SPOILERS!!)

Quentin Tarantino’s new movie shows a maturity in character development and style that I hadn’t seen since his adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s Jackie Brown. Here he manages to do it without help and creates characters that are driven by their dreams and hopes and not by a plot device hanging like a carrot in front of them.

Don’t get me wrong, Tarantino is probably the best at creating a premise and allowing his characters to flow in it with their dialogue and quirks. But I am rarely moved at the end of Tarantino movie, as I see many of his heroes and heroins as simply set pieces in a the elaborate mind of the writer/director. This film was starkly different.

Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio play best friends, Leo is an aging television actor, Rick Dalton, trying to take the next step into the movies before his star fades and Brad is his long-time stunt double, Cliff Booth, who tags along to pretty much just see what comes next. There is no McGuffin, no final battle, no revenge, nothing to stash, simply two men who are trying to figure out where they fit in life in their respective stages of their careers. Their bond is not based on snappy dialogue and funny one-liners, but rather, real curiosity, doubt, and fear for their usefulness and future.

Intermixed with this story is Margo Robbie, who plays Sharon Tate, discovering her new found fame. She lives next door to Dalton in the house where the infamous Tate-murders took place. Margo, who wowed me in last year’s Tonya, continues to be an impressive screen actor. She has a light air about her that is contagious – no wonder she was also the saving grace of the mess which was Suicide Squad.

One particular scene, where she goes into a movie theatre to watch herself on the big screen for the first time, is a delight. Her glee when she hears the audience laugh at her on screen antics while she sits quietly in the dark with her bare feet up on the seats in front of her (Tarantino does not disappoint on the foot fetish tip) was impressive in that it gave us a window into her humanity and joy without one word being spoken by her. The king of gab proved that he can give us depth of character without ten pages of scripted lines.

Where Once Upon a Time in Hollywood truly excels are in these moments like the one in the theatre. Tarantino ripped away the sheen of Hollywood but not to show us the usual fare about how many of these people are psychotic assholes behind the scenes. This movie decides that it wants to show these celebrities as real people with anxieties, moments of elation, and constant worry.

There are a few hiccups along the way as far as scenes I felt went on for too long. The Bruce Lee bit in particular gave us some important background and character information on Cliff but didn’t really sell it for me. There is also a very long sequence where we tag along as Dalton is filming some scenes for a western called Lancer. It’s set up to explore his failings, but the pacing is laborious.

I also didn’t think Tarantino’s camera style was appropriate for trying to show us what a filming from the sixties would look like. At first I thought I was supposed to be seeing Tarantino filming the Lancer set. However, when Dalton flubs a line,  someone asks for the camera to go back to one and we are whipped back around to the first position of the shot. I realized then that this scene was was supposed to be a representation of Lancer’s own director, Sam Wanamaker, filming a scene. It’s all very meta and blurred between when it’s Tarantino and when it’s Wanamaker. But, alas, perhaps that is exactly what Tarantino was going for, which takes us to the end.

I will not spoil the end, because I believe it will definitely take away from the pleasure of watching the movie. But, I will say this – the movie definitely has a hard cut in style in its last 25 minutes or so. There is a six month time jump and a voice-over narrator appears from nowhere as the film takes on a much more procedural documentary style leading up to the night of the Tate-murders. All of a sudden, it starts feeling like a Tarantino film – and no, it’s not a spoiler to say it gets quite bloody.

This shift didn’t sit to well with me. The nearly two-hours of intricate character development and tension (we do meet some of the Manson family in the film in one of the best elongated suspense sequences Tarantino has ever put on screen – think an even longer-burn version of the opening of Inglorious Basterds) felt like it had been thrown out for a quick and bloody resolution. Although, I did like what Tarantino did in the end as far as the message he was sending by mixing fact with fiction (think Inglorious Basterds again), I felt it cheapened all the players. These character’s arcs seemed to have found resolutions before the six-month jump and the last bits felt shoe-horned in only to bridge Dalton and Cliff’s stories-As with Tate’s story-B.

Still, I give high marks for what this movie did accomplish for most of its running time, proving that Tarantino can still be great without trying to work a gimmick. The Hateful Eight seemed like an attempt at this by having everyone just sitting in a room and building a story off of that, but those were all types who we, as an audience, knew would eventually blow their tops.  Once Upon a Time in Hollywood actually delivers when it comes to following people around for two hours that I truly cared about and wanted to spend that time with regardless of who might be lurking right around the corner.  Too bad Tarantino decided to go all Tarantino at the very end.

