Thursday, August 28, 2014

So many layers

I counted them all up, and from the time the family left our home on the afternoon of Saturday the 16th until we returned from vacation in the early evening of Sunday the 24th, the little guy watched The LEGO Movie seven and a half times. We split the roadtrip down across two days, and he watched it twice in the car on the first day and once again on the second. Then he watched it twice at the beach house, once by himself and once for a movie night with his sister and grandparents. (For the record, the grands were highly amused by it, as if the all-ages appeal needed any more evidence.) The last two and a half viewings were all on the marathon return trip this past Sunday; for some reason after watching it twice he just wanted to start in the middle and watch to the end, and at that point I was not inclined to argue.

I had insisted that we bring other DVD's to watch in the car (per necessity) and/or at the beach (optional), and both the little guy and little girl complied and made enough selections to bring a round half-dozen along. Other than LEGO, they were all Disney/Pixar joints: the first two Toy Stories, Frozen, the first Cars, and a Mickey Mouse Clubhouse compilation. And some of those got some play, at that. Toy Story was in the mix on the way down, and Toy Story 2 on the way back. Frozen also got a spin on the very first day of the initial roadtrip, plus a grandparent-attended movie night of its own, as well. (Yes, my in-laws set aside two separate evenings on vacation to watch movies their grandson and granddaughter respectively talk about a lot but they had never seen. I thought that was sweet.) Poor Cars and Mickey Mouse might as well have stayed home, but see yesterday's post re: overpacking the entertainment options.

But clearly nothing came close to The LEGO Movie's dominance in the rotation. And I specified that it was the little guy watching it all those times because, in fact, the mid-week daytime viewing was for him alone, while the little girl was napping, and she fell asleep in the car during one of the last viewings, too. really this post is about how my son is obsessed with The LEGO Movie, not in the casual-ironic way I refer to myself as being obsessed with certain things but in a more literally fixated kind of way.

And here's the real kicker, the reason why I think this is worth going over despite the fact that, ever since home video was a thing, kids have been wearing out movies on infinite repeat. Three of those seven and a half viewings over the course of a week were with the directors-and-actors commentary track turned on. I am not even joking a little bit. The second viewing on the day one trip, the mid-week afternoon viewing, and the second viewing on the return trip. The first time, the little guy stumbled onto the commentary track by accident. But he was immediately drawn into it. And the second and third times were completely by choice. He thinks the commentary track is the greatest thing ever.

I suppose on some level this makes perfect sense. The three things he loves best in life right now are watching The LEGO Movie, playing with Legos, or talking about The LEGO Movie. So watching the movie with the commentary track on kind of combines items one and three, there. The little guy has always had that tendency when he gets into something to really immerse himself in it, in the minutiae of deep understanding, so listening to the people who made the movie talk about making it is bound to be something he gets no small amount of satisfaction from. He's seen the movie in its natural form enough times now that he doesn't need the dialogue and soundtrack in order to follow it at this point, and the commentary version lets him keep gorging on it without it getting stale. And it is a pretty good commentary as these things go, with both directors and a good cross-section of the cast; the directors are geeky and technically-oriented, while the actors (Chris Pratt, Alison Brie, Will Arnett and Charlie Day) keep things pretty funny. Most of the actors' jokes kind of sail over the little guy's head, but he was thrilled to learn little secrets about the film as pointed out by the directors, visual jokes in the corner of the frame that really go by too fast to notice unless they're pointed out to you and so forth.

But still. He's FIVE. He'll be six in a week, ok, sure, but who ever heard of a six-year-old nerding out for the commentary track for a movie? I love movies, I buy DVDs for my own personal library, and I hardly ever turn on the commentary tracks myself. It never in a million years would have occurred to me to point my kid towards the commentary on anything. So it was kind of weirdly great to just bear (audio) witness, from the front seat of the car, as he serendipitously discovered it for himself and was immediately so taken with it.

And I'm trying, I really am, to just leave it at that. It's all-too-tempting to revel in the thought of a budding cineaste taking shape in the form of my own offspring, that as my son gets older and continues to broaden his horizons he'll also continue to get more and more deeply interested in movie-making, the nuts and bolts of what makes them tick, all the intricacies that I get a kick out of studying and analyzing and breaking down &c. It would be deeply satisfying to be able to go back and forth with him on such subjects at great length and in exhaustive detail. But I know that's pure projection (pun maybe like 25% intended) and the truth is he's not so much intrigued by behind-the-scenes workings of all movies or even certain kinds of movies as he is one very specific movie that has its hooks deep into him at the moment, and by Christmas he might be totally enthralled by some age-appropriate collectible game or some eye-crossingly esoteric science subject. It's happened before, it'll happen again, the carousel goes round and round.

Blogstones (5)

Five years ago today I started blogging, and while I've had my share of low content days, silent stretches, and repeated motifs driven mercilessly into the ground, I have to hold my head high for the simple fact that the blog hasn't joined my long lifetime list of abandoned projects. (Not yet, anyway.) I've mentioned before that this blog really serves two purposes: giving me a mental outlet for whatever obscure arcana I happen to be obsessing over at any given moment, and exercising my writing neurons on a regular basis. I have to say it's worked out pretty well on both fronts; the latter one took a while to start bearing other fruit, but it's coming along, and the former one more or less speaks for itself if you delve into the archives.

And in that self-celebratory spirit that a blog-a-versary indulges in, I'm going to go ahead and provide a handy cheat sheet for some of my Greatest Hits Such As They Are. At this point I'm closing in on 1200 posts and I wouldn't expect anyone to have read every word of every one. (My wife, who takes her status as my soulmate very seriously, has come pretty close, which makes me humbly grateful to the highest extent imaginable.) But if you were inclined to check out a representative handful of my previous posts over the last half-decade, I might hypothetically recommend these:

This year: A perennial bad guy, out of context

Last year: The intersection between icons of fiction and the flesh and blood human beings who embody them
Just a bunch of stuff I think is rad

2012: My unfortunate tendency to over-emphasize the differences in how I would have done something that someone else did

2011: An epic adventure of absentmindedness

2010: That time I read John Carter before it was cool to bash the theatrical flop
Why I probably shouldn't be trusted with landscaping
Mythology and metaphor and molding impressionable minds

2009: Truly trivial trivia

Enjoy! Or don't! A lot of those older posts are now hilariously out-of-date, as are some others I didn't bother linking to (everything from how hard it is to be the caretaker of two small children [cue sound of karmic laughter] to what video games I saw myself being deeply immersed in in the future). The one about getting locked out of the house is still gold, though, I'm pretty sure. Mostly it's a good sampling of the big overarching themes of my life: my wife and kids, my pop culture fascinations, and the many and varied overlaps therein.

At any rate, whether archive-diving or casually keeping up with an RSS feed, thanks for reading and here's to the next five years!

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

SMOAT (or SMAABH?) Single-Features #6.5!!! (Skyfall)

Summer Movies At A Beach House! Heck yeah! Well, one summer movie at any rate: the most recent installment of the venerable James Bond franchise, Skyfall.

I always tend to overpack entertainment items for vacation, and this year was no exception: I stuffed a backpack with two paperback novels, one non-fiction book, one massive short story anthology, a half-dozen good old fashioned dead-tree comic books, two Kindles and an iPad, two Netflix DVDs, one used DVD I purchased like a year ago and still haven't gotten around to watching, one movie on Blu-ray that I've seen but my wife hasn't, and one BBC series on Blu-ray. I ended up reading 90% of the first paperback and one comic, and watching one Netflix disc. The remainder stayed in the backpack more or less untouched (by me, at least; my wife read something on her Kindle and the little guy and little girl made good use of my Kindle and the iPad at various points). When I was a kid, family beach vacations meant that I was responsible for entertaining myself all day long for days on end, because watching television (my default auto-entertainment at home) was frowned upon and my parents saw the time off and away as their chance to unwind and relax, not organize outings or activities for me and my brother. And fair play to them! So I would tear through comics, Mad magazines, and cheap paperbacks by the armload during vacation, starting the moment I climbed into the tailgunner seat of the family station wagon. Old habits die hard, even though nowadays I'm the one driving the car.

