Crustacean Crushes and the Futuristic Sugar Robot

Four Courses Podcast - Episode 18

My god, is it hot outside. This is what I get for complaining about that first part of summer when it was cool and rained seven inches a day. But now that we've reached the intolerable heat and humidity part of the calendar, it's time to talk summer food. So head on over to Four Courses and check out Episode 18!

Topics include Peacemaker Lobster and Crab, the wrap-up of the Our Favorite Drinks seasonal segment, a comparison of regional barbecue styles, and the best snacks to enjoy at the movies. We go out on a Sell Me On... segment all about ice cream flavors that deserve a second chance. Enjoy!

Good One

What did the snail say as he was riding on the turtle's back?

Give up?


OK, so maybe I don't have a big future in stand-up comedy. Fortunately, I don't need one, because that arena is being capably covered by a lot of talented people these days, two of whom just put out movies. Granted, one is a pretty straightforward documentary, and one is a bawdy scripted rom-com, but both come from comics I really enjoy and respect. The first movie was the Netflix documentary Tig, which focuses in on the portion of comedian Tig Notaro's life that rocketed her to stardom. I've gone to a Tig Notaro show, and her deadpan sets never fail to set off some deep belly laughs. Her most well-known set came after being diagnosed with breast cancer. This was on the heels of her mother's death, a bacterial infection, and a bad breakup. The way she processed this was through her comedy, and the documentary goes into how she pulled herself through this time.

It's not just about her reaction to disaster, though. Tig also follows the events in the time since. How she deals with the media attention as the result of this set, the evolution of a joke from so-so to killer, and the life plans she's made for herself now. The movie doesn't shy away from bad news, which I appreciated. But with all that said, and as much as I like Tig Notaro as a comedian, this was essentially a straightforward chain-of-events biography, and appears to have been produced pretty rapidly to cash in on her current popularity. It was definitely worth watching, but didn't distinguish itself as a movie.

On the flip side, Amy Schumer's new movie, Trainwreck, definitely distinguishes itself. Though it's fictional (and directed by Judd Apatow), it's also clearly a bit autobiographical. Her character (Amy, natch) was taught by her father at a young age that monogamous relationships are a joke, and she's taken that into her adult life, enjoying a drunken series of one-night-stands. Things begin to change when she meets a sports doctor (Bill Hader), who is refreshingly open about wanting to date her. She's taken aback, and all the terrible habits she's wormed her way into have to be unlearned.

As a comedy, it's great. Obviously, the true measure of a comedy is how much I laughed, and I laughed a lot. The jokes land, the cameos are terrific, and Bill Hader is very adept at playing a romantic lead. As a movie, though, it has some issues, most of which can probably be laid at Apatow's door. Like all his movies, it could easily stand to be a good twenty minutes shorter. Like all his movies, there's an odd sense of romantic conservatism running through the storyline: Amy cannot truly be happy until she stops drinking, settles down, and is implied to be coming around on her decision to not have children. That's pretty irksome.

She also works at a men's magazine, which is such a '90s cliche, but I won't complain about it, because it gives us an unrecognizable Tilda Swinton as Amy's boss and editor. I wouldn't trade her bitchy barbs for the world. Brie Larson is reliably excellent as the sister who chose a more traditional life, and hell, even LeBron James is likeable in this movie. Amy Schumer has been killing it on TV lately, and with Trainwreck, it looks like she's pretty easily expanding her influence into movies as well. Let's hope in the next one, she's allowed to escape the bonds of traditional rom-com endings.

Tig: B
Trainwreck: B+

Rank and File: Pixar Movies - Part 5

Scheduling conflicts forced a small hiatus in the Pixar project, but finally, a break in the calendar allowed Tiffany and I to jump back in. As I've been explaining all along, some of these movies have been monumentally hard to place in the ranking, because they're so excellent that it's tough to decide which one has the edge. Now we're starting to get into movies that are equally hard to place, but are more middle-of-the-pack. None of the Pixar movies so far have been bad, but some are clearly exceptional or clearly unexceptional. It's the ones in the middle that are becoming the biggest challenge to rank.

WALL-E (2008)

There's somewhat of an invisible line between Ratatouille and WALL-E. Though they were released only a year apart, that year strikes me as the dividing line between the "original" Pixar movies, and the "modern" ones. I don't just believe that because of the futuristic subject matter of WALL-E; everything post-Ratatouille seems to have a different tone, a different pace, and different lessons. Deeper, more mature topics are beginning to be broached (environmentalism, the loss of a longtime companion, inner-psychological conflict, etc.) Starting now, Pixar movies aren't just romps anymore. They're starting to get serious.

In WALL-E, there are but two sentient beings left on Earth: A cockroach, and the last functioning garbage robot who is cleaning up the mountains of trash left behind by the human populace who fled long ago. WALL-E is fascinated with human culture. He especially loves music and dance, and watches an old tape of Hello, Dolly! over and over. His existence is upended by the arrival of a much more advanced robot (EVE), who turns out to be searching for the viability of plant life, long since thought extinct. When she finds it, the movie shifts into space, where humans have been getting fat on a spaceship where all their needs are met by caretaker robots. WALL-E and EVE must protect the plant from forces who are interested in keeping things as they are, and the movie progresses from there.

This is the movie that sparked this project in the first place, because the website that ranked the Pixar movies put WALL-E at #1, which is patently ridiculous. It's a perfectly good movie. The characterizations of the robots (who barely speak anything but each other's names) are particularly well-done, and the animation is beautiful as always. But to compare this to movies like Finding Nemo and The Incredibles and call it better? I almost think the website must have been trolling for clicks and comments from angry people, because I don't believe someone actually thinks this nice, but ultimately flat and placid story is the best Pixar has to offer. In fact, I'm putting it towards the bottom.