The Lion King (2019)

Shoot me now – I saw the original Lion King in the theatres and hated it. Saw it on VHS later and still hated it. It’s objectively not a bad movie, but something about it just never gelled with me. So, believe me, the problem is with me and not the finished product. I will admit that the music and score are lovely and Timon and Pumbaa are pretty funny, though.

Since Disney’s last couple of reboots have been damn good, I wanted to see what they had done with the movie. Maybe I would finally fall in love with it.

My first take away of this  version of the movie is that it’s very emotionally dark. I did my best not to try to compare it to the original, but it was nearly impossible. Like I said, I am not a fan but respect the merits of that movie – one of these being how The Lion King – 1994 manages to remain vibrant and hopeful even while including a pretty intense death scene. This new version felt like it was going to go into the dark corners of Simba’s mind after Mufasa’s death like Disney meets Scorsese.

The main reason for this dark feel, I believe, is the photo-realism technology that they used. The main characters in this story are mostly dangerous carnivores, and there is no way to make them not look like dangerous carnivores throughout – their eyes are small and expressionless and their claws and teeth sharp.

A cartoon can still give these creatures a cuddly feel – but this style of animation simply does not. Add to that, the fact that this film follows the trend of most modern film in that it’s a shower of dull colors and natural light. The lushness of the original film’s color palette is one of the factors that still make it pop off of ours screens more than two decades later.

But here I am again, doing what I shouldn’t be doing – comparing the two versions. It is hard given these new movies are supposed to be a call back to our youth as almost scene for scene recaptures of the Disney animated classics. So, erasing any memory of a movie I saw when I was about 13 and judging it on its own merits, I give The Lion King – 2019 a strong B.

I think that the darkness did appeal to the adult in me a bit more. I wouldn’t take a little kid to see this movie as there was a real sense of dread throughout. Again, not sure that is what the Lion King is supposed make someone feel, but that is what I felt.

The music helped build on this feeling. It was a lot more toned down than the original, which worked, but didn’t inspire any happy-Disney feelings. Hakunna Matada is still the best song of the bunch, Can You Feel the Beyoncé Tonight was horrid, but Scar’s song was magnificently malignant even if it sounded like it could have been a Nick Cave B-side.

In short, this was a downer of a movie: the dad dies for real and hyenas chase two lion cubs like orcs through underground tunnels!!!

If Disney made this movie with a post-911 audience in mind, which expects and wants more realism, that thinks Bambi’s death is a footnote in history, and that have the word terrorist as part of their childhood vernacular, then it is great. It works on that adult level, and kept me tuned in until the final battle. I could barely distinguish one lion from the other with the bad lighting and photo-realism, but it was reminiscent of the final fight in the Revenge of the Sith, which works for me.

The Lion King is not a bad movie, at all, but it may just give you some nightmares afterwards. The circle of cash flow will be strong with this one, regardless of the critics. So, watch it and make up your mind.

John Wick (2014) (this will contain spoilers)

I fell asleep the first time I tried to watch John Wick. I think I made it to the part where the dog dies. Didn’t quite get it. A year has passed and just this past week I tried again and this time I pushed through to after the pup gets offed, and I must say it was an enjoyable, yet absolutely ludicrous little action film.

Keanu Reeves has got to be the most unlikely action hero ever. With the exception of his very frenetic style in Speed, he always looks like he is on a constant high. It works for Bill and Ted (you bet I am excited for the new one) and even The Matrix (where he is in sort of an alternative techno-trip) but is pretty laughable otherwise. I know he is a darling among movie fans for being such a great guy off-screen, but I never quite got how it is that he manages to trudge his way through these movies – yet, he does. John Wick is no exception, he looks like he is half asleep sleep-fighting throughout this movie, with few exceptions.

Speaking of sleep … there is a lot of death in John Wick, that is a plus. But he manages to kill off bad guys so easily that I did end up dozing off again about mid-way through the movie. There is not much suspense involved when this one guy can cut through ten guys in one minute. I woke up and rewound (ooops, what do you call it these days when you push the movie back???) about 20 minutes only to find out all I had missed was another ten guys that he killed.

By the time Wick is explaining his reasoning for his actions, based on the love he had for his dog, I began to wonder if this movie was done as a spoof and just happened to get bigger than they could have ever imagined. Then I thought about my dog, and said, “You know what? I’d kill about ten people in one minute if they killed him too.” Good for Wick.

