Sunday, August 21, 2011

Documentary, my dear...

I've been watching a lot of documentaries lately. There's something fascinating about a director that can find and extrapolate the story out of the lives of real people. A good documentary can be just as funny, intense, scary, and thought provoking as any carefully scripted piece of fiction. The following is a brief examination of my five recent favorite documentaries.

Many of you are probably familiar with the movie The Boondock Saints, and your interest in seeing this documentary may depend on how you feel about that movie. If you think it's an amazing film, then this documentary may not be for you. Overnight is the stark and vivid story of a man's hubris completely destroying everything he worked for. Troy Duffy is a man who has no lacking in the confidence department. But his never ending faith in himself is completely dwarfed by his sheer paranoid, entitlement attitude. This movie documents the entire course of the filming of The Boondock Saints and in doing so charts Duffy's rise and fall. The man blacklists himself from Hollywood, shatters friendships, and is seemingly ignorant of all the reasons why and how it happened.

Filmmaker Ron Lamothe goes on a journey following the path taken by the now famous Christopher McCandless. This film both compliments and supplants Sean Penn's biopic about McCandless, Into the Wild, by stripping out the sensationalism, melodrama, and fictionalized facts in favor of taking an existential look at McCandless and, in doing so, an existential look at himself. Lamothe narrates his journey, pontificating about what sends young men out into the world and recalling his own travels to Africa when he was young. Along the way, he visits the same sites and people that McCandless visited, as well as coming into conflict with the production of Into the Wild (the two films were being made at the same time). This is a good film that is less an informative story about McCandless and more a story about the celebration of spirit of freedom. Surprisingly, this film uncovers new truths to the story that Into the Wild had mistaken, ignored, and flat out got wrong. You can find out more about this film at Terra Incognita films' website.

I'm sure a lot of people have heard about this film, and it's definitely worth seeking out. This is the original story of the underdog. Director Seth Gordon immerses us in the world of classic arcade games as we follow Steve Wiebe and the various trials and obstacles he faces, both in and out of the game, on his quest to hold the world record at playing Donkey Kong. Rivalries, betrayal, lies, double dealing, this film has it all. It's so elegant and easy to watch, you really get drawn into it.

This is another high profile documentary, which should come as no surprise as it's made by master filmmaker Werner Herzog. In this movie, Herzog examines the life and death of Timothy Treadwell, the man who famously lived with, protected, and educated people about the grizzly bears in Alaska. Though it contains some beautiful wildlife footage shot by Treadwell, this film is not about bears. Nor is it an exploitation of his death. Rather, this film is about people and how we perceive and fit in with the society around us. Treadwell was troubled, that comes across clearly in the film, and the death of he and his girlfriend is incredibly tragic. Herzog doesn't spend much time debating about how right or wrong Treadwell was in doing what he did, instead he examines Treadwell's persona and ultimate motivations.

This is easily the most devastatingly sad and unbelievable story you've ever heard. Filmmaker Kurt Kuenne begins by making a film celebrating the life of his good friend, Andrew Bagby, soon after he was murdered by his ex-girlfriend, Shirley Jane Turner. But the documentary repeatedly shifts gears as new information is continuously revealed. Turner flees to her home country of Canada, where Bagby's family desperately await the extradition trial so that America can put her on trial for murder. It is soon revealed that she is pregnant with the deceased Andrew's child, and the story only gets more stressful and emotional from there. This film is an editing masterpiece and moves at a breakneck pace, relentlessly testing your patience and faith in humanity. This is a film about good and evil. It is truly fantastic in that it is both a celebration of the heights of nobility and selflessness humanity is capable of and also a lamentation of the depths of depravity to which we can succumb.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Top Ten Episodes of G.I. JOE: A Real American Hero - Number 01

"There's No Place Like Springfield"

Written by Steve Gerber

I've talked a lot about what makes a great episode of G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero. A cursory glance over the last nine episodes indicates that writers who work creatively within their restrictions, focus on a strong character with fun voice acting and iconic imagery, and still hit all the basic story beats will deliver a winning story. You need look no further than my number one favorite episode, There's No Place Like Springfield.

This episode was written by the legendary Steve Gerber, a veteran of comics and cartoons alike, and is easily the most mature and intense episode of G.I. Joe ever produced. It stars one of the most popular Joes, Shipwreck, as he is tortured by Cobra to gain the secrets locked inside his head.

