Tuesday, December 31, 2013


A couple days ago, I was sorting through my old movie ticket stubs (I archive them all, as I'm sure you do too) and realized that back in 2010, my first and last theatrically-viewed movies were Coen brother movies: A Serious Man in January (it had opened toward the end of the previous year) and True Grit in December.

As 2013 comes to a close, I unintentionally did it again. I didn't get around to seeing The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey until January this year. Today, I squeezed in one last movie at a theater, and it just so happened to be The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.

It's looking like the first movie I'll see theatrically in 2014 will be Philomena. Can anybody tell me if there's going to be a "woman searching for the child she was forced to give up for adoption 50 years ago" movie next December? (Spoiler alert: Philomena is about a woman searching for the child she was forced to give up for adoption 50 years ago. Either that, or it's about two people watching Big Momma's House in a hotel room.)

Happy new year, everyone!

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Daddy's Handwriting

Here's a little Christmas cartoon written by me, just in time for the holidays. Enjoy!


I can't thank producer-director Cam Leeburg and animator Jason Oshman enough for hustling to get it done.

Friday, October 18, 2013

The Simpsons Challenge, part five

This is the final installment of a five-part series listing my favorite 25 "Simpsons" episodes in chronological order.  Click here to start at the beginning of the list.

"Lisa the Iconoclast"
Category: Social commentary
Back when Jebediah Springfield was little more than a statue for Bart to saw the head off of, who would have guessed the amount of world-building "The Simpsons" would get out of him? Part of why I love this episode is that it taps into my own teenaged indignation at realizing the history taught in school was essentially a lie. But I also love that the show takes a challenging thematic turn and sides with the "print the legend" philosophy, with Lisa coming around to the fact that there's value in the fictions we tell ourselves.

"Summer of 4 Ft 2"
Category: Kids being kids
I'm a sucker for a good summertime story, and this episode has it in spades. Lisa's attempt to become a different person may be similar to her "Bart of Darkness" storyline; but whereas she sought popularity there, she's looking for nothing more than simply to have a friend here. Bart's strategy to turn Lisa's new friends against her is so devastating because it's so real, and we can immediately see how effective it will be. This episode also contains some of the best Milhouse-getting-shit-on the show has ever done.

"The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show"
Category: Social commentary
Like any good comedian, "The Simpsons" is never more coldly critical of any target than it is of itself. The writers take the opportunity to vent about bad network notes, the inherent flaws in market testing (particularly when the test subjects are children), industry greed, and their own laziness. The whole concept of "Roy" mirroring for "The Simpsons" what was happening in "Itchy & Scratchy" was brilliant. Wish they could have gotten June Foray to be in this episode, rather than substituting the character "June Bellamy." Interestingly, this episode debuted Comic Book Guy's catchphrase "Worst. Episode. Ever." The writers took that critique from an early online message board. The criticism was lobbed against the episode "Itchy & Scratchy: The Movie," which was an episode I liked so much that it made my list here.

"Homer's Enemy"
Ah, the controversial Frank "Grimy" Grimes episode. I love it. I love the fact that this mainstream, primetime show was willing to go so completely dark. I think the people who hate this episode think it was being too cynical about humanity. It's really not. There's a genuine lesson here: Grimes doesn't die because the universe was against him; he's done in by his own deep-seated rage. If Homer hadn't brought it out of him, someone else would have.

"Wild Barts Can't Be Broken"
Category: Kids being kids
How I love this episode! Instantly takes me back to that childhood mindset of thinking every adult is against you, and it's unfair that they have all the power. That the kids sneak out for a horror movie at a drive-in is such pristine americana, as is the stage-musical finale.


Well, that does it for my top 25 favorite "Simpsons" episodes of all time.  It still hurts my soul a little bit, the episodes I had to toss aside.  It ain't right, I tell ya.

Some stats from my list:
  • The earliest episode on my list, "Lisa's Substitute," is from the end of April 1991, meaning that season two barely made the cut
  • This list spans seasons two through ten, but has no episodes from season nine... awkward!
  • The most-represented season on this list is season six, with seven episodes earning a spot on my top 25
  • Coincidentally, the first episode I ever disliked was also from season six: "Sideshow Bob Roberts" aired on October 9, 1994, directed by Mark Kirkland and credited to the writing team of Bill Oakley & Josh Weinstein (who are credited with one of my top 25 episodes, "$pringfield," and were show runners on two damn fine seasons: seven and eight)
  • Far and away, the most-represented writer on this list is John Swartzwelder, which will come as no surprise to hardcore "Simpsons" fans; with seven episode credits on this list, he wrote 28% of my favorite episodes
  • The director category was more competitive; Jim Reardon is the most-represented director on the list with five episodes, just topping Wes Archer's four
So what are your favorite "Simpsons" episodes?  Post your answers in the comments!

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Simpsons Challenge, part four

Read the previous five by clicking here. Episodes are listed in chronological order.

"And Maggie Makes Three"
Category: Heart
I always loved episodes with well-earned poignant moments. This episode mines a surprising amount of material out of Homer's "dream job" of working at a bowling alley. When Homer is forced to return to the power plant, the show lets you feel the defeat without overplaying it. But they really bring it home with that beautiful transformation of Burns' de-motivational plaque.

"Bart's Comet"
Category: Kids being kids, Heart
I had a paper route when this episode originally aired, and the sequence involving Bart joining Skinner in the wee hours for an amateur astronomy session felt authentic to the predawn, humanity-devoid early morning experience. I think I generally enjoy stories where a large group of people are thrown into unusual circumstances. The town coming together at the end for a round of "Que Sera" -- though meant to be humorous -- just plain works as an emotional moment. The episode smartly dodges the deus ex machina of the town's salvation by setting it up early in the episode with Homer's prediction.

"'Round Springfield"
Category: Heart
How I learned to do the perfect Bad Cosby Impression. Bleeding Gums Murphy's death has genuine emotion behind it (even if all you really need to do is go down to the pound and get a new jazzman), and it was a smart decision to let him go halfway through the episode -- rather than build up to it at the end -- and turn the third act into Lisa's quest to pay tribute to him.

"Lemon of Troy"
Category: Kids being kids
Possibly the best "kids being kids" episode of them all. Fun shenanigans as Bart expresses his recently-discovered town pride. Springfield is, need it be said, a part of us all. A part of us all. A part of us all!

"Mother Simpson"
Category: Heart
"The Simpsons" answers a question we didn't really know we had -- what about Homer's mom? -- and does so exquisitely! The reunion fills us in on what kind of person she is, where she's been all this time, where Lisa fits into the family, and mines startlingly raw abandonment issues in Homer. As the joyful reunion turns bittersweet, the episode ends on a quietly poignant moment. It still amazes me that such a fast-paced and joke-filled series is willing to go out on a moment of quiet solitude like that.

Click here to read the final five!

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Simpsons Challenge, part three

My list of the 25 best "Simpsons" episodes of all-time (in chronological order) continues. Click here for the previous five.

"Bart Gets Famous"
Category: Social commentary
More incisive observation of our obsession with pop culture. "The Simpsons" earned credibility by repeatedly aiming its pointed satire at itself. And, of course, I love this episode now more than ever because repetitiveness has become my job. My job. It's my job to be repetitive.

"Bart Gets an Elephant"
Sadly, many shows can't even write their lead characters with as much nuance and depth as "The Simpsons" gave Stampy. His final scene is a bittersweet goodbye wherein we're simultaneously happy for him, regretful for losing him, laughing with him, and shaking our heads at what an awful jerk he is.