Of course, I am notorious for having virtually no memory of my life before age, I don't know, let's say six or seven? At which point I was both a strong reader and perfectly capable of taking care of myself (to the point of being borderline pathologically antisocial). So I acknowledge it is unfairly apples and oranges to compare my experience with vacations right now to my parents' preferred approach in my memories, because I don't really remember how they dealt with me (or even Little Bro) in babyhood or toddlerhood. My kids undeniably need more direct supervision (forget stimulation) because they are all still at ages where they can too easily get themselves into trouble, or where they are legitimately helplessto help themselves. E.g., I probably could have finished 100% of the paperback and started the next or read a few more comics if an entire afternoon (Wednesday, I believe) hadn't been sunk by the bino going from "a wee bit constipated" to "call in the HAZMAT team" shortly after bring laid in his crib for naptime. The damage control was an intense two-person job for me and my wife, and I was dazed and shell-shocked for a while afterwards. Ah, parenthood.

At any rate, the way our family dynamics work at this point is that in the middle of any given beach day the bino needs a nap, the little girl needs quiet time (nap optional), my wife enjoys a siesta for herself, and the little guy can at least amuse himself screen-shopping for Legos on a WiFi device. This frees me up to soak up rays and read or whatever and get my ration of loafing. And then, by 8 p.m. (or so) each night, all three kids are supposed to be in bed, so the opportunity at least exists for grown-up diversions like adult movies. Not, you know, "adult movies" in the back-room-of-the-video-store sense (none of those in my backpack, I assure you), although that joke was duly made and run into the ground. Just more geared toward mature audiences than "Frozen" or "The LEGO Movie". Actually, those flicks are all-ages and have plenty in them aimed squarely at grown-ups. Movies inappropriate for children, I guess. But not that inappropriate. (See, the jokes just make themselves.)

So, Skyfall! I'm no Bond aficionado, but I like the concept of Bond (it's pretty easy to be conversant in the defining elements of Bond without actually sitting through that many movies) and I like Daniel Craig as Bond, and I agree with the critical consensus that Skyfall is Craig's best outing so far, possibly one of the best Bond films in the canon, period. It's clever, almost to the point of distraction, that a lot of the story wraps itself in ideas like the British government (and by extension, the people they represent) questioning whether or not they need MI-6, or need it in its traditional form including the double-0 agents, which of course parallels the question of whether Hollywood and/or the movie-going audience still want to go see James Bond films. And of course the answer provided within the movie is a resounding "Yes, now more than ever!" To be fair, it is hard to argue with Dame Judi Dench, so putting the thesis in M's dialogue was a smart move. In fact, it was also a smart move to make M so central to the movie and give her a chance to get out from behind her desk and have a big adventure. SPOILER!!! Meaning sorry, I guess that was a spoiler but also warning, there's more spoilerage to come. It was, by the same token, a shame that M had to die, but I suppose Dame Dench isn't getting any younger and if she wanted out of her contract then at least they gave her a rousing send-off, rather than having her die off-screen in an explosion to make the reel one body count plot point a little more personal. The only complaint, which my wife and I shared, was that M didn't really get to kill any bad guys herself. She rigged/triggered a booby trap or two, and got to make a joke about always being a lousy shot, but come on; in the end Bond backstabs Silva and Silva collapses to the ground after a some grimacing and staggering, would it have been so hard to have Bond backstab Silva so he lets M go, and then have M deliver the coup de grace, just before she succumbs to her own battle wounds?

Not that anyone should be watching Bond films for enlightened gender politics, of course, and if it's all the same to everyone out there I'll skip the deep meditations on whether the world is a better or worse place based on the generalizations one may extrapolate from any given fictional entertainment, even a series of them. (Just like I'll gloss over the oddity that, like all Bond movies of late, Skyfall is only rated PG-13, despite the defining elements of 007 being his license to kill and his tendency to make with the sexytimes. He just always does the latter in cinematically chaste fashion, and shootings and stabbings and other bloodlettings are not something we as a society of weirdly prudish violence-worshippers have a big problem inviting the kids to get an eyeful of.) My wife and I were looking for some semi-mindless popcorn movie fun, because we were on vacation and because said vacation house had a fairly nice home theater (no Blu-ray, though) with a ridiculously large-screened tv (which I couldn't figure out how to work via the universal remote, not exactly, and which I was forced to jury-rig with parts borrowed from the kids' travel DVD player in my car) and we got what we were looking for, with a little extra helping of "huh, that's interesting" on top of the requisite exotic locales and dramatic explosions. I pronounce Skyfall to be quite good, if you're into that sort of thing.

Incidentally, the other Netflix movie I brought along was Wes Anderson's Grand Budapest Hotel. If there had been a true Summer Movie double-feature over the course of the beach week, the theme simply would have been "relatively recent well-received movies that my wife had expressed interest in watching and I was fairly keen to see as well". But, as I've alluded to earlier, we made our own entertainment various other evenings and kicked back under the spell of the silver screen just the once. Fortunately it was a good choice for our sole movie night. And don't let the grumblings and/or the baby poop jokes fool you: all in all the vacation was a good one, too.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Down the stretch

In all of the time that we were at the beach last week (and on the road back and forth, obviously) my wife and I watched very little television. It is one of our favorite leisure activities to share, and you would think the abundance of leisure time on an actual vacation would lend itself to catching up on said activity, but we managed to avoid it all the same. We did watch a movie one night (about which more tomorrow) and we indulged in a couple of episodes of Chopped on another night, but outside of that we sat around playing Cards Against Humanity, or went out for ice cream and stargazing, or did crossword puzzles together, or read, or went to bed early simply because we could.

One of the limiting factors on our television consumption was the fact that we were rooming with the bino for the week. We gave the matter some thought upon our arrival at the beach house but couldn’t identify a better place to stick the bino’s crib than in the corner of the room we had claimed for ourselves (partly because we forgot to pack the baby monitor and needed to keep him closeby, but not in the room next door with the little guy and little girl because we worried all three would disturb each other too much, &c. &c.) so there he stayed, and whereas most nights at home we wind up lying in our bed and watching some tv before calling it a night, we weren’t about to try turning on the set in our beach house room after 7:30 p.m. when the bino went down for the night. (And he still didn’t have the best week’s worth of sleep all the same, which is a subject best left un-lingered on.) Nevertheless, my wife did confess that she missed the sensation of climbing under the covers, turning on an Orioles game, and drifting off to the dulcet tones of the Camden Yards booth team.

In fact, we were pretty unplugged all week and neither of us bothered to check for the box scores or the standings or anything. Granted, it’s rare that things change hugely day-to-day, or even week-to-week, which is one of those things people either love or hate about baseball, I suppose. I was, I admit, a tiny bit disappointed to learn, upon our return home, that I had been oblivious to an eight-game losing streak the Red Sox endured throughout our entire vacation. But better late schadenfreude than never.

Beyond the week off from obsessively following the back-and-forths of the AL East, it’s been about six weeks since I last gave any blogspace to baseball-type thoughts, and things are similar to where they were then. The Os are still on top, with an even more comfortable lead, while the Yankees have moved up to second place thanks to a combo of decent strings of victories and the fading of the Blue Jays. New York is still not situated in a wild card position (it continues to be All AL West, all day), but they are at least still within striking distance, at the moment.

This could all change by the weekend, of course. But as it stands unless something historic and monumental happens, I probably won’t make blog fodder out of baseball until October or so, when definitive things can and must be said.

Last night my wife and I did in fact turn on an O’s game as we were settling into bed, as it happened. The O’s were winning in a rout (as were the Yankees, for that matter) so it was non-stressful viewing. I pointed out to my wife that MASN has already started a promo campaign using the “we’re playing in September, but playing for October” line. And I asked her if that was killing her a little bit, with the whole jinx-avoidance mentality. She admitted it was somewhat unsettling. I hope for her sake that things eventually get to the point where she can just enjoy the ride, whatever “things” and “point” that might entail. I’m not going to try to name them, because that would be a goocher for sure.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Monday (Non-)Madness

There are two major concerns which I assume loom for just about every mid-level white collar office drone when they return from a long vacation, and which I know for a fact loom large for me in said situation:

1 - Did anything at work go completely mad while I was away?

2 - Did I go completely mad while I was away?

To cut through the (probably low-to-non-existent) tension right off the bat, I’ve been in the office for about two hours now as I type this and the answer seems to be “no” on both counts. Things did not completely fall apart when I turned my back a week and a half ago.

In fact there was a smidge of good news waiting for me in my Inbox this morning: official confirmation that my employer is going to be granted a six-month contract extension while the government makes up for lost time and blown deadlines and finally gets the re-compete process underway. So, in theory, I have stable employment from now until late March 2015 or so, and I am grateful for that.

