“The Boxtrolls” is weird, thank God


…for a kids movie, anyway. A kid’s movie in 2014, to be more specific.

I would have loved this movie when I was a kid, and in fact I managed to enjoy it quite a bit as a fully grown adult. It reminded me vividly of Wallace and Gromit, which is due to many factors: Cheese plays a major roll (pun!), the film is animated in the same fashion (stop motion animation), and the seamless interactions between characters who speak and characters who mostly pantomime is superb.

Plus the movie has a dark side to it. Not everything in the movie is polished vanilla for the audience to to gulp down like a frosty from 7-11. It’s got tooth and kick, qualities I appreciate ever more in an age when the theaters are dominated by remakes, sequels and super heroes who feel as if they’ve been distilled down to their scientifically most appealing components. “A surprisingly charmless and aimless movie from Laika Studios, the upstart stop-motion artists who previously crafted the wonderfully dark “Coraline” and “Paranorman,” this latest venture seems destined to disturb young viewers while thoroughly boring their parents,” writes a boorish Alonso Duralde . I could not disagree more.

It’s not Pixar and it’s not Disney. As a confirmed contrarian and purveyor of weirdness all I can say after watching “The Boxtrolls” is, “Thank you Jeebus!” Yes, perhaps some of the characters are a tad grotesque and perhaps the plot runs at a pace which is out of sync with the flavorless milieu with which we movie patrons have become accustomed, but at least it has characters and at least the plot is definitively its own.

The story circles around, counter intuitively, the villain, a man named Mr. Snatcher who aspires to rise above his station through any means necessary. He decides to do so by creating boogeyman against which he may triumph and therefore reap grand accolades. He does this by casting common alley pests, the titular Boxtrolls, as murderous demons and implements a series of fascist rules that both terrify the townsfolk and hinder the trolls.

Themes relevant to the rise of Nazi Germany are palpable with strict curfews, poisonous propaganda and the attempted genocide of a peaceful race. If you think that your kids aren’t up for anything so dark don’t forget that not every kid is made of glass.

For every “Frozen” there should be a Boxtroll. When I was a younger, if given the choice between anything Disney and the prospect of rewatching Ralph Bakshi’s bizarre masterpiece “Wizards”, I would have chosen the latter without batting an eye. If offered the option between owning “The Lion King” or “Nightmare Before Christmas” again the latter would be chosen.

Kids, I argue can handle a little grotesquery. Besides, the current generation may grow up in a bizarre world and may need a little weirdness in there diet to prepare them for a world that is nothing like “Frozen”, specifically because it will not contain ice.


Hot Fuzz

The second installment in the jokingly titled “Three Flavor Cornetto Trilogy” a thematic series of films starring Nick Frost and Simon Pegg was always a bit of mystery to me.

The first in the trilogy, “Shaun of the Dead”, is one of my all time favorite movies. When Hot Fuzz was released in 2007 I excitedly went to the theater ready for another comedic masterpiece. It’s not that “Hot Fuzz” was a disappointment, because it’s a very entertaining movie, but where Shaun’s references and spoofs were clear, the core of Hot Fuzz remained elusive.

That is… UNTIL NOW.

Shaun of the Dead’s themes are binary. On the one hand it’s a romantic comedy. On the other hand it’s a horror movie. In the gray land between where the two are wed you find the magic that figuratively makes Shaun of the Dead come alive. With Hot Fuzz I couldn’t quite figure out the genres or the relationship they held. The film is littered with action movie references, so on that front I felt grounded. Yes this is about action, but there are also slasher bits that felt like references to the movie Scream (which is itself a movie full of commentary), but these references felt too thin, and instead of being at odds with the Action elements, they seemed to disappear beneath the action’s weight.

The real reason I couldn’t see the other side was because I was looking at it strictly through the lens of American film genres. There’s action and a whiff of horror, but as I said neither one gave me the whole picture.

For some reason I never considered the setting, and its pure unadulterated British-ness. Hot Fuzz, like its predecessor, is a collision between two polar opposites. American Action and the less obvious quaint-Doc-Martinesque-country town that is ubiquitous in British film and television, but until my most recent viewing was completely invisible to me.