I’ll probably watch part two and three just to say I did. The movie is not bad, in the end. One must simply turn off all intelligence centers and hold on tightly as the movie veers onto so bad its bad territory while still having one foot firmly planted in the so bad its good arena.

But, for those who follow me and couldn’t believe I fell asleep on this one, there, I watched it!!!

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What I am Reading: True Grit

I have a thing for strong female characters, especially when they have to weave their way through a man´s world to get what they want. The main character in True Grit, 14-year-old Mattie Ross, is a shining example of one literature´s finest. She is scrappy and tenacious, but in a much more straightforward way than say, Jean Louise Finch, who is more a spectator than an agent for setting the plot into motion.

Many of you have probably seen both Hollywood versions of this book (strangely, I have not) so I won´t bore you with all the details of the story. The short version is that a drifter, named Tom Chaney, kills Mattie´s father during a barroom quarrel. She seeks recompense and so goes into town and hires a mean-old drunken US Marchal, Reuben J. “Rooster” Cogburn, to help her on her quest. They are later joined by a Texas ranger, named LaBoeuf, who happens to also be looking for Cheney for a the killing of a senator and his dog in Texas.

At first both men don´t take a liking to each other but do agree that Mattie should stay behind. Her tenacity pays off as she continuously manages to stay on their trail even when they try to lose her along the way to finding Cheney.

The story is pretty straight forward and simple and the inevitable respect that all three eventually garner from one another is expected. What makes the book special, is the characters themselves.

Mattie is tough as bricks. Cogburn has seen better days but still has the heart of a lion hidden under his overweight shell. LaBoeuf is experienced but learns to accept the absurdity of his two companions.

True Grit is exactly about exactly what the title says – finding grit in impossible odds. It is at these moments that we learn who we truly are and how far we are willing to go for justice.

The book did not leave me philosophizing about life, but it gave me a rush of energy as I cheered for our heroes. It is written in simple terms and one can see why Hollywood picked up on it for its very cinematic-adventure style. The one lull for me was in Chapter 3 where Mattie introduces Cogburn by way of a court transcript – she had met him on the day he was serving as a star witness for the prosecution in a trial. The shift in style (written as if it were dialogue in a play) is a bit jarring and derailed the narrative flow. Once that matter is out of the way, the book delivers until its final pages.

If you have seen the movies and want to run through a light, but entertaining, book, I recommend True Grit. As for me, time to check out those movies.

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What I am Reading: The Walking Dead Comics Come to an End

I began reading The Walking Dead comics during the break from seasons 4 to 5 of the television show. And just as I had binged my way up to season 4 (I got turned on to the show late) I binged my way straight up to Negan and All Out War in the book.

I have read a lot of comics in my life, but I had never read anything quite like The Walking Dead. In those black and white pages, I found characters and stories that kept me up into the wee hours and gave me nightmares. No lie! Negan haunted my dreams for a few weeks.

The Whisperer arc that came after All Out War felt a bit anti-climatic at first, but in the end it exploded into something even bigger and more epic than anything the comic had put out before. My only criticism is that I did feel that it ended a bit abruptly. The death of Alpha is something I hope the television show skips, as she is being portrayed as much scarier villain on television.

Most recently, the New World Order story seemed to be the one which would expand the universe beyond the area in Alexandria, where our heroes had been stationed for years, and show us communities which had managed to grow to the size of small cities. Perhaps we would finally see how the rest of the county or even the world was dealing with the zombie apocalypse. Yet, it is there that The Walking Dead comic book series came to a sudden end.


Excerpt from Kirkman´s letter. NO WAY OUT was the planned end for the comic.

Robert Kirkman wrote a lengthy letter at the end of the last issue explaining that he had been planning to surprise us with this end for quite some time. Furthermore, he admitted that he had actually considered ending The Walking Dead as far back as when they had first arrived in Alexandria (pre-Negan!!!). Fortunately, back then he realized he still had more story to tell, but he made it clear that this time around he did not.

The right decision was made, though. I think that many fans, including myself, felt that the series was stalling a bit, not knowing exactly where to go with the new cast of characters and location. I feared that at some point the comic book was in danger of running into the same problem that the television show has run into on more than one occasion – repetition. I had already felt that Negan was a redux of The Governor (just much more epic and fleshed out), so for us to have to sit through our heroes once more encountering a group who may or may not have good intentions, only to then have our heroes take over that community, did not feel as exciting as the first dozen times they did the same thing.