Otherwise, I was relieved to see that nothing went horribly wrong while I was beaching it. Apparently there was a slight server responsiveness problem on Thursday that I got one e-mail about, but just as apparently it resolved itself quickly enough that Friday, at least, was a normal day for my users (if the auto-logs are to be believed). I tried to tell myself, as I commuted in this morning, that if anything had gone well and truly kablooie that somebody would have called me, approved vacation time or no. And since I had my cell phone at hand, charged and working, the entire time I was gone, and no one called, everything must have been fine enough. But those rational thoughts did not entirely appease the fear and dread (though to be fair, some portion of that was not so much dreading the messes I would find and need to belatedly clean up, but just the dread of the Big gray in general). It was a relief to log in and discover the absence of any panicked PLEASE OPEN THIS AS SOON AS YOU RETURN e-mails, or for that matter the dearth of frantic voicemails or hastily scribbled Post-its stuck to my desk.

And speaking of logging in, I know that I did not completely lose my mind, either, because I managed to get to work on time and with all of my badges and access cards and whatnot, and without forgetting any of my various system passwords. I did have a moment of self-flagellation on Saturday morning, two days ago, when I woke up feeling like I had forgotten something, and realized I had intended to fill out and submit my electronic timesheet on Friday by 9:30 a.m. as per company policy and then of course had completely lost track of the days until that moment had come and long since gone. I logged in to the network later and saw that my boss had done a provisional timesheet on my behalf that I had to approve, and I did, all of which is a tiny drop in the compliance bucket but bummed me out nonetheless. Still, as I said, for getting out of all my habits for a solid week, I made a relatively non-bumpy transition back today. And I’m well ahead of not one but two of my co-workers, one a fellow contractor and one a DoD employee, both of whom are having bouts of the Mondays and forgot their network access cards at home, as I overheard them both tell our government boss with much chagrin.

Vacation was pretty wonderful on the whole and I will relate various high points as we go through the week. But for now, yes, things are back to near-normal. Let the countdown to the long Labor Day weekend begin!

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Just beachy

On vacation, y'all. Gonna sit with my toes in the sand for a while and unplug. Be back ... eventually.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Random recollection

I was the kind of little kid who looked forward to going to the beach in the summer because I could bring my Star Wars landspeeder toy and pretend the sand was the surface of Tatooine. And whenever there was a snow day in the winter, all I wanted to do was take my Hoth versions of Luke and Han outside and carve ice tunnels in the accumulation on the picnic table. When Return of the Jedi came out I was thrilled because finally, the forest moon of Endor provided an environment that my backyard resembled almost all year long.

Of course it was only a couple more years after that when I had fully converted to seeing beach trips, snow storms, and most every other day of the year as an opportunity to disappear into a book (or twelve), rather than to re-enact movie scenes or comics storylines with my action figures. Time flies. It always has.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Secondary definitions

Last night when I got home from work the kids were all kinds of hyper, especially the little guy and the little girl. The bino just wanted some attention (read: to be picked up and carried around) but his older siblings much preferred to run around screaming non-stop. The sitter kind of smiled at me as she sidled right out the door, knowing it would be foolish to try to make herself heard over the ruckus, giving me a knowing look that conveyed the sentiment “Good luck with this, you poor doomed soul.”

But it really wasn’t bad at all. There is an enormous difference between the two bigger kids both being wound up and also being at each other’s throats, and the two of them being wound up on the same wavelength and playing together. Both can entail crashing through the house and shrieking their heads off, but the first involves one child chasing the other against their will, one shrieking in distress of fear or pain and the other shrieking in aggression. And that, obviously, is the kind of thing I don’t abide or allow and will intercede in without delay. The second type doesn’t bother me at all, no matter how tooth-rattlingly loud the kids get, for reals. If they are having fun, if all the shrieking is exuberantly good-natured, I am perfectly happy to let them have at it, especially if they are just running (not climbing up onto the backs of sofas, throwing things at the walls as hard as they can, &c.).

So I focused on the bino and on putting dinner together. Further enhancing the net positive was the fact that I was able to grill the chicken tenders outside (which doesn’t take very long) and still keep tabs on the bigger kids inside, because their constant voluble yelling allowed me to track their location with my ears alone. The bino hung out with his face smooshed into the screen door and watched me, so that was good, too. And by the time the kids were called to the dinner table, they had expended enough energy that they were able to sit still and eat, which is always a plus.

I was using the sound of their wild play for triangulation purposes but wasn’t really listening too closely to what my son and daughter were carrying on about. I did catch a little snippet of it, though:

Son: And you have little robot birds!
Daughter: Yeah!
S: That live in your tummy!
D: Yeah!
S: And then they SHOOT out of your belly button!
D: No! They just FLY out! And then they land in my hands!

I mean, that has got to be in the dictionary under “delightful” if the word has any meaning at all.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

SMOAT Double-Features #6!!! (Mystery Team/Safety Not Guaranteed)

Summer Movies On A Train returns to its proper place on the commuter light rail this week, but takes a hard turn away from all the science-fiction and violent, explode-y spectacle of the past few installments to take a look at a couple of films united by the presence of one cast-member: Aubrey Plaza. This may be the Year of Chris Pratt, but let us not overlook the co-star who plays his Parks and Recreation bride, April Ludgate.

In point of fact, originally I paired Mystery Team up with Safety Not Guaranteed on my Netflix queue because each one stars a (former) performer from a different (former) NBC Thursday night sitcom. Mystery Team is anchored by Donald Glover, aka Troy from Community, and Safety Not Guaranteed features Aubrey Plaza in a leading role. I had no idea that Plaza was in both movies, I just wanted a comedy double-feature to tide me over during the summer rerun season (which actually isn’t even rerun season nowadays, just the cheap-programming of American Ninja Warrior and whatnot, which I’m not necessarily against per se, but that’s neither here nor there) and figured there were worse ways to go than invoking trusted names from my own appointment television.

At any rate, Mystery Team in and of itself is a cup runneth over with familiar faces from recent NBC Thursday line-ups. In addition to Glover and Plaza, there are cameos from Kevin Brown (Walter “Dot Com” Slattery from 30 Rock), John Lutz (Lutz himself, also from 30 Rock), Ellie Kemper (Erin from The Office), and Matt Walsh (who played Joshua the racist neo-Nazi groundskeeper in the Secret Garden episode of Community). If I’m going to lump in Walsh, I might as well also mention that the two other comedians who comprise the titular trio, Dominic Dierkes and DC Pierson, have also cameo’ed on Community. But really, all-for-one ethos of the Mystery Team and equal co-writing credit for the Derrick Comedy troupe notwithstanding, it’s Glover’s movie, and it’s pretty much 90 minutes of his sheltered man-child Troy Barnes schtick, turned up a bit more ludicrously and set against a much less accommodating backdrop than the campus of Greendale.

Unfortunately, that’s more or less the film’s undoing, as it turns out. The basic pitch of the movie is this: imagine if you took three characters based on kid detective archetypes, aged them physically but not mentally, and then put them in the “real” world trying to solve an actual crime. In practice, what that means is instead of getting Troy Barnes, slightly sheltered and more comfortable being a big fish in the small pond of high school than in the quasi-adult world of a wacky community college, you get Jason Rogers, inexplicably stunted and totally at odds with the prevailing sensibilities of everything around him. On Community, there’s a slight tension between characters’ perceptions and reality which creates most of the humor. In Mystery Team, there’s just a complete disconnect that never gets explained and never makes any sense.

I used to love Encyclopedia Brown stories when I was a kid, so I was certainly on board with the idea of a trio of past-their-prime Encyclopedia Brown wannabes. And I further liked the idea that the pint-sized private investigators were never even as good at their vocation as their fictional predecessors: Jason claims to be “master of disguise” but really just loves fake mustaches and bad ethnic accents (and to be fair, Glover’s total commitment to that recurring bit gave me a few chuckles, more than the rest of the movie put together); Duncan deems himself a “boy genius” but really just memorized one book of wacky facts in second grade; and Charlie believes he is the “strongest boy in town” but is nothing of the sort, though he is exactly as dumb as a bag of hammers as you would expect the team muscle to be. If you find those descriptions side-splittingly hilarious, you might be highly amused by seeing them on-screen for ninety minutes. But the humor of the movie rarely rises above the juxtaposition of the boys - who are now 18 and yet act basically like they’re 9 because that’s when they peaked, and therefore they drink chocolate milk, they think girls have cooties, etc. - and their grotty environment full of homeless people, strip clubs, drug dealers, and corporate malfeasance.