"Bart of Darkness"
Category: Kids being kids
The film geek in me loves the full-on reenactment of Rear Window. But what really brings this episode home is the role reversal of Bart and Lisa, and what they each learn from their new perspectives.

"Lisa's Rival"
Category: Kids being kids
Lisa has met her match several times throughout the series, but none have hit as close to home as Allison Taylor. As far as interests and personality go, she's virtually the same person as Lisa Simpson... except one click better at each of Lisa's defining traits. That the lesson learned at the end of the episode is "sometimes people are just better than you" is remarkably challenging for a prime time sitcom. And as stupid as it is, I really enjoy the subplot with Homer's sugar, especially when it leads to his monologue about never being one of the bluebloods. Also, Ralph bends his Wookiee.

"Itchy & Scratchy Land"
Category: Social commentary
This episode exemplifies what made peak-era "Simpsons" so worthy of the infatuation and devotion of its many hardcore fans. It's working on so many levels and squeezing in so many cultural references simultaneously, while still managing to be true to its characters, tell an original story, and have something original to say no matter how slight that may be. And in this episode, it's pretty slight. The primary objective of this episode is to satirize amusement parks in general, and the culture that both creates them and supports them. Most obviously, we have a parody of then-recent Jurassic Park. Aspects of Westworld (also a Michael Crichton story) are blended into that. There are direct references to Disney rides and attractions, as well as Walt Disney himself. There are also throwaway references to The Birds, Terminator, Saturday Night Fever and more. But at the end of the day, the episode is an original take on crass consumerism, entitlement, and the foolish presumption of safety we put in these amusement parks. Even when not saying anything particularly deep about the human condition, this show could pack in so much rumination about modern society, as well as countless jokes.

Read the next five...

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Simpsons Challenge, part two

After much struggle, I came up with a list of my 25 favorite "Simpsons" episodes of all time. Read about the previous five.

"Homer's Triple Bypass"
Category: Heart
A strong emotional core that doesn't sacrifice humor. Gained personal relevance to me when, a mere two years after it originally aired, my own dad would have a triple bypass. One of the best punchlines in the history of television is Lisa's description of what it feels like for the "MTV generation" to feel neither highs nor lows.

"I Love Lisa"
Category: Heart
Another signature episode of the series. So iconic that the whole shebang is brought to most people's minds by intoning five simple syllables: "I choo-choo-choose you." This episode is the only reason I know that William Henry Harrison died 30 days after becoming president... and that he was a president at all.

"Last Exit to Springfield"
So many memorable set pieces in one episode. "Dental plan/Lisa needs braces." Lisa in the sky, without diamonds. Burns' Grinch-like awakening. And, of course, the sitcom-skewering ending that goes out on all the characters sharing a laugh... due to some medical assistance.

Category: Heart
Here's how brilliant "The Simpsons" is (was): This episode first aired when I was 13 years old. I hadn't seen Citizen Kane, hadn't heard much of The Ramones, and had a sub-basic knowledge of Charles Lindbergh (some kind of dancer?)... and none of that mattered! It's still a great, hilarious, original story perfectly understandable to that 13-year-old kid. This gets to the heart of why "The Simpsons" in its prime was far superior to the countless imitators springing up in its wake. Too many shows and movies learned only part of the lesson that "The Simpsons" was teaching: that it can be hilarious to reference and make fun of other cultural things. The important part of the lesson should have been: do it because it integrates naturally with your characters and your story. 13-year-old me didn't know from Charles Foster Kane. All I knew was Mr. Burns had this stuffed animal he loved (something we can all relate to), and now he had a chance to get it back. Suggesting a familial relationship to George Burns, for example, would be shoehorned in forcibly on other shows. Here, it's a throwaway gag that works naturally with the timeline.  Brilliant.

Probably the best treatment the series has ever given to Marge. But what really clinches this episode for me is Burns' descent into Howard Hughes-ian madness.

Read the next five...

Monday, October 14, 2013

The Simpsons Challenge, part one

"do you dare take the simpsons top 25 challenge?" came the text from my friend, completely out of nowhere, related to nothing else that was going on.

I asked her to elaborate.  "list your top 25 fave episodes of all time."

This is quite possibly the most difficult task I've ever been asked to undertake.  Even after hatcheting off everything post season 11, you've still got over 200 golden-era episodes to winnow down to your top 25.  Going through the list with a hyper-critical eye, my "shortlist" still ended up 66 episodes long!

But, as I had hoped, this was a great exercise in rejuvenating my love of "The Simpsons."  Going through the long list of episodes, remembering the stories and jokes from each, resulted in so many "oh yeah! that was so great!!" moments.

By the end of the list-making process, a pattern had emerged.  The episodes that made the cut had a little bit extra to make them special.  The three categories they most commonly fell into were: Heart, Kids Being Kids, and Social Commentary.

My top 25 list begins below.  It goes without saying that every episode listed here is extremely funny, so I'm not going to bother mentioning it in my write-ups.  Episodes are listed in chronological order

But first, if you'll allow me a moment to cheat, here are some honorable mentions:

"Lisa's Substitute"
Category: Heart
A situation everyone can relate to: being a child and having a crush on an adult.  How wonderful for Lisa that her adult crush not only avoided embarrassing her, but was able to build her up in the process.

"Like Father, Like Clown"
Category: Heart
Long before I would have known what The Jazz Singer was, this episode used the outlines of that story to delve deeper into the personal life of Krusty.  Great world-building.

"Flaming Moe's"
A signature episode; the type you used to show to people to demonstrate the strengths of the series, including but not limited to: pop culture references that aren't there merely for their own sake but to build on the characters and the situations they're in; guest star appearances that don't merely grab ratings but have a purpose within the story; utilizing animation to do more than an average sitcom can do while retaining a balance with realism; characters learning and growing from their experience.

"Itchy & Scratchy: the Movie"
Category: Social commentary
Keen insight into the entertainment industry's propensity to exploit a property to its fullest, and to market something into an "event."  This, a full decade before "The Simpsons" followed the same path to a theater near you.  And all of that is merely background for the true focus of the episode: the story of a young boy who needs discipline and his reluctant disciplinarian father.  All these years later, you still can't get decent Soylent Green at the cineplex.  Also a nice jab at the celebrities who had done uncredited voice work on "The Simpsons," Dustin Hoffman ("Lisa's Substitute") and Michael Jackson.

"Mr. Plow"
Such a tightly constructed story, and so many avenues for humor all well explored.  I think what rocketed this episode to one of my all-time favorites was the "sure-footed as a mountain goat" joke.

Onto the next five episodes...

Monday, July 15, 2013

Surviving Comic-Con, pt. 2.

...Continued from part one.


A few final points about doing Comic-Con right...

Don't take any. You know who else is going to be taking pictures? Every other human being there!! Hundreds of thousands of pictures will be taken. And you know which ones will be the best? Not the ones from your iPhone - all dark, blurry, with an orange speck in the middle that's supposed to prove you saw Joss Whedon in person. Whatever you think you need a picture of, you can find online later. While you're at Comic-Con, just enjoy being at Comic-Con.

Don't go to Hall H!
Have you ever heard old school Comic-Con aficionados complaining about how the convention has sold out to Hollywood? That real comic book fans have been replaced by pop culture junkies? Have you heard about people getting stabbed in the eye or hit by a car? What you're hearing about is Hall H. And for these reasons and more, you shouldn't waste your time there.

