Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Simpsons: Season 2

Remember when I was going to do this? Well, finally back to it.

After watching the second season of The Simpsons for the first time in a decade or more, I think I've judged it unfairly over the years. I always think of it as the big sophomore slump before things get going in the third season, but watching it again has changed my opinion. I think a big part of that is that it's like watching a completely different series than what the show later became. This one has characters and stories that develop out of those characters. I know it's boring to hear people complain about how The Simpsons isn't as good as it used to be, but, you know, there's a reason people say it.

The episodes:

1. Bart Gets an F (my rating: 4/5)
What this episode especially reminds me of is that this was the time when parents were getting all worked up into a lather that Bart Simpson was a terrible influence on children. Did you go to one of those schools that banned Bart Simpson t-shirts? I did. (This was the year I was a freshman in high school.) As with most of these things, it was ironic, especially since this episode really punishes Bart for being such an underachiever. It's a good episode, a story about a character and that character's response to the situation he's in informs the way the story plays out. Seems simple, but a look at television today shows it isn't. Great animation, too; I love the animation and the animation direction this season, especially some of the great stuff they do with colors and lighting. (By the way, what teacher actually gives you a point on your grade for applied learning? Even my college professors wouldn't respond to that, the bastards.)

2. Simpson and Delilah (4/5)
Fantastic episode. I love how after Homer grows hair, he has it styled differently in every scene. Mr. Burns is one of the best supporting characters on The Simpsons, and the writers realized it early; he's really brought to the foreground in a lot of episodes this season. But what really enhances this episode is Karl, Homer's secretary, played wonderfully by Harvey Fierstein. Truly one of the great Simpsons guest voices.

3. Treehouse of Horror (5/5)
It's kind of funny to look at this episode now. The bizarre, surreal stories were just for Halloween, but later the show became so surreal and bizarre that by comparison this one looks reined in. This is still one of my favorites. "Bad Dream House" is mostly cute, and "Hungry Are the Damned" is very funny, but it's "The Raven" that really stands out for me. James Earl Jones' narration of that great poem is wonderful, but it's also very much in the tone of the series. It doesn't stop being The Simpsons just to get literary (which was apparently one of Matt Groening's concerns about it). Dan Casetellaneta is especially good in this segment, and I love the end of the episode with Homer scared by the stories which had no effect on the kids.

4. Two Cars in Every Garage and Three Eyes on Every Fish (4/5)
Great satire of the political process, which has only gotten more transparently ridiculous in the two decades since. Now I kind of wish for a political campaign with this relatively low level of corruption, dishonesty and pandering. I love how Marge turns it around in the end. I know this is because of the production order, but I love how Mr. Burns doesn't know Homer despite having just spent all that time making an executive out of him in "Simpson and Delilah" (something which later became a running gag). There's an environmental message and a political satire, but the show doesn't get heavy-handed with either and ties them together neatly. I love the ending, where Marge soothes all of Homer's fears.

5. Dancin' Homer (4/5)
If I have one complaint about this episode (co-written by Ken Levine), it's that it's so densely packed with story that the gags don't always have room to breathe. But so much happens here that it's a pretty weak complaint, and even though I'm not the biggest baseball fan, I really enjoyed the episode. I enjoy it more now than I did as a kid, probably in large part because it makes me think of my Grandpa Davis, who died just four years later but who loved the Chicago Cubs. I can't articulate it. Something something tradition of being a baseball fan something. (Leave me alone, I have a headache.) I love the Capital City montage and Tom Poston as the Capital City Goofball. A miniature epic of Homer's success and failure.

6. Dead Putting Society (3/5)
Here's where the writers start to flesh out the Flanders family. Ned Flanders is so recognizable to me from having lived in one of those suburban village centers where people are in the upper middle class. There's always that one guy who's really nice and does really well for himself and always has the newest gadgets and the finished basement and is just friendly and neighborly in a way that becomes grating; not because they're trying to make you feel bad on purpose, but because you don't know what you're not doing right to have everything he has. I also liked Lisa's zen training of Bart and his one hand clapping.

