Category Archives: Review

CftC: A Nightmare on Facetime


South Park Season 16 has got to be one of my favorite seasons of the show. It has so many hilarious episodes, and one of my favorites (as well as my favorite Halloween-themed South Park episode overall) is “A Nightmare on Facetime.”
After all, what could be more horrifying than terrible video quality and a shaky Internet connection?

While it serves as a bittersweet, poignant reminder that a staple of my childhood isn’t around anymore, “A Nightmare on Facetime” is a masterpiece of parody and social commentary. In yet another impulsive, boneheaded move, Randy Marsh acquires an old Blockbuster movie rental store, amazed and flabbergasted by the low price he paid for it. 

What Randy fails to understand is that video online streaming has rendered such services obsolete. So obsolete, in fact, that the store itself is only visited by ghosts.

The episode spends a fair amount of time visually parodying The Shining, as Randy’s fierce denial of progress and the inevitable slowly drives him to family-killing insanity. This is both awesome and funny, but the B plot about Stan being forced to man the store on Halloween and trick-or-treating with his friends via iPad subtly mocks people’s obsession with technology long before Season 20’s “Member Berries” and “Skank Hunt.” 

It doesn’t deal with online personas, and it’s not an in-your-face theme like in “You have 0 Friends,” but rather, it provides a nice little counterpoint to the argument that technology makes everything better, which you might infer from all the praises sung about streaming. It makes some things easier, but it also encourages people to identify with their expensive gadgets, even deriving self-worth from owning them.
When Stan and company come across a couple thugs robbing a local convenience store (side note: I soon discovered that Kum & Go was a real thing…good God, what a poor naming choice!), they try to intervene before realizing that the men have guns. Kyle’s iPad accidentally gets left behind in the escape, and the episode then treats it as though Stan was caught, with everything that happens to the device projected onto him. 

When the battery finally dies, we get a dramatic death scene straight out of Hollywood.

There is just so much to love about this episode. Everyone who wanders by the Blockbuster treats it like a haunted house, fleeing in fear from the living man beckoning them inside. Randy refuses to accept that his new business will fail, and he goes out of his way to keep from admitting fault, much to his wife’s annoyance. Every haunting is seen as just a joke at his expense, and the insecurity and wounded pride make him double down on everything he does.

The “Gangnam Style” references date the episode more than anything else, but even they make me smile, as someone who slaps together a costume every year and tries to make it obscure or creative in some way. I really want to know who thought to combine Psy and Frankenstein’s monster.

Shallow and goofy as it seems, I also really love when the cops quote “Monster Mash” lyrics.

It’s just an all-around delightful episode. Parts of it are genuinely creepy, but I’d say the same of The SimpsonsThe Shining parody segment. Even as a comedy, when you make fun of something eerie, you’re bound to be eerie as well.

But unlike the aforementioned Simpsons parody, the references aren’t nearly as distracting to people who haven’t seen the original. It’s mostly because while it is the A plot, it doesn’t encompass the entire episode. They aren’t just putting the South Park characters into The Shining; they’re using elements of it to tell a different story, in that way that only South Park can. I could still see myself enjoying “A Nightmare on Facetime” even if I hadn’t seen The Shining, and in fact my fiancé hadn’t seen the movie before the episode. He still liked it a lot, and he appreciates it even more now that he has seen the iconic Stanley Kubrick adaptation.

If you have 22 minutes to kill this Halloween, there are fewer better ways to spend them.

 

7.5/10

*None of the pictures, video or audio clips in this post belong to me.

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CftC: My Top 10 Traumatizing Scenes from Kids Movies

Another year, another return to…

 

Instead of looking at one Halloween special at a time, I have chosen to do a Top 10 list for this first installment. Below, you will see the ten most memorable moments in kid and family movies that gave me endless nightmares as a youngster.

I tried to dive in as deeply as I could, talking about the scenes themselves but also about what makes them so scary. I find that the psychology driving effective horror scenarios can be pretty common for most people, and surprisingly basic and traceable. But that doesn’t make them shallow by any means. Some people say that the root of all good comedy is that someone has to be miserable. No matter how elaborate you make the joke, there always has to be a “butt” of it. The same can be true of horror, but there are more roots, or “butts,” to choose from.

 

10) The Donkey Scene (Pinocchio)

 

I’ve seen Pinocchio maybe 5 times in my life. It’s not a Disney movie I come back to often, and I have no idea how faithful it is to the source material, but when I watch it again, I’m always struck by how dark and mean-spirirted it is, even as fairytales go. It’s like if Don Bluth made films back in the 40’s.

This one scene is pretty screwed up. It’s basically body-horror for children, and while it might not be as grotesque as a David Cronenberg production, it’s almost as frightening.

What is body horror, you ask? In short, it’s the whole concept of unwanted, uncontrollable transformation, which stems from a fear of not being in control. The one physical thing that any human being can own completely is their own body, so the notion of it changing without your consent, and most likely in a very painful way, is terrifying. This fear is in a similar vein with that of petrification; both of which most people don’t think about or wouldn’t admit to being afraid of, but totally are.

What sells this particular scene are Lampwick’s panicked screams and thrashing, but the lighting and music are pretty intense as well. He’s a kid, albeit a smug little jerk, so there’s an element of protectiveness that can be involved. But more importantly, this perversion of nature is what will happen to Pinocchio, our main character, who is nearby watching but unable to help. It seems to be going slower – possibly because he’s not a real boy yet – but it’s assumed that it will happen like that.

 

It’s a scary moment on its own, but also for the danger it poses to the person we most care about in the movie.

 

9) The Hollow (Ichabod and Mr. Toad)



I might have mentioned this in my full review of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, but this scene is hilarious and scary at the same time.