Hall H is nothing but a revolving door of commercials for upcoming movies and TV shows you've already heard about and probably decided whether or not you're going to see. They show "exclusive clips" that then become available online two days later. They trot out actors and directors you might like... but so does every panel, and Hall H is the most superficial, impersonal experience you're going to have with them.

Spending time in Hall H is nothing but a waste.

Only go to Hall H!
Unless that's your thing. Hall H is the place where the biggest companies with the biggest marketing budgets are going to put the most effort into trying to impress you. So if you like the razzle-dazzle, if you like the pomp and, yes, the circumstance, then Hall H may just blow your mind.

I have friends who spend the majority of their Comic-Con in Hall H, and they're not terrible people. Hall H is also a particular blessing to the amateur podcaster who doesn't get all the press access of the high-profile broadcasters and publishers.

And as far as my complaints about Hall H being nothing but a bonanza of commercials... look, I get it. It's arguable that the entirety of Comic-Con is nothing but a giant press junket. Every panel, every signing, every advanced screening is designed to make people spread the word and want to buy things. But the thing about it is...

"...Like we're being watched."
Comic-Con is what you make of it.
Despite those occasional complaints about Comic-Con being too big, too Hollywood, and not enough about actual comic books, I think most people recognize that it's held onto its roots surprisingly well. At its heart, Comic-Con is still about artists and creators reaching out to their fan base and trying to grow their audience in a natural, honest way.

That's true of the comic book people, but it's true of the Hollywood people too. Are they trying to get you to watch their shows or buy tickets to their movies? At the end of the day, yes; that's especially what the studios want. But whatever conspiratorial greed may be motivating the studios back in L.A., the people with boots on the ground at Comic-Con are members of the creative community - the writers, directors, actors and artists who are just as enthusiastic as you, and who are fans themselves. So despite the commercialism, there's still plenty of room for magic to happen at Comic-Con because it's fans meeting other fans, creators meeting other creators, and everybody celebrating the things they love. There's nothing negative about Comic-Con. The only cynicism there is the cynicism you bring with you.

And Hall H. That place is b.s.

Anyway, enjoy Comic-Con, everybody!

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Surviving Comic-Con, pt. 1.


This year will be my fourth attending San Diego Comic-Con.  In three short years, I've gone from a lost soul struggling to find his way through the crowd of animé kids and steampunkers to a hardened pro who knows how to grab Comic-Con by the horns and bend it to his will.  With, like, prison tattoos on his knuckles.  Oh, and one of those teardrop tattoos on his cheeks!  Does it mean I killed someone?  Nobody knows for sure.

Anyway, here's some knowledge from my vast experience at Comic-Con...

Clothing, pt. 1.
Keep it simple and practical.  T-shirt, pants, hoodie.  You'll find that one of the most important things is regulating your body temperature.  One hour, you're in a tiny room packed tight with 150 sweaty nerds; next hour, you're in a dark, cavernous room with the air conditioning cranked.  For your comfort and endurance, you need to be able to adjust on the fly.  (NOTE: I did not say "adjust your fly."  That's just as rude at Comic-Con as anywhere else.  Save it for the hotel room, buddy.  There are kids around.)

Clothing, pt. 2.
If you're doing a costume, do it all the way.  Realize that half the attendees of Comic-Con are industry professionals - they've seen the best costumes and the best effects makeup on the planet.  Nobody cares about your Wolverine claws unless you have a detailed costume with well-sourced fabrics to go with it.  Don't carry around a Lasso of Truth unless you're also wearing an almost-nothing outfit and are hot.  (NOTE: Please be very hot.  Look in a mirror.  Be honest with yourself.)

Lodging, pt. 1.
My philosophy on all travel is to go cheap on the hotel room, since you should be spending as little time there as possible.  Unfortunately, going cheap on your Comic-Con hotel doesn't mean getting a worse room so much as it means getting a worse location relative to the convention center.

I wish this didn't matter, but it does.  Even when you plan extra time for the shuttle ride from your hotel to the convention center, it still feels like a waste of time to be on a shuttle rather than in the middle of the action.  And at the end of the day, when you've pushed yourself just a bit beyond your physical limits, that shuttle ride is a nightmare keeping you away from precious, precious sleep.  It's better to be close to the convention center.

Lodging, pt. 2.
But hey, not everyone can be near the convention center.  So if you're stuck on a long shuttle ride, make the most of it!  One time, just before my shuttle was leaving the convention center, a guy in full Joker makeup (complete with purple-and-green suit) hopped onto the bus and, in a good, original take on the Joker's voice, said, "I hope you're all ready to go for a little ride."  Dorky?  Yes.  But if you're not into the dorkiness, why are you at Comic-Con?

Perhaps you're rich.  That's awesome!  You can show up to Comic-Con with nothing but a credit card, and all your needs will be met.

For the rest of us, a good day at Comic-Con means finding a balance between cost of food and quality of food.  While you can go cheap with the cafeteria food inside the convention center, your options are pretty much limited to super-greasy pizza with pepperoni or super-greasy pizza without pepperoni.  You'll definitely want to take advantage of the nicer dining establishments in the Gaslamp Quarter.  But too much of that will kill your bankroll.

The solution?  Granola!  Pack for Comic-Con as if it's a camping trip, minus the s'mores.  Dried fruits and nuts are the name of the game.  Trail mix, granola bars, beef jerky and bottles of water will pad out the time between meals.  Take a trip to the grocery store a few days before leaving for San Diego, and stock up on affordable-yet-nutritious stomach-fillers.

Where to live.
If you found yourself reading my granola advice and thought to yourself, "I'm supposed to travel with all that food?," then you're probably one of the many people who has to travel great distances to get to Comic-Con.  This is a mistake!  The single best piece of advice I can give you for planning your trip to Comic-Con is: be a resident of Southern California already.  It makes the whole thing much easier.

Strategizing, pt. 1.
Plan a tight schedule.  Over 600 individual events take place throughout the four days of Comic-Con so, no matter what, you won't get to see half of what you'd like.  The best way to maximize your time is to take the program schedule -- always released two weeks ahead of the convention -- and schedule something for every. single. minute of every. single. day.  In fact, double-book some hours, because you're not always going to get into your first pick.  The important thing is to always have your next destination ready.  Any time spent on indecision is time wasted.

Strategizing, pt. 2.
...And then be ready to throw it all away on a moment's notice.  You're going to change your mind about what you feel like doing once you're there.  Your stomach is going to disagree about when you scheduled lunch.  Your friends are going to make plans to meet up at inconvenient moments.  You'll need to make detours to adjust your fly.  This all means crossing things off your list, changing your plans.  No big deal.  As long as you're having fun in the moment, you're doing Comic-Con right.

To Be Continued...

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Reverse-Engineering James Baxter the Horse

Imagine you have a coworker who did this weird thing this one time: you were out to lunch with a group from work, and this one particular guy started doing a horse voice.  It made everybody laugh.  A week or two later, you all go out to lunch again.  He ends up doing the horse voice again.  Everybody laughs again.

Now everybody demands it.  Every time you're out to lunch, you goad this guy into doing the horse voice.  He's reluctant, but he always caves in eventually.

Now it's not enough to wait for lunches. You make him do the horse voice when you pass his cubicle, when you see him in the break room, when everybody's in the parking lot at the end of the day.  It never gets old.

Now imagine you work on a cartoon show.