The plot of the film follows copper Nick Angel, who has taken a new assignment in a small country town named Sandford. As it happens, this is the quaintest cutest village in the entire UK and it’s not by accident. The citizens of Sandford, a goofy collection of characters each with quirks typical of any rural British Dramedy, are all involved in a slightly convoluted conspiracy to keep the town as cute as can be. When Angel decides to put an end to the conspiracy the town folk violently resist, at which point American cultural imperialism looms its ugly face and smashes its way through Sandford with a suitable lack of finesse.

This isn’t a genre mash-up, like Shaun, this is all out culture war. Once I had my goggles properly attuned to what the film was about, it felt like a whole new movie.


Where are all the live action space travel shows?

It’s easy to forget what it was like to be a nerd in the 90s. On the one hand it was way less cool. In fact it was the definition of “Not Cool”. Today in 2015 I can say to someone, “Yeah I’m a total nerd,” and my voice will hold within itself a tone of snobby pride because somehow the world has become topsy-turvy and The Avengers have a goddmaned blockbuster series. “Yeah, I, like, totally collected vintage Captain America comics (*true fact) back in high school so, like, my opinion on the new movies is bla bla bla,” I hear myself saying in my darkest moments. But seriously things have gotten better for us nerd kings.

On the upside in the 90s television networks were seriously churning out the Golden Age of TV Science Fiction. That’s a phrase I just coined. Feel free to use it but for godsakes site me in you MFA thesis. There were three different Star Trek series aired during that decade (Yeah yeah, the Next Generation started in the 80s but by god it owned the 90s!). Aside from just Star Trek, though, there were countless second sons vying for the proverbial throne: Babylon 5, Stargate SG1 and Farscape to name a few.

It might be hard to imagine for a younger viewer because these days, even with general nerd-shows like Agent’s of Shield being churned out in abundance there aren’t a lot of shows set in outer space aboard spaceships, and obviously that’s what we’re here to discuss. The only show I can think of that really comes close to this criteria, and in fact it comes so close that it really defines the criteria, is Doctor Who, though really the good Doctor spends most of his (or maybe HER?) time in various vintages of London. Aside from that lone outlier, even sci-fi (or Syfy) shows like Defiance, which borrows heavily from the cliches of space travel shows is in fact set on Earth in the most boring possible place: St Louis (and by boring I mean fraught with violence). There’s also Falling Skies which is about an alien invasion. Again this is set on Earth. BORING.

Where did the live action space shows go? I’m pretty sure the answer is “They were all cancelled”. The most famous of these is of course Firefly, cancelled after one season during which the episodes were thrown on the air out of order to the complete confusion of viewers like myself, who in fact watched Firefly while it was on the tv, and because the first episode aired was not the first in the series it was hella mystifying. But Firefly wasn’t alone.

Enter my favorite: Farscape. Oh Farscape how I love you. May I count the ways. First off it was made in conjunction with Jim Henson studios so some of the aliens aren’t just people with goofy ridges on their foreheads (I’m looking at you Star Trek) but actual puppet creatures, and I don’t mean felt Kermits, I mean Dark Crystal Skeksis type monstrosities. Which is awesome. Full stop. Also it’s made in Australia, so aside from the main character most everyone has a slight Aussie vibe (even a few who are trying to sound like they aren’t unfortunately).

Plus it’s got a lot of things that the casual sci-fi dork will recognize immediately: there’s a Worf character. By that I mean there’s a tall alien warrior who looks really mean but is as loyal as Chewbacca. Most shows of this type have one. Deep Space Nine didn’t but that’s why they imported Worf himself as soon as he was made available. In fact Game of Thrones even has one by way of Khal Drogo (played by Jason Momoa who also played a Worf like character on Stargate Atlantis). In Farscape? His name is Ka D’Argo (sounds familiar right), and like Worf he is tall, gets angry easily, has a bunch of weird bulges on his face and despite the fact that everyone else uses laser guns he carries around a bladed weapon. Unlike Worf D’Argo has an eight foot long venomous frog tongue that he shoots at enemies to knock them out.

This detail (the eight foot tongue) is what sets Farscape apart from the other wannabes. It’s weird. Really weird. Sometimes the weirdness is hard to follow but if you’re one those jaded nerds for whom Star Trek though wonderful in many ways is just too vanilla, or for whom Firefly is sweet but far too short, then look no further. I don’t want to give away too much about the show because falling face first into it is part of the fun. When I first started watching it when it aired on Friday nights (that’s right, in true nerd form I would stay home to watch this on Friday night (who am I kidding I had nothing better to do)) I had no clue what was going on. But once I got into it, the habit got hard to kick.

