Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Synergy

Liz Mierzejewski forwarded this link to me. This is Jonathan Coulton (along with Paul & Storm) singing "Birdhouse In Your Soul" by They Might Be Giants. I think it's probably not correct to call this synergy, but it's really cool to have one artist that I really like cover a song by another artist that I really like. It's like "Two great tastes that taste great together" (what was that the slogan for? I think Reese's Pieces or maybe Reese's Peanut Butter Cups). One time, this same TMBG song was sung by Olive Snook in the dearly departed show, Pushing Daisies. Synergy again, I guess. Since my last post happened to be about TMBG, I figured I'd include this video.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

What I'm Listening To Today - They Might Be Giants


In 1990, my older brother got a CD from in the mail from BMG. I'd never heard of the band, but my brother wanted to play it for me. I stood there, listening to songs like "Someone keeps moving my chair," and "Birdhouse In Your Soul," and "Particle Man." They were odd songs, but for some reason, I liked them all the same. At the time, my mindset was "If it isn't heavy metal or at least hard rock, then I'm not interested," but these guys were keeping my interest all the same.

The album was, as you've probably guessed by now, They Might Be Giants, Flood. As time went by, it got more and more popular. "Istanbul," became a favorite of many of my friends, along with other songs on that album. In my mind, Flood is one of the greatest 20 albums of all time, maybe even top ten (I've never actually sat down and made a list of my favorites beyond the top five list that I once did on Facebook).

Strangely, I'd never given any other CDs by They Might Be Giants a chance. Not even another song. I can't explain it. I love Flood to that level, but I'd never tried a second album by TMBG.

Then my wife one day picked up their kids album, Here Comes The ABCs. It was a kids album, but it was awesome. I found myself listening to it even when the kids weren't around. TMBG came out with a follow-up, Here Comes the 123s. We got that one for the kids, and found it to be of similar quality to the first. Again, here I am listening to my kids CD with songs about sevens and threes and the like, and the kids aren't even around.

So recently I decided to try out the rest of their stuff. They've been making music since well before 1990, so they must have other good stuff right? I've gone through the majority of their catalog, and I found that they maintain the same high quality evidenced on Flood, Here Comes the ABCs and Here Comes The 123s all the way through their parade of albums. So, below is a playlist that has highlights, several of my favorites, from their long career making great music. Listen to them, and then check out what else they've got to offer. I doubt you'll be disappointed.


Get a playlist! Standalone player Get Ringtones

Monday, June 15, 2009

Monsters, Inc.

In my mind (and that's a dank and empty place from which nothing of worth or consequence proceeds), It was with 2001's Monsters, Inc. that Pixar's big red machine got rolling. Up until that point, they were making good, even very good movies. Toy Story was a masterpiece, a movie that was all-around great, but, while excellent, A Bug's Life and Toy Story 2 were not of that same caliber. Monsters, Inc. was. And the machine was rollling now. The next one, Finding Nemo was even better. The next one, The Incredibles was again, a masterpiece. This string of masterworks could easily be equated to impressive feats of success in other realms, like the Chicago Bulls winning three consecutive NBA titles (twice in eight years), Secretariat's Triple Crown, Apple's unending releases of successful applications and devices (iPod, iPhone, iTunes, iMac, iWhateverthehellwecomeupwithnext). Anyway, I absolutely love Monsters, Inc.

Monsters, Inc. was directed by Pete Docter. Which marks the first Pixar film not to be directed by John Lassiter. After three amazing successes. He was able to hand the reins to his previous co-directors and sit back, producing instead of doing the day-to-day directing. He had already turned Docter into a clone though, as evidenced by the matching shirts that all the Pixar creative team wear. Clones of impressive creative talent are a good thing, though.