Weirdness is "Adventure Time"'s stock-in-trade.  The driving force of that show is to present bizarre, trippy concepts as just an ordinary day in the Land of Ooo.  Take, for example, an evil old king who can fly by making his beard hairs spin like rotors; or a dog that can expand in size and reshape himself any way he wants; or the fact that the dog's brother is a human.

So, to say "James Baxter the Horse is weird" is not to say he's weirder than anything else in the show.  It's to say that, in the bizarre universe the show has established, James Baxter the Horse is somehow different.

For those of you who didn't see the episode, James Baxter the Horse is nothing more (and nothing less) than a horse that travels around by rearing up on his hind legs and rolling himself along on a multi-colored beach ball, all while repeating his own name in the stutter-neigh style that most English-speaking people use to imply horse-speak.

Got all that?

In the story of the episode, James Baxter is sort of an enigmatic traveling entertainer.  He shows up unexpectedly, does his little routine, and, no matter what, brings absolute joy and delight to all who witness his schtick.

And that's it.  That's the entire character.  That's all he does in the episode.  And if he ever shows up in a future episode, that will most likely be all he does again.

So why was James Baxter "weird" in a show where it rains knives from the sky?

The first clue was probably the name James Baxter. In a show full of Lady Rainicorns and Marcelines, James Baxter sounded a little too real-world.

Second, in a way that's a little harder to explain, the actions of James Baxter felt like reality. It didn't feel like the writers were working from a place of: "What would happen if a horse on a beach ball rolled past Finn and Jake?" It felt like: "You know that guy who does that horse voice? We gotta put that in an episode."

Sure enough, watching the credits, James Baxter the Horse was voiced by someone named James Baxter. Watching the credits further, James Baxter the Horse was animated by... James Baxter!

A quick look at IMDb reveals that James Baxter is a top-tier animator, having worked on the highest profile animated features from Disney and DreamWorks, going all the way back to Who Framed Roger Rabbit?!

In other words, the real James Baxter is most likely friends with several of the people over at "Adventure Time." And at some point, he probably did a horse voice that they couldn't stop laughing at. And probably not long after that, the "Adventure Time" folks decided, "We're definitely putting that in an episode. James Baxter the Horse rolls through the scene and makes everybody happy. THAT'S the episode!"

Just to be clear, I'm not saying this scenario is true. I don't have any special knowledge or backstory on how the "Adventure Time" crew became affiliated with James Baxter, and how he came to be the voice and animator of a horse character named after himself. I'm just presenting a hypothetical scenario on how something like "James Baxter the Horse" comes to be.

The important thing is, that was an excellent piece of entertainment!

Read more on "James Baxter the Horse"

Saturday, March 30, 2013

In Tribute...

The college radio station in my hometown would break from its usual alt rock format on the weekends.  It would turn the airwaves over to basically anybody who was willing to show up consistently and had anything resembling a cohesive programming sensibility.  One such weekend program was Festa Italiana.

I don't know exactly when Festa Italiana debuted.  Possibly before I was born.  It seemed like it had always been around.  It must have run for at least two decades; quite a commitment, considering it was just a few old guys lugging their personal record collections down to the studio every week.

Their biggest fan was my grandmother.

Grandma never missed the show.  It was the soundtrack to her Sunday mornings.  She knew at least one, but maybe all, of the guys who hosted the show.  She referred to it as "The Italian Hour," although I'm pretty sure it ran longer than an hour.

Grandma would call in requests every once in a while and make a dedication to a family member.  Then she'd call that family member to make sure they'd tune in to hear it.  When one of her grandkids had a birthday coming up, she made doubly sure to call in a request -- usually "Pepino, the Italian Mouse," a kind of "Alvin and the Chipmunks" meets the antics of Bugs Bunny.  It isn't a birthday song; but it's a kids song, and that was all that mattered.

As my birthday quickly approaches this year, I have "Pepino" on my mind.  It's taken on extra significance this year.


Grandma was notorious for keeping a mental Shit List.  You could get your name removed from the list easily enough, but it was all the easier to get your name on it.  Skipped a family gathering to hang out with friends?  On.  Bent the rules during a card game?  On.  Mouthed off to your sister?  On.

It was how she kept us grandkids in check.  She wasn't much of a yeller.  She'd just look at you sideways, purse her lips, and maybe hold up a flat palm and twist it - "you're on your way to a slap."  That was all it took.  We knew it was time to straighten up and fly right.

I don't know what I did to end up so thoroughly on grandma's good side.  But I think I know how I stayed on her good side: by leaving town.  Like a great comedian, I went out on a high note.

My cousins would find themselves routinely on and off the list.  I avoided all that by leaving town.  As long as I called every once in a while, I was solid.


Calling her was the easiest thing in the world.  She loved to get phone calls, but she didn't really keep phone calls.  Three minutes flat.  She'd answer the phone, recognize my voice immediately, tell me how much she loved me, and then go straight into end-of-call pleasantries.

If I didn't know better, I might be offended.  Why doesn't she want to talk to me?  But those quick calls were all she needed.  Just knowing that you were thinking of her.  It brightened up her entire week.


If someone outside of the family ended up on the Shit List, that was pretty much it for them.  Grandma would be absolutely appalled to hear about one of her kids or grandkids being mistreated by a boss, coworker, teacher, or just anyone they had a negative encounter with.  Never mind the fact that, as the teller of the story, maybe you slanted the perspective slightly in your favor.  Didn't matter.  If you were hers, you were hers, all others be damned.  She was fiercely loyal.

Loyalty wasn't a value she taught; she simply lived it, and we learned by example.

So it was no surprise that, when she ended up in the hospital and things started looking bad, nobody hesitated - we all rushed to her bedside.  Three generations of family, from all over the country.

That situation's certainly not unique to my family.  But I found it almost comical, the number of people crowding up grandma's hospital room and the waiting room.  I didn't take an official count, but the number was probably approaching 40.

And that's her legacy.  That she could amass an army that would do everything to assure her peace and comfort.  This is what I hope she was most proud of.

Then again, it's funny to imagine she just took it for granted.  Of course she could summon 40 people to her side at the first sign of trouble.  What, you can't?


I can't imagine how difficult it is to make the decision, when your mind is still so present and sharp, to let yourself die.  That's a strength and bravery I'm far from comprehending.

The only thing slowing her down in her final days was the pain medication she was on.  Between drug-induced naps, she was carrying on conversations with everyone, cracking jokes and singing songs.

In fact, toward the end, everything became a song.  Ask her a question, and the answer came with her eyes closed, her head swaying back-and-forth, and the words dancing out melodically.


When she asked to listen to music, we scrambled to make that happen.  Did anybody have a small radio on them?  Her hospital room actually had an old Discman attached to the wall.  Did we have any CDs she'd like in our cars?  Do we really want to put headphones on her and cut her attention off from everything else?

Finally, one of my cousins took out her cell phone, opened the Pandora app, and searched for Italian music.  It was beautiful.  Like magic, Pandora seemed to be channeling Festa Italiana song-for-song.

Without missing a beat, grandma started mouthing along to each song, a big smile on her face.  She had her "Italian Hour" again, and everything was all right.


In grandma's final moments, we all - nearly 40 of us - packed into her small hospital room.

Here's how my mom recounts it:
Around 8 PM we were all called into mom's room. We stood in perfect silence, keeping vigil as mom was crossing over. At one point she stopped breathing and we were sure she was gone. Everyone started crying. Then she took another breath. One of her sons said, "Okay mom, you're in charge. You're going on your terms." Through our tears, everyone started to laugh. It was while we were laughing that she took her final breath.

