Category Archives: Pop Culture

If the Shoe Fits

Matt Damon and Ben Affleck score big in their modern Cinderella story about one of the greatest underdog victories in sports marketing history

Matt Damon stars as a Nike marketing exec in ‘Air.’

Starring Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Viola Davis & Jason Bateman
Directed by Ben Affleck
Rated PG-13

In theaters Wednesday, March 5

Move over, Cinderella, and make way for another shoe story. And this one’s no far-off fairy fable.  

Director Ben Affleck’s earnestly crowd-pleasing Air tells the true tale of how a third-rate sneaker company signed a teenage college basketball phenom, Michael Jordan, and revolutionized everything that followed. One of the most groundbreaking deals in the annals of sports marketing, Nike’s affiliation with Jordan sparked quantum changes in pro sports as well as the realms of fashion, celebrity endorsements and lifestyle.  

It catapulted Nike to the top of the sports-shoe pyramid and eventually made Jordan—today widely recognized as pro basketball’s GOAT, its greatest player of all time—an ever-growing multi-million mountain of moola, dwarfing what he ever earned in his entire NBA career as a superstar for the Chicago Bulls and the Washington Wizards.

Air is a rah-rah, rousing feel-good story about taking risks, following gut instincts, sweating bullets and scoring big. It’s like sports in that regard, but it’s not really a “sports drama.” It spends very little time courtside. Most of the plays we see are as business execs watch grainy scouting tapes. The central figure of the story, Jordan, appears only briefly, a silent sentinental seen almost always from behind. We never get a good look at his face, and we hear him speak only one word, “Hello,” over a telephone.

He’s a looming presence without really being present. It’s a bold, completely effective choice from director Affleck, who knows that dwelling too much on Jordan as a character would take us away from the “sole” of the story and the people who made it happen.

So Jordan, and the game of basketball itself, are sidelined as movie focuses, instead, on the human drama—fathers, sons, workaholic businessmen and one super-savvy mom who connected all the dots, against all the odds. It’s like Moneyball crossed with Jerry Maguire and a dash of David and Goliath.

Ben Affleck is Nike’s philosophical founder, Phil Knight.

It opens in the heart of the go-go, greed-is-good 1980s as we learn how Nike is on the financial ropes, floundering far behind its competitors, Adidas and Converse. The board of directors is pressuring CEO and founder Phil Knight (Ben Affleck) to cut corners and slash budgets. Advertising honcho Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman) bemoans that “George Orwell was right: 1984 is a terrible year—sales are down, growth is down.”

And Nike is down. But Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon), in the company’s basketball scouting division, has a bold brainstorm to turn things around…maybe. He wants to use the company’s entire marketing budget to lure Michael Jordan, then only 18, into an endorsement deal, custom designing a shoe that “fits” him in more ways than one, footwear that will become his emblem, his lifestyle, his legacy.

Sonny knows that if his gamble doesn’t roll out a winner, he’ll be out of a job. But he’s all-in. “We build a shoe line just around him. He doesn’t wear the shoe, he is the shoe,” he says. “I’m willing to bet my career on one guy.”

The shoe, of course, would be the Air Jordan, so named for Jordan’s jaw-dropping leaping abilities as a prolific scorer.

Viola Davis plays the mother of teenage basketball phenom Michael Jordan.

Viola Davis plays Jordan’s mother, a shrewd negotiator who innately understands the longterm value her supremely gifted son brings to the table. Marlon Wayans is George Raveling, a superstar basketball coach who only appears briefly but offers some enduring words of inspiration from his past. Comedian Chris Tucker steals his scenes as a Nike marketer with some valuable insights for Vaccaro, especially in dealing with Black athletes. “Always go the mamas,” he tells him. “The mamas run stuff.”

Chris Messina has some spicy comedic bite as a Jordan’s hard-driving agent, David Falk. Matthew Maher is the shoe designer who comes up with the iconic, inspired design for a product that would ultimately travel far, far above and beyond the basketball court.

It’s a juicy, Oscar-bait ensemble, but Damon’s Vaccaro is the heart and soul of the story, the bedraggled underdog who rallies his Nike cohorts—his teammates—behind his big, high-stakes push to land a legend…and help create another one in the process.

Air is Affleck’s fifth project as a director, and it brims with the confidence and slam-dunk sure-footedness he’s developed in The Town, the Oscar-nominated Argo, Gone Baby Gone and Live by Night. The film is rich with ‘80s period-piece touches (handheld video games, Trivial Pursuit, VCRs, running suits) and a soundtrack of expertly curated MTV-era hits (“Blister in the Sun,” “Money for Nothing,” “Born in the USA,” “Time After Time”). It marks the first project of the production company, Artists Infinity, Affleck formed with Damon, his childhood bestie from the ‘hood in Massachusetts.

This is the ninth film in which Damon and Affleck have appeared together, beginning with uncredited appearances as Fenway Park extras in another sports-related human drama, Field of Dreams. They have a natural, unforced ease onscreen together, a natural stride that feels like, well, two old friends who’ve marched along the same path together for years, often as collaborators, doing what they always dreamed of doing, now getting to do it in Hollywood’s big leagues.

And in Air, they’ve found a shoe—and a shoe story—that feels like it fits them perfectly, a cinematic Cinderella’s slipper accented with the Nike swoosh.

—Neil Pond

The Entertainment Forecast

Friday, March 31 – Thursday, April 6

Sandler’s new ‘Murder Mystery,’ a return to ‘Schimagdoon!’ & Jim Belushi goes to pot

Jennifer Aniston and Adam Sandler reunite for another ‘Murder Mystery.’

FRIDAY, March 31
Murder Mystery 2
Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston return for more adventures as a clue-sniffing couple hoping trying start their own private-eye agency—and finding themselves in the middle of an international abduction when one of their friends goes missing (Netflix).

The Power
Toni Collette, John Leguizamo, Eddie Marsan and Auli’i Cravalho star in this new series a sci-fi thriller about what happens when teenage girls suddenly develop a superpower—to electrocute people at will. Yikes! (Prime Video)

Rye Lane
In this streaming movie, two 20-somethings (Vivian Oparah and David Jonsson) both reeling from bad break-ups connect on one eventual day in South London, where they help each other in dealing with their nightmare exes (Hulu).

The Ten Commandments
It must be Easter! This 1956 classic, starring Charlton Heston (above) as Moses and Yul Brynner as Pharoah, gets trotted out this time every year. Spoiler alert: The Red Sea parts (7 p.m., ABC).

Very Scary People
Donnie Walhberg hosts the new season of this investigative true-crime series, which dives into diabolical acts and the twisted individuals who commit them (9 p.m., Investigation Discovery).