The short, on the other hand, is wonderful. Presto is about a hungry rabbit who serves as a magician's assistant. When the magician neglects to give the rabbit his carrot, the magic act escalates into a battle of wills. Sometimes, these shorts end with the "good" character triumphing over the "bad" one, but in Presto, everyone wins. It's a hilarious short, and easily skyrocketed to the top of the current list.

Current Feature Rankings:

#1: Finding Nemo (2003)
#2: Ratatouille (2007)
#3: The Incredibles (2004)
#4: Toy Story 2 (1999)
#5: Monsters, Inc. (2001)
#6: Toy Story (1995)
#7: WALL-E (2008)
#8: A Bug's Life (1998)
#9: Cars (2006)

Current Short Rankings:

#1: Presto (paired with WALL-E)
#2: One Man Band (paired with Cars)
#3: Geri's Game (paired with A Bug's Life)
#4: Lifted (paired with Ratatouille)
#5: Boundin' (paired with The Incredibles)
#6: For the Birds (paired with Monsters, Inc.)
#7: Knick Knack (paired with Finding Nemo)
#8: Luxo Jr. (paired with Toy Story 2)
#9: Tin Toy (paired with Toy Story)

Up (2009)

I readied myself for some fighting with this one. People consistently rank Up among the best Pixar movies, but going into the project, my feeling was that they were grading on the first eight minutes, and letting the rest of the movie coast by on the emotional wallop that the opening provides. I'd only seen this movie once (in the theater), so I was interested in a couple of things on this rewatch: Would the first scene retain its power? And was I unfairly characterizing this movie as eight great minutes, followed by eighty-eight just okay minutes? Quick answers: Yes and no.

Up is the story of Carl Fredricksen, an elderly man who has become grumpy and sullen after the death of his wife. Real estate developers are trying to take his house, and when they threaten to have him shipped to an assisted-living facility, his solution is to fly away in his house, propelled by a gazillion helium-filled balloons. He heads for the remote locale he and his wife dreamed of visiting, but shortly after takeoff, he finds he has a stowaway in the form of Russell, an overzealous wilderness scout. From there, the two of them have a series of adventures, picking up a rare bird and a dog with a collar that allows him to talk.

Now, back to my questions. Yes, that opening scene retains its power. In his childhood, Carl meets Ellie, and in a brief montage, we see them become friends, become close, marry, live a long, happy life together, and endure her decline and death. It makes everyone cry. Even though we knew it was coming, Tiffany I were still weeping into our drinks. But I was also right that the marvelous opening scene doesn't carry over to the rest of the movie being equally marvelous. Like WALL-E, it's perfectly entertaining and has beautiful animation, but lacks that special something that would vaunt it into the upper echelon of Pixar movies. Unlike WALL-E, it has that opening scene, so it definitely climbs the list a bit.

The short, Partly Cloudy, is similarly middling. Storks deliver babies both human and animal to new parents. The babies are created by cloud beings, and one such cloud specializes in dangerous animals like sharks and alligators. The stork assigned to him gets a bit pummeled, but works hard to preserve his friendship and partnership with the cloud. It's extremely cute, but doesn't really stand out.

Current Feature Rankings:

#1: Finding Nemo (2003)
#2: Ratatouille (2007)
#3: The Incredibles (2004)
#4: Toy Story 2 (1999)
#5: Monsters, Inc. (2001)
#6: Toy Story (1995)
#7: Up (2009)
#8: WALL-E (2008)
#9: A Bug's Life (1998)
#10: Cars (2006)

Current Short Rankings:

#1: Presto (paired with WALL-E)
#2: One Man Band (paired with Cars)
#3: Geri's Game (paired with A Bug's Life)
#4: Lifted (paired with Ratatouille)
#5: Partly Cloudy (paired with Up)
#6: Boundin' (paired with The Incredibles)
#7: For the Birds (paired with Monsters, Inc.)
#8: Knick Knack (paired with Finding Nemo)
#9: Luxo Jr. (paired with Toy Story 2)
#10: Tin Toy (paired with Toy Story)

Summer Movie Preview: August 2015

August is a Very Special Month around here, in that it contains the day of my birth. That means taking time to celebrate, and taking time to celebrate often means dinner and a movie. So what will theaters be unspooling in their never-ending quest for our hard-earned dollars? Let's check it out!

The Main Attraction: Ummmm.... I've gone over the list of the month's releases multiple times, and can only reach the conclusion that the main attraction this August will be:

Maybe I'll pick up some of the movies I missed in the other summer months, but it's more likely that I'll make an effort to put a dent in my imposing Netflix queue. There is just nothing being released in August that really grabs my attention, which may be a first for summer blockbuster seasons. There are a few films that may be worth checking out at some point (see below), but there aren't any headliners.

Looks Promising: I liked Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, but cannot claim to be a Guy Ritchie fan, overall. That said, I did really enjoy the stylized trailer for The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (August 14). I've only seen a few episodes of the television show, so I certainly won't be angry if the movie strikes a different tone. The cast seems well-chosen, so as long as this movie isn't quite as hyper-kinetic as Ritchie's other ones, I can see myself checking this out.

Possible Rental: Meryl Streep is always good, even if the movie she's inhabiting isn't. The trailer for Ricki and the Flash (August 7), which stars her as an aging rocker who is attempting to atone for being a negligent mother, didn't fill me with giddy anticipation, but I definitely am not writing it off just yet. There's also Z for Zachariah (release TBD), which features Margot Robbie as a woman living on a post-apocalyptic farm, and must contend with the arrival of two strange men (Chiwetel Ejiofor and Chris Pine), both of whom are contenders for the chance to get the population going again. I know literally nothing about it except what I just wrote, but the premise is intriguing.

