Recently I was listening to the radio (okay, I was in the car and I happened to have the radio on) and I heard an interview with director Randy Moore about his new satire Escape from Tomorrow. It was the first I had heard of the film, which is not terribly surprising since I’ve never really been a film festival kind of guy, but I think I may end up seeing this one. It’s not that I have anything personal against the Big Mouse, it’s just that I think he made an important point in this article:
“Branding is so much a part of our culture, and it’s everywhere. And (Disney) is everywhere. They’re so ubiquitous, you can’t get away from them even if you tried… To not be able to comment or critique or parody that (ubiquity), I just think it’s morally unacceptable.”
However, in the interview I heard he also made another point that, while I think it’s important, makes me feel he missed the mark somewhat by targeting Disney specifically. He said (and I can’t seem to find the interview online, so forgive me for paraphrasing) that the theme of the film is that you can’t be happy all the time. I think that’s an excellent point, especially in an age and culture where we have lost sight of the idea of contentment and we are constantly being sold happiness in its stead. I believe Dennis Leary put it best in his stand-up routine No Cure for Cancer:
“Happiness comes in small doses folks. It’s a cigarette butt, or a chocolate chip cookie or a five second orgasm. You come, you smoke the butt, you eat the cookie, you go to sleep, wake up and go back to fucking work the next morning, THAT’S IT! End of fucking list!”
So yeah. While there’s something to be said for taking a few shots at (as Moore describes them) a “ubiquitous” company that specializes in selling happiness, I think there’s something he loses sight of: Disney is only selling what we’re buying. Yes, Disney Theme Parks™ are the Happiest Place On Earth™ (made so, I have been told by a former employee, by sucking all the happiness out of their employees, powdering it, and then sprinkling it over the park; that’s your “fairy dust”), but they don’t force anyone to go there and then whistle Zippy-Doo-Da out of their assholes a-la Clark Griswald. I think there may be more to be found in making a movie that critically examines a culture fixated on perpetual bliss, rather than the companies that strive to provide it.
Which is not to say those companies deserve to be completely let off the hook; they are a part of the culture, they help make and drive that culture, and they deserve a certain amount of grilling in the space of exploring that culture. But to single out one company for catering to the desires of people to have happiness is akin to blaming one company for Americans being obese.
As some of you may recall, I signed up for two different packages from the online service Quarterly. The first to arrive of the tandem is the Technology and Toys box, of which so far I’ve already reviewed one (which you can see here). The second arrived just last week, but with everything going on I haven’t had time to write up a proper review until now. I know, I know, just like I said to the postman, “I don’t care about your problems, I only want to know what’s in the box!” Well, here we go.
First up, I found a set of paper robots.
I have to admit, this was an awesome find for me. I can remember going to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum all the time as a kid, and while I never got anything from the gift shop, this is exactly the kind of thing I would pick up and look at longingly while my Not So Humble Mother would wait for me to figure out she wasn’t going to buy me yet another toy that was going to sit around my room untouched for weeks before she finally had to throw it out. Fortunately I’m a big boy now, and I can add this to my growing collection of toys that sits around my room unplayed with that My Not So Humble Wife never gets to throw away at all, because it’s called a “man cave” now, and I can still claim I’ll get around to putting them together someday when I just have the time and didn’t you want me to mow the lawn today?
And speaking of robot toys that are right up my alley, the next item really grabbed my attention:
Yes, that’s a tin wind-up robot. It’s only a couple inches tall, but that just makes it that much easier for it to scoot across the table. I especially love that I got the one named “Ima-Robot”. This is exactly the sort of goofy little toy that appeals to me, and it went right into my kitsch collection in my office along with my Pip-Boy Bobble Head and Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man.
The next item in the box was only vaguely appealing to me, but at least I can understand why they included it in the Technology and Toys box, and My Not So Humble Wife is quite fond of it. It’s…. sand. Yes, you read that right.
In case you’re wondering “what could this stuff be?” I’ll tell you right now it’s exactly what it says on the label. It’s sand. It never dries out, it’s not too damp, and it’s just like playing with sand at the beach. I personally found it entertaining for about 30 seconds, but My Not So Humble Wife is a notorious fidget and it has kept her busy for hours, so looks like we have a winner with this one.