SUNDAY, April 2
Beat Bobby Flay
Natalie Morales, co-host of TV’s The Talk, heads to kitchen with Eddie Jackson, sending a pair of chefs on a mission to beat Bobby Flay in a whipped-up battle of Scotch eggs (9 p.m., Food Network).

CMT Music Awards
Live from Austin, Texas: Hitmakers Kane Brown and Kelsi Ballerini (left) host this annual event honoring country music videos and performers, including Laney Wilson, who leads with four nominations (8 p.m., CMT).

MONDAY, April 3
Race to Survive Alaska
Think you’ve got what it takes to endure the harsh extremes of our northernmost state? Well, you might think again when you watch this cherry-picked group of adventure racers and survival experts trying to endure more 100 miles of inhospitable terrain—equipped with only what they can carry—in this high-stakes competition for half a million dollars (11 p.m., USA Network).

TUESDAY, April 4
TV worlds from FBI, FBI: International and FBI: Most Wanted collide—and collaborate—in this crossover event, which features Dylan McDermott, Missy Peregrym and Luke Kleintank (8 p.m., CBS and Paramount+).


Sports fans will flip for Got Your Number (Hyperion Avenue), by ESPN’s Mike Greenburg and Paul Hembekides, a stats-saturated dive into 100 sports legends, creatively woven into a “countdown” of the numbers they became famous for wearing. So put on your favorite jersey and let the games begin!

The acclaimed, Emmy-winning musical comedy series starring Keegan-Michael Key and Cecily Strong returns for a much-anticipated second season, with all-new songs, hilarious supporting roles by Martin Short, Kristin Chenoweth, Ariana Debose, Alan Cumming and more, and a bright new parade of special guests (Apple TV+).

Growing Belushi
New season continues the adventures of actor Jim Belushi (yes, the brother of the late John Belushi) as he works toward expanding his cannabis brand in Oregon (9 p.m., Discovery Channel).

New sitcom starring comedian and rapper Dave Burd, who stars as a comedian who discovers much about America on a country-crisscrossing tour—and also a bit about the pressures that fame can put on love and friendship (10 p.m., FX). 

Tricia Fukuhara, Marisa Davila, Cheyenne Wells and Ari Notartomaso star in a new ‘Grease’ spinoff.

Grease: The Rise of the Pink Ladies
New streaming series (above) takes place in the mid-1950s, before the events of the movie Grease, and follows four female outcasts determined to have big fun on their own terms (Paramount+)

Slasher: Ripper
Will & Grace’s Eric McCormack stars in this fifth-season edition of the horror anthology series as a ruthless tycoon in the late 19 century while a bloodthirsty killer stalks the streets, looking to mete out justice to the rich and powerful (AMC+).

The Entertainment Forecast

March 24 – March 30

Looking for the next big country star, investigating space aliens & celebrating a ‘Young & Restless’ milestone

Reese Witherspoon & Kacey Musgraves are looking for new country stars in “My Kind of Country.”

FRIDAY, March 24
Up Here
Romcom musical series (from Steven Levenson, who wrote Dear Evan Hansen and tick, tick…BOOM!) stars Mae (Good Girls) Whitman and Carlos (Gaslit) Valdes as young couple reevaluating their relationship, along with their hopes, dreams, fears and fantasies (Hulu).

My Kind of Country
Talent-scout country artists Mickey Guyton, Jimmie Allen and Orville Peck hunt for the next big country star in this new unscripted competition series from executive-producer big shots Reese Witherspoon (a Nashville native!) and Grammy-winning country singer-songwriter Kacey Musgraves (Apple TV+).


Can you believe it’s been half a century since Pink Floyd’s iconic album first hit the charts? Now a lavish coffee-table book, Pink Floyd: The Dark Side of the Moon (Thames & Hudson) celebrates the musical milestone with rare and previously unseen photos of the British band on tour, documentation of tour dates, and a visual chronicle of the enigmatic artwork that would become the emblem for one of the most celebrated rock albums of all time.

SATURDAY, March 25
Unexplained: Caught on Camera
Experts attempt to explain unexplainable events, including twin brothers who swear they were abducted by visitors from another world, and an hunter who gets more than any eyeful when he sets up a camera in the Montana wilderness (9 a.m., Travel Channel).

SUNDAY, March 26
Great Expectations
My sixth-grade reading assignment lives on! This new adaptation stars Olivia Colman as Miss Havisham, plus a wide cast of others playing characters first presented on the page in Charles Dickens’ coming-of-age classic, which first appeared in 1860 as a serialized magazine story (Hulu).

Rabbit Hole
Nothing is what it seems to be in this new thriller streaming series, in which a master of corporate espionage (24‘s Kiefer Sutherland) is framed for murder by powerful forces with the ability to influence entire populations (Paramount+).

Searching for Mexico
And gee, I thought I already knew where it was… In this six-episode series, actress/producer/director Eva Longoria (right) retraces her cultural and culinary roots south of the border. Produced by Stanley Tucci (10 p.m., CNN).

The Emmy-winning drama-dark comedy series returns tonight to begin its fourth season, further exploring the power struggle between media magnate Logan Roy (Brian Cox) and his four grown children. Alexander Skarsgård returns as a tech visionary (9 p.m., HBO).

The hit drama—about a young soccer team that splinters into brutal clans of survivalists after an airplane crash—kicks off season two tonight. Hang on: It’s gonna be another wild ride!  (9 p.m., Showtime).

MONDAY, March 27
Like a Girl
New six-part streaming series profiles championship women in sports—females who turn the derogatory phrase “Like a girl” inside out, including swimmers, volleyball players, soccer stars and basketballers (Fuse).

The Young and the Restless 50th Anniversary Celebration
Has it really been half a century since this iconic daytime soap started stirring up the suds? Yep, and this primetime special commemorates the TV milestone with cast interviews, highlights and a deep dive into the show’s storylines of romance, feuds, rivalries, weddings and wardrobe (8 p.m., CBS).

TUESDAY, March 28
The Movement and The Madman
Find out about this little-remembered chapter of the 1960s, when President Richard Nixon and the antiwar movement came to a tense showdown (9 p.m., PBS).

FBI True
There are certainly a lot of “true crime” shows on TV. But this one is different, taking a gritty look at the real-life pressures faced by agents, in their own words, after events like the Waco standoff and a Manhattan bombing (Paramount+).


A stylish remake of one of the classic anti-war films of all time from 1930, the Oscar-winning All Quiet on the Western Front depicts the horrors of World War I from the perspective of young German soldiers who endure the hellishness of battle (Capelight/Netflix). 