The build-up is great, when Ichabod is on edge and thinks he can hear the Headless Horseman coming after him. The scene is mostly quiet – silly of course, but tense nonetheless – and when you’re first watching, you never know when the ghost will actually show up. It could be during any one of the little scares Ichabod basically gives himself, as he inexplicably travels alone in the dead of night after a party, where he probably could have found several someones to walk most of the way home with him. Or he could have booked a room with the Van Tassels and called it a night.

 

Walking or generally being alone at night is a common fear, particularly for women, and it feels even worse when other people tease you for being paranoid. Katrina chuckles at Ichabod’s fear during the party, and the fact that the schoolmaster’s horse just moseys along, not paying attention or speeding up when Ichabod tells him to, would certainly add to my frustration, not knowing whether or not I’m going crazy or should seriously get the hell out of dodge.

Ichabod and his horse have a good laugh when he thinks his imagination got the better of him, and then suddenly, a third voice joins in with a chillingly demonic cackle.

Now begins a scary…hilarious….scare-larious chase scene. Seriously, it’s morbidly delightful.

 


 

8) Donald’s Mental Breakdown (Fun and Fancy Free or Mickey and the Beanstalk)

Did you ever want to see one of your beloved childhood icons go kill crazy?…No? Well, here you go anyway!

 

I’m not sure how much more I can say about this one. It’s screwed up. Donald Duck gets crazy eyes and decides to kill his farm’s only cow, because he’s sitting there starving in his own home. I know the guy needs some anger management therapy, but damn!

On a side note, in a world of walking, talking, anthropomorphized animals, why does the cow not talk or wear clothes? Why can it be sold, but not Mickey, Donald, or Goofy? Is it that some characters can be captured and domesticated for slave labor, but these guys are somehow untouchable?

I have no idea how this world would work!

 

7) The Reveal (The Witches)

 

“Stranger danger” is practically beaten into every child’s brain, because they’re exceedingly naïve and their parents are terrified. The makers of this Roald Dahl movie adaptation probably made a bet with themselves to see if they could reverse that, because many adults happily rented it and their children were then soundly traumatized.

I saw this movie at a friend’s sleepover, and I could not sleep for the rest of the night. The Willy Wonka Tunnel of Hell may have the element of surprise on its side, but it has nothing on an entire movie full of disturbing concepts and imagery, all of them posing threats to innocent kids, simply because they are kids. Imagine if Willy Wonka was an army of hideous, vicious old women who had a more active loathing of children, beyond just the bratty ones, and decided to kill/eat them as a result.

The scene where a grown woman pulls a snake from her purse and attempts to coax the main character out of his tree house is nightmarish enough, but then you have the scene where the witches go to their witch conference or whatever. They remove their disguises in a hideous fashion, talk about their plans for child murder, and then turn the boy into a mouse after he is caught spying on them.

 

So we have “stranger danger”, yet more body-horror, and a race to foil the plans of a powerful, secret group that few other people realize is a threat, with only the boy’s grandmother to help the kid along. The one adult he can rely on is only so useful, and the other adults are either dangerous or ignorant. That’s encouraging to know, right?

 

6) The Cauldron Born (The Black Cauldron)

 

Some people consider this film a cult classic, while others demonstrate why it did so poorly at the box office. It’s a very flawed, mixed bag, but I would put myself in the former group. The villain has an intimidating, cool design; the art style is dark, but also fairly whimsical; and personally, I thought Elmer Bernstein’s music fit this movie better than it did Ghostbusters.

There’s nightmare fuel aplenty, too.

 

In one scene, the Horned King becomes a necromancer, resurrecting a bunch of dead warriors from various places and eras. An eerie green fog begins rolling out of the cauldron, becoming almost like a soup in places as it fills the room, and one of the king’s henchmen stupidly jabs it with his spear. Suddenly, skeletons erupt in a jump scare, descending on the man. We don’t see what happens to him, but we can assume he’s dead, as the scene cuts to the remaining humans looking away in horror. Then the Horned King sends his undead minions out to “destroy all in (their) path,” and I think about how they would go to the ends of the earth, murdering helpless, unsuspecting villagers like a plague.

 

The scares in this scene is pretty shallow for me. It’s mostly about the imagery and the music, but for what it is, it’s damn effective. The zombie sun-genre of horror isn’t really my forte, but these evil undeads unnerve me every time.

 

5) Charlie Goes to Hell (All Dogs Go to Heaven)

 

The concept of eternal punishment is scary enough by itself. Human beings don’t like pain, and the idea that we’d suddenly have no control, no way to stop the unpleasantness happening to us, and be stuck that way forever is a hard pill to swallow. Even worse, what if we don’t know what we did to deserve it, or the act/acts themselves were miniscule? Arbitrary? Does God even have an appeals court?

Hell is a fear that is instilled in Christians (and other religious folks with Hell-esque parallels) from an early age, and it’s hard to shake off the vague, but ultimately disturbing imagery that comes to mind when that word is uttered. It can be uniquely terrifying to each person, but the basic conceit is the same, and so the fear holds some universality as well.

In this movie, the main character, a German Shepherd named Charlie, stole a second chance at life while he was in Doggy Heaven. As punishment for this, he will go to Hell. Directly to Hell. He can’t pass Go, and he certainly can’t collect $200.

 

While he feigns indifference initially, we can see that Charlie is fearful of the consequences of his actions, and no scene shows this more clearly than the Dream Sequence. There’s fire, brimstone, demons, and most poignant of all, a crushing sense of being unable to escape or stop what is happening to him.

Don Bluth movies in general have this great way of capturing what it’s like to feel small, insignificant, and prey to the whims of the world around you…Probably because so many of the movies involve mice or other small creatures dealing with vicious predators, or the indifferent reactions of humans and nature. Bluth’s world either doesn’t care or is actively working against them, isolating and tormenting the characters but also providing great catharsis when they finally achieve their goals.

Charlie’s torment is necessary, showing his growth as a character and the loss of the innocence/ignorance that once shielded him from it, but that makes it no less terrifying.

