Wednesday, September 30, 2015

#42Movies, Day 20: Emily Blunt's Time Machine

She's a brick house. As shown here:

Looper (2012)
Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

Let it all hang out after the trailers.

Here's what you're going to do. You're going to do a double feature of these two amazing films, back to back. First watch Looper, in which Emily Blunt's character has a smaller but still pivotal role; then watch Edge of Tomorrow, where she gets to play a motherfucking badass. Seriously: even though it's William Cage's story, Rita Vrataski is the hero. (Yes, hero. Not "heroine." HERO. The myth leaves something to be desired—as does Shakespeare's homage—but "Hero" is a woman's name. DEAL WITH IT.)

And when you're done with all that, feel free to deploy this animated GIF liberally on social media:


(See also:


Tuesday, September 29, 2015

#42Movies, Day 19: What A Twist!

Are you surprised to see... *THESE* TWO MOVIES AS A DOUBLE FEATURE???

The Mask (1994)
The Prestige (2006)

Major spoilers after the trailers.

For the record: I don't care that much about spoilers. That's not to say that I will seek out information on how a story ends, if I plan to enjoy it myself later; but I won't object if you want to tell me what happens in a particular narrative for the purpose of discussing it further. In general, I agree with Scalzi's Spoiler Statute of Limitations, and I do my best to check with any audience or conversation circle before dropping spoilers.

A big part of this is that it's just plain difficult to avoid spoilers these days. Marketers and promoters seem to want to reveal more and more about their products all the time, to the point where I've literally seen a three-minute movie trailer and then felt no need to see the actual two-hour film, because I was pretty sure I knew everything important that was going to happen. Part of that is how formulaic some genres can be, but studios also want to reassure audiences about what to expect when they sit down in a theatre. And nobody can agree on how potentially damaging spoilers actually are.

You may recall seeing news articles like this one about a 2011 UC San Diego study on the psychology of spoilers, which trumpeted the conclusion that "Story Spoilers Don't Spoil Stories" (PDF). However! A more in-depth 2014 study titled "Spoiler Alert: Consequences of Narrative Spoilers for Dimensions of Enjoyment, Appreciation, and Transportation" (PDF), came to the exact opposite conclusion, reaffirming the conventional wisdom that spoilers can and do adversely affect an audience's enjoyment of a story:
[A]lthough spoilers may not always "spoil" as much as one is intuitively led to believe, they can certainly harm the audience's experience, or at least specific facets of their responses to the narrative. The present results demonstrate that spoilers do not have a universally positive effect on enjoyment and related media gratifications... Clearly, for some audiences, the production and editing of trailers and promotional materials should aim to minimize spoiling narratives, while programmers who write code that helps fan communities avoid online spoilers (Liebelson, 2013; Nakamura & Komatsu, 2012) are likely providing a useful service.
Scholarship on this topic is still pretty thin, with only a handful of studies to date. And there's an overwhelming tide of lay opinion which probably makes research difficult, from Joss Whedon calling surprise a "holy emotion" to Mark Evanier's friend Bob learning that Richard Dreyfuss is an alien. We instinctively want our first experience of a narrative to be completely fresh—perhaps because that's how real life works—and we each know how much story spoilage we ourselves will tolerate.

There are many fun things in both The Mask and The Prestige besides their respective "twists," but they hold up to repeat viewings for two reasons, I think: one, because knowing what's coming allows you to appreciate the build-up to that reveal, hints and misdirects both; and two, because the point of each story is not just surprising the audience, but surprising the characters. We care about how the people in the story deal with the revelations, and knowing what's coming gives you a clear before-and-after view.

Finally, director M. Night Shyamalan demonstrates the proper way to pronounce the title of this blog post:


Monday, September 28, 2015

#42Movies, Day 18: A Very Specific Milieu

Setting is everything here:

Office Space (1999)
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)

Take a tour after the trailers.

I knew next to nothing about both of these movies when I walked into them. For Office Space, DeeAnn and I went to our local multiplex to see something else—I don't even remember what our original selection was—and ran into our friend Aaron Hallmark in line at the box office. He was a huge Mike Judge fan, and very excited about Judge's live-action feature debut, so we changed plans and joined Aaron's pilgrimage. It's always more fun to do things with friends.

For Master and Commander, I want to say DeeAnn and I were at the Metreon in San Francisco, possibly after having done something else in the city and wanting to extend our stay (to meet her 2:1 fun-time-to-travel-time requirement—long story, tell you later). I distinctly remember eating at a food-court-type place after the movie and talking about how much we liked it. Neither of us had read the late Patrick O'Brian's novels, but the film is extremely well made and completely immerses the audience in its historical era (to the point of skirting a few uncomfortably racist/sexist moments, but only incidentally, not maliciously or overtly).

Speaking of racism and sexism... I recall later discussing Master and Commander with another friend and having one of my most naked encounters with white male privilege. This friend said he didn't like the movie because he didn't buy its central premise: that a single ship patrolling around South America in 1805 could possibly affect the wartime fortunes of the Royal Navy against Napoleon's forces. I didn't even know where to begin to respond.

Because the point of the whole thing was the officers and crew of HMS Surprise believing in their duty, whether or not it was actually, strategically significant. It became clear to me, in that moment, that my friend wasn't interested in understanding what made the characters tick as people—he was only interested in analyzing them as the parts of a political machine. And it's sad but true: not caring who people are, only how you can use them, is an attitude endemic (though by no means exclusive) to straight white dudes.

I didn't try to talk to this friend much about fiction after that. (BTW, this was also the same guy who refused to travel by car unless he was driving the vehicle himself. Yup, he literally wouldn't go anywhere with you unless he felt like he was in control. OMG THE MAN PAIN)

But back to the movies. Both Office Space and Master and Commander make great use of the details of their specific time and place, from dialogue to costumes to music. To watch them is to briefly glimpse another world and get a fascinating view of the native culture, whether it's late twentieth century suburban Texas or a vessel sailing the Atlantic Ocean in the early nineteenth century. You can never visit either place now, but you can understand something about them through these stories. That's the point.


