Friday, July 10, 2015

This Week in Neat-O

:: This is a long but really engaging essay detailing the history of the movie trailer.

:: This fan-made title sequence for Doctor Strange is pretty nifty. It captures that cosmic weirdness that I'm hoping the film has. Great song choice, too.

:: Nintendo put up a video of Shigeru Miyamoto visiting Jim Henson Studios. (Boy, it just shows you how much I miss Farscape that a one-second shot of Rygel with no sound gets me excited.)

:: The trailer for Creed, the follow-up to Rocky Balboa. I've made no secret of my love for the Rocky series, and the trailer looks great. Really interesting idea for a Rocky movie to focus on Apollo Creed's son (played by Michael B. Jordan) and put Stallone as Rocky into the role Mickey played in the first film. This one's directed and co-written by Ryan Coogler, who made the underrated Fruitvale Station, which would actually make this the first Rocky movie not directed or written by Stallone.

:: The AV Club has an article about a movie I'm never planning on doing as an 80s Revisited: The Wizard. I saw it once in the theater as a kid, found it uncomfortable and never thought about it again, except for the unintentionally hilarious attempt at Power Glove badassery and the at the time very exciting reveal of Super Mario Bros. 3, my favorite NES game. Interesting stuff if you were there.

:: This one's a little older, but Kristen Bell wrote a piece for the Huffington Post about researching the facts about vaccines. Huffington Post has become something of a willing platform for anyone famous to write about their destructive, strident, pseudoscientific beliefs, and they need more editorials like this one: Kristen Bell apparently expected not to vaccinate her kids (something that would have killed my respect for her, honestly), but takes us through the process of what she did instead of listening to the loud anti-vax crowd: researching actual scientific fact and then doing what was best for her children.

:: Harry Knowles posted the presentation reel for the John Carter movie when it was still going to be made by Kerry Conran. It even has some rough computer animation in it, including a duel with a Thark. Conran directed Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, one of my favorite movies. I loved the Disney movie, but I'd be fascinated to see what Conran would have done with John Carter.

:: Stravinsky’s “Illegal” Arrangement of “The Star Spangled Banner”

:: The Ant-Man trailer as a '50s monster movie.

:: 15 Toys And Action Figures That Have Consistently Gone Down In Value

:: I'll probably never get to play this game, but the gameplay trailer for Transformers: Devastation is pretty cool. It's cel-shaded, so it looks like a cartoon, which I think is wonderful. Between this and those Cuphead trailers (another one I'll probably never get to play), there's some really interesting stuff going on in making video games cartoonlike.

:: Entertainment Weekly has an update on The Musical Monsters of Turkey Hollow, one of the specials Jim Henson didn't get to make but which is being made now for broadcast this November. Very excited about this!

:: A trailer for a documentary I cannot wait to see: Floyd Norman: An Animated Life.

Thursday, July 09, 2015

Ranking Al: #40-31

40. "Stop Forwarding That Crap to Me"
(Style parody of Jim Steinman; from Alpocalypse, 2011)
Al rails against all of those junk emails people used to send us. Now that our mothers and crazy aunts and gun nut uncles all have Facebook pages, that's really died down, hasn't it? I am a huge fan of Jim Steinman to the point where almost everyone has questioned my music taste, but I like his bombastic, overdramatic, teenager-in-lust production. Al gets the spirit of it, though I think he could have gone bigger (and longer) with this one.

(Note: I made a mistake back in the #70-61 post; when I included "Here's Johnny," I stated that it was the last song I hadn't listed from Polka Party!, which made Polka Party! the first album to be completed from this list. That was incorrect; I have one more song from Polka Party! that I've still not included. So, actually, listing "Stop Forwarding That Crap to Me" at number 40 makes Alpocalypse the actual first of Al's albums that I've completed on this list. I know this is all really important to the archivists of the future, so I need them to be aware that I know I made a mistake. Yes, I am being silly.)

39. "Do I Creep You Out"
(Parody of "Do I Make You Proud" by Taylor Hicks; from Straight Outta Lynwood, 2006)
Weird Al is no stranger to stalking songs, and this one makes me laugh especially because it's just so crazily passionate. Of course, it's built around one of those prepackaged, overly earnest, phony-sounding songs they give the American Idol winner to sing to christen their victories, so of course it's straight-faced and unintentionally silly. Al's lyrics arguably fit the arch tone of the song better than the original's.

