Jennifer Wears a Leather Coat

August 30, 2014

Jennifer wears a leather coat which she received from an abusive old flame
She turned to me for guidance on solving her troubles and I did quite well, I admit
But when the couple came to part, she turned away from me and I stood alone in the cold new mist
Praying to God for a leather coat of my own.


Yellow Sublimation: Reflections on the Ghost of Simpsons Past

August 6, 2014

The history of my fascination (if not obsession) with the Fox Network’s prime-time animated sitcom The Simpsons is a long and complicated one, and yet not unlike that of many of my peers’ in the 1990s. I was, for reasons unknown for me throughout my early childhood, forbidden from watching those bug-eyed, jaundiced (or has Homer’s job as a safety inspector at the nuclear power plant affected the pigmentations and phenotypes of even guest stars and other newcomers to Springfield?), often overweight, inept, and inane cartoon freaks until the tender age of 12. However, in what can only be referred to as a slight rebellious phase of mine, I sneaked at least 100 episodes of the series into my consciousness behind my parents’ backs in sixth grade, perspiring fingers nailed to a remote, ready but not eager for the act of stealthily changing the channel to Nickelodeon or Cartoon Network the second I heard a creak of a door. Though retrospectively, such “kiddie fare” as Rocko’s Modern Life or Animaniacs (one of few cartoons my folks tolerated due to its often educational nature) was nearly as subversive and satirical as the edgy hijinks Matt Groening offered, neither series would likely exist without the antics of a blue collar, hairless couch potato and his long-suffering blue-haired wife.
It is important to note that when I refer to The Simpsons, I am only referring to the hundred or so episodes which aired between December 1989 and either the tenth or eleventh season of the show. By 2014, Fox’s star racehorse of a sitcom is now a feeble nag being beaten to death yet again by more relevant animated series such as Bob’s Burgers, Rick and Morty, Regular Show, and Adventure Time (not to mention Groening’s experimental but unconventionally heartfelt science fiction follow-up series Futurama, which was a close contender for the subject of this essay, and earned a well-deserved Annie Award for its heartbreaking second series finale “Meanwhile” despite Comedy Central’s decision to re-cancel the only decent cartoon it had left). But the original nine or ten seasons of The Simpsons are so crucial for understanding (but not always appreciating) western culture and phenomena that they remain a mainstay of the young American consciousness. It would not be a stretch of the imagination to state that nearly everyone under 40 knows who Krusty the Clown, Ralph Wiggum, or Apu Nahasapeemapetilon is despite none of the aforementioned characters being members of the Simpson family. Due to their archetypal nature, the characters are not only engraved in our pop cultural repertoires, but in our real lives as well. We all know a saccharinely cheerful pest like Homer’s next door neighbor Ned Flanders, or have had a bitter, jaded teacher like Edna Krabappel (whose outstanding portrayal left millions of viewers sobbing years after the show went into decline with the death of her voice actress Marcia Wallace in the past months). Those of us who are into the geekier things in life (such as myself, natura-diddly) may recognize Springfield’s hulking Hulk hoarder the Comic Book Guy as uncannily resembling virtually every comic book store owner in America in both girth and snark. And let us not undermine the fact that within America’s Generation X and beyond, there are countless individuals who can drop dozens upon dozens of Simpsons quotes and trivia at the drop of a donut (as well as a somewhat sad but occasionally amusing group of people on the Internet who are seemingly unable to communicate in anything but Simpsons references). I may wish that The Simpsons had been canceled fifteen years ago, but I am more than glad to be a Simpsons fan after all the damage done.

Basement Xanadu

July 23, 2014
Sometime during existence, we find ourselves seeking splendid isolation in the midst of our own basement Xanadus
Gazing upward toward God, Heaven, a spider, and a roach
An overland where your folks don’t haggle over your rent
Where your degree in useless gives you more than cheap retail and food service thrills
No more of these decades of sulking in General Jamin’s Soup Court, begging a hag in a hairnet named Coral for seconds on the sloppy joes, eating hell but pretending everything is Heaven…

A Million Ways to Die in the West review

June 9, 2014

When Seth MacFarlane began collaborating with Neil deGrasse Tyson for his reboot of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, critics and fans alike were flabbergasted that MacFarlane could so comfortably transition from the lowbrow antics of Family Guy and Ted to becoming a titan of the mind.  Similarly, his sophomore live-action feature-length effort, the western spoof A Million Ways to Die in the West, is hardly sophomoric, gradually revealing itself to be the closest thing to Blazing Saddles that Generation Y could hope to claim. True, MacFarlane’s penchant for toilet humor can cause one to forget how groundbreaking Mel Brooks’ campfire scene was in 1974, and his Native Americans speak in name-droppings of celebrities and MacFarlane collaborators like Mila Kunis instead of Yiddish slurs, but the unapologetic and uproarious black comedy of A Million Ways to Die in the West causes it to easily live up to—and exceed—its title.