 

4) The Bear (The Fox and the Hound)


Things that make this scene stick out:

  1. It’s jarring as all hell! It comes right out of nowhere; what you thought was going to be the climax of the story – Todd either escaping Copper and Amos or getting killed by them – is kicked out of this giant moving car to make room for a random bear attack.
  2. It looks like some weird, mutant cross between a Grizzly Bear and Black Bear. And what bear has freaky demon eyes like that?!
  3. Amos gets knocked down a hill, losing his gun in the process, and then he gets stuck in his own trap, which I’d imagine was pretty painful in and of itself. Despite how much I hate him during the rest of the movie, and despite knowing he provoked the attack by shooting the bear, I can believe his terror and helplessness. He’s old, and now suddenly rendered defenseless.
  4. Despite the lack of blood, the scene is full of violence. You can almost feel the impact of every bite and scratch, especially followed by all of those grunts and yelps. The Great Mouse Detective, which Disney put out a mere 5 years later, has a similar effect in its climactic showdown. Every blow and reaction shot seems heavily focused on.

 

As a kid, it was fairly easy for me to picture myself or someone I loved in place of whoever was being hurt or scared in any given movie. Animal attacks are particularly scary because you’re not facing something you can possibly persuade. All you have left is your speed (assuming you can move at all) and your wits (assuming you wouldn’t go stupid with panic and adrenaline).

 

KILL IT WITH FIRE!!!

 

3) A Wild Beast Appears! (Beauty and the Beast)

How many animal attacks make up this list now?

I’m not trying to go for a theme here. Honestly, there is just something viscerally upsetting about seeing terrified, defenseless people (particularly old folks, women, and children) being helpless in life-or-death situations.

 

In his first major appearance in the story, the Beast is a large, jagged black shape with white slits for eyes, towering over Maurice, who can only cower and beg for mercy. He stalks forward, enormous claws and fangs bared. He is unrelenting, unmerciful, and just plain scary-looking, all while the scary music swells and the audio engineers overlay his vocal track with loud, deep bestial snarls and roars. Every bit of him appears to be a monster; though unlike the monsters Maurice just escaped outside, this one could potentially be reasoned with. The Beast just refuses to hear him out.

 

Once again, the fear comes from imagining yourself or a loved one in place of Maurice. What would you do? Despite the Beast being a hand-drawn creation, you can watch him and feel the threat that he possesses. Everything about the scene screams “RUN AWAY NOW!” Lumiere and Cogsworth just cower and stand there, barely making an attempt to calm the Beast in his territorial fury. How comforting is that? One guy invited Maurice to come in and make himself at home, but then fails to defend him, and the other guy just constantly tries to cover his own ass at your expense.

Even later, when the Beast saves Belle from the wolves, he looks as monstrous and feral as the very things he’s fighting. This is another reason that I look down on the remake; their Beast is not even remotely scary or threatening, which removes his bite, so to speak. Nevermind that the CG effects are fake-looking as hell, which also distracts from the believability, but it then removes the sense of real change when the Beast finally starts coming around to Belle and acting more human. He wasn’t just a grump hermit in a fur suit; he was regressing in despair, to the point of mentally becoming an animal.

But I digress.

 

2) Any Hag Scene (Snow White and the Seven Dwarves)

Particularly the one in which she is “born.”

Queen Grimhilde’s regular character design is unsettling, what with her frozen face yet sporadically widening eyes. But once she transforms into the Hag, using a potion literally made out of the stuff of nightmares, the woman becomes completely terrifying.

It is said that the actress removed her false teeth to achieve her older voice, and the Hag’s cottony cackles couple well with her poorly-aged, clearly-evil, “oh-my-God-only-an-idiot-wouldn’t-realize-this” disguise. She talks out loud to herself constantly, plotting needless cruel tortures for Snow White, and she often looks directly into the camera, as if she knows you’re there and will probably be coming after you next.

Aside from her physical repulsiveness, I think some of the fear also comes from the Queen essentially hating this little girl for an unbelievably petty reason, and being willing to kill her so sadistically. “Kill Snow and bring back her heart in a box.” “Have the dwarves bury her alive because they don’t know she’s just sleeping.” It’s all so simplistic, but brutal. Her insecurity and jealousy makes her into a complete monster, and had she survived, who knows what this depraved madwoman would have done next?

She also has a secret alchemy/black-magicky lab in the castle dungeons, which she can apparently slip in and out of unnoticed. There’s nothing like seeing a clearly dangerous person in power, roaming the streets and doing whatever she wants with no supervision or legal repercussions.

…Whatever happened to the Huntsman, anyway? Is his head on a pike, festively adorning the castle walls? Did he get away scott-free while Queenie was busy with premeditated princess murder? We’ll never know for sure, but she did say, “You know the penalty if you fail,” which I figure involves an execution of some sort…The less I think about this, the better.

 

1) Wolf Attack (Beauty and the Beast)

An old man gets lost in the woods, loses his horse, and then has to run from ravenous wolves.

 

Belle gets attacked by wolves as well, but that scene is actually very different. It comes hot off the heels of another major conflict, the music transitions fluidly, and the background and lighting are consistently…well, for lack of a better word, brighter all around.

 

Blue tends to be a more calming color. Plus, you can see every element clearly.

In Maurice’s scene, by contrast, the score starts out calm, but eerily discordant and all over the place. I couldn’t even find the track on the official soundtrack; it was released on a bonus CD sold separately, that’s how unnerving it is.

It also does what is called “Mickey Mousing”, a term that refers to how the music follows and embellishes the actions happening on screen, rather than just setting a general background tone. For example, at one point a shadowy wolf rushes by, and even if your eyes missed it, the music let you know that something bad had just happened.

 

Eyes and other animated facial features morph quickly from nervous to fearful (I have always found creepy or expressly afraid eyes chilling). Even Phillipe the horse knows that something bad is going to happen, and frustratingly, he realizes as quickly as the audience does. His rider, meanwhile, is stubborn and distracted, ignoring the obvious warning signs.