38. "George of the Jungle"
(Cover; from Dare to Be Stupid, 1985)
Just a straight cover of the theme from the old Jay Ward/Bill Scott cartoon, a favorite of mine in childhood. Thanks to this version being smack dab in the middle of the album, I've always known this song by heart. I mention that because, for some reason, Chicago radio personality Jonathan Brandmeier was having a contest where, if you called in and sang the whole song, you could win tickets to see Jimmy Buffett in concert. Seeing Jimmy Buffett in concert seems like my idea of hell, honestly, but a guy I worked with (who was my roommate in a shitty apartment in Villa Park at the time) got really, really mad at me for not offering to call and do it so that he--a big Buffett fan--could win. Because he knew I loved the cartoon, loved Weird Al, even loved the Brendan Fraser movie, and knew the song. Guy never actually asked me to do it, just got huffy about it.

37. "Now That's What I Call Polka!"
(Medley; from Mandatory Fun, 2014)
I can't really explain why, but this is my favorite polka in years. Maybe pop music just sounds a little fresher to me these days, and the songs he's using lend themselves better to a smooth medley. Love the horns on "Somebody That I Used to Know" and "Timber." (List of songs here.) I also love the callback bits for "Thrift Shop." ("It's large!" always makes me laugh.) And it begins and ends with two of my favorite singles of their respective years: "Wrecking Ball" and "Get Lucky." I could just listen to Al do "Wrecking Ball" straight through in that style, honestly.

36. "Since You've Been Gone"
(Original; from Bad Hair Day, 1996)
Just a fun bit of doo-wop nonsense that's really quite catchy.

35. "Spy Hard"
(Parody of James Bond theme songs; from the motion picture Spy Hard, 1996)
I've never seen the movie, but I feel confident calling this my favorite scene. You miss some of the gags in the video because it doesn't have the opening credits in it, but otherwise it perfectly nails the tone of the classic Bond openings, and Al nails the tone of those songs.

34. "Polka Your Eyes Out"
(Medley; from Off the Deep End, 1992)
The polkas are, of course, totally subjective placings. I think this one just hits me the most (minus one other yet to appear) because it's from the time period just before I stopped paying attention to what was popular in current music. So it's like some kind of a bookend on an era for me. Or something like that. List of songs here. My favorite bit? The drum solo.

33. "Genius in France"
(Style parody of Frank Zappa; from Poodle Hat, 2003)
This thing is a musical tour-de-force, a style mash-up of several types of Zappa sounds and several types of Al jokes (including poodle references and the idea that French people revere things that Americans find bizarre and mundane). It just impresses the heck out of me, and is one of Weird Al's most fun songs to listen to for me, just because as someone with ADHD I love all of the sudden musical changes. Bonus points: Dweezil Zappa performs the opening guitar solo.

(Note: I triple-checked, since I messed up once already, but this is indeed the last song I had to list from Poodle Hat, so that album is also now completed. It's the best song on the album by far.)

32. "I Lost on Jeopardy"
(Parody of "Jeopardy" by Greg Kihn Band; from "Weird Al" Yankovic in 3-D, 1984)
Something about the drumming and the almost oppressive guitars in this song building and building the way they do always managed to sound like worsening tension and pressure to me, so this has always seemed like an aural version of how it feels when I'm trying to pass some kind of test. (Al's lyrics kind of say it all, too.) I have to tell you to watch the video here for the answer clues alone (the complex mathematical one kills me), and cameos by Kihn himself, plus Dr. Demento, Art Fleming, and Don Pardo. Classic Al.

31. "Jurassic Park"
(Parody of "MacArthur Park" by Richard Harris; from Alapalooza, 1993)
Here's an admission that will get my cool card revoked forever: I love "MacArthur Park." In fact, I have the Richard Harris album it's on, A Tramp Shining, on both vinyl and CD. This is what Al did with both "Yoda" and "Ode to a Superhero": taking a big special effects movie and singing about it to the tune of a classic rock song. This one just makes me weirdly happy, maybe because it's based on that original song. Hell, anything with a Jimmy Webb tune makes me weirdly happy. The middle section of the video, where the animation gets really wild, is fantastic.

Only 30 left. Until next time!

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Film Week

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

JANE EYRE (1943)
Very much a Gothic fairy tale version of the Bronte novel, with a moody atmosphere of shadows and fog. Something I noticed this time; I always get a little disappointed in film versions when Jane grows up. I find her story as a child so compelling, something just grabs me about it, and this version has strong performances from Peggy Ann Garner and Elizabeth Taylor. But Joan Fontaine is an excellent Jane, and even though the film isn't exactly an interesting take on the novel itself (it kind of abandons a lot of the smart, resolved, inner Jane when Rochester arrives and the whole thing becomes more or less Beauty and the Beast), it is a very enjoyable old movie. Orson Welles as Rochester, with his fake nose and his flamboyant performance, doesn't really fit the tone of the story at all, but is nonetheless completely enjoyable. It's kind of a panto; his performance runs right over Jane Eyre (and Jane Eyre), but I couldn't help but love it. Like I said, a Gothic fairy tale, like a storybook that simplifies its original source in a way that doesn't really do the novel justice, but which is enjoyable as its own entity. **** for its warped sense of style alone.

