Saturday, August 25, 2012

Neil Armstrong 1930-2012

Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, has died at age 82. He was one of the "New Nine," the second group of astronauts recruited by NASA, and the first US civilian to fly into space (on Gemini 8). After Apollo 11, he decided not to fly into space again, and left NASA in 1971, taking a teaching position at the University of Cincinnati's Department of Aerospace Engineering. He died from complications from a surgery he had a couple of weeks ago to relieve blocked coronary arteries. It's hard to say such things these days without feeling cheesy, but he was (and remains) an American hero.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Jerry Nelson 1934-2012

I woke up this morning to the sad news that Jerry Nelson, one of the core Muppeteers, passed away yesterday. I still don't know the cause of death (reports are still coming in), but it seemed like he had been in poor health for some time. I remember that he retired from performing his Muppet characters about eight years ago, with the exception of providing voices (but not puppetry) for his Sesame Street characters. He was still the voice of Count Von Count and the Amazing Mumford until yesterday.

Jerry Nelson's voice could be warm, it could be harsh, it could be silly, but it always had some kind of impact. It demanded attention. He was with the Muppets as far back as the mid-sixties when Jim Henson hired him to replace Frank Oz as Rowlf's right hand on The Jimmy Dean Show when Frank Oz was drafted. Frank failed his physical, but Jerry stuck around and became one of the main performers as the Henson company moved on to Sesame Street and The Muppet Show.

Jerry could play anything. Floyd Pepper was mellow and hip; Robin the Frog was enthusiastic and excitable, with occasional hints of self-doubt; Emmet Otter was humble and hopeful; the Count was an arithmomaniac with an obsessive compulsion to count everything--at least he always seems manic to me. Jerry was really good at playing manic crazies--he was also Lew Zealand and Crazy Harry.

Jerry played a lot of great Muppets: Mumford, Camilla, Angus McGonagle, Dr. Strangepork, Lewis Kazagger, Pops, Thog, Uncle Deadly, Herry Monster, Sherlock Hemlock, Marjory the Trash Heap, Pa Gorg, the Ubergonzo, Mad Monty, Blind Pew... the list goes on and on. And he could sing in a variety of styles; he was the lead vocal in many of my favorite Muppet songs.

I think, though, the one character who most embodied Jerry Nelson as a performer was Gobo Fraggle.

Gobo, adventurous and clever, but also conceited and sometimes downright bossy, was the lead character on Fraggle Rock. Through Gobo, I think Jerry got to play a lot of different facets, and he seemed to enjoy having so much range in a Muppet character. Fraggle Rock had a slightly harder edge than something like The Muppet Show; it dealt with headier concepts in a more direct way than a lot of Henson's earlier projects. Maybe that's the reason why the show isn't as readily embraced; it's a more difficult show, especially for kids.

Jerry Nelson was one of the best. He excelled and was an integral voice (pun intended) in the direction of the Muppets. Other very talented performers have taken over his characters (particularly Matt Vogel), so I'm used to not hearing his voice anymore... but there won't ever be another Jerry Nelson.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

My 25 Favorite Dog Breeds

Today in pointlessness: my favorite dogs.

25. Skye Terrier

24. Finnish Lapphund

23. Dachshund

22. Keeshond

21. Greater Swiss Mountain Dog

20. Hamiltonstovare

19. Great Dane

18. German Shepherd

17. Cairn Terrier

16. Alaskan Eskimo Dog

15. Chow Chow

14. St. Bernard

13. English Foxhound

12. Bloodhound

11. Boston Terrier

10. American Staffordshire Terrier

9. Alaskan Malamute

8. American Mastiff

7. Basset Hound

6. Boxer

5. Pug

4. French Bulldog

3. Pembroke Welsh Corgi

2. Black and Tan Coonhound

1. Bulldog

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Film Week

A review of the films I've seen this past week.