Alas, the same could not be said for the final item in the box.
Yes, it’s a stylus for all your electronic gadgets. Honestly this is the sort of thing I would expect to buy on my own if I felt I needed one, and if I don’t feel a need for one I would never use one even if someone game me one. *cough* *cough* The problem is I see this going one of two ways. Even though I have exceptionally fat fingers for a man of my slender build, the problem is that either I will find it incredibly useless and will throw it away within a week, or I will get used to it and then I will lose it within a day or so of deciding I have no idea how I ever lived without it. I just don’t see the win here. I also don’t see how this relates to “Toys”, although it’s definitely “Technology”.
So here’s the final verdict: all told a cool box this month, but overall I still didn’t find enough here to justify the $50 price tag, even accounting for someone going to the trouble of curating all the items for me. It just doesn’t have enough of the “fun” or “cool” factor to say “I don’t mind paying extra to have someone pick this stuff out”, nor is there sufficient value in the goodies present to say I got enough to be fully satisfied, although it came a lot closer this time than last time. Your mileage may differ, and if you see enough stuff you like I still recommend checking it out. Also if you think you might like any of the other options, of which there are many, sign up now, because more than a few are sold out (including some of the ones I was thinking of switching to). You can sign up for the waiting list, but three months is already long enough to wait between packages. Don’t wait any longer than you have to.
Get ready haters, I’m about to give you yet another reason to call me a self-involved, entitled, culturally insensitive, ignorant, tone-deaf dudebro. So here it is: if I hear the word “appropriation” misused or overused one more time, I’m going to appropriate a can of whup-ass and start spraying uppercuts. (See what I just did there?)
Here’s the thing: I understand that historically Caucasians (I do so hate the term “white people”) have taken credit for creating entire cultural movements that were actually created by other groups, whether it be people from another country or oppressed minorities within their own countries. Whether it be art, food, music, dance, or pretty much any form of creative or personal expression, if it’s been done by someone a white person (and usually a white man) came along, repackaged it, and sold it as something “new”. And lots of people are still understandably angry about that. Add onto that a history of assimilation (read: be forced to do as we do or you’ll get nothing and worse) and the flames burn even hotter.
But then something strange happened: somewhere along the line, and I’m not sure exactly where, people of all ethnicities and backgrounds started getting credit for their original creations, and we even started going back and correcting the dominant historical narrative. There’s still work to do, and the debate about who originated what is likely to rage for decades if not centuries, but that’s actually normal (people still argue about who “actually” wrote Shakespeare’s plays). This extends beyond individuals to entire elements of society, such as African American culture, Asian culture, and “start-up culture”, and even localized geographical elements, such as Portland culture and Silicon Valley culture.
What many individuals seem to be missing in all of this, however, is that despite the deficiencies of the past, culture does not exist in a vacuum. It influences and is influenced by the society and cultures around it. Pop culture influences African American culture, which influences start up culture, which influences Portland culture, which influences Asian culture, which influences Silicon Valley culture, which in turn influence pop culture, and they all influence each other. When African Americans adopt some element of pop culture (whether individually or as a group) there is no great outcry of “appropriation!”, and yet as soon as some element of African American culture (or any other minority culture) becomes a part of the dominant paradigm, there is an immediate rush to cry foul.
And this is where I have a problem. This failure to acknowledge the intertwined and interactive nature of culture (and note I do not say modern culture, I mean culture across all time and all places) is a fallacy. The problem of appropriation (as I understand it) was not and is not one of the dominant culture being influenced by other cultures, it is that it tries to subsume those cultures, to take what it wants without even acknowledging that those other cultures ever even existed. Today I don’t see that happening so much as I see a blending of cultures, of people being inspired to try new things, to make something a part of their cultural lexicon that wasn’t there before.
