Mediums at Large

I've watched good movies, and I've watched bad movies. I've read good books, and I've read bad books. I've seen good TV, and I've seen bad TV. I've heard good music and I've heard bad music. I've bought good comic books, and I've bought bad comic books. I've played good video games, and I've played bad video games. I don't have a large enough sample size concerning stage productions to make a statement.

There are stories, ideas, characters, themes, motifs, ideas, and settings stretching far and wide across boundless boundaries and back again. They are all unique. Different subjects work differently in different mediums because different subjects require different mediums. Something like Half-Life could only work through the interactive, first-person narrative format a video game can provide. Likewise, the abstract horror and tortures of Guernica can only exist as oil on canvas.

And yet there's this false hierarchy that's always preached and always accepted: Books are always better. Read a book, support your local library, turn off the TV and read, enjoy silent reading time, etc. etc. etc. Literature and prose are the kings of all communications, and all others are garbage. Every kids' TV show has an episode where the characters learn books exist, and embark on a 22 minute adventure where reading is fun. Likewise, those same shows have episodes where somebody becomes obsessed with TV or video games, then needs to be weened off. An addiction to reading? That's good! An addiction to TV? That's bad! Let's not forget, these lessons are being dispensed on television. Is this irony or flagellation?

Understand me, I'm not being anti-literate. Books are one of the oldest and most versatile forms of entertainment and art. There's an infinite realm of possibilities and opportunities in the written word. Books are good, but books are only one of many different viable options. If books were the best option, there would be no alternatives because we found the perfect medium. But other options do exist because books are not perfect.

The problem with books is simple: They're not a visual medium. Whatever the author wants to convey, they convey. If the author says the hero is tall, the hero is tall. If he says the room was silent, the room was silent. If the author says everybody ran, screaming for their lives, everybody runs screaming for their lives. There's no ambiguity in words, right? Wrong! Words are nothing but ambiguity.

The author conveys what he chooses to convey, but the reader has the task of interpreting those words. When the author said the hero was tall, you could imagine him being six foot two, or you could imagine him being eighteen foot nine. When the author says the room is silent, you could imagine a surreal vacuum where no sound escapes, or simply an awkward pause in conversation while the radio drones on in the background. When the author says everybody ran screaming for their lives, you could imagine a hectic group funneling out the fire escape, or a frenzied mob crawling and clawing each other, stampeding and trampling others before dying in an explosive blast. Literature is a tabula rasa. A blank slate for the reader to interpret the author's words and meanings. They will vary from person to person. This is what visual mediums fix.

Visual mediums replace the open world of the author with a set and established image concocted in joint effort between the screenwriter and director. Peter Benchley told us Jaws was terrifying, Steven Spielberg showed us.

As I said earlier, there is no one medium better than another. There are only mediums more suited for the task at hand. Truly successful and inspiring (and profitable) works are frequently tested in different realms. MASH became a TV show. Legos became a video game franchise. The Addams Family became a cartoon. Spider-Man became a stage musical. Some work, and some send Broadway hopefuls to the hospital.

Which brings me to another complaint: Movies are not the end-all, be-all of media evolution.

Bitch and moan as much as you want concerning adaptations and remakes saturating the film market. Research and returns prove scientifically audiences prefer an established franchise. So movie studios dredge the world of art and entertainment for all viable properties, even if they seem like bad ideas at the time. I've either accepted this or I've become numb, because this truth doesn't bother me anymore.

What does bother me is the one-way expectation expected by others. Any noteworthy piece of art, be it a book, TV show, toy line, musical or video game is practically expected to be adapted into a feature length film. It's not an issue of "if" it's a matter of "when."

I first noticed the taste of this bitter pill while reading an internet discussion board concerning the recently released and forgotten Need For Speed adaptation. Somebody couldn't believe they were making a blatant Fast and Furious knockoff, meanwhile in their own words, "Where is our Bioshock movie, already?"

Not "I would have preferred a Bioshock movie," not "Bioshock would have made for a better movie," not "Is there any news on a Bioshock movie?" Just entitled expectations and disdain that his whims weren't met. I can't blame him. Everything has to be a movie, nowadays. That's the goal. If your work becomes a movie, you've succeeded. Abed never hoped for six seasons. He hoped for six seasons AND a movie.

If we can suddenly realize this faulty logic, maybe we can stop the stigma against adaptations by only making adaptations that work. The prime example of which being movies based on video games. There have been nearly three dozen feature-length movies based on video games, and they are all terrible. Video games don't fit amongst the restrictions of the motion picture medium. Gone is the interactivity, gone is the pacing, gone is the controllable camera, gone is the first-person experience. It becomes a third-person story on rails. It's as immersive as an animatronic ride.