 

The lighting is predominantly composed of reds and yellows (colors that tend to excite and agitate, according to Psychology), and it’s limited because it comes from the inventor’s lantern. The light is soon put out, however, in an extremely quick and violent way, and then all is left in darkness as Maurice’s one immediate hope of escape, his horse, is driven away in terror.

Much like with The Fox and the Hound’s Bear, there is a lot of motion and violent energy in this scene. A chorus of wolf howls goes up, causing Phillipe to back his cart into a tree. A mass of angry black bats comes flocking out, scaring the horse into nearly running himself off of a cliff. Phillipe rears, knocking Maurice off and leaving him alone in the forest. Just as the old man picks himself up, he gets chased by a group of wolves and falls down a cliff. He then reaches a gate and manages to get inside, but a wolf bites his foot and almost drags his whole leg out into biting range. The pacing of it all rarely gives the audience a break, and depending on your imagination, it can be like experiencing the danger yourself, if secondhand.

 

Belle’s scene is still scary in its own way – it’s still a defenseless person possibly going to be mauled to death – but it’s not filmed the same way and it doesn’t really sneak up on first-time viewers. As soon as she starts riding into the woods, you already have an idea of what she’s going to face. The wolves themselves shown up more on screen, coming from predictable directions, and they are also a lot easier to see in their horrific entirety.

Maurice’s chase scene was shorter, but it was more uncertain and suspenseful.

 

What were your scariest movie moments from childhood? Please share in the comments below. If you’re wondering why something isn’t on this list, I most likely didn’t see it until I was older or it didn’t bother me all that much.

 

*None of the images, soundbites, or clips in this post belong to me.

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It (2017): How to Do a Better Remake

After seeing this movie, I went straight home. My fiancé was gone for the night, so everything was dark and quiet. Playing music from off my phone did nothing to comfort me.
I spent hours watching YouTube videos and laughing at funny Facebook articles, and yet when it was time to sleep – at least 2 hours after I told myself I’d go to bed – I hesitated to turn the lights out. I closed my closet door, staring fixedly at the wood to avoid looking into the inky blackness beyond. I hurriedly jumped into bed, narrowly avoiding – in my mind – a Gage Creed-style tendon-cutting jutting out from beneath the skirt.

Then came the tremors. I noticed as I was lying in bed, muscles tense, I was also shaking slightly. Any moment, eyes closed or open, I expected to get a jump scare. As I tried to force my thoughts aside and focus on something else, I could still hear Pennywise luring Georgie to reach into the storm drain.

That is how effective the It remake was for me, and I’ll tell you why. This movie spent lots of time getting to know its characters, so not only did I actually care when they were being threatened, but I also felt their fear mirrored in my own way after the movie was over.

I’ve always judged horror movies by how long they stick with you after the credits roll; if not one or two particular scenes, then the concepts bundled up in all that frightening imagery. In The Shining, I contemplated the idea of one of my parents, who I trust to love and care for me, turning on me, even attempting to kill me. It didn’t matter that Jack Nicholson was over-the-top in an almost corny way; the notion that an adult, so long thought of as all-knowing good, could prove to not only be fallible, but actively a danger to you, the child, was and is scary in a very personal, yet universal way.

So too is the atmosphere of It, in which the adults are either blind, unreliable, or complacent to what is happening.

The plot is as follows: a bunch of ostracized kids who dub themselves “The Losers Club” discover a creature that preys on their town’s children, incapacitating them using their deepest, darkest fears. It most appears as a man calling himself “Pennywise the Dancing Clown,” but the kids refer to it as “It” in any form it takes. While “It” tries to drive them apart and pick them off one by one, they fight to stay together, led by a boy named Bill, who lost his younger brother Georgie to “It” earlier in the year.

One thing I noticed (and loved) was that every time a TV was playing in the background of a scene, the female show host would say a word or line that instantly made me think “that’s Pennywise.” It adds to the theme of subtle manipulation quite well, and makes said scenes feel a little more tense without feeling like a jump scare is coming right away. If I remember correctly, sometimes nothing more sinister happens at all.

Also, every good Stephen King fan appreciated the turtle references. Maybe Maturin will appear in the next installment?

But despite its effectiveness, the movie is not perfect. It felt like a faithful adaptation in its heart, but some iconic scenes and dialogue scraps from the book were missing.

Pennywise is a bit silly at times, but then again, no more so than Tim Curry was. He’s also a clown, there’s only so serious you can take him to begin with.

The jump scares are often predictable, but they don’t always come with a swelling orchestra sting, which is a nice change. And beyond the “startling” nature of said scares, what comes out of the darkness is certainly creepy, making the effect linger longer than your average “boo!”

Obligatory creepy clown closeup.

There are silly, dated song sequences and montages that don’t really go with the darker parts of the movie, but they do provide a laugh now and then, and they served to remind me of the kids’ humanity as characters. Ben’s love of the band “New Kids on the Block” is goofy, but endearing, as is his crush on Beverly, the token girl of the group.

All of the Losers Club kids feel like they would be “token” characters in any other movie, but they mesh well together and have believable friendship chemistry. They each have at least one quirk to make them stand out, but even if a few come off as one-note, they carry the plot forward well as a group.

Far too many movies these days will make the characters annoying, leading to a sense of detachment, annoyance, and frustration from the audience that is only alleviated by said characters’ inevitable death. There is no sympathy or empathy; just a sense of catharsis coming from the wrong place. The less death is feared, the less genuine horror is achieved.

By contrast, look at a film like Poltergeist (the original, not the POS remake). It takes a longer time getting to the major supernatural shenanigans, but by the time it gets there, it’s all the more meaningful and scary because of who led us there in the first place. In short, classic horror films knew how to answer the question: “Why should I be invested in this?” It was by giving us at least one person to care about.

