Property Damage

I may be a wimp who doesn't watch horror movies, but that doesn't mean I'm not interested in their premises; I just can't handle the gore. There is, however, a genre that features a lot of same features of horror movies (plenty of carnage, paper thin plot development, cannon fodder characters nobody cares about) that I eat up with a spoon: Disaster movies. I genuinely enjoy disaster flicks, even as I recognize that 90% of them are massively moronic. I tend to grade them on a different scale, since most of the fun comes from mercilessly picking them apart. Someday, I'll have to do a full post on the best and worst of these cinematic stinkbombs, but let's just focus on two today.

I was invited to a small gathering at my friend's house for an evening of pizza, booze, and disasterific entertainment in the form of two very different scenarios. One completely changed the face of the Earth, and one managed to take out...three dumbasses. I speak, of course, of The Day After Tomorrow and Twister. I had to admit to a small confession before we started - I had never seen Twister, though I knew all the talking points filtered down through popular culture over the years (that is to say, the cow). We kicked things off with 2004's The Day After Tomorrow, though. Interesting that we'd watch a movie about how climate change will destroy us all on the literal eve of a historically heavy snowfall. In The Day After Tomorrow, Dennis Quaid is a climatologist who attempts to warn the U.S. government about the imminent threat brought on by our neglect of the environment. And this doesn't mean imminent in the geological sense of 100 years or so. No, more like about ten minutes. One wonders what policies we could shoehorn through Congress on that timetable, even if the Vice President weren't a snotty skeptic, as he is in this movie. No worries, though. If there's anything I've learned from disaster movies, it's that there isn't any natural foe that can't be defeated by running sideways. Giant fireball? Just run sideways out of its path. Tidal wave? Just run sideways, and the water won't flow in that direction. Sub-zero temperatures? No problem! Those only travel in a narrow, straight line, so you know what you've got to do.

For a movie about the eradication of the Northern Hemisphere, shockingly little happens. Jake Gyllenhaal (who plays Dennis Quaid's son) is trapped in the New York library with a small group of survivors (who had the presence of mind to run sideways), and keeps everyone warm by burning books. Yes, the outside temperature is so low that it will kill you in five seconds, but if you stand twenty feet away from a fireplace with a rapidly-burning copy of Sense and Sensibility in it, you'll be fine. At one point he needs to go find some penicillin to treat his prospective love interest (Emmy Rossum) for blood poisoning, leading to the realization that CGI has come a long way in nine years. Because of course the small group of people who go out to get medicine are attacked by wolves, and I'd be hard pressed to come up with an example of worse animation in the last decade than those "creatures". Meanwhile, Dennis Quaid tracks across the frozen wasteland of New England to find his son (and does, of course), his wife hangs out with a kid with cancer (of course) in a plot that goes nowhere, and people in the southern states attempt to flood into a reluctant Mexico in an IRONIC reversal of immigration issues. Oh, sorry, was that too subtle? Here, let's have a newscaster spell that out for the dumbest among you in the audience. And that's about it! Half the country freezes to death, and the rest of us live in Mexico now. The end.

Twister (1996) is equally stupid, but at least knows what a disaster movie audience wants to see. Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt are an estranged couple who are both expert storm chasers. Paxton has moved on to a new life, career, and fiancee (Jami Gertz), so he needs Helen Hunt to sign the divorce papers. Even though that would take all of two minutes, it doesn't get accomplished before they get pulled into a day of chasing and being chased by approximately fifteen thousand tornadoes. They want to launch a bunch of Christmas ornament-lookin' sensors into the storm so that they can collect data that would hopefully allow them to develop better warning systems.

They're racing against another team, led by Cary Elwes, who is trying to accomplish the same thing. Except he's got wealthy backers, giving our heroes an opportunity to sneer about him being greedy. They're in it for the SCIENCE, you see, while Elwes' team is just looking to make a buck. By the way, have I mentioned that Pepsi has heavy product-placement in this movie? Cans of it are used to help engineer a solution that saves the day, and even scientific data plotted out on a graph mysteriously looks like the Pepsi logo. I'm going to let you spend a few moments considering the fact that a movie spending a shitload of corporate moolah wants to spread a message about how seeking funding to further your career goals is evil.