Mandy Lane (played by Amber Heard) goes on a ranch vacation with her shitty high school friends (mostly guys trying to fuck her), and then a slasher movie happens. Kind of a mixed bag. The cinematography is good, but mostly because it's emulating The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Last House on the Left, and the twists are pretty predictable. All the elements are there, but not in the right measurements. **1/2

Silly-but-fun action flick with Arnold Schwarzenegger as the sheriff of a small border town who is the only thing that stands in the way of a powerful drug dealer trying to escape federal custody. It's silly, and Korean director Kim Jee-woon does a lot of those fun, earnest flourishes that for some reason we tend to think are cool in Asian cinema but silly in American action flicks (I guess because we're not used to that style). But it's a surprisingly enjoyable action movie with a good B-movie cast. Just a fun waste of time on a weeknight. ***

I never thought I'd see an actual interesting vampire movie again, but Jim Jarmusch really made something offbeat and dreamlike. Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton play Adam and Eve, vampire lovers who are reunited after a long break. It's basically a film about ennui and angst, but making the characters vampires amplifies their world-weariness into something much larger and more daunting. In this way, it's kind of like a movie about... not depression, exactly, but about how huge and crippling depression often feels to a depressed person. No gimmicks; engrossing. ***1/2

I enjoyed this one at least as much as the first, maybe more. Gru is now a reformed villain, living as a father of three adopted girls and adapting to his suburban life. The larger plot involves him getting recruited by an organization that roots out supervillains, and falling in love with his new partner, but somehow it still doesn't feel gimmicky and it doesn't rely on media parodies. Instead, the humor comes from the characters and the more-pronounced presence of the Minions. The emotions are still genuine, as they were in the first movie. I wasn't sure if they could recapture the magic of the first Despicable Me, but once again they've eschewed the usual crutches of modern CG animation and just told a funny story about characters. I really like these. Beautifully animated, witty, and likable. ****

BELLE (2013)
Historical fiction inspired by a painting of a real person: Dido Elizabeth Belle, a black woman who was raised in 18th century English society by her great-uncle, the 1st Earl of Mansfield. Not much is known about the actual Belle, so the screenplay puts her around the edges of one of the Earl's real court cases as Lord Chief Justice of England, the Zong insurance case of 1783. That case revolved around a company trying to claim insurance on a group of slaves who were starved, killed and then thrown overboard. Though framed as an insurance fraud investigation, it was also a landmark case which helped lay the groundwork for the UK's 1807 abolition of slavery. Tom Wilkinson is quite good (of course) as the Earl, who is torn between English tradition and what is right. Much of the film follows Belle as she falls in love with a passionate law apprentice who demands England change, and she is wooed by an officer who seems to only want her for her money. The film also touches a lot on the racism of 18th century British peerage, who either grudgingly accept Belle as one of them, or are disgusted by her mixed heritage and refuse to see her as an equal. Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who plays Belle, carries the weight of the film on her shoulders very well; she's likable and moving, and quick to stand up for herself and others. (You may remember her as Martha's sister on the third season of the new Doctor Who.) The film has a good cast, actually, but she and Wilkinson leave everyone else behind. Still, for a film about such an interesting character and revolving around such an important event, I wish it had been more engaging and substantial. Worthwhile, no doubt about it, but ***.

Sunday, July 05, 2015

Song of the Week: "Should Have Known Better"

Purposely having a subdued couple of days, just to relax, and this song sounds really, really nice on a sunny Sunday morning. This is from Sufjan Stevens' beautiful new album Carrie & Lowell.

Gracias, María

Sonia Manzano has announced that she is retiring from Sesame Street and, after 45 years, the show is going on without Maria.

That news makes me a little wistful about the passage of time, naturally. Maria showed up on the Street in 1971, five years before I was born. As a little kid, Maria was my favorite of the human characters on the show. Sonia Manzano is just so charming and talented, and in addition to teaching me how to count to 10 in Spanish and all about Latino Christmas traditions, she's also probably the reason why I always find myself so powerfully drawn to Latinas. I had the kind of crush you have on a woman when you're way too young to understand what the infatuation means. So the way I processed that as a kid was that I really wished Maria could be my mother. Kids.

In celebration of her time with Sesame Street, the show has put up a very nice album of photos of Manzano from her four and a half decades with the show. Everyone whose childhood was touched by Maria will remember her. She has a memoir coming out later this year, Becoming Maria, which I can't wait to read.

Gracias, María. Gracias, Sonia. Gracias por todo.