Plus, if you enjoy that righteous feeling of betrayal by the big network execs, Farscape will fill that void too, since it was also cancelled before its time, ending on a cliffhanger at the end of the forth season. And then, just when the cancellation inspired rage is stewing at premium heat, let yourself be vindicated by the three hour miniseries The Peacekeeper Wars that is not unlike Firefly’s own resurrection on the big screen.

But what happened to shows like this? Where are the great sci-fi operas of today? Farscape began (1999-2003) at the tail end of these glory days and as I stated above, suffered the same fate as many of its ilk. Snuffed out. Stargate succumbed as well, with a cancellation after a two season run of Stargate Universe (2009-2011), its third iteration of the franchise after SG1 and Atlantis. Even mighty juggernauts like Star Trek met doom during this time with the cancellation of Star Trek Enterprise (2001-2005).

Maybe it’s just in the genes. The original Star Trek, after all, was cancelled after 3 seasons. Or maybe our taste for stunning special effects has propelled production budgets out of a reasonable range. But I would never posit the argument that people aren’t interested. If you disagree and think shows about spaceships suck, just look at how well received Guardians of the Galaxy was. There’s a market for shows in space but nobody wants to front the cash.

Also look at how well received the new Doctor Who has been. Of course Doctor Who benefits from a freedom that many of these other shows have difficulty affording. Doctor Who celebrates its corniness and escapes set piece constraints by being able to set its adventures anywhere they want. Sure they could set it on an alien world, but they could also set it in suburban London. And they can do either one without audience dissent.

And Doctor Who is really the only one peddling the potion we all want. Since there’s no Trek, Stargate, Farscape, Earth 2, Andromeda, Babylon 5, Battlestar Galactica, Firefly or even Futurama, if you want adventures that are out of this world the Doctor is the one who’s going to give them to you.

It’s interesting that Doctor Who hasn’t inspired any knock offs. I mean that’s kind of what happened in the 90s with outer space shows. They built on each other. Star Trek The Next Generation, in my mind is the progenitor of the type. Then comes Babylon 5 which was set aboard a space station and had a clear continuity from episode to episode with plot lines that unfolded over the course of seasons. Star Trek obviously wanted in on that action and created Deep Space Nine which exemplified these qualities.

But Doctor Who doesn’t seem to be inspiring other shows about either space or time travel. Granted there is the show Continuum which features time travel as a plot point, but for the most part the characters travel through time a total of one time at the very beginning of the first episode and spend the rest of the three seasons stuck here in the two-thousand-teens.

One difficult aspect of science fiction shows like the ones I mentioned above is that they can be inaccessible to casual viewers. I, Aidan dork-master-general Rich, who prides himself on being a total loser who watches crap like this all the time can find some of these shows difficult to get into. But with today’s viewing formats changing how we consume our mindless entertainment it’s far easier to get caught up. Getting dropped into season three of Farscape is a recipe for disinterest. Unless of course you have Netflix. So we’ve conquered a big part of the accessibility problem.

Anyway, I just wanted to put it out there. If you want a show set in space I will drop what I’m doing and write you one. Seriously guys I got lots of ideas. And I also posit that the ground is fertile and ripe for a dorky space show. We’d be the only game in town, more or less. The ratings would be ours!


Yo I don’t agree with all of it but he’s not totally wrong: “Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One”

I clicked on the link looking for something other than I what I found and then because facebook likes to suggest other things to click on I started to see the backlash against Boudinot, some of which was amusing (like the one titled “Things I Can Say About That Article Written By That Creative Writing Ex-MFA Teacher Guy Now That I’ve Read It And Gotten So Angry It’s Like My Urethra Is Filled With Bees”) but most of which I thought was overblown. I guess not everyone has worked in higher education, so Mr. Boudinot’s brash and sometimes rude criticism of his own students probably surprised most hopeful writers. Let me tell you, just because Boudinot’s the first teacher who you’ve heard say this stuff does not mean he’s the only one who thinks it. I know. Because pretty much every teacher I’ve worked with criticizes (note: bitches about) their students.