7. Bart vs. Thanksgiving (3/5)
I don't think The Simpsons does Thanksgiving or Christmas episodes particularly well. As a result, I usually skip them in reruns (though I haven't even watched Simpsons reruns in a couple of years), and I hadn't seen this one since I was in high school. I was surprised by how much I actually did enjoy it. You know, part of the reason I think I didn't like it at the time was that my parents were newly-divorced and it made Thanksgivings a stressful nightmare, because it's hard to choose which parent to spend the holiday with. You end up feeling disloyal to one if you pick the other, and it's a lot of stress for a high schooler to go through. I think this must be the first time I ever watched it and wasn't uncomfortable remembering how that stress used to build up for me. Instead, I laughed at a lot of the jokes about family stress on the holiday (Marge's mother's "I have laryngitis and it hurts to talk, so I'll just say one thing: you never do anything right." made me laugh embarrassingly loudly.) And I remember a little too well, too, how it feels to do something mean in front of everyone and then feel guilty and embarrassed about it. This episode was very human and very familiar, and I liked that about it rather than shying away from it. Lovely ending, too.

8. Bart the Daredevil (4/5)
For some reason, I remember this being one of the first episodes that I ever sat down and watched with my Mom. She wasn't quick to get into the show, like I was, but I remember her howling with laughter when Homer fell down Springfield Gorge. Besides being a really funny episode, I love how it explores the relationship between Homer and Bart as father and son. Their relationship was different in the earlier seasons; Bart could be defiant, of course, but he looked up to Homer more often than he did later. For me, that's the core of this episode. Also: Truck-O-Saurus.

9. Itchy & Scratchy & Marge (4/5)
The writers take on a big issue in this one, and it's nice that they don't come up with any pat answers about censorship. This episode has one of my favorite animation sequences, where the children of Springfield, "freed" from the tyranny of violent cartoons, venture forth into the sun and play outdoors to the strains of Beethoven's 6th Symphony. It just cracks me up when it ends on Nelson whitewashing that fence. I like Alex Rocco as Roger Meyers Jr. so much that it actually rankles me when they use the character and Rocco doesn't do the voice. It's like using Fat Tony without Joe Mantegna.

10. Bart Gets Hit by a Car (4/5)
It's kind of an old saw premise (Wikipedia notes the episode was inspired by the great Billy Wilder movie The Fortune Cookie, which I like better than any other Matthau-Lemmon pairing), but I'm always up for a Mr. Burns episode and this one gives us the first appearance of Lionel Hutz. God, I miss Phil Hartman. I like the brief sequence in Hell; the Devil seems like a nerdy middle manager.

11. One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Blue Fish (4/5)
Homer is my favorite character on The Simpsons, and this episode has some great character development. When Homer thinks he might be dying, he makes a to-do list of everything he wants to do in his last 24 hours (and promptly sleeps until 11am). I love the scenes with Homer and his father as they finally bond after all these years, to the point where Homer can't stand another moment with him. Larry King reading the Bible always makes me crack up, too, with Homer fast-forwarding through all of the begats. I was deathly sick when this episode aired in January 1991; sicker than I've ever been in my life; so sick that I missed the first couple weeks of my second semester as a freshman. So watching Homer worry he might be dying added another layer to it.

12. The Way We Was (5/5)
Still one of my favorite episodes, and the one that really cemented Homer and Marge as characters you could really care about. For me and the version of The Simpsons that I truly love, this is a central episode, showing us that first spark for Homer and Marge that grew into the love they share, and that for me is the real heart of the entire series: that through all that happens, through the imperfections of their relationship, their love overcomes all of the hardships. I also like the sense of place and character it gives the episode, setting the high school years squarely in 1974; Homer and Marge are only about two years older than my parents, and so the way they were written at this time is very recognizable to me; they remind me of my own Mom and Dad. I think the show eventually destroyed all of this to perpetuate a brand but, you know, that's television. Oh, well. Remember when TV shows would do those episodes where the power went out and they told a story about the family? Now it's "Oh, power's out, let's reenact Star Wars down to the smallest detail only with characters from the show as the characters in the movie because we can only relate to life through stuff we've seen." Jon Lovitz is great (as always), and the episode manages to be sentimental without becoming gooey and collapsing on itself. I love the ending.

13. Homer vs. Lisa and the 8th Amendment (3/5)
Not a terrible episode, but I find the moral dilemma at the center of it a little tiresome and almost quaint. Sometimes the Lisa episodes don't connect with me. I like that they made the real conflict not whether stealing cable is wrong, but what Homer will do to restore Lisa's faith in him. This season is full of episodes with morals like this, even as the media was often holding up The Simpsons as an example of pushing the envelope too far (which is hilarious to think of today). There are still a lot of laughs, though; I think it's interesting, too, that it examines how we justify our casual thievery. It's a layered show. Troy McClure's first appearance.

14. Principal Charming (3/5)
Cute episode, and the first appearance of Groundskeeper Willie. I didn't realize just how many love stories there were this season. Maybe that's why the season has the reputation it has for not really being funny; they focus a lot more on character-driven love stories than on out and out comedy. It's going to be interesting to see that develop, and frankly I think spending so much of this season on character is what makes the comedy possible.