This two part episode starts with immediate action. Shipwreck and Lady Jaye sneak onto Cobra Island to rescue Professor Mulaney, a scientist that Cobra captured. The search doesn't last long, they instantaneously stumble upon the disheveled and eccentric professor. Mulaney reveals that he perfected a formula that would turn water into a volatile explosive. Naturally, he didn't want Cobra to have such a dangerous weapon and was trying to escape. Worried that he won't survive, Mulaney uses a device to implant the final ingredient to the formula deep into Shipwreck's subconscious. Upon hearing the secret code word, Shipwreck will recite the formula. Mulaney only has a chance to whisper the secret word to Lady Jaye before Cobra finds them and they are forced to retreat to their S.H.A.R.K. under the fire of Cobra Firebats.

Mulaney is lost in a barrage of explosions, Shipwreck and Lady Jaye are forced to leave, hoping to come back for Mulaney. The action continues as Jay and Shipwreck manage to fly the S.HA.R.K. back to the USS Flagg, but before they can safely land, they are shot down by a squadron of Cobra Rattlers. Gerber sneaks a clever joke into the middle of the drama, as Shipwreck finds himself drowning in the sinking S.H.A.R.K. he screams, "C'mon you hunk of substandard plastic, open up!" Before he can be rescued, Shipwreck blacks out.

When Shipwreck awakens, he finds himself in the Springfield Medical Center, his hair is grey and it has been six years since the battle at the USS Flagg. He receives another shock when his wife Mara, his unrequited love from the episode Memories of Mara, walks into the room with their daughter. Apparently Shipwreck fell off his room and got a nasty bump on his head because he doesn't remember any of this.

Mara takes Shipwreck home and he tries to regain his memory and readjust to his new strange life. He learns about how Cobra was defeated and the Joes disbanded. He receives love and support from his family, but everything is eerily uncomfortable. He keeps having black outs and nightmares about Cobra Commander screaming at him. He meets a lot of retired Joes, except for Lady Jaye, who died when the USS Flagg was sunk.

Slowly, Shipwreck begins losing his mind. He stumbles across Roadblock and tries to talk to him, but Roadblockjust starts rambling nonsense while his face melts. At this point, Shipwreck has a good old fashioned freak out and passes out. When he awakens he's in a jail cell. The first part of the episode ends with Shipwreck being confronted by his fellow Joes Scarlett, Flint, Torpedo, and Deep Six. They attack him, demanding Mulaney's secret. As his former friends repeatedly fight him, they also begin melting eventually forming a giant blob that completely swallows him.

Shipwreck wakes up in the park, convinced that he's lost his mind. He readmits himself to the hospital, where he hopes Doc can cure him of his insanity. As the episode progresses, we learn that the entire town is indeed a secret Cobra facility designed to drive Shipwreck mad. All the people, the Joes, and even Mara and his daughter, are synthoids (synthetic androids) programed to torture Shipwreck. In the hospital, Cobra inflict psychological torture programs on Shipwreck like something out of The Men Who Stare At Goats.

Shipwreck eventually grows wise to true nature of his surroundings when he sees that his hair has been dyed grey. His trusty parrot, Polly, shows up and kills the imposter bird. The real Polly helps Shipwreck realize the whole town is a ruse, he drugs his nurse and fights his way out of the hospital, eventually stumbling on a laboratory where Cobra is trying to recreate the formula. Somehow Polly knows the secret code word and recites it. With the final ingredient to the formula, Shipwreck whips up a batch of the formula and pours it down the drain. Unfortunately, the formula needs to be ignited by an explosion. Fortunately though, Cobra soldiers are both stupid and terrible shots. They open fire on Shipwreck, miss him, and hit the sink, causing the entire plumbing and sewer system of the town to blow up and catch fire.

Shipwreck makes his way back to his false home and finds Mara and his daughter, they try to kill him amongst the burning flames, but he is saved by his bird. Attracted by the explosions, the real Joes show up and take the remaining Cobra soldiers into custody. The episode ends with Shipwreck watching his dream life burn to the ground.

Wow, what an episode. Needless to say, the two parts are jam packed with content, too much for me to even repeat in detail. It's suspenseful, action packed, genuinely creepy, and more intelligent than the average cartoon at the time. There's an entire subplot about the synthoids fighting their programming and becoming sentient which I would have loved to see more of. This is what you hire professionals for. This episode alone, is what makes G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero stand head and shoulders above every other cartoon from it's time period. It truly was the best.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Blog-A-Song 09

Look At How Cute You Are

Is it about a woman? Is it about a cat? It's strangely appropriate for either.