Plain and simple, not everything needs to be a movie. Some stories don't work as movies. Franchises can always expand outwards, but it doesn't have to be in one inevitable direction.

Feel free to leave comments about how the first Resident Evil movie wasn't completely terrible, because I never get tired of hearing those flimsy excuses.


Bursting Bubbles

We live in a culture bubble. To see the edge of this bubble, consider some of the most frequently adapted works in film and television:

Dracula (340 adaptations, created 1897)
Sherlock Holmes (292 adaptations, created 1887)
Frankenstein (202 adaptations, created 1818)
Tarzan (95 adaptations, created 1912)
Alice in Wonderland (45 adaptations, created 1865)
The Wizard of Oz (72 adaptations, created 1900)
The Phantom of the Opera (33 adaptations, created 1910)
A Christmas Carol (99 adaptations, created 1843)
Peter Pan (64 adaptations, created 1902)
Treasure Island (65 adaptations, created 1911)
Pride & Prejudice (26 adaptations, created 1813)
Winnie the Pooh (60 adaptations, created 1924)
Tom Sawyer (45 adaptations, created 1876)
The Three Musketeers (77 adaptations, created 1844)

All tallies according to IMDB. Totals may not be accurate. Actually, I guarantee it.

Notice anything strange? An overwhelming number of our beloved characters and stories come from the 19th century and early 20th century. Is that coincidence? Did we just stop making influential stories after 1929? Or did somebody slam on the cultural brakes?

Yes. Somebody did.

First appearing in 1928, Mickey Mouse was an overnight success, quickly becoming the face of Walt Disney Studios and The Walt Disney Company, as well as an icon of America and animation in general. He's a beloved character, a moneymaker, and a symbol of childhood joy and innocence. But of those three, he is a moneymaker first. Disney owns him, and Disney will make sure they and they alone will profit from him.

It all comes down to the Public Domain. The public domain consists of works that are publicly available; works that are unavailable for private ownership and subject to appropriation by anyone. Anybody can use, enjoy and interpret a public domain work ad infinitum. This is alternative to copyrighted works. Copyright gives the owner the exclusive right to reproduce the work in question, to prepare derivative works, to distribute copies of the work, and to perform/display the copyrighted work publicly. And no single copyrighted work has done more to redefine the definition of the public domain than Mickey Mouse.

The graph above demonstrates how the Walt Disney Corporation has altered and amended the rules of copyrights and copyright extensions. Every time Mickey Mouse comes close to entering the public domain, every time day care centers think they can paint his red shorts on their nursery walls without fear of reprisal, every time t-shirt companies want to emblazon their wares with Mickey's trademark ears without suffering an infringement suit, the Disney lawyers are ready to play hardball.

Disney is renowned for having some of the most vicious and tenacious lawyers in all the world. You don't ever want to be on the other side of a Disney deposition. These were people hired by Jefferey Katzenberg and Michael Eisner to do THEIR dirty work. They are scary people. But they certainly get the job done.

As it stands now, copyright for creative works extends 70 years beyond the creator's death. Or, in the case of corporate-owned content (such as Mickey), 95 years after the content's first publication. Mickey Mouse's image will enter the public domain in 2023 unless copyright extension law is extended again. And most likely, it will be.

This is why the pre-1925 cultural bubble exists. Content created before Mickey Mouse has entered the public domain, where anybody can try their hand at adapting the characters, stories and settings. They're as popular as stories get before the temporal roadblock makes novels, stories and cartoons entirely inaccessible for adaptation and interpretation. Nearly all content created since Mickey Mouse's debut is still privately owned and trademarked, and only a small number of artists, writers, and cartoonists are authorized by the copyright holder to handle that content. It's why there's a new spin on The Legend of Sleepy Hollow every Halloween, but Batman can never be handled by anyone DC disapproves of.

For some reason, this included Joel Schumacher
Copyright law was created with the intention of protecting content creators. When the content creator dies, copyright law protects the beneficiary and the artist's legacy. If copyright law is only protecting a company's interests, this becomes an issue of trademark. Mickey Mouse is being treated as nothing more than a logo, interchangeable with Walt Disney's iconic signature. And that's not right. Mickey Mouse is not a logo or slogan. He's a beloved character, and a symbol of childhood joy and innocence. We all know it, and though they'll never confess, Disney and their lawyers know it as well.

Disney can continue to use Mickey Mouse, they can continue to use Mickey Mouse as their logo, and most certainly Disney can advertise themselves as the originators of Mickey Mouse, but they shouldn't be allowed to deny others the opportunity to utilize the character. For every Mickey Mouse being withheld, there's a Phillip Marlowe, Bilbo Baggins and Cat in the Hat ready to see the grand scale of worldwide recognition, use and acceptance.