15. Oh, Brother, Where Are Thou? (5/5)
On the one hand, I've always been a little sorry that Homer's long-lost half-brother Herb Powell only appeared twice; on the other hand, they never ran him into the ground that way. Herb is a great character, and I love Danny DeVito's performance. The family stuff, with Herb connecting with the family he always wanted, is wonderful, and the idea of Homer coming up with, basically, the Edsel, is hilarious.

16. Bart's Dog Gets an F (2/5)
My least favorite episode of the season. I'm not sure why; it's just the frustration of watching Santa's Little Helper (always one of my least favorite things about the show) destroying everything. The sentimentalism in the last act is a little much for me, too, though I certainly understand the trauma of losing or almost losing a pet. It's just never been an episode I enjoyed that much.

17. Old Money (3/5)
I never used to like this when I was younger; now I like it more every time I actually see it. I guess I just understand the perspective of it, and having experienced the death of loved ones more times than I'd like since I was in high school, the sentimentalism doesn't bother me. This seems to be a fairly unpopular episode, but I liked it and I like what Abe Simpson does with his inherited money in the end. And Audrey Meadows had such a great voice.

18. Brush with Greatness (5/5)
This episode is perfect. The horrific events of Mt. Splashmore kind of scare the hell out of me, though; I'm obese and a little bit claustrophobic and it makes me shiver to think about that. I love Marge's story, the way she finds confidence in herself and uses it to find the humanity in Mr. Burns, all leading up to that hilarious final line. And the Ringo cameo is fantastic.

19. Lisa's Substitue (5/5)
One of the truly great episodes of The Simpsons. I think this may be the first time that Lisa had a story that I ever felt really emotionally invested in. I guess it's because she was going through something recognizable to me: feeling like you don't belong anywhere, only to make a connection with someone who encourages the things that other people make you feel weird about, and to sadly have that connection turn out to be only temporary. Mr. Bergstrom's note to Lisa--"You are Lisa Simpson"--always gets to me. And I love how Homer redeems himself in the end. Warm and fuzzy, but not in a reductive or lazy way.

20. The War of the Simpsons (3/5)
This is another episode that I always remember not really liking much. It's interesting how time and experience change your perspective. I remember as a kid always thinking that Marge was being selfish and petty but, you know, in my defense, I was a stupid high school kid who didn't have his first date until senior year. Having been in a relationship for a long time, I recognize the way it changes you. I love the party scenes at the beginning; I think it's cute how the sophisticated adult party has a soundtrack mostly from the mid-1960s. I love when Homer later tries to remember the party and it looks like a New Yorker cover. Abe babysitting the kids falls a little flat, though. Some decent lines and a nice payoff, but for the most part it feels like filler to offset the marriage retreat scenes. My favorite exchange in this episode: Flanders: "Sometimes Maude underlines passages in my bible instead of her bible by mistake." Homer: "Gee, good thing you don't keep guns in the house."

21. Three Men and a Comic Book (3/5)
Fun play on Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and the first appearance of Comic Book Guy (who I, like everyone who sees him, would swear is based on my local comic book guy). It's pretty obvious what ends up happening, but there are some really funny scenes. Still, as a former comic book collector, I still wince and think, jeez, Milhouse, take the broken leg for the sake of the comic, wouldja? Great animation on the storm and the next morning's glowing light. I said it before, but I love the coloring on this season.

22. Blood Feud (3/5)
Something of a filler episode, but I liked Homer in it and certainly sympathized with his dilemma over his angry letter to Mr. Burns getting mailed. I find the ending kind of interesting. There's really no moral to the episode, but having the Simpsons talk to each other at the end about how they really didn't learn anything from their experiences manages to be clever without being smug. It feels like a satire of sitcom formula rather than what the show would later specialize in: mocking the audience for wasting its time. I think the bigger mystery here than the episode's moral is how they managed to fit that giant Olmec head through the front door (and still later into the basement).

After sitting through this season, I can honestly say my perceptions of it were all wrong. Modern wisdom seems to hold that the season isn't as good as the show later became, but I think that's not quite accurate. This season explores the main characters so thoroughly that it really lays the groundwork for the later shorthand that makes some of its best comedy possible. It's not a fast-paced, laugh-filled season; it specializes in sweetness. But it's a marked improvement over the shaky first season and doesn't really have a single episode that's just a flat-out clunker. The worst you can really say about it is that it hasn't realized its full comic potential yet, and has to settle for being a well-written, enjoyable show with a real sense of character and emotion instead.