It is like Poltergeist because while it gives plenty of scares fairly early on, the film still devotes tons of time to bonding scenes, as well as exposition. Chances are good that you will like and relate to at least one of the Losers, and if you like more than one, so much the better. That drives the tension when they are confronted by the psychotic killing clown man.

Also, who else has watched the Nostalgia Critic’s review of the It miniseries? I almost wondered if the writers and/or director might have kept a few of those critiques in mind when making this new movie. No flashbacks? Check. More than one scene of the adults in Derry acting strangely negligent? Check. Better effects? Well, that’s kind of a given. Henry Bowers having a scene that establishes how he became a bully in the first place? Check.

As further proof, the first trailer before the movie was for The Disaster Artist, an upcoming movie about the making of The Room, which also became more well-known after the Nostalgia Critic reviewed it.

Coincidence? Probably…
8/10

*I do not own the clips, images, or audio used in this post.

 

My One “Beef” With Cooking Shows

Get ready for some serious food puns here, people.

I love a good cooking show. I’m not the most technical or methodical person out there, but I like watching the processes of cooking and baking. They can be surprisingly relaxing, and seeing what people make gives me ideas for things I want to attempt at some point. I’ve been baking cakes and cookies from scratch for a couple of years now – just for fun, not for any kind of competition – and my boyfriend taught me how to cook and experiment with spices early on in our relationship. My food tastes great, but it tends to lack finesse in the looks department.

So I love a good cooking show, but what you probably never asked to know is this: what don’t I like in a cooking show? Well, I’m glad I asked!

The stale ingredient is jerk contestants.

Drama is the eternal friend of television shows everywhere. Even the happiest program needs conflict and challenges in order to hold our attention.

Alton Brown’s Cutthroat Kitchen takes usual cooking show drama to a whole new level, encouraging chefs to turn on each other with creative, silly, and downright inhumane sabotages of Brown’s own design.

This show gleefully, unapologetically torments its contestants, but here’s the thing: you know that as soon as you go into the show. It’s baked into the premise, so to speak. You can’t get mad about it anymore than you can fault Wipeout! for subjecting people to giant rubber balls and boxing gloves.

Plus, it’s really, really funny. And cheesy.

What does irk me, however, are the jerky contestants on shows in which the competition is simple, straightforward, and non-aggressive. Come on, you know the ones; those people who smack-talk one another, argue constantly with the host and the judges; and then stomp all the way home, whining about how they should have won. They carry a smug, obnoxious attitude about them that’s great for stirring up trouble, but not great at inspiring the audience to root for them.

This is why I find shows like The Worst Cooks in America and The Great British Back Off so refreshing: the contestants just enjoy being there, and the focus is clearly on their journey and improvement. It’s sad to see many of these people go home, but it’s also nice that they are so humble and gracious about it, promising to continue doing what they love and to take the lessons they’ve learned home with them. And, unlike some other contest shows, they don’t prey on hopeful people with sob stories. It’s mostly Average Joe’s and Josephine’s.

Sadly, this is rare in cooking and baking competitions. Many of them would rather have us hate and laugh at arrogant, childish characters, and yes, we feel a strangely vindictive pleasure when (if) they’re sent packing.

But guess what? Anger is not the only emotion that gets me invested.

It’s one thing to have clashing personalities collide in an episode. It’s not bad to have “go hard or go home” types. I’m also fine with the judges and celebrity chefs being prickly; more than likely, that’s what they’re famous for.

But to have a bunch of arrogant contestants come in thinking that they’re hot stuff is predictable, if not tedious. If the jerk in question wins, it then becomes infuriating, especially if they’re really spoiled and hateful. Poor attitudes make poor winners and poor losers.

What I’m trying to say is that competition can be good-natured and have suspenseful moments. We don’t need so many pompous, defensive contestants who sling insults across the aisle anytime that something even remotely stressful happens to them. It used to spice things up nicely, but now it’s just trite. Until we can come up with some new and interesting gimmicks to replace that, I’m happy to stick to shows with reasonable people who can actually take a lick of criticism.

…Or downright crazy ones like Cutthroat Kitchen. Because if you don’t want to shoot for middle ground, aim for full-on EXTREME.


*The images used in this post do not belong to me.

The Importance of Sound in Visual Media

My boyfriend and I have one interesting thing in common.

…Well, that’s not really true. I could argue that we have many interesting traits and habits in common, but probably least expected of all was our mutual appreciation for the intricacies of audio. We are almost like two sides of the same coin; my boyfriend is an audio technician, musician, and songwriter with a deep appreciation for all of the performing arts, and while I love them too, my ear for music is not nearly as gifted as his. He could listen to a song on the radio and within seconds, he’d tell you if it was a remix, sped up to make room for commercials, etc. I may or may not notice things like this, and I’m usually not confident to say more than I think that is what I hear.

Personally, I seem more attuned to spoken audio. For example, if an old episode of SpongeBob Squarepants comes on T.V., I can instantly tell if it’s being sped up even slightly. It’s not just with episodes that I’ve seen a million times before; the pauses for breath are too short, and the pacing just feels rushed overall. The jokes often don’t have time to land and it comes across as clumsy.

That’s why I have such a gripe with A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving; even if the child actors weren’t distractingly bad, the person who edited both them and the animation set to them clearly had no sense of realistic timing, let alone comedic. At least in the older cartoons, the kids had some warmth and charm to them, and the editor knew where to make cuts in the scenes.

Listening to the radio, I often chuckle, if only to myself, picking out who sounds like a real person and who is a paid actor. Similarly, in movies, I can get distracted by vocal flow, beyond just wondering how a chosen voice fits a character with a certain look about them. Here’s an experiment, especially for Potterheads: in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, watch the conversation between Gryffindor and Slytherin by the Quidditch field and ask yourself if bitter rivals, especially teens and pre-teens, would argue that slowly and articulately, without ever interrupting one another.