The Big Door Prize
Chris O’Dowd stars in this new comedy series about a small town forever changed with the arrival of a mysterious machine that appears to reveal everyone’s true potential, causing people to re-evaluate their life choices (Apple TV+).

THURSDAY, March 30
Rapcaviar Presents
It’s kind of a weird name, but this new documentary series looks at some of today’s most provocative issues through hip-hop artists and newcomers exploring current events and other topics with their music (Hulu). 

Rob Lowe stars in this new eight-episode series comedy as a biotech entrepreneur working to make the world a better place while trying to reconcile with his estranged son (Netflix).

Willie’s Secret Weapon

Almost everything superstar Willie Nelson has recorded over the past decade has been in collaboration with producer Buddy Cannon

Willie Nelson has a Buddy.

Not a buddy, but The Buddy. He’s the Nashville uber-producer who’s been producing Nelson since 2003. Most recently, they collaborated on I Don’t Know a Thing About Love, Willie’s latest album, a new collection of songs written by the late, great Nashville tunesmith Harlan Howard.

The album contains Willie’s all-new cover versions of Howard’s “I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail” (a hit for Buck Owens), “Busted” (recorded by Johnny Cash, Ray Charles and a later it for John Conlee), “She Called Me Baby” (Carl Smith, Charlie Louvin, Charlie Rich), “Streets of Baltimore” (Gram Parsons, Bobby Bare), “Too Many Rivers” (Brenda Lee, Johnny Rodriguez, Ray Price, Eddie Arnold, Ernest Tubb), “Excuse Me, I Think I’ve Got a Heartache” (Buck Owens, The Mavericks, Dwight Yoakam), and the Ricky Van Shelton hit “Life Turned Her That Way.”

“I sent Willie a list of about 30 Harlan songs,” recalls Cannon of the project’s genesis. “I said, ‘Why don’t we choose from this?’ And Willie said, ‘Hell, let’s just cut the first ten!’ I don’t think we ended up doing exactly that but, I mean, what a goldmine of songs.”

Willie chose to name the project—the title of another Harlan Howard classic—when all the tracks had been finished.

“I think he just really liked that song,” says Cannon of “I Don’t Know a Thing About Love,” which was a No. 1 chart-topper for Conway Twitty in 1984.

Cannon’s musical path first intersected with Willie back in the 1980s, when Cannon was producing another act, Mel Tillis.

“The first time I met him, I was working with Mel [for a 1984 album] on a track called ‘Texas on a Saturday Night’,” says Cannon. “Mel thought it would be good to have Willie sing on it, and Willie said he would. So, he came into town one night and we went over to the old Music Mill on 18th [Avenue] and spent about two hours working on that song.”   

Cannon and Nelson eventually became buddies and true working collaborators years later, when Cannon was producing a new album for superstar Kenny Chesney, and the “No Hat, No Shoes, No Problem” singer also invited Willie to join him on a cut of the old pop standard “That Lucky Old Son.” Nelson liked Cannon’s production on the track so much, he asked Cannon on the spot to work with him on a record.

“He said, ‘Let’s go find some songs and make an album’,” says Cannon. “That’s how it kinda started.”

To date, Cannon has produced just shy of 20 albums for Nelson, and they’ve cowritten dozens of songs. The new I Don’t Know a Thing About Love is Willie’s salute to a songwriter regarded as one of the top tunesmiths of all time, the one who described a great country song as “three chords and the truth.”

Earlier this month, Nelson’s 2022 album A Beautiful Time received the Grammy for Best Country Album, and he won the Grammy for Best Country Solo Performance for “Live Forever,” a track from his tribute last year to singer-songwriter Billy Joe Shaver. Yeah, Cannon produced both of those, too. 

Nelson, a musical icon by any measure, began his career in his native Texas in the mid 1950s. He later relocated to Nashville in 1960s, where he struggled to crack into the musical community, eventually establishing himself as a fledgling songwriter. In the 1970s, he became a torch bearer for country’s “outlaw movement,” a musical ethos of iconoclastic artists who insisted on creative freedoms beyond the strictures of Nashville’s Music Row. Today, he’s a bona fide superstar, with 25 No. 1 hits, more than 200 albums and enough awards—including 12 Grammys—to fill a Texas dance hall.

And on the cusp of turning 90 in April, he’s still going strong. Cannon recalls a recent trip to visit Willie at his getaway home in Maui, where he watched him work out with a boxing speedbag. Only Willie wasn’t punching, he was kickboxing.

“It was higher than my head, and he was kicking that thing,” Cannon recalls. “He’s very agile.”

Killen says the vibe at the sessions for the new album were relaxed and in synch with Willie’s musically laid-back personality—and suffused with a portent of his almost-shamanistic creativity, just like always. “There’s an aura around him,” Killen says. “Every time I’m around him in the studio, I get excited because, you know, something magical is about to happen.”

Nelson’s iconic, idiosyncratic singing style and jazz-influenced phrasing have become musical trademarks, and his guitar playing is a thing completely his own. “You never know what it’s going to sound like, his singing or his playing,” says Cannon. “Even he doesn’t know what it’s going to come out like.” And forget about asking him to do another take of a guitar part, or a vocal phrase, the way he did it previously. “He sees absolutely no point in playing or singing the same thing twice. It’s different every time.”

He adds that Nelson has never been one to over-prepare, over-sweeten or overcook when it comes to making music. Nelson and Cannon’s collaborations show how “you can under-produce instead of over-produce, and it will be just as effective,” says Cannon. “A lot of Willie’s recordings have no background harmonies on them, and you don’t even notice it.”

One of Nelson’s albums long before he started working with Cannon was Willie Nelson & Family, the 1971 LP that established his eclectic, ever-widening circle of musicians, associates, friends and blood kin as a unique, like-minded clan…a family.

And for the past ten years or so, producer Buddy Cannon has felt like he’s part of that family, too.

“I get the Willie Nelson and family thing now,” Killen says. “People mean something to him. I think I’ve somewhat become a part of that.” 

What’s next for Cannon, and for Willie? The producer says their next studio collaboration will tap into Nelson’s wide-ranging tastes in all kinds of music. And they’ve already started working on it.

“We’re cutting a bunch of Willie’s old stuff with bluegrass musicians,” says Cannon, who’s mum on other details about the project.

But he notes that the bluegrass project is in keeping with Willie’s unpretentious, musically ecumenical embrace of all kinds of styles and formats, from country to pop standards, jazz and blues.

“He doesn’t think about genres,” says Cannon. “As far as he’s concerned, it’s just songs, and he’s just a singer.”

Neil Pond

Third Man Records Marks 14 Years in Nashville

Jack White’s indie boutique label continues to push the envelope for the “experience” of music

The former White Stripes front man opened up Nashville’s Third Man in March 2009.