I think it's unfairly judged against the seasons still to come. Taken on its own, it's marvelous.

Happy Birthday, Joanie!

Friday, September 21, 2012

French Toast

Things I did for the first time last night:

  • Put orange juice in my French toast mix
  • Strained my French toast mix to get rid of undissolved egg whites
  • Put orange zest in my French toast mix
  • Zested an orange
  • Clarified butter
Things I did for the 20th time last night:

  • Took what I thought was a decent picture of food I made only to have it turn out blurry
By the way, it was delicious. I love breakfast at any time of the day.


I find this image quite relaxing. Serene.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Health Report Update

Well, summer's over, and it was an up and down summer. In June I was so happy and losing weight and exercising every day and doing a lot of swimming. In July, I became very depressed and the depression lingered and was hard to break out of. August was up and down. September has been, too, but more up than down. I feel back on an even track again.

My mother-in-law gave me a book called The Relaxation Response that has been extraordinarily helpful over the last couple of weeks. It's made me understand more than I did about the physiologic processes of not only hypertension, but also of anxiety. That always helps me immeasurably: knowing how things actually work. Now that I know about blood lactate and how it can increase anxiety, I can make steps to combat that. According to this book, a major contributor of the stress that feeds hypertension is the Fight or Flight Response, and this book is helping me to understand that I can be more passive and not stress out over things that I can't control.

Part of this comes down to Transcendental Meditation, and I've been working on trying to meditate. Some days I'm more successful than others. I notice it's harder now because we're getting our autumn winds, which are very high after the harvest without the crops to break the winds down. The wind rattles the ventilation ducts on the roof and makes it harder to concentrate. But I have finally developed a passive attitude towards that, too. I used to get very frustrated trying to make myself concentrate, which of course just made me angrier and had the opposite effect of meditating. Now if it won't happen, it won't happen, and I move on without beating myself up about it. That's my biggest problem: beating myself up for all of my little failures. I need a better perspective on what is and isn't a failure.

I did really well on Tuesday, though. I meditated while waiting for Becca to pick up art supplies. It really did trigger the kind of Relaxation Response the book talks about. I wasn't completely successful, but the panicky feeling I get in traffic didn't trigger at all. A car almost hit us in the parking lot, and I just sort of felt like, well, it happens, Becca's driving and she's careful, no one got hit. It was kind of amazing. Normally, I would've panicked and maybe yelled because I don't know what else to do with the panic energy. That's quite a step for me. Because instead of having to consume an automatic reaction, I didn't have the reaction at all. That's huge. Everyone's been telling me for years to meditate. What a lot of time I've wasted not doing it. Time and health. Being relaxed makes me feel more capable and gets me moving more and will ultimately get me to weigh less.

Today's a big test because we found out that Becca's unemployment runs out as of today, not December, like they told us. So we're kind of financially fucked. I'm kind of amazed that my attitude isn't one of anxiety. I have some fears, but they're overwhelmed by a sense of... I don't know. Pragmatism? What? I just know that I need to work as a sub as often as I can and if that doesn't work I'll at least need a part time job or something. And she has two part-time jobs and maybe she'll get more commissions or maybe she'll get a more substantial part-time job. Maybe we'll have to work retail again, though I'd sure love not to.

But I'm not panicking. We'll work it out. We'll be okay. Maybe one day we'll even be comfortable again. Things will be hard for a while, but being upset about it won't help either of us, so I'm not going to do that.

Gee, I haven't even had a Xanax. If I'd heard this news a month ago, I'd have had four by now.

Meditation. Relaxation. Passivity. Knowing where I have to try harder and where I can't control something and don't have to get angry about it.

I don't know this version of me, but I'm intriguerested to grok what he's about.

Our Biggest Challenge

I just love these Symphony of Science movies. For a few minutes, they make me a lot less cynical about the human race.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Film Week

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

ON HIS WEDDING DAY (1913) **1/2
A FISHY AFFAIR (1913) *1/2
Mack Sennett Keystone flicks. I'm not exactly loving this festival, but I do find it amusing and historically interesting. Like I said last week, it's a little tempered by the fact that a lot of the bits here are beyond routine by now and look a bit hackneyed. I know that's not exactly fair to judge the people who were doing it first on film by the fact that I've grown up seeing everything that it influenced/everything that ripped it off and repeated it, but, well, I'm only 36 and them's the breaks. I like Ford Sterling more than a lot of the other actors in the Keystone stable; he's broad, but I find it funny a lot of the time. He's not a precision comic, though, like the best of Sennett's players, including...