That may seem like the most ridiculous thing the movie could throw at you, but it pales in comparison to how the "good guys" of the movie treat anyone who isn't part of the core team. It's posited that they're noble, because they keep trying to launch these ornaments that will presumably help people in the future. Know who they don't care about helping in the present? ANYBODY. Tornadoes are tearing up the entire vicinity, and these people don't bother to warn a single soul they run across. Barns and houses are torn to shreds, but they're too busy woo-hooing in the thrill of the storm chase to care much about who may be inside. A tanker truck crashes and explodes - nobody gives a thought to the driver. A drive-in theater is packed with patrons - nobody bothers to mention that a bazillion tornadoes are touching down today until one is right on top of them, at which point they abandon everyone to go seek shelter. By far the worst outsider treatment is hurled at poor Jami Gertz, who we're supposed to hate because she has the nerve to have a career of her own, and doesn't much get off on being forced into multiple instances of mortal danger, all while her fiancee eye-fucks his supposed ex-wife. What a bitch!

You'll notice I haven't said a word about the tornadoes themselves. They're fine. I don't have any complaints about the effects. There are naturally a lot of Movie Physics Problems going on, but that's to be expected. What's weird is the almost non-existent body count in a so-called disaster movie. All those things I mentioned before? The homes and the truck and the drive-in? There isn't a single fatality seen, implied, or even referred to. The wise old hippie woman? She gets a couple of minor injuries, even as her house collapses around her. The storm-chasing teams comprise at least sixteen characters. Precisely two of them die (the third dumbass I mention above is Helen Hunt's father, who dies in a flashback because he thinks he can hold off a tornado with his bare hands, even though he has no reason to). That's the extent of the casualties. Even the cow is probably fine. I knew going in that the script would not rival Citizen Kane, but a disaster movie without disaster? What a disaster.

The Day After Tomorrow: C-
Twister: C-

Channel Surfing

As last Friday afternoon wound to a close, I found myself home from work a bit early. I had no concrete plans for the evening, and having eaten a late lunch which involved a mass of fried potatoes, I wouldn't need to think about dinner for several hours. That left a big chunk of free time, which I put to good use. That is, I tore through a marathon of TV episodes, each from a different show. I've been working my way through a lot of shows concurrently, but variety being the spice of life and all that, I wanted to mix it up for a night.

"Once More With Feeling" - Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 6, Episode 7

On my walk home from work, my iPod song shuffler played one of the songs from this musical episode, which made me want to dive right into it. I've been meaning to do a full rewatch of Buffy from start to finish, but for the time being, this is an excellent one to pull out and watch on its own. Not only are the songs well-written and pretty catchy, but they fit into the narrative arc of the episode perfectly. It's relatively easy to have your characters burst into song, but how to incorporate that believably into the show's mythology takes some work. Not only that, but think about what musicals actually are. Characters is musicals use the songs to share their feelings with the audience and with each other. Think about how you'd feel if your innermost thoughts were pouring out of you every few minutes, no matter how lovely the tune that accompanies them. It'd be hell! And since this show takes place in a universe where actual hellish creatures invade, the episode has no issue weaving itself into the show's overall tone. No pun intended.

Grade: A

"Let Bartlet be Bartlet" - The West Wing: Season 1, Episode 19

It's taking me a while to work through the first season, but did I mention all that concurrent watching? Sorry, I just like any excuse to use the word "concurrent". This show is just as fascinating as when I first posted about it, though some episodes obviously work better than others. This was a good one to fall on marathon night; it's a barn-burner. In the time Mandy was working for a different politician, she put together a scathing strategy memo on how her boss could defeat President Bartlet in three years, mostly by alluding to his tendency to adopt weak middle-ground positions to avoid controversy. The memo comes to light, and causes strife in the staff, not only because it catches them by surprise and threatens to embarrass them in the press, but because they are coming to believe Mandy is right. They're not getting anything done, and the country is starting to lose faith. After watching the characters struggle through several episodes, this is the one where they've finally had enough of political kowtowing, and pledge to forcefully push their agenda, even if it costs Bartlet reelection. It's a very stirring episode, and even if you don't agree with the fictional president's politics, you can't deny that the episode also does good technical work in terms of plot continuity and character development.