She went out on a high note.


She was the last of my grandparents.  She was a guardian and a defender.  She was a guide.  She was a true matriarch.  She will always be remembered, and greatly missed.

Monday, February 25, 2013

2013 Oscar Wrap Up

Loose Thoughts

A year of surprises.  By the time Oscar night arrived, Argo, Anne Hathaway and Daniel Day-Lewis were sure things.  And for those who pay attention to some of the more obscure categories, Amour and Searching for Sugar Man were pretty certain.  Oh, and Adele.  Beyond that, there were many surprises.  Few guessed that Life of Pi would walk away with the most awards (with a rather paltry four).  And that Pi's Ang Lee would best Lincoln's Steven Spielberg!  (Oddsmakers had Lee and Spielberg neck-and-neck, but I didn't believe it.  How wrong I was.)

Seth MacFarlane was predictably good.  This hosting gig suits him well.  We've long known that he's a song-and-dance man and, sure enough, he had three song-and-dance sequences in his opening monologue alone.  The majority of the jokes were suitable for a conservative broadcast, with a few of them approaching, but I wouldn't say crossing, the line of good taste.  (Some people are trying to convince us that they were genuinely offended by a Lincoln-assassination joke.  I call b.s.)  MacFarlane seemed delighted to be hosting, and the feeling was contagious.

The persistence of Seth MacFarlane.  For quite a few years, Oscar hosts have had this bad habit of disappearing after the first hour, maybe hour-and-a-half.  Seth MacFarlane was there the whole time.  He was actually a host, a persistant presence we could rely on throughout the night.  That's something the Academy should keep.

Where's the orchestra?  So, instead of the live orchestra playing in the Dolby Theatre in front of the audience, they decided to house them a mile down the road?  Believe me, I understand how wonderfully connective technology is these days.  But removing the orchestra from the actual event location made the music feel disjointed.  This was especially true when they had to come in with the Jaws play-off music (which has to be the historically worst choice for play-off music).

Ted is real!  Interacting with "on-stage" computer animation has come a long way.  The Toy Story sketch back in 1996 could only sell the illusion with a clear stage (which Whoopi Goldberg slightly flubbed), and was still cartoony.  Ted was so convincing that a friend watching the show with me was sure it was a puppet.

They're allowed to have ties?  Skyfall and Zero Dark Thirty tied for Best Sound Editing.  Not unprecedented, but certainly rare.  (The last time there was an Oscar tie, I was too young to care about the category - Live Action Short.)

Montages.  Sucked.  I suppose I'm one of the few people who actually loves a good Oscar montage.  Yes, there have been years when they've overdone it with the montages; but the Academy Awards are all about celebrating movies, and a well-made montage can bring me close to tears.  The only real montage this year was the one for Bond, and it was terrible.  (They would have been better off focusing on the best quotes rather than the biggest action set pieces.)

I cracked the Shorts code!  Last year, I pointed out that I have an oh-for-six record of predicting the Live-Action and Animated Shorts winners since I began attending screenings of them.  This year, I'm batting 1.000!  Okay, "Paperman" was kind of a gimme; that's the only short that a wide audience had actually seen, so of course it was going to win.  But everything in the Live-Action category was obscure.  If I can repeat this success next year, I'll know I've figured it out.

Spoiler-cast!  Have you seen all the Best Picture nominees?  Well if you haven't, too bad, because the Oscar telecast showed you the endings, as well as critical turning points, for just about every movie.  What were they thinking?

Upstaging Nicholson.  The Best Picture winner, Argo, was announced by Michelle Obama.  Okay, cool.  Why?

Best gag of the night: The introduction of Christopher Plummer turning into a full-on reenactment of the Von Trapp family's escape.

My Score Sheet

This year, I placed guesses in 23 categories.  Of those, I got 13 right.  That's a 57% accuracy.  Not too shabby, and a vast improvement over last year.  Regrettably, I wasn't the highest scorer in the room I was sitting in.  I'll need to do some work to improve my score next year.  Still, I'm really proud about this whole Shorts thing.  It's really been bugging me that I've never been able to guess them correctly.  Getting them right this year definitely helped up my percentage.

In Summary

Something felt a little off to me about the Oscars this year, and I think it comes down to indecision.  For better or for worse, Oscar races usually come down to one or two clear frontrunners.  This year, the top six awards (Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Director, Picture) each went to a different movie.  But I suppose that speaks to the high volume of quality movies this year.

I think Seth MacFarlane did a good job hosting, and I hope he gets to do it again soon.  It was an enjoyable show this year.  My meaningless grade for the 85th Academy Awards broadcast is B+, dropped from an A- because it went on too long and lacked good montages.

Monday, February 18, 2013

The Official YDJ 2013 Oscar Ballot

Here's your guide to Oscar night 2013! Keep track of the nominees and winners, and see how many Your Daily Joe predictions are right.

Click below to view, download (PDF format), and print out the ballot for Sunday night.

Click here to download

*Thanks to Helby for creating the ballot document

Thursday, February 14, 2013

2013 Oscar Predictions

If I had posted my Oscar predictions a mere week or two ago, I probably would have recommended a straight-ticket vote for Lincoln in your office pool.  But things have changed in what is shaping up to be an exciting awards season.

This was a pretty excellent year for movies overall.  The blockbusters were smart, and the smart movies were blockbusters.  (I was genuinely shocked when Lincoln was sold out the first time I tried to see it.) With so many great movies, there wasn't a clear frontrunner as awards season began.  When the Oscar nominees were announced, there was a little bit of clarity: Lincoln had the most nominations, and so became the default front-runner.  Argo, an early favorite from October, was looking to be on the outs with Ben Affleck snubbed in the directing category.  But when it started winning top prizes from the DGA, the PGA, SAG, BAFTA, the AFI, and numerous critics' awards, the race became complicated again.

This year is all about Lincoln v. Argo.  Who will win on Oscar night?  (I mean, other than the fact that everyone is a winner, and it's an honor just to be nominated.)  Let's take a closer look...

  • Argo - Erik Aadahl and Ethan Van der Ryn
  • Django Unchained - Wylie Stateman
  • Life of Pi - Eugene Gearty and Philip Stockton
  • Skyfall - Per Hallberg and Karen Baker Landers
  • Zero Dark Thirty - Paul N.J. Ottosson
  • Argo - John Reitz, Gregg Rudloff and Jose Antonio Garcia
  • Les Misérables - Andy Nelson, Mark Paterson and Simon Hayes
  • Life of Pi - Ron Bartlett, D.M. Hemphill and Drew Kunin
  • Lincoln - Andy Nelson, Gary Rydstrom and Ronald Judkins
  • Skyfall - Scott Millan, Greg P. Russell and Stuart Wilson
Sound Editing is the creation of the audio texture of a movie.  Think of it as production design for the ears.  Sound Mixing is the recording and blending of the audio, ultimately what you hear and how you hear it in the finished movie.

With its blend of action and exotic locations each requiring their own distinct feel, I think Skyfall will win in Sound Editing.  And with its unique approach to on-set singing, I think Les Misérables will take Sound Mixing.