Fatty Arbuckle! I love Fatty Arbuckle. The guy's got everything you associate with the best of the silent clowns: he's precise but loose, very likable and not too hammy. He makes it look so fluid, but a lot of what he pulls off has to be timed to the second. Ingratiating without being cloying. I love the guy. This is sort of the quintessential Keystone flick, too: spurned, oily villain Ford Sterling (complete with giant mustache and top hat) ties Mabel Normand (another of Sennett's best) to the railroad tracks, and there's a race/chase to rescue her as her boyfriend Fatty and race car driver Barney Oldfield try to head off the train. Perfect timing. ***1/2

TCM really needs to do a festival of just Arbuckle movies. Here he's pug boxer (named Pug) set to box gentleman fighter Cyclone Flynn (Edgar Kennedy). Funny stuff, enhanced by a supporting appearance by Charlie Chaplin (Sennett's best player, even if he only had the guy for his first year in film) as the referee, stealing the show right out from under Fatty. ***

Chaplin's Tramp and seaman Charles Bennett get in a brick fight over a girl. Chaplin is an artist, no matter how slight the material. Chaplin directed, too. ***

Farm boy Fatty Arbuckle goes to the city to get back his girl. Arbuckle directed; Charley Chase, Mack Swain, and Edgar Kennedy appear. ***

Fatty and Mabel are a great team, here sightseeing at the San Diego Expo. Basically, Fatty and Mabel showed up at an actual event and largely improvised some comedy set pieces. And it's fun as hell. The highlight of the first round of TCM's Sennett festival. ***1/2

Surprisingly involving French film from the Porn Chic era about a woman who is so repressed in her sexual desires that her vagina begins to speak for itself. (Did you know this is in a French literary tradition of talking vagina stories that date back to ancient folklore? I had no idea.) What I like about this movie is that it's a character study that also has some frank hardcore scenes that are integral. Penelope Lamour plays Joelle, a woman so unable to control or fulfill her desire that her pussy begins to order her around, taking her to some dark places while her husband (Jean-Loup Philippe) struggles to understand. In an extended flashback, the always-delectable Beatrice Harnois plays the younger Joelle. I know this sounds like bullshit, but it's better than any adult movie made in the last two decades because it's actually about something. Magic realism and psychological study in a porno. Amazing and worthwhile. ****

LE HAVRE (2011)
A couple of weeks ago I saw Shadows in Paradise, an Aki Kaurismaki film that I found too remote to embrace. Now I have this film, which I wish I could physically hug. This is another one of those films I describe as being very human; a perhaps slight but enjoyable and deft film about human connection and the sometimes surprising ways we help each other get along. It's about a Frenchman in the port city of Le Havre whose wife enters the hospital. While there, he finds an African boy, an illegal immigrant on the run from the local police and trying to get to London to reunite with his mother. What happens as the film continues is an interesting, at times masterful blend of the happy and painful bits that make up life. And that's what I think I liked most about this film; it's just life and the connections we make and the way we decide what's right and what we need to do to for others. It's lovely. ****

I braced myself for this one a little bit. This is a fictional documentary made for the BBC (who chose not to air it) about a nuclear attack on Britain. So far away from the Cold War, I figured the film's impact would be dulled, but I was unprepared for just how chilling and affecting this film really is. It has a lot of facts at its disposal, but it also has the clinical removal from its subject matter of an emotionless news report, shying away from none of its details, and that's the film's best special effect. It adds a realism that makes the film powerful and impossible to look away from. At only just over an hour long, it shows us the human cost of a global crisis with such pragmatism and objectivity that it's horrifying. I don't think I could ever watch this again; it's too effective. ***1/2

The Three Stooges are mistaken for three great college football players, despite looking like retired carnival workers. Still, there's a very funny football game, and Lucille Ball appears. Not one of their best shorts, but an early winner. ***

Intrinsically silly, but it sure takes its premise seriously. The son of a demon worshiping cult leader is drawn to the dark side, evil spells, dwarf minions, puppet demons, and his bland girlfriend. I appreciate the serious approach, but it just doesn't pull it off. The Ghoulies are way too cute, though. Where was their Muppet Babies style TV show? Michael des Barres is very Michael des Barres as the cultist/sorcerer of evil, and Mariska Hargitay is a little hottie in an early role. **