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It’s not the worst or most important thing by any means, and of course the director needs to prioritize storytelling over realism, but something about it feels stilted and unnatural even so. Even in books, characters cut each other off from time to time. That’s just what people do.

I also wonder about other stylistic choices that involve sound. Despite Cinderella 3: A Twist in Time being surprisingly solid, I remember complaining as a kid that Cinderella no longer sang in the 1950’s style that she used in the first movie. I can appreciate that actors often die or move on to other projects, and the new people try their best to emulate a character’s classic timbre and cadence; that was yet another thing I managed to grow out of complaining about…mostly. But shouldn’t a sequel set in the same universe (and with minimal passage of time in said universe) at least try to sound the same?

 

 

To me, that can be just as distracting as a character changing accents in between scenes. It’s not like I have Dory’s short-term memory loss here; just because the first movie is “of an era” doesn’t mean you can’t try to meet it halfway.

Those little questionable quirks, in addition to the cheaper animation and fanfiction-esque plots, are why I really hate most of the Disney sequels. It feels like no one did their homework or put any effort into them, instead just slapping them together with band aids and Tinkertoys.

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And keep in mind that when they came out, I was their target audience. The hate is not purely retroactive.

Hilariously, in a similar vein, sometimes I still get an ice spike of dread when a commercial for a classic Disney film comes on. You know the ones, even if you’ve never thought about them before; they usually pop up before the main features on Disney DVDs, as if to say, “You’ve picked up one of our movies, so clearly you’ll want more of them! Hell, we bet you’ve seen them all already!”

The cult of Disney is very subtle.

Anyway, the commercial begins. New voice actors recite memorable bits of the dialogue over various scraps of the animation, and I think, “Why are these people here? What is wrong with the old audio clips?…Oh God, please don’t tell me Disney is redubbing!”

 

That is one of my worst nightmares for Disney: that all of this remaking will go to their heads, and the next thing we know, they’ll decide to record all new audio for the old movies to make them sound fresher and more relevant. That’s the kind of thing George Lucas would do, when he’s found yet another little thing in the original Star Wars trilogy that he wishes he hadn’t put in. Or what Studio Ghibli calls “remastering” the English dubs of its classic films.

But seriously, what other purpose does redubbing serve in commercials? Throwing the current voice actors a bone outside of kiddy shorts and Kingdom Hearts cameos? Does swapping out Eleanor Audley with Susanne Blakeslee as Maleficent really make people more inclined to buy the latest copy of Sleeping Beauty? If so, are they then disappointed when they watch the movie and hear the same voices they’ve been hearing since 1959?

If it’s not a harbinger of yet more rampant revisionism, it’s just nonsensical and expensive, I think. Very uncharacteristic of an entity that now loves to print money whenever possible. But hey, I’m probably the only weirdo devoting this much thought and analysis to it, so there you go.

I can’t help but notice these things, just as my boyfriend can’t help but be annoyed by crappy remixes on the radio. When things are changed or just don’t fit in the first place, it appears like a neon sign in my brain, and all focus on other things is ripped away. That is not to say that there is only one good way of conveying something, or even that my way is always the best. But in order to recognize what works and why, you need to know the opposite and understand the effect that it creates.

It may not skim above your subconscious, but I’m willing to bet it’s minutia like that factoring in when you dislike something but can’t quite pinpoint why.

 

*None of the clips or pictures used in this post belong to me. Harry Potter is owned by J.K. Rowling and Warner Bros. Studios, and Disney is…well, Disney.

Walter vs. Jimmy: Whose Fall Will Be More Tragic?

The entire premise of Breaking Bad was that life is like chemistry; changes happen all of the time, and sometimes they occur faster than you realize. A seemingly normal, likeable man snaps and becomes a cold, calculating, merciless crime lord, and yet you could also argue that maybe he was never that great of a guy in the first place. It could be that he was just waiting for the last straw to bring his demons out into the open.

It could also be a cautionary tale about society’s lauding of hyper-masculinity (and the derision of anything that differs form it), and how unchecked greed and pride can lead to bad, stupid choices.

Rewind now to the events of Better Call Saul. We saw a fully realized Saul Goodman in Breaking Bad (selfish, hollow, but immensely intelligent and crafty), and at the start of this prequel series, we saw Jimmy McGill, the man who will become Saul. Not the greatest guy, certainly, but still a likeable, charismatic, scrappy little defense lawyer trying to do what he thought was right.

Now, we are finally approaching the point of no return, as Jimmy’s disillusionment with his brother and society as a whole builds and he struggles to earn money and hold onto the love of his life, Kim, who is clearly stressed by the trial and Jimmy’s shady behavior. And in this week’s episode, right before the season finale, Jimmy does something that cannot be defended or spun in any sort of positive light: he convinces his former clients, a bunch of little old ladies, to turn against each other to force a settlement of their lawsuit, which gives him a quick and substantial payout.

Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill; group†- Better Call Saul _ Season 3, Episode 9 – Photo Credit: Michele K. Short/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

“Fall” was the most painful episode to watch this season, other than “Chicanery.” Watching a sweet old lady get bullied by her friends as Jimmy played puppet master was, as another review put it, “like watching a puppy get kicked.” There was nothing noble about it whatsoever, and while the episode “Expenses” showed Jimmy at his emotional low point, “Fall” shows him at his moral low point so far. I feel bad for him, but that just makes this character degradation feel all the more tragic and wrong.

I watched the show entirely because of this eventual change, and now part of me is really regretting it. Not enough to quit Saul or denounce it, by any means, but I grew to really like Jimmy, despite his numerous flaws. Objectively, in just about every way, he was a better person than Saul Goodman.