The New World Order story was also taking its time to develop. The Commonwealth´s only threat is that it believed in some retrograde-meritocracy i.e. if you were wealthy, successful, and powerful in the old world, you would be wealthy, successful, and powerful in this one.  Rick´s company did not agree with this, as his version of meritocracy only rewarded people for their capacities in the new world.

Would The Walking Dead turn into a political drama? The arc sure did seem to be moving in that direction: there were popular protests and uprisings and assassination attempts (funny, how bad news follows our heroes). Thing is, I love political intrigue, I am just not sure Kirkman was the most talented guy to write it, nor that it was something worth waiting a month to get more of.

New World Order climaxed with attempted coup of the Commonwealth and a near battle with Rick´s community (with a horde of Walkers thrown in the mix for extra drama). It all ended peacefully with Rick giving another rousing speech in which he declared that “We Are Not The Walking Dead” – a clear call back to when he stated that they were the walking dead.



As I was reading, I did get a feeling of closure. Fortunately for us, Kirkman must have felt similarly, so, Rick was promptly assassinated in cold blood, and the following issue took us into a time jump to end a story that took nearly two decades to tell.

Was it abrupt? Yes! Was it less than satisfying? Yes! But was it fitting? Yes!

There are only so many ways you can tell the same story again, and Kirkman had already done it in every imaginable way. Drama needs conflict, and the only real conflict that matters in a dystopian world is the “civilized” vs the “anarchist” or “totalitarian”. There are not that many variables. Everything from The Walking Dead to Mad Max to even The Handmaid´s Tale operates on that level. Going that route again with The Commonwealth would have been predictable and boring.

While the comic book did its best to keep us guessing about the true nature of the Commonwealth, it made the right choice of not making it anything more than just a bit of class struggle/criticism. Anything else would have been redundant.

Although I was not exactly excited or touched by the last chapter of The Walking Dead, I believe that it ended in the most resolute way it knew how. This was Rick´s story after all, so it made sense to end with his death and his legacy.

I also thought it just for the story to end on a high note. Kirkman stated in his letter that his first ending was dark, with the Dead winning in the end, and that in hindsight he made the right decision in flipping that outlook around. This ending was hopeful but not in a sugary way. It was simply realistic: people banded together and got on with their lives while others did not adjust to the new world and still resented the past.

The Walking Dead comics will be missed. The universe still lives on in two AMC shows – with season 9 of the original show being one of the best it has put out in years. I would suggest that the television version begins thinking about its own end-game, too. It´s sad to see a story we love come to an end, but it´s not as sad as seeing it stick around for longer than welcomed.

Thanks for the great adventure, Robert Kirkman. Until next time.

Phil Ray Continue reading

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Ranking the Best Picture Oscar Movies – 2019 Edition

I got a bit busy during Oscar season and didn´t publish my picks before the Oscars aired. Not a big deal as I plan to do an Oscars edition for every the Oscars have been around! Sounds crazy? That´s because it is.

To be honest, I may have delayed because I was not very keen on most of the movies nominated this year, aside from my top pick. Even in my original review for Blackkkansman, I said it was a good film but not Oscar-worthy. I edited that little bit out.

I understand that the Oscars are trying hard to capture a larger audience, thus pushing for more ticket-sale-friendly films in their nomination brackets, but I hope they don´t continue on this trend to the detriment of higher quality films that perhaps fewer people have seen.

Well, here are my picks from worst to best.

A Star is Born

I tried watching this movie twice and twice I felt it lost steam mid-way through. Lady Gaga is a decent actress but not once in the movie did I feel I wasn´t watching her in a very long music video. Bradley Cooper also didn´t hold my attention enough to care about his personal problems with alcohol and family.

This movie started out fine – and Shallow was a deserving entry to the pantheon of great Oscar-winning songs, but perhaps my heart it too “shallow” to appreciate this one. It was pretty by the numbers.

I do remember enjoying the 70s version a lot, though.

Image result for barbra streisand a star is born

Here is a podcast I did with some friends with lengthier reviews of this and other films on this list.


Vice was not a bad movie, but it was also an entirely forgettable one. It flitted between humanizing and demonizing a man, that did not need any more of either. There was really not point to the film that couldn´t have been expressed better in an actual documentary feature.

The saving grace was Bale´s performance.