We'll See: I'm not saying Fantastic Four (August 7) will be as terrible as, well, every other Fantastic Four movie has been, but it sure hasn't given me any indication that it's going to improve, either. I'm more than happy to wait for the next X-Men movie instead, but if this somehow gets an overwhelming amount of positive buzz, I suppose I'll allow myself to be persuaded into seeing it. There's also the comedic crime heist movie Masterminds (August 7), which stars Zach Galifinakis and Kristen Wiig as hapless bank robbers. It looks pretty middle-of-the-road, but I'll admit to being curious about what director Jared Hess' post-Napoleon Dynamite movies are like.

Oh, the Zoo-manity!

Patience may be a virtue, but it is not always a virtue that gets rewarded. How many times have we sat through a television or book series that was rough going at first, but with a promise of better things to come that never arrived? Sometimes, though, an initial investment pays off. Such is the case with BoJack Horseman. After watching the first season, I gave it some tempered praise, saying that while the cast was terrific, the show itself wasn't quite inspiring cartwheels.

I didn't mention it then, but part of the reason for that is that my increasing impatience with misanthropic comedy. Asshole-curmudgeon-with-a-heart-of-gold-or-whatever as protagonist is a tough wire to balance a show on. For every Black Books, there are ten that get overly cranky and turn me off. It's the entire reason I gave up on Peep Show and Last Man on Earth. The strong voiceover work and unique premise of the BoJack Horseman universe kept me watching, but if Season 2 had been a continuation of trying to wring laughs solely out of BoJack's personality flaws, this show would probably be joining many others in the television graveyard.

Instead, it built on the foundation of Season 1, and started to expand. Continuity is not something I generally expect from a cartoon, but BoJack Horseman never forgets what's already happened to these characters, meaning that they can grow and change in really believable ways, since we have a past to refer back to. Even the opening credits, which show brief glimpses of secondary and tertiary characters in the background, subtly changes as people (and animals) enter and leave BoJack's sphere.

But what's really incredible about Season 2 is how effortlessly they ramped up both the comedy and the tragedy. This is simultaneously one of the funniest and one of the most depressing shows I've seen this year. Both the jokes and the storylines about heartache have matured. BoJack and Diane both struggle with self-loathing and an inability to derive happiness out of life, even when things are going swimmingly. BoJack has scored the lead in the Secretariat movie, but worries that he's not talented enough to pull it off (worries that are not entirely unfounded). Diane is feeling aimless and unimportant, wanting to contribute something to society, but being stymied at every turn.

Episode 7 ("Hank After Dark") is one of the most vicious skewerings of what women who attempt to call out the predatory actions of famous men can expect in return, and ended on a note that chilled my blood. In the very next episode ("Let's Find Out"), I was back to belly laughing at the antics during Mr. Peanutbutter's game show. All the characters get a chance to shine, from Princess Carolyn to Todd, and BoJack even manages to find the chance at love with Wanda, an owl who just emerged from a 30-year coma, and thus doesn't know anything about his history. Wanda is voiced by Lisa Kudrow, who I want to single out, because she knocks it completely out the park as a person (well, owl) who wants to make BoJack happy, but can't figure out how to bring that about.

There has been a wealth of great TV in 2015, and I can already tell that narrowing shows down to a top five for the State of the Art post at the end of the year is going to be torture. Watching Season 2 of BoJack Horseman is not going to help the process. The show may have started off as clever, but nothing special, but has somehow morphed into one of the smartest, funniest, and introspective things on the air.

BoJack Horseman - Season 2: A

The Rewatch: Friends - Season 5

At the end of the Season 4 Rewatch, I wondered if the show could keep hitting homeruns as it moved on to Season 5. Well, here we are, and I can now report that while homeruns were sadly absent, the show managed to hit some solid base runs, and was (mostly) able to avoid striking out.

OK, enough with the baseball analogy. I've been finding that the more Friends focuses on the romantic relationships between its leads, the less I like it. For a show that was ostensibly a comedy, they sure spend a lot of time on overwrought boyfriend/girlfriend drama. Season 5 was definitely over-dependent on those scenes, leaving the jokey ones to languish. Though at least the scenes that did go for romance are developed between Chandler and Monica, rather than another rehash of Ross/Rachel, for which we can all be grateful. We desperately needed a break from the Ross and Rachel Grand Romance, and we thankfully got one, although that trend of ending the season on a cliffhanger devoted to them is still in place, I see.

Putting the seasonal focus on Chandler and Monica's secret relationship yielded some good fruit, but by the same token, it left characters like Joey and Phoebe with relatively little to do. What they did get was done well, though. "The One Hundredth" closes out Phoebe's pregnancy arc with a lot of laughs, and Joey actually gets a pretty meaty arc in relation to Chandler and Monica's relationship, as his attempts to protect their secrets drive him steadily insane. Rachel, when she gets to be free of storylines requiring her to be obsessing over Ross, gets to have some fun interactions in her quest for a new job, from accidentally kissing a prospective employer to pretending to smoke so she can get in good with her tobacco-addicted supervisor. Ross is similarly freed, getting a chance to show off his awkward dating, work, and neighbor interactions.

But back to Chandler and Monica. This is really their season, which is both a compliment and a criticism. Stretching out the length of time it takes for the other friends to discover their relationship was a good idea. Them trying to keep it a secret leads to some really funny scenes, and allows for each of the others to have their own reaction scenes upon discovering what's really going on. Slowing down their storyline also makes it seem a lot more organic than the other relationships these six characters are always jumping in and out of. Things can't go well all the time, though, and while I'm fine with Chandler and Monica encountering obstacles, the ones they put forth are pretty contrived. They get into a fight on a weekend out of town because he's too inattentive and she's too obsessive, and they both come off as shrill. She has a secret lunch with Richard, which she would never do, and was just put in so they'd have something to fight about. His cluelessness about how to conduct an adult relationship can be amusing, but can come off as eye-rollingly irritating too. Overall, though, the Chandler/Monica focus wasn't a bad hook to hang the season from.