Ben Swank might not be singing “Happy Birthday” this week, but he’ll be thinking it as Third Man Records marks its 14th year in Nashville.

“It feels like, wow, that went by so fast,” says Swank, who was instrumental in opening the Nashville branch of Third Man in 2009—and he’s been a Nashvillian ever since.

Some nine years earlier, Grammy-winning Detroit rocker Jack White had co-founded the independent, vinyl-centric record label with Swank and Ben Blackwell, his Michigan business partners. “It happens fast when you head down the middle of it.”

From its eclectic headquarters on 7th Ave. South, Third Man has grounded itself in the local music community, pushing the boundaries of what a record company can do and be. It releases records, sure, but it’s much more—a retail store, live-music venue, photo studio, distribution center, publishing company and arthouse cinema. Where else in Nashville can you see a collection of vintage music-machine curiosities, then catch a set by a visiting Scottish indie sensation? It’s the only record company in Nashville where an act can perform, record live and then have vinyl records made—on the spot—in just a matter of hours.

Fans can not only see and hear music, purchase it and be entertained by it, but can experience it in one of Nashville’s coolest, most unique settings, where music isn’t so much a commodity as an organic, ongoing creative process.

“Jack’s philosophy on a lot of things is to find new ways for fans to engage,” says Swank, whose describes his role and responsibilities as Third Man’s consiglieri.

Since its opening, hundreds of artists have plugged in to Third Man in Nashville. There’ve been singer-songwriters, garage bands and punk rockers, but also superstars. U2, Pearl Jam, Conan O’Brien and comedians Chris Rock and Aziz Ansari have performed and recorded there. So has White’s former White Stripes duo partner and ex-wife, Meg. Country’s Margo Price was a Third Man breakout with her critically acclaimed 2016 debut album Midwest Farmer’s Daughter.   

When I connected with him a couple of weeks ago, the consiglieri talked about becoming a Nashvillian, how he hooked up with White, and the big opening night, 14 years ago, that kicked everything off and set the tone for everything that would follow.

How did you meet Jack White?

We met when we were in our early 20s in Toldeo, where I’m from. One of his bands was playing on a bill with some friends of mine. My band played in Detroit [White’s hometown] a lot. We started swapping shows; he produced my band’s first big record. We just kind of became, the way music can bring people together. But more than that, I always thought Jack was an intelligent, natural-born almost bohemian type person, and I’ve always found myself more interested in people like that. I just think we identified with each other a little more than some others in the world. But certainly, music was the first thing that kind of made us friends.

White had already moved to Nashville, in 2005, after producing Loretta Lynn on Van Lear Rose, her much-hailed comeback album, on which the former White Stripes front man also sang and played guitar. Impressed by the Music City vibe, he decided to open a Nashville branch of Third Man, expanding beyond the company’s original footprint in Detroit and its later setup in London. Swank, working in the London location at the time, and Blackwell, White’s nephew, were tapped to relocate and set up the new operation.  

What were your first impressions of Nashville?

I didn’t know anything about Nashville, and then, here I was. My very first night they took me down to Broadway, and I thought, ‘Oh, boy, well, this isn’t me.’ But I put in some time, and almost immediately I started seeing that this is the perfect place for us. I wanted to be in a smaller town, and I was kind of tired of living in a sort of hectic-ness [in London]. Nashville had everything we needed for Third Man; URP, United Pressing Service, who started working with us [making acetates and records] almost immediately, was right down the road from us; [and] there’s so much printing [done] here. It felt very close to what we were trying to do, at start of the onset of the trend of small businesses and farm-to-table restaurants. We wanted to say, “Come in, you can record, take your photos, do all of it in-house, and your records will be made here in Nashville,” A one-stop shop.”

Third Man launched in Nashville on March 11, 2009, with a top-secret grand opening known only to the 100 guests who’d been invited. White debuted his new band, The Dead Weather, which played their very first show in Third Man’s new venue space, the Blue Room.

What do you remember about opening night?

Lots of industry people came to see the debut of Dead Weather. We had already pressed Dead Weather’s first seven-inch [vinyl 45], which was available at the show. All the sleeves were hand-signed by the band. Everyone got an individual piece of photo strip of the band, and each one had a different picture in every frame. I think it immediately set the pace for what we were trying to do. We took everyone’s phones away; they had to immerse themselves in this party, this experience. It was amazing to see people’s minds blown by this new thing that was happening.

Third Man continued to add to the experience of music. In 2013, it introduced the Third Man Record Booth, where fans—or anyone else—could step inside a small space and make an “instant record.” Soon, artists also flocked to the booth; Neil Young recorded a whole album in it; Weezer, Weird Al and Richard Thompson also plugged in to its unique aural ambience.

What other new things did you bring to Third Man after the opening?

We’ve expanded our retail store four times. We bought the building next door to us and combined both into one larger structure. So, we now have distribution in-house now, as well as what we call “soft” merchandising manufacturing—T-shirts, etc. And we added the photo studio, where we hand-develop film and make prints in-house. Our Blue Room is now open for shows five nights a week. We’re a bar that’s open on a near-daily basis. We have 800 releases under our belt at this point, I have a family now and I’m almost 50. It’s fun to look back. We started out as a very small team, and we’ve built a very specific kind of world and culture here.

Especially at first, locals expressed some skepticism about the location chosen for Third Man in Nashville—just across the street from the city’s homeless shelter, a couple of blocks from the Greyhound station, in an industrial zone where businesses mostly buttoned up and shut down after dark.

There were comments about Third Man setting up shop in a spot that some people considered dicey, or even a little dangerous.

It doesn’t bother us. We still hear about that; apparently, it’s a concern for some folks. I think it says a lot more about [them] than us, to be honest. Just because we’re next door to the mission, I don’t think it means anything necessarily bad about the neighborhood. It’s always felt like home to us, and that’s what Jack [wanted]. Since we come from a more sort of industrialized city, it never seemed out of place to us.

What have been some of the highlights and things you’re proudest of?

We have a world record—the fastest record ever made, which we did in front of a live audience; recorded it, pressed it, did the artwork. That was a big thing.

[In 2004, White recorded a pair of new songs in front of a live audience, then took the direct-to-acetate disc to United Record Processing, printed vinyl singles and brought them back to Third Man, immediately, to sell to fans. Elapsed time: just under four hours.]

We put a record in space, Carl Sagan. [Third Man’s 2016 vinyl release of the Cosmos host talking was set to music by composer John Boswell; a gold-plated vinyl copy spun on a turntable, specially designed to function in the deep freeze of high altitudes, attached to a high-altitude balloon that ascended to 94,000 feet]. It sold a lot of copies for us.