Does that mean they have a complete grasp of the entirety of what it is they are exploring or are delving into? No, it doesn’t. In the same way that an artist may see a painting by another artist without understanding the entirety of the subject matter, the depth and composition of it, or even the cultural significance of it because she lacks the necessary referents, and yet still be inspired by it and tries to incorporate some elements of it into her own work. Just as there’s a fine line between tribute and plagiarism, so there is a fine line between inspiration and appropriation. But a knee-jerk reaction that assumes every cultural movement is an act of bad faith is simply a reflection of itself.
Everyone loves a good episode of “Before They Were Stars”, but all they ever show you in those are things that (when you get right down to it) are pretty boring. I mean really, how many times can you look at someone’s high school yearbook photos and think “wow, [insert famous person] was a regular Joe just like me!” Or even worse, watch one of those insipid “child star” commercials where someone’s parents got them to say “Mommy, I want Endorsed Product for lunch!”
But you know what is fun? Digging up those lesser known films they did early in their careers and seeing who was really a star even back then, especially when the movie was… how can I phrase this delicately… not up to the caliber of the cast. Here are some of my favorites.
Legend (1985) – Coming off of Risky Business but before his major role in Top Gun cemented him as THE leading man for all time, Tom Cruise needed a big role, something that would really showcase his talent. And who better to star with than the inestimable Tim Curry? What could possibly go wrong? Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Legend. This fantasy film is so over the top, so invested with its own self-importance, it’s impossible to describe. The amazing thing about it is, despite everything that should be wrong with it, from the script to the storyline to the sheer “glitter” of it all, it somehow works. Tom Cruise manages to bring his trademark charisma to the role of Jack, and Tim Curry is brilliantly malevolent and at the same time somehow empathetic as the Darkness (but then, he’s Tim Curry).
Hackers (1995) – Some movies just can’t help churning out stars. Long before 1999’s Girl, Interrupted put her on most people’s radar, Angelina Jolie was burning up the screen in this delightful film that IMDB calls an “action/crime/drama” and every real-life hacker I’ve ever known has called a comedy. Either way, Jolie brought amazing presence and style to the role of Kate, helping to boost this slick, stylish film above its otherwise ridiculous premise. T.V. fans may also be surprised to see Johnny Lee Miller, who plays Sherlock Holmes on CBS’s Elementary as protagonist Dade Murphy. Matthew Lillard from FX’s The Bridge plays a major supporting role as Cereal Killer, as well as establishing one of the best jokes, intentional or not, I have ever seen in film history (to get the rest of the joke, go watch Scream).
Stand By Me (1986) – What would you say if I offered you a movie starring River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, Kiefer Sutherland, Richard Dreyfuss, and John Cusack? How about I include that it was based on a novella by Stephen King? Want more? OK, just for you I’ll throw in Wil Wheaton, Lord of the Internet and God of Nerds. And all of them (ok, maybe not Richard Dreyfuss) look so young. This is early in their careers, the first big role for almost all of them, but you could never prove it by me. The power and intensity of this coming of age story is enormous, and the emotional gravity of it will leave you drained by the end. It’s not exactly an uplifting tale (did I mention it was based on a Stephen King story?), but it is surprisingly reassuring. You won’t want to watch it again right away, but you’ll find yourself coming back to look at it again.
I used to read a lot of web comics a while ago, back before I had more important and useful things to do with my free time (like writing this fantastic blog for your pleasure and amusement), and inevitably the same scenario would evolve. Whether it took a few months or a few years (and it was usually closer to a few months), the web comic writer would manage to drop a post, miss a deadline, forget to put something up, or just be unable to come up with something, and they would usually substitute some variation on the “sorry, my bad” post.
This post would occasionally be in the form of a quick sketch, although surprisingly often it would take the form of a lengthy written tirade. Sometimes there wouldn’t even be a gesture at an explanation, just an absence where entertainment used to be, and if you were lucky it would appear again the next time there was a scheduled update, with nobody the wiser as to what had happened. The times when an explanation was forthcoming would occasionally be accompanied with promises of making the next deadline (which might or might not happen), and other times there would be the dreaded “indefinite hiatus”.