Where would Dorothy Gale be without her ruby slippers? They weren't in the original novel, but created for the 1939 film version. Boris Karloff's portrayal of Frankenstein's monster is so detached from Mary Shelley's image, the two are hardly the same character. Sherlock Holmes never said 'Elementary, my dear Watson,' until it was uttered by Basil Rathbone. But now, it's Holmes' most iconic piece of dialogue. And most applicable of all, what would Disneyland look like without Cinderella's castle?


Notes on The Goat

In the Summer of 2004, a comedy popped up and disappeared without much fanfare. It was called The Terminal. I liked this movie, but it didn't get a lot of attention. It was a small, unambitious movie, drowned out by bigger, louder and dumber projects like Troy, The Day After Tomorrow and I, Robot. It's biggest downfall was the one-two punch of director Steven Spielberg and star Tom Hanks. Both were huge names in the movie world, and to tackle something so small seemed like an underachievement.

Are you not entertained?!

Regardless of public opinion, this film holds up. It receives my full endorsement, but that's not what I'm here to talk about today.

2004 was a weird time to live. Music was bad, and had been for about eight years. TV was on the cusp of a new golden age. Broadband internet was finally becoming widely available to the masses, ushering in the new concept of digital media. And movies were getting gritty.

This was post-9/11 America. It was a time when citizens were still afraid, still looking over their shoulders, still keeping their heads down. The Iraqi and Afghani wars were going full-steam ahead with no signs of slowing. Insurgencies kept popping up. Soldiers kept getting ambushed. Planes and boats were being shot at. It was a terrifying time to be alive. Please, oh please, just let us live another day, mister terrorist man.
Reasonable solution. Shoot the fear.

It was also the year Michael Moore became a box office draw. He had previous, moderate success with Roger & Me, and Bowling For Columbine, but they were still just documentaries. You had to go out of your way to see them. The average person wouldn't have bothered. Fahrenheit 9/11, however, was a wide release. In the Summer. At the multiplex. It won the Cannes Film Festival. It was the number one movie in America at one point. This was no coincidence.

A subsection of Americans got tired of the constant paranoia in 2004. They were just done. I was a white suburban male high schooler, so of course I was on that liberal bandwagon, just as all angry, young 17 year-olds are to do. I'm neither pointing fingers or excusing my actions. We were all scared, and angry, and irrational back in 2004, and we all coped in our own ways. Some made radical, overly-simplified political statements, and some just tried their best to cope with the nonsense our world had become.

Semi-accurate portrait of the writer as a young man.

But what does any of this have to do with The Terminal? Back in 2004, Tom Hanks' character of Viktor Navorski was a mystery. He came from some non-descript, tumultuous, eastern-European nation called "Krakozhia," a stand-in for any soviet bloc nation. Due to language barriers and other such confusions, we don't know much about Viktor. He came from a war-torn homeland, he suffered from isolation, hunger, poverty, and due to a catch-22 in travel laws, he was forbidden from leaving the New York City airport.

The largest mystery is an omnipresent tin of Planters peanuts Viktor carries with him. Viktor's struggles with hunger plays a large, comedic role in the film's first act. Factoring in the age and dilapidated state of the can, it's strongly implied the tin no longer contains nuts. So what is inside?

The 2004-era mind races furiously. A bomb, or some sort of incendiary device? Chemical warfare? Nuclear waste, ready to serve? Retribution against American troops and figureheads? It all seems so insane that Tom Hanks, the nicest guy in Hollywood, could be a merchant of evil, but that was 2004 America's thought process. The voice of Woody the Cowboy could have been a sadistic madman.

Seems legit.

I watched the film again recently. If it hadn't been my own thought process, I'd never had believed anybody could have mustered such a ridiculously inept analysis of the film. Viktor Navorski is a clown. He's a happy-go-lucky guy caught in a bad situation. He makes the most of it. It's a testament to the indomitable human spirit against unfair odds. He has zero grudges towards anyone. He just wants to live. It's a far more innocent mystery today.

Films are a product of their eras, but also a product of all subsequent eras. It's amazing to see how a film can change, evolve, and dither based on shifts in public perception. More than that, how a film with no ill-intentions can trigger feelings and emotions based on personal identity. It just goes to show, sometimes something small and unassuming can reflect something grandiose.



My Top Ten of 2013

10) Side Effects

One of the most difficult genres to write is the mystery genre. The storyteller not only has to develop an intricate story, but then choose when to reveal which details. Too much, too early and it seems clumsy and insulting. Too little, too late and it's as if the author had written themselves into a corner. It's like dancing in a minefield; every step must be in right spot, at the right time, in the right rhythm.