Sunday, September 27, 2015

#42Movies, Day 17: At the Movies with DeeAnn

If you want to understand my wife, it might help to know that these are two of her favorite movies:

Zero Effect (1998)
Mumford (1999)

Backstory after the trailers.

First order of business: both of these films are much better than those trailers make them look. Seriously. I'm talking light-years. Zero Effect is a brilliant modern retelling of "A Scandal in Bohemia," and Mumford is honestly unclassifiable, but even though it covers a lot of different narrative territory, it never feels like it's all over the map; it simply feels inclusive.

And here's another fun bit of trivia: Mumford was directed by Lawrence Kasdan, and Zero Effect was directed by... Jake Kasdan. That's right, it's a father-and-son filmmakers double feature! (DID I JUST BLOW YOUR MIND? No? Okay. Moving on.)

A few years ago, I wanted to plan something special to celebrate DeeAnn's birthday, and I hit upon the idea of a day out centered around a private little film festival. This was also the year before we moved out of the Bay Area, so I thought it'd be a nice way to catch up with people we might not see again before we relocated.

Here's the invitation I sent to our friends:

That day was, in fact, a whole lot of fun, and the private screening of Zero Effect and Mumford was pretty sweet. (I'm telling you: if I ever get rich someday, like GRRM rich, I'm totally going to buy a movie theatre.)

I was glad to be able to introduce these two movies to some people who hadn't seen them before, and happy to be able to experience them with DeeAnn again. She's very particular when it comes to comedies. She doesn't generally like broad schtick or outrageous physical stunts. She's more into offbeat dialogue, unusual relationships, and characters who feel real.

I've learned a lot about storytelling from watching movies and TV with DeeAnn—in particular, about how audiences want to connect with the people they see onscreen, and how that becomes easier if those characters seem like complete and authentic human beings. My writing (and, indeed, my life) is better now because of her.


Saturday, September 26, 2015

#42Movies, Day 16: When Curtis Met DeeAnn...

And speaking of strong female characters... These two films figured prominently in the week when I met the woman who is now my wife:

Titanic (1997)
As Good As It Gets (1997)

I'll explain after the trailers.

In December of 1997, DeeAnn—who was living near Chicago at the time—flew out to the Bay Area to visit her best friend from high school, Karin, who (with her husband Bryan) happened to be my next-door apartment neighbor at the time. We actually met at another movie, the Stanford Theatre's annual Christmas Eve screening of It's a Wonderful Life (the viewing of which has become a holiday tradition for us).

I hadn't seen Titanic at that time, but DeeAnn was talking about it when she first arrived. So I went to see a matinee (I was working for AT&T at the time, and the company shut down for the entire week between Christmas and New Year's Day), so I could talk to her about it in detail.

Yeah, that was probably a signal right there.

A few days later, all four of us went to see As Good As It Gets together. It's a small, quirky movie, but makes good use of its unsympathetic comedy protagonist (played by Jack Nicholson) to push all the characters into unexpected situations and relationships which blossom into real human concerns. Okay, that flowery description might oversell it, but it's good beyond my own personal history. And yes, that is Julie Benz as the hapless receptionist in the trailer.

One of the other movies we watched that week was Sophie's Choice. I don't remember why. Does seem kinda weird in retrospect. Anyway.

DeeAnn moved to the Bay Area in 1998. We moved in together in 2000 and got married in 2005. This winter, we'll have been together for eighteen years. I look forward to growing old with her—like, at least as old as that Titanic lady—with more movies, more anniversaries, and more happy memories every year.


Friday, September 25, 2015

#42Movies, Day 15: Strong Female Characters

Speaking of Joss Whedon (video)... this list could be much, much longer:

Long Kiss Goodnight (1996)
The Peacemaker (1997)

...but it still wouldn't be long enough. Let's talk after the trailers.

Earlier this week, parody news site The Onion ran an article titled "Screen Actors Guild Develops Retraining Program For 30-Year-Old Actresses Aging Out Of Workforce." It's a spot-on satire, and it's as painful as it is funny.

Because it's true: Hollywood today has very little use for actresses over thirty. (Even less for non-white women who want to play lead roles, but that's another topic.) Even as TV viewers flock to shows like The Good Wife and Orange is the New Black and anything from Shonda Rhimes, movie producers still shy away from from female protagonists for bogus reasons we need to banish for good.

Politics aside, these are two highly entertaining films. Long Kiss Goodnight is one of our go-to holiday movies, even with the uncomfortable moments which probably weren't as bad pre-9/11. And Peacemaker not only has a classic Hans Zimmer score—it's one of my favorite soundtracks for writing—it also has fun with its Kidman-Clooney, brains-versus-brawn buddy pairing. Director Mimi Leder really doesn't get enough credit for working humanity into her action pictures (Deep Impact is another of my sentimental favorites. ASTRONAUTS IN TROUBLE MAN).


Thursday, September 24, 2015

#42Movies, Day 14: Violence Begets Violence

"So help me God, I thought it was a 'doggy-dog' world."

Year of the Dragon (1985)
The Untouchables (1987)

Everybody hurts after the trailers.

As I said at the start of this thing, the movies I highlight here are not necessarily my all-time favorites. They're just a selected few which made sense in pairs to illuminate some aspect of my character.

I remember watching these two movies in high school, during sleepovers at friends' houses, on rented VHS tapes. (Remember those?) I remember we thought we were getting away with something, because we tended to pick R-rated movies—i.e., films we might not have been able to get into a theatre to see—and our parents, all first-generation immigrants, didn't know enough about American popular culture to realize a bunch of teenage boys probably shouldn't be watching Nine 1/2 Weeks. (True story. We were not impressed, as it turns out.)