 

Walter White, Jimmy McGill, and their respective criminal personas are intelligent in different ways. It’s clear that the two men could not switch places and succeed at one another’s jobs. They are also both brash and prideful, easily swayed by powerful emotions, and their sense of morality and justice often battle for dominance as they plan the way forward. Saul Goodman is a tamer but also more subtle kind of evil than Heisenberg; the latter breaks the law and hurts people directly and personally, while the former uses the law itself to his advantage. You can more readily guess and grasp at the consequences of Heisenberg’s actions, and yet Saul doubtlessly has his fingers (or ass, if you’d prefer) in way more pies.

Put that way, maybe Saul Goodman is worse than Heisenberg. How many criminals go free because of him? How many injustices are allowed to continue, all so this guy can make money?

For me, I think the tragedy comes from Jimmy’s fate already being known. Walter could have gone anywhere and done anything in Breaking Bad, and while his moral fall was inevitable, we couldn’t know to what extent or where it would ultimately lead him without following the show all the way to the end. We also saw how selfish he could be, and how minor snubs and hurts could lead to ridiculously stupid outbursts from him. Looking back now, I think Walter might actually have a lot in common with Chuck; maybe even more than he does with Jimmy.

 

But the audience of Better Call Saul has (more than likely) seen Breaking Bad, and knows what Saul Goodman is like. They may have liked his sleazy charm and the creative resolutions he had for various problems that popped up during Heisenberg’s reign, but now there is a sweeter, more naive version with a sad family backstory with which we can compare him. We have followed him as a protagonist, not a side character; we’ve seen his personal struggles, and identified with him on some level. His love and loyalty have been severely tested, and while you don’t want him to give up hope, you could conceivably understand why he’s losing the strength to care.

It’s genuinely hard to see Jimmy crossing over to the dark side in strides, and I didn’t realize just how hard it would be until Monday night. I’ve been losing track of things on and off throughout this series, because as I said, the fact that it’s prequel is not all that overt or distracting once you get into it. I knew from the very beginning where Jimmy would end up, both morally and the fate of his general person; I just didn’t know how or why, and I didn’t expect to like him as much as I do.

The tragedy of exploring the past is that you see, by various degrees, how it could have been prevented. By contrast, the tragedy of seeing the future is that you (but more relevantly, the other characters) can’t do anything to prevent it. The sensation fills you with helplessness, because the situation gains more depth, more meaning, in the context of the original story/character. It adds to the weight of the loss of a man who might have been an asset to society, had he not taken this path.

 

Contrast this with someone like Mike, a smart man who had every opportunity to help people as a police officer, but fell pray to a corrupt community and let his morals be corroded by greed and self-preservation. He toes the line between right and wrong across both series, but with his added backstory in Saul, I have no doubt that, above all else, he does whatever he thinks is necessary to protect himself and his family. He utilizes the training and knowledge from his previous life, but his personal pride generally knows when to take a back seat (unlike Walter’s, for example).

Neither Walter nor Jimmy had enviable lifestyles, but at least in the latter’s case, he had a woman he loved who supported and challenged him, and he could find some degree of passion, even as a low-rate public defender. He had stress and discontent, sure, but he also had a seemingly loving and supportive brother, despite Chuck’s debatable illness. Walter, meanwhile, needlessly drove all of his friends and family away, all because he was disappointed with himself, too proud to seek help, and rendered reckless by the first real excitement he had ever felt in his life.

 

Walter’s situation seems more tragic…but only because of the countless (seen and unseen) victims of Heisenberg. He may never have had the capacity to help people, because deep down, he was proud, bitter, and greedy. Jimmy was no peach back in Season 1, but at least he seemed to genuinely want to help people. And his less legal antics were mostly harmless; they either backfired, netted him some minor success, or they screwed over people like the Kettlemans, who seemed to deserve it.

 

Plus, in the end, Walter admits that he liked being a meth lord and was good at it. Jimmy didn’t want any of the nonsense that tore him and his brother apart.

Losing Kim will probably be the final push for Jimmy, whether it’s by her death or social departure from his life. I can’t say for sure how it will happen, but just the idea of the latter makes me think of A Christmas Carol, in which Ebenezer Scrooge lets his fiancé walk out of his life with hardly a protest, and he subconsciously regrets that choice for the rest of his life. That is the impression I get from the brief scenes of future Saul, as he quietly manages some middle-of-nowhere Cinnabon.

I’d rather not have Kim die, but if they don’t do that, I’m sure the writers will make it feel as painful as if she had.

 

I’m eager to see what happens with Mike, Gus, Nacho, and Don Hector – even Howard and Chuck, if only because I want to latter to get knocked down a few pegs further – but now, anything involving Kim or Jimmy just fills me with dread. How crazy will this season finale be?

Wonder Woman: The Most Baffling Movie of the Year

Wonder Woman…is the definition of “okay.” Not good, not great, not “the worst thing I have ever seen in my life.” Just “okay.”

Actually, no. It’s also a sad testament to the low bar that is modern female empowerment. It is too aware of itself, feels the need to make you constantly aware of it, and thus lacks any kind of subtlety in its execution.

 

To tell you that DC is trying to be Marvel is the equivalent of telling an Olympic swimmer that water is wet, so let’s not even dwell on that. But no, they still haven’t figured out the formula, let alone how to make it their own. 

As a main character, Diana of Themyscira…doesn’t really have one. She’s a classic fish out of water, much like Chris Hemsworth’s Thor in his first movie (or Crocodile Dundee, He-Man, Tarzan, etc. for that matter), but the only dimension they added to her is that she’s extremely naïve about mankind and the world he inhabits. She thinks that humans are only corrupted by presence of Aries, the Greek God of War, so it comes as quite a shock when she explores London for the first time and realizes that good and evil are not so black and white after all.

We’ll have to come back to that plot element later. Other than that, Diana’s job is to be a “strong, confident woman” who shakes up 1910’s society with her outspokenness, strength, and passion. Oh, and to fall in love with a guy, of course, because we can’t have prominent female characters who don’t hook up or are heavily motivated by a man in some capacity.