Grade: A-

"At the Codfish Ball" - Mad Men: Season 5, Episode 7

Mad Men is a slow burn of a show that rewards patience. Season 5 was heavily buzzed about as it was airing, but I didn't have the opportunity to watch it live, so I'm only just now arriving at the same conclusion a lot of people got to months ago: This season is freaking amazing. No other show consistently drops my jaw like this one, and though I've still got a few episodes to go, no other season has gripped me like this one. It takes a lot to get me to say "Wow" after an episode of television, and it's already happened no fewer than three times during Season 5. "At the Codfish Ball" is one of those wows.

There is so much going on that it's difficult to sum up, though the common theme appears to be generational friction, as Peggy, Megan, and Sally all struggle with relating to their parents. That may be the underlying thread, but there are plenty of layers on top. Megan, who is often viewed as window dressing who married into her job, shows that she's not so useless, single-handedly saving the firm from getting fired by Heinz, then pulling them in with a perfect pitch. Peggy is convinced that Abe is either about to break up with her or propose marriage, and is blind-sided twice over, once when Abe splits the difference by asking that they move in together, and once when she shares the news of her acceptance with her mother. Sally wants to be treated more like an adult, but when she's actually exposed to things that take place in the adult world, she's horrified and confused by them. Megan's parents have grown to despise each other, and her father strongly disapproves of the lifestyle Megan has built for herself. And those are just the main plotlines! There are plenty of smaller ones, all of which are executed flawlessly.

Grade: A+

"Economics of Marine Biology" - Community: Season 4, Episode 7

I'm curious to know how I'd respond to the current season of Community if I didn't know anything about the behind-the-scenes drama. Would the episodes strike me differently if I had no idea who Dan Harmon is or that these are the first episodes after he got fired? If I didn't know that Chevy Chase quit, would I still think he's completely phoning in his last few performances? Fact is, I do know those things, and I can't deny to myself that the heart seems to have gone out of what was once my favorite show. None of this season's episodes have been out-and-out bad (though "Conventions of Space and Time" came close), but by the same token, none have filled me with giddy delight like standout episodes have in every previous season. I'm a glass-half-full kind of guy, though, and I will say that they are improving. This past week's episode was pretty weak in the A-plot, but is helped along by a funny B-plot (and a surprisingly touching C-plot). The main story deals with the Dean's efforts to lure in a lazy, rich student so that he'll drop a lot of money on the school. As I said, it's pretty lackluster, though there are some cute bits around the edges, like Magnitude's obsessive search for a new catchphrase. The episode's big bright spot is Shirley and Troy's class in Physical Education Education, in which the normally athletic Troy cannot get the hang of how to be a gym teacher, while Shirley's parental authoritarianism gets her top marks. Finally, Jeff learns a little something about what makes Pierce tick, and a little something about how awesome hot foam shaves at the barbershop are. Seriously, get one. All in all, it was a pretty good episode in a season I hope can rediscover what makes Community so special.

Grade: B-

"Season Four" - 30 Rock: Season 4, Episode 1

If you graphed out my reactions to all the television shows I've ever watched regularly, there may not be one that would be a more perfect bell curve than 30 Rock. I started off having zero interest in it, but once I caught a few episodes, it zoomed up to being among the top shows on my list. But it ain't called a bell curve for nothing, and "Season Four" is about the time that my attention began to wane. It is in no way a bad episode, but won't be making anyone's top ten lists, either. Jack wants Liz to hire a cast member that appeals to "Middle America" (Lord, how I loathe that phrase), and in the same vein, suggests that Tracy reconnect with his man-of-the-people roots and that Jenna release a country song. Meanwhile, Kenneth is uncharacteristically infuriated by the bonus check Jack gets, and leads a page strike. There are plenty of amusing wisecracks, but Jenna's song to lure in people who want to watch some hot tennis action was the only laugh out loud moment. 30 Rock certainly had some indelible moments along the way, but this episode contains none of them. Fun Fact: Series director Don Scardino is Mick! Can you believe it?