Very fun cult flick about the end of the world. When a comet passes by Earth and kills most of the population, two sisters (Catherine Mary Stewart and Kelli Maroney, who is awesome in this movie) are left to their own devices before hooking up with a truck driver played by Robert Beltran. Oh, and there are zombies. And a trip to an empty shopping mall. It's a very, very 80s movie and fun as hell. And Mary Woronov is in it, which enhances everything. This really succeeds because even with the humor it takes its characters seriously and cares about what happens to them; it doesn't sacrifice the character integrity for the sake of comedy (but it's a very funny movie). ***1/2

This was pretty riveting and uncomfortable. This documentary follows two fans who are obsessed with Tiffany to an unhealthy level. One believes he and Tiffany are friends; the other is an intersexed individual who thinks she and Tiffany are meant to be together because of a vision she had while in a coma. It's fascinating to see the depths of their delusions and exactly how each deals with it. Tiffany doesn't talk to the camera, but she does appear at signings and a concert; it's interesting to see how she handles the man who thinks he and Tiffany are great friends, realizing that if she gives him just enough attention to satisfy him but not enough to encourage him to do more, than she's in a safe zone. The intersexed fan, who meets Tiffany for the first time at a signing and seems to be fulfilled by it, has a more interesting reaction; meeting her idol seems to give her new resolve to come to a decision about her sexuality and seems to reach a more mature view. Unforgettable. ***

A BIRD'S A BIRD (1915) *
DO-RE-MI-BOOM! (1915) *
THE SURF GIRL (1916) **1/2 -- The swimming pool this is filmed at is a great location.
THIRST (1917) *
From the second week of TCM's Mack Sennett festival.

So far, this is my favorite of the Sennett films TCM has shown. Fatty and Mabel court, marry and move to the seaside where the spurned rival (Al St. John) sets their house adrift on the ocean. Great setpieces, and just the image of the floating shack is wonderful. Fatty and Mabel are fantastic, and I love Al St. John; I don't know if he was, but he's a lot like a circus clown, very expressive and acrobatic. Wayland Trask is hilarious as the criminal leader, casually eating dynamite and drinking gasoline. Hilarious stuff. ****

There's an interesting dramatic dimension to this comedy. Fatty and Mabel are a well-off married couple, and Fatty is very jealous when Mabel's handsome schoolmate turns up to visit and spend the night. Fatty spends the night worrying about being cuckolded, and there's some great physical comedy when Al St. John shows up as a very acrobatic thief out to burgle the place. ****

Fatty and Al St. John work at a restaurant and get into a fight over a girl. A little slight, but Fatty is absolutely wonderful in this one. His scenes in the kitchen are hilarious and impressive; just the precision of his comic timing and the, I don't know, engineering of his bits are fantastic. ****

Gloria Swanson plays a girl set to inherit a lot of money; when the executor of her father's estate finds out, he schemes to marry her to get his hands on her incoming fortune. This leads to some chasing and Gloria getting tied to the railroad tracks. It's interesting seeing the dramatic star of Queen Kelly and Sadie Thompson in a comedy, especially one where the actual star is Teddy, the dog who rescues her. Her then-husband Wallace Beery is appropriately hissable as the villain. ***

The day may be coming when live action films and cartoons are practically indistinguishable from one another. This is the first time I've felt that motion capture was entirely successful; it didn't distract me, it didn't creep me out, and it adds an extraordinary fluidity of camera to what is an astoundingly enjoyable film. I didn't expect to like this at all, much less absolutely love it. The motion capture works because there's no creepy attempt to try and get the characters to look like the actors playing them; instead, they're stylized versions of Herge's characters and take on believable dimensions because the film doesn't ask too much of them. By making them just animated enough, and keeping the film and the characters in the realm of the cartoon, the whole film doesn't feel jarring or like a special effects showcase. When the characters defy the laws of physics, it's in a fun, heightened way that doesn't seem far-fetched, but when the characters have to convey emotions, it's also successful. How is this film so damn good? A large part, of course, is the story, which captures the flavor of the comics without trying too hard to ape them. The whole thing is so fluid, so fun, so easy to love and get involved in. I know there are a lot of people who disagree with me on this, but I don't care. This is somehow the great adventure I've been hoping to see for years, and from two filmmakers--Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson--that I was a little worried about never seeing anything good from again. I'm going right to the unpopular opinion on this one: it's easily the best, purest film Steven Spielberg has made since Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. ****

Note to everyone in the entertainment industry: I've seen enough Star Wars parodies for one lifetime. No more, please. All of the humor has been mined. This skin flick is not fun, not funny, and most unforgivable of all, not sexy. * star because Allie Haze is quite commanding sometimes as Princess Leia. But Jesus, just stop.