Almost universally in these instances the artist attempt some sort of justification. The two most common flavors depended on whether the artist in question considered themselves an amateur or a professional, and to be honest I don’t know which one bothered me more. In the case of the amateur, they would usually invoke “real life”. This one goes like this: “Hi everybody, I’m really sorry to do this to you, but the truth is I’m not a professional cartoonist. This isn’t my day job, and I don’t get paid to do this. I do this for fun, as a hobby and as a way to relax, and I just haven’t found it very relaxing lately.”
My special issue with these guys is that in most cases these “amateurs” have a tip jar right there on the front screen of their comic, usually with one of their characters being all cute and begging for money. Now I may not have to pay for content, but the fact is you are asking to get paid for this gig, so to turn around and say you aren’t getting paid is at least a little disingenuous. A lack of success in achieving your goals is not the same thing as not having tried (otherwise “attempted murder” wouldn’t be a crime). Assuming anybody actually did hit the tip jar means now you’re a liar as well.
Which brings me to the “professionals”. This is their day job (or they at least are trying to make it one), and their approach is something like this: “Hey everybody, sorry, I feel really bad about this but I got nothing today. I’, really trying to make a living at this, and I feel really bad about this, and I know I’m really letting my fans down, and I should be doing better, etc.” They then go on to beat themselves up for another few paragraphs. Here’s the hard truth they don’t want to hear: I don’t care. All those lovely “fans” who write nice things like “hey, take the time you need, we just want a good story”, and those lovely things? They are enabling your first world problems.
The next issue I have in both of these cases is the implication that somehow “real life” suddenly “caught up” to them. Sorry, not buying it. Short of jail, hospital, or morgue, there are very few events that you couldn’t have seen coming and planned ahead for. More likely you ran out of inspiration or got lazy, and the sad fact that you spent time writing out a letter justifying that rather than making at least some attempt to put something up speaks volumes about how you feel about your art. Having spent more than a year churning out over 500 words three times a week, I’ve learned something: creating content, even crap content, is hard. Creating QUALITY content? That’s damn near impossible. But it’s the gig we chose, and nobody forced it on us.
Whether you’re doing is as a hobby and you hope other people enjoy it, or you’re trying to make a living at it, it’s your choice. You decided this is what you’re going to do, this is what you’re going to invest your time and your effort in, and that’s what you should do. If you decide to abandon it, at least have the courtesy to leave a note on the door on your way out in case you did have a fan who drops by now and then, but please, no more self-indulgent whining about how you’re just not able to come up with anything today.
If you’re sick or you just don’t have it in you, hey, that’s fine. It happens. Get somebody to fill in for you. Make sure you have a buffer. If nothing else, sometimes you just have to make it up as you go along and hope something comes to you.
Like I just did.
When I first signed up for packages at Quarterly.co, I chose to go with two different options. The first was the Technology & Toys option, which you can read all about my experience of here. The second was the Laughing Squid curated box which just arrived in the mail the other day.
The theme for this box was “old school”, and I have to say that, for my money, they hit just the right note. As soon as I saw the zine that they created in lieu of a letter, I was hooked.
It immediately took me back to my time in college down in Richmond in the mid-90s, and a host of memories came flooding back. The fact that they pointed out such zines were the precursors of blogs such as this one helped bring my past into my present, which (for me at least) was an instant hit.
The next item to grab my attention was the copy of The Tales of the San Francisco Cacophony Society book that they included.
While I am not familiar with it, apparently this is the history (and in some senses pre-history) of the Laughing Squid as well as many other cultural icons, and as a hefty tome weighing in at 300 pages, this looks to be a great read. The cover art is inspired by the old-time pulp comics, and the interior includes some great looking art and photographs. If nothing else, this will make a great coffee table book and conversation piece. Also, if I might take a moment to inject a slice of crass commercialism, the cover price on this one book almost justifies the cost of the Quarterly box by itself, which definitely alleviates any lingering concerns I had from the last box.
The next two items are a combination “starter kit” to get you where they want you to be, and even though I have never tried one the desired result is such a cultural icon I guessed immediately as soon as I saw them what the goal was.
