Friday, October 31, 2014

Steaming Video and a New Wave of Horror

If you're a regular user of Netflix streaming, you've probably noticed which genre is by far the most visible. There are hundreds upon hundreds of horror films available to watch, the vast majority of which have been released in the last several years. There's a huge new wave of independent horror that has injected new life into the genre - horror's been vibrant since the turn of the century, but the mid '00s were stymied by an overdose of the torture subgenre. Ebbs and flows are typical for this genre, but what's unique about this current wave is that it's almost completely playing out on video streaming services rather than theaters.

It started with the first Paranormal Activity, easily the most influential horror film of the last 10 years. The runaway hit was evidence that you could make a popular and successful horror film with very little money. While it regrettably spawned an onslaught of unimaginative rip-offs aping its "found footage" format, its true contribution to the genre may be the inspiration it gave to aspiring filmmakers all over the world. The resulting boom coincided nicely with the rise of Netflix's movie streaming option and other digital services like Itunes or Amazon. Suddenly, it didn't really matter if you couldn't get a nationwide theatrical release for your movie. Most horror films these days are just having a brief run in big cities before making a beeline for streaming.

The timing works out pretty well because mainstream studio horror is an embarrassment right now. The Saw series is finally over and the Paranormal Activity sequels are basically out of gas, leaving Hollywood, in its escalating desperation for franchises, to produce a whole movie about the doll from the first 10 minutes of The Conjuring. The movies that aren't direct sequels might as well be, since the exact same demonic possession movie gets made every year. One of the most scathing reviews I've read recently was of Ouija, which takes a scene from countless other ghost stories and extends it into a whole feature. The critic wrote that "if that board was telling the truth, it would say 'Wait until Netflix.'" Ouch.

The big studios just don't get horror anymore. You don't market it the same way as superhero movies or young-adult book adaptations. In terms of its cultural role, horror has a lot in common with heavy metal - aside from a few years in the 80s, it's never been truly mainstream. Sure, horror movies always make money, but no other genre has as large a contingent of the general populace saying "I can't watch those movies." This leads to a closer relationship between the creators and the audience, which makes horror ideal for the streaming format and for the creative freedom you can find in independent film. For big fans, horror has a versatility to it - sometimes we want to have a good laugh at the tropes and cliches of classic films, but other times we want something new and terrifying to come in and blow our minds. Thanks to Netflix and other services, there are plenty of choices for everyone. It's a godsend to someone like me, who loves movies but has family responsibilities that keep me from running off every time I get psyched for a movie. It's easier than ever before to keep up on horror movies and movies in general despite living in a small town in Connecticut.

With so much choice, the question becomes: How do I pick out the good films from the tidal wave of movies? Well, it's been my experience that the star ratings won't steer you wrong. If fellow horror fans haven given a movie 1 star, it's probably abysmal because we're known for tolerating a lot of shit for the sake of a good scare. A movie with a 2.5 or 3 star rating is likely very polarizing and controversial and may still be worth checking out. Anything over 4 stars is probably a safe bet.

I'll also give you a list of personal recommendations. I like watching a lot of horror in October and here are some gems I found on Netflix.

The Conspiracy - An incredibly gripping story about two guys who are making a small-scale documentary about a local conspiracy nut (played beautifully by Alan Peterson) who suddenly disappears, leaving them wondering if maybe he was on to something after all.

The Pact - A near-perfect ghost story from up and coming director Nicholas McCarthy. Doesn't break any new ground but there's a lot more thought put into the overall story than is typical for movies like this. McCarthy's got a real talent for generating tension that pins you to the screen like a magnet. His follow-up, At The Devil's Door, is more ambitious but a little less coherent. That one is on Itunes right now.

Pontypool - A weird, cerebral Canadian movie about a small crew broadcasting a radio show from a basement while some kind of contagion breaks out. The real twist is that the virus is somehow spread through the English language, leaving the characters nervous that if they say the wrong thing, they'll be infected too. It's very surreal and interesting and has a lot of highbrow cinephile fans who normally don't bother with horror.

Satan's Little Helper - A ridiculously dark comedy about a kid with a few screws loose who unintentionally helps a masked serial killer who uses the spooky trappings of Halloween to cover up his crimes. It's got a classic 80s-horror vibe and the villain's mask is just awesome.

The Sacrament - A devastating tale of a strange cult in the jungle that is inspired heavily by the infamous Jonestown commune. This one works so well because the first half of the movie establishes the dynamics of the cult so well, making you hope against your own good sense that maybe this place is okay after all. Spoiler alert - it's not, and that's when the movie grabs you by the throat and won't let go. Gene Jones deserves a Supporting Actor Oscar for his simultaneously charismatic and intimidating performance as "Father," the cult leader.

You can go watch any of these right now if you've got Netflix. Enjoy the brave new world and Happy Halloween!

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Sailor Moon

If you were a young man when this classic anime debuted in the United States, it was the show you weren't supposed to like. That wouldn't have been a problem if it weren't so good. Watching it for the first time on some lazy afternoon after school turned into a habit, a dark secret I had to keep from my classmates. Ironically, it had a lot in common with another show that was big at the time and could be watched without embarrassment - Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers. Both had a "monster of the day" approach to individual episodes and both had lengthy transformation scenes that were shown every time. But in Sailor Moon, the heroes were all women, so men were forbidden to enjoy it. If you did, you were gay. In the fascist dystopia of middle school in the 1990s, where conformity was strictly enforced by the constant threat of public shame, being called gay was the ultimate defeat. However, the few times when I did let it slip that I knew something about the show, I was surprised how familiar other dudes were with it. I think this covert male fandom spread well beyond my house and yet I'm still a bit nervous about it. This is one of the few blog entries I don't feel comfortable sharing on Facebook...make of that what you will. I've gone back to it recently because of the release of a remake, Sailor Moon Crystal. I might have watched that, if not for the news that uncut versions of the original show were now available for streaming. Given the choice between old and new, I totally wanted to take a walk down memory lane. They've been coming out with two new ones every week and I've been following it faithfully.

If you've never watched the show, here's a rundown. Middle-schooler Usagi Tsukino meets a talking cat named Luna and is given the power to transform into the superhero Sailor Moon and defend the Earth from evil monsters from the "Dark Kingdom." Eventually, four other girls join her - feisty, bullying Rei (Sailor Mars), rough and tumble Makoto (Sailor Jupiter), glamorous Mina (Sailor Venus) and sweet, brilliant Ami (Sailor Mercury). I had a dorky crush on Sailor Mercury back in those days, even if she had the lamest powers (shooting bubbles? really?). Eventually, they would meet other girls to round out the Solar System, but my most vivid memories are of the first story arc, where the girls have to fight the minions of Queen Beryl. Beryl preferred to give orders rather than get her hands dirty, so most of the time the Sailor Guardians faced off against her four generals - whiny, incompetent Jadeite, suave, calculating Nephrite, vain, vindictive Zoisite and experienced tactician Kunzite. In most episodes, a mysterious male hero named Tuxedo Mask would show up to bail the girls out of a jam so they could finish off the monsters with their signature techniques.

Like other shows transported to American television in the 90s, Sailor Moon was heavily censored and altered by the US distributors. Names were Americanized and a GI-Joe-esque "Sailor Says" segment was added to the end of each episode to tell kids to eat their vegetables or whatever. Zoisite, the villain who wears a long blonde ponytail and disappears in a cloud of rose petals, was changed to a woman because of a visibly loving relationship he had with Kunzite. Having a gay romance in a children's show was ridiculously progressive for the time period and I guess the guys behind the dub didn't think American kids were ready for it. Although, now that I think of it, if Zoisite did identify as a woman, perhaps everyone treating her as such was the more progressive way to go! Just kidding, I highly doubt that was the rationale. In any case, the lack of prominent breasts on an anime "woman" should have been a dead giveaway.

The storyline that really grabbed me was the unexpected tragic love story between the villainous Nephrite and Usagi's friend Naru. On one level, it's all kinds of skeevy - she's in middle school and he's a grown-ass man - but I would challenge anyone not to be moved when he dies heroically to protect her and she lets out an agonized cry of pain. The dub couldn't reduce that moment's power and from then on, the show adopted a much tighter continuity between episodes and went from just a curiosity to something I eagerly awaited every day. It all leads up to an emotionally wrenching climax where four of the Sailor Guardians are killed in battle, leaving Sailor Moon left to face Queen Beryl on her own. The American distributors were clearly shocked by the intensity of the episodes. They cut so much content from them that the season finale went from being two episodes to one. Even with the dialogue altered and the darkest moments omitted, the power of those episodes was unmistakable and it was easy to intuit what was really going on. When she finally defeats Beryl, Sailor Moon is able to restore everyone to life on Earth although they can no longer remember each other and their adventures...until the next threat to Earth arrives, at least.