  • The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey - Joe Letteri, Eric Saindon, David Clayton and R. Christopher White
  • Life of Pi - Bill Westenhofer, Guillaume Rocheron, Erik-Jan De Boer and Donald R. Elliott
  • Marvel's The Avengers - Janek Sirrs, Jeff White, Guy Williams and Dan Sudick
  • Prometheus - Richard Stammers, Trevor Wood, Charley Henley and Martin Hill
  • Snow White and the Huntsman - Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, Philip Brennan, Neil Corbould and Michael Dawson
This is a jaded point-of-view perhaps, but no less true for it: we've been at critical mass for what digital special effects can accomplish for a long time now.  Scary, writhing alien monsters, epic explosions, superhuman stunts - we've seen it all countless times before.  Standing out from the pack this year are the earthly animals in Life of Pi.  They're imperfect, clearly fake in many scenes.  But I actually think that may be to its benefit, as it raises voter awareness of how much sweat went into making these effects as great as possible.  It's an immense challenge trying to realistically recreate an animal that the human eye is so familiar with.  The CGI artists on this movie did an excellent job.  Expect Pi to win.

  • Anna Karenina - Jacqueline Durran
  • Les Misérables - Paco Delgado
  • Lincoln - Joanna Johnston
  • Mirror Mirror - Eiko Ishioka
  • Snow White and the Huntsman - Colleen Atwood
The period accuracy and large scale of Lincoln, as well as the landmark importance of the movie overall, will bring the award to Joanna Johnston.

  • "Asad" - Bryan Buckley and Mino Jarjoura
  • "Buzkashi Boys" - Sam French and Ariel Nasr
  • "Curfew" - Shawn Christensen
  • "Death of a Shadow (Dood van een Schaduw)" - Tom Van Avermaet and Ellen De Waele
  • "Henry" - Yan England
A really good crop of movies this year.  I loved the originality and execution of "Death of a Shadow," and was moved by the end-of-life drama of "Henry."  But, with it's blend of pathos, dark humor, and character growth and redemption, I expect "Curfew" to win the statue.

  • "Adam and Dog" - Minkyu Lee
  • "Fresh Guacamole" - PES
  • "Head over Heels" - Timothy Reckart and Fodhla Cronin O'Reilly
  • "Maggie Simpson in 'The Longest Daycare'" - David Silverman
  • "Paperman" - John Kahrs
There's a lot of enthusiasm for "Paperman," and I fully expect it to win.  There's a lot that's great about that movie.  It's beautiful, and full of charm and sweetness.  The drawback for me is that, when the paper airplanes gain sentience and bring the young lovers together, the movie robs these wonderful characters of the victory they deserve to earn by their own agency.

If I had a vote to cast, it would go to the clever, challenging and bittersweet late-stage marriage metaphor of "Head Over Heels."  "Paperman" will win, but do yourself a favor and look up "Head Over Heels."

  • Argo - William Goldenberg
  • Life of Pi - Tim Squyres
  • Lincoln - Michael Kahn
  • Silver Linings Playbook - Jay Cassidy and Crispin Struthers
  • Zero Dark Thirty - Dylan Tichenor and William Goldenberg
Veteran editor and longtime Spielberg collaborator Michael Kahn should win this one.

  • "Before My Time" from Chasing Ice - Music and Lyric by J. Ralph
  • "Everybody Needs A Best Friend" from Ted - Music by Walter Murphy; Lyric by Seth MacFarlane
  • "Pi's Lullaby" from Life of Pi - Music by Mychael Danna; Lyric by Bombay Jayashri
  • "Skyfall" from Skyfall - Music and Lyric by Adele Adkins and Paul Epworth
  • "Suddenly" from Les Misérables - Music by Claude-Michel Schönberg; Lyric by Herbert Kretzmer and Alain Boublil
It's so obvious!  Of the songs listed above, which one can you start humming right now, and at the drop of a hat on any given day?  Skyfall isn't going to win too many awards on Oscar night; it's just not that kind of movie.  But everybody loved it, and everybody loves Adele.  Solid win.

  • Anna Karenina - Dario Marianelli
  • Argo - Alexandre Desplat
  • Life of Pi - Mychael Danna
  • Lincoln - John Williams
  • Skyfall - Thomas Newman
I gotta admit, this is a tough call.  The stately nature of John Williams' Lincoln score could win the day. And the Skyfall score hit all the right drama and action chords.  But I'm looking at five-time nominee Alexandre Desplat to ride the Argo wave to his first Oscar win.

  • Anna Karenina - Production Design: Sarah Greenwood; Set Decoration: Katie Spencer
  • The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey - Production Design: Dan Hennah; Set Decoration: Ra Vincent and Simon Bright
  • Les Misérables - Production Design: Eve Stewart; Set Decoration: Anna Lynch-Robinson
  • Life of Pi - Production Design: David Gropman; Set Decoration: Anna Pinnock
  • Lincoln - Production Design: Rick Carter; Set Decoration: Jim Erickson
Strong competition in this category. There's a lot of goodwill for Les Misérables.  Life of Pi would be a personal preference for me.  But I think we'll have another win for Lincoln here.  Again, the period accuracy, the scale, and the aura of importance surrounding this film will go a long way.

  • Anna Karenina - Seamus McGarvey
  • Django Unchained - Robert Richardson
  • Life of Pi - Claudio Miranda
  • Lincoln - Janusz Kaminski
  • Skyfall - Roger Deakins
Roger Deakins is great, and it's been acknowledged that he's probably shot the most beautiful Bond film ever.  Speaking of beautiful: Life of Pi.  But I'm looking at this to be another win for Lincoln, and a well-deserved award for the also-great Janusz Kaminski.

  • Brave - Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman
  • Frankenweenie - Tim Burton
  • ParaNorman - Sam Fell and Chris Butler
  • The Pirates! Band of Misfits - Peter Lord
  • Wreck-It Ralph - Rich Moore
2012 was a great year for animation.  A lot of strong stories and innovative visions.  While Frankenweenie and ParaNorman were personal favorites of mine, they're unlikely to win.  Wreck-It Ralph is all charm, heart, humor, and adventure.  It's unusually structured, and the rare movie that's full of surprises.  It took the top prize at the Annie Awards, and it will here too.  (And, hey, what has two thumbs and made a bullseye prediction way back on November 2nd?  This guy!)

  • Amour (Austria)
  • Kon-Tiki (Norway)
  • No (Chile)
  • A Royal Affair (Denmark)
  • War Witch (Canada)
Let's put it this way: only one of these movies is also nominated for Best Picture.  If it's big enough to swim in the ocean with the rest of the Best Pictures, it's a safe bet that it's the biggest fish in this smaller pond.  Amour will win.

  • 5 Broken Cameras
  • The Gatekeepers
  • How to Survive a Plague
  • The Invisible War
  • Searching for Sugar Man
The front-runner here is Searching for Sugar Man.  It's a character piece, it's a mystery, it's an affirmation of the perseverance of art.  But most of all, it's a crowd-pleaser.  The Invisible War could gain traction for its disturbing topic and for being an "activist movie" that has successfully led to reform.  But I think Sugar Man's got it.

  • Amour - Written by Michael Haneke
  • Django Unchained - Written by Quentin Tarantino
  • Flight - Written by John Gatins
  • Moonrise Kingdom - Written by Wes Anderson & Roman Coppola
  • Zero Dark Thirty - Written by Mark Boal
Man, I'd love to see Moonrise Kingdom take this.  But that seems unlikely, as do Django Unchained and Flight, despite their largely positive critical receptions.  Zero Dark Thirty is strong in the running.  But I'm thinking Amour will be the winner here, coupling with its likely Best Foreign Language Film win.