Grade: B-

"My Office" - Scrubs: Season 4, Episode 2

Similarly, Scrubs had a ton of episodes I'd consider classic, but this one is pretty average. Solid, but unremarkable when the show is taken as a whole. One thing that it's definitely got going for it is that it's in the stretch of episodes featuring Heather Graham as Molly. While I'm not a giant Graham fan in general, I enjoy her when she's in her wheelhouse, and Scrubs was perfect for her. There's conflict aplenty in this episode, as J.D. and Elliot compete for the job of chief resident, Dr. Cox and Turk argue over how to get a light bulb out of a patient's ass, and Carla is jealous of people going to Molly for advice instead of her. There are plenty of good quips - I always giggle when Elliot takes Dr. Cox at his word when he sarcastically asks if they can talk about her prospective wedding dress - but this isn't an episode I'd use to convince a newbie to watch the show.

Grade: B

"¡Amigos!" - Arrested Development: Season 2, Episode 3

During "My Office", a friend showed up at my place for a late dinner, and what could be a better accompaniment to that than Arrested Development? Episodes of this show are difficult to pluck out and watch independently, since the entire series is a web of continuity in-jokes. Having seen the whole run, though, this was a fun one to go back and revisit. Michael heads down to Mexico to find his father, acting on a tip from Gene Parmesan (Martin Mull), whose appearance always sends Lucille into delighted hysterics. Gob hires a bounty hunter to track Michael, assuming he's trying to just flee the country. Ann (her?) goes along with Michael because George Michael wants them to get to know each other better, and she accidentally gets ditched there. Buster plans to stow away in Michael's car to escape the Army, only to wind up hanging out with Lupe's family in the next neighborhood over. As with most Arrested Development episodes, the jokes are very wry, but impeccable.

Grade: B+

"Three Legs Good" - Rosemary & Thyme: Season 3, Episode 4

I'll be writing a full entry about this show sometime soon, and it's a shame that the only episode pulled out for individual consideration is "Three Legs Good", because it was one of the weaker ones of the entire run. Rosemary and Laura are renovating a park garden, which is apparently only visited by the same seven people every day. These, of course, would be the victims and suspects of this week's murders, and the whole plot hinges on a cute little doggy that happens to have three legs, having lost one in an auto accident. It's nice to see Laura's daughter Helena pulled in to the plot again (being only one of two guest stars that ever appeared in more than one episode), but the writing is just not there in this one. The mystery is exceedingly thin, and the side characters uninteresting. As long as the main cast is solid, crime-of-the-week shows always depend on a tidy little short story, and this one needed some serious reworking. Though it ended my marathon evening of television on a muted note, I'm glad I saw it, if only because it added another dash of variety to what turned out to be a very rewarding night, entertainment-wise.

Grade: C

Trash Talk

What I'm Listening To: We Hate Movies

The podcasts I listen to regularly are in constant rotation. If a couple of episodes grab my attention, I'm quick to subscribe, and if a few consecutive episodes bore me, I'm just as quick to drop it. A podcast that has longevity on my subscription list is something special, and that goes double for a podcast that only exists to mock bad movies. There are tons and tons of shows dedicated to tearing crappy movies to shreds, and I've given most of them a try. Apparently, it's more difficult than it sounds. Sure, it's fun to gather with your friends and unload on some piece of Hollywood garbage, MST3K-style, but that doesn't mean that your jibes will be entertaining to anyone else.

That's the trap a lot of the bad movie podcasts fall into. It should be easy to just make fun of something dumb, but it's not. One problem is that the hosts can be overly nitpicky in a vitriolic way. I mean, these shows are supposed to be nitpicky, but it's also supposed to be fun. Still, that issue pales in comparison to the bigger problem of shows that eventually drive me away because the hosts are head-over-heels in love with their own wit. It takes talent to balance insults, jokes, chemistry, and likability, and that's why my podcast of choice in this field is We Hate Movies.