It's clear to me now that this has aged a LOT better than Power Rangers. Obviously it can't compare to more revered anime like Death Note or Paranoia Agent or Monster, but for a kid's show it's quite enthralling. I may write a follow-up to this one in a few months when I've seen more of the episodes. At some point, the series is sure to go beyond what I saw as a kid and into the later episodes which I am totally unfamiliar with. Consider me excited.

Friday, October 3, 2014

The World Outside

Every time I saw the Provazik Enterprises building from the outside, I was glad I only worked part-time. I would walk out to my car, turn around and become dismayed that I worked in that rusty abomination that was constantly pumping black smoke into the air. That parking lot wouldn't win any beauty contests either; there were no yellow lines to differentiate the spaces and large patches of grass had made their way through much of the cracked pavement.

On this particular day, I cast my usual rueful look at the Provazik building and saw something altogether different. Huge buildings began to rise out of the ground, as if the Earth was giving birth to them. These huge structures were coming up on all sides of the parking lot and after squinting, you could see the metal frames that were pushing each out from the underground. These new buildings were sleek and modern looking, unlike the eyesore where I had just spent several hours. I was still standing next to my car, but now the road had been completely cut off by these newborn buildings. The small crowd of us in the parking lot wandered towards the new entrance to see what was going on.

I was taken aback by the new entry hall. It was a wide circle with a huge bay window directly across from the doorway where I stood. All around, there were escalators, elevators and even a monorail to get people to the different buildings in the complex. It was fascinating to see, but at the moment I still wanted to get home. I wandered for a while and eventually found myself in a dimly lit, claustrophobic room where rows of people were scrunched over in front of computers hard at work. This looked more like the old Provazik building and was now a stark contrast to the breathtaking room I had just left.

A robot that couldn't have been more than four feet tall was supervising the activity. He made his way over to me and spoke in a deep, digital voice that sent chills down my spine.

"You are not working."

"I'm done working for today," I said back. "I'm just wondering how to get home now that these buildings have blocked the road."

"There is no world outside Provazik," the robot said immediately.

I needed a few moments to comprehend what the creature had just said. "What?"

"There is no world outside Provazik," the robot repeated, sounding even harsher.

I didn't feel like arguing. It was just too strange. Instead, I backed slowly out the small room and back into the entry hall. Wandering around the circle, I eventually found a map of the property, updated to include the phalanx of new buildings that had appeared only a few minutes earlier. While it did not support the robot's bizarre claim that there was no world outside the area, it did confirm that there was no exit. I grabbed my cellphone, thinking I could call my family and have them get the police to do something about this.

After a few rings, I heard a message that the number I was trying to reach had been disconnected. That was impossible, I thought. I called that number multiple times each day and now all of a sudden it doesn't work? It began to sink in that I might really be trapped here. Panic spread through me and I rushed back towards the parking lot. At least there I was outdoors. Surely there had to be some alleyway, some fence to climb, some way to get out of Provazik.

Instead, when I rushed through the door, I was someplace completely different. Behind me, the complex was gone. I was surrounded by grass up to my waist. The buildings here were crumbling and deserted. It looked as if humanity had been gone for centuries and the Earth was beginning to take back the land. I found myself drawn towards a large concrete staircase that ascended a green hill. Another person followed closely behind, no doubt someone else trying to get away from Provazik.

About halfway up the large white staircase, I turned around and was treated to a lovely view. Green hills and forest opened up before me. For the first time since those buildings rose out of the ground, I felt myself relax a little.

"Well, I don't know where exactly we are," I said out loud, "but at least we're out of there."

My companion said nothing and smiled at me. It wasn't a friendly smile, but a malicious grin that made me uneasy once again. Too late, I realized what would happen. The beautiful green panorama melted away as if it had turned to water and I was back in that dark room with the little robot standing in front of me.

"There is no world outside Provazik," it said once again. "Not anymore."

I rushed out of the room and back into that entrance hallway. I no longer found it enchanting, especially with the increased amount of people wandering the circle. I searched frantically for an exit until my phone vibrated. I yanked it out of my pocket, desperately hoping that it was someone I knew. It was the robot.

"Why do you not cooperate?" it asked me.

"I don't want to stay here," I replied. "I want to do other things besides work. I want to see the world, I want to travel."

"You can earn travel," the robot said.

"What does that mean?"

"You work hard enough and you can earn travel. You will be accompanied by agents to the place you want to visit. After you see the sights, you will return."

Something wasn't right about this and I knew what it was.

"You just said there was no world outside Provazik," I said, with a faint sense of joy that I had outwitted the robot. "Now I can travel? You're a lying sack of shit! You're a fuckin' liar!"

That was only the beginning of the torrent of obscenity I sent through the phone to that little creature. Employees, if they could still even be called that, wandered past and gave me strange looks. Finally, I hung up the phone and resumed my futile search for an exit.

After what felt like an eternity of searching, I saw a woman who I recognized. I believed she was a co-worker, but my memories had been growing cloudier the longer I remained in Provazik. She and a small group of friends were ducking through a small exit against one of the walls. I rushed over and caught a glimpse of a beautiful stream just outside the door. A guard yanked my arm and I found myself unable to move. However, the woman heard the commotion and recognized me. She indicated to her friends that she would only be a moment.

"You have to reject all the choices," she said. "They're going to make you offers, make you think you have a choice. But they're all the same. You have to reject all the choices!"

With that, she and the others went out the door and down a small ramp. The door shut and then faded, as if it had never been there at all. The guard dragged me into another room. It was like a classroom, but with desks that looked comically large since they were intended for adults. At least this one had decent lighting. There was a massive TV-screen in front of the desks, presumably to deliver some kind of education. I didn't want to sit at any of the desks; I was afraid they would never let me stand up again. Another robot ambled around the room and handed me a pamphlet.

I opened it up and saw a list of options. These were the choices she had warned me about. They sounded great on paper and the charming illustrations didn't hurt, but upon close analysis it was clear that none of them would get me out of Provazik.

But if you reject all the choices, what was left to do? The answer suddenly came to me. I picked up a chair.

"You're going to have to kill me!" I shouted to the robots. "You'll have to kill me or I'll destroy this place!"

For some reason, I decided to sing Iron Maiden's "The Trooper" aloud...perhaps to become even more disruptive.

"You take my life, but I'll take yours too!" The chair hit the huge television with a glass crunch.

"You fire your musket, but I'll run you through!" The cracks widened after another hit.

And so it went, until the television was barely recognizable. The room around me seemed to blur and moments later, I woke up in bed. This wasn't another trick; I recognized my bedroom. For a moment, I was still convinced the experience had been real.

"I did it," I said quietly. "I'm out."

I went back to sleep and dreamed of other things.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

18 Great South Park Episodes

It's hard to believe that when I first saw South Park as a high schooler in 1997 that it would become the television institution it is today. The show just started its 18th season by ripping the NFL and especially the Washington Redskins a new one. In honor of 18 years of kicking ass and taking names, here's an attempt to pick the top 18 episodes. While the quality of the show is known for being highly uneven from episode to episode (especially in the years since creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone started making all the episodes a week before their air date to best capitalize on current events), I was surprised how many I wanted to reference here. I didn't rank them from 18 to 1 - instead, they're listed in chronological order. Check out the Honorable Mentions for the ones that were just shy of getting a spot.

Big Gay Al's Big Gay Boat Ride (Season 1)

In this early classic, Stan gets a lesson in tolerance when he finds out his dog, Sparky, is gay. His initial revulsion drives the dog into the welcoming arms of Big Gay Al and his Big Gay Animal Sanctuary. Once Stan finds him, he learns about the history of gay rights in a hilarious Disneyworld-esque boat ride ("Uh-oh! Here come the oppressors! Christians, Nazis and Republicans! Phew, that was close!") Al is a walking gay stereotype ("I'm thuper, thanks for athking!") but he has such a sweet, gentle personality that the audience can't help but love him. The episode was fairly progressive for 1990s TV and even won a GLAAD award. Seeing it at a time when my morals were still being formed probably had an important role in shaping my attitudes about gay rights. This episode also demonstrated just how little regard Matt and Trey had for celebrities. George Clooney was an early fan of the show and eager for a guest spot, so he was given the chance to bark a few times as the voice of Sparky.