First point of clarification, I never worked in a writing program, but I was the administrative assistant to an undergrad painting program and I think there are a number of parallels that give me some insight into his perspective. Honestly when I clicked on the article I’d hoped to find a piece about how higher education is sort of akin to a pyramid scheme because I view it that way. My advice to anyone looking at an MFA program, whether in art or writing or whatever is this: instead of wasting your money on it you should just get a studio or a library card and start making your work. There were certain points that he made that alluded to this, like “woodshed-ing” (making lots of work to get better without any real hope of success) which I think was the most valuable nugget he offered.

It is true that teachers are paid to take you seriously, but when those teachers leave the classroom believe me they’ll bitch about you behind your back. I know this because a lot of the time it was in my office that the bitching occurred. Perhaps Boudinot violated some ethical boundary by airing his distaste on the public forum that is the internet, instead of in a staff breakroom, but maybe he just saved you a bunch of money because anywhere you go there will be teachers who are good decent ethical humans and teachers who hate they’re jobs.

It’s important to consider the difference in perspective of someone who works at a school as opposed to someone who attends one. When you begin attending a program it can feel special and wonderful and all that, but when you work at a school (if you are a disillusioned broken husk of human like I am) what you see is a great wave being churned through a machine, new faces marching past hoping perhaps to become the next great artist. Unfortunately the odds are that not everyone who makes a tuition payment is a groundbreaking genius.

When Boudinot talks about how raw talent plays a large role in a person’s success he might be over simplifying things, but he also has a point. We were not all born with equal gifts and to a certain degree “talent” does separate students. And the odds are stacked against a roomful of geniuses all getting put in the same classroom. Look at the number of BFA and MFA programs in the United States, and look at the number of students in each class. The nature of higher ed can be a numbers game. I straddled a line between the faculty and the administration. On the one side there’s faculty complaining that the new crop of students aren’t as dedicated as they should be and that the people being admitted aren’t good enough to succeed in the program. On the other side there’s the administration calling for ever higher enrollment numbers in order to keep the cash flowing through the institutions gluttonous veins. At the intersection of these two divergent groups is a disconnect. So when Boudinot complains about less talented students sometimes he does overstep the line from hyperbole to intolerably mean, but he’s also observing a broken system from inside a muddy trench. It is this very system that drove me away from working in higher education because I no longer felt comfortable taking a paycheck from poor debt incurring students.

There’s a Salon article that hits a lot of great points, so you should read that too because not all of us are that great at writing and Laura Miller at Salon.com is better at this than I am.


Truman Burbank’s nightmare

When I saw the movie The Truman Show as a kid I remember sincerely speculating about the possibility that my life, like Truman’s, might secretly be a television show. When I say ‘sincerely speculate’ I mean, like, if I was alone in the bathroom I would talk as if there was a camera watching me. Because you know, eleven-year-olds are impressionable creatures who will believe anything. I know I’m not the only one because friends of mine have corroborated this post-Truman Show behavior.

Now that I’m an adult re-watching The Truman Show my take-away is different (thankfully). It was easy to identify with Truman’s absolute urge to travel, especially since I recently drove across the country in sort of willy-nilly quest to find… who knows what. Truman Burbank didn’t have much of a plan and neither did I. After all, plans weren’t what propelled me out onto the road. It was a lust to go and see whatever might reveal itself, to let yourself be pressed against questions for which there aren’t words and perhaps find an answer or perhaps find nothing, or most circuitously of all, find both at the same time. Needless to say I was rooting for Truman to get out there and travel.

Within the movie, the biggest thing the show’s creators have to grapple with is keeping Truman from leaving the town, which they do through coercion, suggestion and, most cruelly, by inflicting psychological damage upon him. Watching Truman ram himself against these invisible barriers is part of what makes the movie fun. Over the course of his life, despite all efforts, Truman begins to realize that there’s something deeply flawed with the world around him but he just can’t put his finger on it.

Every time he tries to leave it seems like everything is against him. I had a day like that yesterday, and I’m sure we’ve all had similar experiences. Yesterday morning I was packing my car because today I was supposed to move to Portland. After meticulously cramming it full of stuff I realized that one of my back tires was flat. Unfortunately this meant that I had to unpack my car just so I could get my spare from under the trunk. After getting it changed out and repaired (there was a razor blade embedded in my tire) I again re-packed everything. Then my future room mate called to tell me that the guy Anthony, who’s room I’m moving into, had not actually moved out yet, despite that he said he’d out by the 15th, and might not be completely moved out of the house until next week. This was the icing on the cake. Everything I’d “accomplished” that day was for nothing.