We brought countless bands through our doors that hadn’t played in Nashville before or wouldn’t have played here otherwise. We have the only venue in the world where you can play a live show in front of an audience and record direct to acetate, live to a master in real time. The audience can watch that process as it happens, and then buy those albums. That’s something that only exists in Nashville, because of us.

We screen films; we have 16mm projectors and we try to show films that are out of distribution. We do massive poetry events and art shows. We really try to just be part of the culture overall. [Third Man’s publishing imprint has released an array of diverse titles of poetry, fiction and children’s books, including White’s own “We’re Going to Be Friends.”]

There’s been so much over the years. But I think the thing I’m most proud of is really being a part of this community, less about being the “first ones” about anything. More about being a part of what’s special about Nashville, and bringing our own stamp to that, in a very specific Third Man way.

—by Neil Pond

The Entertainment Forecast

Feb. 17 – Feb. 23

‘Idol’ returns, Billy Crudup sells timeshares on the moon & Monopoly’s twisted roots

Who’ll hit the jackpot on the new season of “American Idol”?

FRIDAY, Feb. 17
Hello Tomorrow
Ten-episode dramady stars Billy Crudup (from The Morning Show) as a traveling salesman in a future world offering timeshares on the moon. Far out! (Apple TV+).

Carnival Row
Second half of the final season of the fantasy drama, set in a world where humans and creatures clash and starring Orlando Bloom and Cara Delevingne, starts tonight (Prime Video).

The 12th Victim
True-crime four-part docuseries sheds startling new light on an infamous 1958 case of Charlie Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate, a teenage couple charged and convicted of brutally killing 11 victims at random (8 p.m., Showtime).

A Rose for Her Grave: The Randy Roth Story
Christell Stause, Colin Egglefield and Laura Ramsey star in this TV adaptation of a best-selling novel by true-crime author Ann Rule, about a notorious serial wife-killer and the fearless woman who final brings him to justice (8 p.m., Lifetime).

Two contestants survey their surroundings in new episodes of “Naked and Afraid.”

SUNDAY, Feb. 19
Naked and Afraid
Cue the naked bums and the pixels—it’s a new season of the ultimate survival series, which puts contestants in all kinds of inhospitable places wearing nothing but their birthday suits. Who’ll endure, and who’ll “tap out,” in Mexico’s notorious Devil’s Canyon, or the brutal jungles of Guyana? (8 p.m., Discovery Channel).

Magnum: P.I.
Re-filling the sand-filled shoes originally worn by Tom Selleck, Jay Hernandez returns for a new season of this reboot to the role of the Oahu private eye now solving crimes in the same TV universe as Hawaii Five-0 (9 p.m., NBC).

American Idol
The show that pioneered TV’s musical competition genre returns for season 21 with judges Luke Bryan, Katy Perry and Lionel Richie leading the search for America’s next singing sensation (8 p.m., ABC).

Biography: WWE Legends
In this corner… Explore the careers and private lives of wrestling superstars in this new docuseries (8 p.m., A&E).

Tournament of Champions IV
Who’s tough enough to chew their way to the top? You’ll find out in this new season of Guy Fieri’s food-competition series, in which chefs from across America clash in a series of high-stakes challenges (8 p.m., Food Network and Discovery).

MONDAY, Feb. 20
American Experience: Ruthless—Monopoly’s Secret History
And you thought the popular, iconic board game was just about moving little tokens around a square, gobbling up property deeds, buying houses and hotels and collecting rent. But the story of how it came to be, as told in this insightful documentary, is one of theft, deception and corporate double-dealing. Should we be surprised? (9 p.m., PBS).

Secrets of Spain
Where are the best stops to pause for a nosh in a trek across Spain. Siblings Giaconda and George Scott, who grew up there, take viewers on a guided tour of great places to dig into the cuisine (and the culture) of the region off the beaten tourist track (10 p.m., Cooking Channel).


Just ahead of this year’s 95th annual Academy Awards, Red Carpet Oscars (Thames & Hudson) is a lavish, photo-packed coffee-table treasury of some nine decades of fashions at the entertainment world’s biggest, most culturally impactive annual event. Oscar-winning actress Cate Blanchett wrote the foreword.

“Get Back” to the heyday of mop-top mania in this lavish, luminous re-release of Harry Benson’s The Beatles (Taschen), a coffee-table compendium of images (some classics, others rarely seen) by the esteemed Scotland-born photog who chronicled most of the Fab Four’s tours, TV appearances, press conferences, play times and movie productions.

TUESDAY, Feb. 21
Bodycam: On the Scene
Tonight’s episode, “Miracle Escapes,” follows officers as a suspect suddenly pulls off, with a policeman wedged half-inside, half-outside of the car, and then other officers rescue a man perilously stuck on a train track (10 p.m., Investigation Discovery).

Tune in for the beginning of the sixth and final season of the gritty drama series about the 1980s crack cocaine epidemic in California, and various lives it directly affected (FX and Hulu).

Murdaugh Murders: A Southern Scandal
True-story documentary series about a prominent South Carolina family whose lives start to unravel after the death of a teenager in a boating accident (Netflix).

Breaking Ground
Documentary about a Kansas neighborhood working to restore their community—and trying to “break ground” by rebuilding other Black and brown communities across the country (streaming on PBS Voices on YouTube).

Outer Banks
The adventure continues in tonight’s kickoff of season three of the teen mystery drama, set on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, as the scrappy group known as the Pogues—washed ashore on an idyllic island—face more obstacles in tracking down the legendary treasure (Netflix).

Jabari Banks as Will as Olly Sholotan as Carlton in “Bel-Aire”

Season two of the Fresh Prince “reimagined” spinoff series begins tonight, with Jabari Banks as young Will Smith, who journeys from the mean streets of Philadelphia to the gilded, gated mansions of Hollywood (Peacock).

Ant-y Warfare

Paul Rudd returns to the teeny-tiny character that’s become a major cog in the Marvel movie machine

Paul Rudd, Kathryn Newton & Evangeline Lilly confront a new challenge in ‘Quantumania.’

Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania
Starring Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Douglas & Michelle Pfeiffer
Directed by Peyton Reid

In theaters Friday, Feb. 17, 2023

“From small things, mama,” sang Bruce Springsteen back in 1979, “big things one day come.”

The Boss wrote and recorded that song some 35 years before the first Ant-Man movie, in 2015, which introduced fans of the Marvel Comics character to Paul Rudd as the pizza employee, doting dad and petty thief who ends up with a high-tech, form-fitting super-suit that can shrink him down to become an insect-size do-gooder.