Mr. Hankey, the Christmas Poo (Season 1)

My memory of this episode, a parody of mascot-driven Christmas specials, is especially vivid. I can still recall seeing for the first time the scene where Mr. Hankey attacks Cartman, leaving a brown smear on his cheek. Mr. Garrison, aghast, shouts "Oh my Lord Kyle, did you just throw DOO-DOO at Eric?!" I was hit with overwhelming fits of laughter that continued through the subsequent commercial break. Just before that moment, Cartman had performed the classic "Kyle's Mom is a Bitch" song that would later wind up in the movie (which is better than all these episodes, if you haven't watched it, stop reading this and get that done!). While Mr. Hankey tried to comfort Kyle's feelings of exclusion as a Jew during the Christmas season, Mr. Garrison deals with increasingly ridiculous restrictions to the school's Christmas pageant imposed by political correctness. ("We can't use Christmas lights because they offend people with epilepsy.") As a result, the pageant turns into pretentious new-age nonsense with a Philip Glass score in a hysterical scene. A fantastic episode that foreshadowed what the show would be able to accomplish in the coming years.

The Mexican Staring Frog of Southern Sri Lanka (Season 2)

The supporting cast of South Park features all sorts of colorful characters, including Jesus Christ himself. The Son of God walks around town with a permanent halo over his head and hosts a local public access show. In this episode, Jesus gets taken in by a sleazy producer who turns his harmless program into a trashy talk show that winds up featuring the boys after they get into a spat with local gun nut Jimbo over the titular frog. Urged on by the show's new producer, the boys indulge in a rapid-fire delivery of the worst Jerry Springer cliches that escalates to the point where Cartman hits Kenny in the head with a chair for no discernible reason. It's not all that far removed from the shows that are being parodied, but it's too much for Jesus, who shouts "Shut the fuck up! Jesus Christ, what the hell is wrong with you people?!" It's not the deepest episode, but it's damn funny and introduced another fun gag at the very ending - the producer finds herself in hell, where Satan and Saddam Hussein are a couple.

Kenny Dies (Season 5)

After the first two seasons, the show struggled for a while, producing episodes that ranged from unmemorable to just plain awful (perhaps we can do a worst episode list some other time). They found some inspiration in changing up the show's formulas. Since the first episode, Kenny's primary character trait was that he would constantly die under bizarre circumstances, usually followed by the exchange - "Oh my God, they killed Kenny! You bastards!" Five seasons in, that was starting to get old and so they decided to kill the poor kid off "for real." This episode took a gag viewers were sick of and played it completely straight as Kenny tragically died and his friends struggled with grief. The story also addressed the issue of stem cell research, leading to a legendary scene of Cartman leading Congress in a sing-along of Asia's "Heat of the Moment." It's one of the best moments in South Park history, ridiculous and moving at the same time. As for Kenny, he was dead for quite a few episodes but eventually rejoined the gang.

The New Terrence and Philip Movie Trailer (Season 6)

The boys wait for a highly anticipated trailer to play during an episode of "Russell Crowe: Fightin' Round the World." In the meantime, the audience is treated to perhaps the funniest celebrity parody in the show's history. Mining comedic gold from Russell Crowe's infamous temper, "Fightin' Round the World" features him and his pet tugboat exploring the world in the manner of the late Steve Irwin ("There's a lot of black people and Puerto Ricans around here, and they don't take kindly to Whitey!"). This episode is a riot and my friends and I still do impersonations from it ("What are you lookin' at, you VAGINA?!"). Even Crowe himself admitted it was funny. As for that trailer? It winds up just being a lot of text flying at the screen while ominous music played in the background, a spot-on parody of empty "teasers."

A Ladder to Heaven (Season 6)

The show's talent for satirizing current events hit a new high around the time this episode aired. Still looking for their dead friend Kenny, the boys theorize if they can build a ladder high enough to reach Heaven, they'll find him. This leads to a brilliant parody of post 9/11 hysteria and fearmongering, with government officials telling the public that Heaven could be hoarding weapons of mass destruction. Meanwhile, country singer Alan Jackson brings an audience to tears with a song with the following lyrics - "9/11, oh 9/11, 9/11, oh 9/11," which wasn't too far from the emotionally manipulative bullshit he was peddling at the time. This episode was a wonderful catharsis at a time when many of us were getting sick of hearing patriotic glurge all the time...especially when it was about to get us into war with a completely unrelated nation. It also has one of my favorite South Park one-liners of all time, courtesy of Cartman: "Maybe we're not in heaven because one of us is a J-O-O?"

Good Times With Weapons (Season 8)

After buying some weapons at a flea market, the boys imagine themselves as anime warriors. One of the most visually exciting episodes, their imagined adventures are brought to vivid life with full anime-style sequences. The creators replicate the conventions of anime with exacting detail and even throw "Let's Fighting Love," a ridiculous Japanese song with mangled English phrases. It's all fun and games until Butters gets a shuriken in the eye - a sobering sequence that will feel familiar to any viewer with childhood memories of those moments where you knew you went too far and were going to get in big trouble. Going to absurd lengths to avoid the wrath of their parents, the boys hatch a scheme that ends in a parody of the Janet Jackson Super Bowl breast incident. It was an unexpected bit of commentary, but it works. "We didn't even get in trouble," they say after a hyperbolic town meeting. "I guess grown-ups don't care about violence if there's sex stuff going on!"

The Losing Edge (Season 9)

Your typical South Park episode has an "A" and "B" plotline. The "A" plot is the focus of the episode, while the "B" plot more or less happens in the background. A lot of episodes run into a problem with the A plot being great and the B plot being fairly weak (such as the "Passion of the Jew" episode) but in "The Losing Edge," both are firing on all cylinders. The A plot begins when the boys find out, to their dismay, that doing well in a regular season of Little League baseball means they have to play more sports in the post-season, not less. It's a welcome takedown of the assumption that sports is right for every kid as the script goes through a series of sports-movie cliches, flipped on their heads as the team tries its best to lose. Meanwhile, Randy Marsh finds himself in a "Rocky" situation as he tries to be the best of the best when it comes to getting drunk at games and starting fights with other parents ("What, isn't this America? I'm sorry, I thought this was America!") The storylines dovetail beautifully in this episode's perfect ending, another classic moment that's both funny and uplifting.

Erection Day (Season 9)

Nine years in, I didn't think South Park could shock me anymore. This episode proved me wrong. This sordid tale features late cast-addition Jimmy, a quick-witted kid with crutches and a stutter, trying to figure out how to control his spontaneous boners before he performs a stand-up comedy routine during a talent show. When he finds more about his...problem, things go haywire. The storyline plays to one of the strengths of the show's characterizations - while the kids talk like adults most of the time, they are still young and innocent in some ways and vulnerable to confusion about adult issues. My college roommates and I sat in front of the TV in stunned shock when Jimmy took one of his classmates to a fancy restaurant before asking her if he could "put my penis into your vagina." It only got more unhinged from there, spinning a crazy yarn of hookers, angry pimps and car chases.

Trapped in the Closet (Season 9)

This episode caused all sorts of commotion...but not immediately. The scathing takedown of Scientology aired originally without much of a fuss. It was when it was scheduled to rerun (someday we'll have to explain to our kids what "reruns" were) that the trouble started. Isaac Hayes, the voice of Chef and a Scientologist himself, abruptly quit the show despite not having any problem when it first aired. Conspiracy theories were all over the place, in part because Scientology's most high-profile advocate, Tom Cruise, gets the South Park treatment in this episode as well. The cult claims that Stan is the reincarnation of founder L. Ron Hubbard, which gets the attention of Cruise and other celebrity Scientologists. When Stan tells Cruise, that he's "okay, not as good as the guy who played Napoleon Dynamite," the distraught actor locks himself in the closet. When his friends plea with him to "come out of the closet," the joke is not lost on anyone. However, the most incisive moment of the episode isn't even a joke - the bonkers Scientology creation myth is dramatized with a subtitle "This is what Scientologists actually believe" displayed as the audience learns about Xenu and the thetans. If Scientologists didn't abuse the legal system to intimidate people who call them out on their bullshit, I might even feel bad for them after the beatdown they got here. But they do, so I don't.