The shows’ director, Christof, claims that “We accept the reality with which we are presented,” though to be honest I spend a good deal of time in quiet wonderment of how weird it is that “This” is reality. I mean, the world is a weird place. The universe is totally weird. Most of all, I am a weirdo. Why are things like this?

And Truman Burbank lives in a world that is even weirder. It seems like it was just a ticking time bomb. Of course he was going to leave. They should have let him go on a vacation. If they had the resources to build a town for him to live in, surely they could have created a way for him to go on a vacation?

The movie also gives him a love interest which helps spurn his exodus, but I like to think that it’s not love that drives him, it’s the search for authenticity. At the very least, however, he’s got someone to take him in on the outside. In my mind fame in general must be a nightmare, but Truman’s fame is beyond anything our culture of celebrity-worship has been able to manufacture. The poor guy will probably have to get some serious plastic surgery if he hopes to live a normal life. I just hope Sylvia’s a nice person…


West Side Story is the Worst

My little cousin put it on because she felt she needed to understand “the references”. If the rest of family hadn’t been intent on watching the whole thing I don’t think I would have gotten through it. My aunt even said out loud, “I hate this movie.” I’d only ever seen a few scenes here and there on TV, but after sitting through the whole screeching train wreck I gotta say I agree.

West Side Story is a hateful piece, and it isn’t improved in the slightest by the fact that anyone familiar with Romeo and Juliette, which by my count is the entire English speaking world, will know the whole story already. Two people fall in love and then a bunch of terrible things happen. But it gets even more specific because we know who’s gonna die. The only surprise, for me, was that Maria lived to the end. But I guess her suicide in the middle of the basketball court would have been a little too macabre, even for this tasteless elegy of heartrending urban strife.

The whole musical is populated primarily by maddeningly stupid idiots whose only redemption is their ability to dance. The Sharks and the Jets are rival gangs in the upper west side, but they seem more like a bunch of yammering basket cases. Everything is said and done with a maximum of mania. I kept thinking they would all benefit by smoking a little pot and going for a hike in the woods. Or maybe they could take up martial arts to get their angst out. I dunno.

Instead they just throw racist slurs at each other and get in fist fights. By the middle of the opening number where they all walk around the ‘hood snapping their fingers I was already bored. I’m mean, the dance fighting is cool but everything else is not.

The most interesting thing to happen actually didn’t happen in the movie. There’s a scene when Tony and Maria, our star crossed lovers, are discussing the difficult task of breaking the news of their interracial romance to their parents. While watching this scene my grandmother, who is of Japanese descent, mentioned that her parents were extremely opposed to her marrying my grandfather, who was a white guy, and it wasn’t for the reason you might think. At the time of my grandparent’s engagement there were a lot of American soldiers returning from World War II with Japanese wives who were so desperate to get away from Japan they’d marry a stranger. My grandmother on the other hand was born here in the USA and her parents (my great-grandparents) didn’t want anyone mistaking my grandmother for one of these less scrupled individuals. Lucky for me, grandma and grandpa got married anyway.

So… what was I talking about? Oh right, West Side Story. It features some neat dance numbers and extremely iconic songs, but the actual content of the story is so full of hate and violence that even the pretty bits feel ugly.

It’s also got some whopping plot holes. Like, for instance, maybe I’m asking too much but I’d like to think that my sister would be a little hesitant to shack up with anyone who stabbed her only brother (me, Aidan) to death. Seriously. Tony stabs Maria’s brother. Clara, if you’re reading this. I don’t care if they say it was an “accident”. Please, dump my murderer.

Also any story that revolves around the conceit of ‘miscommunication’ as a plot device just feels lazy to me now, what with the advent of cellphones. I mean, why would Maria send someone who hates Tony to deliver a message to him?

And when Anita does go in search of Tony she is rudely– no, more than ‘rudely’– she’s treated in the most foul possible manner by the remnants of the Jets gang. They behave as animals. It was somewhere in this scene, when their manic racist sexist attack on Anita had reached a crescendo, that I realized that there really wasn’t a likable character in the whole film.

I guess my grandmother’s story about her parents shows that interracial marriages can be tough to navigate. But if you want to watch a movie about racism I think you’ll be able to do better than West Side Story, even if this unfortunate flick did win ten Oscars.