This podcast is hosted by four guys who manage to grind through movies that would reduce me to a quivering mass of hate in ten minutes flat. Not only are they funny, but they can somehow manage to make entertaining episodes about movies that I've never even seen. The episodes are also well-organized, in that they have useful rules about what movies they tackle, and know how to trade jabs without talking over one another. It's also fun when they get into pretty apt impersonations of the actors in the movie of the week, be it Wilford Brimley or David Schwimmer.

Of all the podcasts I listen to each week, this is the only one dedicated to straight-up derision. That sort of thing can get old in a hurry, but somehow the We Hate Movies guys manage to make the never-ending wellspring of Hollywood trash engaging each time. Give them a listen if you'd ever like to wallow in the muck. Be careful, though. You may end up finding yourself in front of the television, watching Vampire in Brooklyn or 976-EVIL.

Haunted House

Sometimes, I'll pick up a book based on a good review or good word-of-mouth. Sometimes, I'll pick one up because someone whose taste I trust has specifically recommended it to me. And sometimes, I'll pick up a book simply because I've enjoyed the author's past work. Mark Haddon's 2012 novel The Red House falls into that last category. His remarkable 2003 book, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, put him on my radar, and his new book landed on my to-read list before I even knew much about its plot.

About midway through the story, one of the characters considers a book of poetry. She really wants to like it, to be carried away in the beauty of the writing, but it just doesn't suit her. Her other concerns weigh her down too much to delve into the complexities of the poems. Unfortunately, I have to say that I viewed this book the same way. As a series of loosely connected scenes, written to explore the inner mental turmoil of its characters, it has a lot going for it. As a story with a beginning, middle, and end, it falls short.

Ostensibly, The Red House is about a distant brother and sister whose families are brought together for a week of vacation in a country house following the death of their mother after a long illness. More to the point, it's about the thoughts racing through each of the family members' heads, and how they view one another. Needless to say, nobody is viewed as a paean of virtue. As a one-act play, the comparison of people's outward behavior and their inner neuroses would be fascinating. And was! As a full-length novel, you begin to wonder when these people will stop internally wringing their hands and just get on with it.

This novel is a good example of why I usually give a book a hundred pages to engage me before I give up. It was perilously close to becoming the first work to be tossed on the "Unfinished" pile this year, but by page 100, I had become more interested in the individual scenes, if not the story as a whole. By the time I reached the end, I was glad I stuck with it. Still, I tend to approach art with the same pragmatic eye I approach the rest of life with. And that's why I'll always prefer Hopper to Pollock, Austen to Dickinson, and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time to this.

The Red House: C+

Pop Culture Homework Assignment #7: 1776

I'm a big fan of musicals, but there seems to be a murky cutoff point in time between shows I generally like and shows I generally dislike. I really enjoy modern shows like Avenue Q and Wicked, and my admiration extends back to a lot of shows until we get to about 1975, or specifically, shows produced before A Chorus Line. Camelot? Bleh. Carousel? Bleh. Oklahoma? Bleh. Still, I at least gave those shows a chance. When it came to the 1969 show 1776, all that I knew about it was that it existed. Oh, and that it presumably dealt with the founding fathers, of course. I'd see it mentioned in pieces discussing shows of the era, but it somehow always got relegated to the back burner of my mind.

Until now! While hanging out with my friend Kyle the other night, we decided to watch the film version of the musical, released in 1972. How weird of them to make this movie in '72, with the bicentennial a mere four years away. What, they couldn't sit on it a little longer? As promised, it's a dramatization of the process of getting the Declaration of Independence written and signed, though the events are partially fictionalized. It focuses on John Adams as its protagonist. The role is taken on by original cast member William Daniels, who you'll know as KITT, Dr. Mark Craig, or Mr. Feeny, depending on what age group you're in. The only other actor you're likely to recognize is Blythe Danner as a Martha Jefferson who's wholly interested in banging her husband as much as possible.