Cartoon Wars, Part I and II (Season 10)

Multi-part stories bring out the best in South Park and this storyline in particular was a major turning point. At first, it only seems like a parody of Family Guy and a very funny one at that, with fake clips that the random nonsense that passes for plot on that show. The reveal that Family Guy episodes are written by manatees who push random plot ideas through a water tank is more plausible than it ought to be. However, there is plenty more going on in "Cartoon Wars." In a scenario inspired by the violence in the Middle East over Danish cartoonists drawing the prophet Mohammed (taboo according to Islam doctrine), a controversy erupts in the South Park universe when it's revealed that Family Guy plans to show Mohammed in an upcoming episode and Cartman intends to manipulate the controversy to get the show off the air. At the end of Part I, following an epic tricycle chase between Cartman and Kyle, the narration revealed that Mohammed would be shown the following week, unless Comedy Central "pussed out." This went beyond incisive satire, this felt dangerous.

In the end, Comedy Central "pussed out" and refused to show the image of Mohammed on their network. In return, Trey and Matt punished the network for its hypocrisy by ending Part II with a scene of Jesus and President Bush crapping on the American Flag. Some commentators were offended, but that was the point. The show was allowed to offend those people but NOT the militant Muslims. If you think about it, it's pretty obnoxious that one group of hotheads thinks they can order not just fellow Muslims, but the entire goddamn world, not to draw something. For Matt and Trey, who wouldn't have a career without free expression, it's clearly personal. They tried this again in another two parter ("200" and "201") a few years later, but after a death threat from an extremist group, Comedy Central sliced "201" to ribbons. The irony of all this is that South Park had already shown Mohammed in an episode called "Super Best Friends" a few years earlier. Whoops!

Go God Go, Part I and II (Season 10)

And now for a group absolutely nobody cares about offending: atheists! In another spectacular two-part episode, Cartman simply can't bear to wait three weeks until the Nintendo Wii is released. So he does what anyone would do, he freezes himself in hopes of passing the time by instantly. Instead, he wakes up over 500 years into the future and is desperate to find a Wii, which is now ancient history. There are a lot of awesome details in this episode - the first scene in Part II is a glorious parody of this embarrassing jargon-filled exposition that plagues a lot of science-fiction and fantasy writing. As for atheism, that's where it gets really interesting. In the future, religion has been purged from Earth entirely, thanks to the actions of famous atheist/douchebag Richard Dawkins in the present. Religion is often blamed for the world's wars, so is a post-religion world now free of conflict? Nope, the atheists are at war with each other over what name to use for the society of atheists (They're also at war with highly evolved otters, but that's just for laughs). It's smart stuff and a funny way to criticize lazy atheist rhetoric - war is not a problem with any religion, it's a problem within humanity.

Fantastic Easter Special (Season 11)

It's such a good idea you wonder why it hadn't been done earlier. This clever, funny and delightful episode takes Easter and gives it the full Da Vinci Code treatment, including secret societies of men in rabbit ears, clues in Leonardo Da Vinci's Last Supper painting and a conspiracy deep in the bowels of Vatican City. It's incredibly silly, but the tone of Da Vinci Code is maintained and the result is just as gripping in spite of itself. The real enemy turns out not to be the Pope, but Catholic League President Bill Donohue, one of those professional trolls who goes on TV to whine about the poor, oppressed Catholic Church every time someone mentions the recurring problem they have with child molestation. The only one who can stop him is Jesus, who can only use his superpowers when he's dead, putting Kyle in an awkward situation ("Eric Cartman can never know about this."). The climax of the episode, when Jesus slices that weasel Donohue in half with a giant shuriken in slow motion, is sublime.

The "Imaginationland" Trilogy (Season 11)

Excluding the movie, these Emmy-winning three episodes are South Park's finest achievement. Cartman and Kyle make a wager about whether or not leprechauns exist, with Kyle being obliged to suck Cartman's balls if he's wrong. Well, sure enough, they take a walk in the woods and catch a real-life leprechaun. But before Cartman can claim his prize, the rest of the boys are whisked off to Imaginationland, an alternate universe populated by all the characters humanity has ever dreamed up. The fun stops when terrorists attack the imaginary realm and blow open a stone wall that separated the heroic characters from the villains, setting the stage for a major clash. Meanwhile, all Cartman is concerned with is trying to get Kyle to suck his balls ("You think this is about pleasure? It's about humiliation!"). There's a lot going on, all of it perfectly paced and balanced, with a great central metaphor. "Terrorists attacking our imagination" might as well be the slogan of the last decade.

The trilogy is just a full-on blast of fun. Pause the screen at any point in the Imaginationland scenes and you're bound to find more familiar characters lurking in the background. The concluding battle features all sorts of epic matchups, whether it's Morpheus vs. Freddy Krueger or Jesus vs. the Xenomorph Alien. There are so many fantastic moments and I've just got to list a few - the military interviewing Hollywood directors to try and figure out what's going on, a shot-for-shot recreation of a famous moment in Saving Private Ryan where Ronald McDonald picks up his own arm while the camera shakes, Cartman's nightmare about his dry balls, a series of characters (such as Luke Skywalker, Superman and Captain Crunch) taking turns giving Kyle a pep talk, Aslan's freakout when chosen warrior Butters can't figure out his new powers ("Imagine Santa Claus RIGHT NOW!"). This is strong enough material to have been a second theatrical film and indeed, there is a DVD release of the trilogy edited together.

Britney's New Look (Season 12)

When I saw that Britney Spears would appear in the latest South Park episode, I expected her to get the same severe roasting that dozens of celebrities had gotten before her. I was pleasantly surprised that Trey and Matt portrayed Britney in a sympathetic light while roasting targets far more worthy of derision - the noxious tabloid culture that turns young (usually female) performers into queens of the world only to violently bring them down with their snooping and nitpicking. The episode starts off with a grisly twist as Britney Spears attempts suicide but only manages to blow the top half of her head off and somehow survive. The boys take pity on her as she tries to resume her career, but things go farther downhill after a performance where critics obsess about her weight (apparently not noticing that half her head is missing). The struggle to keep her out of the clutches of the paparazzi becomes more desperate and the story turns into an homage to "The Lottery," Shirley Jackson's classic short story about human sacrifice. The comparison is scarily apt and while this isn't the funniest episode, the tragic denouement is very powerful.

Margaritaville (Season 13)

This episode is an ambitious look at the Great Recession that turned out to be surprisingly resonant. In the wake of the 2008 financial meltdown, the South Park community predictably overreacts, forcing everyone to dress in rags and act like it's the Dark Ages. Stan is left to try and return his father's huge margarita-mixing machine, a goofy metaphor for the risky mortgage sales that contributed to the recession. Back in town, Kyle begins to rebel against the prevailing attitudes and the story turns into an effective retelling of the life of Jesus. There are a lot of great moments in this episode, from Kyle's sermon on the mount about the inherent emptiness of credit cards, a Last Supper in which Cartman acts a little too appalled at the suggestion that someone might betray this new Messiah ("Hey, if anyone's thinking of betraying Kyle, that is NOT COOL! You're being a DICK!") and the moving final sacrifice he makes to restore the town's confidence. It sounds surprising to hear that a show starring characters made of construction paper can offer a thoughtful commentary on the intangible nature of the economy and how society treats it as a religion, but there it is.

The "Coon and Friends" Trilogy (Season 14)

A previous one-off episode laid the foundation for this arc, introducing Kenny's alter-ego Mysterion (who can talk!) and Cartman as "The Coon" (Raccoon, of course. Were you thinking of something else?) This three-parter upgraded the premise to a full superhero team and chronicles the rivalries and struggles for power that come up with a big group of kids. Things take a turn for the cosmic when everyone's least favorite oil company BP accidentally releases H.P. Lovecraft's dark lord Cthulhu while drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. An unlikely friendship between Cartman and the evil deity could mean the end of the world, or at the very least, bad news for The Burning Man festival and Justin Bieber. As with the "Imaginationland" trilogy, the large scale of the story makes room for numerous classic moments - Cartman recreating a famous scene from A Clockwork Orange and beating up his friends in slow-motion, the fantastic sequences telling the story with comic-book illustrations, a Miyazaki-esque musical number featuring Cthulhu and the final revelations involving a superhero named "Mintberry Crunch."