This one gets complicated, but here goes. Louise is born to aristocratic parents in 18th Century France, but because she's blind, they abandon her. She gets taken in by a peasant family and is raised as their natural daughter side by side with their own baby, Henriette. Now grown, Henriette (Lillian Gish) takes Louise (Dorothy Gish) to Paris in the hopes of finding a cure for her blindness. This is just before the French Revolution, and tensions are rising. Henriette promises never to leave Louise or get married until Louise has her vision, but the two are separated through some pretty vile circumstances (Henriette is literally abducted to be a plaything for aristocrats, and Louise is forced to help a woman with a Tom Selleck style mustache beg for food and money). The two try to find one another, but are always kept apart by the evils of the day; writer-director DW Griffith (using this film to comment on the rise of Bolshevism by showing the outcome of the French Revolution as, of course, not democracy but the Reign of Terror) weaves in the historical stories of Danton and Robespierre, and takes care to show the complexities involved: not all aristocrats are tyrants, and not all revolutionaries are altruistic. The finale is pure melodrama, but the film's earned it by that point. These two girls go through hell to get where they end up. I actually enjoyed this--the final screen pairing of the Gish sisters and Griffith's last major commercial success--much more than either Birth of a Nation or Intolerance. **** (One note: the Wikipedia and IMDb both list this movie as being 150 minutes long, but I swear the version I watched on TCM ran closer to 165...)

This movie is actually longer than Orphans of the Storm! It's 252 minutes! A porno that's over four hours long? Well, I guess you get your money's worth. But you know, I liked this. It parodies the late 70s TV series, so there are a lot of silly wigs (Peter North's is truly hilarious), but it's funny how exact a parody it really is. (They even do the changing-the-car-tire-in-the-rain transformation scene.) The main cast kind of nails the tone, and Lee Stone is very Ferrigno as the Hulk. I especially adored the lovely, winsome Lily LaBeau as Dr. Elaina Marks, and not just for her body. Some of it is that unintentionally hilarious pornography, though; apparently oral sex with the Hulk will leave your tongue green! ***

Now this one is only 105 minutes and it just feels tedious. Not fun at all. And this is the pitfall of making porn for geeks like me: I just keep wondering why it's a different Hulk and how he got into the future... I guess The Incredible Hulk and The Avengers XXX (and Spider-Man XXX--Xander Corvus and Brooklyn Lee reprise their roles as Spider-Man and Black Widow here) don't take place in the same universe. The sex scenes aren't so hot, and they're hilarious in an unintended way: all of that rubber and leather and vinyl shuffling around in those silly costumes is funny as hell. I thought Chyna looked good as She-Hulk, though. But I've been having that fantasy for 11 years now, and it didn't live up, especially since the guy playing Thor (Brendon Miller) doesn't have anywhere near the hammer I picture when I fantasize about Chris Hemsworth... and I do. Boring. **

We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together

Have you heard the new Taylor Swift single, "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together"? Wow, it is really terrible. This kind of thing is why I've been staying away from the Top 40 for a few years now. I don't like this thing in pop music for the last several years where people make these faux-anthems where they think overdubbing someone's voice a hundred times in the chorus while thousands of drum machines play REALLY LOUD is supposed to be moving. Like they pick the part where the entire band would come in, or where someone would've thrown in an orchestra, and they substitute this bad echo and the reverb from drum machines that sound just a shade too slow so that you know, omg, this is the part that's supposed to be really dramatic and uplifting. It's just... bleh. Doesn't work for me.

And this is coming from a guy who still loves "Party in the USA" in all of its glorious stupidity.

It's not that I don't like pop music, because I love it. But this trend is just annoying the crap out of me. But here's the funny thing about it: because it's repetitive as hell, it gets stuck in your brain for about 20 minutes afterwards. But then, after that, I completely forget what it sounds like. Can't recall it at all. It's totally ephemeral. So even if the trend does annoy me, it's easy to ignore.

But, honestly? I like Taylor Swift, and I'm disappointed that she finally put out something I just think is awful. That kind of sucks.

Oh, well. This one's not for me. Maybe the next one will be.