Notable Guest Stars: There are some returning favorites, like Elliott Gould, Christina Pickles, and Maggie Wheeler. Michael Rapaport is great as a cop who has a short-lived relationship with Phoebe, and Bob Balaban is perfect as the father who abandoned her. Though she isn't given much material to work with as Rachel's smoking boss, I'm also always happy to see Joanna Gleason pop up in anything.

What's Keeping Ross and Rachel And Their Apparently Greatest Love in the History of the Earth Apart This Time: Not much this go-round, actually! Ross spends several episodes trying to reconcile with Emily (Helen Baxendale), which leads to some fighting with Rachel, but it's mostly about their friendship. When the reconciliation doesn't work out, Ross and Rachel are able to settle into a platonic friendship that I enjoy far more than their love story. Right up until the season finale, which pushes us back into the pool by having them get drunkenly married in Vegas.

Best Episode: Honorable mention goes to "TOW All the Thanksgivings", which flashes back to terrible Thanksgivings in everyone's pasts. I didn't realize before the Rewatch how well Friends is able to nail their Thanksgiving episodes. It's like Roseanne and their Halloween episodes. "TOW Phoebe Hates PBS" is also really good, but the best episode has to be "TOW Everyone Finds Out", in which the lid is finally blown off the Monica/Chandler relationship.

Worst Episode: Two episodes run neck-and-neck for this ignoble honor. First, there's "TOW the Inappropriate Sister", in which a guy that Rachel has been awkwardly pursuing needs to be gotten rid of, so the writers dispatch him by making him almost incestuously friendly with his sibling. It's lame, and the B-stories involving Phoebe collecting donations and Ross helping Joey with a screenplay don't help much. The other stinker is "TOW the Girl Who Hits Joey", which is shame, because the titular girl is played by Soleil Moon Frye, who deserves better. This episode also has some of that contrived Monica/Chandler fighting nonsense I mention above. It's not a good episode, but is somewhat redeemed by Ross immediately getting off on the wrong foot with his neighbors, so let's give Worst Episode to "TOW the Inappropriate Sister".

So...no. Friends was not able to keep up the amazing stretch of episodes that Season 4 gave us. But Season 5 wasn't bad at all; I'd give it a solid B. Each season's quality seems to have absolutely no relation to the season that came before or after it, so I have no idea what to expect in Season 6. Let's forge on and find out.

Ladies' Night

I've mentioned this before, but I try to vary up the books I read, wildly shifting between genre and type of author. Once in a while, though, the library is a harsh mistress, and the books I manage to get all fall into a single category. In this case, I got a triple-feature of books by female authors with stories that are almost wholly centered around their romantic relationships.

The similarities end there, though. The stories range from the 1700s to the 1920s to today. From the UK to France to the United States. And from traditional to...very different. Not all of them were ripping reads, but they all have interesting premises.

First up was Single, Carefree, Mellow, a 2015 collection of short stories by Katherine Heiny. All of the stories revolve around the romantic entanglements of the narrator, one of whom appears in three of the stories. Generally, I'd consider that a been-there-read-that sort of idea, but Heiny does something special here. Namely, the characters don't do anything that special. People don't blow up at each other. Big, life-changing catastrophes don't arrive out of the blue. These are just normal women leading normal lives, and the stories are more about their private thoughts than any propulsive event.

Infidelity is a prevalent theme, and Heiny is great at picking apart the mess of emotions that are involved with that, whether it be an illicit thrill or gnawing guilt. Cheating isn't the only topic, though. One is simply about a mother trying to throw her kid a successful birthday party. The book's simplicity is what sets it apart from a lot of other things I've read lately, and ultimately wound up being the reason I really liked it.

I also really liked the first third of Sarah Waters' 2014 novel, The Paying Guests. I heard it talked up on some podcast, and decided to dive in. After all, how many books about forbidden lesbian love in London in the Roaring Twenties do you normally stumble across? For that first third of the book, Frances Wray and her mother reluctantly take on lodgers in order to make some much-needed money. The married couple who takes the upstairs room seem pleasant, if too loud, and Frances soon finds herself attracted to the wife, Lilian. Lilian's got complicated feelings, too, and if the book had concentrated on these two women and how they could hope to carry on a clandestine affair in these circumstances, I'd have probably loved the whole book.

Instead, the novel takes a hard right turn, and winds up spending 300 pages essentially being a Ye Olde Law & Order episode. It was really disappointing to see a story with such promise frittered away on such an unremarkable storyline. It was well-written and definitely worth the read, but it was a letdown.

Still, it wasn't as much a letdown as reading a well-regarded romance, only to find myself rolling my eyes hard enough to power a windmill. That's what happened with Outlander, Diana Gabaldon's 1991 book that kicked off an entire series (and is now a TV show). People have been going gaga for this series, and I've been meaning to check out some of the better-known works in the romance genre, if only to be a more well-rounded reader.

Outlander is told from the perspective of Claire Randall, a nurse who served in World War II, and who is spending her honeymoon in Scotland. Upon touching some mysterious standing stones, she is transported back to the 1740s, whereupon she immediately meets Jamie, a tall, handsome, redheaded stranger and is hurtled into a series of adventures with him and his clan.

The book is essentially divided into three types of scene:

-Claire and/or Jamie trying to fight and/or escape from British military pursuit and/or torture and/or rape.
-Claire and Jamie fighting, because he's a traditional Scots warrior, and she's a strong-willed, modern type o' gal!
-Claire and Jamie banging.

Just alternate those three over and over and over (and over - this book is 627 pages long), and there you have it. Now, that's not to say that this alone would have sunk the book in my estimation. Some of the action scenes are legitimately exciting. Some of the romance is legitimately romantic. Some of the bickering is... Well, the bickering is just mostly annoying, but there were some long chunks of the book that I was invested pretty heavily in what would happen to Claire and if she'd find her way back to her present and the husband who awaits her there.