He did his best Gary Oldman and submerged himself in the role of Dick Cheney, transforming his body and face to impressive standards.  The difference between this performance and Oldman´s is that Oldman´s was buffered by a superior (albeit not great) story to back it up.

Vice is certainly not a terrible choice for Best Picture, but I doubt it will be remembered down the years as a crowning achievement for anyone involved.

Black Panther

I shocked that this movie received a Best-Picture nomination. I saw it in the theatres twice and it was a spectacle for the eyes, but there was nothing about it, story-wise, that I hadn´t seen a million times before – and usually in other MCU movies.

I rank it higher than A Star is Born only for entertainment value. Killmonger was also one of my favorite MCU villains.

There is, of course, the cultural aspect of having a nearly all-black cast in a major money-making superhero movie, and although I was happy to see this, I can´t allow its blackness to override its quality. Black Panther was good, but it is certainly not a movie which I hold near and dear to my heart.

You can read my full original review of Black Panther here.

Green Book

This is cute little movie is Driving Miss Daisy 2.0 and could, like that movie, yet again stymie Spike Lee in the Oscar race. The big change from Miss Daisy is that in The Green Book the roles are reversed – a white driver and a black passenger.

I was entertained by this movie, throughout, but felt it was a bit simplistic. The friendship and bond that is built between these two men was the only standout, but predictable. The rest of the movie was basically the writers patronizingly explaining to us over and over again why racism in the deep South was bad.

The problem is that even in its most harrowing moments (like when Dr. Shirley and his driver Tony are arrested by some racist Southern cops, or when two men scope Dr. Shirley out and prepare to rob him, or when he is being beaten up in a bar, or even when he is caught doing illicit things with another man in a YMCA) there is never really any suspense. We, the audience, are assured by the music, the lighting, and the tone – that all will end well.

This being based on a true story, I can understand not adding extra drama where there was none, but by removing all tension from what must have been a somewhat harrowing journey for a black man alone in the pre-integration South does the film an injustice. It turns what could have been a true masterpiece of grander scope about the climate of America in the 1960s into a great story of friendship set in whatever city they ended up in next.

If Green Book set out to be an accessible movie for all ages about a rough period in American history, it probably succeeded (although with less humor and vibrancy than 2017s Hidden Figures) but it stands far below other films depicting that period and the people who lived through it – skip ahead a decade and watch Blackkksman for a better version of that.

(P.S. Edit *** I can´t believe this actually won Best Picture. Twice Spike Lee has been beaten by an interracial driving movie.)

Bohemian Rhapsody

This movie had moviegoers and critics on opposite ends of the spectrum. It took me a little while to get around to seeing it, but I have to say, I am with the people. Bohemian Rhapsody was comfortable in its leotards and sequins and played to the audience the way Freddie would have done.

Critics have derided the film for not being introspective enough, but I am not sure that is the movie I would have liked to have seen. Queen was about the flash, the pompousness, the audacity and that is where this movie shines brightest.

At the end Freddie finally tells his bandmates that he has AIDS, he cuts them short before they can mope about it and explains that he doesn’t want tears nor sympathy. Had this movie spent more time than it did with Freddie’s struggles with identifying as gay, or coming to terms with his illness, I think it would have detracted from what Freddie and the band’s essence was: energy and life.

This is not a masterpiece of filmmaking but as far as a movie that felt sure about what tone and road it wanted to take and executing that mission perfectly, it gets high marks. I don’t think it deserves best-picture, but Rami walking away with an Oscar might be the highlight of Oscar night.


Spike Lee makes up my trinity of great NYC filmmakers (Allen and Scorsese being the other two in the Holy Club). Sadly, Spike´s feature film output hadn´t been that great in quite some time (although I do recommend watching any of the documentaries he has put out of late). This is why it was gratifying for me to see that Blackkklansman saw him get a little of his stride back. Perhaps Jordan Peele´s socially-conscious and extremely smart “Get Out” (Peele had his hands in this film too) got his competitive juices flowing.

Blackkklansman is based on the true story of two cops (one black and one white) who infiltrate the KKK. Spike seems to recognize the absurdity of this plot and wastes no time in utilizing that to his benefit. This movie is 80% comedy with just enough drama sprinkled in to not completely wash over the important themes and messages.

Sure, there are times when he stumbles, like his “in case you didn´t get it” connections he makes to Donald Trump´s current “Make America Great” rhetoric, but thankfully these slip-ups are far and few between – although opening the film with Alec Baldwin trying to make a political statement was a mistake. I absolutely hate when a movie gets preachy even if I agree with the sermon!