Yes, they sent me the fixings for a Fluffernutter, and as they said in the zine, “all you have to do is add white bread and enjoy!” I have, more than once, thought that I should at least try one of these, if for no other reason than because I want to know what everyone else is talking about. I suppose now I have no more excuses. And if nothing else, I do love my PB&Js, so I’m halfway there.
The final item just tickled me. I have never been a big art collector, but I have always wanted to build a collection. The issue is that, to paraphrase an old joke, art is like pornography; I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it (and I certainly know if I like it). Most art just doesn’t grab me, but the stuff I like I really like, and the print that was included in my box this month hit just the right note of quirky and fun for my taste:
As soon as I saw it, I just had an image in my mind of Cthulhu and friends toasting the end of the world with “Skaal!” and I couldn’t stop giggling. What can I say, I’m weird. This one is getting framed as soon as possible and going up on the wall in my new home office.
So having received two deliveries now from Quarterly, I can definitely say I am overall pleased with the service. The first was fun but less than I hoped for, while the second was more nostalgic and did a lot to tickle my quirkiness. I was definitely thrilled with the Laughing Squid box and can’t wait for the next one.
As I was doing laundry the other day (which doesn’t happen often, but it does happen) I was thinking about the last season of Fringe. Of course, this being the internet it doesn’t matter how old that show is, so allow me a moment for the following:
WARNING! WARNING! SPOILERS AHEAD! I WILL BE DISCUSSING TELEVISION SHOWS AND MOVIES THAT HAVE BEEN OUT FOR AT LEAST A YEAR OR LONGER. PLEASE AVERT YOUR EYES IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THEM AND STILL CARE.
Ahem. As I was saying. I got to thinking about the last season of Fringe, and in particular the way that the entire season wrapped up by resetting the timeline in the final episode. It seemed a little jarring in some ways, not least because it was the latest in a string of retcons and hard resets that the series had come up with that in my memory can only be topped by Eureka (no, that’s not a spoiler, Eureka spoiled itself. Seriously.) The part of it that I found most disturbing however was that in some ways it seemed to invalidate all the struggles, sacrifices and triumphs of all the characters throughout the entire fifth season. After all, if the events in question never happened, then they have no meaning, right? Or do they?
Pop culture and philosophy might seem like strange bedfellows, but they have gone together at least as far back as ancient Greece. After all, what we think of as great tragedies from that time were presented during the Dionysian festival, and we all know what kind of god Dionysus was (here’s a hint: grab a bottle of wine and get loaded. You’ll be on the right track.) These were the pop culture of their day, and yet they dealt in questions of philosophy, identity, madness (no big surprise, considering the venue), and the human soul.
So what does all of this have to do with my thoughts on the finale of Fringe? I got to thinking “did those characters truly cease to exist?” After all, if they had not taken the actions they did, the timeline wouldn’t have reset, ergo the reset is proof that they did exist, and they did indeed make their sacrifices, even if they and nobody else remembers them (which also goes back to season four to some extent). So what is the relationship between memory and identity? Are we only what we remember? If we don’t remember who we are, do we cease to exist?
Another pop culture/sci-fi look at this concept is Dark City. A fantastic film from 1998 that doesn’t get nearly the mentions it deserves, this movie plays around with the concept of memory and identity and the interaction between the two almost to an obscene degree. While it takes a very definite position on what it means to be human, it doesn’t really address the essential question of identity. Everyone in the city is memory-wiped and essentially reprogrammed as a new person several times throughout the film, and yet each person seems to have some consistency as an individual. Is this because the wipe wasn’t complete, or is there something more?
A relevant experience from my own life was when I went in for a fairly routine procedure at the doctor’s office a couple years ago. He put me under with some new drug that I don’t recall the name of, but apparently the effect was I was conscious for the entire procedure, only I was unable to process any of the events into long-term memory. So I have no memory of the procedure, nor the first two times I asked him if he was done. (Seriously, he told me I asked him the same question three times.) So here’s the question: did I exist? Physically, obviously, my body was present. But did I exist as a person? If I did, what does it mean that I have no memory of that time? If I was conscious, aware, and able to process information, but no memories of any of it exist or ever will, what does that mean?