  • Argo - Screenplay by Chris Terrio
  • Beasts of the Southern Wild - Screenplay by Lucy Alibar & Benh Zeitlin
  • Life of Pi - Screenplay by David Magee
  • Lincoln - Screenplay by Tony Kushner
  • Silver Linings Playbook - Screenplay by David O. Russell
This is another strong category.  Beasts of the Southern Wild was a surprise Best Picture nominee.  It won't win that, but could win this on the strength of that nomination.  Silver Linings is the only movie this year nominated for all the top awards (every acting category, directing, picture).  Argo, as alluded to above, has a lot of momentum from the ancillary awards organizations.  And then, of course, there's Lincoln.  The overall momentum of this film could push it to win in this category, as could the bright, shining name of its writer Tony Kushner.  I'm going to say the best bet is Lincoln.  But don't be surprised if Argo or Silver Linings take it instead.

  • Alan Arkin in Argo
  • Robert De Niro in Silver Linings Playbook
  • Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Master
  • Tommy Lee Jones in Lincoln
  • Christoph Waltz in Django Unchained
Awesome list of performances here, and each a previous Oscar winner.  It's been a long time since Robert De Niro won, and this role has been widely lauded as his best in decades.  (Full disclosure: I haven't seen it yet.)  But it's been a while for Tommy Lee Jones, too, and he's a standout in a movie full of standout performances.  I think it's his.

  • Amy Adams in The Master
  • Sally Field in Lincoln
  • Anne Hathaway in Les Misérables
  • Helen Hunt in The Sessions
  • Jacki Weaver in Silver Linings Playbook
The story of Les Misérables has been interesting, if not uncommon.  It was highly anticipated.  When it emerged, it was mostly seen as delivering on the hype.  Then the backlash started.  Then there was the backlash against the backlash.  Through it all, one thing has persevered: Anne Hathaway's performance of "I Dreamed a Dream" and, by extension, of Fantine as a whole.  (I understand there's some Hathaway hate going around the internet.  That's the internet for ya.  But I don't think there's any Hathaway hate coming from Academy voters, nor is it affecting their decision-making.)  It's a truly devastating performance.  As time has passed, the buzz has died down.  But when the voters have their ballots in front of them, I'm sure they'll remember how moved they were and vote for Hathaway.

  • Bradley Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook
  • Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln
  • Hugh Jackman in Les Misérables
  • Joaquin Phoenix in The Master
  • Denzel Washington in Flight
Again, all great performances here.  But Daniel Day-Lewis is beyond extraordinary.  He absolutely is Abraham Lincoln.  The voice, the look, the physicality - Daniel Day-Lewis constructed his version of Lincoln from the ground up.  I suppose that's nothing new for Day-Lewis, but that doesn't make it any less amazing.  If he doesn't win, there will be riots in the streets.  Or maybe I'll just be a riot of one, quickly suppressed by the most basic of police tactics.  But still, the riot will happen.

  • Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty
  • Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook
  • Emmanuelle Riva in Amour
  • Quvenzhané Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild
  • Naomi Watts in The Impossible
This comes down to Jessica Chastain and Jennifer Lawrence, both of whom carry their respective movies.  Jennifer Lawrence was nominated for Winter's Bone before most people knew who she was, and her return to the nomination pool bodes well for her.  But Jessica Chastain has been a constant presence in award-winning movies for the past few years, and I think this is the role that will cement her status as a power player.

  • Amour - Michael Haneke
  • Beasts of the Southern Wild - Benh Zeitlin
  • Life of Pi - Ang Lee
  • Lincoln - Steven Spielberg
  • Silver Linings Playbook - David O. Russell
Spielberg will likely win this award.  Because...

  • Amour - Nominees to be determined
  • Argo - Grant Heslov, Ben Affleck and George Clooney, Producers
  • Beasts of the Southern Wild - Dan Janvey, Josh Penn and Michael Gottwald, Producers
  • Django Unchained - Stacey Sher, Reginald Hudlin and Pilar Savone, Producers
  • Les Misérables - Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Debra Hayward and Cameron Mackintosh, Producers
  • Life of Pi - Gil Netter, Ang Lee and David Womark, Producers
  • Lincoln - Steven Spielberg and Kathleen Kennedy, Producers
  • Silver Linings Playbook - Donna Gigliotti, Bruce Cohen and Jonathan Gordon, Producers
  • Zero Dark Thirty - Mark Boal, Kathryn Bigelow and Megan Ellison, Producers
...Argo will win this one.  I barely believe I'm saying it; and that's not a criticism of Argo, it's a criticism of the awards process.

It stands to reason that whoever directed the Best Picture ought to win Best Director.  And that's what happens most years.  But it's not unprecedented for there to be a split between Best Director and Best Picture.  It's happened before.  In fact, it's happened to Steven Spielberg before.  And I think that's what we're in for again this year.

However the nominations are tabulated, Ben Affleck was left out of the Best Director category.  Seemingly as a direct response to that snub, every other major awards organization decided to throw its full weight behind Affleck and Argo.  And as we head into the big show, there's no indication of that trend stopping.  Spielberg will win Best Director, and Argo will win Best Picture.

At least that's the way I see it.  Agree?  Disagree?  Tell me all about it in the comments below.

On Oscar night, I'll be live tweeting during the ceremony @yourdailyjoe.  The 85th Academy Awards will air on February 24, 2013 at 8 eastern/5 pacific on ABC.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Defending the Movie Ending of Little Shop of Horrors

I was in college when Little Shop of Horrors received its first DVD release.  DVDs were still a newish thing, but I was an early adopter of the technology.  For financial reasons, I had a personal policy that I wasn't going to buy a DVD of a movie I already had on VHS, so Little Shop was out.  Not only did I have a VHS copy of the movie, but the tape was pretty new since I had only recently rediscovered the film after the (mild) childhood trauma it had caused.

Boy, did I miss the boat on that DVD.  A bonus feature on that first run of discs was a 20-minute "original ending" where -- and I guess this is where the SPOILER ALERT goes -- the evil plants kill Audrey, then Seymour, then everyone else on planet Earth.

What?!  This was the first I'd ever heard of an "original ending."  Despite growing up in a musical theater-appreciating family, I'd never been exposed to the stage version of Little Shop.  My only knowledge of the show was the movie.  And in the movie, Audrey escapes from the plant and Seymour manages to destroy it.

Depending who you ask, either Warner Bros. or producer David Geffen felt it was a mistake to put the alternate ending footage on the DVD (especially since it was worn out, murky, black and white workprint footage) and had the discs recalled.  If it hadn't been for my "no re-buying" policy, I would have been in possession of a valuable collectors item.

Until October of last year, that is, when the blu ray was released with a fully restored Director's Cut of the film.

Although the director's ending has been available on YouTube for years, I'd never seen it.  And I'd never had access to a stage production either.  This alternate ending remained nothing but a vaguely described "everybody dies" scenario to me until I got the blu ray for Christmas and, disregarding the children in the room and ignoring the ongoing holiday festivities, began watching it immediately.

So, how did the new-old ending pan out?

Much like the test audiences of 1986, I had an uncomfortable reaction to it.  Even worse were the vibes I could feel coming from the family members who had accumulated to watch the movie with me.  At least I'd known what to expect, and was viewing it as an academic curiosity.  For them, it was a fun and familiar story suddenly exploding in their faces.