There’s a theory of comedy that laughter comes from incongruity resolution. Our brains are presented with something that doesn’t make sense, and the natural neurological urge is to try to make it make sense. Once you recognize the expectation that’s been subverted and how what seemed at first to be incongruous actually does make sense in another context, you get a little burst of brain-pleasure and smile or a big burst and laugh. But there’s this weird strain of humor that’s all about the incongruity with no resolution, other than “oh, they’re being stupid on purpose!” (Also sometimes taking the form of “Oh, that wasn’t what I expected, it came out of left field, but I still recognize it!”; see Family Guy.) And that’s pretty much the entire approach of Mystery Team, all incongruity, no resolution. It’s never really explained why the trio are stuck with the mentality of nine-year-olds (more specifically nine-year-olds who grew up in the mythical squeaky-clean 1950’s or something) or how they’ve made it through high school so far. The whole plot is set in motion by a little girl (a real one) asking the Team to find out who killed her parents; this is where Aubrey Plaza comes in, as the little girl’s big sister who explains that the parents were killed in a home invasion gone bad and begs the Team NOT to string her sister along that they’re going to “crack the case”. That kind of basic empathy for a grieving child should be a given, and almost threatens to derail what’s supposed to be a goofy comedy with frequent forays into gross-out humor, except once Plaza’s character does something close to what a normal human being would do the rest of the cast carries on with the plot regardless, and eventually Plaza becomes Glover’s love interest, as much as she can be given that he is still playing as weirdly willfully pre-pubescent. Sigh.

For what it’s worth, I’d actually love to see an entire romantic comedy with Donald Glover and Aubrey Plaza as the leads, but that will have to wait, I suppose. As it stands, speaking of romance, it was a bit of a risk I took watching Mystery Team as a SMOAT considering that my wife likes Donald Glover as much as I do, and laments Troy being written out of Community last season as much as I do, and she might have been (understandably!) disappointed if I said I had seen the best little indie comedy starring him, all by myself. But with some relief I can report that she dodged a bullet by not being subjected to the underwhelming meh of Mystery Team. (I kind of had a feeling that would be the case, so the bright side is, I was right.)

Anyway, Plaza fares much better in Safety Not Guaranteed, where she plays an intern at a magazine who gets roped into working on a story profiling a man who placed an ad in the classifieds looking for a partner to travel back in time with. When the smarmy feature writer who was going to get the goods blows it with the intended profile subject by coming on too strong, Plaza has to pretend to be genuinely interested in the time travel in order to get the goods for the article.

Mark Duplass plays the eccentric would-be time traveler and he manages to walk the fine line between pathetic delusion and the curious possibility that he knows things no one else knows. His antics, especially the physical humor of preparing himself for potential hazards of time travel by turning his backyard into a makeshift training compound, are what gives the movie the slightest claim on being a comedy. It’s really more of a dramedy, or possibly a very low-stakes drama. It has a certain lo-fi charm, and ultimately a feel-good message about how we make our way through the trials and travails of life, all of which may sound like faint praise but is really just intended to make the point that it’s a good, entertaining indie film, if not a great, earth-shattering, cinema-redefining, life-altering one. They can’t all be that, after all.

In both Mystery Team and Safety Not Guaranteed, Aubrey Plaza winds up overshadowed by April Ludgate. April is so specifically weird and so relentlessly, aggressively in-your-face, and apparently when people cast Plaza they want some of that spirit but ultimately have to tell her to turn it down a bit (plus they inevitably don’t have the same writers Parks and Rec does) and they wind up with just a generic disaffected, sarcastic Millennial. So in my attempt to fill the void left by no new sitcoms over the summer, I’ve really just made myself that much more eager for the premiere of the coming season of Parks and Recreation.

Which, of course, apparently won’t be aired until spring of 2015, because NBC hates me and doesn’t want me to be happy.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

He never got over being Terribly Sad, I guess

I’ve already established my bona fides as being stridently anti-suicide, so I can assume you long-time readers understand that I am processing the news of Robin Williams’s death with a combination of sadness and anger. It’s selfish of me, but that’s the way it goes; suicide is also selfish, and just happens to be one of those things that tests the limits of my empathy. I know there’s gray areas, I believe in the dignity of end-of-life choices because sometimes human bodies can enter irreparable deteriorate states with physical pain that outstrips our ability to cope. When death is imminent and inevitable, choosing to embrace it on your own terms and your own schedule is something I can understand.

What I can’t understand is arriving at the conclusion that your emotional, existential pain is comparably terminal. And I know that lack of understanding is largely on me. I am as lucky as the archetypal fool, and there are deep dark places other people are overly intimately familiar with which I have never even come close to. I don’t understand because I can’t understand. And yet I cling to this belief that those harrowing places can be traversed and escaped from. I don’t think it’s as simple as having the right positive attitude, or just hanging in there, and I know it can take an excruciatingly long time and a colossal amount of effort. But I believe it’s always possible. Deep down, fundamental life philosophy, I believe that life is worth living or can be made so, and opting out is a bad choice. Maybe I’m an unreasonably relentless optimist, maybe that makes me hopelessly naive, but … I am what I am.

Which of course doesn’t retroactively bring Robin Williams back to life. His sudden absence doesn’t necessarily have that element of gone too soon, with so much untapped potential, because for me and most of my age cohort he was always there doing a bit of everything. Mork & Mindy started its first run on tv before most of my fellow Gen-Xers and I started kindergarten, and of course the man was working right up to the end and has at least three more films slated to come out some time in the future. I could, if I tried (and probably without too much effort) think of a few dream projects that I’ll never get to see him in now, but today that would probably feel like rubbing salt in the wound.

Almost everyone I know, online and IRL, is memorializing Robin Williams in their own way today. A lot of the big touchstones people are referencing are near and dear to my heart as well: Dead Poets Society and Good Morning Vietnam and Comic Relief and A Night at the Met and Aladdin. Like I said, Robin Williams was practically omnipresent in pop culture, and I could easily rattle off my own deep pulls, and because it’s my blog and I can, I will:

- One of my fondest memories of senior year of high school was a night when a friend of mine and I were doing homework together and came to the crushing realization that we were never going to get everything finished without pulling an all-nighter. To not turn in our assignments would negatively impact our grades, but if we were absent from school and turned in the work as soon as we got back, we wouldn’t be penalized. So we faked notes from our parents and skipped school in order to catch up and stay timely on homework. But it didn’t require a full day to get back up to speed, so we also went to the mall to catch a movie while we were playing hooky. The movie was Dead Again, which is arguably one of Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson’s less essential films, but I loved it. And Robin Williams plays a small but crucial role in that flick as a damaged yet very insightful former psychoanalyst who conveniently knows a lot about past lives and reincarnation.

- Right after college, during Beach Week, I spent one rainy afternoon at the local theater watching The Birdcage, which (it should go without saying) was hilarious. Still is; The Birdcage is one of those flicks where if I’m flipping around on cable with no particular appointment television in mind, I can easily get sucked in no matter where in the running time I come upon it. But what really hits home with me is how the way I’ve related to the movie has evolved over time. When I first saw it, age 21, I was completely and totally on Val’s side. This is somewhat mortifying, but I admit it. The older I get, and especially (perhaps obviously) now that I have kids of my own, the more and more I sympathize with Robin Williams’s Armand. Also, I frequently find myself muttering “No, it’s perfect, I just never realized John Wayne walked like that.”

- And another thing I often quote without even thinking about it is this:

“Nothing! Zip. DOO-DAH.” So applicable in so many situations. There’s also a more recent Elmo video that was getting a lot of bedtime play in our house a few months back with various celebrities showing off their dance moves, and Robin Williams (in full gonzo graybeard mode) is one of many participants. It always made me smile to see him in the mix.

- I’ve seen Death to Smoochy, and I know firsthand what people are on about when they talk about what a misguided, misbegotten yet fascinating trainwreck of a movie it is. I don’t have a particularly contrary opinion compared to the critical consensus, it’s not a movie I would recommend to people without massive caveats about context. But it’s also a movie I associate with my introduction to Netflix, when I was basically enjoying the benefits of the service as a free perk of living in the spare room in my friends’ house, right after I got divorced. It’s a dark movie from a dark time in my life, which just kind of underscores my point: from the inspirational highs to the murky lows, you can find Robin Williams woven into the pop culture fabric of things everywhere.