These moments stand out like a sore thumb only because the rest of the movie is vintage Lee. It´s filled with characters who are polar opposites – even while being on the same side. It´s got a soundtrack that drives you along as much as the story. It´s got flashiness and snappy editing. It´s the Spike Lee I remember loving.

The only part of the movie I thought was a bit underdeveloped was protagonist Ron Stallworth´s (played with a sardonic air all the way through by John David Washington) relationship to a black activist, Patricia. Although their scenes together allowed for some back and forth about how to deal with racism in America, it felt like they were written in only to serve those purposes. Never did I feel that these two were actually building anything extraordinary together because their conversations were mostly flat and surface level.

To close, I haven´t been this excited about a Spike Lee feature film in quite some time. This movie is certainly worth taking a look at from both a historical and entertainment angle, though. Mr. Lee is back, and I hope he can keep his groove going for a good while.

The soundtrack is pretty hot too!

The Favourite

This is a period piece for people, like me, that don’t usually like period pieces. It is shot with the audaciousness and vibrancy of film set in the modern day while keeping its feet firmly grounded in 18th Century England during the French and English War. It tells the story of a power struggle between three women: Queen Anne, who seems slightly mad; her confidant, Lady Sarah; and a newcomer who seeks to be the Queen´s new confidant, Abigal.

What impressed me about this movie is the way that it manages to build its characters without pressing too hard. Little by little we see the balance of power shift from the Lady Sarah to Abigal – it’s subtle and subversive yet perfectly paced and delivered by the three actresses.

This movie has a lot going for it both in front and behind the camera, and in the age of #metoo, a film about three strong women doing anything they must to retain power may be a hit at the Oscars. It did lack moments of deeper feeling among the characters, and that is what keeps it out of first place for me. But, overall, The Favourite is a triumphant piece of film making.


Roma is many stories and I will go into them in a minute. But, the movie primarily focuses on the year in the life of a young maid named Cleo, played by Yalitza Aparicio with steady restraint. She is a simple woman who accepts life as it comes but learns by the end of the movie that sometimes life throws things at us which are hard to accept or not worth accepting. In this, she finds her inner strength and core.

But like I said, Roma is many stories.

Another of its stories is the story of women. For as Cleo grows, her employer, Sofia, goes through a similar realization towards inner power but from a different route. She is much more self-assured and seemingly in control of her life. She already understands the curve balls of existence. But her journey is in learning to cope and rise above that which she sees before her, namely her husband´s infidelity. She must not only accept reality but acknowledge what it means to her life.

Another story of Roma is the story of betrayal mostly by men who, though shown in roles of masculinity and power (skilled martial artist, doctor, wanna-be rock star), are lacking in their ability to be truly strong for the women in their lives.

Roma is also about revolution and civil struggle. The movie is set in 1971 Mexico during President Luis Echeverría Álvarez government. There is a sense of foreboding as student activists and para-military groups march and train for their respective causes. Yet, the social schism is used only as a backdrop to relate to the same theme of “not knowing and/or accepting what is laid out before you.” These young people are willing to live and die for a cause which may or may not be greater than their own lives.

Roma is also a story about being stuck in a place (both emotionally and physically) while learning to view that place in different ways. Throughout the film (including its opening and ending) airplanes are shown in the background while these characters deal with their daily challenges. This juxtaposition of those who have (by fate, hard work or whatever it may be) managed to “buy their ticket” out of their circumstances versus those who must make the most from what they have is both the most saddening and empowering message of the movie.

The tone of the movie is sad because we, the audience, understand that no amount of changing cars or moving things around in a room can truly deconstruct that which has always been there and will remain – our path in life. Yet. the movie also manages to empower because we can have hope that those same changes can allow us to see that which was always there in a different light. We can start to believe that with new eyes we can make the following day greater than the last.

Roma is a beautiful movie all around. It excels in its writing, acting, direction and especially its cinematography, which subtly hints at its themes and emotional beats throughout. It’s a two-hour movie, but it is beautifully paced and a marvel for the eyes. Don’t expect a Hollywood style exposition straight into the conflict and plot. This movie takes its time with its characters and the small journey they take from the movie’s start to the end.

I highly recommend this one –  it ranks as one of the best movies to have ever been nominated in the best-picture category a very long time.


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