This was a supremely weird movie. Given that it's a musical, there are obscenely long stretches of time with no songs whatsoever. Normally that would be a complaint, but since the music in 1776 solidly fits into that pre-1975 bleh period, I wound up being okay with it. These songs are not good, though "But, Mr. Adams" is a pleasant exception. The acting is mostly overwrought and hammy, although I must admit that Howard Da Silva made a highly entertaining Benjamin Franklin. You'd think that a movie with below-average acting and below-average music would mean that I didn't like it, and yet I found myself pretty riveted. In looking up information about the film, I ran across this review from Vincent Canby of the New York Times, which sums it up better than I ever could:

"The music is resolutely unmemorable. The lyrics sound as if they'd been written by someone high on root beer, and the book is familiar history — compressed here, stretched there — that has been gagged up and paced to Broadway's not inspiring standards. Yet Peter H. Hunt's screen version of 1776 insists on being so entertaining and, at times, even moving, that you might as well stop resisting it. This reaction, I suspect, represents a clear triumph of emotional associations over material. [It] is far from being a landmark of musical cinema, but it is the first film in my memory that comes close to treating seriously a magnificent chapter in the American history."

Yeah, that. Perhaps it was that achievement in directing that got 1776 nominated for a Golden Globe; it wound up deservedly losing to Cabaret. While I doubt I'd ever describe this film as "good", I'm guessing that I'll look back on it rather fondly, even given all its flaws. Maybe now that it's been completed as a homework assignment, it can slide over into the Guilty Pleasure category.

1776: C+

Save the Date: Much Ado About Nothing

Event: Much Ado About Nothing release
Date: Friday, June 7

Even I weren't a big fan of Joss Whedon via Buffy the Vampire Slayer (and to a lesser extent, Dollhouse and Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog), he's spent the past year showing that he's just as talented when working in other genres. One of my biggest regrets about not being able to handle gory movies is that I'll never see Cabin in the Woods. So, when word reached me that he's made an adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing, which is one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, I was giddy.

Never mind that the movie employs Shakespearean language in a modern setting, which usually sets my teeth on edge! Never mind that the entire thing was made in less than two weeks! It's Whedon, it's Whedon's usual stable of actors, and it's Beatrice and Benedick! You can bet I'll be jumping on this like a trampoline.

Maui Wowie

I wasn't expecting to run across any new entertainment entities during my vacation to Hawaii. Sure, I'd be watching the Super Bowl, and maybe I'd catch some episodes of my usual shows or play some games in the down times between going out on the town or lazing on the beach, but I didn't figure I'd discover something I'd never seen/heard before. It turns out that not only did I get introduced to new music, but I got it straight from the horse's mouth, so to speak. I had the opportunity to meet and spend a little time hanging out with Ryan Robinson, a Maui-based singer-songwriter, and after hearing a sampling of his stuff, I happily bought his album, A Couch to Call Home, to bring back with me.

It's impossible to describe a musician without comparing him/her to musicians with similar styles who have come before. Robinson's voice is along the same stylistic lines as Jack Johnson's or John Mayer's, but his tone is completely different. I wanted to listen to the songs for a good, long while so I could be sure I could actually judge on the music and not just toss a good grade towards a guy who's really nice and whose music I enjoyed while being the most relaxed I've been in years. Happily, I still enjoy the CD a month later, even as I trudge home through a snowstorm after a stressful work day.

There are eight tracks on A Couch to Call Home, and one of the things I like most about it is that all eight are completely unique. Highlights include the kick-back-and-enjoy-life "Easy Living" (which has an insanely catchy hook), the grittier blues-inspired "Gravedigger", and the pensive paean to comforting memories, "Home". Some of the songs are on YouTube, and I'd encourage people to check them out. I don't know much about how the music industry functions or doesn't function, but the commentaries I read on the subject all agree that in general, too much attention is paid to Top 40 artists, and not enough to independent musicians, many of whom can't get anybody to even hear their work. The internet is slowly changing all that, and I'm finally starting to encounter some wonderful tracks I'd never have known about otherwise. In this case, though, it wasn't the internet that brought some good music to my attention, but a happy accident.