- And even in the past year, he was making a go of it with a primetime sitcom again. My wife and I weren’t fanatically dedicated to The Crazy Ones the way we have been for other shows, but we found ourselves watching it more often than not as the season rolled along, and rooting for it, and a little bit bummed when it got cancelled (or failed to get renewed or whatever industry terminology rightly applies). It was a funny show, and they always put about 30 or 60 seconds worth of outtakes up as the bumper at the end, which was probably the perfect amount of Robin Williams wild mugging improv for your average weeknight. But it was also an interesting show about parenthood, and relationships with adult children, and making peace with past regrets. It wasn’t for everyone, obviously, but it was cool.

I don’t think I’m necessarily done making new memories involving Robin Williams’s work. There are movies of his languishing in my queue which I’ve been meaning to finally see for ages. There are the classics I’ll still get to share for the first time with my kids, which is the timeless beauty of regarding at least some elements of pop culture as non-disposable. But it still sucks knowing that the man himself is no longer out there doing his thing, playing a part in life’s rich pageant. By all accounts and every remembrance that’s circulating today, he was not just a gifted performer but a blessing to everyone who knew him personally, the kind of person whose passing saddens everyone because of how undeniably he made the world a better place while he was in it. The kind of person we should all be trying our best to be.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Who only stand and wait

By the time I get back from vacation in a couple weeks, the end of the federal fiscal year will be about 30 working days away, which also coincides with the end of the contract I am attached to, meaning the real and true expiration of the agreement between my employer and the DoD, with no more option years to exercise, nothing to do except start the process over again. And, as is almost always the case, this means giving equal opportunity to one and all to attempt to win the privilege of contracting to the government’s stated specifications, what we in the biz call a “re-compete” - we get to compete against everyone else in the industry who’s so inclined to throw their hat in the ring, for the right to be re-selected as the contractor doing the work that needs doing.

I mention how close these concomitant deadlines are because, wouldn’t you know it, the government has yet to get around to actually specifying and spelling out what that work-what-needs-doing actually is and entails. I mean, presumably it’s a lot like the work my colleagues and I have been doing for the past five years (and which my company, and my boss in particular, have been doing around here for closer to fifteen years), but there’s always a possibility that little things might get tweaked or modified, streamlined or expanded here and there. A definitive work statement is necessary for everyone competing for the contract (my employer included) to be able to pitch themselves as the best organization for the gig, and those pitches all have to be received and evaluated fairly for the government to make a selection, and the selection has to be made and the contract signed in order for me and my colleagues to be authorized to show up and do our jobs on a daily basis. A series of dependencies, and there is no way they could all happen between now and the end of September, even if the government did have step one completed and ready to kick off the line of falling dominoes today, which of course they don’t.

The good news is that just about everyone involved on both sides up and down the respective chains of command recognizes that the year-end deadline is going to be blown, and steps are being taken now to deal with that. Basically, although it was still awaiting official approval last I heard anything (last week), the government is going to offer my employer a six-month bridge contract, which means my colleagues and I all just keep showing up and doing what we do on the first of October the same as on the last of September, and for the following six months, while the re-compete process continues to play out and selections are made and new longer-term contracts are agreed upon. On the one hand, even with the economy doing much better than it was way back when I started this blog, it’s still nice to have job stability and not have to worry about landing on my feet due to employment upheaval or anything. But on the other hand, this is an irritating way to go about doing things. My colleagues and I all have building passes and network access cards with expiration dates tied to our contract, and we will have to get new ones as the fiscal year rolls over, as per usual, but then those new ones will only be good for six months, and then we’ll have to get new ones again when we go from the end of the bridge back to the beginning of a normal, year-over-year arrangement.

Or not! You might think that by agreeing to the inconvenient bridge contract and bending over backwards to help the government out of a bad spot they completely got themselves into by blowing their own deadlines at the start of the multi-dependent-step process, that we would be solidifying our chances of winning the re-compete to a near-certainty. But it simply isn’t so. My employer agrees to the bridge contract in order to make such-and-so-much money over a six-month period, knowing full well they could be outbid by a rival and part of the bridge might become a transitional period of handing off institutional knowledge. The final outcome remains unknowable.

You might also think that given our fifteen years of incumbency on this gig, we’d have the re-compete in the bag, but again, you just never know. It’s supposed to be a level playing field where any firm can win the business at the start of any given cycle. I’ve worked on two different contracts for my employer, and the first one was at a brand new agency, where I felt we had a lock on the re-compete because we had been there literally from the beginning. And yet, I was proven wrong there, as we lost that bid and that’s how I ended up here on my second assignment. Granted, that first contract was fairly low-stakes stuff relatively speaking, whereas the contract I’m on now touches on much more sensitive and important work, and the incumbency last time was only a year or two versus fifteen, so as much as I thought it was a gimme last time, it should be a thousand times more of a gimme this time. But you never know.

There’s another, personal frustration layer at play here for me, which is that way back at the beginning of the calendar year, I got another favorable job review but I didn’t get much of a salary bump, because I’m within a hair of where my employer maxes out salaries for people with my job description. There’s not a lot of personal development growth potential given the current contract I’m on. And my manager, to his credit, told me that he knew that must be disappointing to me and that if I could hang in there until after the re-compete (for whatever non-zero value my presence brings to the table for our bid), then maybe after the dust had settled he could look around for something else for me to do, some other contract for me to transition toward, so that I could advance myself and my earning potential a little more easily. At the time, I told him I was willing to go along with that, partly because I kind of expected to just land a new job and quit well before any of that came into play. Yet here we are, and now it seems as though it would behoove me to at least see how (if at all) my manager follows through on all that, but of course it’s being delayed by the fact that the re-compete itself is off-schedule. So we shall see if it ever actually comes to anything.

And speaking of new jobs, I mentioned last week, and promised to follow up on, chatting with my buddy about the new-gig-that-wasn’t which dominated the first half of ‘14. I still don’t have any enlightening insight into why I was led on for so long only to crash into an impassable wall in the end, but then again, I never really expected that to make any kind of hindsight sense. What I did learn is that things at my friend’s place of employment have gone a bit mad lately, with the new initiatives (the ones that had them supposedly eager to hire go-getters like myself) spiraling out of control into never-ending death marches of forced overtime, weekend work, and so on. So in the end it seems I dodged a bullet by not getting the new gig! My friend of course had no idea at the time when he was encouraging me to apply that things would wind up going in that direction, but we both breathed a sigh of collective relief that I didn’t jump ship only to get caught up in all that.

At any rate, getting back to the present gig, the latest and greatest deadline the government has set for itself will come and go while I’m on vacation, so when I get back I will know if the process has finally gotten officially underway or if yet another milestone was blown and we are still in waiting mode. I will update accordingly then.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Well here's another clue for you all

When I was a kid growing up in Jersey, I basically listened to two radio stations out of New York City: Z-100 and WNEW. Z-100 was the modern Top 40 station which I just kind of fell into the habit of tuning in to, out of some sense that I was their target demographic and I was supposed to be a listener. Technically there were two stations playing the same music and in competition for the same listeners, the other one being WPLJ, and nothing really solidifies a pre-adolescent's rooting interest than an appeal to their innate us-versus-them tribalism (cf. Marvel Comics versus DC Comics, the Yankees versus the Mets, &c.); I perceived Z-100 as the cooler of the two, and thus was devoted to their airwave dominance. I also rather enjoyed their Morning Zoo.

WNEW was the classic rock station, and obviously was my dad's dial destination of choice. In my room, or once I finally had a walkman, I could listen to my station, but in the garage in the summer or in the living room after dinner or being driven around in the family car, Dad tuned in to his station. I'm sure there is an enormous amount of nostalgia factoring in here, but I really think WNEW in the mid-80's was an exceptionally well-run radio station, in the last halcyon days when such a thing could exist, before the corporate interests homogenized everything from coast-to-coast. I didn't necessarily appreciate it at the time, but all of the things I consider emblematic of DJ'ing as actual stewardship of musical knowledge are bits I picked up listening to WNEW with my father. The DJ's would play deep cuts, not just the biggest singles. They would play stuff from when my dad was a kid, but since a lot of those acts were still around in one form or another, they would play newer stuff, too. And since they weren't limited to "hits of the 60's" or anything like that, they would play newer acts, too, not just the dinosaurs.