Muppet Thor

Canaan over at Occasional Comics has created a meeting between the Muppets and Thor that is a real joy. With all of the Thor fanart flying around all over Tumblr these days, I wasn't really sure what to expect, but this was just fantastic. The creator clearly loves the Muppets and the Mighty Thunder God, and the resulting comic is filled with that love. The humor is very much a Muppet fan's.

But then there's the ending. The last few pages where Canaan pays homage to Jim Henson. That was just... I didn't expect to be moved to actual tears, and it was a very nice surprise.

Go read it.

(And don't you wish Marvel would put out little stories like this now that they have access to the Muppets? I'm hoping for more Disney and Muppet stuff from Marvel.)

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

MasterChef Observations

Monti gone; show over.

Still calling Frank to win. Although they really couldn't get their tongues out of Christine's ass tonight. Three minutes? THREE MINUTES of treacly piano music and the judges just rimming her deep about how amazing she is and how she's sent straight from heaven to teach us about food and flavor and the incredibleness of being handicapped and still being able to do, like, people things and why there's hope on the horizon and to smile at the sun and how to love each other the way we like to think we did once so that when the storm clouds form and all seems lost we can look right into the storm and see that, yes, there are cracks where the light shines through. Truly, a light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it, and that light is Christine. Good god, did you know she's BLIND, YOU GUYS? HOW AMAZING!

Joe gave her the ultimate compliment and told her how they were alike.

Other observations:

:: The Becky-Bot was really on the fritz tonight, doing that head cock that says "Judges not praise Becky? Judges praise not-Becky? Becky not compute!" Christ, she really bugged me this week. She doesn't knock it out of the park this week, and the judges come down on her. She gets upset and tells the camera that she feels she's being treated unfairly; that they "expect more of me, so that if, God forbid, I don’t do something perfect, I get reamed for it." Yes. Yes, that's how life works. When you produce whatever it is you produce at a high quality, and then your standards dip, people get disappointed. Why are you just now learning a lesson that a third-grader learns? (This is the same person who thinks being a food photographer is the same thing as being a chef, though. Food photographer is a job that just sort of says "My parents still pay my rent.")

:: I think I've had enough of Josh now. He can be kind of a baby, and he has the same entitlement issues as the Becky-Bot. Monti may have had limited experience, but she never lost her enthusiasm. She always acted like she was amazed to be there and wasn't going to waste the opportunity. Josh just sort of seems to have this air of "I deserve this" and acts like he's on the same level as the judges. It didn't surprise me that he was in the bottom three; he arrogantly decided he could do Graham's dish better than Graham, openly criticized it, and then messed up. (Becca went off on quite the rant about his wording. "Don't say yours is better, say that you want to put a personal spin on it or something!") Ever notice how many people who win the Mystery Box challenge waste their advantages? It's because they think the advantage alone means they've already half-won.

(Josh trying to improve Graham's sashimi, by the way, was still nowhere near as hilarious as Tali trying to explain to Gordon how to cook meat.)

:: Graham's dishes... well, my palette isn't sophisticated, but I wouldn't have eaten any of it. When he described what went into the tuna sashimi, it just sounded bitter to me. I turned to Becca and said "Why don't I just gargle hydrochloric acid, instead?" Which I'd honestly rather do than eat shallots. But like I said, I'm not sophisticated.

Of course, everyone's cooking with Wal-Mart ingredients, so it's not like that matters, right?

:: Brief Hell's Kitchen observation: Barbie was up for elimination, and this is the first time when I actually felt she deserved to be there. She screwed up pretty terribly and I was honestly surprised when Clemenza went home instead of her. (Also, Justin deciding--after Barbie picked him to share in her reward--that she wasn't as bad as the girls keep saying was hilariously douchey.)

Getting a Little Tired of This

For some reason, I've been seeing a lot of lists lately ranking Pixar characters, and they all (like this Television Without Pity list) keep asserting that Ellie in Up is one of the most amazing characters ever. I remember when the movie came out, too, and everyone seized on this character as the great thing in the movie and how Pixar needs more female characters.