However, what was more interesting to longtime South Park fans was the surprising amount of character development for Kenny, who had been with us since the very first episode. It turns out Kenny does have a superpower - immortality. Every time he dies, he reappears in his family home, with the memory of his death wiped from those who witness it. The fact that the writers decided to explain a ridiculous gag that has been consistent for over a decade is both funny and fascinating. I don't think I'm alone among the fanbase in wishing that there was more tight continuity between South Park episodes, but I don't think the creators will ever fully embrace that.

The "Black Friday" Trilogy (Season 17)

The last featured episode is from last season - an awesome blend of parody, scathing social commentary and jokes about "wieners," is proof that South Park can still bring it every so often. The inspired premise is a detailed parody of Game of Thrones with the overblown rivalry between the Xbox One and Playstation 4 consoles functioning as the warring houses of Westeros. In keeping with the show, everyone walks around in medieval outfits, alliances are made and broken, grave matters are discussed in beautiful gardens, and everything comes to a shocking climax at the Red Robin Wedding. Meanwhile, Stan's father becomes a mall security guard and the show turns him and his colleagues into the Night's Watch, guarding the mall against an incoming horde of insane shoppers. In true Game of Thrones fashion, it's a long wait until the big moment, but it's worth it. Real footage from last year's Black Friday mayhem is incorporated into the finale, which says more about this nauseating American tradition than any monologue could. In a devastatingly incisive scene, the boys wander the mall through pools of blood that run up to their knees while gentle piano music (meant to invoke A Charlie Brown Christmas) plays in the background. It's a stunning moment that shows the South Park well isn't dry just yet. And you gotta love the parting shot at just how little these $500 game consoles change with each iteration ("Wow, the graphics are like 10 percent better."). Keep giving them hell, guys.

And now for the Honorable Mentions!
Clubhouses (Season 2)
Chef-Aid (Season 2)
It Hits the Fan (Season 5)
Osama bin Laden has Farty Pants (Season 5)
The Return of the Fellowship of the Ring to the Two Towers (Season 6)
My Future Self and Me (Season 6)
Quest For Ratings (Season 8)
About Last Night (Season 12)
Elementary School Musical (Season 12)
The Ring (Season 13)
Butters Bottom Bitch (Season 13)
You Have 0 Friends (Season 14)

Screw you guys...I'm going home!

Monday, September 8, 2014

Things to Come

I haven't written much on here lately, but that doesn't mean I'm out of ideas...not by a long shot. I figured I would put up a brief little housekeeping note to give my readers (if I have any) an idea of what I'll have up here in the next few months.

The Tales From the Crypt series is on hiatus for now. I was having fun with it and I do intend to write more, but I'm just taking a break and focusing on watching other stuff when I have free time. When you got two little kids running around, you've got to make tough choices about your time. First world problems, you know?

I've had a feature about South Park I've wanted to write for a while when the time was right. Well, with a new season imminent, that time has come. Expect that first and then maybe a few more entries in the Nostalgia Series. One for a movie, one for an anime and one for a cartoon that's been very prominent on this blog.

There is also a much bigger undertaking I've taken on...something all film critics do at one point or another. It's just a question of when you feel qualified to do so. I first thought about doing it in late 2013 but realized I would need a lot of time to prepare. What kind of preparation? All will become clear in time. Maybe a lot of time. I think it's probably best to wait for this one until after the Oscars, which are coming soon!

Keep checking in, there will be more stuff before you know it!

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Robin Williams and Depression

Depression is one of those subjects people prefer to keep under the rug. It’s intimidating subject matter, both for those with or without experience with it. But every so often, something happens that makes everyone take notice. By now, you’re surely aware of the death of Robin Williams. For people my age, it’s nigh impossible to imagine our childhood without him. More upsetting still is that the death appears to have been a suicide. If an Oscar-winning actor and comedian who made a fortune off his talent and was beloved all over the world can still be taken down by depression, things don’t look so good for the rest of us.

And yes, I am included in the “us” category. People who know my work probably aren’t surprised to find out I have depression. It tends to show up a lot in my body of work. Eddie Humphrey is the most obvious one, but Beth, Drew Stephenson, Cade Mistral and Stoic all dealt with it. Stoic reaching a breaking point and sealing himself inside a cave for centuries to escape all the hurt from the outside world was quite a personal sequence. Everyone’s experience with it is different – when it’s bad for me, I get in these moods where everything pisses me off and I just want to be left alone…except not really, because then it’s just me and all the thoughts about how I suck, I can’t do anything right and I’ll never have any real kind of success.

I’ve dealt with depression for almost 20 years. For a lot of those years, people pointed me towards anti-depressants as a possible source of relief. I resisted for a long time. I never looked down on other people who used them, that’s not the kind of thing I do and I believe people need to make their own choices based on their own circumstances, but for me it was a no-sell. Why? I had all sorts of reasons.

The corporate culture of anti-depressants bothered me, and still does. Believe it or not, it used to be illegal to have commercials for those drugs on television. Something got passed during the George W. Bush administration that changed that and suddenly they were all over the place. That created a strange association in my mind…I felt like the world was telling me that if I was dismayed about the direction the country was going in, it meant something was wrong with me and I needed to be put on meds. I would think to myself, “Fuck that! Bush is a terrible president and depression is the only natural response to what he’s doing!” There was also the side-effects, which can be nasty if you’re not careful. Anti-depressants have a reputation of halting creativity in people and that frightened me. Writing stories has always brought some solace and I felt if I lost that, it would compromise any other benefits I got from the stuff.

But after a lot of talking and a lot of thinking, I realized there was a much deeper fear driving all of this. I saw anti-depressants as a threat to my very identity. I felt that taking them would fully acknowledge depression as a purely medical problem, and not a cause-and-effect result of experiences like my sister’s death, years of being picked on in school, witnessing 9/11 firsthand in New York City, etc. I needed that cause-and-effect line of thinking to make sense of my life. If I was going to be depressed no matter what, then those experiences were essentially meaningless…and I need them to have meaning or else life just seems totally pointless and cruel.

I think of it differently now. It’s like the difference between alcoholism and addiction. Alcohol is a man-made substance, there’s no gene for alcoholism, how could there be? But there is a gene for addiction and addiction is the disease. A lot of times alcohol is the problem, but it could be any number of things – cocaine, heroin, gambling, coffee, cutting yourself, World of Warcraft. Similarly, the capacity for depression is what I was born with…and life threw more than enough at me to feed it. I might have struggled without those incidents, but it wouldn’t have been the same.

Because here’s the thing, and this is the most important part of all this, my life’s been on an upward curve ever since college. I am a husband and father now. I have a nice little house to call my own. I’ve gotten the chance to finish a number of stories that were sitting in my head for years. I have a movie collection that beautifully reflects my passion for film. I’ve gotten to see amazing sights like the rugged Castle Tintagel in England, the impossibly blue water of Crater Lake, the incomparable landscape of New Zealand, with many years in my life left to see more. Yeah, there are still struggles. My kids interrupt my sleep on a routine basis, America’s in really tough shape, we haven’t yet been able to turn our games into something that can support us financially. But if I am still plagued by moods where I’m incapable of appreciating what I have, the problem is still not solved.

If there’s a lesson to be learned from what happened to Robin Williams, it’s that you can’t beat depression just by living well. The guy accomplished so much but still struggled. Left unchecked, depression is a monster without empathy who absolutely will not stop until you are dead.

So a few months ago, I finally said enough was enough and started taking the pills. It was hard for me, I worried about being a hypocrite. I was afraid of the side-effects, although I am still writing. At first, it didn’t even work. I had to increase my dosage because the depression had simply adjusted to it. I still don’t know if it will be enough. But I can’t do nothing, and neither can you if you have similar struggles. It’s not cowardly or anything like that, it’s simply the will to survive. No matter what happens, you have to try your best to hold onto that. RIP, Robin Williams.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Four Types of Movie Watchers

I've wanted to do something like this for a while. Ever since I became a serious movie watcher some 15 years ago, I've been pretty fascinated about the different expectations and standards people have for the medium. For anyone who doesn't know my background, I lived and breathed movies for my high school years before majoring in Cinema Studies at New York University. I wanted to be a film critic, but I couldn't afford to keep living in the city after graduation and even in an environment like that, the jobs are slim. I did write movie reviews for my hometown paper for a number of years but eventually moved on to other pursuits. I still watch movies constantly, however, and perhaps one day I'll find a major use for this expertise. So long story short, I've had extensive experience with all of these "types" and I'm not talking out of my bum. With that established, let's get started.