And they would do theme shows, too. Specifically, I will always remember Dad tuning in to Ticket to Ride on Sunday mornings after church, hosted by legendary DJ Scott Muni. An hour of Beatles tunes, always with a different theme, from early rarities pre-Ed Sullivan, to the evolution (and dissolution) of the McCartney-Lennon co-songwriting process, to influences on the Beatles and influences the Beatles had on others. Ticket to Ride was where I first heard about the whole "Paul is dead" phenomenon, which my father was only too happy to discuss further once the show was over, pulling out his vinyl copies of Sergeant Pepper and Abbey Road to show me the OPD patch on Paul's shoulder or the reverend-undertaker-corpse-gravedigger get-ups. Good times.

I've been thinking a lot this week about all the Beatles trivia that was crammed into my head as an impressionable youth, mostly as I've been enjoying all the positive reactions that the Guardians of the Galaxy movie has been getting. You might think that I was spastically jumping mental tracks from Redbone and Blue Swede and The Five Stairsteps and the rest of the movie's groovy soundtrack to The Fab Four, but it's actually because of this guy:

Throughout the film he's referred to simply as Rocket, but all my fellow comic geeks know him as the pleasingly alliterative Rocket Raccoon. And if you're a fan of the White Album, then you are probably familiar with the ballad of Rocky Raccoon, and you might note a significant overlap in the two names. This is entirely uncoincidental, as Bill Mantlo, the writer at Marvel Comics who came up with the character, was himself a Beatles fan and intended the character as a direct reference to the song. Rocket Raccoon was introduced (or re-introduced, appearing for the first time in color, comics are complicated) in an issue of The Incredible Hulk, when Hulk was off having adventures in outer space. Hulk's adventures often involve him sleeping off his latest rage-fueled rampage:

Just in case the name wasn't a dead giveaway, there's your whole riff on the opening lines of the Beatles' song. Oh, and the "Wal" being asked a question in that opening panel? That would be Rocket's buddy Wal Russ.

And now even the slow kids in the back of the class should be up to speed, right? By now it should just be taken as a given that everything is in constant conversation with everything else, but I was feeling the need to share this particular confluence, since as I say it's been top of mind lately anyway.

Not to end on a buzzkill note, but there is a sad fact that I would be remiss not to acknowledge: Bill Mantlo was the victim of a hit-and-run car accident in 1992 and he is now severely disabled. And not in the best financial shape, either; no matter how many billions of dollars the Guardians of the Galaxy movie ends up making, Mantlo won't really see a percentage of it, because that's not the way the ownership of characters and intellectual property works in the comics biz. There is a fund that people can make direct donations to, in order to help with Mantlo's medical/life expenses: Greg Pak is another comics pro and advocate for Mantlo. If you're so inclined, check it out.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Building blocks

I mentioned yesterday that The Lego Movie is in heavy rotation in our house now, but apparently that's the first I've referenced it on the blog. So allow me to back up a bit and elaborate. The Lego Movie is the little guy's latest obsession, and (for once) I am not just throwing around verbs like "obsess" humorously and/or hyperbolically. It is well and truly all-Lego-all-the-time with him. Not that I am complaining about this, exactly.

For one thing, it really is a great movie. It's visually amazing, it's funny (for kids and for grown-ups) and it's got a lot of heart. I have no problem with the little guy watching it over and over and over again (and neither does he, obviously). I watched it with him the first time and have re-watched portions of it since, and I'm always noticing some new little throwaway detail or simply being impressed all over again with the movie's cleverness. It is also ridiculously quotable, and the little guy runs around speaking mostly in Lego Movie dialogue from the time he wakes up in the morning until well past lights out. I admit I get caught up in this myself, as well.

Before I had kids, one of the promises I made myself was that I would never treat my children as the functional equivalent of trained circus animals. I have known people (some of whom are my dearly loved close friends) who have invested time in teaching or training their kids to perform comedic bits on command, often as not exploiting the fact that the kid has no idea what they're really saying or what the context is for it, &c. And I do understand that appeal, not to mention the fact that there is something highly satisfying, especially when you are a pop culture junkie, in randomly tossing out a set-up line of dialogue from a movie or book or whathaveyou and then hearing someone else nearby return serve with the following line of dialogue. But while I get the temptation, I swore to myself I would never go out of my way to condition my offspring into playing along.

You can imagine my delight, then, when it just kind of happened spontaneously. The little guy was particularly amused by the part of The Lego Movie where Emmet starts dropping the beat, singing "oontsa oontsa oontsa everything is awesome" to distract the Octan robots who are about to blow his and Wyldstyle's cover. So the little guy has been kicking out the "oontsa oontsa"s pretty frequently. The next line is one of the robots saying, "No way that is my jam!" in a mechanical voice, and I am more than happy to jump in with that. But the line after that is another robot saying "This is also my jam!" and who do you suppose piped up with that rejoinder after exactly zero prodding? Yes, my daughter does a pretty mean robotic voice herself, as it turns out. So the three of us can and do run through that extended exchange at the drop of a hat. I really thought I would have to wait a lot longer before finding out if my kids had any kind of affinity for that quirk, but such is the power of The Lego Movie, it's got its hooks in my children's brains but good.

As I alluded to on Monday I took the two bigger kids to Brickfair this past weekend, and that was fun. The were plenty of references and homages to The Lego Movie, as expected (and at least one to Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, which was unexpected, but pretty funny) but by and large it was still an incredible showcase of creativity and the kids were fascinated by basically all of it, not just the stuff they recognized from movie night. Both the little guy and the little girl were well-behaved enough that I reasoned they deserved a reward at the end, and I went ahead and bought them each a Lego set. (My wife and I had of course conferred beforehand and agreed this was kosher.) The sets were Lego Movie tie-ins, to be sure, because I'm not that mean when all is said and done.

The rules are that the Legos have to stay in the basement, because that's the one part of the house that the bino doesn't (and really can't) go unsupervised, and thus the potential choking hazard risk is as minimized as possible. When the kids got home with their new toys I helped them get the minifigs put together and then left them to their own devices. The really interesting thing about The Lego Movie is how balanced it is, how unlike many children's stories it doesn't try to have its cake and eat it too by saying that everyone should be an individualist. The film demonstrates that sometimes it's good to be creative and throw the rules out the window, but some other times it's important to be a team player and follow the rules. All the same, there's a bit of a stigma in the movie attached to The Instructions. And honestly that's a genuine conversation my wife and I have had, long before any of us saw The Lego Movie (or such a thing even existed) back when the little guy got his first set of chunky toddler-friendly Mega Blocks or whatever: I used to love collecting Lego sets and building the kits exactly according to the enclosed directions; my wife was a proponent of just giving kids a bucket of loose bricks and encouraging them to use their imaginations. So which way, if at all, would we steer our kids?

As it happened, I asked the little guy if we should try to build one of the sets the way it looked on the box, and he said he wanted to try, so I showed him how to read the instructions, how to match the actual bricks up to the drawings, how to count the little studs to make sure you have the right piece in the right place, &c. We got about halfway through building the set before we had to stop for dinner.

The next day I went to work and when I got home I asked my wife if the little guy had shown her how far we got. She informed me that actually he had shown her the completed set because he finished building it on his own. Apparently he got the hang of the process well enough to take it and run with it, which is of course fantastic. It actually gives both his mother and me a slight glimmer of hope, since his biggest issue in school last year was focus and concentration. Clearly he is capable of both, it just has to be oriented around something that interests him! Or at least those are the conditions that bring it out of him naturally, but knowing he can do it at all indicates that with more practice, he can do it under different settings, including the relatively rote drudgery of schoolwork. Or so we will keep telling ourselves.

So, we all have "everything is Awesome" stuck in our heads but we're having fun with it and all in all things are good. Fingers crossed when I have to break it to the little guy that it's a really bad idea to take all the teeny-tiny Lego bricks on vacation to the beach, he'll take it in stride.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

SMOAT (or SMIAAMT?) Double-Features #5!!! (Guardians of the Galaxy/Hercules)

This week’s installment of twin-barreled movie reactions deviates slightly from the pattern, as I somehow found myself at the Alamo Drafthouse twice in 24 hours this past weekend. Prepare yourselves for Summer Movies In An Actual Movie Theater!

My wife and I are both big fans of the overall Alamo experience, and the longer it’s been since we’ve gone the more open-minded we become in our definition of what’s worth going to see, given that we need to pay a baby-sitter and drive half an hour each way &c. So we made up our minds that we were going to go see Hercules, the one with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, therefore aka Rockules, which would seem like an unnecessary disambiguation except for the fact that there was in fact a movie that came out this year (back in January) called The legend of Hercules, so clearly we are living in the best of all possible worlds wherein there is a superabundance of cinematic Greek myth to choose from. My wife and I are fans of the classics, and also big unironic fans of The Rock, and the timing worked out, so Hercules seemed like a better choice to justify the big screen experience, rather than a rom-com we could Netflix at a later date or somesuch. Once we settled on the movie, we had to align our schedule of availability with our sitter’s, and the first Saturday of August became the date night of choice.