But my problem with calling Ellie a great character, much less a great heroine, is that she's not a character at all. She appears in the first 10 minutes of the film, has only a little dialogue, and then spends the rest of the film as the shadow of a memory. What are her main character traits? Well, she appears as an honorary boy for a few minutes, she loves Carl, she wants to go to Argentina and have adventures, and she never got to. She's what inspires the plot, but not as a person: as Carl's guilt-ridden memories. We never experience her outside of how Carl sees her, how Carl remembers her, what Carl says to her; we never see her except for how her life affects Carl's.

That's not a character. Certainly not a great heroine. More of a great emotional plot device.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Bill Fucking Murray

Kristen Bell Mondays

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Song of the Week: "Dare to Be Stupid"

Back in the days when I had such things as energy, creativity, and hope for the future, this was my theme song. I need Weird Al's brilliant 1985 Devo pastiche back in my soul. Not to make this a Health Report, but I'm trying to get myself back on track now, and this song is my declaration that I'm not letting life's stupid bullshit grind me into the ground anymore. Fuck you, world: if I have to put up with your stupid bullshit, you're damn well making room for me.

10 Gateway Episodes of Star Trek

This week, the AV Club put up a list they called "10 Must-See Episodes of Star Trek." I thought it was kind of an obvious list; I predicted almost every episode that was on it before reading it. Becca asked me, well, what episodes do you think they missed? And I thought, well, I'll just blog about it and make a completely obvious list of my own, because god knows I don't spend enough time just doing nothing online already.

The problem with making a list of 10 episodes of Star Trek that someone not really familiar with the show should see, though, is that we all know which are the best, most likable, most obvious episodes to pick. But I wish some of these lists would just go in a slightly different direction. Some try, like the AV Club, to split the difference and make it basically a "most representative" list, but if you're going to show a newbie 10 episodes that represent what's great about Star Trek, why the hell would you show them "Spock's Brain"?

What I decided to do here instead is think of 10 episodes I'd show someone unfamiliar with the show in order to whet their appetite for more. Not necessarily the 10 true greats, but more of a sampling. I don't want it to all be the best of the best of the best because my imagined not-yet-a-fan should have the pleasure of discovering the well-regarded and the gems in among some of the truly crappy episodes on their own.

I'll say right now that some of the obvious choices on his list are choices I'd make, too: "Balance of Terror," "The City on the Edge of Forever," and "Amok Time" are three of the best. I particularly have to bring in "Amok Time" because that was the first episode I ever watched, and it created a lifelong fan in me. So there's three that I definitely agree with and, arguably, would make most of the 10 whatever episodes of Star Trek lists you're going to see.

The AV Club's other first season picks are "The Squire of Gothos," "Space Seed," and "The Devil in the Dark," which makes half of the list from the first season ("Amok Time," of course, being from the second). I have no problem with that; the third season is mostly tedious and mostly terrible, so there should be more drawn from the first two seasons--maybe even the whole thing. These three episodes are all great, but "The Squire of Gothos" can be hoary and creaky because of the skiffy tropes it created and/or popularized for a lot of lazy writers. I wouldn't put it in that first showing. And "The Devil in the Dark" is just kind of a safe, obvious choice. (The twist, that the alien is merely protecting its environment instead of just being a monster, has also been done so often since that it doesn't have the same impact when seen cold by someone born in the last 25 years.)

"Space Seed" I'm torn on; the AV Club admits that a big part of the reason you'd want it on the list is that it paves the way for Star Trek II. And Ricardo Montalban is very good on it, creating one of the most powerful and memorable Trek villains. But I find the gender politics on the episode so silly and outdated, placing it firmly in an older era of science fiction where the smart, willful white woman is held in thrall by the abusive, brown barbarian. This thing is The King and I with flying leg kicks. I think for that reason I'd probably just leave the episode off altogether. If you show someone 10 episodes of Star Trek and they really get into it, they'll discover it for themselves. And if they don't, is it really that big a loss on its own, or do we just think it is because it's such a piece of the best Star Trek movie?