Look at how cute you are
do you even know it
I bet you don't even know it

when you walk into the room
all eyes are on you
but you just try to hide

i really hate you sometimes
do you even know it
i bet you don't even know it

when you ignore me
can't you see
you're driving me mad

can't stand the way you whine
do you even know it
i bet you don't even know it

when i talk to you
am i getting through
you just stare at me

look at how cute you are
do you even know it
i bet you don't even know it

but you run from me
everytime it seems
i want to get close to you

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Top Ten Episodes of G.I. JOE: A Real American Hero - Number 02

Lasers in the Night

Written by Marv Wolfman

A lot of legendary cartoon and comic book writers have worked on G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero, and it doesn't get much more "legendary" than Mighty Marv Wolfman. Comic book aficionados will recognize Wolfman's name immediately. He has written countless books for both Marvel and DC, notably Crisis on Infinite Earths.

Lasers in the Night is one of the most tightly packed episodes of the whole series. The episode focuses on Quick Kick, the Joe's resident martial arts expert. At a public exhibition, he meets Amber, a young, beautiful, idealistic college student. They start up a serious relationship. Amber frequently pressures Quick Kick to let her join G.I. Joe, but he tries to convince her it's not as glamorous as she thinks it is.

Meanwhile, while Quick Kick and Amber go to ballets and baseball games, Cobra Commander is planning a secret attack. He sends troops to a Joe base, looking for the guidance coordinates system for their giant laser. Cobra burns down the base but they don't find the coordinates. Unfortunately, Lady Jaye is injured in the attack.

Back at Joe headquarters, Duke is concerned because Gung Ho hasn't reported in during his current mission and is presumed captured or missing. Their meeting is interrupted, however, by Amber. She sneaked into the base in an attempt to show how capable she is of being a Joe. Duke brushes her off and tries to go back to the more important matters.

During all of the mischief at the Joe base, a Cobra spy was able to steal their defense codes, allowing Cobra to disable the Joes and steal the guidance coordinates codes. Amber, worried that the Joes think she is the spy, tries to break into the Cobra base and stop them herself. She is immediately captured and thrown into Cobra's dungeon where she meets Gung Ho and...Lady Jaye! As it turns out, the Baroness knocked out Lady Jaye and took her place at the Joe base, allowing her to steal their codes.

Quick Kick singlehandedly breaks into the Cobra base to rescue her, but ends up being rescued himself after Amber breaks herself, Gung Ho, and Lady Jaye out of the dungeon. Then it is revealed what Cobra Commander's evil plot was. He wanted to steal the laser guidance system codes so that he could carve the image of his face into the moon. But the Joes stop him and Amber decides that she needs to finish college before she goes in for any more excitement.

There's a simplicity to the structure of this episode. It is deftly paced, every scene furthers the plot and increases the suspense, building up to the dramatic and exciting conclusion. The fact that Cobra Commander's secret plan is merely, as Destro angrily calls it, "cosmic grafitti" is just hilarious. The whole episode has a straightforward but somewhat lighthearted dramatic tone, what with it's focus on Quick Kick and Amber's relationship. Since there's no sense of slapstick comedy set up throughout the whole episode, the punchline of Cobra Commander's stupid plan is much more powerful.

The main star of this episode, of course, is Quick Kick. This is his big solo episode, and the writers waste no time developing his character and giving him room to breathe. Wolfman gave Quick Kick a great character quirk, which is that he is a huge movie buff, and frequently quotes and name drops classic film actors. It's fun and we get to see him do silly impersonations of Humphrey Bogart, Jimmy Stewart, and even Steve Martin.

And although much of the episode is played out like a romantic dramedy, there's still plenty of spy action, laser shoot outs, and kung fu fighting. Lasers in the Night is an episode where everything from the writing, animation, voice acting, and direction just comes together perfectly. There's not a single flaw in it.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Blog-A-Song 08

Successful People

I've been playing a lot of other people's music lately, which partially inspired this song. The rest of the inspiration comes from the soul crushing depression and jealousy that comes from seeing other people succeed.


successful people have great hair
successful people wear silk underwear
successful people have nice teeth
successful people don't eat beef

successful people have lots of money
successful people have personality
successful people have lots of time
successful people know how to rhyme

look at all the regular people
going to their regular jobs
they've given up on their dreams
and still they seem

successful people drive fast cars
successful people drink in martini bars
successful people wear dress shirts
successful people never have their feelings hurt

look at all the regular people
going to their regular jobs
they've given up on their dreams
and still they seem

successful people are arrogant
successful people have no talent
successful people have lots of luck
successful people, go take a flying...