A Couch to Call Home: A-

The Pantheon: Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Hush)

The pinnacle of a show can be difficult to nail down, especially for a series that had as many high points as Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I don't want a Pantheon entry to give the impression that "Hush" is the only episode worth watching; there are a ton of other ones that should be considered must-watch for any well-rounded television viewer. But if we're going to judge on a big list of criteria like how well an episode handled drama, wit, emotion, canonical storytelling, and pure entertainment, there's no question in my mind that "Hush" peeks out above the crowd.

"Hush" is the tenth episode of Season 4, and works mostly as a standalone episode, even as it also pushes the season arc forward a good bit in all of fifteen seconds. The setup is all about the characters having trouble communicating with each other, whether it's Anya's complaint that Xander only likes having her around for sex, or Tara's crippling shyness in front of... Well, everyone, but especially Willow. Buffy has a prophetic dream in which terrifying monsters known as "The Gentlemen" come to town. They arrive with the intention of ripping seven hearts out of victims, and are able to go on these periodic rampages by stealing every voice in the town.

This turns the majority episode into an almost silent one, save the score and incidental sounds (like breaking glass). Buffy must find a way to fight the new evil in town without being able to talk it over with anyone, a usual tactic of hers. Unbeknownst to her, Riley (the fledgling crush she can't bring herself to admit) is also trying to root out the Gentlemen with his secret paramilitary group.

There are terrifying scenes of the Gentlemen reaping their gory treasure, and of them and their minions pursuing people who are soundlessly shrieking in desperation. But there are also hilarious scenes, including one of Giles giving a music-backed overhead presentation to the group about how Buffy will have to go about defeating the monsters.

Despite the brilliance of a lot of Buffy episodes, "Hush" is the only one ever to receive an Emmy nomination (for writing), and it richly deserves it. By the end, the monsters are defeated, the voices are back, and all of the characters have learned that endless talking is not always the best way to get their feelings across. So enough chatter. Go watch it.

I Want Candy

I'm almost constantly getting recommendations for movies and television from various sources, be it a friend or a website. But for some reason, book recommendations are more difficult to come by, even though I have plenty of friends and family members who read voraciously. Goodreads is a nifty resource, but can only convey so much information; it doesn't really give me a sense of the books I should be keeping an eye out for. So when I do come across a recommendation that sparks my interest, I make sure to make a note of it.

One such recommendation I stumbled upon was an internet article about Robert Cormier's 1974 young-adult novel, The Chocolate War. Apparently, it's pretty well-known, and a common target for book banning in school libraries. I had never heard of it, but the article's description of its dark themes appealed to me, so I grabbed a copy from the library. Candy is usually used to convey a really carefree sense of mood, but The Chocolate War is unrelentingly brutal. The corrupt vice-principal of a Catholic boys' high school is desperate to raise money to cover his expenses, so he doubles both the quota and the price for the students' annual chocolate sale. Lurking in the shadows is a student secret society, the head of which likes to torture mild-mannered kids by assigning them humiliating or dangerous pranks to pull off. When these two entities team up to sell chocolate bars, woe unto any student who doesn't want to take part in this "voluntary" school activity.

The protagonist of The Chocolate War is Jerry Renault, an unremarkable boy who is still trying to cope with the death of his mother. When his assignment from the school gang is to refuse to sell the chocolates, he goes along with it to avoid trouble. When the assignment expires and he still refuses to play along, he doesn't stay out of trouble for long. The book takes a turn into the exploration of mob mentality in many of its forms, from grudging respect for those who won't follow the "rules" to fear of helping a friend in the crosshairs to the just-following-orders defense. I found myself rather impressed with the punches this book didn't pull about how bullying is allowed (or even encouraged) to happen, but it also definitely shows its age. It's not a book you'll want to read if you're looking for a pick-me-up; the characters in this novel confirm some of the worst assumptions you'll ever have about human nature. Still, I'm glad I read it. We could all use an occasional reminder of the things we do (or don't do) to avoid making waves.

The Chocolate War: B-

Dance Dance Revolution

Generally, when things are reviewed, they're taken on their own merit. They may be held up against past works in the same genre, but the majority of the focus and any conclusions drawn are about the individual property. There is one case where the response changes, though, and that's when two works in the same genre are consumed back-to-back. The two pull on each other in a way that can't easily be separated. Something that would have been considered perfectly fine suddenly pales in comparison to someone who did it better, even if the two properties had vastly different intentions. Rare is the discussion of Shakespeare in Love that doesn't also bring up Elizabeth, and vice versa.