After that initial DVD release, the word was out about the everybody-dies ending of the movie, so I felt I was plenty prepared for it.  Over the years, it had even started to make sense to me.  Little Shop is a dark story, a homage to the B-movies of a previous age where cheap shocks and thrills pretty much guaranteed a 100% mortality rate.  All that was left for me to discover was exactly how Audrey and Seymour would die.  And that's precisely my problem with this ending.  It's not so much the fact of them dying, but the how.

In both versions of the movie, the plant tricks Audrey into being in the shop alone with him, where he proceeds to bite her.  I'd always assumed that that would be where she dies, but it's not.  Seymour pulls her out of the plant's mouth, and takes her to safety behind the shop.  But it's too late.  Her injuries are too great, and she knows she's doomed.

This is where things take a crazy turn.  As Audrey lays dying, she tells Seymour that she's happy for all the success he's been having.  And she rationalizes that, since she's dead either way, she'd like Seymour to feed her to the plant so that the plant will remain healthy and continue to bring wealth and prosperity to Seymour.

And he does.  He feeds her to the plant!

This does not make sense; I don't care how cynical your view of humanity is.  By this point in the story, Seymour's already come to despise the plant.  He knows it's evil, and he wants nothing more to do with it.  He's plotted his escape with Audrey.  He's already packed his suitcases!  You're telling me that after the plant has murdered the love of Seymour's life -- an act which would make me, for one, hate the plant even more than I already did (which was already a lot) -- Seymour's going to respect Audrey's wishes and donate her body to the plant's well-being?  Personally, I'd probably take that as an opportunity to start starving the plant.  That plan probably wouldn't work, but at least I wouldn't be desecrating my loved one's body for the benefit of her murderer.

Am I taking this too seriously?  Obviously!  But if director Frank Oz was wondering why the test audiences went cold at this point in the movie, I'd suggest that it's not only because their heroes were dying.  (That's certainly a tough thing for audiences to take sometimes, but there are plenty of instances of a hero's death being embraced by audiences.)  It's because there's a logic incongruity there.  Why would Seymour do that?  He wouldn't.

Seymour's death is easier to accept, I think.  It was always a stretch that he won in the first place.  The plant was way more powerful.  In the "happy ending" version of the movie, we accept that Seymour had earned his victory, even if it seemed unlikely.

After Seymour's death, the movie goes into an extended rampage sequence.  The plant has multiplied, and we see the plants demolishing everything, terrorizing and eating all the people.  This footage, which was painstakingly restored for this edition, looks great.  One of the greatest aspects of Little Shop of Horrors has always been the spectacular practical effects.  This movie was made in a pre-digital age, and even the use of optical printer effects was minimal.  When you're watching the movie, you're watching things that were happening right there on the sets and in the miniatures.

The problem with this sequence is that it gets very repetitive.  The plant only really has one move: bursting its pod-head through walls.  We see that six times in four minutes, along with lots and lots of people running and screaming.  It's fun at first, but then we see it over and over again.  And over again.

I did appreciate the classic B-movie "The end?!?" card, followed by a plant ripping through a movie screen.  Even watching it in my living room, I was impressed with how realistic the lighting of the "movie theater-within-the-movie" was.  You can tell what it would look like watching that moment in an actual movie theater, and the effect would be impressive.  I actually hope I get to watch this ending on the big screen some day.

Frank Oz has long lamented the loss of the truly awe-inspiring model work by department head Richard Conway on this sequence.  And he's right.  It deserves to be seen.  Such chaotic, witty destruction has its place.  (You're talking to a huge fan of another dark, anarchic David Geffen production from the '80s, Beetlejuice.)

But through it all, I just don't buy this ending on this story.  Maybe it's because I'm too conditioned to expect the happy ending, having seen that version dozens of times at this point.  Maybe it's because I just can't stomach the heroes dying.

But I'd like to give myself more credit than that.  I've been a movie obsessive since at least my early teens.  I went through my Arty Film Student phase where I expected -- nay, demanded! -- that every movie have a downer ending.  At this point, I've spent the better part of my life focused on stories and storytelling and storytelling-through-moving-images.  So, while I appreciate what the filmmakers were going for with the original ending -- the B-movie, Godzilla-style mass destruction -- I ultimately feel it didn't work for this movie.

Considering that Frank Oz and his creative team were reluctant to shoot a new ending, I'm amazed with what they came up with.  It's such a perfect punchline that I can barely believe it wasn't always what they intended.  Seymour has defeated the plant, he and Audrey get married, and they move into the cookie-cutter suburban home she always dreamed of.  But as the camera pulls away from the home and pans down to the landscaping, we see a new evil plant waiting patiently to ruin Seymour and Audrey's lives.  It smiles at us.  I hope Oz takes some comfort in the fact that his wickedly dark vision for this movie was preserved.

The great news about this blu ray edition is that it contains both versions of the movie, and both have their place.  The play's purists who've long lamented the movie's happy ending now have their ideal version.  The restoration is seamless, the recovered footage integrating perfectly into the rest of the film.  The puppetry and the models in the restored ending are fantastic.  As I said, I hope I have the chance to see this version of the movie on a big screen some day.  (Hey, three years and they can do a 30th anniversary re-release.)

But when I'm at home, with a bowl of popcorn, in the mood to watch the story of that quaint little flower place down on skid row, nine times out of 10 I'm going to switch my blu ray player to the version that ends somewhere that's green.

The long, arduous process of finding the footage and restoring the original ending
A brilliant, thorough deconstruction of the "Downtown (Skid Row)" sequence

Thursday, January 10, 2013

My Favorite New TV Show of 2012

Adults these days have it so easy.  When I was a kid, parents had to feign an interest in dreck like "Glo Friends," "Rubik, the Amazing Cube" and "Captain Planet and the Planeteers" in order to placate (or just get a moment of peace from) their children.  Then in the '90s, through whatever alchemy -- most likely the twin successes of Disney's animation renaissance and "The Simpsons" -- producers discovered there was an audience for more sophisticated storytelling in animation.  Now, while they may not be a parent's first choice, at least today's kid shows can also be engaging for adults.

But sometimes, there's a kid show that should be an adult's first choice.  My favorite new show of 2012 is...

Gravity Falls

"Gravity Falls" centers on twins Mabel and Dipper Pines as they spend a summer with their Great Uncle (or "Grunkle") Stan in a sleepy Pacific Northwest town where paranormal activity abounds.  In a typical day, the twins may encounter ghosts, gnomes, minotaurs, prehistoric lake monsters, or mind-controlling amulets.  It's an animated "Eerie, Indiana" for a new generation.

In a very wise move, the show uses its paranormal elements as more than just playthings; they exist as a way to challenge the characters, force them to confront their flaws, and ultimately learn and grow.  Those minotaurs, for example, lead Dipper down a dangerous path as he comes to terms with his underdeveloped masculinity.

If that sounds like a burdensome, moralizing slog, let me assure you that "Gravity Falls" is, above all, hilarious.  Even adults will find it laugh-out-loud funny.  The smartly-executed stories provide ample opportunity for character quirks, eccentricities and wit to take center stage.  I particularly love Grunkle Stan's non sequitur outbursts.

The show utilizes an unusual color palette for a TV cartoon, all darker shades and earthy tones.  This, along with the environmental atmosphere (note the haziness in the background of the top picture) make the show stand out visually.

"Gravity Falls" is a fun, funny, fanciful show grounded in warm, lively characters.  Kids should be easily lured in by the imagination and adventure of it all.  Adults will be reminded of that childhood certainty that there's magic in the world, and kids are the only ones savvy enough to notice it.