Casual Viewer

For these people, movies just aren't a significant part of life. They've seen plenty, although they would have no clue how many if you asked them. They probably are in a movie theater less than five times a year, for major blockbusters or romantic comedies, depending on taste. Perhaps a book they really liked was adapted into a film, they'll check that out. If they have children, they are actually fairly knowledgeable about the Disney and Pixar canon because it's an easy way to give the rugrats something to do. Learning about the history of movies is not something they have any interest in doing. Chances are they haven't seen most of the more famous classics (i.e. Citizen Kane, Casablanca, The Godfather, etc) unless one was shown to them in a classroom.

It will be very hard to write this paragraph without being condescending, but please know I'm trying my best. A defining trait of the casual viewer is a lack of expectations. They go to movies expecting a two-hour distraction and if they got that, then they're satisfied and it's time to go back to the real world. Every so often, this total lack of critical evaluation can be infuriating to anyone who has thought seriously about film. In particular, Michael Bay's Transformers movies have become notorious for drawing the battle lines between casual moviegoers and everyone else. You'll often hear them defended as "just a dumb action movie" or "a fun popcorn movie," which is a phrase the person saw in an article recently. Perhaps you'll be told to go watch some highbrow French film instead, as if there's no possibility for an intelligent action film. Therein lies the key issue, actually - understanding the difference between "silly" and "brainless." A silly movie can be a lot of fun, but a brainless movie just sucks. I'm not really comfortable calling anything "objectively" terrible, but those Transformers movies really tempt me.

Casual viewers hate the Oscars because... "Who cares about the Oscars? Nobody's ever heard of the movies that get awards!"


For fanboys (hopefully the inclusion of all genders is understood at this point), it's less about movies and more about geek-friendly genres of fiction like science-fiction, superheroes, fantasy, animation and horror. Most of them don't have much interest in the world of cinema outside these genres, but they are incredibly passionate about the movies within their realm. These are the costumed fans who will stand in line at Comic-Con for six hours to watch a two minute clip of the next Marvel movie. When it comes to the movies they love, they are tireless advocates. In particular, fanboys have been essential to the continued success of the horror genre.

However, there are dark sides to this level of fandom. They don't react kindly to innovation or experimentation when a movie adapts their treasured source material. They expect the movie adaptations to cater totally to them and resent attempts to appeal to a wider audience by altering the original stories. When this happens, they flood the internet with the level of vitriol you would expect from gun control debates on Facebook. Tread carefully before you start a conversation about George Lucas.

Fanboys hate the Oscars because...all their favorite genres routinely go ignored by the Academy. The only horror film to win Best Picture is The Silence of the Lambs, which people try to separate from horror by calling it a "psychological thriller." Please. A guy gets his a chunk of his face bitten off, it's a horror film. There you go, fanboys. Don't said I never did anything for ya.

Film Buff

A film buff will watch just about anything because they love movies. They seek a broad understanding of the medium, watching stuff from all genres and locations, and like to share their passion with others. When they see something great, they will sing its praises to their friends. When they see a fun bad movie (i.e. Plan 9 From Outer Space, Troll 2, The Room), they will make sure their friends get a chance to experience it. When they see a movie that's just plain bad, they will relish the chance to rip it apart. If you want a movie recommendation, find a film buff. If they know you well, they'll be able to cherry-pick their mental library for something you will like.

Passion and knowledge of film can impress other people, but it can also cost them friends if they don't keep their ego in check. Some film buffs take a fanboy attitude towards cinema as a whole, dismissing the opinions of others who haven't seen as many films as they have. A long movie-watching resume does give you a very informed opinion, but it doesn't take away the inherent subjectivity of the medium.

Film buffs hate the Oscars because...actually, they are the ones who are most likely to get at least some enjoyment out of it. Chances are, they like at least one of the movies that gets a statue. But they are also very familiar with all the films in each category, getting pissed off about their favored film losing the Cinematography Oscar while their friends are bewildered. It's a serious love/hate situation.


The cinephile is more interested in movies as art than as entertainment. Unlike the film buff, who seeks familiarity with all genres, the cinephile has no use for movies with overt commercial intentions. They have discerning taste and usually have a formal education in the history and language of film to back it up. I once heard a cinephile define "film buff" as "someone who dominates at Trivial Pursuit but has never seen a Victor Erice film." Directors like Erice, Eric Rohmer, Andrei Tarkovsky and Yasujiro Ozu are their bread and butter. They have a huge tolerance for boredom as long as the film they're watching is technically or thematically appealing to them. As you might have guessed by now, there is a noted correlation between cinephilia and hipsterism.

Like film buffs, a cinephile's worst enemy is his own ego. If they can keep that in check, cinephiles make outstanding professors and can get others to appreciate film in exciting new ways. If not, they run the risk of being utterly insufferable like the infamous commentator Armond White. In fact, most film critics are cinephiles (although the late Roger Ebert was definitely a film buff).

Cinephiles hate the Oscars because...they pretend not to care about the Oscars at all. But they do. However, the movies they love are almost always too obscure to get any nominations. Maybe in the Foreign Language category if they're lucky.

As for me, I'd identify myself as a film buff, but I do have a cinephile's education and a few of those tendencies (I have seen a film by Victor Erice, in fact). Not everyone will neatly fit into these categories, but I think articulating differences like this helps create more of a vocabulary that can be useful for discussing movies in general. I'd love to hear feedback about this one if anyone reads it. Am I on to something here or not even close? Which one are you?

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Ten Great Movies for Swearing

I love swearing. I don't do it all that often on this blog, mostly because I try to keep a lighthearted, even-keeled tone here. It's not really a place for full-on rants. But when you are in the mood for a good rant, is there anything more satisfying than letting loose with some cuss words? "Bullshit" may be one of the most useful words in the English language - I can't think of any term more appropriate to describe so much of what we deal with in our daily lives in modern America. Even on a smaller scale, I don't know what I would do if I couldn't shout "God damn it!" when I hit my toe on some sharp children's toy that's been left in the middle of the floor.

It's an unfortunate reality that in a world full of starvation, war, injustice and other problems that actually harm people, there are still quite a few folks who get deeply offended by "naughty words." But I suppose that if they still weren't so scandalized, it wouldn't be as much fun to bust them out. The breaching of decorum associated with swearing is primarily what makes this glorious compilation of news anchors swearing on air so hilarious. With that as an appetizer, let's get into ten movies that use swear words to brilliant effect.

The Big Lebowski (Joel and Ethan Coen, 1998)

Jesus Quintana: You ready to be fucked, man? I see you rolled your way into the semis. Dios mio, man. Liam and me, we're gonna fuck you up.
The Dude: Yeah, well, you know, that's just, like, your opinion, man.
Jesus Quintana: Let me tell you something, pendejo. You pull any of your crazy shit with us, you flash a piece out on the lanes, I'll take it away from you, stick it up your ass and pull the fucking trigger 'til it goes "click."
The Dude: Jesus.
Jesus Quintana: You said it, man. Nobody fucks with the Jesus.

The Coen Brothers are Oscar-winning directors who have given film buffs everywhere many classics to obsess about, from Blood Simple to Fargo to Miller's Crossing to No Country For Old Men. But honestly, none of those movies are as much pure fun as The Big Lebowski, a movie that felt just as unambitious as its layabout hero. Critics had no clue what to make of it upon its initial release, but its fantastic cast and endless hilarity have earned it a huge following in the years since.

Casino (Martin Scorsese, 1995)

Nicky Santoro: Get this through your head, you Jew motherfucker, you. You only exist out here because of me! That's the only reason. Without me, you, personally, every fuckin' wise guy skell around'll take a piece of your fuckin' Jew ass. Then where you gonna go? You're fuckin' warned. Don't ever go over my fuckin' head again. You motherfucker, you!

There aren't many directors who have contributed as much profanity to the world of movies as Scorsese. From Raging Bull to The Wolf of Wall Street, he understands the visceral power of dropping f-bombs. When compared to some of his best work, Casino feels mostly like an unofficial sequel to the classic Goodfellas. Like most sequels, it's still a lot of fun but not quite as satisfying as its predecessor. However, when it comes to swearing, this movie is packed with glorious rants, most of them delivered by Joe Pesci's character.