I guess it means the same thing as the end of Fringe or Dark City: take away from it what you want. Show’s over. Roll credits.
Those of you who follow HeelsFirstTravel.com (and that should be all of you, because it’s a great site) should be familiar with Keri’s posts on Birchbox and Glossybox. I’ve always been kind of jealous of the idea of getting packages full of random goodies in the mail, but although there are versions available for men they still focus on personal care products and other things I have zero interest in (but if it sounds like your cup of tea, visit the links above and sign up; Keri deserves the referral credit for turning you on to it).
A few months ago I discovered the online service Quarterly.co. They have a different take on the “random package of goodies” concept. They have a list of contributors who “curate” packages every three months (hence the name of the company) based around a certain theme. The themes range over a wide territory, with everything from the generic “Technology & Toys” or “Travel & Adventure” (curated by Quarterly directly) to more specific mailings from contributors such as Style Girlfriend (a blogger who brings her fashion advice to the real world with her care packages) and Jesse Kornbluth of HeadButler.com, who “sends overlooked gems in film, music, and literature.” There are also some more esoteric offerings, ranging from advice and tools for entrepreneurs from True Ventures (a venture capital firm) to themed mailings like the one from Pharrell Williams of N.E.R.D., who sends mailings based on “curiosity”.
I signed up for the aforementioned Technology & Toys mailing as well as the Laughing Squid package, but what with the timing of the shipments (the name sort of gives it away) it was a bit of a wait before I finally got my first package, and I’d been eagerly awaiting it ever since. Once it finally arrived, I tore it open and found some curious items inside. It seems the theme of this month’s mailing was “physics”, and all the ways you can play around with it. Here are the goodies I received. First, the Airzooka:
Looks cool, right? Well, it was “some assembly required”.
And here’s the final product:
When I finally got it together (which only took about five minutes and a small bit of help from My Not So Humble Wife), I did get some fun out of it. It’s a nifty little toy, and I will probably play with it some more in the coming weeks off and on. Still, not the coolest thing ever. Let’s see what else I got.
Yes, that’s a Roomarang. As in a boomerang you can throw inside. And yes, it does work about as advertised. It was fun for a few minutes, and I found myself coming back to it a couple times (and might again), but once I finally caught it on the return trip it wasn’t nearly as compelling as it was at first. Next up was the kite.
You will notice it is still in the sleeve. There are a couple reasons for this. First is because it’s summer in Virginia. That means the weather comes in two flavors: hot and humid with no wind or hot and raining. In a couple months if I can still find it the weather might be right for flying a kite. I won’t know because when I was ten I realized I will never be one of those guys who can do cool tricks with kites. I also realized that cool tricks with kites don’t actually impress girls. There may be a correlation there. Either way I won’t be flying a kite again anytime soon.
Next up was a funky lens for my iPhone camera.
You will notice this is also still in the box. The reason for that is before taking the pictures for this blog post, I hadn’t taken a picture with my phone in weeks if not months. I’m just not that kind of guy. I may not be the norm in that regard, but it’s my blog and I’ll cry if I want to. You would cry too if it happened to you. I have no idea where they got the idea I would enjoy this, but at least they were kind enough to send me a postcard when they got there.
To summarize: 50% of the toys in the box got played with for a couple days, and the other 50% never made it out of the box. That means that I paid $25 each for the Airzooka and the Roomarang. To say I am disappointed would be an understatement. I was expecting bells and whistles, gadgets and toys. Instead I got a physics lesson, a postcard, and a couple of toys.
I’m not giving up on them yet, because I still have high hopes for this mailing, and even if the next one is disappointing there are several others I’d like to try (such as Netted by the Webbies, Joshua Foer, and Alexis Ohanian). If those crap out on me, I’ll just start buying myself $50 worth of random crap off Amazon every few months. Either way I win.
I’ve been taking some time off this week, and as always that means I’ve been exposing myself to the good, the bad, and the ugly of the entertainment world so that you, my loyal readers, won’t have to. I’ve got a trio of movies for you this time, ranging from family friendly fare to art house Shakespeare, and theaters-only to cable-exclusives.