Too bad the book didn't care too much about that. Too bad that Jamie is given old-fashioned misogynistic beliefs when it suits the story, but contrived to have modern-day attitudes at other times to make him sound more likable and supportive. Too bad that Gabaldon didn't just need to have her villain be a cruel sadist. She had to make him gay and romantically-obsessed with Jamie to make sure the audience understands how really terrible he is. Too bad the book spends the majority of its time building up to a big showdown with the villain, only to have him die off-page. Too bad the book ends with the most cliche story twist on Earth. Perhaps Gabaldon addresses some of these problems in the subsequent books. I sure as hell won't be finding out, though. Sorry, lass. It's the end of the line for ye.

Single, Carefree, Mellow: Stories: B+
The Paying Guests: B-
Outlander: C+


This past week, I saw two movies. One was a very thoughtful film by a director I adore, starring actors I like, and that attempted through some pretty impressive setpieces to convey how powerful a force love can be. And then it went and got upstaged by a flick about male strippers.

The first was Interstellar, a 2014 Christopher Nolan movie. Long-time readers know that I respect Nolan almost more than any other director currently working, so much so that's he's scored one of my rare Lifetime Passes. I still have a bottomless well of goodwill towards him, but I have to admit that this is the first time I can't really recommend one of his films. Interstellar takes place in a future where drought and blight have wiped out most of Earth's crops, and humanity is rapidly dying out. Scientists are working hard on finding a new world to colonize, and are on the verge of a breakthrough. They need the piloting expertise of Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) to do a deep dive into space, assisting a small team (led by Anne Hathaway) to nail down the location of humanity's next home.

Many of the scenes that take place in outer space are flawless. The action is exciting, but serves the story instead of the other way around. The plotlines having do with black holes, relativity, and wormholes are all fascinating, and fairly realistic to boot. But they keep getting broken up by scenes of what's going on back on Earth, all of which are pretty terrible. It's frustrating in a movie that works so hard to make interactions with a black hole as close to plausible as possible also having such head-scratching dialogue that doesn't even attempt to explain why someone won't move his family away from a dangerous locale.

In addition to that, there are some unfortunate comparisons to be drawn to Sunshine, in that this falls apart in almost exactly the same way, though unlike that movie, Interstellar is able to get back onto the rails. It's an ambitious movie, but unlike Nolan's other work, this one's ambition can't make up for its faults. It was worth the watch, but graded on a curve against other movies like it, it pales in comparison.

Which is also why Magic Mike XXL was such a pleasant surprise. I mean, I liked the first one, but when it came to the sequel, I was expecting a fun little nothing of a movie that was all about bumping and grinding. Instead, it has the nerve to actually have a pretty damned decent story. Make no mistake, this movie has absolutely no stakes. There is no big obstacle to overcome. No big contest to win. No grand personal conflict that must be settled. It's about an ex-stripper (Channing Tatum) who misses his buddies and accompanies them on one last hurrah to perform at a big convention. That's it. And yet... I found myself invested, and not just in the parts where oily muscles are thrusting at the screen. (Although, let's be honest: That stuff is pretty great, too. I never knew my life needed Michael Strahan performing as a stripper until it happened.)

As Mike and his cohorts make their way to the convention, they encounter a bunch of wildly varying scenarios, from a beach party to a African-American...stripping brothel country club? I don't know, but it was cool, and Jada Pinkett Smith continues to burnish her ever-improving image in my mind in her role as its proprietor. From there, it's off to a wine-soaked gathering with a gaggle of rich white women, headed by Andie MacDowell, who also manages to knock it out of the park. I know! I'm surprised too! I wasn't happy to see Amber Heard cast as her daughter, but it's a fair trade-off for not having to put up with Cody Horn or Alex Pettyfer.

I don't want to oversell the movie, but it's just so damn refreshing to have such a bro-tastic enterprise that is simultaneously free of misogyny and homophobia. The over-arching message of the movie seems to be that if you spend your time doing what makes you happy, while treating others with courtesy and respect, everything will work out for the best. Oh, and hot dudes are hot. Now there's a moral I can get behind.

Interstellar: B-
Magic Mike XXL: B+

Rank and File: Pixar Movies - Part 4

I may be going insane. I knew that ranking the Pixar movies would be a challenge, but I had no idea of the amount of psychological torture it was going to inflict on Tiffany and me. All my suppositions and expectations of how the movies would shake out are being flipped around, and it's just like that feeling when you think there's one more stair, but find yourself stepping down on empty space. Well, at least one of them performed like I thought it would. That's a comfort, at least.

Cars (2006)

Though I naturally will have by the end of this project, I haven't actually seen all of the Pixar movies. I missed two of them. But of the ones I've seen, I can say that I don't think any of them are out-and-out bad. They all have something to recommend them. That said, some of them definitely don't even come close to stacking up to the others, and here we have a prime example. Cars is the story of a hotshot racecar who is thoughtless and egocentric, until he gets detained in a small, forgotten town on old Route 66 and learns to slow down and smell the roses, as it were.

It's got some clever parts to it, but this is the sole Pixar movie to date that I'd be fine with never seeing again. It relies too heavily on pop culture references. It's the first "gendered" Pixar movie, which isn't a good sign; all the previous entries could appeal to a general audience, but Cars is squarely aimed at just the boys. Following up the comic characters of Dory and Edna Mode with Larry the Cable Guy as Mater is almost painful. And if you'll allow me some personal bias, as you'll see in the movie below, I may be judging a bit unfairly based on the interest I have in the subject matter. I find car racing enormously boring, so the track scenes didn't hold much appeal. Assigning a ranking to the other Pixar movies has been excruciating. This one was a breeze.

Funnily enough, as disappointing as the feature was, the short that preceded it, One Man Band, was fantastic. It's a wordless tale of two street musicians vying for the single coin a little girl carries. She can't decide who to tip, and their competition quickly spirals out of control. It was a ton of fun, and easily vaulted to the top of the rankings.