A Million Ways is set in a quaint Arizona town too sleepy to acknowledge that its close-knit population is quickly dying off from everything from incompetent doctors to faulty outhouses, a reality that lowly sheepherder Albert (MacFarlane) is all too eager to point out. Unfortunately for him, Albert possesses few other skills with his inability to organize his sheep or fire a gun respectively, keeping him from moving out of his parents’ house and causing him to lose his girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried) to mustachioed dueler Foy (Neil Patrick Harris), the town’s only resident with a dollar to his name. In order to outfight Foy, Albert seeks the assistance of breathtaking town newcomer and gunslinging prodigy Anna (Charlize Theron), whose shooting prowess is only eclipsed by a troubling fact she neglects to inform Albert—that she is married to the deadliest outlaw in the West, Clinch Leatherfoot (Liam Neeson). Rounding out the film’s ensemble cast are Sarah Silverman and Giovanni Ribisi as a hypocritically evangelical Christian prostitute and her cuckolded missionary boyfriend.

While MacFarlane’s trademark “cutaway gags” are noticeably absent in lieu of a cohesive plot, A Million Ways features a plethora of pop cultural references, including cameos by Christopher Lloyd and Jamie Foxx reprising a pair of their best-loved roles (hint: they aren’t Uncle Fester and Ray Charles), and moviegoers with a keen ear will pick up on the soundtrack’s teasing of the themes to not only Blazing Saddles but Back to the Future as well.

A Million Ways could have done without a few of its gags, including ex-lax and Alice B. Toklas cookie bits that have been done to death (no pun intended) and an insufferable 10 seconds of Gilbert Gottfried impersonating Abraham Lincoln, but overall its imperfections are few and far between. Its irreverent and sometimes morbid humor may not win over everyone, but like it or not, it’s further proof that Seth MacFarlane’s media empire is here to stay, and I for one welcome this comedic overlord.

Mr. Peabody and Sherman review

March 14, 2014

Fifth time’s the charm, I suppose. After four critically and commercially failed adaptations of the animated properties of Jay Ward, Saturday morning cartoonist extraordinaire, from the 1992 Showtime exclusive Boris and Natasha to 2000’s CGI disaster The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, Dreamworks has finally done Ward justice with a hilarious and heartfelt joyride through the lives of brilliant (and not at all humble) time-traveling mutt Mr. Peabody (voiced by Ty Burrell in a droll transatlantic accent one hair sans fleas from Kelsey Grammar) and his dorky but dutiful adopted human son Sherman (Max Charles).

This time around, the duo is joined by newcomer Penny Peterson (Ariel Winter), a spunky 7-year-old blonde who undergoes a transformation from a stereotypical spoiled girl to a fellow WABAC machine passenger, though her primary role as Sherman’s love interest unfortunately keeps her independence in check. A supporting cast—comprised of Stephen Colbert, Leslie Mann, Patrick Warburton (Puddy from Seinfeld), and even Mel Brooks, whose cameo in a subtle nod to History of the World Pt. I.—gives the film potential, which it follows through with an uproarious (and maybe a tad too sophisticated for younger members of its target audience) script loaded with historical in-jokes, slapstick, puns, and wit, the likes of which haven’t been seen in mainstream children’s animation since Steven Spielberg’s Animaniacs went off the air in 1998.

Though this may seem like manna from Hollywood for moviegoers disgruntled with the recent intellectual decline of family cinema, discretion and humorous evaluation are both advised for pure historical and mythological sticklers since Sherman and Peabody’s space-time continuum is one where George Washington (Animaniacs’ Jess Harnell) cut down no cherry trees but Marie Antoinette (Laurie Fraser) said “let them eat cake;” the machismo-fueled Agamemnon’s (Warburton) army during the Trojan War includes the likes of Odysseus (Tom McCrath), Achilles, and Oedipus alongside Menelaus and Ajax (Al Rodrigo); and Leonardo da Vinci (Stanley Tucci) employs the help of a dog and his boy to win the smile of his irritable girlfriend Mona Lisa (Childrens Hospital’s Lake Bell).