But of course the first weekend of August was opening weekend for Guardians of the Galaxy, and I have been salivating for that movie since it was first announced, which my wife both understood and I appreciated but also established early on was one that she would be fine skipping, because it looked weird. I tend to go see the major comic book movies with my geek buddies, anyway, so making other arrangements was perfectly acceptable all around. And as it happened, a late Friday night showing worked best for me and a couple of friends, so my weekend plans were set: GotG on Friday night with the guys, Herc on Saturday night with my wife.

Interesting side note, the storyline and the particular take on the legend in Hercules were adapted from a graphic novel that was published about six years ago. So technically, both of the movies in this week’s double-feature were comic book movies. GotG might be more recognizably branded as a Marvel flick, part of their overarching cinematic universe, but the source material for that one is also only about six years old (as opposed to the original Iron Man and Captain America and Thor movies which looked back at the earliest Marvel comics from the 60’s).

Another side note: look, I’m not saying I’m a giant nerd or anything, but I did go see Guardians of the Galaxy on opening weekend, and I showed up at the theater in a t-shirt emblazoned with a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy joke, and met my two buddies who were both wearing t-shirts promoting the Marvel-themed collectible card game they are both into, and we grabbed drinks before the movie and one of my friends ordered the GotG character-themed cocktail (Drax the Destroyer Rum Punch) and we sat around talking about comics, which segued to manga, and segued again to novels based on role-playing games, which led both of my friends to ask me “Oh, hey, are you still writing that fanfic series based on the superhero roleplaying campaign we all played together in college?” (Why, yes. Yes, I am.) So basically I am saying I am The Giantest of Nerds. Represent.

One more side note: once again, the pre-show clips at the Alamo did not disappoint. GotG was fronted by trailers for extremely dated-looking Star Wars knock-offs, YouTube videos of raccoons, and Spider-Man and Avengers cartoons which were fairly recent and included cameos from the current Guardians reflecting the lineup for the movie. Marvel Comics does in fact have their own version of public domain Hercules, much like their Thor, although the graphic novel The Thracian Wars was not published by Marvel but by the much smaller Radical Comics. But! The Marvel version of Hercules, who did appear in at least one very crudely animated cartoon from the late 60’s, was fair game for the Alamo pre-show of the Hercules movie, along with clips from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s (non-documentary) film debut, Hercules in New York. (By “non-documentary”, obviously Hercules in New York would never be confused with a documentary, I just mean I’m well-aware that Arnold’s film debut was the documentary Pumping Iron, and Hercules in New York was the first time he was called upon to act. From what we saw, Hercules in New York is pretty atrocious and Arnold’s acting while fairly terrible is far from the worst thing about it.) Also an old Popeye cartoon in which he tells his nephews how Hercules was really powered by spinach, and every three clips or so it would cut to the bit from Eddie Murphy’s The Nutty Professor where Mama Klump is chanting “Herk-a-LEEZ! Herk-a-LEEZ!” as the younger son flexes his flab. This kept getting funnier every time.

Actually, the pre-shows are a good entry point for talking about the movies themselves (finally, geez) and the differences between them. The similarities are numerous: both big budget action flicks full of combat setpieces, both team movies (Hercules leads a six-member troupe of mercenaries), both based on comics as mentioned above, both featuring former professional wrestlers (Dave Bautista plays Drax in GotG). And both headlined by charismatic leading men. I skipped over another category of pre-show clips that applied to both showings: snippets of interviews with Chris Pratt and Dwayne Johnson on talk shows, mostly older stuff where they were promoting something completely different from the movie we were there to see. For Pratt, he was on Conan O’Brien talking about how he got in shape for Moneyball (the answer was “Hip Hop Abs” dvd’s, which led to him showing some core-strengthening dance moves in front of the couch). For Johnson, there were multiple clips of him singing on foreign talk shows, one for Spanish tv and one for Japanese tv. In Japan, he even played a little ukelele.

So, the thing is, these are two exceptionally charming cats. As I explained a thousand words ago, the mere presence of Dwayne Johnson in/as Hercules was sufficient justification for my wife and I to take an interest. Dude is hilarious, magnetic, electrifying, pick your descriptor. And Chris Pratt has also become someone I would watch in just about anything (which may or may not be related to The Lego Movie and its current reign as King of the Kids’ DVD’s at home) because he just has that perfectly balanced star factor and everyman appeal.

In GotG, Pratt gets to play Peter Quill, the legendary Star-Lord, the reluctant leader of the ragtag group that becomes the Guardians. He doesn’t play his standard goofball schtick, not the overgrown hyperactive manchild of Andy Dwyer, not the goodhearted earnest naif of Emmet Brickowski, but a more cynical, cool, and world-weary guy, who also is a little bit of a goofball. It’s a variation that’s more fitting for the sci-fi adrenaline blockbuster setting, and it works. The supporting characters are alternately bad-ass and hilarious (often simultaneously) and the special effects and action sequences are as top-notch as we’ve all come to expect from Marvel movies, but Pratt holds the whole movie together. He’s the POV audience surrogate character, who gets an actual emotional arc, and makes the machinations of alien empires fighting over some doomsday maguffin something worth getting invested in.

In Hercules, Johnson plays the eponymous glory of Hera, the legendary demigod, as a combination of noble soul and damaged goods, smart enough to have figured out that if his reputation precedes him and scares the hell out of his enemies, it makes his job and his life significantly easier. He’s a mercenary falsely accused of murdering his own family and therefore a rootless wanderer, fighting for gold, and collecting other broken people to fight at his side. Seriously, you guys, Hercules might as well be called Guardians of Ancient Greece. Quill and Hercules both never knew their fathers, and just as Herc is hinted to be the actual son of Zeus, Quill is implied to be the product of a liaison between his Earthling mother and an alien “angel of light”. Both leads have tragic backstories, Quill losing his mother as a child and being abducted by space pirates, Hercules the aforementioned family massacre. And both become de facto leaders of bands of violent misfits, with us-against-the-world mentalities, until they have to take sides in a war with bigger personal stakes than how much they’re getting paid.

The major difference, then, is that Dwayne Johnson’s vaunted charisma more or less goes to waste given the way that Hercules is written. Pratt’s charm is how easy-going he is, even when he gets in way over his head and succeeds almost in spite of himself. Johnson, on the other hand, can be incandescent when he’s turned loose. Back in the WWE days he could work the crowd like no one else, and a crowd was something like fifty thousand screaming fans in an arena, with The Rock all by himself, pacing around an empty ring and monologuing into a microphone. Sometimes he was the villain and could make people all they way up in the cheap seats hate his guts, and sometimes he was the hero and could make those same nosebleed denizens absolutely adore him. But Hercules (the character in the movie we’re talking about) is defined by his seriousness. He doesn’t crack wise, he doesn’t lose his temper, he barely seems to be enjoying what he’s doing. He’s haunted by the past and deals with it by burying everything under a stoic, all-business exterior.

Johnson looks the part of Hercules (and as my wife rightly noted, this includes his fantastic beard) but all I could think was what a wasted opportunity it was to let The Rock just be himself. The problem, I think, is that the filmmakers took the premise, which involved undermining the myth of Hercules to examine what the man underneath would be like, trying to live up to his own hype, and they became very enamored with the pseudo-profundities they attached to that idea, and put them forth in an extremely straight-faced manner that blatantly demands respect for being oh so deep. And yet they could have brought up almost all of the same ideas with a hell of a lot bigger sense of fun, and it was right there for the taking. A man who has legitimate skills but also puts on a show selling himself as bigger and badder than he can possibly be in real life - that’s what they were going for in Hercules and that’s also an apt description of any main event wrestler worth watching. In full-on People’s Champion mode, Johnson could have portrayed Hercules as cocky, boastful, impetuous, basically an anti-hero. But he also could have made that just one of the many layers of the character-playing-a-character, portraying him as smart enough to know that you make money by giving people what they want, hooking in the rubes, and so on, while trying to maintain a grip on understanding how dangerous it can be if you start to believe your own hype. Instead, what was onscreen was a Hercules who was sad, reluctant and restrained. Again, not that that’s a completely invalid approach, and not that Johnson didn’t do it well. But it could have been done differently (read: better).