Current Feature Rankings:

#1: Finding Nemo (2003)
#2: The Incredibles (2004)
#3: Toy Story 2 (1999)
#4: Monsters, Inc. (2001)
#5: Toy Story (1995)
#6: A Bug's Life (1998)
#7: Cars (2006)

Current Short Rankings:

#1: One Man Band (paired with Cars)
#2: Geri's Game (paired with A Bug's Life)
#3: Boundin' (paired with The Incredibles)
#4: For the Birds (paired with Monsters, Inc.)
#5: Knick Knack (paired with Finding Nemo)
#6: Luxo Jr. (paired with Toy Story 2)
#7: Tin Toy (paired with Toy Story)

Ratatouille (2007)

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. I just don't understand. As I said in Part 3, I had some preconceptions about these movies going in. I didn't even question that The Incredibles would be #1 on my list, and while I remember liking Ratatouille just fine, it didn't conjure up any especially fond associations. So what's changed? I don't know, but this time around, it struck me square in the heart.

Ratatouille follows Remy, a rat who's got a superior sense of smell, and puts it to work on cooking, which is his grand passion. He teams up with a bumbling human who needs the assistance, and together, the two of them secretly run the kitchen at a fancy French restaurant, trying to overcome obstacles like scheming chefs and a snooty food critic. Remy's rat family distrusts humans, and the humans are disgusted by rats, so bridging the two worlds is no small feat.

While there's plenty of love shared between Remy, his family, and his human best friend, nothing socked me in the emotions more than the scene of the food critic being transported back to his childhood by taking a single bite of food prepared with care and his subsequent restaurant review. I'm wholly disinterested in car racing, but cooking is my biggest hobby, so I understood exactly how the character felt, and what experiencing extraordinary food can do to you.

I don't think this had a big effect on how successful I think Cars and Ratatouille are as movies, but it would be unfair not to mention it. So yes, The Incredibles does a magnificent job of telling a fairly standard action/superhero story, but Ratatouille made me bawl with some animated eggplant.

The short was great, too. Lifted is essentially a DMV test for a young alien, who isn't doing too well at abducting a sleeping human from his bed. The test proctor is merciless in his grading, but offers his kindness when the young alien takes his failure pretty hard. He probably shouldn't have; some people just shouldn't be on the road. Er... In the air.

Current Feature Rankings:

#1: Finding Nemo (2003)
#2: Ratatouille (2007)
#3: The Incredibles (2004)
#4: Toy Story 2 (1999)
#5: Monsters, Inc. (2001)
#6: Toy Story (1995)
#7: A Bug's Life (1998)
#8: Cars (2006)

Current Short Rankings:

#1: One Man Band (paired with Cars)
#2: Geri's Game (paired with A Bug's Life)
#3: Lifted (paired with Ratatouille)
#4: Boundin' (paired with The Incredibles)
#5: For the Birds (paired with Monsters, Inc.)
#6: Knick Knack (paired with Finding Nemo)
#7: Luxo Jr. (paired with Toy Story 2)
#8: Tin Toy (paired with Toy Story)

Rank and File: Pixar Movies - Part 3

I'm sitting here, still gobsmacked as I type this. I just got home from our third Pixar movie night, and something has happened that I couldn't have predicted if you gave me a time machine and fifteen Magic 8 Balls.

The Incredibles (2004)

I said in my review of Inside Out that it was possibly the first Pixar movie mostly geared towards adults, but clearly, I was wrong about that. There haven't been many, but The Incredibles definitely paved the way. It's the story of a family of superheroes, forced into hiding by a litigious public tired of having to pay for the collateral damage that superpowers tend to wreak on their lives. When a new and dangerous villain appears, the family has the chance to embrace the powers they've been suppressing for so long, and save the city in the bargain.

So what was so surprising about this experience? Well, if you had asked me before this project started how I thought the rankings would shake out, I would have told you with complete confidence that The Incredibles would rest easy as #1. It's a beautiful movie, and is pretty unassailable as the best-written Pixar movie so far into the viewings. The action scenes are terrific. It manages to tell a mature story without alienating the general audience. Edna Mode is an outstanding, breakout character. If I were handing out letter grades for these, The Incredibles would effortlessly score an A, and maybe even an A+, elusive as they are.

And yet... After several minutes of agonizing and second-guessing and debating pros and cons with Tiffany, Finding Nemo beats it by an angstrom. I never would have believed it going in, but while The Incredibles is, well, incredible... Finding Nemo is magical.

The short was great, too. Boundin' is a musical story about a happy sheep who keeps his friends entertained with his enthusiastic dancing. He becomes mocked and depressed when his wool is shorn off, but he learns to embrace his less furry state with the help of a wise jackalope. I liked it a lot, and it handled the musical story format a lot better than shorts that shall remain nameless until the end of this project.

Current Feature Rankings

#1: Finding Nemo (2003)
#2: The Incredibles (2004)
#3: Toy Story 2 (1999)
#4: Monsters, Inc. (2001)
#5: Toy Story (1995)
#6: A Bug's Life (1998)

Current Short Rankings

#1: Geri's Game (paired with A Bug's Life)
#2: Boundin' (paired with The Incredibles)
#3: For the Birds (paired with Monsters, Inc.)
#4: Knick Knack (paired with Finding Nemo)
#5: Luxo Jr. (paired with Toy Story 2)
#6: Tin Toy (paired with Toy Story)


Once a television show has established how good it can be, it tends to fall into a pattern of being consistently entertaining, but can have trouble achieving the initial heights it once reached. I was blown away by Season 2 of Orange is the New Black, amazed that it not only matched the quality of Season 1, but even improved upon it. Its ongoing excellence was a really pleasant surprise, and made me even more anxious to see what Season 3 would bring.