The trailer for Year of the Dragon ends with my favorite quotation from the film, but the scene that sticks with me the most is the gang initiation, when one young Chinese man chases another up against a chain-link fence and then shoots him at point blank range with a handgun, killing him. It's presented in a series of bloody close-ups, and that closeness makes it more personal and gruesome than any of the big action set pieces in the film.

Similarly, the baseball bat scene in The Untouchables stuck with me, not least because it was the bloodiest thing I'd seen in any movie up to that point. It was also the way the characters reacted to the violence, capping the tension that had been building since the start of the film: it's the moment in the film when Capone's mask comes off, as it were, and we see how insidious his villainy truly is.

And that brings us to Joss Whedon.

Astute readers will notice that the second link at the top of this blog post goes to an R.E.M. music video, which I think of as the "Earshot" music video. "Earshot" was my first real introduction to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a show which changed my life.

In a 2001 interview (pre-9/11) with The A.V. Club, Whedon had this to say about his "responsibility to society:"
People say, "After Columbine, do you feel a responsibility about the way you portray violence?" And I'm like, "No, I felt a responsibility about the way I portrayed violence the first time I picked up a pen."
My debut novel is coming out next summer. It's a science fiction spy thriller, set against the backdrop of a recent interplanetary war, seasoned with a fair amount of pseudo-military foofaraw. But when the publisher asked me for cover ideas, one of the few things I requested was to NOT show any firearms or obvious weapons.

There are story reasons for that, but I also personally don't want to glorify or glamorize those objects, which are already fetishized by plenty of other media. Yes, guns look cool; yes, they make the people who wield them feel powerful. Those are lies. I'm not afraid of people who have guns. I'm afraid of the people who have the power to make the people with guns want to shoot each other.


Wednesday, September 23, 2015

I Turn 42 Next Week

And you're invited to come celebrate with DeeAnn and me, if you're in the Portland area! We've planned a variety of "CKL=42" events for you to choose from...

Wednesday(9/30), 6-10pm: "West Side Karaoke"
Voicebox NW, 2112 NW Hoyt

Please RSVP on Facebook* if you plan to join us; we're getting a private suite and need to know how many people we're packing in. Singing is not required! I will be happy to croon at a captive audience all night long. :) We'll provide some food and non-alcoholic drinks; you buy your own booze and additional munchies if you like.

Thursday(10/1), 8pm: "Rifftrax Live: Miami Connection"
Regal Cinemas Lloyd Center (outside the mall), 1510 NE Multnomah St

My actual birthday! Buy your own ticket and meet us at the theatre. Get there early (7:30pm) for the pre-show!

Friday(10/2), 11am: "Tea and Company"
Wong's King Seafood Restaurant, 8733 SE Division St, Suite 101

Meet us for a dim sum lunch! We eat family style, so we'll just split the bill evenly among everyone who shows up. Please RSVP on Facebook* so we know how many people are coming (they don't take reservations, so there will be a wait).

Saturday(10/3), ~2pm: "Game Day Afternoon"
Kennedy School, 5736 NE 33rd Ave

We plan to hang out for a few hours in the Courtyard Restaurant and play various games (and eat and drink). Stop by whenever and join the fun!

Sunday(10/4), ~11am: "Breakfast on Mars"
Time/Place TBD

Meet us for breakfast and a movie (The Martian) in the wilds of Vancouver—you buy your own food/ticket. Cinetopia won't publish their showtimes until next week, so if you're interested, RSVP on Facebook* to get updates!

* If you're not on Facebook, just send me an e-mail to let us know which event(s) you're coming to!

And please don't feel obligated to join us for any of these activities, if they don't appeal to you. The two of us know how to have a great time all on our own. IF YOU KNOW WHAT I MEAN ;)

(And yes, I know "please RSVP" is technically a redundant phrase. Colloquial usage
¯\_(ツ)_/¯ )


#42Movies, Day 13: Must Be Your Lucky Day

Happy equinox, everyone! This is the thirteenth of my daily 42-movies-in-21-days blog posts, so I'm just going right on the nose here:

Apollo 13 (1995)
The 13th Warrior (1999)

Compare and contrast after the trailers.

If you know anything about me, you know I'm a bit of a space nerd. And so you might imagine that Apollo 13 would be exactly my kind of movie. YOU WOULD BE CORRECT. (I'm also pretty excited about The Martian, which opens the day after my actual birthday next week.)

I was born after Apollo 17, the last time humans walked on the Moon, and I'm not holding my breath for us getting to Mars within my lifetime. (What can I say, I'm a pessimist. THIRTEEN.) So I've always been fascinated by the Apollo program as a piece of history.

The Right Stuff was an interesting prelude, and HBO's From the Earth to the Moon miniseries delved deeper into a lot of the engineering and interpersonal details, but Apollo 13 might be the best film dramatization of a space mission to date, in that it compresses a lot of the long-term planning and decision-making into the story of a single crisis.

On the other hand, The 13th Warrior is fiction, just in case you couldn't tell from the fact that Antonio Banderas plays an Arabic courtier named "Ahmed Ibn Fahdlan." The film is based on Michael Crichton's 1976 novel Eaters of the Dead, a mash-up of actual 10th-century Arab Ahmad ibn Fadlan's travelogues and the legend of Beowulf.

Two things I love about 13th Warrior are how it (accurately) portrays the Vikings as barbaric and uncivilized next to their Arab visitors, and how much tension it packs into every action sequence. Say what you want about John McTiernan, but the guy knows how to direct an action movie (or at least he did, back in the days of Predator and Die Hard and The Hunt for Red October).