Side Effects is a good mystery film because it focuses on the journey instead of the destination. It isn't so much a Whodunnit as a Whydunnit and Howdunnit. The cast is fantastic. Jude Law pays the reluctant detective, uncovering the conspiracy engulfing him, trying to understand his place as the fall guy and redeem his life in the process. Rooney Mara and Catherine Zeta-Jones make a great pair of alternating villains/victims/red herrings/confidantes. And Channing Tatum sure did appear onscreen.

Side Effects owes a lot to the conspiracy thriller genre perfected by Alfred Hitchcock. If you like those types of films, you'll probably enjoy this one. It's tight, it's tense, and it's always moving. One of Soderbergh's greatest strengths as a director is his ability to keep multiple balls in the air at once, and Side Effects only makes you wonder why he waited so long to try his hand at the mystery genre. It's Holmesian in its plot twists, and smart throughout. I definitely recommend it.

9) Nebraska

I didn't grow up in a small town. I was suburban, through and through. I do, however, have an aunt, uncle and cousins who live in the middle-of-nowhere. I'm talking 1000 people maximum in a ten mile radius. My family used to visit often, as it was cheaper than a real vacation. If you've ever had a similar experience, the understated humor and scenery of Alexander Payne's Nebraska will speak to you directly.

Bruce Dern performs with tremendous passion and effort. He switches believably back and forth between senile, cantankerous, bitter and joyous. Relative unknown June Squibb plays his battleax of a wife, in a wonderful, hilarious role that's all but guaranteed to be nominated for an Oscar. Also of note is Will Forte, playing Dern's son and begrudging shepherd. Yes, Will Forte. SNL, Clone High, MacGruber, Will Forte. Forte displays a set of subtle comedic muscles he's never had the opportunity to flex, and it shows just how much he has to offer besides funny voices and an inability to read screenplays.

Nebraska works as both a biting satire and a quiet reflection of family life and small-town America. It reminds me so much of The Straight Story, and I loved The Straight Story. It's funny, it's heartwarming, it's tragic, and you develop so many feelings for the main characters over just an hour and a half, you cheer them on as their story draws to a close. It's a wonderful celebration of life, legacies, and fulfillment, no matter who stands in your way.

8) The Way Way Back

Oh, life. It's big, it's confusing, it's terrifying and it's just not fair. Good people get dealt bad hands, and bad people end up getting more than they ever deserve. And in the middle of it all are the teenagers, no longer under the blissful naivety of childhood, but not able to make the changes needed to fix the world. All they have a small, uncloseable porthole where all the pollution seeps in at a constant rate. Life sucks. Enter, the coming-of-age film.

The Way Way Back is typical in this regard, but that doesn't make it any less spectacular. Liam James plays a young man, unsure of his place both in the world and his family. His soon-to-be-stepfather (played very against-type by Steve Carrell) unceremoniously burdens him with adult-caliber stress and emotional problems. Further complicating things, he's dragged unwillingly on summer vacation. How does one escape from one's problems when one's problems completely engulf one's existence? Enter the magical slacker played by Sam Rockwell, to teach him by example, life is never so bad, and problems are never so real.

The Way Way Back reminds me a lot of my childhood (minus the adultery, marijuana and slacker mentors). I was quiet, misanthropic and I was dragged on my share of family vacations to places I didn't like. And when we got there, there was nothing to be done except lounge around, allowing my quiet, misanthropic self to fester. The film felt like it was speaking to me, directly. The protagonist's problems were my problems. I felt a moment of connection between me and a fictional character, across the stretches of time and space. Truth be told, you couldn't pay me to relive my teenage years. But as long as films like The Way Way Back continue popping up, I feel comfortable looking back.

7) Iron Man 3

Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is one of my favorite films of all time, and it's taken quite a while, but I finally have my sequel. Robert Downey Jr reprises his role as Robert Downey Jr, while Don Cheadle stands in for Val Kilmer. Also returning is Protocop, the robotic, crime-fighting suits of armor, this time in a leading role.

Shane Black returns with his traditional action/comedy style, returning Downey to his most comfortable settings: southern California. Once again, Downey must uncover a massive, murder-laced conspiracy whilst hiding undercover, all for the sake of a pretty blonde girl. All the other Kiss Kiss Bang Bang staples are present as well: The incidental Christmas setting, the smart-ass henchmen, the film noir inspiration balanced by a bunch of goofy humor, shocking moments of gore delivered with Tom and Jerry physics, and so forth. It's a real treat, and I'm happy to finally have it. Bring on Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang 3!