In case you are wondering, the chorus to this song is lifted directly from the greatest animated show that never got a chance.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Top Ten Episodes of G.I. JOE: A Real American Hero - Number 03

"The Traitor"

Written by Buzz Dixon

Buzz Dixon wrote a slew of great G.I. Joe episodes, including the movie, but The Traitor is easily the best story he delivered. Split into two parts, The Traitor tells the story of Dusty betraying the Joes and joining Cobra. It's a compelling episode full of intrigue, action, and comas!

The story begins in a ship docking harbor, where Cobra attempts to steal a chemical that can be used in a "mind control" formula. Unfortunately for Cobra, G.I. Joe has some kind of new chemical that, when sprayed onto their vehicles, makes them completely invulnerable. Cobra is successfully repelled and are seemingly helpless against the Joe's new technology.

Dusty takes this opportunity to make use of his leave time and goes to visit his sick, invalid mother. Sadly, Dusty's mother can't afford the special treatment she needs and already owes money to the bank. Cobra takes advantage of Dusty's situation and offers to pay his mother's medical bills in exchange for the armor chemical formula.

Two of my favorite Cobra villains, Xamot and Tomax meet Dusty at a cowboy bar and try to make the deal. Xamot and Tomax were some goofy, but visually interesting characters. They are weird, European, arrogant, acrobatic twins. Specifically, they are mirrored identical twins who share an empathic connection. They always finish each others sentences and feel each others pain. This actually makes them pretty lousy soldiers because this connection is constantly shown in every fight they get into. You punch one of them and they both fall over. Still, they are fun characters.

Desperate to take care of his mother, Dusty starts giving Cobra top secret information. Suspicious that Dusty is a traitor, Duke sets a trap to flush him out; but an unexpected explosion puts Duke into a coma. Dusty gets captured by the Joes and court marshaled. Having no where else to go, Dusty joins Cobra. Now a member of Cobra, Dusty gives them the armor formula and leads a number of missions to get the rest of the chemicals for their "mind control" formula. Eventually, Cobra gets all the ingredients and captures a bunch of Joes in the process. But just before Dusty is forced to gas the Joe prisoners with the "mind control" formula, he gases the Cobra soldiers and frees the Joes.

The Joes get out and storm the base, then to their surprise, all of Cobra's equipment starts deteriorating. As it turns out, Dusty was a triple agent, working for Duke. Duke knew that their armor formula was unstable and, although at first making an object invincible, eventually caused it to deteriorate at a molecular level. Duke wanted Cobra to destroy all their equipment. Dusty's name is cleared and all's well that ends well.

Like all the two part episodes, there's a lot going on. The extra space allows the action to breathe and lets various other characters have a moment without feeling cramped or rushed. Although the action and intrigue is very straightforward, it's handled very well and focuses on broad concepts such as morality and loyalty. Despite being an alleged traitor and having all his friends turn on him, Dusty sticks to the mission and tries not to hurt anyone. When Shipwreck attacks him in an angry rage, Dusty spars with him then saves him from a burning building. When Cobra Commander forces Dusty to fight for dominance in a pool of piranhas with "rocket nunchukus", he saves his opponent from being eaten alive. Dusty's a good guy.

The animation is pretty top notch in this episode, too, with one glaring exception. The nature of animation means that all characters are drawn from model, including background characters. In the case of the Cobra Troopers, they all look the same because they're all based off the same model. In this episode, there's a new Cobra Trooper that is given a face, Lieutenant Claymore. The animators took this opportunity to give the show some diversity and made him a black man. Unfortunately, there were numerous animation gaffes where the character was constantly switching skin color. G.I. Joe had consistent animation errors and coloring was the most common one, it's just unfortunately obvious in this case.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Comics Review: Paying For It

Paying For It is the autobiographical memoir of author Chester Brown detailing his experiences soliciting prostitutes. Brown has a lot to say about to about the nature of monogamous love and his interpretation of it. He writes about his conflicting needs for sexual gratification and physical intimacy with his desire to not have a girlfriend.

If half of this book is philosophizing about the origins of the idea of Romantic Love, then the second half is Brown's argument for the decriminalization of prostitution. He argues passionately for the plight of sex workers and goes into great detail about the difference between legislation and decriminalization.

This extremely personal work is written and drawn with a deep passion for both the subject matter and the people in it. Although there's a detached formality to the narrative, Brown is also unconsciously emotional about the women with which he's had relations, without the slightest amount of eroticism.

This is a very personal and intelligent approach to an extremely taboo, but no less important subject.