I'm not even sure how to describe this film. Anna Paquin stars in the greatest performance she may ever give as Lisa, a 17 year-old private school student who is involved in a traumatic, horrific accident. The shock of the incident sort of triggers what becomes an epic coming-of-age story, during which Lisa toys with her students and teachers, loses her virginity, tries to find a comfortable ground with her divorced parents, and becomes involved in a court case. That describes the plot, such as it is, but not the emotions surrounding it. It's a very emotionally complex but emotionally honest film. Paquin's Lisa is a real teenager, approaching life through that self-centered, pretentious, inexperienced prism that most teenagers view their lives through. A big part of this film is the way Lisa deals with shattered expectations and the way youthful idealism is always countered by the realities of the way the adult world works. She's looking for justice, for honesty, and for connection in a world that is often cruel, pragmatic and random. It's a tremendous film, very powerful in its honesty, and it's a shame that writer-director Kenneth Lonergan (who made the excellent 2000 film You Can Count on Me) has been directing, editing, and trying to get this film released since 2005. (How old is this project? Two of the producers on the film have been dead. For years.) A lot of the critical response I read is that this film is a mess, it's not tight enough, and I see the criticisms, but it doesn't diminish the overall effect for me at all. Life is a mess. Life isn't tight enough. I was very moved. This may be my favorite film of 2011, and it's terrible that Anna Paquin wasn't able to be considered for an Oscar. ****

(Full disclosure: I was only able to get the 150-minute version and not the 188-minute version, which I'd very much like to see.)

Funny, stylish flick about Victorian grave robbers who tangle with rivals and zombies. ***

Eh. *

Funny, witty, gorgeous-looking. A Flemish town in 1616 is preparing for a carnival when an invading Spanish army announces that it will be passing through. Fearing that this will lead only to rape and pillage, the burgomaster cooks up a plan to fake his own death, thinking the Spanish will not want to stay out of respect for the town's mourning. The burgomaster's wife (played with great relish and wit by Francoise Rosay) thinks it's a cowardly idea, and instead works with the women of the town to take charge of the situation and repel the invaders with great hospitality. This film is a delight, enhanced by its beautiful setting and costumes, made joyous by great performances and a satirical screenplay. ****

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

80s Revisited: Red Dawn

Red Dawn (1984)
Directed by John Milius; screenplay by Kevin Reynolds and John Milius, story by Reynolds; produced by Sidney Beckerman & Buzz Feitshans

This flick made a much bigger impression on me when I was in junior high. The Cold War was still in the process of ending then; the fears of getting blown up or invaded any day were still pretty fresh. And though this movie plays on those pretty effectively in its opening, it really doesn't know what to do with you when it pulls you in.

I keep hearing that this movie is a conservative wet dream pro-war movie, but it's really not. There's some sort of anti-state libertarian leanings, maybe, but the picture doesn't really know what to do with them. There are times, too, when it goes into really bad taste territory and tries to be a pro-America propaganda flick, but there aren't a lot of those, either. This movie's not really about anything at all. It's a war movie that doesn't have anything to say about heroism, a movie about the pressures of combat that doesn't have any interesting points to make about people, and a movie where political ideologies conflict that has absolutely nothing to say about politics at all. It's just sort of... there.

All of that would be forgivable if the movie were at least an enjoyable B action flick, but it's not even that. It tries too hard to get us to care about characters that it never really bothers to characterize. It's just a bunch of terrible actors shouting things and crying a lot and occasionally laughing but then paying in blood for letting their guards down. This movie is really badly acted, I can't overstate that. Patrick Swayze is especially embarrassing; Milus just doesn't rein him in at all. There's no approaching these characters or identifying with them. It's Blair Witch level acting: I don't know what to do, so I'll just shout and say "fuck" a lot. Still, no one is as laugh-inducing as Harry Dean Stanton, who plays father to Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen. His single scene in the movie feels like a bizarre apologia for child abuse; I'm sure it isn't meant that way, but the dialogue is really uncomfortable and sort of sounds like "See? This is why I beat the shit out of you kids, to prepare you for the Communist invasion." And then his shouting "Avenge me, boys! Aveeeeeeeeeeeeeenge meeeeeeeee!" is so hilariously over the top that a gale force of laughter is really the only response.