First up is the Joss Whedon re-imagining of the Shakespeare classic Much Ado About Nothing. I’ve got a huge man-crush on Whedon, but I also have an undying love for Shakespeare that is as intense as My Not So Humble Wife’s passionate hatred for him (which she can even express in iambic pentameter). Considering my strong and mixed feelings about Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 Much Ado (I loved most of it, but there were some serious casting problems, especially Keanu Reeves as Don John), I approached this film with some joy and much trepidation. The fact that it was shot in twelve days during what amounted to a vacation in the middle of making The Avengers added a certain amount of uncertainty as well.
Fortunately there was nothing to be concerned about and everything to cheer for (even the wife liked it). The entire movie played smoothly, with a cool hipster-jazz influenced feel. Alexis Denisof as Benedick and Amy Acker as Beatrice revive the on screen chemistry that long-time Whedon fans will remember from later seasons of Angel. The dialogue is fast, sharp, and well played, and the staging is perfect. Fran Kranz turns in a solid performance as Claudio, bringing a believable yet charismatic youth and impetuousness to the character without being emo, and Jillian Morgese is charming and reserved as Hero.
My personal favorite surprise was Nathan Fillion as Dogberry. I have never really understood nor appreciated the humor of this character before, particularly since every time I have seen the show Dogberry is overplayed and chewing the scenery (Michael Keaton, I’m looking squarely at you). Fillion brings a surprisingly subdued turn to the role, and by underplaying it actually makes it much funnier, as well as giving his fellow ensemble members a chance to shine.
While I’m on the subject of ensembles, I may as well talk about Pitch Perfect. Yes, I watched this film, mostly because My Not So Humble Sister said it was funny. I hate admitting she’s right about anything (see the part about her being my sister), but I have to admit it was pretty good. It’s about what you would expect, but there are some ways that it manages to rise above itself. In addition to having some really stellar a cappella performances, the film makes a few inside jokes subverting the very form of film it is (my favorite being when Beca (Anna Kendrick) mocks movies that have the exact plotline of the movie she’s in). Another great bit of comedic subversion in the film is Fat Amy, played by Rebel Wilson. Rather than being the typical shy fat girl who needs to develop self-confidence, “discover herself” and open up, Amy is played as a strong, confident woman from the start. She also has plenty of well-sculpted young men keeping her company in her palatial estate over Spring Break, another nice change from expected norms.
The film does unfortunately have some downsides. They play to the lesbian stereotype more than a little, and there is more than a little bit of gross-out humor (some of which is so far over the top I couldn’t even watch). The plot is also so derivative that, as previously mentioned, they felt the need to mock it in the movie. That only gets you so far.
All that having been said, if you’re looking for something relatively light, relatively fun, and not in any way taxing, Pitch Perfect definitely hits the mark.
I also finally got to see Puss in Boots. I’ve been looking forward to this one for a while, because Puss has become about the only character from Shrek that I can watch for more than five minutes without feeling the need to punch something. It’s not that I don’t like the Shrek franchise, it’s just that I get tired of the same joke after hearing it enough times, and apparently that number of times is two (hence why I can’t stand Shrek the Third, and the less said about the abysmal Shrek the Halls the better). Lucky for me, ditching Mike Myers and Eddie Murphy seems to be exactly what this franchise needed.
Puss in Boots is a sweet, fun, lighthearted romp. It’s family-friendly, but I wouldn’t hold that against it. It’s got a lot of laughs for pretty much everybody, and they cut back the cast to something a bit more manageable to they can really enjoy and play with the idea of the characters again rather than every character just being a one trick pony (or a one note donkey, as the case may be). If the plot was a little predictable, that’s only because (a) they actually laid everything out in such a way that nobody can cry foul later in the film, and (b) the target market for this film probably doesn’t have two digits in their age. If you can accept that, you’ll have a lot of laughs, maybe even enjoy a heartwarming moment (it’s DreamWorks, how can you not?), and then go to bed like good little boys and girls.