Or, when necessary, enlarge him into a towering colossus.

Just like real-life ants who can engineer and construct entire mega-colonies, form themselves en masse into bridges and boats, lift up and carry up to 5,000 times their body weight, and (of course) change the course of picnics, Ant-Man is a teeny-tiny “small thing.” But he’s become a big player in the Marvel movie franchise. Quantumania is the third in the Ant-Man movie franchise, and as the title suggests, it takes place in the “quantum realm,” a hidden dimension in the sprawling Marvel multiverse that’s only accessible through dark sorcery or weird science.

Or the movies like this one.

Quantum-ville is like Oz buzzing on super steroids and maybe some crystal meth, an explosively colorful place of breathtaking awesomeness, unfathomable peril and outrageous oddity—like Alice in Wonderland crossed with Mad Max: Fury Road, Lord of the Rings, Dune and the cantina scene from Star Wars, with a dash of Terry Gilliam’s fanciful Monty Python whimsy. Giant snails are used like horses, there’s a character who looks like a walking stalk of broccoli, and an army of minions with heads that resemble light bulbs. And another character (Carey Stoll) is practically all head.

Oh, and yes, there’s also Bill Murray, playing…oh, does it really matter? It’s Bill Murray.  

And this being a marvel movie, there are some very high stakes—not just the fate of the universe, but the fate of the multiverse and all universes, existence itself. Director Peyton Reed, who’s steered both previous Ant-Man movies, keeps the ka-pow factor high and the tone bounding giddily between high tragedy and quippy silliness. The fate of everything may hang in the balance, but even in the quantum realm, inappropriate, selfish, annoying behavior is still known as a dick move.

And rest assured, you’ll see the movie’s superbad bad guy, Kang the Conqueror (Jonathan Majors—from The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Lovecraft Country, Devotion) again. Dudes who want to rule the world, and more, aren’t easily dissuaded or dismissed. Like Taylor Swift tells us, haters gonna hate. And conquerors gonna conq.

Ant-Man confronts Kang the Conqueror (Jonathan Majors).

It’s a wild rush of heady stuff, but such is the Marvel way, which connects everything in Quantumania to the larger MCU (that’s the Marvel Cinematic Universe), a sort of multi-dimensional superhero realm for the interconnectivity of film properties based on Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, the Guardians of the Galaxy, the Avengers, Dr. Strange, Deadpool, Spider-Man and other characters rooted in Marvel comic-book ink.

I won’t get into the cosmic weeds of all the mind-bending details, but in this latest adventure, Scott Lang (pssst—he’s really Ant-Man) is sucked into the quantum realm (in case you forget what it’s called, it’s mentioned about a dozen times in the first 10 minutes of the film). He’s accompanied by Hope van Dyne (the returning Evangeline Lilly), whose superhero alter ego is the Wasp, and Hope’s brainiac-scientist parents (Michelle Pfeiffer and Michael Douglas, also reprising their roles). Kathryn Newton (Little Big Lies, Freaky, Supernatural) comes aboard as Pym’s young-adult daughter, Cassie, whose social activism keeps getting her in trouble on Main Street USA but well suits her for what she’ll end up doing alongside revolutionaries in the quantum realm.

Michelle Pfeiffer and Michael Douglas somehow keep their coifs looking stylish, in any dimension!

Can the multiverse be saved? Can Kang be defeated, or at least contained? Will Scott finally bond with his daughter? Will Michelle Pfeiffer and Michael Douglas’ expertly coiffed hair ever be unfashionably mussed, even after being violently downsized to microscopic scale, sucked into the vortex of inter-dimensional debris and finding themselves in the middle of a quantum-realm war?    

MCU fans will geek out over the sheer spectacle and the bountiful bombast of CGI—two hours of mind-numbingly expensive zipping and zapping and crashing and smashing. There’s one particular scene (involving gazillions of Lang and Ant-Men, permutations of “all possible outcomes”) who mobilize into something like a teeming human anthill. If you love you some Paul Rudd—an immensely likeable and prolific actor with more than 130 movie and TV credits, from franchise blockbusters to zany romcoms, relationship dramas and even spy flicks—well, you’ll certainly get a heaping helping of him here.   

And in this packed and stacked Ant-Man movie, some actual ants get their spotlight in a major way.

This supersized, noisy and sometimes chaotic superhero adventure won’t be for everyone—particularly those who like their movies smaller, quieter, a bit more subtle and with less blowout spectacle, and fewer ants. But for Marvel fans, it’s the latest mega-movie about a teeny character doing tremendous good, on a massive stage across space and time.

Small things lead to big things—in a Springsteen song, or in the MCU’s multiverse, anything is possible. Ant-Man is an everyman hero, movie manes never get mussed, and Paul Rudd can truly do everything, everywhere, all the time, all at once.

—Neil Pond

The Entertainment Forecast

Jan. 27 – Feb. 4

Top picks to watch & more!

Buffy’s back, Jason Segel’s a shrink & Ryan Seacrest’s scary nanny tale

Sarah Michelle Gellar returns to TV in ‘Wolf Pack.’

All times Eastern.

FRIDAY, Jan. 27
Wolf Pack
Buffy’s back! Kinda. A teenage boy and girl find their lives changed forever when a raging California wildfire awakens a terrifying supernatural creature. The new series stars Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Sarah Michelle Gellar, plus Rodrigo Santoro, Armani Jackson and Bella Shepard (Paramount+).

You People
Jonah Hill, David Duchovny, Nia Long, Rhea Pearlman, Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, Eddie Murphy and Elliott Gould star in this new comedy flick about culture clashes and intergenerational differences between a new couple and their families (Netflix).

A grieving therapist (Jason Segel) starts to break the rules when he tells his clients exactly what he’s thinking, making tumultuous changes in their lives as well as his own. With Harrison Ford and Jessica Williams (Apple TV+).

Frozen Planet II
Brrrrrrrrr! Venture into some of the Earth’s coldest, most remote places in this sequel series to the original, more than a decade ago, to observe (and learn from) the amazing species that live and thrive there. Narrated, of course, by David Attenborough, the “voice” of BBC nature docs…who else? (8 p.m., BBC America and AMC+).


The sweet, soulful, socially conscious sound of one of America’s most celebrated singer-songwriters travels through time in Marvin Gaye’s Greatest Hits Live in 1976 (Mercury). The remastered release, available on vinyl and CD and originally recorded in Amsterdam, features more than 20 tracks, including performance of “What’s Going On,” “Save the Children,” “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” and “It Takes Two.”

The iconic poet of a generation is now 81, but his music is still going strong in Bob Dylan’s Fragments (Sony). The five-disc collection from the acclaimed Dylan Bootleg Series features songs-in-progress and other tracks that were eventually recorded for his mid-career masterpiece, Time Out of Mind, including “Make You Feel My Love.”  

SUNDAY, Jan. 29
Fire Country
Is it getting hot in here? Or is it just this new drama series, starring Seal Team’s Max Thierot as a hunky young ex-con seeking redemption (and early release) by joining a prison firefighting program in Northern California? (10 p.m., CBS).

MONDAY, Jan. 30
Watchful Eye
Ryan Seacrest is one of the producers of this new series about a young woman (Mariel Molino) who takes a job as a nanny for an affluent family, soon discovering that everyone in the building has dark secrets and ulterior motives (9 p.m., Freeform)

Bake It Till You Make It
Contestants enter their cakes in one of the biggest events on the competitive-cooking calendar, Atlanta’s Ultimate Sugar Show (9 p.m., Food Network).

TUESDAY, Jan. 31
Fight the Power: How Hip Hop Changed the World
Everything stars somewhere, and this insightful four-part documentary series recounts the origins of the bold and revolutionary musical format that became a cultural phenomenon, featuring interviews with rap icons Chuck D, Ice-T, Run DMC,, Cypress Hill and many more (check listings, PBS).

Pamela: A Love Story
New documentary humanizes Pamela Anderson, above, who became one entertainment world’s most famous blonde bombshells—the actress, model and Baywatch star whose marriage to rock drummer Tommy Lee didn’t last…but their stolen sex tape sure did (Netflix).  


They’re young, they’re in love and they eat people. The acclaimed Bones And All (Warner Bros. Home Entertainment) is a road movie, a love story and a tale of two young outcasts (Timothée Chalamet and Taylor Russell) on the move for their next meal, served extremely rare. Who’s hungry?

The Proud Family: Louder and Prouder
Second season of the dramatic/comedy series about the Black experience begins tonight, with Gabrielle Union, Chance the Rapper, Leslie Odom Jr., Anthony Anderson, Holly Robinson Peete, Maury Povich and more (Disney +)

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever
The hit movie comes to streaming tonight, starring Angela Bassett, left, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, and emotional flashback scenes with the late Black Panther star Chadwick Boseman (Disney+).

18 ½
New Watergate-themed real-life dramedy—a companion of sorts to the limited series Gaslit—follows a young woman (Willa Fitzgerald) in the Nixon White House who tries to leak the president’s notoriously incriminating tape to a reporter. With Bruce Campbell as Nixon, plus Richard Kind, Jon Cryer and John Magaro (5:11 p.m., Starz).

The Reading
New thriller produced by Lee Daniels stars Mo’Nique Hicks as a recent widow who stirs up an evil spirit with her book about her family’s loss (BET+).

The Entertainment Forecast

Dec. 30 – Jan. 5

Top picks for TV, books, music & more!

All Times Eastern.

Will Young Sheldon drop out of college????? Watch Thursday night, Jan. 5, to find out!

FRIDAY, Dec. 30

If you fell under the spell of The Tiger King, you’ll purr over this documentary, about a couple of animal conservationists caring for an orphaned African wildcat (Amazon Prime).

Korean fantasy series, set on the tropical Jeju Island, taps into legends and folklore as it follows a group of young characters fighting an evil force that threatens to destroy the world (Prime Video). 

New Year’s Eve Live: Nashville’s Big Bash
Yep, it’s big, all right. Ring out the old and usher in the new, Nashville-style, with performances all over Music City by Brooks and Dunn, Sheryl Crow, Elle King, Jason Aldean, Little Big Town, Kelsi Ballerini and more (10:30 p.m., CBS).

United in Song: Ringing in the New Year Together
With so many things dividing us, how about something to bring us all together? This holiday special celebrates America’s rich diversity in music, from folk, rock, opera and country to hip hop, showtunes, bluegrass and beyond (8 p.m., PBS).

Dick Clark’s Rockin’ New Year’s Eve with Ryan Seacrest
It’s nearly a 20-year tradition as hosts Ryan Seacrest, Billy Porter, Liza Koshy and singing superstar Ciara anchor down in New York City’s Times Square—and beyond, in a pre-taped Disneyland segment—for this festive, fun celebration of stars, music, and fireworks! (8 p.m., ABC)

Lizzo Live in Concert
The world’s most rockin’, rappin’ flautist gives a full concert with her band, The Lizzbians, and special guests from the Kia Forum in Inglewood, Calif. (HBO Max).

A Toast to Twilight
It wouldn’t be New Year’s Eve with a marathon of Twilight Zone episodes, and your cup will runneth over for this one, featuring 84 back-to-back episodes of creator Rod Serling’s sci-fi TV masterpieces and sparkling with a galaxy of guest stars from the 1950s and ‘60s, including Carol Burnett, Robert Redford, Charles Bronson, Elizabeth Mongomery and (of course!) William Shatner (12 p.m., MeTV).

SUNDAY, Jan. 1
Paul T. Goldman
Watch the dramatized true story about a man who went “from wimp to warrior” after a shocking betrayal…and brought down an alleged international crime ring (Peacock).

Like the object in its title, little episodic “fragments” come together bit by bit to ultimately reveal the details of a tense, heist-drama crime caper spanning 25 years. The non-linear story is inspired by real events that transpired in Manhattan, when $70 billion in bonds went missing during the chaos of Hurricane Sandy (Netflix).

Fantasy Island
Beat the winter blahs with the season two return, spun off from the iconic 1970s series, about a luxury tropical-isle resort where every dream can come true—but they rarely turn out as expected (8 p.m., Fox).

America’s Got Talent All-Stars
Cue the magicians, the singers, the jugglers, the dancers, the aerialists. Winners, finalists, fan faves and viral sensations from around the world—and AGT’s global franchises—return for this new series to compete for the hit TV competition’s ultimate All-Star title (8 p.m., Jan. 2)

The team jumps into action when an intelligence officer (Taylor Anthony) is taken hostage (8 p.m., CBS).

Sometimes When We Touch
Three-part soft-rock documentary explores the retro roots of the format that spawned such 1970s acts as Air Supply, Ambrosia, Christopher Cross, Kenny Loggins and many others in the 1970s—and ultimately crashed and burned in the ‘80s, only to stage an unlikely comeback later as “yacht rock” (Paramount+).

American Experience: The Lie Detector
You’ve seen it in the movies and on TV, but how much do you know about the device that knows if you’re telling the truth—or lying? This documentary takes you in the history, and the science, of the device that revolutionized police work…and more (9 p.m., PBS).  

Tough as Nails
In tonight’s two-hour premiere, host Phil Keoghan welcomes another hard-working crew to compete—in challenges designed to represent real-world work—for the $200,000 grand prize and prove that they’re, well, as tough as nails (9 p.m., CBS).

Madoff: The Monster of Wall Street
Meet the man behind the infamous $64 billion-dollar Ponzi scheme, the largest in history, that swingled countless investors who put their misplaced trust in the revered financial guru (Netflix).

Special Forces: World’s Toughest Test
This “social experiment” competition premieres tonight with a two-hour kickoff in which a group of famous and semi-famous celebs (including Jamie Lynn Spears, Dr. Drew Pinsky and Anthony Scaramucci) trade spotlight glam for gutsy gung-ho grit in a series of challenges from the Special Forces playbook (8 p.m., Fox).


Ginny & Georgia
Season two of the comedy-drama series features Brianne Howrey and Antonia Gentry (right) returning to their roles as a New England daughter and her mom, now dealing with a deadly secret (Netflix).

Young Sheldon
Sheldon (Iain Armitage) considers dropping out of college to focus on building his own computer database (9 p.m., CBS).

Kold x Windy
Not a weather forecast, as the title suggests, but rather an eight-episode scripted drama series about the street culture of Chicago’s south side, following a rising hip hop star (Sh’Kia Augustin) and her rapper friend (Nijah Brenea) (10 p.m., WeTV).

Guillermo de Toro’s Pinocchio

Deliciously dark new take on the classic folktale takes you far beyond Disney

Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio
Voices by Gregory Mann, Ewen McGregor, Christoph Waltz & Finn Wolfhard
Directed by Guillermo del Toro and Mark Gustafson
Rated PG

See it: On Netflix Friday, Dec. 9

Guillermo del Toro has always had a soft spot for monsters and misfits.

The Oscar-winning director of The Shape of Water, Pan’s Labyrinth, Crimson Peak and Nightmare Alley puts a deliciously dark, fantastically original spin on the enchanted tale of the wooden puppet who longs to become a real boy.

This isn’t the Pinocchio you grew up with, particularly if your baseline is the beloved Disney version from 1940, or even Disney’s ambitious hybrid (computer animation plus live action) from earlier this year, featuring Tom Hanks as Pinocchio’s creator,  Geppetto. With a vision rooted in the source material, the 1883 fantasia novel by Italian author Carlo Collodi, del Toro gives the fable a boldly creative, explosively imaginative retooling of magical enchantment, grotesque beauty, mythological mysticism, sweeping human emotion and existential wonder.

This Pinocchio has an eye-popping wow factor that’s practically off the charts. Visually resplendent and bursting with detail, its magnificent stop-motion animation (courtesy of Mark Gustafson, whose other work includes Fantastic Mr. Fox) elevates the craft far above cartoon-y kids’ stuff and into the rarified upper echelons of high art.  Resetting the story in 1930s Italy (as opposed to the vague, 19th century “once upon a time” of earlier versions), it uses the rise of brutal far-right fascism in Italy—dictator Benito Mussolini even makes an appearance—for a real-world, pre-World War II militaristic backdrop that becomes an integral part of its tale…and a callout to today’s unsettled modern world.

Ewan McGregor provides the voice of the movie’s narrator, Sebastian Cricket.

There are all-new songs (with a resplendent original soundtrack by Oscar-winning composer Alexander Desplat) and other enhancements to the familiar tale, including a recurring afterlife setting with grousing, poker-playing black rabbits, and a poignant backstory to the pine tree that provides the wood for Pinocchio. (And pinecones become a potent symbol of life, rebirth and regeneration.) Jiminy Cricket is now Sebastian Cricket (voiced by Ewan McGregor), a dapper bon vivant who lives in a knothole in Pinocchio’s chest—quite literally, inside his heart.  The glowing, translucent, blue-hued wood sprite (voiced by Tilda Swinton), peering into Pinocchio with hundreds of inscrutable eyes, is an otherworldly, awe-inspiring winged serpent that bestows Geppetto’s creation with life—and grants Sebastian Cricket a single, significant wish.

As for the puppet boy (evocatively voiced by young Gregory Mann), he’s a gangly, twiggy, wobbly oddity of a creature with more than a passing connection to another “unnatural” being, Frankenstein’s monster. And he has a fascination with yet another wooden creation, the life-size Jesus on the crucifix Geppetto makes for the village church. Pinocchio is puzzled why villagers adulate the somber figure on the cross, heaping high praises to him in song, but they hurl cries of “monster” and “demon” at him. “Why do they like him, and not me?” PInocchio asks Geppetto.

And like a crucified Christ, Pinocchio also rises again, in yet another twist to the story. The puppet boy discovers that since he’s not really “alive,” in a human sense—he’s made of wood, after all—so he can’t really die. At least, not for long: He keeps bounding back from various mishaps that turn him into heaps of splintered wood scraps. But there’s a difference, he finds out, between existence and truly experiencing life.

Like many “boys,” Pinocchio is full of energy, enthusiasm, curiosity and spunk. As a newcomer to the world of the living, he has a lot to learn—that hot chocolate is yummy, fire can burn, and other creatures—other creations—have feelings. He learns empathy. He stands up to the cruel carnival master (Christoph Walz) abusing his monkey assistant (Cate Blanchett), and he offers to work at the carnival’s puppet show, in a kind of indentured servitude, to keep his father out of a crippling debt. His infectiously sunny personality disarms a young village boy who starts out as his tormentor, turning him eventually into a friend and ally.

The A-list vocal cast also includes David Bradley as Geppetto, the lonely woodcarver who longs for Pinocchio to fill the aching hole created by the untimely death of his young son. Finn Wolfhard is Candlewick, the son of the town’s sternly militaristic podesta (Ron Pearlman), who sees the “stringless puppet” as an ultimate soldier who can’t be killed, conscripting him as fodder for the nation’s war machine. (Instead of a wild-boy romp Pleasure Island, there’s a major scene in a “youth camp” where Pinocchio and Candlewick are forced to compete in a high-stakes war-game exercise.) John Turturro is the village padre, a priest under the thumb of the oppressive regime.

This finely refashioned fairytale is a story of outsiders and nonconformists, imperfect boys and imperfect fathers, the heartbreaking burden of loss, about learning to love, and accepting people (and puppets) for who they are, not who, or what, we want them to become. It’s a reminder that no one lives forever but life goes on, that some rules—like telling the truth—aren’t absolute, and everyone “must try to do their best—and that’s all anybody can do.”

Even after nearly 150 years, this little puppet still has a few things he can teach us. And Guillermo del Toro has created one of his best, a film that spins magisterial new magic into an age-old folktale.

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