So, I wrangled all the kids into our TV room, and we sat down to watch the film. First off is the short, For The Birds, a film about fat, little round blackbirds sitting on a wire. Along comes a similar bird, but this one is large and gangly instead of little and fat. He wants to join in the fun with the little birds, but he doesn't fit in, and the little birds try to exclude him, like a nasty clique of high school mean girls. They make fun of his looks and his birdcall. They automatically assume that he is stupid and bad, because he is different (although maybe that isn't a valid point, because the filmmakers certainly made him seem stupid). When the big bird doesn't take the hint, and settles onto the wire in the middle of their clique, the blackbirds go on the attack. This, of course, goes badly for the fat little birds (if it didn't there'd be no moral to the story, I suppose).

I like this short a great deal. The message is valuable, and it's cute. The other thing that always impresses me, is how well Pixar can tell a story without dialogue. The blackbirds chirp and squawk, but they don't talk. And looking at the list of all the other Pixar shorts, only one of them has any speaking at all (that comes from the narrator on Boundin', the short that preceded Cars).

First thing in Monsters, Inc. is the opening title sequence. It's 2D animation, accompanied by a jazzy up-tempo version of the Randy Newman theme song for the movie, "If I Didn't Have You." The title sequence reminded me of old school Disney animation from the '60s, jagged lines, angular shapes, and garish colors. It is particularly reminiscent of the opening sequence for 101 Dalmations, which features dancing spots, a lot like the dancing doors. On the commentary, the filmmakers said they needed that credit sequence to make sure people knew what kind of a movie this was, because the next scene was the rather creepy intro where the monster comes in to scare the child, which of course turns out to be nothing but a job training simulator.

There is a bit of a formula for Pixar films, it seems. Start out with an attention catching first scene, in Toy Story it's Andy playing with his toys, in Finding Nemo it's the death of Nemo's mother Coral, and in Monsters, Inc. it's the job training simulator. After the attention grabbing scene, we then move into the world building exposition scene. Pixar films tend to be about things other than the world we know--Bugs, Toys, Monsters, Fish. So they introduce you to the world you're exploring with simple scenes that are loaded with gags and jokes. Whether it's Mr. Potato Head's Picasso joke, or the kids playing in Mrs. Flounder's yard, or the blob monster falling in the street grate, it's a non-stop gag fest for about five minutes or so as the main characters give us all the exposition we need in their dialogue.

Monsters, Inc., seems to be the first film that Pixar did in which they truly explored the depths of relationships and love, not romantic love, but the love for a parent to a child. In this film, Sully, the monstrous main character, is in the role of the parent, although obviously not the real parent. And there is Boo, the human girl, playing the role of the child. Sully grows to love this little critter (it's amazing how kids grow on you like that, even the naughty ones), and it comes to the point that he will do anything to keep her safe and make her happy. The relationship that Sully and Boo create is the most special thing that Pixar had captured on film up to this point. When we get to the end, and it seems as though Sully will never see Boo again, their goodbye is very touching. It's the tear-jerking scene of the film. But wait, there's more! Mike Wazowski manages to make it possible for them to see each other again, and with the look on Sully's face that the film ends with, the tears flow once more.

When I watch this film, I'm always amazed by the audio they managed to get out of the girl who played Boo. How many hours in the recording booth did those poor guys spend trying to coax a two-year-old or three-year-old to say something that they could use? I've worked a little with children and audio, and, depending on the kid, it can be hard. I guess Mary Gibbs is just one of those kids. She probably had to be a very precocious little kid to have produced the audio she produced. I have one kid who is precocious, and she could probably make all the giggles and nonsense phrases that Boo said in the film, but getting her to say lines, that's a little more difficult. Then I have one kid who is too embarrassed to speak loud enough on the mic to be heard.

Another really cool thing about this movie is the extras that came with the DVD. The tour of the new Pixar facility makes me want to work there so bad. I wish I had a skill that they valued. I suppose that some of the things that we see in the tour were just set dressing, obviously the chimp doesn't really work there. And how many of those people riding Razor scooters around the building normally leave their scooter at home, but brought it in to make the video cooler? I have an old acquaintance that works at Pixar, maybe I should ask him. Then again he stopped responding to my emails...he must have gotten sick of my fanboy prattle.