Commando (Mark L. Lester, 1985)

[Cooke has a loaded gun]
Cooke: Fuck you, asshole.
[He pulls the trigger. It's out of bullets]
John Matrix: Fuck YOU, asshole.

The Film Encyclopedia's priceless description of Arnold Schwarzenegger reads, in part, "Curiously, Schwarzenegger's limited acting range, his deadpan expression and thick-accented delivery of American slang proved assets rather than liabilities in his rise to top popularity." If you want to see that dynamic in action, there are many choices but none greater than the sublimely ridiculous Commando, one of those treasures that you can't wait to show to someone who hasn't seen it so you can hear them howl with laughter for 90 minutes. I can't keep track of how many times I've watched this one and that's probably for the best.

Glengarry Glen Ross (James Foley, 1992)

Ricky Roma: You stupid fucking cunt. You, Williamson, I'm talking to you, shithead. You just cost me $6,000. Six thousand dollars, and one Cadillac. That's right. What are you going to do about it? What are you going to do about it, asshole? You're fucking shit. Where did you learn your trade, you stupid fucking cunt, you idiot? Who ever told you that you could work with men? Oh, I'm gonna have your job, shithead.

Glengarry Glen Ross is how the bloodthirsty nature of commercial real estate corrupts...oh, forget it. It's about swearing, okay? The reason anyone watches this is to see a cast of great actors hang around an office and read David Mamet's gloriously profane dialogue. Al Pacino gets most of the best lines, but Jack Lemmon has one meltdown near the end that just about steals the show. A foul-mouthed classic.

Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood, 2008)

[Walt Kowalski comes across thugs that are bothering a young girl while her friend stands by]
Thug: What the fuck you lookin' at, old man? Huh?
Walt Kowalski: What the hell are you spooks up to?
Thug: Spooks? You better get your ass on, honky, while I still let you. That's what you better do.
[Walt gets out of the truck and spits on the ground]
Walt: Ever notice once in a while you come across somebody you shouldn't have fucked with? That's me.
Thug: Are you fuckin' crazy, man? Get outta here.
Thug 2: Why don't you get outta here before I kick your old wrinkly white ass.
[Walt makes his finger into a gun and intimidates the thugs, then tells the girl to get into the truck. When they try and stop her, he pulls out a real gun.]
Thug: Whoa! Hey pops, come on now.
Walt: Shut your fuckin' face. You fuckin' don't listen, do ya?
Friend: Way to go, old man!
Walt: Shut up, pussy.

Clint Eastwood plays a grumpy old war veteran so politically incorrect he makes Archie Bunker look like a feminist twitter account. My friends and I were intrigued by the ads for this movie. We didn't know what to expect, but we certainly didn't anticipate the full-on laughing fits we had at watching Clint drive around his rough neighborhood with a permanent scowl. The second half of the movie is far more serious and dark, but the first half is a riot.

In The Loop (Armando Iannucci, 2009)

[Malcolm Tucker is on the phone while walking the streets of Washington, DC]
Malcolm: Fucking hung up, haven't you? You fucking...hoity-toity...fucking...
Tourist: Hey, buddy? Enough with the curse words, all right?
Malcolm: Kiss my sweaty balls, you fat fuck.
[he runs off]

Before he was writing priceless profane outbursts for Julia Louis-Dreyfus on HBO's Veep, Armando Iannucci directed this uproarious satire of Iraq War politics. It's exceptionally well-written, but the main reason to watch this one is Peter Capaldi as Malcolm Tucker, a British political strategist who spends all his scenes terrorizing the other characters with brilliantly off-color rants. The one drawback is that sometimes his heavy Scottish accent muddles what is being said. Turn on the subtitles for maximum enjoyment.

Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (Kevin Smith, 2001)

Jay: Type this shit. "All you motherfuckers are gonna pay. YOU are the ones who are the ball-lickers! We're gonna fuck your mothers while you watch and cry like little bitches. Once we get to Hollywood and find those Miramax fucks who are making this movie, we're gonna make 'em eat our shit, then shit out our shit, than eat their shit which is in reality our shit that we made 'em eat. And all you little fucks are next. Love, Jay and Silent Bob."

Any of Kevin Smith's movies could have been on this list (even the family-oriented Jersey Girl has some choice bits of profanity), but this one definitely has a place in my heart and is one of the most frequently used DVDs in my collection. The slapstick adventure has a lot of celebrity cameos but it's Jason Mewes, known only for this role, who carries the movie. The short-tempered, immature Jay appears in most of Smith's movies but he's never been funnier than here.

Nothing to Lose (Steve Oedekerk, 1997)

Terrence "T" Davidson: There's a spider on your head.
Nick Beam: Look, I'm sorry, I am not up on all this jive-talkin' home boy lingo. What the hell is that supposed to mean, there's a spider on my head?
T: It means...there's a spider...on your motherfuckin' HEAD, man!
Nick: Well, get it off! Get it off!
T: I ain't touchin' that SHIT!

The "white guy meets black guy" comedy was ubiquitous during the 1980s and 90s, but the old cliche doesn't get much funnier than this underrated gem featuring Tim Robbins and Martin Lawrence. A favorite from my teenage years, the humor is often so random I wonder if most of the script was improvised. There are tons of laugh-out-loud hilarious moments in this movie, the best of which are the confrontations between the two protagonists and their evil counterparts (a pre-Scrubs John C. McGinley and a pre-Breaking Bad Giancarlo Esposito).

Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994)

[Vincent and Jules are cleaning the inside of the car which is covered in blood]
Jules: Oh, man, I will never forgive your ass for this shit. This is some fucked-up repugnant shit.
Vincent: Jules, did you ever hear the philosophy that once a man admits that he's wrong that he is immediately forgiven for all wrongdoings? Have you ever heard that?
Jules: Get the fuck out my face with that shit! The motherfucker that said that shit never had to pick up itty-bitty pieces of skull on account of your dumb ass.
Vincent: I got a threshold, Jules. I got a threshold for the abuse that I will take. Now, right now, I'm a fuckin' race car, right, and you got me in the red. And I'm just sayin', I'm just sayin' that it's dangerous to have a race car in the red. That's all. I could blow.
Jules: Oh! Oh! You ready to blow? Well, I am a mushroom cloud layin' motherfucker, motherfucker!

Pulp Fiction's dialogue is legendary for its overall cleverness, not just for swearing. Look in the "memorable quotes" section of its imdb page and you'll find basically the entire screenplay. For the purposes of this list, however, we recognize it for giving a career-defining role to Samuel L. Jackson and showing the world how adept he is with a certain 12-letter obscenity.

South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut (Trey Parker, 1999)

Eric Cartman: Don't call me fat, you fuckin' Jew!
Mr. Garrison: Eric! Did you just say the F word?!
Cartman: Jew?
Kyle Broflowski: No, he's talking about fuck! You can't say fuck in school, you fuckin' fat-ass!
Mr. Garrison: Kyle!
Cartman: Why the fuck not?!
Mr. Garrison: Eric!
Stan Marsh: Dude, you just said fuck again!
Mr. Garrison: Stanley!
Kenny McCormick: (muffled noise)
Mr. Garrison: Kenny!
Cartman: What's the big deal? It doesn't hurt anybody. Fuck fuckity fuck fuck fuck!
Mr. Garrison: How would you like to see the school counselor?
Cartman: How would YOU like to suck my balls?!
Mr. Garrison: WHAT did you say?!
Cartman: Oh, I'm sorry, I'm sorry. What I meant was...[picks up a bullhorn] How would you like to SUCK MY BALLS, Mr. Garrison?
[long pause]
Stan: Holy shit, dude.

The quality of the TV show over the years is wildly uneven, but the South Park movie is a flat-out masterpiece: a great musical, a hilarious comedy and a blistering satire about how America gets all worked up over non-issues like swearing while perpetrating violence all over the world. An uproar over swearing in a Canadian film escalates into a war between the US and Canada and on the eve of the battle, uptight busybody Sheila Broflowski tells the troops, "Remember what the MPAA says - Horrible deplorable violence is long as you don't say any naughty words!" And when you can cut off someone's head or destroy an entire city in a PG-13 movie but more than one "fuck" gets you an R, it's clear America lives by these words.