But what’s truly impressive about Mr. Peabody and Sherman is the thoughtful handling of its somewhat unusual dramatic themes. It was a wise decision for director Rob Minkoff to tweak the relationship between the characters from Jay Ward’s original vision of canine master and human pet to the more humane one of father and son. Though Sherman may still address his adoptive father as “Mr. Peabody” instead of “Dad,” they share an emotional bond that’s threatened on multiple occasions throughout the film by remorseless and rotund Child Services director Mrs. Grunion (Allison Janney), who believes a dog to be an unfit guardian for a 7-year-old schoolboy, regardless of intelligence, and is willing to separate the duo at any given moment in time. Grunion may be a bit too derivative of the equally detestable bureaucrat Dolores Umbridge from Harry Potter, but that only makes viewers’ sympathies with Peabody and Sherman stronger.

But alas, Peabody is not quite perfection. In an era in which every major animated feature and Walking With Dinosaurs has been rendered in CGI, many prize-worthy scripts have been weighed down by three-dimensional clunkiness. Over the course of 19 years, Pixar has time and time again succeeded in conveying realism, but Dreamworks in particular has been known to stroll in and out of the uncanny valley from time to time with even its best-loved franchise Shrek little more than a pop-up cartoon. Though it pains me to pick on the poor little guy, Sherman is that valley. In the original shorts, he was a series of lines that could be sketched in a mere minute, but here his exaggeratedly eager grins and other facial features overpower the viewer while making him look more chipmunk than human; it is only due to his stoic lack of expression that Peabody is more tolerable. Yet both of them are not at all well-designed for action sequences, with their oversized heads acting as baggage during the slightest movement. Jay Ward’s animation style was so simplistic it made Hanna-Barbera look high-tech, with critics likening it to an illustrated radio series due to its reliance on witty dialogue and characterization over state-of-the-art imagery. Though it is more difficult to overlook an overdeveloped animated universe than an underdeveloped one, I will only subtract $2 from Peabody for its flawed CGI. If you can only see one animated movie this year, see The LEGO Movie. But if you have room for one more, give Peabody a shot as well.

Walking With Dinosaurs review

January 14, 2014

Let’s just get this out of the way right now: Walking With Dinosaurs may have been based on the 1999 BBC documentary series of the same title, but otherwise the two Mesozoic media have little in common. The miniseries succeeded at exploring an era ending 65 million years ago as realistically as the Discovery Channel explores the lives of existing species; the film is so insultingly oversimplified towards what it believes would entertain its target audience that each and every time the scientific name of a dinosaur appears onscreen, one is shocked that they didn’t substitute “longneck” or “sharptooth” for “Apatosaurus” or “Tyrannosaurus.” Released only four years as Toy Story and the same year as Toy Story 2, the miniseries ambitiously utilized the novelty of CGI to heighten the believability; the film only utilizes (rather unimpressive) CGI because, in a time when even Disney has shut down their traditional animation department after the failure of their last animated feature The Princess in the Frog, CGI is simply “what kids’ movies are doing these days.”

As Pixar animator Brad Bird stated, “If you talk down to a kid or aim specifically at a kid, most kids aren’t [going to] like it…because most kids can feel when you are being patronizing.” Unfortunately, Walking With Dinosaurs employs nearly every cliché of mediocre children’s programming, never missing an opportunity for scatological humor to “enhance” its ridiculously formulaic and shabby plot. And what a plot! In the tradition of such apparent children’s animated classics as Osmosis Jones, Dinosaurs begins in the live action world of the present day with a young boy named Ricky (Charlie Rowe) whose parents are forcing him to attend an archaelogical dig with them. A spoiled brat, Ricky complains that he doesn’t “want to dig up dead things.” Then a Spanish-accented bird named Alex (voiced by John Leguizamo) tells the boy that his ancestors (at least the BBC assumed that kids know birds evolved from dinosaurs, right?) were more interesting than he thinks, finding it necessary to add that Ricky’s own Australopithecine ancestors were “pretty ugly!” In a hasty matter of seconds, Alex transforms from a parrot into an Archaeopteryx while turning Ricky into a dinosaur and transports the two of them into the dinosaur kingdom.