One of the reasons I think this film is as fun as it is has to do with the people they chose to be their main characters voices. Billy Crystal and John Goodman had already made a career of being funny. In fact one of my favorite movies of all-time is Billy Crystal's When Harry Met Sally. Several of the funniest parts in the show are things that Crystal and Goodman improvised on the spot, including the songs for "Put That Thing Back Where It Came From Or So Help Me!" The good thing about Crystal and Goodman is that, while funny, they aren't manic and annoying like others who have found their way into CG films, namely Robin Williams or Jim Carrey. Yes, Crystal throws in some annoying New Yorker-isms, but for the most part, he and Goodman are funny when needed, and low key otherwise. Their antics never overpower the story.

I suppose here is where I should rant about the injustice of the Oscars. Monsters, Inc. is an Oscar Winning film, but the only statuette it has is for Randy Newman's song, "If I Didn't Have You." While that song is good, especially the version sung by Goodman and Crystal, it isn't the best thing in the film. The goodness of the song doesn't even come close to the goodness of the overall film, and there is an Oscar for the overall goodness of an animated feature. But no, Monsters, Inc. did not receive the Oscar for that. Someone thought that Dreamworks' Shrek was superior, several someones I suppose. Shrek was the darling of the year, and continues to be the darling through two sequels, going on three. I personally am not a fan of Shrek, but I'll save my rant for another time (if you haven't heard it before, well you're one of the few). In fact, I'm going to take it another step further. I've decided, now that I've gone through and watched the ten Pixar films, to give a few of the others, the pretenders as I call them, a second (or first in some cases) chance. Maybe I'll blog about them as well. The best of the rest.

For now, know that I think that Monsters, Inc. is a masterpiece of modern animation and filmmaking. If you haven't seen it, you should.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Where Did You Get That Balloon?

So at the parade the other day, there was one car that was handing out balloon animals to the kids. They had garbage bags full of pre-made balloon animals, swords, flowers and the like. My daughter got a balloon sword, but when I saw it, I figured they must have run out of balloons before filling their quota, because that can't be a balloon that the sword is made from. I think that's a reservoir tip I see there in the front. Fitting, I guess that they made it into a sword, huh?

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Homemade?

Every year at this time, my town has their little celebration of townhood or whatever you want to call it. They have a carnival, and a movie in the park, a concert by some low rent country act, fireworks, and a parade.

So, for two years in a row now, there's this guy who walks in the parade in the most awesome costumes. This year, he came decked out as a Halo soldier.
I think this guy may be one of those costume enthusiasts who can do plastic or fiberglass molds at home in his basement or something. I've heard that such a thing is achievable. I don't know. His costumes are as good as any of the best I've seen at Comic-Con. If you think his Halo costume is good. Check out what he came as last year. It's really impressive stuff.
I wonder who he is, and what he will be next year.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Toy Story 2

I've been watching all the Pixar films over the past month, leading up to the release of their newest film, Up. The next one on the list was Pixar's third film and first sequel, Toy Story 2. I have to admit, I was a little disappointed when I heard that they were doing a sequel to Toy Story. Sequels by their very nature are lesser than the original, and almost never does a sequel come within spitting distance (or even driving distance) of the power, humor, depth, or entertainment value of the original.

Now, from what I've heard, Pixar didn't have much choice with this one. Disney, as was their wont in the day, was hell bent on making what Rish has lovingly dubbed a "Cheap-quel." The plan was to make a direct to video sequel of Toy Story, just like they made the direct to video masterpieces Cinderella 2, The Little Mermaid 2, and Aladdin 2 and 3. (Lion King 1 1/2 anyone?) Pixar didn't want it, but they'd signed a deal that basically sold away the image of Woody and Buzz to the now completely uncreative hacks in charge at Disney. So it was either make a sequel on their own, or let Disney come in and crapify things for them.

Again, this is just what I've heard, there may be no fact to it at all, but when Pixar put together this sequel that Disney asked for, they realized that it was too good to be a "Cheap-quel," and they decided to release it theatrically. Way to go guys, thanks for protecting Woody, Buzz and all the rest from the money-grubbers.