6) Pacific Rim

This is what Transformers should have been. Seriously. I've never given more than two rat asses about the Transformers. If you had given me Pacific Rim instead of the LaBoeuf/Fox clusterfuck, you would have a fan for life. But you don't. Because you didn't. Instead of fixing the problems, you tried to add Ken Jeong into the mix.

There are no bad ideas, just bad executions. Pacific Rim works because it knows exactly what it's supposed to be: Giant robots fighting giant monsters. There's more influence from Toho Productions than from the works of Roland Emmerich. It's fun. It knows exactly when to take itself lightly (look at these names: Gipsy Danger, The Shatterdome, Hannibal Chau), and when to take itself seriously (anytime Rinko Kikuchi is onscreen). You care about these action scenes because they feature characters you respect, know, empathize with, and the stakes are raised so high, concerning them and them alone. It's not the fate of the world, it's the fate of THEM. The world is just a bonus.

There are so many things to love about Pacific Rim, ranging from themes such as multinationalism and feminism, to little things like Charlie Day and Burn Gorman's odd-couple schtick and Ellen McLain revisiting GLaDOS for no reason beyond fan service. All this and more is bundled up in a very smart, very stylized, very exciting genre film. And because of that, nobody went to see it. They prefer Transformers. People are dumb.

5) Inside Llewyn Davis

Inside Llewyn Davis is a tragedy wrapped up in the guise of a comedy. Or perhaps vice-versa. Oscar Isaac is Llewyn Davis, a folk singer in New York City, 1961, forced to go solo after his singer/songwriter partner commits suicide. Llewyn is the Art Garfunkel, the John Oates, the Andrew Ridgley. He tries his damndest to make his solo career work, but cannot due to bad breaks, missed opportunities, his own selfish nature and most tragic of all, his lack of talent.

The film features the trademark Coen Brothers style of various, colorful characters weaving in and out. Everyone in the cast is just wonderful. Carey Mulligan, Garret Hedlund, Adam Driver, Stark Sands, John Goodman, the list just keeps going on and on. It's all-inclusive. Even Justin Timberlake is wonderful, and understand, I only say nice things about Justin Timberlake once every three years.

Despite the diegetic insistence Llewyn lacks musical fortitude, the soundtrack is inescapably catchy and engrossing. After seeing the movie, I immediately fired up Spotify and listened to the entire soundtrack again and again, long into the night. It's just that good. That's Marcus Mumford of Mumford & Sons singing with Oscar Isaac in the trailer, who also helped produce the soundtrack. As of writing, it doesn't seem like Inside Llewyn Davis will replicate O Brother Where Art Thou's success, but it's definitely a worthy companion piece.

4) Frozen

It's the little things that make Frozen a wonderful film. I love the way various frozen items react, especially compared to their thawed versions. I love the way snow falls, in clumps and flakes alike. I love the way ice freezes, fractures and grows onscreen. I'm a grown man, but I've listened and lip-synched to the soundtrack unapologetically. I love how the animators have perfected various textures. That velvet looks like velvet. That wool looks like wool. That... other fabric looks real as well. (What do you want from me? I'm a film blogger, not a seamstress.)

Frozen has received lots of acclaim for updating the Disney fairy tale model. Getting married promptly after meeting a handsome man is a stupid idea. Love isn't exclusively a romantic thing. The main character isn't a princess, she's the goddamn queen, with all the responsibilities and duties therein. All of this is uncharted territory, and we're going full steam ahead. Don't just SET the bar, RAISE the bar!
Everything about Frozen is wonderful Disney magic, cranked to the max. I've overused the word "love" in this review, but to hell with it; in for a penny, in for a pound. I love the story, I love the themes, I love the subtleties, I love the humor, I love the animation, I love the music, I love the characters. I love it, I love it, I love it. It's too early to claim Disney is in the midst of another renaissance, but if they keep it up, I'd love to see what they do next.

3) The World's End
The final film in the Edgar Wright/Simon Pegg/Nick Frost Cornetto Trilogy, The World's End focuses on the dangers of nostalgia, arrested development, and destructive behavior, but does so in a comedy/sci-fi setting. Pegg plays Gary King, who reunites his four childhood friends to reattempt an incomplete bar crawl from their bygone youth: The Golden Mile. In a switch from the first two Cornetto movies, Frost plays the straightman while Pegg plays the lovable loser. It's a testament to the duo's acting range, as well as their strength as a pair.

What makes Edgar Wright so unique is his ability to blend the realistic with the absurd. A romantic comedy with zombies. A Shoot-Em-Up in a picturesque village. A hipster rock opera set in a video game world. The Big Chill meets Invasion of the Body Snatchers. This man should have made Abe Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.