Happy swearing, everyone!

Friday, May 23, 2014

Labyrinthine Dreams on Steam!

Buy the game!

That link will take you right to our Steam page where you can check out screenshots and the spiffy new trailer that Degica made for us. It's been a long journey to get to this point...and even a long journey today, the damn thing didn't go live until 8 pm, but what a feeling.

I hope it's just the first of many more games from me and Mark. And don't worry, it won't be long until I'm back with more Tales From the Crypt, Spider-Man commentary and all the usual features of this blog. For now though, I'm in full on proud game developer mode. Check the game out and tell your friends!

Friday, May 16, 2014

Labyrinthine Dreams on Steam May 23!

It's been nine months since our successful Kickstarter last year...a lot longer than we originally expected. While it may have been protracted, particularly during a frustrating stretch of inactivity last autumn, the overall development has gone extremely well. We used our funds to hire three artists, a composer, and even voice actors to bring this story to life. The results have been incredibly satisfying to see and now all that's left is to get it ready for Steam.

Originally, we thought it would be a long time after the game's release before we had any shot at Steam. Perhaps we would never make it on there. That all changed when we were approached by Degica, the company that translates RPG Maker into English. They wanted to become our publisher and include us in a slate of RM games that have been coming out on Steam for the last two months or so. So now we've got the ideal platform, we just have to see what people think of the actual content.

There's not a whole lot more to say yet, especially when we've said a great deal already on our website. If you want to learn more about Labyrinthine Dreams, check these out.

Beth's Journey
Origins: A Visual Journey

One week from now, I'll be back here to celebrate the release. For now, mark those calendars!

Friday, May 2, 2014

With Great Budget Comes Too Much Responsibility

(Don't ignore your spoiler sense because it's going off right now)

It's hard to remember now that we're at the fifth Spider-Man movie in 12 years, but when the original Sam Raimi Spider-Man starring Tobey Maguire came out in 2002, superhero films were actually quite rare. Bryan Singer's first X-Men film had shown their potential a year before, but the runaway success of Spider-Man meant that they would be showing up at movie theaters for a long time. Marvel Comics took things to the next level by producing movies themselves, introducing a slate of films featuring various characters that would all eventually join The Avengers. It was the cinematic equivalent of an interconnected comic book universe and audiences have been eating it up. If you're making superhero movies right now, you're either Marvel or you're trying to be Marvel. Warner Bros is certainly going that route with the DC characters - a few years from now, Ben Affleck's Batman will team up with Henry Cavill's Superman from Man of Steel, with a Justice League movie planned for a few years after that.

That leaves Sony in a bit of a strange position. The whole reason this reboot even happened was that they could retain the rights to the character but what will they do without any other superheroes in their stable? The answer seems clear after watching The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which is stuffed with so many different aspects of the Spidey mythos that its massive two-and-a-half hour length just barely covers them all. In addition to the cast from last time, there are three new supervillains and an onslaught of various names familiar to those who know the comics. Lesser known characters like Felicia Hardy and Alistair Smythe have smaller roles which may or may not be developed in further sequels. The Ravencroft Institute, Marvel's kinder and gentler Arkham Asylum, appears in a few scenes, although the head psychologist Dr. Ashley Kafka has been inexplicably made into a male character with a stock Dr. Mengele-esque mania. J. Jonah Jameson, absent from the last film, appears here only in e-mail form and it's actually one of the movie's funniest bits. There were even plans for some scenes featuring Shailene Woodley as Mary Jane Watson, but those reportedly were cut from the final film.

Enough of the nerdy tidbits...the main plot is busy enough. Still haunted by the death of Captain George Stacy in the previous film, Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) agonizes over whether or not it's responsible to be in a relationship with Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) when his double life puts him in so much danger all the time. Meanwhile, his long lost friend Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan) has returned from abroad. DeHaan, who played a similar character in the underrated Chronicle, is the best part of the movie. There's a chilling scene early on featuring him and his father Norman Osborn (Chris Cooper), who is dying from a mysterious illness that just happens to make him resemble a green-skinned goblin. The illness is hereditary, forcing Harry into increasingly desperate schemes which lead to his transformation into the Green Goblin. The reboot's greatest strength has been its casting and this is no exception. DeHaan gives a fantastic performance, although for the bulk of the movie, Spidey's main adversary is Electro (Jamie Foxx).

It was an unexpected casting announcement, but it mostly works. Foxx channels the inferiority complex that drove the character of Max Dillon, a nerdy engineer who gains the power to manipulate electricity after a bizarre accident. Unfortunately, once he transforms, the actor has a lot less to work with. The movie has gone with the blue-skinned Dr. Manhattan rip-off look from the Ultimate Spider-Man continuity...too bad, I would have enjoyed seeing Foxx in the classic yellow lightning-bolt mask. His battles with Spider-Man aren't the most satisfying unfortunately. There are a few neat shots here and there, but by and large the action moves just too quickly and is buried under the conspicuous CGI. I also really could have done without the bizarre nu-metal music that seems to represent Dillon's inner monologue (the whole soundtrack of this movie was surprisingly intrusive, even for a superhero film).

Meanwhile, Peter is also investigating the mystery left behind by his dead parents, which was briefly discussed in the last film. While it might seem like a burdensome subplot, it leads to most of the movie's most emotional moments. This is largely because of the acting from Campbell Scott as the stoic Richard Parker and Sally Field as Aunt May. In general, the human element of this film is stronger than its predecessor; I really liked how Spider-Man was constantly saving random pedestrians from the destruction wrought by his battles with supervillains. It was a nice contrast to Man of Steel and Superman's flagrant disregard for the tens of thousands of people who must have died during the final battle in Metropolis. During the climactic battle with Electro, director Mark Webb keeps cutting to a plane overhead that has been affected by all the electrical craziness going on. It's perplexing at first, but I was grateful that the movie was reminding its audience of all the ordinary lives in the balance. After all, those people are the reason a superhero does what he does.

And while we're on the subject of human moments, we should talk about Gwen Stacy. Ever since the fans knew she would have a major role in this series, we all wondered if the writers would do that storyline. Going into this movie, I still wasn't sure. But when I saw Emma Stone wearing that iconic green coat and purple skirt...and then the Green Goblin showed up...I felt that unique anxiety of knowing what's about to happen, like when Robb and Catelyn Stark went to a certain wedding to try and make amends with Walder Frey on Game of Thrones. Some of the details are different, but it's an absolutely wrenching moment that will really shock Spidey-newbs. Regardless of the movie's problems, any fan should check this out just to see this legendary storyline come to life.

With that in mind, it feels unusually crass when the script starts frantically setting up future sequels after Gwen's death. It illustrates the main issue with the movie, which has four different writers credited for the screenplay. It's not a story so much as a checklist. I guess when a movie has a huge nine-figure budget, the studio expects the tracks to be laid down for more content. Continuity is fun but in this case, it really got in the way. The film has such a hard time living in the moment that when a great moment like Gwen's death happens, it feels like the acting and direction working in spite of the script rather than because of it. At the beginning of the film, Spidey captures a Russian thug named Aleksei Sytsevich (a hilarious Paul Giamatti). At the very end, after two knock-down drag-out fights with Electro and the Green Goblin and Gwen's death, Sytsevich shows up again as The Rhino, a true B-list Spider-Man villain. You just want to shout "enough already!" as the movie heads towards yet another "final battle."

So what's next? Well, it's clear from the movie's ending scenes that the Rhino will eventually be part of the Sinister Six. The movie wisely kept Harry Osborn alive, so he is likely to lead the group of miscreants. Based on a few telltale shots in the laboratory scenes, it appears The Vulture and Doctor Octopus will be joining the team as well. Frankly, I'm more interested in what the series will do with Peter's personal story. With Gwen dead and Mary Jane still not introduced, it would be refreshing for the writers to explore one of his other romances. Will Felicia Hardy assume her Black Cat identity next time around? Will Electro find a way to return and menace Spidey further? There was no body and in soap operas and comics, if there's no body, they're not dead. Will we ever get to see someone play Mysterio? Man, I'd love that.

It's funny how I always have more fun speculating about what the next movie will be than I do actually watching them. I suppose when there are so many competing visions of the characters and the world, the most fun an old-school fan can have is just observing how each iteration sifts through the source material. Looking forward to more of that.