So that was Hercules’s tragic flaw. I can’t say that GotG was flawless, but at the same time I’m hard pressed to think of a specific tweak that would make it much better. I am of course fully in the bag for Marvel movies, and they have yet to disappoint me. I was slightly worried that GotG would be their first misstep in terms of mass appeal; the concept amused me to no end, but I am an easy mark for sci-fi goofiness. Yet if critical reviews, box office receipts and CinemaScore are any indication, the mass appeal is undiminished. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is now much closer to truly deserving that nomenclature. Yes, we’ve seen other dimensions like Asgard and an alien invasion of New York, in addition to all the high-tech armor and super soldier treatments and other fantastical elements that have been added to the mix. But GotG throws caution to the wind and asks the audience to suspend disbelief for a multitude of alien races*, cosmic artifacts, hyperadvanced technology, and essentially limitless possibilities out among the stars. And as one of my buddies pointed out, the suspension of disbelief is earned so much that what stands out as an illogical anomaly is the fact that Peter Quill has a cassette tape from 1988 that he plays all the time and yet has never worn out or been eaten by his Walkman. A mining colony inside the floating skull of an intergalactic giant? Yup, fine, no problem, but come on, where is Quill even getting AA batteries out in that quadrant 26 years later?

Nobody knows.

(* So a big noteworthy aspect of GotG is that two of the characters are CGI, one a talking cybernetic raccoon and one a talking (sort of) tree. Again, part of the movie’s mission is to embrace the weirdness of comic books and the fact that not all aliens need to look like humans with prosthetic faceparts and body paint, although the movie has its share of those, too. One thing that gave me pause early on was Quill looking at some hologram projections of an alien society. The aliens look more or less like humans, which is such a well-established trope at this point I didn’t bat an eye. Then at one point a little alien girl stops to pet a dog, and I thought “why would some other planet have domesticated animals that look just like dogs?” Alien beings indistinguishable from Earth people I swallow, but alien animals indistinguishable from Earth dogs, I balk. How odd.)

Nick Fury doesn’t show up at the end of GotG to ask Star-Lord and company if they’ve ever heard of the Cosmic Avengers Initiative, but they are all characters in the same mega-story nonetheless, and I for one am more geeked than ever to see how it’s all going to fit together a few more waves of movies down the road. If you are at all on the fence about seeing Guardians of the Galaxy, I’ll just add my voice to the growing chorus of people extolling its virtues. It took its sweet time waiting until August to bow, but it’s everything a great summer movie should be.

Monday, August 4, 2014

The silk noose

Since I’m already at work as I type this, the getting-ready-for-work part of the day has clearly already come and gone. So that means I only have to go through the morbid ritual of tying a knot around my neck seven more times (three more this week, four next week, thank you jeebus for BizCasFri) before the long awaited beach vacation is upon us. That sounds pretty survivable.

This past weekend was pretty jam-packed. I went out to the movies not once but twice, Friday night and Saturday night, and in between those excursions I took the little guy and little girl to the annual Brickfair at the expo center. I will expound upon all of those entertainments and diversions later in the week. But there’s more! Yesterday, we had a cookout at a community pool with some friends of ours (a couple my wife and I met in college, and another couple the female half of which is an old childhood friend of my wife’s; funny enough the other two couple know each other not merely through us but because they now live in the same neighborhood, have kids on the same swim teams, belong to the pool we went to, &c. Small world.) and that took up most of the day, threw off the little girl and the bino’s nap schedule quite a bit, and made the dinner routine and bath/badtimes a little grueling, but on balance it was a good time and we were glad we went. Exhausted, but glad.

I got to talking a bit to the husband of the college-friends couple about work stuff (he’s a government contractor as well) and I went to one of the two movies with my buddy who was trying to help me get a new gig at his company throughout the first half of this year, and we talked a bit about happenstance and silver linings and whatnot, so I do actually have a lot of work-related thoughts floating in my head right now. But I’m also kind of worn out and inclined to keep this post short and sweet, and maybe save the ruminations on my employment situation until tomorrow, or next week, or something. You will have to stay tuned to find out!

Friday, August 1, 2014

Songs remain the same

Wednesday of this week I drove in to work, because I had to get my car inspected (with one whole day to spare, woohoo!) and by the time the inspection station opened, and got my car through, it was too late to catch a train. Fortunately the whole experience was fairly painless, the car passed with no problems, and I was on my way in short order as planned.

However, it soon became apparent that it is not necessary for a car stereo to be in good working order for the vehicle to pass inspection. The signal started cutting in and out on me almost immediately, probably due to something simple and stupid like a dying fuse, but I didn’t really have time to stop and check and address the issue as I was already late for work. Normally I just listen to the news on NPR in the morning (for the few minutes it takes me to drive from home to the train station, at least) but denied that option, I had to get slightly creative. What I hit upon was opening up one of the apps on my phone that I almost never make use of: Slacker Radio. Sure, the sound quality on my phone’s one external speaker is cheap and tinny, but it beat the deafening silence of being alone with my thoughts.

I set the feed to the 90’s Alternative station, partly because that is a music category reasonably near and dear to my heart and partly because it was one of the first options to pop up on the homescreen which I was trying to manipulate as quickly as possible between traffic light cycles. Of course that nomenclature becomes more and more of a misnomer as time continues to go by, because what gets curated under that heading is everything that broke out of the “alternative” fringes and became broadly popular (or at least recognizable) in the mainstream. I’m not complaining, mind you; a steady stream of the best-known tracks from Smashing Pumpkins and Nine Inch Nails and Soundgarden and Green Day and Weezer was pretty much just what I was looking for, and the occasional deeper cut (quick: name a song by the Presidents of the United States of America that’s not “Lump” and not “Peaches”. Yup, they actually played “Mach 5”!) was a bonus.

Anyway, one of the songs that came up was “One Headlight” by the Wallflowers, which somehow managed to trigger a nostalgia wave that the other songs didn’t. It’s funny, because I’m not sure it’s possible for me to be more neutral on that band. And maybe that’s the point: I don’t actively like them, I don’t actively dislike them, and unlike the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Pearl Jam they seem to have ebbed from our collective consciousness. The fact that they peaked and then faded makes them so very much a 90’s thing. I don’t have any amazing memories of going to a friend’s wedding in 2005 and singing along to “6th Avenue Heartache” at the bar. Any memories that do happen to have the Wallflowers as part of the soundtrack are set in 1990-something.

Specifically, I associate the band and the singles off their biggest album with a pivotal phase of my own life. Not to sound like a broken record (ha ha), but I refer of course to the massive inflection point of my (first) post-college relocation from Jersey to Virginia in late ‘96. Those early days of living on my own (meaning separate from my parents and not on a campus) involved a lot of driving around, to and from work, back and forth to visit friends from school who had also settled in the area, and my car radio was permanently tuned to my beloved, much-missed WHFS, which at the time (because it would have been redundant to stick “90’s” on it) was simply the alt-rock station. And in those same early days, the Wallflowers were just blowing up, and would forever-after be inextricably linked.

I also, if I can make some wild attempts at deep explication here, think there’s more to it than just airplay oversaturation. And I don’t think it’s the music itself, not lyrically, not sound-of-the-zeitgeist-wise; as I said, the Wallflowers don’t evoke particularly strong aesthetic reactions from me either way. I think it’s Jakob Dylan. Not as a singer or songwriter, but as a persona. The timing is just exquisite: there I was, done with school, working full-time, undeniably entering the officially adult stage of my life, proclaiming my independence from the family I had grown up in. Bob Dylan belonged to my parents’ generation, but now he had a son who was old enough to have his own successful career, just like I was now old enough to have my own life. I think I was aware of those parallels on some level and I think they resonated, to the extent that it’s impossible for me to associate the Wallflowers with anything but those crazy days of us Gen X’ers spreading their fledgling wings and making their way in the real world, ready for our turn, ready to take over.

Of course, since then it’s been fifteen-plus years of the Boomers hanging around and hanging around some more, kind of awkwardly sharing everything from the job market to the political stage to the pop culture spheres with the Gen X’ers and now the MIllennials, too. I’m pretty sure Bob Dylan has put out more material than his son since Y2K. And on the dinosaur rock station I listen to in the car (when I’m not listening to the news, and when the stereo feels like working), the DJ is just as likely to play R.E.M. as The Who. The differences between today and yesterday tend to collapse by the time tomorrow comes, and sooner or later all of now gets labeled as a bygone decade, for whatever it’s worth.