And I'll just admit it: The ending is a cop out. They could have gone a dozen different ways, and they picked probably the worst direction. But that's okay. There's no such thing as perfection. When you like something, you don't ignore the flaws, you like it despite the flaws. And even though The World's End has a pretty big one, it doesn't detract from an otherwise grand movie. Cheers all around.

2) Her 

Science fiction is a strange genre, and the better the story, the more malleable the genre conventions become. Her continues the philosophies of Isaac Asimov, proffering questions about what constitutes a life, an experience, an emotion, a feeling, a thought, and how science could not only transcend those definitions, but make an artificial entity that fully incorporates them.

Her is the story of Ted Twombley, an ordinary man who purchases an AI operating system on a whim. As the film progresses, Ted learns the AI isn't just a genuine personality simulation, but an actual artificial human, who identifies itself as Samantha. Friendship, romance, desire, dependency and passion stem from what should have been nothing more than voice-recognition software. And it's absolutely wonderful.

No force in Heaven or Earth could convince me this is silly, disingenuous, or phony. Ted and Samantha are 2013's Rick and Ilsa. It is genuine love. You feel engrossed in every conversation. You feel every feeling. You feel touched when they touch. It is real. Scarlett Johansson never appears onscreen. Not even in a cameo (and there were plenty of opportunities.) And yet, her voice work is so powerful, so moving, so hauntingly beautiful, she deserves a special award of merit. Melt down two Heisman trophies and three Peabodys, and just leave the result on her doorstep. I'll cover the shipping cost. Her is, with no hyperbole, one of the greatest romance stories to ever grace the silver screen. It's not conventional, but then again, great stories rarely are.

1) Gravity

Every time I try to find intellectual discourse on film, I'm always greeted with chants of how CGI and special effects and 3D presentation is ruining the medium. From this day forward, every time I see this argument, I'll cue up a clip from Gravity, one of the most breathtaking, remarkable experiences I've ever had in a movie theater.

The story is scenery. Sandra Bullock is an astronaut who becomes stranded after an accident leaves her isolated and shipwrecked in the cold, hostile vacuum of space. Using the limited resources available, including oxygen, she must not only survive, but find a way back to the warm embrace of planet Earth.

On the other hand, the story is the scenery. There were actual moments I forgot I was watching a movie. A fictional construct. Not actual footage of people in outer space. The scenery (or lack thereof, I guess) is so amazing, rich and beautiful. It looks like space. It feels like space. I've never actually been myself, but I fully believe Gravity is the single closest representation of space in film history. I can't believe something so near perfect exists, and I'm thankful for the privilege of seeing it.

CGI is not a plague. It is not an abomination. It is a tool. In the right hands, tools can build a house. In the wrong hands, tools can build an O'Charleys. The only difference is whoever wields the hammer, the chisel or the paintbrush. CGI can do wonderful, amazing things, and we the viewer should encourage filmmakers to test the limits of what those things are, not besmirch them for trying. We go to the movies to see things we've never seen before, hear stories we've never heard before, experience things we've never experienced before. In order to do this, we sometimes need to bend the rules of time and space, and that's precisely what SFX advancements allow us to do. Otherwise we're just a group of neo-luddites who should line up for the latest zoetrope.

Gravity is one of the best films of 2013, and certainly my favorite of the year. It preaches the simple message of never giving up, and never abandoning hope. If we received a film this good this year, who knows what the future may bring.

And now, The Also-Rans:


On Horror

Trying to accurately define the horror genre is like trying to hold a fish. It wriggles and squirms, trying to get free. It's covered in slime, trying to wrestle free from your grip. It's got subtle barbs and spines daring you to squeeze tighter. Luckily, there's an escape. An escape brought to us by the least likely of all film analysts, US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart.

"Based on the corroborating evidence, the court can conclude, beyond the shadow of a doubt, Deckard was not a replicant."
In the case of Jacobellis v. Ohio, the court was tasked with deciding whether obscenity was a form of free speech. In my own blunt terms, yes (important note: my own blunt terms will not hold up in a court of law. Please consult actual legal advice from a practicing attorney.)

The United States Supreme Court decided obscenity is indeed a form of free speech, protected by the United States Constitution, therefore laws cannot ban or inhibit the action (sadly, this ruling came three months after a string of fines left comedian Lenny Bruce destitute and ruined.)

The exception to this ruling was hard-core pornography, which could still be banned based on any state's respective laws. When pressed about which obscenities constitute hard-core porn, Justice Stewart replied:

"I know it when I see it."

That one little sentence. That beautiful little get-out-of-jail free card. The line every film, television, and video game blogger owes their reputation to, and the thesis of this particular entry.