What Season 3 would turn out to bring is exactly what I mention in that opening sentence: A show that is still better than 98% of anything else on TV, but that couldn't quite live up to the reputation of the seasons that came before it. Make no mistake, the stories of the people who inhabit Litchfield are still fascinating, be they inmate, guard, or management. I was giddy to see flashbacks for previously-tertiary characters like Chang and Norma. Season 3 also makes the smart choice to cut out almost every scene in the outside world, focusing on what's going on in the prison itself. No more idiotic time-wasting with Larry and Polly! Yay!

The main complaint I've seen from other people is that Season 3 moved too slowly, and lacked a central story arc. While I understand that position, I rather liked the leisurely pace this season took, and the smaller stories it told. Piper's evolution into full-on asshole as she fancies herself a prison mafia boss was amusing, if a bit slight. Daya's ongoing struggles about what to do with the impending baby improved markedly once Matt McGorry took off for another show, and we didn't have to watch Daya and Bennet play out their irritating, star-crossed love anymore. Even the staff gets some welcome development this year, as Litchfield goes corporate, infuriating the guards who begin losing hours and benefits.

I could go on and on about the little scenes of friendships and fights that worked well, but I'd wind up recapping the entire season. I'd be remiss if I didn't single out Adrienne C. Moore, though. Even with such a large group of actresses bringing extremely strong performances, she manages to just about walk off with the whole season with her performance as Black Cindy. We already knew Cindy could be funny and blunt and acidic, but Season 3 gives her an actual story arc. When inmates pretend to be Jewish in order to score Kosher meals, they're quickly squashed by a rabbi called in to test their commitment to the faith. Most of the inmates fold instantly, but Cindy starts to find meaning in the religion she originally was just goofing around with, and her quest for conversion is fantastic from beginning to end.

All that said, the critics are correct that the season lacks a central focus, like Vee last season. And though there's plenty that works, there's some wheel-spinning, too. I love Laverne Cox as much as the next guy, but in an effort to avoid mistreating one of the few transgender characters on television, the show's pendulum swings too far in the other direction, and she's treated with kid gloves that aren't afforded any of the other inmates. Laura Prepon is great, but Alex feels like she occupies a different universe than the rest of the characters. And the less said about this Red/Healy friendship, the better.

It was still a pretty terrific season, though, and I'm already looking forward to Season 4. While Season 3 may not have matched what this show has been able to accomplish before, a slightly-less-impressive OITNB is still worth more than every episode of television Shonda Rhimes has ever produced combined.

Orange is the New Black - Season 3: B+

Rank and File: Pixar Movies - Part 2

We're entering a holiday weekend, which means we get a little extra free time. How to spend it? How about tearing into some Chinese food with my friend Tiffany and having a Pixar triple feature? The happiness that the eggroll generates just might mitigate some of the torture of having to rank movies that are all terrific.

Toy Story 2 (1999)

I remember that Pixar had a streak of homeruns, but had forgotten that they'd released a sequel so early into the run. They're known for original ideas, so I'm interested what people must have thought when they saw Pixar going back to the well of established characters so soon. Whatever suspicions they may have had must have melted away pretty quickly, because Toy Story 2 is fantastic. This one reunites Woody with the other characters from his popular TV show in the '50s. Jessie, Stinky Pete, and Bullseye the horse are thrilled about going to a museum in Japan now that Woody completes the set, and Woody must decide between the admiration of strangers, or the risk of depending on one kid's love.

I don't think I can convey the agony of trying to decide whether this should fall above Toy Story or below. They both excel at different things, and we spent several minutes with our heads bent over our notebooks, weighing the evidence and discussing the casting and the story, and saying things like, "But this one was such an emotional gutpunch!" We finally came to our respective decisions, which was also the first point at which our rankings diverge, though for the most minuscule of details.

The short was easier to assign. Luxo Jr. was produced in 1986, and introduces the bouncy lamp that would become Pixar's mascot. Luxo and Luxo Jr. kick a ball around, and while it's cute, and helpful to understanding the company's history, it didn't do a lot for me. Tiffany, who works with movies for a living, found a lot more resonance in it, so when I publish her ranking at the end of the project, Luxo Jr. will be treated with higher regard.

Current Feature Rankings:

#1: Toy Story 2 (1999)
#2: Toy Story (1995)
#3: A Bug's Life (1998)

Current Short Rankings:

#1: Geri's Game (paired with A Bug's Life)
#2: Luxo Jr. (paired with Toy Story 2)
#3: Tin Toy (paired with Toy Story)

Monsters, Inc. (2001)

The rankings didn't get any easier when Monsters, Inc. came along, as it's just as stellar as the two Toy Story movies. Casting played a big part in this movie; I can't imagine anyone other than Billy Crystal and John Goodman as Mike and Sully, two monsters trying to scare enough kids into screaming to offset the monster world's power shortage. The secondary characters are terrific, too, from bad guy Randall (Steve Buscemi) to Mike's snake-haired girlfriend Celia (Jennifer Tilly) to acerbic office worker Roz (Bob Peterson).

It's a very funny movie, but when a human child finds her way into the monster world, Sully's efforts to protect her provide a huge and powerful emotional component as well. I remembered this movie as being pretty good, and was unprepared for how much I liked it this time around. It's masterfully done.

The short, For the Birds, is cute too, if a bit slight. A bunch of mean little birds wordlessly mock a big, awkward one, only to get their comeuppance. It's well-animated and it made me laugh, but lacked a certain something that made something like Geri's Game so special. It's basically an animated knock-knock joke.