I think I'd add "Court Martial" to the list, instead, because it's a fun procedural that expands the idea of the Federation as an organization. And it's a great Kirk episode. I'd also add "This Side of Paradise," which isn't always a popular episode, but which I think is a great Spock episode. One of those episodes where you learn a lot about the character by watching him act out of character (and in a more interesting way, to me, than "The Naked Time," which is funny but also a little too cute for my taste). And finally, I think "Errand of Mercy" is a truly fantastic episode, getting at the series' allegories for Cold War tensions in a more direct, suspenseful way than something heavy handed like "A Private Little War" or outright stupid like "The Omega Glory."

So that's six episodes for me so far.

I'm going to just outright dismiss his other two second season picks--"Mirror, Mirror" and "The Trouble with Tribbles"--for overuse. This is my list, and it's my vague, undefined, increasingly esoteric choices. I think "Mirror, Mirror" is much more thrilling when you've gotten to know the characters a lot better than a first exposure, and "The Trouble with Tribbles" I'm just kind of tired of. I think it's a bit overrated, although I think I'm probably in the minority on that opinion. (I'm not saying I think it's bad, because it's the exact opposite of bad.) Besides, if you start at the top, there's nowhere to go but down. Let them discover the bright spots between some of the tedium.

I think instead I'd throw in "Journey to Babel," itself an obvious choice but with an interesting ethical core. And I'd also go with "Obsession" because I think it's another great Kirk episode that shows the extent to which he can be driven, and the hardships of balancing his personal desire for revenge with his responsibilities as captain.

I reject the AV Club's final two choices out of hand.

You do not need to see "Spock's Brain." Ever. No one does. And the attempts the writer makes to justify the choice--it's the season the fans saved the show, it's part of the legacy, it's a reminder that what you love will disappoint you, it's representative of how terrible the show can be--are just lame and vaguely pretentious. "Spock's Brain" is not "must-see" for any reason. And, honestly, having finally gone through the whole series, it may be extremely silly and outright bad, but at least it's not dull. Or, despite the stupidity of a remote-controlled Spock, insultingly dumb. "Miri," "Turnabout Intruder," and "The Omega Glory" are all far, far stupider. (Though "Turnabout Intruder" is a goldmine of unintentional hilarity.)

His final choice, "Spectre of the Gun," is an episode I'm sick of even talking about. This is the episode a lot of fans always use to say "See? Not every episode in the third season was bad!" It always makes me think that they got stymied at "Spock's Brain," put up with the next few tedious episodes, then saw one that was kind-of-okay, then stopped there and said "Well, at least it's better than 'Spock's Brain.'" Except it actually isn't. It's actually worse. It's like one of the weakest Twilight Zone episodes. It's not even terrible, it's just really mediocre. It doesn't try and fail. It's just there.

The only two third seasons episodes I like are "Day of the Dove" and "All Our Yesterdays," but I wouldn't put them on a list like this. Who cares? The whole point of your list is 10 episodes of Star Trek that you must see (it's right there in your heading, and it's why I tried to stay away from the idea of "must-see" from a fan's point of view). No one must see the third season at all unless they're hellbent on seeing the entire Original Series, like I was.

I'd just add two more second season episodes. I think "The Immunity Syndrome" is a really good exploration of what it means to be an alien among supposedly-enlightened humanity. I admit it's kind of an outside choice, but that was the whole point of my take on the idea.

And then, for fun, I'd throw in "A Piece of the Action" because it's funny. I know I rejected "Tribbles" for the same reason, but I think it's actually funnier (and, of course, much, much sillier). And I threw a few heavy episodes on there, and this is a favorite of mine.

Well... like I said, not the best of the series, but a decent sampling that, I hope, would lead someone to look for more. I've never been the person trying to get someone into Star Trek before. I need a kid that I can hook on it like my Mom hooked me.