So, in watching these films all month long with my kids, I've tried to show them as they were shown in the theater. So first we watched the preview to the upcoming Pixar film, then the pre-film cartoon, and finally the movie itself. With Toy Story 2, Pixar decided to slap on an old cartoon (well, an old one for them, but nearly no one had seen it before). I remember seeing it in the theater, the lights went down, a bunch of previews rolled, then text appeared on the screen. It said, "In 1986, Pixar Animation Studios produced its first film. This is why we have a hopping lamp in our logo." I remember thinking at the time, "Oh cool, I can't wait to see this."

Luxo Jr. is a cute little film, and very impressive for having been done with computer animation in 1986. It makes me love Pixar all the more, when I see where their logo design came from. Most film companies never give you a real insight into that. Disney's logo isn't too hard to intuit, the castle from Disneyland (and Cinderella) overflown by Tinkerbell, but beyond that, I can't think of any film company logo that has been explained to us. There are plenty of well known logos out there, but why they've chosen what they've chosen, who knows?

Now, let me preface my comments by saying that I absolutely love Toy Story 2. I think it may be one of the best sequels in movie history. It holds up very well to the original. The animation itself is superior, as it should be since it was made several years after the first. The story is engaging, exciting and best of all, it's not simply a retelling of the first film with some slight alterations.

The film takes a completely new angle, exploring the fear that toys must have for their own mortality. Woody's arm rips, and suddenly, Andy is not so keen to play with him. He's an old toy. It's an interesting idea, and can be parlayed into human terms as well. It's not a theme that kids can relate to much. Kids always seem desperate to grow up. It's not until they've grown up that they want to go back and be kids again. But that's alright, kids just want to see a movie that is a rollicking good time anyway (that's right I said rollicking). The parents in the audience are the ones who can understand how Woody feels, and how Jessie feels, or even how Stinky Pete feels.

Parents are aging along with their children. Some day, their kids will outgrow them. They will get to the point that they need to develop their own identity, separate from that of the family and their parents. It won't be cool to be seen with their parents. They will eventually, leave the home, and strike out to make their own life. What is a parent to do?

Stinky Pete's reaction is, "to hell with kids! They just ruin you; forget them all!"

Jessie is the one who has already been rejected once, and is too scared to open her heart to anyone again.

Woody has to make a choice. Eventually he'll be left behind and forgotten, like Jessie was. What should he do? There's the promise of a sad antiseptic life in Tokyo. He could be part of a museum exhibit and watch children, or more likely adults, from behind glass, or he can face his eventual demise with cheerfulness, and make the best of the time he has.

Of course Woody makes the right choice, and helps Jessie find trust again too. He elects to give his heart to Andy, no matter what the future has in store for him. It's something that I sometimes struggle with as a parent. I have a few ambitions of my own, like writing and podcasting. Life is always getting in the way of me accomplishing anything on the personal front. It can be frustrating, but if I just manage to remember, when it comes down to it, that my children and my love for them are far more important and meaningful than any accomplishments I may achieve. I try to make enough memories with my children so that when I'm old and forgotten, I can call them up, and remember what a great life I've lived. After all, I can write stories at any point in my life, but the children are only young once. I can't imagine anything worse, than being old, and thinking back to the times I had with my children, and realizing that I'd completely squandered the opportunity that I had to live my life with them.

The humor in Toy Story 2 is nearly on par with that of the first film as well. Joss Whedon had no part in it, as far as I know, unlike the first film, and his absence shows a little. But the movie is still very funny. Visual gags and silly lines abound. I don't quote Toy Story 2 as much as I quote the original, but I still quote my share of lines.

Randy Newman delivers another well done score. The new themes were nice. The sci-fi cue that played for Buzz Lightyear's earlier exploits in video game land was memorable, and Woody's heroic cowboy cue was great as well. Memorable music is all I ask, and Newman delivered. The one song that I couldn't get out of my head for weeks after seeing the film, though, was the theme to the cleaner. That tune bounced around inside my skull until I finally had to go out and buy the CD.