One final note: there's some mention of thirteen being an unlucky number in Apollo 13, but it's actually a sign of good fortune in 13th Warrior (and the reason Antonio Banderas' character is coaxed into joining the adventure). Numbers are only as meaningful as we want to make them, but they can become powerful symbols.


Tuesday, September 22, 2015

#42Movies, Day 12: And a Twinkle in His Eye

So, speaking of Kurt Russell...

Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
Executive Decision (1996)

Breakdown after the trailers.

Here's a bold claim for you: Scott Bakula is to television as Kurt Russell is to movies. That is to say, they're both perennially pleasant leading men who can inhabit a decent range of roles. I'll go out on a limb and say that Russell's a bit more versatile than Bakula—case in point, he played both Snake Plissken in John Carpenter's Escape from New York and the voice of the hound in Disney's The Fox and the Hound in the same year (1981).

The thing I love about Big Trouble in Little China (also a John Carpenter joint) is that Kurt Russell's character is actually the bumbling sidekick to Dennis Dun's protagonist—Wang Chi's desires and relationships are what drive the story through its crazy funhouse of Chinese mysticism, and the white dude is just along for the ride.

Ten years later, Russell played another unlikely hero in Executive Decision—he's not a soldier or anything, just an intelligence analyst. I suspect the filmmakers were trying for a Hunt for Red October vibe, which didn't quite work out. This isn't what you'd call a "good" movie, but the parade of familiar faces who have done better work is pretty amusing: Steven Seagal shows up, Halle Berry helps save the day, David Suchet picks up a paycheck, and John Leguizamo plays what may be the straightest role of his career.

Kurt Russell is now 64 years old, and still getting good roles; his appearance in Furious 7 was brief but entertaining, and apparently he's doing Westerns again? Whatever. He's come a long way from The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes.


Monday, September 21, 2015

#42Movies, Day 11: Egregious Egyptology

"You call this archaeology?"

Stargate (1994)
The Mummy (1999)

We'll dig into it after the trailers.*

I saw an advance screening of Stargate at the Aquarius Theatre in Palo Alto. It was some kind of American Express** members-only promotional thing. I remember the crowd responding mostly favorably, but as we all know, the best thing about that movie is that it begat the Stargate television universe. But that's another story.

The 1999 Mummy film started as a remake/reboot of the 1932 Universal picture starring horror icon Boris Karloff, but somewhere along the way transmuted into something a lot more fun. And yes, many elements in its portrayal of modern Egypt remain problematic, but the movie's success also made possible a sequel in which Rachel Weisz's character actually gets to kick some ass. And it introduced Oded Fehr to the world, so we'll call that a net positive.


** I got an American Express BLUE card when it first became available, mostly because it was the only AMEX card available without an annual fee. The card originally had an embedded smart-chip and came with a USB reader device for secure online shopping (which was an all-around FAIL: I could never actually get the reader to work AND I'M A COMPUTER SCIENTIST). A few years later, AMEX removed the chip from their Blue cards. I wonder if they'll put it back now that everyone's moving to EMV...


Sunday, September 20, 2015

#42Movies, Day 10: Totally Eighties

I'm referring to the 1980s, of course. I'm sure you've heard the legends.

InnerSpace (1987)
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)

Blather after the trailers.

(Hey, remember when Steven Spielberg still made mostly good movies? Remember that? Those were the days, man. I guess he can do whatever the fuck he wants at this point, but I just wish he'd do more "ever" and less "what the fuck.")

The thing I love about both these flicks is how well they pull off the high concept thing. Not only do they deliver on the adventure promised in their trailers, but they are both outrageously fun, often in unexpected ways.

Last Crusade really should have been the final Indiana Jones movie. We all agree on that, right? It sure felt like it was the big closer at the time. And it was a hell of a great way to go out. It took all the familiar, established elements of the franchise and pushed them to even more interesting places. Sure, there were a few cheap, crowd-pleasing, throwaway in-jokes, but Indy's character arc—from the opening flashback to "It belongs in a museum!" to letting the Grail fall into the abyss—was the perfect way to wrap up the trilogy.

InnerSpace plays with the concept of miniaturization, which before then had last been explored cinematically in 1966's Fantastic Voyage (based on a story by Otto Klement and Jerome Bixby). Some people consider InnerSpace to be a "remake" of Fantastic Voyage, but I feel like that's a stretch: there are many similar plot elements, but the vibrant escapades of InnerSpace are completely different in tone and execution from the somber Cold War intrigue of Fantastic Voyage.

(By the way, this year's Ant-Man manages to recapture some of the vivacious charm of InnerSpace. It's considerably weaker in the character department, especially with respect to the villain, but it's more fun than a lot of other Marvel stuff these days.)


Saturday, September 19, 2015

#42Movies, Day 9: That's Funny

To be clear, I mean funny-ha-ha, not funny-strange.

Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997)
Galaxy Quest (1999)

Laugh it up, fuzzball:

Here's why these are both classic comedies: because they work as whole stories. The fact that both trailers give away many of each movie's specific gags doesn't diminish the enjoyment of actually watching them. They're not just frameworks on which to hang a string of jokes; they are deep, insightful satires which have great fondness for the source material they're riffing on.

The James Bond and Star Trek franchises were both very much products of the 1960s. (Galaxy Quest dials its show-within-a-show forward to the 1980s, but I suspect that was mostly for production design reasons—i.e., so the "old" footage wouldn't look too ridiculously cheesy, like some episodes of TOS do now.) And Austin Powers and Galaxy Quest, respectively, have things to say about how those franchises have aged and how they're still relevant in some ways, but very much outmoded in others.

One of my happiest memories is of watching the first Austin Powers movie at home with a group of friends. We literally could not stop laughing at certain points. I very clearly remembering Karin doubled over behind the couch, convulsing with laughter during the bathroom scene ("Who does Number Two work for?!"). Good times, y'all.

The sequels were not nearly as good overall, but they did have their moments. The opening of Goldmember in particular is a brilliant send-up of modern spy movies.

DeeAnn and I saw Galaxy Quest in the theatre on opening day: December 25, 1999. (I don't think we were doing #XmasMovieThon yet, but I could be wrong. Twitter didn't exist yet, so who knows?) It was a perfect Christmas Day movie. I also got to share it with my Clarion West classmates last summer, as part of our impromptu cinematic outreach series, which was great fun. (But Rich Larson still has a lot of catching up to do. STOP WRITING SO MUCH AND WATCH SOME DAMN MOVIES, RICH, GEEZ.)

Sadly, one of my favorite things about GQ is lost in the home video version. The movie actually starts in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, so the entire picture is "windowboxed," but it's not so noticeable in a darkened theatre. It doesn't change to the wider 2:35:1 image until about twenty minutes in, when Tim Allen's character is being transported back to Earth from outer space. The Thermians escort him to a dark room, the lights go out, and then the walls slide apart to reveal a dazzling, full-widescreen view of outer space.

It's a subtle difference, but makes for a glorious effect in the theatre. On home video, the entire film is presented in 2.35:1, and it loses that moment of wonder—you may not have noticed that the picture didn't reach all the way to the edges of the screen before, but at that point you become fully aware of how huge it is. (If I'm ever lucky enough to own a movie theatre, I will screen Galaxy Quest every Christmas Day. BELEE DAT.)

Finally, how excited am I that Galaxy Quest might become an actual television series now? I mean, I'm not holding my breath—"in development" is Hollywood-speak for "somebody might be working on this maybe but nobody else really cares that much"—but Amazon's been pretty aggressive about getting into the content game. Here's hoping they manage to pull off a GQ series that doesn't suck.


Friday, September 18, 2015

#42Movies, Day 8: The Musical

You knew this was coming, right?

South Park: Bigger, Longer, & Uncut (1999)
Frozen (2013)

We'll talk after the trailers.

I'm not going to explain or apologize for my love of musicals. If you can't handle the singing and dancing, stop reading now.

A lot of people aren't into musicals. (Our friend Bryan, for one, despite being a Disney superfan. Ironic.) Note that in the South Park movie trailer above, the only hint of the actual film being a musical is the Big Gay Al bit. Of course, if you've seen the TV series, you'll know that musical numbers are a frequent occurrence; even the original short included a couple of songs.

Maybe Paramount thought people who hadn't seen the TV show would be less likely to want to see an animated musical than a for-mature-audiences cartoon. In any case, creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone do a brilliant job of subverting both genres, which is not surprising considering their early film work Cannibal: The Musical! and their recent Broadway triumph The Book of Mormon. Not to mention eighteen seasons (and counting) of South Park episodes.

(Speaking of which, the documentary 6 Days to Air: The Making of South Park is a fascinating look at TV production. You can also check out Showrunners: The Art of Running a TV Show for a broader overview of the industry.)

The preview for Frozen touts its music but does NOT showcase "Let It Go," perhaps because Disney never expected that particular song to be such a runaway hit. Sure, it's designed to be a show-stopper, but it is by no means the best number in the book: it's basically a rehash of "Defying Gravity," Idina Menzel's act one closer from Wicked, in terms of emotional beats; and the lyrics are, let's be honest, not the best. (She literally says "the past is in the past" at one point, you guys. LITERALLY.)

That song sells—boy, does it sell—but it's in the recording, not on the page. (I still say "Love is an Open Door" should have gotten the Oscar nomination instead.) And my favorite lyric of the whole show, "like a girl who's bad at metaphors," actually comes from a song that was cut from the final movie. (It's also a punchline which requires an elaborate setup in the preceding lyrics, but that's part of the fun.)

The deluxe version of the soundtrack album includes demos of half a dozen numbers from earlier versions of the show, with commentary by composers Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, and it's fascinating to see how the book changed during production. There are still traces of the "prophecy" plotline in the trailer above, but it's definitely a stronger story without hokey supernatural predestination.

By the way, Robert Lopez also worked on The Book of Mormon, which is again not surprisingly since he co-created the raunchy puppet musical Avenue Q. And some more connections for you: Christophe Beck, who composed the score music for Frozen (and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, back in the day), was in the Yale Spizzwinks(?) a cappella group alongside not only Robert Lopez, but also Internet musician Jonathan Coulton and my good friend Sean Gugler!

Yes, yes, go ahead: sing that other song that nobody wants to hear anymore.


Thursday, September 17, 2015

#42Movies, Day 7: The Princess Who Saved Herself

The title of today's post is a reference to the Jonathan Coulton song, recorded for Many Hands: Family Music for Haiti, which later became a charming children's book written by Greg Pak and illustrated by Takeshi Miyazawa.

Today's movies are also about capable and clever young women:

Mulan (1998)
Lilo & Stitch (2002)

Roll the trailers!

These are both Disney movies, which means their production values are impeccable. Lilo & Stitch in particular has a beautiful, watercolor-influenced look, and Mulan makes great use of computer-generated images without letting them overwhelm the picture. And they are notable examples of Disney—a titanic commercial juggernaut not known for playing well with culture—straying from its usual Western European folklore to showcase other civilizations.

Because in addition to the protagonists of both films being female, they are nonwhite. In fact, there are basically no white people anywhere in either of these movies. It's persons of color all the way down. (And yeah, I don't love that term either, but it's the current vernacular. Don't worry, we'll cycle over to something else soon enough. America!)

And these stories and characters are not simply diverse for the sake of being diverse (though that's not necessarily a bad thing—different topic). These stories are about their main characters' struggle to live in societies where they are marginalized and denied personhood. They are stories about wanting to belong, to be accepted, to have the same opportunities as everyone else. Those are universal themes, but we can apply race and gender as storytelling tools to heighten the emotional impact of those struggles. It helps nobody to pretend these aren't problems in the real world, and why make up fake issues when the real ones are already at your doorstep?

Anyway. Just hearing the phrase "ohana means family" will still make me tear up, no fucking joke. And I continue to love how Mulan turns into goddamn Air Force One in the third act, because WHY THE FUCK NOT. Almost as if the filmmakers said, "You know, guys, one of our main characters is A TALKING DRAGON. This isn't history class. Fuck it. Let's just fucking GO FOR IT and blow some shit up. BLOW UP ALL THE SHIT." And it totally works.

(By the way: no, I have not seen any of the direct-to-video sequels to either of these movies. I learned my lesson after The Return of Jafar and Aladdin and the King of Thieves. Watch the latter if you're a Robin Williams completist, but otherwise, rent something else to babysit your kids.)

Finally, I wish Disney would do more with their massive influence to advance gender equality and representation. It's bad enough that they don't include Lilo in their official list of "Disney Princesses," but did they really have to sex up Merida when they first inducted her? Are you only a "princess" if you're old enough to be sexually desirable—and are you only attractive if you look a certain way? Eff that noise. (And don't give me any crap about Lilo not being of royal blood—these aren't literal princesses. Belle wasn't a noble; neither were Mulan or Tiana. And we don't need to reinforce classism either.)

If I were Disney, I'd want to stop making products that only appeal to 50% of the population at a time and start marketing everything to everyone. Girls can be superheroes. Boys can wear pink. You could be selling twice as many toys to the same number of kids! Just think about it, okay, Bob?


Wednesday, September 16, 2015

#42Movies, Day 6: Chinese Feud

(All right, you got me. This entire blog series is, in fact, just an excuse for me to make up terrible puns. Deal with it.)

Today we're talking about:

Rush Hour (1998)
The One (2001)

Let's get it on after the trailers.

Yes, these are both American movies which feature Asian performers. I suppose I feel an affinity for them because my life has followed a similar trajectory: I was born in Taiwan, and many of my early life experiences there shaped who I am today, but I grew up in the United States, and this is where I'll succeed or fail.

And yes, there are many excellent kung fu movies made in other countries, but it's interesting to look at how the stars of these two films were imported and repackaged for American audiences.

Jackie Chan and Jet Li in many ways represent two opposite ends of the martial arts movie spectrum: Jackie became famous for always doing his own stunts (and sometimes suffering grievous injuries in the process), and Jet was well-known for his wire fu special effects. Jackie tends to go for comedy, and Jet usually plays the badass fighter character. But they both act as ambassadors for Eastern martial arts, which are a huge part of many Asian cultures but have no traditional counterpart in the West. (Wrestling? Boxing? Let's be serious here, folks.)

Fun fact: John Rogers, now known for showrunning TV's Leverage and The Librarians, also created the animated series The Jackie Chan Adventures back in the day. And if you think a cartoon about Jackie Chan is an odd idea, perhaps you're misinterpreting his brand. It's not about the "real" death-defying stunts; it's about a very specific, precisely choreographed style of action comedy. Rogers later wrote a draft of Rush Hour 2... but I digress.

The original Rush Hour also features Chris Tucker's second-best career performance to date. His best work was, of course, as Ruby Rhod in The Fifth Element. FIGHT ME.

Speaking of science fiction, I know The One is completely ridiculous, but I love how it's totally okay with being a gonzo spec-fic riff on Highlander. And come on, you gotta give it up for a movie that has its own TV Tropes page.

Directed by James Wong, who co-wrote the script with Glen Morgan—they're the same team who co-created the TV series Space: Above and Beyond and shared writing credits on 15 episodes of The X-Files, including "Squeeze" and "Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man"—The One is kind of the bright, brazen, balls-to-the-walls antithesis to the often dark and brooding TV shows they worked on.

By the way, if you're watching it on DVD, make sure you check out the special features. The pictures of all the different alternate-universe Jet Lis are a friggin' hoot.


Tuesday, September 15, 2015

#42Movies, Day 5: British Invasions

What's all this, then?

Shaun of the Dead (2004)
Attack the Block (2011)

You'll see what I'm on about after the trailers, mate.

I've been a bit of an Anglophile ever since high school, when I discovered that my local PBS station broadcast reruns of not only Monty Python's Flying Circus but also other British imports like Fawlty Towers, Are You Being Served?, May to December (quite possibly the most adorable depiction of that trope you'll ever see), and Red Dwarf. (OMG RED DWARF but that's another topic.)

For me, British television shows are basically secondary world fiction: the setting is similar enough to my own home that I can understand why and how people do things, but the details are foreign enough to lend an air of the exotic. Everything from the way people speak (both accents and vocabulary) and the way specific social or political constructs work are just a little different, which makes it interesting to decode and remap to my own experience of the world.

But we're not talking about TV right now, otherwise I'd be going on about The IT Crowd and Spaced and Coupling and No Heroics and BlackAdder and 'Allo 'Allo! and Downton Abbey and many, many others. No, we're talking about movies, and how Great Britain perceives and presents itself in fiction as a beacon of civilization. The UK certainly has a lot of history to lend gravitas, but history also means a lot of cultural baggage which may now be outdated or downright reactionary. And that friction between past and future can make for very interesting stories.

These two movies cleverly repurpose the well-established zombie plague and alien invasion tropes, respectively, and in particular show us how groups of unlikely heroes deal with their homes being threatened. How do you react to a heretofore unimagined danger that's now staring you in the face? How do your friends react? Who and what do you choose to protect when you can't save everyone, and what does that tell the audience about your character? (And for me, watching what are essentially humanoid aliens endure these stories provides a welcome psychological buffer to mitigate the horror.)

Last but not least, both films are entertaining at their core, and managed do a lot of cool stuff with modest budgets (an estimated £4 million for Shaun and $13 million for Block, per IMDb). I like a good special effect as much as anyone, but I also appreciate when action set pieces are held back or kept offscreen in order to focus on characters and relationship. Because that's what any life-and-death crisis is really about—not the thing that might kill you, but who you'll be if you manage to survive it.


Monday, September 14, 2015

#42Movies, Day 4: Corporations Are People Too

And now for something almost, but not entirely, completely different:

Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979)
Brazil (1985)

Discussion after the trailers. Wait for it...

You may recall that two days ago I declared my personal belief that corporations are not people. So what's up with the title of today's post? Well, it's ironic, innit? Literary device and all that. Also, it embodies the idea that organizations can get out of hand when we pretend they're separate from the people they're made of.

Last year, author and activist Cory Doctorow tweeted this:

And this summer, he expanded on that idea in his Locus Online piece "Skynet Ascendant":
Corporations run on a form of code – financial regulation and accounting practices – and the modern version of this code literally prohibits corporations from treating human beings with empathy... We humans are the inconvenient gut-flora of the corporation. They aren’t hostile to us. They aren’t sympathetic to us. Just as every human carries a hundred times more non-human cells in her gut than she has in the rest of her body, every corpora­tion is made up of many separate living creatures that it relies upon for its survival, but which are fundamentally interchangeable and disposable for its purposes. Just as you view stray gut-flora that attacks you as a pathogen and fight it off with anti­biotics, corporations attack their human adversaries with an impersonal viciousness that is all the more terrifying for its lack of any emotional heat.
That's a pretty bleak interpretation, to be sure, but it's only one point of view. It's the attitude that gives us phrases like "I don't make the rules" and "I just work here" and "I was following orders"—which have become cliché, but many still hide behind those doctrines when trying to avoid responsibility for their actions.

There is a fundamental tension between the desire to build "a government of laws and not of men"i.e., a set of rules which apply fairly to everyone, without bias or prejudice—and the need to recognize that it is still people who apply those rules to each other, and people are never free from biases.

We're not re-animating corpses here. Any legal entity only exists because we say it does, and we can always change the laws if they're not working, or simply dissolve the entity in question. It's not a monster that we can no longer control; it only becomes monstrous if we choose to let it run amuck.

To use an analogy, it's like playing a tabletop game (especially a role-playing game) and finding that some of the rules don't work well for your particular group of players. If you're all not having fun, do you continue following the rules as written, or do you house-rule something to improve your particular experience?

It can be a complicated question, and the answer will depend on your particular situation. To paraphrase Commander William Riker: "Justice is never as simple as a rulebook."

But back to our movies. They both come out of the Monty Python comedy troupe (American member Terry Gilliam directed Brazil), and I see each one as a meditation on how a group of humans can be less than the sum of its parts—that is to say, the whole is sometimes less empathetic and rational than its individual members. Both films are tragic and funny—sometime simultaneously—but there's always a kernel of truth in even the most absurd scenes.

Humans are amazingly creative and imaginative, but that also means we can talk ourselves into believing all kinds of crazy made-up stuff. I doubt we can ever prevent ourselves from occasionally slipping into irrationality, but let's remember that we're all just people, and always do our best to be excellent to each other.


Sunday, September 13, 2015

#42Movies, Day 3: We Can Be Heroes

Finding your favorite cover of the Bowie tune is left as an exercise for the reader. Meanwhile, let's talk about...

The Specials (2000)
The Incredibles (2004)

Astute readers will notice that, like yesterday, I've chosen to feature two relatively recent superhero movies. Again, this is not because I don't love older superhero flicks, like Richard Donner's Superman or Tim Burton's Batman or even Sam Raimi's Darkman. (Seriously, Darkman. Check it out.) It's because I have more specific thoughts right now about these two films.

I first saw The Incredibles at Pixar headquarters in Emeryville—which, as you might expect, has an amazing all-digital theatre, and in 2004 (ten years before all American cinemas went digital), it was stunningly beautiful. I was singing with The Richter Scales at the time, and one of our members who worked at Pixar got us into a private screening. One of the best moviegoing experiences of my life, both in terms of presentation and content.

Full disclosure: I've loved Superman (the character, not any particular incarnation) for as long as I can remember, and perhaps largely because of that was drawn more to DC than Marvel, comics-wise. The good news is that meant I was right there in 1986 when Watchmen changed the world. My original bagged-and-boarded issues are probably still in my parents' garage somewhere.

Incredibles deals with a lot of the same themes and issues as Watchmen, but in a less gruesome and more modern way, and is way more overt about the tropes it's playing with—and I like a good inside joke almost as much as I like terrible puns. I also love that director Brad Bird is able to swing the mood from ridiculously funny all the way over to deadly and back again. It's not quite as deft as It's a Wonderful Life, which often does both in the same scene, but it's still remarkable.

On a smaller scale, The Specials also deconstructs what it means to be a superhero, and because it's a low-budget independent film (written by and co-starring James Gunn, who would go on to direct Guardians of the Galaxy), it's mostly the characters talking to each other about stuff. You know, like normal people. Except their concerns and anxieties are just a little off-kilter, because of who they are.

It's funny, it's a little dark, and it's the first time I can remember seeing a Judy Greer performance (and being instantly charmed by it, of course. Go read her memoir. Or, better, yet, get the audiobook and have her tell you stories like she's your best friend. And then get the paperback edition which has an extra chapter about Archer). It's also the only place you'll see Rob Lowe and Jamie Kennedy compare how tight their pants are. Really. You want to see this movie.

Unlike my friend Bryan, I'm not yet burned out on superhero movies. I'm still enjoying the Marvel flicks, and cautiously optimistic about the upcoming DC slate. Just don't screw up Wonder Woman, guys. Though honestly, I'm more psyched for Supergirl on TV. (It's Supergirl! Every week! SQUEE)


Saturday, September 12, 2015

#42Movies, Day 2: In The Not Too Distant Future

Out of all the science fiction movies I've seen, why would I choose these two?

Children of Men (2006)
District 9 (2009)

I'll explain after the trailers.

Yesterday I talked about one of the reasons I love Star Trek more than Star Wars: because genre-wise, I've always been more drawn to science fiction than fantasy. I prefer imagining a somewhat-possible future to a totally-impossible secondary world.

But why feature these two very recent, rather dystopian, and stylistically similar films? How could they possibly have influenced me much in just the last few years? Wasn't I already "fully baked" as a human being by the time I saw these movies?

Well, yes and no. I do believe that much of our personalities are shaped at an early age, which is why I avoid debating adults about anything substantial—I'm pretty sure I'm not going to change anybody's mind about politics simply by talking at them. And though I believe I'm fairly open-minded, there are certain positions that I'm not likely to budge on, either. (For the record: Household pets are people. Corporations are not.)

But I'm still learning new things, all the time, and I want to continue. The day I stop learning is the day I die. And those accumulated bits of learning can change my perspective gradually, like a pile of pennies overflowing a piggy bank.

Children of Men and District 9 both focus on disadvantaged and oppressed populations, with glimpses of the ruling class, but the heart of each story is the powerless struggling against the powerful. I'll be honest: I was pretty sheltered growing up, and I think that was by design; my parents wanted their children to grow up safe in the suburbs, with every possible advantage in life. I love them for wanting the best for my sister and me, but the consequence of growing up in our particular upper-middle-class Southern California society was not really understanding some of the worst things in life.

Obviously watching a couple of movies didn't change my worldview overnight. These two films are simply emblematic of something I've come to understand in recent years: that charity is not necessarily sympathy, and though it may be feel difficult to be an ally, it's more difficult to live with yourself knowing that you didn't do the right thing.


Friday, September 11, 2015

#42Movies, Day 1: Star Power

In which no one is surprised by my first double feature:

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi (1983).

Commentary starts after trailers...

Yeah, yeah. Did any of you expect that these would not be the first two movie franchises I talked about? Raise your hand if you're surprised. (If your hand is now raised: HELLO. HAVE WE MET.)

It's safe to say that absorbing these two series at an early age directly influenced at least 47% of my character. The original Star Wars (yes, I mean Episode IV - A New Hope, you fucking nerd) was the first movie I ever saw in a theater, and Star Trek (TOS, duh) was one of the first three television shows I remember watching—while standing up and gripping the bars of my crib, no less.

(The other two TV shows were Space:1999 and Bewitched, in case you're wondering. Explains a lot, doesn't it?)

I am a lifelong fan of both Trek and Wars. I'm a little more hardcore on the Trek side, and you can psychoanalyze that if you like, but it really comes down to liking science fiction more than fantasy. That's just who I am.

So why did I pick these two films in particular? Why not, say, the one with the whales or the fanboy favorite?

Because this is a personal retrospective, and these two particular movies made very specific impacts on me when I first saw them. Wrath of Khan was the first time I witnessed the onscreen death of a beloved fictional character, and one with whom I strongly identified to boot. Return of the Jedi was the biggest "event" movie I had attended up to that point, and I distinctly remember waiting outside the theater for the previous showing to end and hearing parts of the soundtrack (mostly explosions) leaking through the walls. These were big, bold, bombastic stories, and images from both climactic space battles are permanently burned into my brain.

(Side note: I have never been into the "Slave Leia" metal bikini look. And by the way, check out the trailer above; her voiceover intro is "the strength of a leader." Yay for that, but boo for pretty much every other way in which Star Wars shortchanges its only female main character. Another reason I like Trek better, honestly.)

I could go on about this for days, but I'll stop here. Accost me in person if you want to talk about either Star franchise. Excruciating details available upon request!

Finally, this series of animated GIFs captures all I have to say about J.J. Abrams (video source - 02:28).


Thursday, September 10, 2015

#42Movies in 21 Days

It's almost my 42nd birthday! And, as in past years, I'm doing a project to celebrate. This one's less interactive than others have been (but feel free to re-share a post if it tickles your fancy).

Over the next three weeks, I'm going to blog about some movies I love—forty-two of them, to be precise—and how they influenced who I am today. And I'm going to pair them up into somewhat thematic double features.

(Please note, this is by no means an exhaustive list of all the movies I love. That's a much longer list, and considerably more varied. These are just the movies that I have very deep significant thoughts about. Or the ones I could pair up with something else to make a plausible double feature.)

I've consumed a lot of different media in my life, and it's all affected me to some degree. Movies are simply the easiest to encapsulate—they're more self-contained and focused than television series, which can last for years and wander all over the map in terms of story and technique. Similarly, books and music are often entwined with other life experiences and don't necessarily stand on their own.

I'm old enough to remember going to the movies as a special event, when you willingly shut out reality and plunged yourself into another world for a couple of hours. Glimpsing those other worlds gave me new perspectives on my own life. This will be my flimsy commemoration of some of the films that shaped me.

Finally, a clarification: I don't plan to actually re-watch all these movies over the next few weeks (though I'll likely screen some of them for old time's sake), but you should feel free to do so and then comment on the appropriate blog post. :)

Follow @sparCKL on Twitter and look for the #42Movies hashtag!


Wednesday, September 09, 2015

I Turn 42 in 3 Weeks

And despite being pretty busy these days (like, continuously), I'm going to do another birthday project—specifically, a blog series that I've been thinking about for a while. Look for a more detailed explanation right here tomorrow.

Meanwhile, in the big city...