This happened to me recently when I watched the German documentary Pina and the feature-length dance music video Girl Walk//All Day within a day of each other. Both are all about the art of dance, and while they barely intersect in any aspect other than the fact that they feature people dancing, I couldn't help but view each of them through the lens of the other.

Pina is a 2011 film about choreographer Pina Bausch directed by Wim Wenders. What was probably supposed to be a movie in which Bausch shared her thoughts on the process of creating contemporary dance and her sources of inspiration had to drastically change when she died of cancer in 2009. Instead, it became a setpiece exhibition of Bausch's works, featuring interstitial interviews with the dancers. These are people that had worked with her for decades, and the interviews are mostly them sharing their memories about her. That's actually one of the more interesting facets of the film. Not the gushing interviews - those are pretty standard - but the use of dancers well into their forties and fifties. We're so used to thinking of dance as an extremely short career, and it's telling to see that that shouldn't necessarily be the case; more seasoned dancers bring something new and fascinating to the pieces they perform. Now, I'm on record as not being the biggest fan of modern art, and that includes dance. That's simply a taste issue, and while some of the dances in Pina did set off my Annoying Modern Art Alarm, an equal number of them legitimately wowed me. And while the interviews leaned towards being overly flowery and employed far too much purple prose, it's also nice to see what a tight-knit company Bausch was able to build, and how much the dancers she worked with treasure their time with her. When the movie was over, I didn't feel like I'd learned much about the woman, but certainly had a new appreciation for her work.

Girl Walk//All Day first came to my attention when it was recommended by the /Film podcast. It's a 2011 music video, spread out to feature-length over the course of several "chapters". As with some other music videos, it doesn't have much of a concrete story, but the overall theme is a girl who ditches her stuffy ballet class so that she can go explore New York City, dancing her way the whole time. Two male dancers ("The Gentleman" and "The Creep") are also dancing their way around the city until the point that everyone meets, and the whole thing is set to the soundtrack of Girl Talk's 2010 album, All Day. All three of the dancers are extremely talented, but unlike the artistry striven for by Bausch's pieces, Girl Walk//All Day comes off as a lot more "Check out these sweet moves, yo!" That's a completely valid goal to have, but struck me as a bit cheap and disappointing after the spectacle of Pina. If it's to be viewed as a music video, Girl Walk//All Day is pretty entertaining, if far too long. If it's to be viewed as a short film, it falls flat.

Both Pina and Girl Walk//All Day heavily rely on the environment around the dancers. In the case of Pina, it can be the use of a pool of water or a chair-strewn cafe to accentuate the dance, while Girl Walk//All Day captures some frenetic energy by having the dancers vault off fountains or park benches and by including bystanders game enough to join in. It's entirely possible that without having seen Pina, I would have found Girl Walk//All Day to be a load of fun. It's entirely possible that without having seen Girl Walk//All Day, I would have found Pina to be a bit pretentious. But when taken together, one shines as an expression of artistic intent, and one comes off as a really long So You Think You Can Dance audition.

Pina: B+
Girl Walk//All Day: C+


What I'm Playing: The Sims 3

The Sims has always been an extraordinarily entertaining game, and The Sims 3 took an incredible leap forward in the scope of what your Sims could do and where they could go. No more were they homebound unless they were at an unseen job - you can send them out on the town. No more was every dish they cooked identical - each recipe now looks exactly like what it's supposed to. It's very easy to fall down a Sim hole and spend hours looking after your cyber household's needs while neglecting your real-life ones.

The one problem with this game is that it's kind of a space and graphics hog, and my ancient computer couldn't keep up with it. With the recent acquisition of a more powerful machine, though, I can busy myself around the place all I like, sending Pixellated Limecrete to do the dishes or harvest his onion plant in the front yard. In fact, why am I wasting time writing this entry? Off to bake some computerized key lime pie!
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