Current Feature Rankings:

#1: Toy Story 2 (1999)
#2: Monsters, Inc. (2001)
#3: Toy Story (1995)
#4: A Bug's Life (1998)

Current Short Rankings:

#1: Geri's Game (paired with A Bug's Life)
#2: For the Birds (paired with Monsters, Inc.)
#3: Luxo Jr. (paired with Toy Story 2)
#4: Tin Toy (paired with Toy Story)

Finding Nemo - 2003

The thing that's most surprising about this Pixar ranking project is how... Well, surprising it is. Despite the impressions these movies left in my mind after I first saw them, I assumed the sequels were always inferior to the original story. I assumed that there would be a clear hierarchy, and that assigning ranks would be pretty easily done. And I assumed that watching a movie I've already seen couldn't recapture the sense of awe and wonder I felt when I first saw it. All of these assumptions have been wrong, and Finding Nemo is responsible for crushing that last one into dust.

It tells the story of overprotective clownfish Marlin (Albert Brooks), who sets off on a journey to rescue his son Nemo (Alexander Gould) after Nemo gets captured by a SCUBA diver. Along the way, Marlin encounters a forgetful fish named Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) who wishes to help, but whose talents are unappreciated by Marlin at first. Meanwhile, Nemo is having an adventure of his own in a dentist office fish tank.

I can't find enough good things to say about this movie. The animation is stunningly gorgeous. The story has no lagging parts; it's all essential. The voice cast is spot-on. It's funny. It's sad. It's heartfelt. I had been expecting that once the movie was over, Tiffany and I would debate its pros and cons and have to think for a while about where to place it on the ranking. Instead, we both placed it instantly. So far, this is the Pixar movie to beat.

The short is a little more underwhelming. It's another one of the older productions that Pixar was burning off before they turned their attention to new short films. Knick Knack is about a snowman in a snowglobe who wants to hang out with the other, more tropical tchotchkes on a shelf, but is stymied by his barrier. I find myself using the word "cute" a lot in reference to these shorts, but it fits. For the Birds was a similarly light little story, but had the advantage of great animation, so Knick Knack will have to slide below that one.

Current Feature Rankings:

#1: Finding Nemo (2003)
#2: Toy Story 2 (1999)
#3: Monsters, Inc. (2001)
#4: Toy Story (1995)
#5: A Bug's Life (1998)

Current Short Rankings:

#1: Geri's Game (paired with A Bug's Life)
#2: For the Birds (paired with Monsters, Inc.)
#3: Knick Knack (paired with Finding Nemo)
#4: Luxo Jr. (paired with Toy Story 2)
#5: Tin Toy (paired with Toy Story)

School's Out...Forever?

I just realized that while it's been a good four weeks since I watched and enjoyed the final episode in what will likely be the final season of what was once pretty much my favorite show, and I neglected to write a post about it. It's weird, but it's also oddly fitting for Season 6 of Community, which (probably) marked the end of its run in June, though I'm sure they'll live up to their tagline with a movie at some point.

Season 6 was an odd little bird from the beginning. Surprisingly Unceremoniously dumped by NBC after a perfectly good fifth season, the show was rescued by Yahoo, of all places. It's not exactly the first name to spring to mind when thinking about quality content. Adding to that change was the loss of yet another cast member, as Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) left for family reasons.

New cast members Frankie (Paget Brewster) and Elroy (Keith David) showed up, and while I like both of them, it was even money on whether or not they'd be a good fit for the show. Let's hope you placed some hefty bets on them, because they knocked it out of the park; I was gobsmacked by how seamlessly they integrated themselves into being part of the core group.

That said, I liked several of the episodes, and there were plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, but for some reason, there always felt like there was some key, intangible thing missing. Maybe the show's history had built my expectations up too high (especially since everyone knew this was probably going to be the final season, and were expecting something epic). Maybe I wanted them to push a little farther in the stories they told; I always liked the "concept" episodes, and there were very few of them in Season 6.

I will say that "Emotional Consequences of Broadcast Television", the series finale, was a terrific episode and a fitting sendoff to one of my favorite shows of all time. Even given the disappointment of Season 4, any Community is better than no Community, and I'm really sorry to see it go. I only wish that this final batch of episodes had been as daring and legendary as I'd hoped they'd be.

Community - Season 6: B

I Second That Emotion

Pixar has long been recognized for making kids' movies that also happen to appeal to adults, but there's an odd little twist to their latest one, Inside Out. This might just be their first adult movie that happens to appeal to kids. Following in the vein of that television classic, Herman's Head, Inside Out follows a girl named Riley who is uprooted from her happy home in Minnesota and moved to San Francisco because of her dad's job. Nothing about the move or her first day of school goes well, consternating the emotions roiling in her mind.

There are five of them up there: Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Fear (Bill Hader), and Anger (Lewis Black). Joy tries to keep everyone positive all the time, but Sadness keeps messing things up. When Joy and Sadness become lost in the recesses of Riley's mind, the other three must try to hold down the fort, with terrible results. Turns out when Disgust tries to act like Joy, the result is sarcasm.

Joy and Sadness begin the perilous journey back to headquarters, and along the way, Joy learns that far from being a blockade, Sadness is a critical component of Riley's emotional development. It's a healthy message, and a powerful way to show kids that it's important to process all their feelings.

It's possibly the talkiest Pixar movie to date, which is one of the reasons I think it's more geared towards adults than the others. Sure, there are bright colors and action and sight gags, but the meat of the story is Joy's constant attempts to put a positive spin on things, only to be stymied by circumstance. It's also the first Pixar movie I can think of that lacks an actual villain; everything is about Riley's emotional states, all of which are integral to her personality.

Overall, I liked it, but not as much as I thought I was going to. The cast does an admirable job, but despite the terrific messaging, the story itself was little too expository, making the plot feel a bit rushed. One tangential note: I did heartily enjoy the little side scene with Paula Poundstone and Bobby Moynihan as "Forgetter" workers, deciding what long-term memories Riley will hang onto, which she can forget, and which commercial jingle should be her nagging earworm. That gave me the biggest belly laugh of the whole thing.

I'd definitely recommend Inside Out, but it's unclear where this movie will fall on the Pixar "Rank and File" list. I guess I'll have to let my own emotions battle it out.

Inside Out: B+
Copyright © Slice of Lime