“I know nothing stays the same, but if you’re willing to play the game, it will be coming around again.”
Carly Simon, “Coming Around Again”
By this point I’ve pretty well established I have eclectic taste in music, but there are some artists who I just can’t get enough of. Whether it’s because they have an iconic sound, their ability to weave an amazing story, or just because they captured my imagination and never let it go, these are the artists that tend to dominate my mindscape when I think about music.
Billy Joel – The Stranger: One of (if not the) most successful albums by Billy Joel, it actually took me a while to warm up to this one at first. There’s a certain complexity to it, both lyrically and musically, that he doesn’t quite have on Piano Man or Glass Houses, and I didn’t quite gravitate to it as much as I did those albums. I also didn’t really “discover” it until I was much older and had listened to the Greatest Hits Vol. I & II ad nauseum, so about half the album was old hat to me. All of that being said I think it’s worth noting that, as I just mentioned, about half of this album is comprised of songs Joel is famous for, including “Moving Out (Anthony’s Song)”, “Just the Way You Are”, “Only the Good Die Young”, and “She’s Always a Woman”. These are all great songs, but my favorites also include the slightly less well known “The Stranger”, “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant”, and “Vienna”. I think these tracks are a bit more complex, but they also bring a lot more to the discerning listener.
Pink Floyd – A Momentary Lapse of Reason: As I mentioned previously, this album was my first exposure to Pink Floyd, and as such it will always hold a special place in my heart (although in full honesty I’ve since become more a fan of the Roger Waters era; sorry, David!). There’s no denying the rich beauty and soaring magnificence of this album. While there is definitely the distinct “Pink Floyd sound” to it, this album is a clear change point from the earlier albums, and overall a fantastic work. In some ways I feel like it may have been the perfect entry point for a new Pink Floyd fan, and I might even recommend it to this day. While the lead vocals might not be quite comparable, there’s a certain optimism (or at least a lack of bleak cynicism) that’s not present on many of the Waters-era albums, while much of the storytelling and poeticism of the earlier works is still strong. Oh, and the music is absolutely brilliant. For my money the best tracks on the album are “Learning to Fly” (the first Pink Floyd song I ever heard), “One Slip”, “On the Turning Away”, “A New Machine (Part 1)”, and “Terminal Frost”.
Queensryche – Empire: Speaking of those surprising first albums, here’s another one that got me a lesson in music history. My first exposure to Queensryche was this brilliant, off-beat mélange of hard rock. Each song is like a vignette from a completely different book, complete in and of itself, telling a powerful and moving story that at the same time has nothing whatsoever to do with the previous, the next, or any other song on the album. Add to that the fact my initial introduction was through the power ballad “Silent Lucidity” (it was the end of the 80s, don’t judge me) and you can see why I was completely gob smacked when I heard the entire album. There is a brilliance at work here, a mad genius akin to Scheherazade’s one thousand and one nights, as each story captivates and spins a complete worlds before moving on to the next. Some of the most compelling are “Jet City Woman”, “Della Brown”, “Another Rainy Night (Without You)”, “Empire”, and “Silent Lucidity”.
Jimmy Buffett – Living and Dying in ¾ Time: This is the album I am most ambivalent about in my whole Jimmy Buffett collection (and I actually have quite a few). There are some songs on this album that I listen to because, eh, they’re okay, and there are other songs on this album that I think are so amazing they stop me in my tracks every time I hear them. Surprisingly, the couple of tracks from this album that appear on Songs You Know by Heart fall into neither category (they’re both good, but not that good). Where Buffett really shines on this album is when he stops trying to make music and starts telling stories (in one case quite literally). Some of the most powerful, moving, beautiful and heart-wrenching music I have ever heard appears on this album, along with what has to be one of the funniest comedic monologues ever recorded. There are no bad songs here, but the truly great ones are “Livingston’s Gone to Texas”, “West Nashville Grand Ballroom Gown”, and “The Ballad of Spider John”. After all that (each song is sadder than the next), help yourself to “God’s Own Drunk”. It’s a hoot and a half.Related Posts: