Film Reviews

Kids, This Here’s What America’s All About: Weird Al Through the Eyes of His Fans

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My first “Weird Al” Yankovic concert was two days before my fifteenth birthday, August 14, 1994 (Alapalooza Tour).  Jeff Foxworthy, who was at the height of his “You Might Be a Redneck” fame, was the opening act, and I remember being totally blown away when Al finished the night by announcing he’d play an unreleased tune from his next album.  It was an incredible evening, and I’ll never forget how my mother, brother, and I laughed together in that darkened arena.

Back in the days before the internet, there weren’t many resources for searching an artist’s discography, so I’d go for treasure hunts at every music department I came across.  When I’d dig up a new cassette, I’d beg my mother to spend her meager earnings on another hour of life-altering entertainment.  Before long, I knew all the songs by heart.  I was such a sponge for his lyrics that after only hearing “Headline News” that one time at the Ohio State Fair, I was singing it line-for-line to the campers and my fellow councilors back at my summer job.  (My brother and I would also enrich the impressionable Cub Scouts with our renditions of “The Bedrock Anthem,” “The Good Old Days,” and “Nature Trail to Hell.”)

I’m pushing forty now, and I probably bring up Mr. Yankovic at least once a day.  At night, I troll the internet for memorabilia.  My collection has become so obscure and inclusive of minutia, I’ve had Al ask me where I found the stuff I was having him sign.  I found the press kit from the cult-classic Al-penned-and-acted film “UHF.”  I’ve got one of the one thousand copies of the Placebo EP Al sold from his Cal Poly dorm when he was first starting off.  I even have a piece of vinyl called “Slo Grown,” a tribute to the sleepy town of San Luis Obispo that happens to have a track on it by a young Alfred Yankovic.  Do I have the “Peter and the Wolf” record he collaborated with Wendy Carlos on?  Oh yeah!  I found it on Ebay.

Over the years, I’ve seen Al a half a dozen times, at amusement parks and county fairs, in historical halls and rock venues, and twice at The Hollywood Bowl.  I even had the privilege of seeing him interviewed in person at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles.  Still, nothing will ever top the show in ’96 at the Newport Music Hall (Bad Hair Day Tour).

The crowd was youthful and energized.  Al, still bespectacled and ‘fro-headed, had us high on visions of Twinkie-wiener sandwiches.  This was kind of a special moment in Al’s career.  He was branching out into fresh territory that would come to serve him well in the years ahead.  He’d mingled with a lot of genres but had mostly tangled with pop hits and rock anthems.  “Amish Paradise” was only his second shot at rap, and when those unmistakable first notes seared out from the speakers, I turned to my right and saw a cat that looked a lot like a young Busta Rhymes.  It was amazing!  I didn’t know this guy, but I felt a bond between us as we rapped Al’s hip hop parody together.  Later in the night, when “Smells Like Nirvana” cranked the volume at us, I grabbed one of my buddies and pushed him into the two headbangers standing in front of us.  They wore Pantera shirts and army boots, and when Christian’s body slammed into them, they turned around and stared at us.  And then, as though this was the moment they’d been waiting for all night, they carpe’d some mean diem, throwing up devil’s horns and letting out cries of unfettered liberation.

Yes, I started a mosh pit at a “Weird Al” show, and it’s still one of my proudest achievements.

There hasn’t been another concert like that for me – partly because I’m older, but also because of the brand of audience Al tends to attract.  They’re nice, reasonable, well-behaved people, and sure, they might have Al’s face tattooed on their back, but they aren’t the brand of rebel that wants to burn this mother down.  They – okay, we!  We sit politely through the concert and clap for the requisite encore.  We might be moved to applaud, but we never dance like no one is watching.  That doesn’t mean we don’t know how to have a good time.  What other show features cone bras, a fat suit, a giant purple peacock costume, boxers torn from pants and thrown from the stage, a Santa punching, goth cheerleaders, and a battalion of Storm Troopers?  There are video clips that span almost four decades and inspire audience participation at a Rocky Horror Picture Show level.  Trust me, we’re having a blast, but even with all that spectacle, if you’ve been to one Weird Al show, you kind of know what to expect.

Want in on a little secret?  I’ve actually been in crowds that don’t know or don’t care about the standard ritual.  I’ve been one face in a sea of others, standing and cheering, shouting and wailing, never stopping our outcry of love and respect.  Remember the night I told you about where Al performed “Headline News” before it was released?  That was during a second encore.  It really doesn’t have to be the same show every night, and I think that’s what motivated Al to do something different this time.

The marketing for The Ridiculously Self-Indulgent, Ill-Advised Vanity Tour was just as bizarre as the name might imply.  Al posted a warning on his social media feed, advising the majority of his ever-expanding audience to stay away.  This public service announcement seemed to be doing everything possible to discourage ticket sales.  There will be no A-side material; instead, it will be a night filled with the lesser known originals.  There may have been some break-out B-sides, like “Dare to Be Stupid,” “One More Minute,” or “You Don’t Love Me Anymore,” but every fan has had the same two questions when they talk about their devotion to Al: “Didn’t he stop making music in the 80’s?” and “He does original songs?”  The majority of his digital downloads are the latest parody of a Billboard chart-topper.  What would compel him to go on the road and commit career suicide by not playing any of his greatest hits?  And this time they’ll be side-stepping the big show theatrics?!  Just like the audience, Al, Kimo, Steve, Ruben, and Bermuda were promising to sit through the whole thing.

From the moment I saw that first announcement, I couldn’t wait to plunk down my hard-earned cash to see the show.  This would be an ever-changing set list of deep cuts and rarities and audience chatter; it was going to be a little less weird and a little more Al.

Real fans – or as we like to call ourselves, Close Personal Friends of Al – may not be as crazed and feral as those who followed The Grateful Dead around the country in days of old or who currently take Faygo showers with The Insane Clown Posse, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t just as zealous.  We may statistically be white and nerdy, but we feel passionately about our favorite musician.  Most of us discovered him during our formative years, when puberty and self-esteem issues were making our lives miserable.  We were sensitive and awkward, struggling to make friends without the aid of athletic prowess or cool guy angst.  Then suddenly we hear some song that set aside the tropes of  the universal themes dominating the air waves.  This crazy song had the balls to be about something other than rebellion or a messy break up.  It was a song that stuck its finger into the eye of conformity.  It was punk rock in a totally understated and endearing way.  Our minds were blown.  We’d never be the same again.  Here was something just as different as we were, and finding it was an absolute eureka moment.

In his wildly colorful shirts and patterned canvas shoes, Alfred Matthew Yankovic set the mold for every self-respecting class clown.  He was one of us and had turned a name his college classmates had given him in mocking derision – “Here comes weird Al” – and turned it into the moniker of a self-made rock god.  He didn’t have the luxury of knowing how to shred on an electric guitar to get girls.  Instead, he squeezed an accordion and sang with a squeaky voice that mustn’t have seemed destined to win the four Grammys he’d someday have.  But he had a few tricks up his Hawaiian sleeves.  His wry wit and work ethic would fill notebooks with his lyrical genius and propel him to stardom, and even after that, he’s still the same kind person he was when he first came out of Lynnwood.

Just like when a new tent pole blockbuster hits the theaters, I stayed away from spoilers about this tour on the internet.  With only a vague wish list of songs we wanted to hear (sadly, “I’ll Be Mellow When I’m Dead” didn’t make the cut at all on this year), my girlfriend and I arrived at Humphrey’s by the Bay early enough to participate in the VIP pre-show.  This was a venue Al hadn’t played since ‘85, a year before The Golden State Killer claimed his last victim, and they were about to time travel with an entire audience, hopping back and forth from 1982 to 2014 and all the years in between.

The first blast from the past was Emo Philips, who opened the show with a wandering, childlike stand-up set that’s been seasoned since the 80’s.  The Al crowd knows and loves Emo from his performance in “UHF” where he sacrifices a piece of himself to a. . . a. . . table-saw?  I’m sure you already know Emo cut us all to pieces and had us in stitches.

After a brief changing of the stage, my favorite band perched on stools and effortlessly filled the evening air with nostalgia.  As my eyes wandered across the faces of my fellow audience members, I felt a warming kinship with the crowd.  Burly men with grey hair smiled broadly and sang along.  Mothers laughed at jokes they’d never really paid much attention to before, reminding me so much of my own mother’s enjoyment at that first show.  My heart filled with joy when “The Good Old Days” was announced, and kids the same age as the Cub Scouts in my good old days lit up like Christmas.  It was almost like a magic show.  We weren’t necessarily hearing songs from our personal playlists.  These were lullabies buried deep in our subconscious, and in fact, there were moments when Al dug so far back that he lost the majority of the crowd.  It didn’t matter that not everyone was vibing on “Velvet Elvis,” because it was really playing well for that one or two people who were there, hanging on every note.

The whole gig felt special, and without all of the artifice,  there seemed to be little distance between the viewers and the performers on stage.  There was enough space in what was happening in those colorful spotlights for both “Albuquerque” and “The Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota,” two of the longest songs in the whole library.  And they performed even longer versions of them then what remains unchanged on the original recordings.  They were alive and sparkling and new all over again.  This journey back into childhood was being led by the ultimate guide.  This love letter to the fans was a thank you for sticking around or for checking back in after all these years.

The biggest surprise of the night came during the encore.  “The next song will be a request, so everyone, shout out what you want us to play.”  We roared, suggesting everything from “Hardware Store” (a song impossible to play live) to “Still Billy Joel” (an unrecorded track he’ll probably never play again).  With a confused look at Jim West, Al replied, “Really?  I’ve never played that before.  But. . .  okay.”  And then the audience sat in stunned silence for about three minutes.

You could almost hear them asking each other, “What album is this from?”  To come with the answer a bit late, it was from the debut, self-titled album by Foo Fighters.  It was a cover of “This Is a Call,” a straight, non-humorous song, made funny by juxtaposition, and that’s not even the coolest part.  For every encore at every single night of the tour, Al and the band have been performing a different cover.  They’ve done unsmirking renditions of The Beatles, Devo, Smash Mouth, and Steppenwolf.  It’s a different surprise every show, so you really can’t see the same thing twice this time around.  They’re playing whatever the hell they want with a level of execution rivaling the original performers.  This really is one of the greatest – and certainly most underrated – group of musicians in show business.

When you’re talking about an artist that’s built a reputation on reusing other people’s music, it should come as no surprise his success has hinged on his lyrics.  Mimicking the lilt and key of a hit squad might be enough to propel a cover band to regional fame, but becoming the prince of parody with an Energizer bunny of a career is a statistical anomaly.  In fact, it’s genre-redefining, since the term “novelty act” by it’s very definition implies a passing fad.  These are supposed to be viral hits for a few weeks and nothing more.  No one should know the lyrics to “Eat It” thirty four years after it was released, and perhaps the reason there are so many of us who do isn’t because of the surging impact on the cultural landscape “Beat It” had.  It’s because the album In 3D also came packaged with “Midnight Star,” “That Boy Could Dance,” and “Nature Trail to Hell.”  It’s a testament to the originals that Al wasn’t destined to be a one hit wonder, despite what was predicted after Polka Party! failed to replicate his earlier numbers.  It wasn’t about whose coattails he could ride.  He’s always been able to do the heavy lifting on his own – or at least with a little help from his friends, and that’s why I feel we’ve entered into a new and exciting phase in this one-of-a-kind career.

I really believe we could have at least another decade of incredible work from our hero, even if he never does another parody again.  I know he’s done doing albums, but I can’t wait to see – and hear – what comes next, and I know I’m not the only one.  Whether they first heard him on Dr. Demento’s show or as the titular character of Milo Murphy’s Law, the true believers are all here, sitting in the darkened arena, waiting with anticipation.

If I could leave Al with one parting thought it would be this:  Don’t be afraid to do something new and unexpected.  It might seem like it would end everything, but just like when Michael Jackson said no to “Snack All Night” and you found Nirvana instead – just like when Yoko Ono turned down “Gee, I’m a Nerd” and it eventually transformed into “White and Nerdy” – subvert everyone’s expectations, like this amazing tour, is only going to draw us closer to you.

 

For more about my journey with Al’s music, check out this excerpt from my novel “Home Street.”

To rock out to the music Al inspired me to create, check out Chalkskin here.

And as a last self-indulgent plug, if you’d like to see the show I’ve been dying to interview Mr. Yankovic for, check out my conversations with such luminaries as George R.R. Martin here.

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Sheepdog David Grant’s 19th Annual Academy Awards Contest Results!!!

THE BROADCAST

We live in a very different America than we did last year.  While there has always been angst regarding the Academy Awards acting as a platform for political views, we had never had a sitting president call Meryl Streep “overrated” before.  After her comments at The Golden Globes – which could basically be boiled down to: Please stop bullying Hollywood, foreigners, the press, and handicapped people, Mr. President – Trump supporters vowed to boycott the Oscars.  This shouldn’t be too surprising to anyone who is paying attention.  The right have long derided “the left coast,” and now they finally have an administration eager to end funding to the arts.

A lot of people were expecting heavy political messages this year, and there were a couple.  When Iran’s “The Salesman” won Best Foreign Language Film, a statement was read by the filmmaker, who refused to come to America as long as we have a president that has openly discussed a “Muslim ban.”  While presenting, Gael Garcia Bernal told a truth about how all those in the film industry are migrant workers who go to other countries to craft their work.  And several jokes were made that teased at the division in our country.  Overall, however, it was kind of lite on hardline statements.

Normally I would do a segment entitled “On a Very Special Episode Of…” that goes in depth into the greater theme the broadcast seemed to be on a crusade to discuss, but it fits in so nicely here.  The reality is that they were going for something more mainstream and neutral this year, aiming to please as many people while spreading out the monolog throughout the program and keeping a tight schedule.  It worked pretty well, but it would have been rather unforgettable had Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway not announced La La Land as Best Picture when Moonlight had actually won.

But there were two themes that did come up.

The first was not a new one.  We’ve seen it a lot since 9/11, actually.  And the year that there was controversy surrounding the rise of superhero movies, the perceived decline of films with depth, and fans that were upset that The Dark Knight was snubbed, the Academy went to extra lengths to elevate the films that were actually given the nod, going as far as to have host Hugh Jackman use his Wolverine street-cred to sing a song in his opening monologue about the subject.  Movies are important.  Storytelling is important.  Film is an important industry, not just for the American economy but for the world’s.

The second was only lightly touched on, but it’s exactly what I thought they should have focused on.  You see, in calling for others to boycott the Oscars, the Trumpeters said things like, “Why do we give awards to actors and not the real heroes?”  First, we do, and if it made for good T.V., you better believe they would air it.  It should go without saying that Hollywood is indeed rewarding the best work in their industry, but their industry routinely pays tribute to real-world heroes.  Captain “Sully” Sullenberg.  Desmond Doss.  The hidden figures that put a man on the moon.  People who adopt and raise children.  Not to mention all the real-world heroes in the documentary subjects!  By bringing famed scientist Katherine Johnson, who Taraji P. Henson played in Hidden Figures, onto the stage to a standing ovation, the point was made.

“Movies about the lives of men and women in the history books have long been a staple of storytellers,” Monae told the audience. “Sometimes the names and deeds of the heroes in those films are known to all.”

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THE BEST ACCEPTANCE SPEECH

The best acceptance speech for an Oscar this year was not during this broadcast.  It actually came from Jackie Chan, who won a lifetime achievement award during an earlier ceremony.  You can watch that speech here.

However, if we’re just looking at the televised ceremony, then the winner would be Viola Davis, who extolled the storytellers to “exhume those bodies.”  You can see that here.

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ALSO DEAD:

They always leave people off the memoriam.  This year, the following people were missing:

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Alexis Arquette (actor)

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Florence Henderson (actor)

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Dan Ireland (producer)

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Jon Polito (actor)

GALLERY

Dorris Roberts (actor)

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Garry Shandling (actor, comedian)

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Robert Vaughn (actor)

 

NOT DEAD:

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Producer, Jan Chapman, whose picture was mistakenly used for costume designer Janet Patterson.

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A SPECIAL TRIBUTE:

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Known for The White Shadow, 1776, Rambo, 30 Rock, and 105 other credits, Ken Howard was also the President of SAG/AFTRA, Chancellor of the National Kidney Foundation, a board member of the Los Angeles Alzheimer’s Committee, a board member of Shambala Animal Preserve, and a national spokesperson for the Onyx and Breezy Foundation.  I had the pleasure of knowing him a little during my tenure at Kent State. He was attending the graduate program and taught a few classes that I was in. He coached me in a couple of monologues.  He was a no-nonsense kind of guy that was very particular about what he considered good acting.  He ended one class with an open q & a. The rest of the class kind of waited, unsure of what to ask and looking to each other to break the ice. I put my hand up right away and asked him about working with Sylvester Stallone.  He chuckled and told a few good-natured stories.  That got things going.

RIP, Ken.

 

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MY FAVORITE PART OF THE SHOW

Bringing his favorite running gag from his late night show to the Academy Awards broadcast, Jimmy Kimmel made a lot of jokes at Matt Damon’s expense.  He has been his supposed arch-nemesis ever since he ended an episode with bad guests by quipping, “My apologies to Matt Damon.  We ran out of time.”  Upping the ante, former girlfriend Sarah Silverman surprised Jimmy with a music video for “I’m F#$%ing Matt Damon” and then taking it to a whole new level with his own response, “I’m F@#$ing Ben Affleck,” the fake-feud has led to a lot of great TV moments.

So. . .  After the insane confusion with the Best Picture mix-up, I had a lot of fun with my live Tweets.

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SCORE BOARD:

0 Correct Answers 0%
Nobody  
1 Correct Answer 4.1666%
Nobody  
2 Correct Answers 8.333%
Nobody  
3 Correct Answers 12.4999%
Nobody  
4 Correct Answers 16.666%
Tarah Hamilton  
5 Correct Answers 20.8333%
Nobody  
6 Correct Answers 24.999%
Elizabeth “E.J.” Jackson  
7 Correct Answers 29.1666%
Matt Ratz  
8 Correct Answers 33.333%
Jamie Mank  
Ann Murdock  
9 Correct Answers 37.4999%
Nobody  
10 Correct Answers 41.666%
Mike Maletic  
Leigh Ann Spratt  
11 Correct Answers 45.8333%
“Shawny” Shawn Page  
12 Correct Answers 49.999%
Regan Page  
David Shoemaker  
13 Correct Answers 54.1666%
Brian Stevens  
14 Correct Answers 58.333%
Victoria Leduc  
15 Correct Answers 62.4999%
David Grant  
Stella Ingram  
16 Correct Answers 66.666%
???????  
17 Correct Answers 70.8333%
Nobody  
18 Correct Answers 74.999%
Nobody  
19 Correct Answers 79.1666%
Nobody  
20 Correct Answers 83.333%
Nobody  
21 Correct Answers 87.4999%
Nobody  
22 Correct Answers 91.666%
Nobody  
23 Correct Answers 95.8333%
Nobody  
24 Correct Answers 100%
Nobody  

 

WALL OF FAME

1999 – Elizabeth Grant

2000 – Eric Fox

2001 – Jillaine Gill

2002 – Eric Fox, Nate Hodges, and Drew Lerman– 13 correct guesses (no tie breaker)

2003 – Eric Fox– 15 correct guesses

2004 – Kevin Schwendeman– 20 correct guesses

2005 – Nate Hodges– 16 correct guesses

2006 – Jes Antolik and Leigh Ann Spratt — 14 correct guesses (Leigh Ann won the tie breaker)

2007 – Jillaine Gill — 16 correct guesses

2008 – Rock Shaink Jr — 14 correct guesses

2009 – Benjamin Crusoe — 18 correct guesses

2010 – Holly Elswick — 17 correct guesses

2011 – Elizabeth Grant — 17 correct guesses

2012 – Christian Hodges and Kevin Schwendeman — 18 correct guesses (Christian won the tie breaker)

2013 – Sheepdog David Grant — 19 correct guesses

2014 – Sheepdog David Grant — 21 correct guesses

2015 – Brian Stevens — 20 correct guesses

2016 – Holly Elswick and Brian Stevens — 17 correct guesses

 

AND THE WINNER IS…

With 16 correct guesses…

 

holly-elswick

Holly Elswick!!!

What makes a great romance? An exploration of ‘LA LA Land’

 

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Like The Artist before it, LA LA Land is a film that dares to think backward while telling a story that tells a story for a forward thinking audience.  It is a film that feels timeless, an instant classic.  Movie-goers feel like they are watching something akin to Singing in the Rain, Rebel without a Cause, and especially Casablanca.

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“I SHOULD PROBABLY TELL YOU SOMETHING NOW – I HATE JAZZ.”

Just as last year’s Whiplash had jazz purists saying, “That’s not how you become a great jazz musician,” LA LA Land has gotten some criticism for oversimplifying the genre into a “hackneyed cliché.”  While these would be fair criticisms of films that boast of being a thorough and definitive exploration of the genre, neither of these movies are actually about jazz.

LA LA Land’s got rhythm pumping through its veins from beginning to end, but the conversations in the film about the music style are used to clarify the metaphor.  Both metaphors, actually.

In one figurative sense, a jazz song is like a love story.  It is alive, improvisational, happens in the moment, and happens once.  You have to be there for it, paying attention and feeling it, or you’ll miss it.  This is a jazz song about two young hopefuls with stars in their eyes.  They find each other in a town that’s become stale, each filled with ambition to change their little piece of the world.

The second thing that jazz represents in LA LA Land film is the town in which the story takes place.   Hollywood – specifically the culture of film – is changing.  The classic cinema that this film lifts up is “dying on the vine.”  When Mia, a talented and yet frustrated actress, tells Sebastian, an equally frustrated jazz-obsessed musician, that she doesn’t like jazz, she might as well be saying, “I don’t like black and white movies.”

A writer tries to chat up Mia at a Hollywood party by telling her his specialty is “world building.”  He tells her he’s working on a “reimagining” of Goldilocks and The Three Bears, and the way he describes it makes it sound ridiculous and familiar.  As he explains that he sees it as “a franchise,” it sounds like the kind of project that could be in development right now.  This trend is comparable to the “smooth jazz” station that you put on at parties and talk over.  It doesn’t challenge or move you, because it’s elevator music.  The only debate left when talking about the popcorn fair that breaks the box office these days (Batman v. Superman, Transformers, X-Men, TMNT, etc.) is whether or not it’s actually any good.

Make no mistake, however, when it comes to that second analogy, LA LA Land isn’t a stickler for stringent traditionalism.  You can’t grow your audience if you only play for an aging audience.  You have to appeal to young people without losing the guiding principles of compelling storytelling.  Films, like great jazz, must continue to be revolutionary.

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“WHY DO YOU SAY ROMANTIC LIKE IT’S A DIRTY WORD?”

Romance stories are difficult to make compelling to a modern audience, and because of that, the genre often becomes stale and predictable.  Like the blockbusters that have come to dominate the large and small screen, modern romance stories tend to involve gimmicks and props (i.e. vampire/werewolf/human love triangles, zombie/human partnerships, or the trust-fall exercise that is a sadomasochistic relationship).  Still, instead of having mass appeal, as it once did, the romance genre has become a niche market that is often enjoyed as a guilty pleasure, usually in a bubble bath with a glass of white wine.

This is not the moment for romance stories.  In decades past, romantic-comedies were an enormous part of the industry.  I’ve heard commentary from producers that made their entire careers off that business that has bemoaned the loss.  They often speak of the quality of the films that have replaced them, insisting that the loss of rom-coms signifies a decline for Hollywood.  They refer to old stereotypes (“She’d see his comic book movie, and he’d go see her romance”), but that misses the point.

That being said, the musical is all but dead on the big screen.  The modern musical – if such a thing exists in film – exists in the form of a musician biopic (Ray, Walk the Line).  It can only be fiction if it’s purely on the soundtrack (The Great Gatsby) or if it’s centered around a music venue (Rock of Ages) or a rock star (School of Rock).  Aside from rare exceptions (Les Miserables), movie characters have only been allowed to sing where they would in the real world, such as on a stage (Ricki and The Flash).

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A BRIEF CONVERSATION WITH MYSELF

Are you saying that theaters full of mindless drivel that tell sloppy, incoherent stories?

Sure.

More so than before?

Depends on when you mean.

I mean – movies like The Lone Ranger?

Oh, or The Tickler!

The Tickler didn’t have the inflated budget of The Lone Ranger!

No, but let me tell you a story about Elizabeth Taylor and Cleopatra.

Come on!  That was a classic!

No.  It’s just old.  Just like The Lone Ranger, it was a flop when it came out, and it included similar cultural appropriation.

But some of these big blockbusters are actually pretty good.

I don’t care if your movie is Captain Philips or Captain America, if you’ve got a good script, some nuanced performances, and a competent director, I will support it.  I’m just sick of the cookie cutter stories.

And you think that the issue is more prevalent with big blockbusters?

Oh, no.  Remember when we were talking about rom-com producers talking about the decline of the genre and saying it’s a symptom of declining quality in Hollywood?

Yeah.

Well, for every As Good As It Gets or Silver Linings Playbook there was a Serendipity or a Failure to Launch.

So what separates a bad romance story from a good one?

GREAT QUESTION!

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WHAT MAKES A GREAT ROMANTIC STORY?

The prevailing consensus for romance movies seems to have been to write the main characters straight, and then write fun, interesting friends for them to get advice from.  It’s not something that doesn’t work.  After all, it comes from Shakespeare’s playbook.  If Much Ado about Nothing is the prototypical rom-com, then why wouldn’t you do that?  Write an ingénue character for the women to sympathize with.  Write a romantic man for the men to sympathize with, and if you think it will make things more palatable for the guys, simply give the male lead a gender-specific pastime, like sports.

The memorable parts of Much Ado about Nothing, however, don’t involve the young lovers.  It’s all about Benedict and Beatrice and their bickering, prickly, reluctant love story, which is why I couldn’t implore more for you to craft characters that are specific and flawed.

Let’s take a look back at a film that is reasonably considered the greatest romance ever put on celluloid, Casablanca.  Rick is a man with some principle, but he isn’t a hero.  He’s a broken man, haunted by a broken heart.  He has disappeared into a crowd of low-life criminals that prey on the innocent, and he doesn’t stick his neck out for anyone.  In walks Elsa, a complicated woman that Rick both loves and hates.  She carries a secret that is the only thing that can heal Rick, but it will only work if they are both willing to make sacrifices.  The “friend” characters are colorful because every character is colorful in this film.  Everyone is allowed to shine, and it makes for a story that is anything but dull.

Now, let’s take a closer look at what is possibly the best romantic movie in modern times to discuss the second main point.  The Notebook, also starring Ryan Gosling, takes a step back from the main ingredients of romantic storytelling and frames them in a context that gives everything greater weight and power.  The deeper subject, that of the power and longevity of love even in the face of debilitating illness has often fallen into clichés of its own.  Boy meets girl; girl gets cancer.  It’s the pitch that’s launched a thousand Lifetime Originals.

What makes both The Notebook and LA LA Land so remarkable is that they each craft the story in a way that it allows for each season of the romance to bloom to its fullest.  Make no mistake, they both come with a gut punch, but it isn’t played to manipulate the audience.  It is the poetic crux of the story.  The same can be said for Casablanca.  There is poetry in pain.  There is love in sacrifice.  There is redemption in compassion.

It’s obvious to anyone that has studied Plato’s Poetics, but the elements of a remarkable romance are the same as those for any great story:

  1. Plot
  2. Character
  3. Language
  4. Music
  5. Spectacle

Take care of each of those things, do it in that order of importance, and you’ll have something.  If you can incorporate Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, then you might end up with a cinematic treasure.

Needless to say, LA LA Land does all of this.

 

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Top Posts of 2016

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10. Keanu!!!, in which I review the Key and Peele film.

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9. How Should I Spend My Lottery Winnings, in which I make plans for a couple million bucks

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8. The DO’s and DON’T’s of Action Flicks, in which I compare and contrast the original Jack Reacher film with Skyfall

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7. How to Spot a Racist, a post that is even more important today than it was when I wrote it in 2013

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6. The Greatest Depictions of Single-Minded Emotion, a continuously popular blog

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5. VOTER’S GUIDE: California Propositions and Measures, a helpful voting tool

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4. Back Story, the story of my debilitating back injury and the miracle that went with it

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3. Ghostbusters (2016): A Superfan’s Perspective, my thoughts on the reboot

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2. Going Long: Reviews for “Kill Me Now” and “Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie,” reviews of a couple of independent films made by popular Youtube artists

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1. Predator versus “Predator,” my take on female teacher sexual scandals

 

 

Ghostbusters (2016): A Superfan’s Perspective

My Qualifications

I am not an authority on “Ghostbusters.”  I do not own my own proton pack, have not engineered my own Ecto-1, and I’ve never drank an Ecto Cooler.  But people that know me have expressed interest in my thoughts on the new movie.

I do have a lot of paraphernalia from the first film.  Those are mainly gifts from people that know that the original 1984 film is tied for the top spot of movies in my heart (with “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “American Movie”).  And since I am such a movie enthusiast and because my passion for storytelling is boundless, that top spot means I can tell you details about the film to the tiniest minutia.

If it’s Ghostbusters related, I know about it, and I have something to say.

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Ghostbusters 2

So let me start off with a story about a ten year old kid.  I was excited so excited to be going to see my heroes on the big screen for the first time.  I had watched Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, and Ernie Hudson on VHS and TV showings for years.  I had watched every episode of The Real Ghostbusters on Saturday mornings.  Despite being poor, I even had a couple of the action figures (the kind that animatedly freaked out when you pushed down an arm or squeezed their legs together).  Bill Murray was then and still is one of my favorite actors (one of my personal goals is to write a role for him that would win him an Oscar).  I didn’t know it then, but the original film would easily qualify as the film I would see more times in the theater than any other (usually on my birthday).  So when I watched “Ghostbusters 2” unspool on the big screen, I was about as excited as a kid could be.

But I’ll tell you something, that movie is terrible.  It uses convenient job changes that make no sense (Dana goes from world class musician to world class art historian, Luis Tully goes from passionate accountant to lackluster lawyer, all in five years?).  They completely change characters, forgetting what made Egon funny and have him hamming it up for the camera and having Janine go from mousey Queens nerd to flamboyant Queens hipster.  The logo was changed to show it was a sequel with no world-building reason for doing so.  And most importantly, it wasn’t funny.  There are a handful of funny lines in the movie, but overall, the first film was a much-improvised masterpiece, lightning in a bottle, and the second movie fell flat.  I was a child, and they were pandering to me, and I knew I was being pandered to and felt betrayed.

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For years they talked about a third movie, and for years I was in Bill Murray’s camp.  “We made a good one.  We made a bad one.  Why make anther one?”  And when Bill callously said he was concerned that “some of the people involved” had lost their taste, siting Harold Ramis’s “Year One,” I cringed for their unresolved personal relationship but was right there with him.

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My Expectations

So here comes the inevitable reboot.  I knew it was going to happen and had been bracing myself for it.  I even wrote this blog, which is a part of my “Re-Imagining” series that I sometimes do, the premise being “They’re going to remake it, so how could they do it where it could ever possibly satisfy me.”  Knowing the rumors that they were thinking of making a female version (and this was a couple of years ago), I had even included casting choices for that.  The only actor I could think of that could come close to Murray was Melissa McCarthy, so when she was cast, I was optimistic.  Really, the whole cast had me excited.  I’m a huge fan of Kristen Wiig, and I love what Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones are doing on Saturday Night Live.  These are great choices.

I watched Paul Fieg’s “Spy,” “Bridesmaids,” and “The Heat” to get a feel for his work.  The first two were great, and the last one was at least funny.  So I was optimistic about his inclusion too.

 

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The Trailer

Then the trailer came out, and it was bad.  The most hated movie trailer in internet history.  It looked lame, unasked for, and worst of all, unfunny.  People were done being tricked into watching terrible movies based on beloved franchises. . .  Sick of Michael Bay’s adaptations. . .  Tired of tone deaf recitations of The Lone Ranger’s theme. . .  Fed up with darker, overly-shadowy versions of beloved icons, this would be the battleground on which they would make their stand and say, “No More!”

In response, the filmmakers called us all misogynists, and some of us undoubtedly were, but not all.

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Ghostbusters (2016)

Which brings me to last night, when I sat in a theater with 3D glasses.  It was the theater directly across from my old store, where I had staged a legendary release party for the video game that had come out seven years earlier.  A party that had authentic costumes and equipment, games and themed snacks, and a real-world, internationally acclaimed psychic who claimed to have talked to someone’s dead mother right there that night.  And there I sat with both high and low expectations.

What a relief when the movie was actually pretty good.

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The Negatives:

There are a few times when the movie makes choices that don’t make sense (Chris Hemsworth standing in the street, saying “I’m a part of the team” comes out of nowhere).  There are a few too many one-liner references to the source material.  And lines that should have been improvised away (“That’ll leave a mark” being the sorest thumb).  But it worked.  Aside from the cameos, which were well-paced and fun, the film hummed best when it stood on its own merits.  There are scenes that lay flat here, and then there are laugh out loud lines and moments that far outweigh those.  The middle of the movie is where it would have benefited from re-writes and skilled improvisation, and the end feels heavily edited.

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The Positives:

Here’s where I might take some crap.  While the first film is a better comedy, this one is a better ghost story.  The ghosts in this movie are beautiful and scary.  The explanation for the extra psychic-kinetic energy in the city is a fun new take.  And while the story of Zuul lingers in the background of a character-driven 80s comedy and only becomes the central figure in the third reel, this new movie’s grounded in that story from the first scene.

A lot of the stuff that bothered me in the trailer were fine in the film.  This is particularly true for Kate McKinnon’s character, which only makes sense when you spend some time with her.  Kate and Leslie Jones are the comic force of this movie, and they both steal scenes, blowing a hole through the television screen to step onto the big screen in a big way.  Still, Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig are the heart of the film, and they keep us grounded in the real world while so many strange things are happening around them.  The movie is about friendship and about how finding someone that gets you can save you from torment and ridicule (or at least from caring about that stuff as much), and after an hour and forty seven minutes with these characters, I wanted to see more of their story.

The film also lets the supporting cast shine in their own right.  Every actor that speaks, from Zach Woods to Karan Soni, Nate Corddry to Steve Higgins, Ed Begley Jr. to Andy Garcia, Cecily Strong to Chris Hemsworth, turns in a strong performance here.  And this honestly shouldn’t surprise you if you’re familiar with Paul Fieg’s work.

The busting also made me feel good.  No, really.  The whole way they fought ghosts was fresh, unique, and emotionally satisfying.

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In Summary:

It’s not a perfect 10.  It’s more of a 7.5.  But in the end, when it comes to material based on the “Ghostbusters” franchise, it stands above most of the rest.  It’s on par with the video game and the best episodes of the cartoon and comic books, and that’s a hell of an accomplishment.

We also learned something about how Hollywood works, didn’t we?  When the studio puts out a trailer the fans don’t like, you can either blame the studio or the fans.  I think by focusing on the most vocal bigots in the fan community, the filmmakers were able to get the studio to back them and get the fans that weren’t rabid woman haters to give the movie a chance.  It sure got ugly and made a lot of people defend themselves for simply worrying about what they were seeing, and it put the cast and director on the defensive.  That’s not the kind of atmosphere you want a big, nerdy love fest to come out in.

Finally, while I hate to tell people their opinions are incorrect, if someone tells you that “Ghostbusters 2” is a classic and this is trash, they’re dead wrong.

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UPDATE  10/15/2016:

I don’t really purchase movies anymore.  I have over three hundred DVDs and never load them, instead streaming Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime or watching Direct TV.  But since I’d really like to see a sequel in this new franchise, I ordered the Bluray for “Ghostbusters: Answer the Call,” which includes the extended cut.  Upon my second viewing, I have a few more things to say.

First of all, I’d like to acknowledge that the first hour of the film is pretty solid.  It’s the middle portion where most of the cuts could be made (some of which were), and if I had the job of doing the theatrical edits, I would have seriously considered leaving out anything that didn’t actively move the story forward.  That would unfortunately include Bill Murray’s scenes.   I think you could have left more of the middle on the editing room floor and left in more of the end.  As stated in my review, the end felt choppy and there were some things that didn’t make sense because of the edits that were made.

That being said, I actually prefer the extended cut.  In fact, some of the scenes that remained in the deleted scenes could have been put back in as well.  Overall, it wouldn’t approve on the score I gave the movie.  It would still be about a seven, but it is more of a comprehensive narrative.  Since I enjoyed what I saw, I don’t mind having more, even if the movie doesn’t kill me like it did during that first hour.

The day I got my Bluray, I woke up from a dream about the sequel that will probably never be.  I was thrilled that it was coming out, and I imagined that they would grow the material in more meaningful, emotionally grounded ways the second time around.  Let’s hope these girls get a second chance to answer the call.

Going Long – Reviews for “Kill Me Now” and “Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie”

Making the transition from shorts to features can inspire and challenge a storyteller.  It can unleash brilliant long-form ideas that may have lay dormant in their minds, but it can also expose weaknesses in their abilities that would likely go unnoticed in smaller doses.  With that in mind, I would like to focus on two full length films that have come about from two of my favorite filmmakers that I found on Youtube.

KILL ME NOW

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Michael Swaim and his production company (Those Aren’t Muskets) is best known for his work on Cracked.com.  I’ve been a fan of his work since the days of Agents of Cracked and have had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Swaim and several of my favorites actors from his short films.

They’re great.

“Kill Me Now” is written by Michael and lists Those Aren’t Muskets as one of the production companies in the credits.  Several of Swaim’s collaborators show up in various roles throughout the movie, including Kaitlin Large, Katie Stoll, Nick Mundy, Daniel Rubiano, Katie Willert, and Lisa Marie King.  Daniel O’Brien makes two brief cameos as well.  The film also stars  Beck Bennett and Kyle Mooney (both current Saturday Night Live cast members),  Jacob Reed (Piranha 3D), and Brett Fancy (Outpost and Lost Christmas).

The film’s basic plot is one you are probably familiar with.  It’s a horror movie that centers around a teen party that takes place in a secluded cabin in the woods.  In some ways, it’s not much more complicated than that, but there are so many unexpected things that happen that I can’t say it’s a by-the-numbers slasher flick.  It’s not for several reasons, but there are two major areas that I would like to focus my commentary.

The first important thing here are the characters.  Swaim plays the classic Swaim role of the irresponsible party-boy, and it feels like every part is carefully written to fit each actors’ strengths.  You can tell that a lot of work went into this script, and the dialogue shines under Swaim’s polish.  Each of the characters is interesting and fun to watch.  This is admittedly kind of a weird thing to say, but when the lights go out in the cabin and everyone starts to panic, the thought that went through my mind was, “This is as close as we’ll ever get to a Muppet horror movie.”

I say that in the nicest possible way.

The second area where this differs from a standard horror movie is unfortunately a bit of a negative.  The small budget is felt in the big moments.  The crashes and slashes don’t play well.  Not because they are off camera – a lot of films have benefited greatly from allowing the viewer’s imagination to fill in those moments – but rather because the production didn’t seem as interested delivering those set-piece moments as it was in the delivery of the one-liners.

Overall, this is quite an enjoyable movie with surprises and great performances.  It’s the same vein as “Scream” and “Cabin in the Woods,” but while those two could satisfy both the audience that was in for the satire and the horror crowd, “Kill Me Now” is aimed straight for the funny bone.

You can watch the movie here.

ANGRY VIDEO GAME NERD: THE MOVIE

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The Angry Video Game Nerd has been a mainstay on Youtube since. . .  Well, since Youtube.  But before that, James Rolfe (the nerd) and his production company (Cinemassacre) were busy working on film projects.  In fact, James started making movies as a kid, and throughout the years, he’s developed some rather impressive skills for stretching a budget, even if his effects are  – as Rolfe puts it – intentionally made to look a little fake.

Rolfe’s idea is that if you can see how the effects are done that you will have more of an appreciation for them, and since the titular character is overtly retro (on gag involves the use of a record player in lieu of a car radio), the pre-CGI vibe works perfectly for this movie.

In many ways, AVGN suffers in areas where Kill Me Now thrives and is competent where the latter struggles.  Basically, the big set piece moments are thrilling, but the film would have benefited from better writing.  Truly, if we could combine the powers of Rolfe and Swaim, what we’d end up with would be something truly special.

But since that’s off point. . .

AVGN stars Rolfe, Jeremy Suarez (The Bernie Mac Show), and Sarah Glendening (All My Children).  Since the web series on which the film is based centers around reviews of bad old school games, the catalyst of the action was wisely set up to force the Nerd into digging up (pun) what legend holds as the worst video game of all time.

If the movie had merely been a long version of one of the episodes, it wouldn’t have worked at all.  Instead, AVGN is more about the twists and turns and set backs the characters must face before they can do the actual review (which happens in the final credits – spoiler, I guess).  Those obstacles include aliens, death robots, a carnival filled with zombies, a video game level come to life, and a giant monster that destroys Las Vegas.  In all of it, Rolfe’s love for classic cinema is on full display.

My final thoughts mostly circle around how impressed I am by what James was able to accomplish with such a limited budget.  Having made films myself, I was absolutely blown away by how much he managed to ring out of every dollar.  From the high profile cameo to the Bear McCreary (The Walking Dead) soundtrack, this movie is truly a labor of love, and as a testament to the twelve plus years that The Angry Video Game Nerd has been entertaining us, much of that labor and love came from its fans (Kickstarter contributors, McCreary, etc).  In the end,  this movie is a love letter to those fans, and I really don’t think the movie will play well to anyone else.

You can watch the movie here.

 

A Thief’s End – My Thoughts on Uncharted 4

Mild Spoilers.

Naughty Dog is easily one of my favorite developers, because they aren’t afraid to be traditional.  In an era when cut-scenes are considered old fashioned, their games are stuffed with them.  It’s not that the action comes to a grinding halt, there’s some story, and then there’s another movie.  The story continues with the action, but the storytellers behind the games utilize both narrative devices, interactivity and passive play, to create an engrossing, engaging, emotionally-involving experience for the players.

What I wouldn’t give to have Naughty Dog (or Tell Tale Games, who is also very story driven) take on Fallout, my favorite gaming franchise.

This TV spot for Uncharted 4 perfectly captures what these games are all about.

“Nathan Drake, that two-bit thief, risking it all for some piece of treasure.  I guess that’s how they know me.  How they’ll remember me.  But that’s not who I am.”

As he says this, the camera has us believe that Nathan is throwing himself toward a cave-in – toward almost certain death – for a gold coin that is spinning into the chasm, but in the end, he is reaching and putting himself on the line to save his brother, Sam.

Uncharted is a human story.  It’s about relationships.  And those elements are elevated by the perilous stakes.  By the beautiful surroundings.  By the thrill of discovery, the chase, and competition.  The adventure that you go on would be hollow if you were on it alone.

Through three previous games, Nathan’s relationships with his mentor and partner, Sully, and his now wife, Elaina, have come to feel real and vibrant.  The particularly great third part of the series solidified emotional context between these three and in the process continued to elevate the art of video games.  I went into this game with a grand fondness for these characters, and that is very important, I think.

One of the surprises with this final installment of the franchise is that, while the game does benefit from the nostalgia of these mentioned relationships, it doesn’t center on them.  This time around, we are asked to focus on Sam Drake, and until now, we didn’t even know Nate had a brother.  Realizing the risk they were taking, the writers remark on the surprise about halfway through the game through Elaina, but at least for me, I felt like this was a welcome addition to the lore.

It worked, and I felt a kinship with Sam.

Part of that, as I mentioned, is in the execution of the game play.  With every puzzle that requires interaction with Sam, with every door that needed two people to open and every wall you couldn’t climb alone, and with the witty banter between the characters, I felt that closeness growing.  Yes, between the characters, but since video games are more than simple voyeurism, since you CONTROL the actions of the protagonist and literally SEE THE WORLD through their point of view, you feel this bond growing as well.  By the end, you really do develop a connection to these characters.

My only real qualm with the game is that it didn’t quite feel as fresh as the previous installments.  The environments are HUGE, detailed, and masterfully designed, but I’ve explored jungles and snowy plains with Nathan before.  The last half of the game, which takes you into Libertalia, a lost city of pirates, felt new and different, and the ocean was definitely something special.  Honestly, I don’t know what they could do to avoid the mild sense of deja vu, and maybe it’s not all bad.  I mean, this is a game about the past and about our history with these people.

To place a value on the quality of this game is difficult, but as this is a review, that is my task.  I can say this.  I really enjoyed this game.  I don’t quite know if it is my favorite in the series (that’s probably 3).  I also couldn’t say it’s Naughty Dog’s best game (that’s The Last of Us).  However, it is a satisfying conclusion to a series that totally absorbed me.  There were moments of sheer bliss while playing, which is a rarity for me, and I was sad when it was over.

I’ll miss Nathan Drake.