Okay, so I've talked about how inspiring the film can be and how funny it is, now I'm going to air my complaints. The biggest fault this film has is its derivative nature. Of course it hearkens back to the first film, at times, quoting Toy Story's most memorable lines word for word. I guess you can expect that from a sequel, but I think the better the sequel is, the less it relies on its predecessor.

When the toys jump into the Pizza Planet truck to steal it and drive to the airport, they encounter some old friends from part one. The goofy, three-eyed aliens from the claw game are hanging from the rear-view mirror. "Strangers! From the outside! Ooooooohhh!" At this point, Buzz and the gang are supposed to pause for the studio audience to cheer. Except this isn't a crappy sitcom involving Erkle, Kramer, or Arnold Drummond. On our podcast, Rish and I ranted about sitcoms with characters who have a line that they have to say every show. The best example of that, I think, is Gary Coleman pulling out his, "What you talkin' 'bout, Willis." No one was happy on that show until the line was delivered. These green alien guys in Toy Story 2 are another example of that weakness. Almost none of the lines the stupid guys said were original to this film. They were nearly all repeats from the original story. It made me sad to see, I really loved their contribution to the first movie, but I wish that they had just left those guys out of this one.

Similarly, when Buzz tries to convince Woody to come home with him, and he shouts, "You are a child's plaything, YOU ARE A TOY!" I cringe. Sure the line was a classic, a very popular moment in the first film, but do we have to go there again? It just strikes me as especially weak. I just expect Buzz to turn to the camera and give us all a little wink at that moment.

In my Toy Story post, I complained about the toys doing things that would eventually give their existance away to the human beings in the world. Toy Story 2 takes it to a new level, but I already ranted on that score, so I'll not subject you to it again.

My personal choice for the worst shortcoming of the film is when Zurg, whose design is already a rip-off of Darth Vader anyway, appears to challenge Buzz on the elevator. It seemed to me that the writers of the film went with the first idea that popped into their heads.

"I'll never join you. You killed my father."

"No, Luke...I mean Buzz, I am your father."

It's such a tired old idea. It's been parodied a thousand times. Couldn't they have found a better way, maybe tossed around a few more ideas in a few more story meetings. I know how impressively creative the folks at Pixar can be. I wish they'd given it a little more effort. Who knows, though. Maybe they'd always meant to do it that way. After all, Buzz's speech from the first film about the weapon with enough firepower to destroy an entire planet is obviously referring to the Death Star. Perhaps his backstory has always been a Star Wars rip-off.

Worse yet, the joke takes a turn for the utterly ridiculous, as Buzz plays catch with his Dad afterwards. I guess the writers were trying to put their own spin on the tired, "I am your father," bit. For me, at least, it just didn't work at all, but I do know people who love that joke.

Anyhow, I'm happy to spout the old platitude, "to each his own," when it comes to this movie, or most anything else. In my opinion, Toy Story 2 is on of the weakest of the ten Pixar films, for the reasons that I've mentioned here. I've heard and read other people say it's the best, or the in the top two or three. Everyone has their opinion. Rish, when he hears me state my complaints, thinks I don't like the movie at all, and I want to stress here again that I don't like the movie, I LOVE it. It may be weak among Pixar films, but that's because Pixar films are so very strong. It's still better than the best CG Animated film from any other studio.

Also, here's my favorite Pixar trivia question. In Toy Story 2, Woody's origin is Retconned (a word from comic book folks which is short for retroactive continuity. Basically, when they need something to be different than it was originally, they just change it, and pretend that it was always that way). Woody is now a toy from an old '50s TV show similar to Howdy Doody. It wasn't always that way, though. If you pay attention in the first Toy Story, you see what show Woody originally came from. It's on a poster on the wall in Andy's room just before he redecorates to an all Buzz Lightyear theme. So the question is, what show was Woody from before he was retconned for Toy Story 2. The answer is ABC Roundup. Not a big change, but originally he was supposed to be a contemporary toy from a cheesy kids show.