It's October, so what better time to talk about horror films? But what exactly is a horror film? How can one exactly declare what is and what is not a horror film?

Let's start with the empirical definition from Wikipedia:

"Horror fiction is a genre of media, which is intended to, or has the capacity to frighten its audience, scare or startle viewers/readers by inducing feelings of horror and terror. It creates an eerie and frightening atmosphere."

Well, that's pretty conclusive, isn't it? Horror movies are movies that frighten the viewer.

However feeble the attempt.

But what is fear? Isn't fear subjective? Doesn't everybody have one or two irrational phobias? Lots of people will panic when they find a spider, others keep them as pets. Some people are frightened by thunder, some consider it a welcome sign of April. Fear of clowns used to be considered an odd fear, but the phobia has grown exponentially; it's a wonder anybody still associates them with happiness. I knew a girl in college who was absolutely terrified of the Care Bears. Yours truly has an unexplained aversion to flowers.

Oh God, they're getting smarter!

 So what makes something frightening? Further down the Wikipedia page we go:

"Horror films often feature scenes that startle the viewer; the macabre and the supernatural are frequent themes. Thus they may overlap with the fantasy, supernatural, and thriller genres."

That certainly helps: Horror films could include some things, and might easily be confused with other things.

What was that quote I mentioned earlier? "I know it when I see it."

That's right. If you want to identify a horror flick, you can't set up a list of qualifiers and regulations. You just have to look at it, and either accept it or reject it.

Is Silence of the Lambs a horror film? I'd say so. How about Se7en? Sure. Both these films are grounded in reality, and are a departure from the ghosts and boogeymen of other horror flicks, but they still scare. They still frighten.

And what of something like Jurassic Park? I consider that a horror movie as well. It may be a thriller first, but the dinosaurs create a distinct ability to frighten. Being hunted is essentially the same as being chased. And what horror flick doesn't have one or two chase scenes?

How's about Ghostbusters? It's getting into a gray area, but I'd say so. It's a horror-comedy. And what's the first word of horror-comedy? Just because the characters makes light of the subject, it doesn't invalidate the scary atmosphere and storyline.

Then how about Twister? Here's where I draw the line. As mentioned, horror is subjective, but its intent must clearly be demonstrated by the filmmaker. Thrillers often contain moments of peril and danger, but an evocation of the fight or flight response is a standard side-effect of any action/adventure/thriller. So no, it's not a horror film.

I was inspired to make this post after various claims of purported film fans claiming they "don't like scary movies." Don't outright declare your dissatisfaction outright. Horror movies are as wide and varied as comedies and romances. Spooks and spectres are all around the world of film, be they splatterfests, psychlogical, slashers, creature features or gothic romances. You may claim you don't like horror films, but I guaranteee there's one out there you'll enjoy. You'll know it when you see it.


Electric Boogaloo

15 Sequels That Will Never Happen:

1) The Subtle Knife
2) Super Mario Bros 2
3) Buckaroo Banzai and the World Crime League
4) Bubba Nosferatu: Curse of the She-Vampires
5) Street Fighter II: Turbo
6) The Last Airbender - Book 2: Earth
7) Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne
8) Eldest
9) Kung Pow 2: Tongue of Fury
10) Ralph Bakshi's Return of the King
11) Spaceballs 2: The Search for More Money
12) The Restaurant at the End of the Universe
13) Fletch Won
14) Masters of the Universe II
15) Charlie and the Great Glass Wonkavator

15 Sequels Nobody Asked For But Are Coming Anyways:

1) Pirates of the Caribbean 5
2) Paranormal Activity 5
3) Men in Black 4
4) The Legend of Conan
5)  Prometheus 2
6) Oz: The Great and Powerful Part 2
7) Hot Tub Time Machine 2
8) Snow White and the Huntsman 2
9) Night at the Museum 3
10) Terminator 5
11) The Lost Symbol
12) A Haunted House 2
13) xXx Three
14) Tron 3
15) Rio 2

15 Sequels I Want:

1) Tucker and Dale Vs. The Aliens
2) Lock, Stock, and Two More Smoking Barrels
3) The Player 2: Sequel Pitch
4) Return to District 9
5) Twilight Watch
6) tranCendenZ
7) Galaxy Quest: The Next Generation
8) Warshinton: The Legend of Early Grayce
9) Bike Fatboy Bike
10) Lemony Snickett's A Regrettably Second Series of Unfortunate Events
11) That Thing You Did
12) Zombieland 3D
13) Kiss Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang Bang
14) School of Rock 2: America Rocks
15) Pineapple Express 2: The New Strand


10 Great Sesame Street Songs

Sesame Street is a cultural icon. It transcends international boundaries to reach children and teach them fundamental skills of life and learning. And there are Muppets involved. Double plus good.