The movie at least tries to be evenhanded and shows us how war can debase people no matter which side they're on. It doesn't portray Communists as inherently evil, but sees Communism as a corrupting influence, which in itself is a pretty simplistic view and a little condescending on its own, but at least John Milius deigns to see the enemy as human beings, which is more than you can say about some movies from the same period. (Good example: the cartoonish villains of Rambo: First Blood Part II, in which Rambo finally wins the Vietnam War or something. Though, to be fair, it's a much easier to watch movie because it's such a silly cartoon and it's so dumbly straightforward and knows what it wants to be, even if it is quite stupid. Credit where credit is due, though: Red Dawn may be boring, but it at least tries for realism. It doesn't achieve it, but it tries. Though it can never touch Rambo in its high instance of unintentional (?) homoeroticism.)

One of my bigger problems with this flick, too, is that it doesn't achieve the scope it tries for. There's this sense that what's happening is happening on a global level, but it all seems to take place in the same 300-yard radius (except for the scenes that take place up in the mesas of, um, Colorado... actually New Mexico, as if it weren't painfully obvious). I think it would have been wiser to limit the scope to this specific group of kids and the emotions they go through during a crisis, but instead Milius tries to make it bigger, and it only makes it seem smaller. Instead of getting to know these indistinguishable kids, he focuses on the action and the importance of it and it all falls flat because there's nothing to prop it up. There are no stakes because the movie hasn't established them, except with a propagandist's simplicity. And frankly, you can give an example of encirclement all you want at the beginning of this movie, the idea of invaders parachuting into Middle of Nowhere, Colorado, is pretty silly. Like, wouldn't you strike at the major centers, like New York City and Washington, DC? There's this sense of "If only we can get these guerrilla kids under control, our conquest of this fading, industry-free small town will be complete and the rest of America will fall! Onwards to Flint, Michigan!" I know this is supposed to be going on all over the US, but focusing on this one tiny nowhere town doesn't quite make the point of Americana and its values being under assault the way the film thinks it does.

The Wikipedia page for the movie quotes someone as saying liberal critics were outraged by the film. Why? There's no substance here whatsoever. The only reason to get pissed off at this movie is that it's so long and boring.

The New TMNT Series Has Everything

Okay, the past month in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comics from IDW, we've had some really good teases. They've established the existence of Slash:

And found a way to make Fugitoid essential to the continuity:
They've also given us a really good look at General Krang and his empire, and made him a genuine (though still hidden) galactic threat. He and the Shredder aren't working together (yet, perhaps), but like I said, they're really doing a great job of combining aspects of the cartoon with aspects of the original comic. This is really the kind of reboot you want a reboot to be.

Anyway, I'm trying not to get my hopes up, but I really hope all of this intergalactic stuff means we're going to be seeing Triceratons any minute now. That would make me insanely happy.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Song of the Week: "A Man I'll Never Be"

Boston, 1978.

Credit Where It's Due

The season premiere episode of Saturday Night Live was a lot better than I expected it to be. Very little of Crazy Eyes McKinnon, no more Kristen Wiig, and Seth McFarlane was mostly funny (although I fast-forwarded through the monologue because his crooner shit is unbearable to me).

There were two highlights for me.

First, Jay Pharaoh playing Barack Obama. I have high hopes for this, because Pharaoh is a funny performer and never gets enough to do on the show. I've never liked Fred Armisen's Obama, like a lot of people--he gets the vocal inflection right, but there was never any humor that came out of a characterization, like with Will Ferrell's Bush Jr. or Phil Hartman's Clinton. Pharaoh seems to have a better idea of how to make his Obama a comedic character rather than just a vague impression; hopefully, that will make Jason Sudeikis more bearable as Romney, though he was certainly helped by Romney just making dumber and dumber statements over the summer. They did a better job highlighting Romney's obliviousness, which is a much better source for humor than what they were focusing on before, which was his blandness.

The second was the puppet class sketch. Bill Hader was taught by some of the Henson people who to do puppetry for the finale of Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and it's nice to see him get to use it some more. The puppetry was excellent, and the sketch itself was hilarious.

Not every sketch worked. That Gangam Style thing is as ridiculous as most instantly-forgettable internet fads are, and I wish Armisen would retire that stupid producer character who tries to give advice on sex programs. (Though, honestly, I wish Armisen would just leave entirely.) I also wish they'd bring back "What's Up With That?"

Oh, and I dug Frank Ocean.

All in all, a decent episode. Better than I thought it would be. A surprising number of sketches actually knew when to end (and just as many didn't, par for the course, though that short Amish bit was hilarious; hey, as long as it gets the laugh, 30 seconds is more than enough). Just thought I'd mention it, since I talked last week about how bad I thought Seth McFarlane would be. (And he nailed Ryan Lochte; that was his personal best of the night.)

That said, I'm looking forward to Joseph Gordon-Levitt even less.

Facundo the Great

StoryCorps is wonderful.