 

Oh wait…

Gal Gadot is pretty and plays the role well…such as it is. But she deserves a better character with better writing, and a cast that actually compliments her personality-wise, in addition to needlessly covering her in fights.

Speaking of men and other characters, nobody else in this movie has much of a character either. They’re just kind of walking stereotypes with barely-mentioned backstories, mostly there to gawk at Diana for being hot, powerful, and generally unorthodox. The fat, comic-relief secretary is introduced and then quickly disappears for the rest of the movie, and you wonder why the writers even came up with her at all. Chris Pine cares a lot about marriage and propriety in some scenes, and then in others, he’s awkwardly joking about his penis for agonizingly long moments with Diana. 

The cool Amazonian women feature heavily in the beginning, but only get mentioned once in the second half of the film, basically so that one of the male characters can creepily wish that he could go to “an island full of women like Diana and not a single man among them.”

 

Umm….Ewww and good luck with that, Buddy.

Some of the fight scenes are hilariously nonsensical, and the forced slow-mo moments don’t highlight how badass Diana is to me. They’re just annoying and gratuitous and, as you might imagine, slow things down. Keep the scene moving, Zack Snyder! I know it’s hard, but you can do this!

Along those same lines, at one point, Diana remarks that her new man friend Chris Pine (who can’t hold a German accent if his life depended on it. Just throwing that out there…) should take her straight to the war so she can kill Aries. It’s not a great sign when my boyfriend and I are both sitting there thinking, “Yeah, can we get to the action now? Please?”

The plot is extremely predictable. The writing and dialogue within it can be absolutely cringe-worthy, especially when it comes to Chris Pine and Gal Gadot being alone in a room together. I have so many unanswered Greek Mythology questions, and yet I never even studied the subject that hard in school. Character motivations make no sense when presented the way they are, particularly for Diana’s mother; she is implied to be extremely world-weary, but we never figure out how it happened, and her approach to “protecting” her daughter from Aries is illogical and flip-flops within about ten minutes anyway.

 

Speaking of Aries (MAJOR PLOT SPOILERS INCOMING), wouldn’t it have been much more interesting if he was proven to be a myth after all? Diana builds him up as this scapegoat for why human beings do bad things to themselves and to each other, and then there’s a fake-out where she thinks she killed Aries, but nothing stops or changes after the fact. Instead of focusing on that, which would have strengthened the movie’s message so much more, Aries turns out to be some other guy who was barely in the movie at all, who we didn’t have a fair shake at figuring out in the first place. The writers threw in a red herring and third-act twist, but couldn’t be assed to set it up in a way that would make it feel poignant or clever.

And, more importantly, it weakens the idea that a man has agency and responsibility for his own destructive behavior. They try to hand-wave this away during the epic final battle, with Aries spouting off a bunch of bullcrap about how “he didn’t make men this way! They did it themselves!” But come on! You still could have made a cool final battle scene without this silly, monologuing supervillain, and instead exploring a different direction. One in which Diana doesn’t have a five-minute existential crisis, but instead has to wrestle with it for the rest of the movie and come to terms with the loss of her childhood innocence.

That would be really relatable and interesting, but I guess we can’t ask for too much depth in beat-em-up summer blockbusters.

 

At the very least, if I can’t have smart or competent writing, I would settle for less shallow, meaningless feminist pandering. Reminding me constantly that Wonder Woman is – gasp! – a woman, and yet look at how awesome she is…it’s like listening to a guy explain a joke over and over again and demand that his listeners laugh at it, rather than just telling it and letting it speak for itself. It loses its impact and just comes across as forced, and the fact that I still felt empowered by it is…kind of sad, really.

Fair representation is a tricky thing. A person’s womanhood (or race, sexuality, etc.) tends to look good when it’s incidental to her greater character, because it implies that this is – or should be – the norm. A woman kicking ass shouldn’t be all that surprising or noteworthy, at least not to the point where it requires constant acknowledgement.

But at the same time, making a bigger deal about such a character can also be truly groundbreaking, pointing a purposeful finger at our current societal flaws and status quo, as if to say, “@$%& that! We’re running the show now!”

So there’s no easy or concrete approach to female characters and their framing (personally speaking, I tend to prefer the former option), but I hope we can at least agree that how this movie approached the subject was clumsy, awkward, and unintentionally insulting. It’s damn-near insecure.

 

There is so much more to say about Wonder Woman, but while it was similar to Beauty and the Beast with its hollow simplicity, I didn’t take it nearly as personally because I didn’t care about Wonder Woman at all prior to seeing this film. I did really enjoy moments of it, unlike with Beauty and the Beast, but I can’t point to any deep or compelling reason why for any of them. I relate to being told “you can’t do (insert activity here).” I like watching a girl kick ass and prove nay-sayers wrong. That’s about it. I can get pretty much the exact same feeling out of watching A League of Their Own.

One thing that I like that is fairly unique to Wonder Woman is that Diana isn’t embarrassed by the attention of guys, and has a blasé, almost amusedly detached attitude towards sex when it’s first brought up. Sadly, a lot of female characters in media have one of two settings when it comes to sex and romance: “ultra-virgin” or “ultra-slut,” so it’s nice to see some middle ground in that regard, outside of something like I Spit on Your Grave. But the rest of the romance subplot is predictable and cliché, and it’s too bad the majority of the scene I mentioned is awkward as hell and drags on for forever.

One last thing before we go: at one point, Pine and his secretary are trying to get Diana to wear normal, human clothes so that she will blend in more. Makes sense, right? But besides being confident and forward, she is also (admittedly) gorgeous, so much so that men everywhere become brain-dead protoplasm at the very sight of her.

Pine’s solution? He puts glasses on her to minimize and dim down her distracting beauty.

 

THERE IS NO MIDDLE FINGER BIG ENOUGH, ZACK SNYDER.

 

*5/10

*None of the images used in this post belong to me.