Despite it's Pre-K appeal, there's something timeless and heartwarming about Sesame Street that always makes a nostalgic trip down memory lane worthwhile.

Until this fucker showed up.

Sometime in the mid-to-late 90s, Children's Television Workshop decided to shift the focus of attention away from an ensemble cast of human performers and various Muppets to the red-felt money machine. Elmo was marketable, and that's it. That's all that mattered. It doesn't even matter his puppeteer and voice actor was accused with multiple accusations of pederasty. Elmo was staying. Elmo was untouchable. Elmo was invincible and eternal.

And that's a shame. Because the simple, kid-focused humor and writing has the spectacular ability to reach adults as well. But the music. By god the music. That's in a class all of its own. Sesame Street has an army of 20, 30 and even 40 year-olds singing infectious ditties by the score (pun intended).

Let's count down ten songs I personally remember, and examine why they were (and continue to be) so great.

10)Telephone Rock

What questions did I ask as a kid? What is a telephone booth? Why does the phone have a dial instead of buttons? What is an operator? Nope. I wanted to know why the background singers were cavemen.

Look at them. They look like cavemen! Shaggy hair, furry clothing, saber tooth necklace. I'm not wrong about this.


9) The Word is No

This one's a product of its era, parodying avant-garde music videos of the time, including Talking Head's And She Was and Peter Gabriel's Sledgehammer. I think somebody at CTW learned how to change the frame rate of their camera, and then pitched the idea in a flurry of excitement.


8) You're Alive

For several years, I believed trees and plants were not alive because of this song. Misleading! That'll teach me to trust a Muppet that looks like Sammy Hagar.


7) Put Down the Duckie

Try explaining to a child of three who Andrea Martin or Wynton Marsalis are. Hell, I still don't recognize half these people.

Also, total whiplash switching instantly from Pee-Wee Herman to Ladysmith Black Mambazo.


6) Healthy Food

Yup. That's Frank Oz rapping. The 90s were weird.

This is why the "Sometimes Food" controversy was such malarkey.


5) Dance Myself to Sleep

Bert and Ernie's relationship is hotly debated. Being forced to share my bedroom with a younger brother for many years, I was convinced Bert and Ernie were siblings. With parents who were never seen.

This is why the common urban legend of the duo being gay lovers never sits well with me.


4) Somebody Come and Play

I always remember this song being slower. And acoustic. And performed in a minor key. And I thought Bob McGrath sang it...

Memory's a tragic thing.


3) Mary Had a Bicycle

Don Music: World's best or world's worst plagiarist?

My family inherited a piano when I was six. Guess what running gag I repeatedly re-enacted.


2) Do De Rubber Duck

Sesame Street invented the foam party. With a bathtub that big, it was inevitable.

They are all wearing swim trunks. I will hear no other arguments.


1) Monster in the Mirror

Let's play 'Name That Early-90s Celebrity!'

ELMO SAYS: The law firm of Hooper and Hooper represents the Public Broadcasting Station and Children's Television Workshop. If you are represented by legal counsel, please direct this letter to your attorney immediately and have your attorney notify us of such representation.
      You are hereby directed to:

For a thorough explanation on why Elmo is terrible, read this.


Don't Touch That Dial!

My 25 favorite episodes of my 25 favorite TV shows.

25) Taylor Stiltskin Sweet Sixteen (S01E06)
24) The Big Lock-Out (S01E05)
23) Looks and Books (S01E11)
22) Life Time (S08E11)
21) Hush (S04E10)
20) The Day the Earth Stood Stupid (S03E12)
19) The Chicken Roaster (S08E08)
18) Ain’t No Magic Mountain High Enough (S02E13)
17) The Boiling Rock (S03E14 and 15)
16) It May Look Like a Walnut (S02E20)
15) Mr. Wilson's Opus (S05E23)
14) A-Firefighting We Will Go (S03E10)
13) Shell Game IV: Scallops (S09E20)
12) Shooting Fish in a Barrel (S05E22)
11) My Father's Office (S01E03)
10) The Screaming Skull (S09E12)
9) Art (S01E03)
8) Don't Tread on Pete (S01E06)
7) The Heart-Shaped Pillow of Annie Taylor (S02E09)
6) Take Your Daughter to Work Day (S02E18)
5) My Way Home (S05E07)
4) Summer of 4 Ft. 2 (S07E25)
3) The Best Burger in New York (S04E02)
2) Ariel (S01E09)
1) Mr. F (S03E05)

(Technically, The Amazing Race would be my 14th favorite show, but how am I supposed to pick a favorite episode of that?)