In all honesty, the three story arcs which follow the world’s worst exposition might actually not be so unspeakably abysmal had they been void of dialogue. Though the film’s distributor BBC Earth American believes American children would only enjoy dinosaurs if they were constantly saying things like “This [dinosaur] is huge, which means I should probably steer clear of its butt” and “You kicked his butt all the way to the Stone Age,” most parents would disapprove of such rude language, only further alienating the target audience in the film’s expectations. I have seen my fair share of children’s dinosaur films, from The Land Before Time and every sequel up to the point where even the filmmakers, clearly a far cry from Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Don Bluth, lost count of their hour-long direct-to-video creations, to the grammatically incorrect cult classic We’re Back: A Dinosaur’s Story (Barney is a dinosaur in name only, or DINO, and therefore exempt), and none of them are as degrading to the human mind, regardless of the age, as Walking With Dinosaurs.

Monkeys in Space

January 6, 2014

When the Soviet Union launched a supple supply of rhesus monkeys throughout the 1980s
We Americans grew paranoid and envious and felt we had to compete
Which is why anytime we turn on the TV to certain news stations we’d rather not mention by name
We are greeted but not welcomed by a giggling gaggle of gibbons in orbit
Who fling anything they can at the globe beneath them
While insisting that we wear nothing but banana slippers on their feet like they do
Walking in any other shoes is strictly prohibited and subjects one to 50 years of being flung at somewhere in the Caribbean
Which may seem silly, but animal behavior is ritualistic and predictable
Warlike apes tend to hit certain targets more frequently than others
What can we do about them? you ask
Well, I guess we can wait until the next one takes a flight down to Earth
Where it plays a long few rounds of golf before a bubble bath in Davy Jones’ locker
Which is further polluted by 57 varieties of gas from the rocket as it ascends back to outer space
While believing that this is all for some greater cause and that some higher power is steering the spaceship
Whitewashed clouds with golden streaks can be seen by only them in the jet black sky.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty review

January 4, 2014

One of Roger Ebert’s most respected philosophies as a film critic was judging each film by its own merits. In some cases, this proved especially difficult, and if Ebert were alive today, he might well agree that Ben Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is such a case. Adapted from James Thurber’s groundbreaking 1939 short story of the same name, which was previously made into a 1947 Danny Kaye feature, Mitty ultimately succeeds in little more than breaking away entirely from its source material. Indeed, the film is so creatively unfocused and indecisive (as one might expect from a picture billed as a “fantasy-adventure comedy-drama”) that utilizing Thurber may very well have redeemed Stiller’s film.

It is somewhat shocking to realize that the days when Ben Stiller was an inescapable name in comedies are nearly a decade behind us, with his recent vehicles few, far between, and overall mediocre at best (see Greenberg or Little Fockers … wait a minute, don’t). Mitty is similarly no return to form, with Stiller playing the titular role in a fatigued, expressionless manner unfit for a character that undergoes such fantastic adventures through both daydreams and reality. In addition to the character’s trademark “zoning out,” Mitty is barely a functioning human, rarely speaking comprehensively, entering a near-catatonic state in the middle of a crowded street, and ignoring every little word uttered at him in what is either a misinterpretation of the concept of Walter Mitty or a cruelly exaggerated mockery of those with attention deficit disorder.

Even more jarring is the lack of development regarding the supporting cast (i.e. everyone but Stiller). Originally, Mitty was plagued with a domineering wife and his melodramatic, sometimes fatal fantasies were escape mechanisms. Perhaps because the idea of a henpecked husband as a lead character could be viewed as non-PC today, Stiller’s loopiness can be more easily interpreted as boredom with his personal alienation and lack of experience. His acquaintances consist of a doting but senile widowed mother (Shirley MacLaine), a sister (Kathryn Hawn) who does little more here than portray Rizzo in an off-Broadway and off-screen production of Grease, and his colleagues at Life magazine, managed by the arrogant Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott), whose goals as a detestable antagonist fall short; his frustrations with the incompetence of Mitty, whom he naturally dismisses as a spacey “Major Tom” in tribute to David Bowie, are nearly sympathetic and more believable than the fact that such a prestigious magazine would hire someone as unprofessional as Mitty in the first place. The two largest vacancies in Mitty’s life—his lack of a father figure and significant other—form the apex of his pathetic life. The premature death of Mitty’s father led him to seek refuge in, of all places, the symbolically titled Papa John’s pizzeria (Stiller’s conjuring of Freud could use some work). Similarly, his infatuation with fellow Life employee Cheryl Melhoff (Kristin Wiig) is disturbingly obsessive. Like a thirty-something Little Red Haired Girl, she barely knows he exists, and his (and the audience’s) knowledge of her is limited to the few facts she shares to the world on her eHarmony account. Is she aloof or a so-called “manic pixie dream girl” waiting to happen? Don’t expect to find an answer here.

During one of his countless daydreams, Mitty envisions himself as suffering from “Benjamin Button’s disease” and Wiig’s character taking care of him during his winter years as an wrinkled infant who acts like a ventriloquist’s dummy. Though the inane humor of this moment made me cringe, Stiller could have also benefitted from adapting Thurber’s story in a similar fashion to how F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” was put on screen: Expanding its scope instead of digressing abruptly. Halfway through the film, Stiller almost entirely abandons Mitty’s fantasies, placing him on a real-world trek through multiple countries including Greenland (essentially depicted as Solvang with ice), Iceland (Solvang without ice), and the Himalayas, all while dodging a shark attack and an airport arrest reminiscent of his “bomb” incident from Meet the Parents. While this is intended to make Mitty’s once mundane life even more eventful than his overactive imagination, it is almost less engaging than Mitty’s most mundane fantasy (making a snide remark at his boss’ beard in an elevator)—a shaggy dog story that left this viewer sighing in disappointment, much like Mitty himself each time he flew back from his personal Mars to find himself living in a world every bit as empty as it was when he left it.

Walk the Dinosaur/Harry Potter*

December 14, 2013

It was a night like this in a hut upon a rock
A giant man and I had a most surprising talk
My uncle, he was mad, he’d lied about my dad
I never got to learn about the skills I had

Got mail from Dumbledore
Got mail from Dumbledore
Open the door, Alohamor’
I got owl post from Dumbledore
Open the door, Alohamor’
I got owl post from Dumbledore

I met Ron and then we met Hermione
We didn’t get along until some jerk trolled she
The day we learned what friendship was our magic powers grew
It wasn’t long until we caught a glimpse of You-Know-Who

We fought with Voldemort
We fought with Voldemort
Third floor corridor, the turban tore
Qu-Qu-Quirrell is Voldemort
Third floor corridor, the turban tore
Qu-Qu-Quirrell is Voldemort

Harry flew up in a F-F-Firebolt
Freed a couple of house elves and disapparated
But where was his wand?

Six long years rolled by and we stayed the best of friends
Destroyed some horcruxes while many wizards met their ends
You’ve heard it all before, how Snape killed Dumbledore
And how we sacrifice goats like Aberforth

We are the Gryffindors
We are the Gryffindors
Let’s find the sword, of Gryffindor
Everybody kill that Voldemort
Let’s find the sword, of Gryffindor
Everybody kill that Voldemort
Let’s find the sword, of Gryffindor
Everybody kill that Voldemort

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation review

December 6, 2013

Despite the triumphant return of Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo (the same cannot be said for either of their children), I have often observed that fans of the first two National Lampoon’s Vacation films do not necessarily enjoy Christmas Vacation (and vice versa), apparently due to the fact that it is a Vacation film in name only. With Lindsey Buckingham’s insufferable earworm “Holiday Road” finally replaced by Mavis Staples’ more pleasant theme song “Christmas Vacation” and nary a mile traveled by the Griswold family, this film might as well be titled National Lampoon’s Christmas.

Indeed, as Christmas comedies go, Christmas Vacation is a superb alternative to It’s a Wonderful Life, with a surprising amount of heart crammed between the obligatory scatological gags. Even the Griswolds’ crude but well-meaning “cousin-in-law” Eddie Johnson (Randy Quaid), who unexpectedly arrives with a decidedly different clan of yokels in his run-down trailer to once again upstage Clark Griswold (Chase) for the holidays, receives a somewhat kinder treatment from the writers than he did in the first film, though uptight yuppie neighbors Margo (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and Todd Chester (Nicholas Guest) do not fare as nicely (as is 1980s custom).

With constant chuckles and the occasional belly laugh derived from Clark’s bumbling and futile attempts to provide a perfect Christmas experience for his far-from-perfect immediate and extended families, Christmas Vacation is alternately a solid swan song to the golden age of the franchise whose humor in two decades plummeted from the likes of Harvard to Yale by the Jail (reparations to “Cougars & Mustangs” forthcoming); a worthy inclusion to the Fremont Rewind series; and a Jelly of the Month Club even the most disgruntled worker would instantly join (if you don’t understand that reference, that’s only another reason to see it).